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.

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?

Take time to explore, time to let your writing breathe

I love doing my PhD. I also love doing things that are specifically not my PhD.

I know it’s often written about that you need to find a balance as a PhD student as to not to tire yourself out, but for each one of those blog posts there are at least three that talk about the stressed out PhD student, and at least five that talk about how to not to become one of those stressed out PhD students. What annoys me about so many of those stressed PhD student blog posts and articles is the romanticisation of being busy. And not just being busy, but of constantly doing, thinking about, and writing your PhD; or even worse: feeling guilty about not writing or working on your PhD. Even the posts that try to tell you not to be so stressed about stuff, kind of in a way seem to romanticise the idea that when you’re doing your PhD that’s all you should be doing, all you should be thinking about.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I’ve been reading articles around how to write a literature review, have been trying to figure out how to turn papers into chapters, and I’ve generally been feeling the pressure a bit more than I did a few weeks and months ago. A couple of weeks ago, I had another one of those moments where I tried to figure out how everything I’ve done over the last year and a half and that I’m going to do over the next year and a half will fit together, so I sat down with my coloured pens and flipchart paper and started sketching out some ideas. This time it was different though. I had more of an idea of what I wanted to do. So I sat down, or well, stood next to an empty desk and started doodling, sketching, writing until it all made sense. After that, I sat down at my desk with my laptop and started drawing up potential outlines for chapters putting in how the paper(s) I’ve written can fit into that. It made clear what else I still had to write up, and how that could fit in with what I’d already written. Since then, I’ve been meaning to start writing on my dissertation, but I just can’t figure out how to start. I know the best way is to just start, but it’s hard. And papers are so much easier. They’re shorter, they have a shorter and more precise argument to make, and perhaps most importantly have a closer deadline.

But why am I writing about this little anecdote when I want to talk about the romanticisation of the busy PhD student? Well, it still doesn’t really make sense to me. I’ve been doing this for a year and a half now, and before that was a really busy MRes student, so arguably have been directly working towards my PhD for two and a half years. In all of that time I learnt how to deal with stressful situations, how to deal with publication deadlines, and how to engage in (at least most of ) the bureaucracy and admin work you have to do as a doctoral student at a university. What I always tell people who are super stressed out is: go for a walk, or go home and rest. Don’t do more work today, and just go home and chill. Read a book for pleasure, go to a coffeeshop and knit, or go for a run. Whatever makes you happy, and don’t force your thinking about the PhD. It works for me. Whenever I have a really productive week, and on Friday feel like I can keep being productive, I take my work home and go to a coffeeshop the next day to do some more work. If I’ve had n unproductive, horrible week, I’ll most likely take my evenings, and that weekend off, because it means I need a break. It means I’ve done too much previously and need to regroup before I can start anything again.

I can’t work if I don’t take breaks. I just need small breaks where I can go outside, not do anything, or just have a sit down in a cafe with a good book or my knitting. Maybe that just means I’m not meant to be a stressed out PhD student, which sometimes makes me feel like I’m not meant to be a PhD student at all. Like I’m doing it wrong. Like I’m doing the whole PhD thing wrong.

Let’s be honest, I haven’t taken many holidays over the last two years. I took a few weeks off over christmas, for the last two years, but since that’s the revisions time for CHI, I didn’t really have a full two or three weeks off. It was just a more relaxed way of editing the paper. Besides that, I haven’t really taken much time off, except for a long weekend here and there to visit friends and family. But the holidays I do take, I make sure they’re holidays. I don’t constantly think about work, and I don’t feel bad about not thinking about work. I don’t plan to do things I know I’m not going to have time to, or want to, do and instead plan to do a little bit of reading here and there, or a little bit of writing in a cafe somewhere. That’s perhaps one of my favourite things to do: write in a cute little cafe in a town or city I’m exploring. I take my laptop in case I get an urge to do work (it happens) so I don’t want to hinder it, but I also don’t actively make space to work. If it happens, it happens.

Sometimes that’s not possible though – sometimes a deadline is looming. And since I work within the disciplinary confines of HCI, that’s not particularly work-life-balance friendly, and has stupid deadlines around Christmas (yea, I’m looking at you, CHI), it’s not always possible to not have to worry about a deadline. So I want to tell you a little story about that first Christmas (the one during my MRes). It was perhaps the one that I learnt the most about being a stressed out student, or well, not being one. It was my first year in the discipline of HCI, and for some reason someone thought the work I had done for my MA in International Development and Education was worthy of being published at CHI. The weird thing was that it was being shepherded (which means that an academic thought it was really interesting, but not quite good enough to publish yet, so I pretty much had to re-write parts of my findings and my entire discussion and conclusion). All of this over the christmas holidays. So lucky me got to sit in a house in Villahermosa, Mexico next to a christmas tree with some delicious guacamole and corn chips, a margarita, and my laptop. Yes, I see how incredibly stereotypical that image is, but hey ho, it’s true. I was staying with the family of my partner at the time who lived there, and they knew that I liked guacamole and margaritas. So they kept them coming. It was amazing. Anyway, I sat down for an hour or two a couple of days a week to work on my paper. The rest of the time I was doing fun things like going to the park, seeing ancient pyramids, or taking an amazing road trip along the Yukatan Peninsula. I guess I should also say that I really like writing, so having to do a few hours of writing every couple of days was not bad for me, it enhanced my holiday.

What I learnt from this was that writing in a relaxed environment is amazing. It’s peaceful, thought provoking, and relaxed. Yes, I was working under pressure because I needed to fulfil certain requirements of it wouldn’t get published, but I was also in Mexico. On holiday. So I took the feelings I had on that trip (I mean, besides the whole personal thing of that now being an ex-partner and the whole thing being a bit of a mess) and continue to try to apply them to what I do when I’m on holidays and trips, but also for when I’m back home in Newcastle.

Exploring is important to me. So I like to explore literature and research methodologies, but also cities, countries, and hiking trails. I like to explore possibilities of thought and adventure; to delve into the deep end of the pool without knowing how to breathe under water. Every week, I try to get out, to see something I haven’t seen before. Sometimes it’s a mundane as going to a cafe I haven’t been to before, other times I like to get on the train or the bus and go to a small town close to Newcastle. Sometimes that’s when I get a spark of inspiration that helps me figure out what it is I am supposed to be doing with my PhD (or my life). At the same time, I really value the time I have at my desk, the time I can spend immersing myself in my writing, and just banging away at the keyboard (kind of like what I’ve been doing here).

And I think that is what the PhD is to me. A chance to explore, a chance to adventure, and a chance to reflect. It’s rare that you have the possibility to work on what you want to work on for three (or so) years. It’s rare that you get the chance to not only write papers about what you do, but also to have 80,000-100,000 words to reflect on how all of that works fits together, how it ties in methodologically and theoretically, and what the role of your work is in relation to so much of the other amazing academic scholarship that is out there. I think that’s it for me. Seeing the dissertation as an opportunity rather than a massive piece of writing I have to do. Giving it space to breathe, and explore, and adventure.

The future of learning…

…what is it?

I pride myself in saying that I have quite un-orthodox views of education. I’m pedantic (we should use the word learning not education!) and sometimes focus too much on what is said, rather than why it’s being said…I like to read educational texts like Holt’s ‘instead of education’, Freire’s ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’, and Falko Peschel’s ‘Open Learning’ (although, I think the book is only available in German…sorry); watch Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talks; and visit/read about cool schools like Grundschule Harmonie, Laborschule Bielefeld, and Summerhill School. While doing all of that, I then get mad at myself because in that entire list of pedagogues there’s not a single woman. Yes, Maria Montessori did some coo stuff…but that’s not radical enough for me anymore!

But I will not let this turn into a feminist rant about how there are way too many old, white men getting all the glory in (my) pedagogy libraries. That’s for another post.

On to what I actually wanted to say with this post. Yesterday I took part in an ‘Open Classroom’, as Jonathan Worth from PhonarNation calls it.

Essentially, there is a module called ‘The Future of Learning’ at Newcastle University. It is lead by Sugata Mitra who has 4 beautiful TED talks and 2 books, and some cool projects (like the School in the Cloud). Instead of teaching the 20 odd students or so that are actually signed up for the module (like I was 2 years ago…) the Open Classroom allows learners from across the globe to take part!

All you have to do – or at least all I did yesterday – was to go to this website and listen to the provocation at the same time as the class takes place at the university. Then the students in the class, and those learning outside the class, tweet their notes and engage in discussions via twitter, making sure to include #EDU8213.

In this way, quite a few interesting people got involved in the conversation leading it off onto interesting tangents.

For example, Daniel Callaghan got involved in relation to learning, education, and happiness

We also discussed whether or not teachers should have all the answers…

There area a LOT of tweets around all sorts of topics at #EDU8213 if you’re interested…and please, GET INVOLVED!

This was an exciting experience, that made me think critically about learning and education from angles I hadn’t previously thought about too much. I hope that the audience will continue to grow for the coming live sessions.

Although this was a great experience, I would like to see more involvement from Sugata Mitra himself. He did pose a few questions, and responded to some tweets…but I’d like to hear more from him on twitter. I realise that he’s busy actually teaching the class that’s present in person at Newcastle University, but still…


Reflecting on the two hours I spent on twitter yesterday, I realise that there are a few things that I want to address in regards to this way of learning.

Fitting complex thoughts into 140 characters on twitter is difficult, but also a useful exercise. This was the first time I’ve fully engaged in various academic conversations via twitter. I’d previously only had conversations with one or two other people via twitter that were mostly started by a question I had asked them, or an article either of us had shared. This time however, it was different. Several people became involved in a single conversation, so abbreviations became my friends, and grammar went out the window (I’m sorry to all the language teachers I’ve ever had!). At times, the conversations were difficult to follow because different participants of the conversation went off on different tangents…but I tried my best.

What I realised during my various conversations was that they were very varied. I was involved in conversations about whether teachers should have all the answers, whether testing is the best option, and whether kids can teach themselves how to read and write. I have discussed all of these topics before, and while I have gained a few insights from talking to different people about them (as you always do). However, I’m not sure that I was able to put across my entire opinion, and whether the people I was talking to were able to put their entire thought process into their own argumentation. Anther thing I realised was that none of the conversations really shocked me, or changed my mind. It was more of a conversation about things I’ve had lots of conversations about before (but this time with different people…).

Overall, this was an interesting experience, and I’m excited to see how this module continues to evolve. I’d love to see some descriptive statistics on how many people took part, how many tweets there were, how many responses, conversations, retweets there were. Who got involved? What did I miss?

I’m looking forward to the next session on Tuesday the 17th of November 2015 at 14:30 – 16:00!

Reflections on my placement research project

After having looked what the children had drawn and written down, I want to make some quick comments. I have not yet fully analysed all the data I received, but have developed some common themes within the different pieces of art and writing.

Most commonly, people who are homeless are seen to be as very poor, sad, begging and wearing very torn, broken and ripped clothes. Some examples even went as far as missing arms and legs, not having many teeth and hair and being very thin.

I was surprised to see that, for the most part, the children drew adults and not…like I was expecting…children. I wonder why this is. Could it be that the people they see on the streets are mostly adults? Do they not imagine that a child could live on the streets without their parents? This would be an interesting question to ask for further research.

Something else that I was surprised about, that I mentioned briefly in my last post, was the lack of distinction between Gypsy and homeless. When I told the kids I wanted to find out what they thought about people who are homeless, some immediately jumped to the conclusion that I meant Gypsies. Although I shortly talked to them about the difference and that Gypsy is a unique ethnic group and that they aren’t in fact always poor I obviously couldn’t change these children’s minds. A boy even drew a lady who was very poor and living in a Gypsy camp for his assignment of drawing a person who is homeless. I guess he wasn’t completely wrong (traditionally Gypsies are a nomadic people that don’t have a home in the sense that many Westerners see a home), but I personally think that putting these two minority groups into one bucket is slightly racist towards both groups. This is something else that would be interesting to further investigate: What do private school children perceive Gypsies to be like. After finding this out, it would be interesting to compare the images/data from the research on the perceptions of homelessness and of Gypsies.

It was a little sad that I had to rush my research due to lack of time, but I was still able to gather the data I needed and wanted for my research. It would be great to conduct this research on a larger scale and with more available time. Now that I have some data I think it would be interesting to see whether/how the perceptions change as people get older. It would also be interesting to see if a child’s heritage/other countries of residence have an impact on how they see people who are homeless. A short discussion was started on this as a girl stated that she sometimes thought that her entire country of origin was filled with people who are homeless because there was so much poverty where she came from. Having a large-scale discussion on this topic would be very interesting.

As you can see this topic still interests me quite a lot. There are lots of different questions wizzing around in my head about where else this research could go…I probably should stop thinking about this now though, because I will be able to write a whole second dissertation on this topic if my questions keep coming….never mind the dissertation, I could write a book on this topic….oh oh. Okay, enough on this topic. I am starting to go crazy in thinking about writing dissertations and books and all those things.

Maybe someday.
But that day is not today.
I’ll keep this in mind.

Speaking of keeping things in mind, would you be interested in reading more about this…in a more academic manner? Children’s perceptions of homelessness?