the beginning of the end?

This week has been weird.

I came back from the CIRN conference in Italy on Saturday, saw some friends from Austria on Saturday, and slept a lot on Sunday to catch up from my late nights and early mornings all of last week. So, I decided to write this post today with the creepy title – apologies but also, I’m not actually sorry about it. clickbait. yes.

This week though, was strange. When I came into the office I just couldn’t do very much. I sat at my laptop, working on something, for the whole week but don’t really have much to show for it. I guess that’s normal in a PhD, but it’s just one of those weeks that feels weird. I had a supervision, went to a PGR training session, did some marking, wrote some e-mails, and did quite a bit of writing; but still I didn’t feel like I was being productive…

Yesterday, I decided to re-start my dissertation (again) and had a long think about my research questions; something I’ve been avoiding for months. After my supervision the other day, my supervisor and I decided I would send him something to read in two weeks. While I’ve got quite a few words on paper in a document that has headings and chapter titles and looks like a dissertation, I don’t have a chapter that’s actually completely written from start to finish. Instead of continuing on my messy process towards attempting to write a dissertation, I decided to open a new (yet another) document and actually properly figure out what I wanted to say.

I’m sure it’s going to change again, because it’ll never be finished (ugh), but this time I actually have research questions. I’ve got an overview of my methodology, a detailed dissertation structure, and need to write an overview of the background to introduce the whole thing. This isn’t supposed to be a perfect or finished chapter, instead it’s something that I can send to my supervisor, something to talk about.

We’ve talked about my work a lot, and have had some really fantastic discussions about what it could look like, what chapters can feel like, and how the data could be presented. We’ve talked about pieces of writing I’ve done, but none of that writing has been dedicated ‘dissertation writing’. So, now it’s time for that, I guess.

It feels weird.

And yes, I’m using that word ‘weird’ again because I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s just…strange, I guess. I generally don’t like finishing things, and sending something that’s written for my dissertation to my supervisor kind of marks the beginning of a long process that is supposed to be the end, or the finishing, of my PhD programme. I’ve been here for almost 4 years now, working on my PhD for roughly 2 years and 2 months now. It’s time to get to the writing.

I’ve done lots and lots of thinking about what it could look like, I have way too many outlines and notecards with potential chapter structures and overall dissertation structures. I’ve talked to all of my supervisors about a number of these different structures and outlines and potential framings, but now it’s time to put words on paper. Useful and meaningful words that will lead me to the finish line.

It’s September – what?

Today is the first of September. And a small part of me wants to take part in the seemingly collective response of: ‘Holy shit?! How is it September already?!’ but a larger part of myself wants to appreciate what I’ve done for the last month, or two, or eight. Now, this isn’t because I think I’m amazing or ahead of the game…actually quite the contrary.

I often feel like I’m not doing enough work (before anyone who knows me starts shouting at me, I know this is untrue), and I often feel like I’m falling behind on things. I rarely finish my to do lists (but that’s because they’re too full and aren’t actually realistic), but also rarely forget to do stuff and/or miss deadlines so I think I’m getting some things right.

But back to it being September.

The internet wants me to constantly be stressed about doing a PhD. It’s the common trope: the frazzled, up late at night working, stressed PhD student. I really don’t want to say that this isn’t the case for a lot of people, but I just hate the idea that that is the norm. Again, I don’ t want to say that this isn’t a real lived experience for a lot (far too many) students, and let’s be honest I’m often in the lab way too long after 5pm too. But when you search anything to do with PhD life, studies, careers, etc. everything that seems to come up are blog posts about how the PhD is the most stressful time of your life, about how supervisors tell students what to do, and about how the pressure is so big.

All these things are probably true. But why are they the norm? And it’s not just the internet that’s perpetuating this image of the PhD student: When I talk to some PhD students I feel guilty for taking weekends off. For not working when I’m at home. For having a good night’s sleep. Too often I even feel bad for being productive. It makes no sense.

I think this ties in with the whole ‘holy shit how is it already September’-itis. We never feel like we have done enough. We always look for our flaws, about how we had too many tea breaks yesterday, and ultimately about how we’re never going to amount to anything unless we stare at this document for the next 5h not really changing much but just avoiding sleep.

And I think that the image of the frazzled and stressed PhD student contributes to this. And I hate that it’s become the norm. I’ve had chats with some others about this, and I’ve definitely felt like I’m ‘doing it wrong’ at stages where I’ve not felt like all the internet tells me I should feel about my PhD.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love PhDcomics and all the other blogs, comics, and sites about how to write your PhD, how to survive your PhD, how to get a job after your PhD, etc. as much as the next PhD student – but where’s the balance? Where’s the alternative? Where’s the positive, the hope?

So that’s why I’m trying not to engage in the ‘holy shit how is it already September’-itis. I’m trying to tell myself I’ve done enough for the month to tick over.

Time waits for no one. Not even stressed out PhD students.

I’ve not completed my to-do list for the month, but I’ve done enough to be happy with what I’ve done. I went on holiday – on an actual, real holiday. That alone should be enough of a success in August! But I’ve also done loads of other stuff – and I’ve got stuff planned for September. It’s going to be a great month; even better than August was. Because that’s what I’m trying to do these days. I’m trying to relax and enjoy the PhD-ride.

So bring it on, September. Bring It On (Again)

 

 

The Sprint

Again, I start by saying that I’ve not been blogging recently. This time however I have at least a bit of an excuse: I was on holiday and didn’t take my laptop. I took my phone, but only to take pictures with. No work, no wifi, no electricity. So, that’s my excuse.

Now I’m refreshed and back in the lab, so hopefully my two-posts-a-week schedule will come back soon.

Today I want to write about something I did a long time ago: from the 30th of May until the 5th of June, to be exact. That was the week that things started to get very serious in my project with National Ugly Mugs (NUM). I have been working with them for a long time (since December 2015, actually) to support them in their technology use and development. To do that, I carried out an evaluation of their services that resulted in some small changes in their service delivery (like slightly changing the ways in which they title their alerts), a CHI paper, but also the decision to not only give their current website a new look but rather to redesign their digital systems. With this redesign we hope  to make some of the work that those in the office do every day just a little bit easier. By bringing together a number of different services and technologies that they use we centralise the process and in turn shave off a couple of minutes from each membership sign up, leaving a little more time for the vital parts of service delivery and advocacy work they carry out.

So during this week from the 30th of May until the 5th of June we started working on the website. I guess that’s not really true since I had been working on the website since the beginning of 2016 (what with my considerations for research ethics, field work, thinking, and writing…), but this was the first time that pieces of code were written for the new system. Tom Nappey and I had been working for a while on some design options for the look of the new website, and it was particularly in the weeks running up to the re-development of the website that we finalised all the requirements. This means we worked very closely with NUM staff to compile all the necessary features, all the features we’d like to see on the website. We had been doing this for a while, but now was the time for final decisions; what was initially a two-page skeleton of the website turned into a roughly 30 page requirements document.

This document alongside some mock-ups of pages on the website were what we started the week with. At the end of the week, we had a brand identity document (to outline the new logo and design of the NUM ‘brand’ as well as how to use the new logo), a justification document (that brings together the research I carried out and the design decisions we made as a team), and a half-finished website (the core features and design work is finished and functions as it should).

The core team was made up of 4 people, though we had a little additional help on one of the days from one more person, and of course we had a lot of contact with NUM office staff to make sure they were kept up to date with what we were doing, how we were doing it, and why we were doing things in this way. Throughout the week, we worked for roughly 338h, I visited the office twice, and had 10 phone calls with them.

We documented the week in a number of different ways:

  • we put up a GoPro on the wall of our main working space to create a time-lapse of the week
  • we had a whiteboard on which we wrote the goals of each day, crossed them off, and took a picture each evening
  • we took pictures of the progress throughout the week
  • I took notes on the conversations, phone calls, and impromptu meetings we had
  • we documented much of our work in the shape of screenshots of the website we had made up to that point
  • and finally, we produced the brand identity guidelines and the justification document (though the latter is still not entirely finished as we have a bit of work left to do on the website before its launch).

Overall, it was a really long and tiring week; but also a week in which we got a LOT of work done. We worked until Sunday the 4th of June, after which the three guys I worked with travelled back to Newcastle. I stayed in Manchester for one more night since the NUM board was having a meeting on the 5th of June. I attended a part of this meeting to show them what we had been working on and where we were up to. This resulted in a walk-through of the brand identity guidelines and justification document, as well as a whistle-stop tour of where we were up to on the new system (both the front-facing website, and the admin-login that staff would be working on to manage membership, reports, and alerts).

We’ve still got a long way to go until everything is finished, but things are getting there. We are moving forward and now it’s about delivering. It’s about documenting everything correctly and ensuring that training for current (and new!) staff is appropriate, useful, and complete; about producing documents that outline the technologies used, the reasons for their use, the Special Operating Procedures, and instructions on how to use each of the elements of the website. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, but we’ve gotten this far, so things are not too bad.

Getting (re)organised

The last couple of weeks have been ridiculous. I’ve been in and out of Newcastle, in and out of the country, and in and out of my academic frame of mind.

It all started with going down to London for a workshop (that you can read about here) followed by the trans-atlantic flight to Denver for CHI. I was in the US for a week and a half, travelled back to Newcastle only to be absolutely jet lagged. I’m not used to travelling across so many time zones. What was nice about that trip however, was that I had the chance to unwind for a few days. I stayed in a lovely lodge a few miles outside Boulder and just walked around for a few days. I met up with Chris Bopp, whom I had been in contact with previously about a(n unaccepted) CHI workshop around working with Third Sector Organisations and had a lovely chat with him at the University of Colorado, Boulder Campus. During our chat, Chris showed me around the stunning campus and showed me the ATLAS institute, which is a pretty amazing interdisciplinary research space (it felt somewhat similar to Open Lab, though they did have different offices for different people and research groups).

After that lovely walk and chat I headed down University Hill and into town via Central Park and the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse (but that’s for another post!) before finding a way to get to my lodging (which, I only realised later really isn’t that far away from Boulder). So I took a bus there, checked in, and had a rest. I was shattered at this point. The conference (and associated parties) really wore me out, and I wasn’t sure whether I was actually over my jet lag yet at this point, or whether it was just starting to set in. Anyway, over the next couple of days I didn’t do much. I did some reading, I did a lot of eating, and walking around Boulder. I also walked in the FlatIrons and  on the Chautauqua trails, as well as the Boulder Creek path; both of which were absolutely amazing.

After this trip to Colorado I came back to Newcastle on a Tuesday afternoon. That week I was tired all the time. Jet lag really hit me quite hard, and I don’t remember much of what I actually did that week. I do remember however, that the sprint I was supposed to go on to get a start on developing the NUM website was pushed back by a week (and lordy was I happy that was moved!).

So the following week I stayed up late every night preparing for the sprint. I drew out mock-ups by hand, had conversations around requirements documents, had lots of conversations with NUM staff about the aforementioned mock-ups and documents and at the same time tried to organise all the materials we needed to go, have meetings with Ed, Rob A., and Tom N. about the trip, and tried to get everything sorted.

The week after that was the sprint. And oh my goodness. We worked all day every day for seven days. After what seemed to be a 90h week, I stayed in Manchester for one more day to present what we had done to the NUM board. We had completed the main functionality of the site, a 40pg brand identity guidelines document and a 95pg (and counting) justification document.

So, while I wanted to write about something slightly different, I’m happy I wrote out everything I’ve done in the last couple of weeks. It’s not an excuse for not blogging and generally feeling unorganised about my life and dissertation at the moment, but it’s a nice way of seeing that, while I feel like I’ve been running around like a headless chicken, I’ve actually been doing a lot of work alongside some other really great people. I’ve been getting stuff done, and just need to find a way of reflecting on this and moving forward.

I don’t remember how to blog – here’s an update.

I’ve not written on this blog in three weeks now, and have definitely lost my momentum. It’s harder to think about what I want to write about, and it’s harder to start writing it. Writing is hard. So, maybe I’ll just start by writing about what I’ve been doing since I came back to Newcastle – nothing super thoughtful, nothing fancy. Just some words in a blog post. It’s a bit of a shame really, because I was on such a roll before going away and taking this three week break…but oh well. I’ll write today, then skip a week as I’m away again, and then hopefully get back into the swing of things. But for now, I’m just going to write about what I’ve been up to.

I came back to Newcastle on Tuesday afternoon last week. I got home, dropped my stuff off and went to the shop to buy some fresh vegetables. I made some delicious food made from fresh ingredients because I’d been craving that for the last 5 days or so that I was in the US. I then just lounged around at home trying not to fall asleep too early.

My Wednesday was also a bit weird, as I stayed in bed really late and my foot was hurting from going hiking in the FlatIrons in the wrong shoes! Instead of going into the lab as I had intended, I decided to go to the coffeeshop that’s down the road from my flat. Although I only spent a few hours there working, I somehow had a really productive afternoon. What I thought was going to be a bit of wasted time in a cafe ended up being quite a good opportunity to get some work done! Instead of continuing anything, on my walk down to the cafe I decided to start something new (again. yes.).

Well, not really new, new, but kind of new.

I started outlining what my book chapter was going to be. Yes, I’m writing a book chapter, and it’s super exciting to me! It’s about digital ecologies and sex work support services. So instead, of trying to finish or continue some of the other bits of writing, I spent a good 3-4h working only on this book chapter outline. I had the abstract I had sent to the editors a while ago as a response to an open call for participation, and after weeks of not really touching it, I made a start. I had a go at outlining a book chapter, something I had never done before. This is going to need a separate post to explain the details of how all of this exciting stuff happened (ah I’m getting back into this blogging thing!), but for now I’m just going to say I ended up having a really productive afternoon on Wednesday where I probably did more than if I would have gone into the lab that morning.

Thursday was a weird one. I went into the lab in the morning and tried to have a look at my e-mails. I’m sure I did some other bits and bobs of things here and there, but overall I spent the day catching up with things I needed to do, and catching up with people I hadn’t seen in almost two weeks.

In the afternoon, I had a meeting to plan out what I was going to do this week. That sounds weird – but here’s the story: I’m going away next week to do a ‘sprint’ to finally get to doing some of the coding for the website I’ve been working on for the last year. Exciting times! And I’m sure I’ll be writing a post about this too at some point soon! Sitting together with T, E, and R, we figured out what exactly needed to be done this week, and what the timeline could be in relation to this and next week.

On Friday, I was on the road again. I took a trip to visit National Ugly Mugs, my research collaborators, to have a chat about the requirements document I sent them two weeks earlier. It was so lovely to be back in the office and to see everyone again as I hadn’t seen them in a long time, and it was also great to be able to talk about concrete things to do with the website – things we’d been talking about in the abstract for a long time.

Since that Friday (except Wednesday this week), I’ve been doing work on the website: I re-wrote the requirements document, incorporating elements that they had put into additions they had made to the document I had sent them, as well as details we talked about throughout the day. I’ve also been sketching out layouts for different pages, and working closely with T to come up with an overall design and design identity for the organisation.

On Wednesday, I switched gears completely. I met up with some of my collaborators on a different project, that we’ve called TransActions. Its a collaborative project between Newcastle University, Northumbria University, National Ugly Mugs, and CliniQ to co-produce a resource (we don’t know what it’s going to be, how we’re going to design it, or who it’s going to be for yet) with trans sex workers. We hosted two initial workshops (one with practitioners and one with sex workers) at the beginning of May to kick-start this process. On Wednesday, we had a look at the video and audio data we recorded at the workshop, and started our process of analysis. We listened to the morning session (with practitioners) and started working on our collaborative analysis. It was good fun, and also a super productive day! We made a plan for the rest of the analysis and should be coming up with stuff soon.

Back to my time in the lab though, working on the website, and trying to figure out details of processes that members, staff, and the general public go through when visiting the website.

It’s been a long week.

It’s been a busy week, but also a week that resulted in lots of tangible things happening, and it’s going to end with a plan for next week. A plan to actually build what I’ve been talking about for more than the last year. So, exciting things are happening, and I’m not really sure how to write about them. I’m going to have to figure it out.

I’ve learnt so much in relation to web design, project management, coding, websites, logic, etc. in the last week, I really need to figure out how to best document all of it! I’m really looking forward to next week because we’re going to get stuff done! It’s going to be ridiculously busy, but it should be fun too.

Anyway, until next time!

Interdisciplinarity is fabulous

I’m going to try something slightly different today. I’ve been thinking about my PhD and some of the work I’ve done and am planning to do and wanted to try the thing where you write a blog post about your ideas that may or may not turn into some paper / dissertation writing. Last week, during the fempower.tech writing group, I started writing these thoughts down in a word document. At the beginning of the session I said that I was going to try to write a blog post, but since the writing group lasts for two 75min sessions, the bit of text ended up being a lot longer than a blog post. I started re-writing bits and putting in some stuff that turned it more into a weird outline / paper / chapter hybrid as opposed to a blog post. So, I’ve decided to give this kind of blogging another go in one of these morning blog sessions. I now only have roughly 15-30 mins to write this, so am going to just go at it.

I’ve written bits of academic writing about the methodology I’ve used, but haven’t done much writing about the ‘role’ of the technology, or in fact the role of the work and collaboration that goes into designing the technology when working with (politically active) charities. Using sex work support services as an example of charities that work within a particularly political space, I’ll outline briefly how I think the development of the technologies, the talking about technologies with staff and service users, and the deployment of technologies can play a role in their service delivery.

[edit: while I’d like to do this, I think that’s going to have to be split up into a couple of other posts. Here I’ll talk about the different literatures and how I currently think they fit together]

Before doing that though, I think it’s important to outline the gist of some of the literature that has brought me to thinking about these things. There are three areas of academic research that intersect when talking about the ways in which digital technologies can support sex work support services on a number of different levels: Socially engaged HCI research, Sex Work Research, and Social Work Research.

There’s the literature in HCI that explores spaces of social justice through social justice-oriented interaction design, or through examples of work that is based in feminist, post-colonial, or other social justice-oriented spaces. These topics are starting to be addressed, and some researchers are beginning to explicitly call their work ‘feminist’ or ‘social justice oriented’ (which is great!) but there is still something lacking for me. I’m not entirely sure exactly what that is yet, but I’d like to see a more nuanced engagement with these theories from the social sciences. Having said that, the work I do and the ways in which I think about this work is partly inspired by the growing group of researchers working in this space.

While trying to navigate this rapidly evolving space of socially engaged and justice oriented HCI publications, I do also appreciate the long history of reflexive, social justice oriented, and activist research that is present in some of the sex work research literature. A paper I keep going bak to for some reason is Phil Hubbard’s ‘Researching female sex work: reflections on geographical exclusion, critical methodologies and ‘useful’ knowledge’. It’s a pretty old paper (published in 1999) and is focused on the difficulties of a non-sex working male when engaging in research with women who sell sex (which arguably is quite different to what I do), but for some reason I keep coming back to this paper. It brings up some interesting points about ‘useful’ knowledge and ‘critical methodologies’ which, when coupled with the reading I’ve been doing in the socially engaged HCI literature, makes a lot of sense to me.

The third space of academia that I include in the weird venn diagram of literature that seems to be building my PhD is Social Work literature. I’m going to be honest and say that this is the bit of research that I’ve read the least in so far, but I’ve got a stack of papers that I want to get through that brings out debates within the discipline around whether or not social work is based in social justice, what this social justice could look like, and how social work practice engages in social justice work. This is particularly interesting to me, as I also keep coming back to Feis-Bryce’s Huffington Post article on why the third sector must be political. I understand that ‘being political’ and engaging in social justice work are different, but I also appreciate that they are deeply interwoven. Particularly when looking at sex work support services and the services they provide for their members, clients, or service users, the importance of social justice debates becomes important.

Working at the nexus of these three areas provides me with a unique possibility of looking at the research area from a different perspective. Often HCI research brings in new theories and research areas, but too often the engagement is not deep enough to provide nuanced debates. At the same time, sex work research is very good at providing these nuanced debates, but not very good at engaging in research with digital technologies (though there is a move towards doing research on the use of digital technologies, but here this is the part that doesn’t provide too much nuance). And lastly, in social work debates the topic of social justice oriented service delivery seems to be a debate without a clear answer. Meanwhile, I’m stuck working in this mess of research fields, theories, and practices. Trying to navigate the language and detail that is needed for these different areas is difficult and confusing, but bringing these together will ultimately help me understand the space better. It’ll help me think across the fields, through the disciplinary boundaries, and as such help me “decide how [we] can best make a contribution to debates surrounding the oppression of excluded groups” (Hubbard, 1999). Bringing in the pragmatic elements from HCI and social work, and some of the activism that takes place in social work practice however, allows us to go further than contributing to the debates surrounding sex work research, policy, and law. It allows us to engage in the fight against oppression of excluded groups by engaging more directly in pragmatic work that fights this oppression, while simultaneously theorising and contributing to the academic debates surrounding this as well.

“If our mission is to improve the safety of sex workers how can we remain silent when policies are introduced that will harm them?”

 

My first publication…from ages ago

Today I’m going to talk about something really old to ease myself into talking about more recent things. I’m going to talk about my first publication. It was a weird experience that I think I’ve slightly touched upon before, but I want to revisit to reflect on how far I’ve come in relation to this and to ease myself into talking about more recent things. It’s also something that’s on the bucket list I’ve put on my website, so since I had nothing else to really talk about today, I thought I’d address something from there.

My first CHI paper. If you’re from HCI, chances are you know about CHI. If you’re not, it’s (one of) the biggest HCI conferences out there. HCI is a weird field where conference proceedings are actually quite hard to get accepted (CHI has an acceptance rate of around 23-25% each year), and where they’re in the form of (roughly) 10 page peer-reviewed papers as opposed to the usual 250-500 word abstracts in social science conferences.

CHI stands for Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems and is held in a different city every year. The one I’m going to be talking about is CHI 2015, and was held in Seoul, South Korea. So this is a reflection on something quite old…

This was the year I was finishing my MA in International Development and Education and was looking around for places to do a PhD. I really got a taste of doing research half way through the MA when we were writing our research proposals, and wanted to continue to do this. It wasn’t something I had ever before considered, but something I wanted to know more about. I looked and asked around in different universities across the UK and Europe to see if there was anything interesting somewhere.  I found loads of interesting Professors and Lecturers, but couldn’t really find something that stuck out. I found people that were particularly interested in homelessness (and I think actually contacted someone to see if they wanted to have a chat) but things never really went any further than an e-mail. Nothing felt right. It wasn’t until I heard about Culture Lab (which is the old name for Open Lab) that I started to feel like this could actually be something I wanted to do. The website, while not the most up-to-date and amazing thing, told stories of interesting projects that sounded more like the kind of thing I was interested in. It wasn’t all about reliability, about standardised research methods, and projects made by one person. It was about collaboration, interdisciplinarity, and creative research methods. For some reason I decided to send off a message on the contact form for the lab and was half-expecting not to get anything in return, when a few days later I had an e-mail in my inbox from R. We met up and I explained what my research was for the MA and how I wanted to do a PhD in something similar but wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do it in yet. He seemed somewhat interested and continued to informally support me throughout the rest of my MA research. Throughout this process, we met up quite regularly and as I started to get to know the lab a little and he started to get to know me a little he mentioned that there was going to be some funding for a 1+3 PhD studentship that he thought I might want to apply for: the Digital Civics PhD.

I did.
For some weird reason, I got it.

When it came to writing my dissertation he was an immense help, and since it was roughly the same time of the year as CHI deadline he and P recommended that I put something in for the conference. I was terrified and thought it was a bit silly I was writing something for the conference, but almost everyone that was in the lab at the time was doing it. They offered me a desk in the lab (multiple times) but I was too shy to accept it. I didn’t feel like I was smart enough, or good enough to sit with all these other amazingly smart people, so I only ever came in for my supervisions with R. It wasn’t until it was almost the CHI deadline that I started actually working in the lab. I wish I’d have done that sooner! The people are incredibly smart and intimidating, but they’re also absolutely lovely and kind – I really should’ve just sat down in the lab sooner. Maybe I could’ve gotten to know a few more people sooner.

Anyway, back to the paper. So it started off with R explaining to me what CHI was, what a CHI paper was, and how the review and publication process worked. Throughout the entire time he made clear to me that, while the work I did was interesting and good, it had a low chance of actually getting in (which is/was very true). It was my first time writing something, which lowered the chances even more, but I did it anyway. It felt really great that they thought the work I did was interesting enough to be published, and it was even more exciting that I got to work on an actual academic publication with R.

I’m  not going to go into detail of his supervision style, but he was really supportive in the writing of this paper and helped me out in many different ways. He sat down with me and answered my silly questions, but he also sat down with me and the paper and transformed a few of my horribly naive sentences into something that read like an academic paper so I could learn from that and transform the rest of my paper by myself.

When it came to deadline day, I was happy with the paper and excited to see what reviewers would say. A few days before we had another meeting about the paper where we decided together that it was amazing that I had written this, that it was something that should definitely be submitted, but that I shouldn’t have too many hopes as it was my first time submitting, and the work was arguably not done with HCI in mind throughout the whole thing (as I was focusing on the International Development and Education thing for my dissertation…). Anyway, we submitted and I was excited to see the reviews.

They ended up being quite nice, but it seemed like the paper would not get accepted. They scores weren’t terrible, but not good enough to really get the paper accepted. I was a bit sad, but also understood that there was always going to be a next year. After the AC meeting (where they discuss each paper and finalise the decision whether it should be published or not) however, I got an e-mail that said my paper was accepted and that I would be shepherded. R had explained to me earlier that this meant someone took on a lot of work and time to help me re-write parts of the paper (my discussion) to the point where they think it should be publishable. Apparently someone thought my work was interesting enough to be published. Thank you!!

So, over the christmas holiday I re-wrote my discussion section and changed other parts of the paper to match with this so it would be ready for publication in early January. That was an exciting experience that I briefly go into more detail here. And then, when it came to May 2015, I got to fly to Seoul to present the work I did. To talk about homelessness in Romania and the informal learning networks that are shaped in that environment. It was fun and exciting, and terrifying all at the same time. Something I’d like to do again, and something I’m going to do again in a couple of weeks at CHI 2017 in Denver, Colorado, USA. But that’s for another post.

I have changed a lot over the last two years academically and personally, and I’m assuming CHI will have changed too. This year my paper was not shepherded, and got a variety of different scores across the board. The reviews were absolutely lovely and I was able to make the paper much better based on them. I’ve grown a lot since this first CHI cycle. I’m less scared about sending out papers for review (I actually really quite enjoy that process now!), I’m less scared about showing my writing to others (anyone want to proof read any of my stuff?), but I still ask R silly questions about conferences and their review process (I don’t think this’ll stop until I stop working with R). I’m glad I was pushed into the scary land of CHI so early, it made the next year much easier, and has now opened me up to attempt to publish not only at conferences but also in journals and got me interested in learning more about book chapters. Exciting times. I’ll keep you posted.

 

The beauty of having multiple and interdisciplinary supervisors

I want to reflect a little on my supervision today. I’ve talked a little bit about some of my supervisors before, but I want to reflect on it from a little bit of a higher level today.

As part of the Centre for Doctoral Training in Digital Civics, I am required to have a supervisor in Computing Science (or more specifically, from Open Lab) and one supervisor from a different school in the university. Since I am in the ‘public education’ section of my cohort, this means I have a supervisor from the School of Education, Communication, and Language Sciences (ECLS). On top of this, I am very lucky to also have another supervisor from Northumbria University’s Department of Social Sciences, Criminology in particular.

It’s amazing to have three supervisors that are so different from a disciplinary perspective. They support me in all sorts of different ways, and although having people from all these different areas supervising me is sometimes challenging, the negatives of being pulled in all of these different directions are definitely outweighed by the positives.

The amount of time I spend with each of these supervisors varies greatly. I work at Open Lab, and sit a few desks away from my supervisor from there. I see him most days, and have a regularly scheduled supervision with him every two weeks (though this has only started happening over the last few months). My supervisions with the other two supervisors are much more sporadic. I meet my supervisor from ECLS somewhere between every month and every couple of months. I see my supervisor from Northumbria at a pretty strange schedule. She is on the board for one of the charities I am working with, and is herself a researcher working on sex work research, which makes me see her in all sorts of different situations: for example, I’ve had supervisions at the charity office after board meetings, I’ve had conversations with her on the phone and often met her for coffee or as part of other projects’ meetings; next week I will see her at the COST ProsPol conference in Copenhagen.

I think it has only been once that I’ve actually had all three supervisors at the same meeting. As far as I remember, this wasn’t as chaotic as I would have thought it to be. But having said that, I absolutely over-prepared for the meeting too. It was a few weeks before I went off on a one-month internship at National Ugly Mugs (NUM) roughly a year ago. I had a little booklet of my project proposal, a detailed research plan, and other bits of reflections and writing I had done for everyone to take home and have a look at. We talked, in very little detail, about my project and how great it will be to get stuck in it properly. It was a nice experience, but I don’t remember whether it was super useful to the research (which I guess means it wasn’t the best supervision I’ve ever had…). Having said that, I think it’d be nice to have another one of these super-supervisions in the near future.

These different styles of meeting patterns also cater to different needs I have as a PhD student, and the tone, structure, and outcomes of our meetings are also often very different. Each of my supervisor has a different supervision style, different areas of expertise, and different ways in which they support me. Having very different relationships with each of these supervisors also leads me to talking about different things with each of them, sometimes focusing more on the personal and emotional side of doing a PhD, other times focusing very directly on specific projects I’m working on, while at other times I’ll focus on my PhD dissertation more directly. It’s weird and it’s nice, but what I’ve learned is that it is incredibly important for me to get on with my supervisors on a methodological / ontological level, but also on a topical and theoretical, as well as personal level. Having said that, I think each of them has a very different way of looking at my PhD and the work I do as a whole. They have different relationships to Open Lab, my projects, my dissertation, and ultimately me.

I like this though, I like that I need to cater to different types of supervision. I feel like it makes me a more rounded student and person, and forces me to look at my work through different lenses. This often causes tensions, which can be frustrating at times, but overall makes me reflect more on the work I’m doing and why I’m doing it.

Yesterday, I had a supervision with my supervisor from ECLS and she pointed out that the way I work is a really strange mix of pragmatism and self-criticality. On one hand I really like organising my thoughts in layouts, I like having structure to my writing, and don’t really want to start writing until I have a well thought-through outline. For example, I’ve written multiple outlines for literature reviews and more recently my dissertation overall, but since I am still not entirely happy with it havnen’t really started writing on these things yet. I know I need to stop doing this and just start writing, but knowing I am going to reflect on everything I’m thinking now to change it again makes me not want to do that. Yesterday however, she gave me some good advice: just stick with it for now. Stick with what I’ve got. It makes sense and seems to be structurally sound. I need to somehow learn to marry my pragmatism and self-criticality. A way that I can get to writing the dissertation rather than just writing papers while still letting myself be self critical (there is no reason why I can’t write stuff and then later rip it up and restructure everything. In fact, I know that that is going to happen, but for it to actually be able to happen, I need to have something written first).

So here goes. My writing goals for the next few months: have the sections of my dissertation that I can have written written by the end of the summer. I want to write a CSCW paper for mid-april, at least one CHI paper for September, and another CSCW paper for November. At the same time, I have my Annual Progress Review at some point in June at which I need to present the panel with some writing I have done for my dissertation. This means, I want to have written a draft of my literature review, methodology chapter, and the chapters for the two case studies I should have (almost) finished by the summer. This gives me the chance to spend the next year on writing my analysis, discussion, and conclusions, which would put me in a pretty good place for finishing on time.

It really was only due to the different types of conversations I’ve had with all of my supervisors over the last month or so that I’ve figured out a potential way of looking at everything I’ve been doing. It’s taken me more than a year and a half to actually figure out what it is that I’m interested in looking at in detail from the work I’ve been doing, and it’s taken me many conversations with friends, colleagues, and supervisors to get to a point where I almost feel confident enough to start writing my dissertation.

What’s the point

Last week on Tuesday, during my supervision with one of my supervisors, he asked me: What’s the point? Why are you doing what you’re doing? At first, this seemed like an absolutely horrible question to ask. I chuckled, we both laughed, and then got quite serious. After a few seconds of me not saying anything, I responded with uuhhmmm what do you mean? To which he expanded a little on what he meant. He laughed again and said he didn’t mean the question to sound as horrible or mean as it did; that he just wanted to bring me to think about what I was doing, and why I was doing it – what it was that I was actually interested in.

To give you a little context on that, this came towards the end of a supervision in which I wanted to talk about the big picture of my PhD. I’m at a point where I want to figure out what I’m doing, where I want to start writing on my actual dissertation documents, and where I want the writing that I am doing to actually fit in with the final argument that I’m making. After going through the thought process I’ve been having over the last year or so (again) with him, we got to a point where nothing really made sense anymore.

I want to do too many things.

I also keep talking about social justice or justice without really going beyond the common sense arguments. Recently, I’ve read some Amartya Sen, I’ve read some Martha Nussbaum, and I’ve read some Nancy Fraser, but for some reason this doesn’t seem to enter my conversations with my supervisors yet. I haven’t really internalised any of these yet, and so haven’t found out how they fit in with my work on enough levels yet (yes, it makes sense with my basic argument of: I’m designing technologies and am looking at how they can/do/should support a move towards a more socially just world, but nothing really beyond that. And I still haven’t really started taking that thought apart yet either).

So what am I actually doing?!
What am I interested in beyond my application area of designing technologies?

In an attempt to answer the questions my supervisor was asking me, I began to drift to a slightly different space. I thought about what I’d written so far, and decided to talk about what I enjoyed there. I really liked writing the ECSCW paper (or well, it’s currently under review). This was a paper that I’ve re-worked too many times to count, have hated for a while, but for some reason keep coming back to. It’s trying to unpick the relationships we build with charities when designing technologies with them. It does this by providing a theoretical overview of HCI literature surrounding methodologies that are used in publications in this space before going into a pragmatic case study that is supported by vignettes of parts of the research experience that I captured in the form of handwritten notes. After the case study, I try to unpick what happened in the vignettes with the help of the methodological overview I used at the beginning. This was a hard paper to write, but looking back, I really enjoyed it!

Looking back at CHI2017, I also remembered that I enjoyed writing the methodological paper (that got rejected) a lot more than I did writing the other paper that was based more on the data I collected, outlining implications for design for technologies to design with sex work support services. While both of these papers are important for the work I am doing (and I’m glad I wrote them both), I did enjoy writing the methodological one more. It made more sense to me, and it felt like there was more of a reason for me to write it. After all, what’s the point of having yet another paper with implications for design? (I mean, I understand there are lots of reasons for this, and it’s actually an interesting paper, but I don’t think it’ll have a major impact on anything, really).

This brought me back to a thought I had a few months ago: why not write my dissertation in a similar style as these papers that I enjoyed writing?

Shocking! I know.

But really, why not? I’ve been getting too hung up on the digital technology and the design process recently, as I’m trying to synthesise everything into an actual website design for NUM with T and E. So the supervision last week was a welcome reminder to come back to reality, to come back to the complexity that is what I am trying to do (or at least I think is what I’m trying to do).

Talking to my supervisor last week was such a good thing to do. It made me re-think what I’ve been doing, and made me realise that that silly thought I had a few weeks (or was it months?) ago wasn’t actually that silly! Talking Rob through my idea was a bit strange. It was something that I’d kept to myself, that I didn’t even write down properly because I didn’t think it made too much sense, and thought it was an argument that was too pragmatic. But here goes. What if I write about the work that I’m doing; the actual practicalities of what I’m doing, to explore the ways in which the designing of digital technologies with and for sex work support services impacts different spaces: what role does it play in relation to the charity I’m working with? Since I’m working in an inherently political space and am all in favour for the re-politicisation of research, what role does my work play in the wider political context (ie the sex worker rights movement)? How does the way I write about the work affect HCI practice and methodology? And how does the work I do affect myself as a researcher and as a person?

All of these questions are really big, but they actually fit in with my social justice, feminist, participatory-style oriented methodology. They answer important questions that HCI (and actually service design research as well) have been asking for a while now. I guess I can use the same argument I used for my ECSCW paper: everyone keeps saying we should talk about these things, but nobody is actually doing the we need to talk about this bit. So it’s maybe going to be me!

So, maybe that’s the point.

Every now and again I get an urge to draw out my entire dissertation in a single flowchart. I know this wont necessarily make sense to everyone, but it sort of makes sense to me. I always tell myself I’m not a pragmatist, I’m not someone who goes through things in a necessarily very logical order, that I’m really chaotic and like to be spontaneous. At the same time however, I love making flowcharts about my dissertation. To be fair, they often come out of nonsensical notes on pieces of paper (or the floor). These notes often make sense as I’m writing them (and drawing different coloured lines between the different parts of the paper), but once I’ve covered the piece of paper, the connections often don’t even make sense to me anymore.

This time I tried something different. I wrote some notes on a piece of paper (that actually made sense in the order I wrote them, almost like a list), and after that started to draw out what I was doing with my research. I went back and looked at the reading and writing I had done thus far, and wrote down the two gaps in research that I’m trying to address: (1) the gap in research around digital service delivery for sex work support services; and (2) the gap in research around the intricacies and complexities of doing this kind of design research. That’s what I’m trying to do. I don’t have a research question that addresses this (but I guess my disliking of research questions calls for another post!), but I guess that’s what I’m trying to do!

A weird flow-diagram of a potential dissertation that made sense in my head when I drew it

After realising (again) that those were the two things I’m trying to do, I also added the things I’m interested in as outlined in the questions I posed above about who is affected by my research (though I left out the personal journey on the diagram I drew). The whole point of the dissertation wouldn’t be my argument if it didn’t go to a meta level it really didn’t need to go to: to explore the relationships between these different areas, and to explore the everchanging ecology that is built through the process of designing digital technologies with (sex work) support services. In this way, the application area (sex work) becomes less important in the end, as it is an example of a space that is particularly complex due to the many historical, legal, and cultural stigma and misrepresentation in society that is often associated with the space. It’s a space I want to keep working in, but I also understand that what I am learning about working with charities and the processes I am going through to develop technologies with them is a space that goes beyond this. Taking this thought further, it takes me back to what I was saying earlier about how I feel about the two papers I wrote for CHI2017: what’s the point of them? Is it to design more technologies or is it to attempt to understand the world we work in, affecting the ways in which we think about the work we do?

Researching Our Futures

Yesterday was the culmination of a lot of work on a little side project I’ve been a part of for the last few months: along with six other Humanities Arts and Social Science (HASS) PhD students and some members of staff from the HASS office and careers service, we organised a conference called Researching Our Futures. It was a day of listening to speakers from a really diverse set of workplaces about how they got where they are, why they did (or are working towards) a PhD and how it helps them in their current job. After a keynote speech from Prof. Pauline Dixon, we had two sets of parallel sessions in the morning covering loads of different fields. In each of these we had three or four people who recently obtained their PhDs or are working towards their PhDs while working in these sectors tell us about their stories; about how they got to where they are now and how they use their PhD in their everyday life.

Aren’t these conference bags pretty?!

The first set of parallel sessions:

  • Working in Non Academic Research & Consultancy
  • Working in Public and Voluntary sectors
  • Working in the Cultural & Heritage Sector
  • Creative Practice & the Freelancer

The second set of parallel sessions:

  • Working in Academia and Education – research and teaching roles
  • Working in Academia – professional support roles
  • Working with Words – Creative Writing, Translation, Writing for the Media
  • Working in Education sector

After lunch, we had two more speakers: Charlotte Mathieson talked about the importance of the digital, and Chris Humphrey tried to help us write cover letters for non-academic jobs.

It was a nice mix of things, and the verbal feedback I got from attendants just before they were leaving was usually positive. Perhaps one of the nicest things I heard (a few times, actually) was that the conference was what they were expecting – it was what we advertised, and they’re really glad that it was what they were expecting. So that’s good!

Working in the Public and Voluntary Sector Panel with Natalie Day, Alex Feis-Bryce, and Nikki Spalding

In the morning, I attended the Working in Public and Voluntary sectors panel, which was really interesting! It was amazing to hear such personal accounts of people; to hear a very different side to the story you usually hear at conferences. After his talk, I had a brief chat with Alex from National Ugly Mugs (who, I am working with as one of my PhD case studies) about a project we are currently planning, but I also told him how nice it was that he was there. I had known bits and pieces of his story from having talked to him about his PhD and work previously, but it was nice to see it shared in one piece, in front of an audience that seemed to be genuinely interested.

Similarly, I thought it was really nice to see Pauline as the Keynote. I was her student during my MA, and have been in contact with her every now and again since then in relation to teaching on some modules, as well as trying to organise some events as part of the International Development Society. So I’ve known her for some years and have read and heard about a lot of her work; I’ve heard her talk at the International Development Conference, have been in her classes, and have seen her TEDx talk. Again, I’d heard bits and pieces of her story from her and her colleagues through my continued engagement with the EG West Centre (pretty much only for teaching), but I never heard the story from start to finish.

Another thing that was great about the conference was the audience involvement. There were questions after every session. And the questions were interesting. They were thoughtful, thought provoking, and reflexive. Being in a room with this many PhD students was a strangely comforting experience. Throughout the day, we had a whiteboard and sticky-notes for delegates to answer three questions (at different points in the day): (1) I came here today, because… (2) Today, I have learned… and (3) What action will I take after today’s conference?

Whiteboard with sticky-note responses

I really like some of these responses, and see if you can spot my own (hint: I really like free coffee at conferences, which is why every event I organise has free tea and coffee. It’s a necessity), but one that stuck with me is the one in the image below. It reads: Do what you want to be. Do it among other doers. Present it to multiple audiences in multiple languages. I’m not sure which panel session or speaker this advice came from for the person who wrote the note, but I feel like this is a nice way of summing up the practical advice we got throughout the day! Yes, we talked a lot about skilllike resilience, project planning, or people management that we learn while doing our PhD, but I really like the simplicity of this advice. I like how true it rings to what I’m doing, and how I’ve started doing this kind of thing with my feminism.

Sticky-note response to ‘what did you learn today’

Yesterday was a fun day. It was tiring, but it was more fun, informative, and interesting than I thought it would be (and I helped organise the thing!) So, here’s to us for organising such a lovely event. Go team, and keep pushing the door, even if it’s just a little.

Part of the organising committee of Researching Our Futures

And an extra special thank you to Michael for designing the awesome t-shirt and bag design, as well as the overall branding for the conference (I also really like this picture of myself, which is rare, so here’s for some body positivity!)

We’ve done a good job, time for wine!