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.

starting things, but not finishing them?

I’ve talked briefly about before, about how sometimes I have an issue about finishing things I’m working on. I’d like to reflect on that a little more here. It’s an issue I particularly have with the writing of papers, though not yet with my dissertation – I guess you have to start writing something before you can not finish it…

But maybe that’s a place to start this post: I’m scared of starting to write my dissertation. Every time I sit down with the intention of writing my dissertation, I open documents that have notes, paragraphs that I’ve written on ideas for sections on the dissertation, and I start to work away at these notes. I copy and paste things into a new document so I don’t have the ‘blank page’ problem that causes me to not know how to start, and begin to read through what I’d previously written. That’s where the issues start. Some things make sense, and other things make absolutely no sense. I try to re-write, re-structure, and add on to the thoughts that make sense, moving things around to try to build an argument.

When that inevitably doesn’t work, I open a new document and start to write out sentences and thoughts that I’ve had, in true Mean Girls style word vomit.

I start typing things out and things start to make sense.
For now.

When things start making sense I get into this nice flow of writing out stuff and things. Things I’ve read about and have thought about, things I’ve started building arguments around in my head. At this point, there are no citations and very little academic language in the text, but I make some references to papers and books I’ve read. I assume that I’ll remember what references I was thinking about (I don’t) when I come back and edit that bit of ‘writing’ I’d done at a later time (I don’t).

Sometimes, what I’m trying to say makes so much sense in my head that I continue to write and write until I have several pages of rambling. When I look back at it, I start putting in headings and bullet points of things that I should be adding to make the argument make more sense. I start to add in questions and points on different bits of data I have to support my arguments and start drawing out an outline for potential papers and chapters.

This is where the ‘not finishing’ bit comes in. After doing this for a few hours I inevitably get distracted (mostly by getting some tea) and start to loose my concentration. I decide to leave the document for now, save it in my ‘write up’ folder in the ‘PhD’ folder and continue to do some work on other bits of work I’m doing. The idea is, I’ll let the thoughts ruminate in my head to get back to the bit of ‘writing’ I did at a later point in time. The problem that I have however is that when I do go back to the writing (which doesn’t always happen) it either makes no sense in my head again, or I like what I’ve done and try to turn it into an actual bit of writing. When this happens however, I end up never finishing it. It doesn’t end up even remotely looking like a dissertation chapter, and more like a half-baked idea of something that could be interesting.

At that point however, things start to get hard in the writing and I tend to stop. It sucks, because some of the ideas are actually quite interesting and it’d be nice to see them come to fruition a bit more. It’s something I need to work on. Soon.

I’m about half way through my PhD and am starting to worry about writing up. I fluctuate between ‘meh it’s going to be fine, I’ve got all these notes that I can surely turn into a dissertation’ and ‘holy crap, I have to write 100,000 words and I don’t know what I’m doing’. I guess this is normal? I’m just going to assume it’s normal, and try to work on making sure my half-baked ideas don’t deflate like an unfinished soufflé that the oven door was opened on too early. Instead, I’m going to work on one or two pieces of writing that currently make sense to me until they’ve gone through that first stage of baking that a double-baked soufflé has to go through. So that when it comes to having a draft of my dissertation, the first full version will be a dinner of double-baked soufflé’s that will then be perfected. So that by the time I get into my third year I have something to work with rather than something that I need to start writing.

So yea, I’ve got some pretty big goals…but maybe changing my strategy will work. I’m half way through my time for the PhD, so maybe it’s time to start sticking to a few bits of specific writing rather than writing bits and pieces of ideas all over the place. Like one of my supervisors said in a recent supervision: ‘I should try to just stick with what I’ve got right now. It makes sense (to her, at the time I explained it), and I need to just stick with something.’

So I guess I’m going to give it a try. Wish me luck!

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?