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.

CHI metadata deadline

Today’s the day we have to submit the CHI2018 metadata for each of the paper that we are going to submit.

Usually this day I’m stressed out. I worry. And I start to re-read and care about every single word that is in my abstract and paper title. Generally, by this point, all I worry about is my paper(s) and spend hours re-reading each of them, changing very little, but feeling like I’ve accomplished something. In reality, all I’ve done is print out the paper, make pencil or pen marks on it, translate those marks into my .docx file, and save the thing as a new draft in the appropriate folder. It doesn’t really do much, to be honest. Don’t get me wrong, the editing process is invaluable (and I actually really enjoy this process), but it gets to a point where all you’re changing are a word every now and again. And then I really wonder how much use it is.

Sometimes it useful though. During some of these 10s of read-throughs, every now and again, I notice that a discussion point doesn’t really make sense, or that I could use a different example to illustrate a point more accurately. So I change a whole column or page of the paper, I re-write paragraphs and shuffle them around.

But sometimes, it really does just end up being something along the lines of: should I use this word or this other word that means pretty much the same thing here?

It’s the kind of editing that resembles the latter that I’m not sure on how useful it is. I don’t think I’m changing the paper very much at that point, but it has helped me feel more comfortable with and confident of what I’ve written. So maybe it’s useful afterall…

Anyway, this year has been weird. I’ve not really felt the ‘chi stress’ that I’ve felt in previous years. I’ve happily worked on my papers, writing, editing, talking to others about it. I’ve been deleting pages worth of stuff and re-writing it and doing superficial read-throughs of the paper to decide which words fit best in which sentences. To be honest, I’m still doing all sorts of reviews and changes on my papers, but I’m enjoying it much more than I have in the past.

On top of this, I’m also doing some very non-CHI related work. It’s a nice alternative to the constant re-reading of paper and paper sections. Instead, it allows me to focus on something completely different for a bit, which then allows me to come back to the papers with fresh eyes.

In a weird roundabout way I also think it’s making it all feel less stressful. Even though I’m technically doing ‘more’ stuff, I feel like I’m stressing less about the individual things I’m doing. I just kind of get on with it. And enjoy it. Since the other things I’m doing are not related to the papers (or even projects I talk about in the papers) I’m writing this year, it really is like taking a little holiday from CHI. Even if it’s just a few hours every day, it seems to make a huge difference.

And dare I say it, I’m a little excited about the coming deadline!
(I guess this might have something to do with my mum coming to visit me on the day after the deadline…but shh)

No, but really. I’m excited to hand in my papers. I’m proud of them and I like what my co-authors and I have written. I’m sure we’ll get some harsh reviews, somebody won’t see the point in the paper, and somebody else will love it. It’s weird though, I’m so curious about what other HCI researchers think about what we’ve written – and what they think about the projects that are represented in the paper.

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.

Technologies and Social Justice Outcomes in Sex Work Charities: Fighting Stigma, Saving Lives

In exactly one week, I’ll to be sitting on a metro that is taking me to the airport. I’ll probably be equally nervous and excited about flying to Denver, Colorado, USA to attend CHI2017. While there, I’m hoping to meet some awesome new people who do awesome research, I’ll be working on some cross stitch to raise funds for Planned Parenthood, and I’ll be running a few pop-up stalls for zine making for people to share their different experiences of being at CHI, but I’ll also be presenting my paper.

So, maybe I should give a little bit of context here. As, some great people that I work with and I are organising what we have called #CHIversity. It’s an attempt to make diversity (whatever that is) more visible at the conference, and to foster discussion on inclusion, representation, feminisms, and social justice while there. The name, CHIversity, is naff. We know. It was a bit of a play on the topic of diversity (again, whatever that means) and CHI, and is supposed to be tongue in cheek. It’s supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to start a discussion. In this way, we hope to provide a small alternative to the usual exclusive parties that people go to to network by providing a comfortable, safe, relaxed, and alcohol-free environment for people to come together. Since we’ll be crafting, if someone doesn’t want to talk but rather just enjoy the presence of others, that’s absolutely fine. If someone wants to chat and not craft, that’s also more than okay.

We’ll be doing a number of things: tweeting, blogging, fundraising, making zines, and supporting our colleagues at the diversity lunch. Something I’m quite excited about is our feminist CHI programme. It’s not complete by any means, but it’s a nice starting point for something that we could maybe keep doing at other conferences we go to?

You can find out more about what we’re planning by having a look at our website and to keep up-to-date with what’s going on while in Denver, please follow @fempowertech on twitter. 

While all of that is exciting, it’s not the only reason I’m going to CHI. I’ll also be presenting a paper I wrote with Mary Laing and Rob Comber. It’s called Technologies and Social Justice Outcomes in Sex Work Charities: Fighting Stigma, Saving Lives and is based on some of the work I’ve done with National Ugly Mugs. It’s an analysis of their service delivery in relation to social justice, and I outline how they utilise technologies for their reporting, alerting, and mobilising practices to support their social justice outcomes. The paper ends on implications for design that will be useful for people who want to design digital technologies with charities.

If that made you curious enough to want to read the whole ten pages, you can either go download it from the ACM digital library (once it’s out on there, probably around the 6/7/8 of May), but if you don’t have access to that or want to read it before then, here you go. See below for the abstract:

[edit on 3rd of May 2017: the paper’s now been published in open access, so go download it here to boost that download count, because academic metrics :p]

Sex workers’ rights are human rights, and as such are an issue inherently based in social, criminal, and political justice debates. As HCI continues to move towards feminist and social justice oriented research and design approaches, we argue that we need to take into consideration the difficulties faced by sex workers; and explore how technology can and does mediate social justice outcomes for them. We contribute directly to this challenge by providing an empirical account of a charity whose work is built on the underlying move towards social and criminal justice for sex workers in the UK. Through ethnographic fieldwork, meetings, interviews, surveys, and creative workshops we describe the different points of view associated with the charity from a variety of stakeholders. We discuss their service provision and the ways in which HCI is uniquely positioned to be able respond to the needs of and to support sex work support services.


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 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.


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.