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.

Bullet Journaling

A few months ago, I got myself a Leuchtturn 1917 notebook because I wanted to start bullet journaling. It was an attempt at getting on top of all the things I have to do while simultaneously forcing myself to have a little bit of creative time in the evenings. Since then, I’ve had some good weeks, some bad weeks, and a few weeks where I didn’t even touch the notebook.

For years I have been watching craft videos on youtube (to be honest, it all started with Corinne and Rob’s Threadbanger website and forum when I was 12 or so…). More recently these craft videos turned into art journaling videos, ‘how to make your own notebooks’ videos, and ultimately bullet journal videos. For roughly a week I had been watching way too many ‘plan with me’ videos on an evening, so I decided I would give it a try.

I had quite a few pens, markers, and coloured pencils at home anyway, so it really was just about getting the right notebook. I know I don’t have to have the Leuchtturm 1917 to bullet journal, but I like notebooks and have never had a dotted notebook so wanted to see what it was like (spoiler: it’s amazing).

So I went to Details Arts Centre to get my supplies. Only, they didn’t have what I wanted! So instead, I went to Ryman’s, a good old regular stationary store, and they had what I needed. In two colours. I picked the teal notebook (because teal is pretty), went to the cashier, and then headed into work.

That evening I sat down for a few hours watching more youtube videos and browsing the #bujo world of instagram. After my head was full of ideas I grabbed my pens and notebook and started making a few lists to start off the journal. I did everything I was supposed to do: a monthly log for june, a weekly log for the week, and then made daily logs for each day that week.

I really enjoyed it, but to be honest, I wasn’t going to do that every month…or every week. It ended up taking me a few hours, which I really enjoyed, but I don’t think I’ll be making that much time to organise what is essentially a glorified calendar.

For the first couple of weeks I really enjoyed it and I sat down on a Sunday afternoon to plan my week ahead. But after that I started to crumble. I had a few weeks where I didn’t do anything, and then had a Sunday where I spent more than 3h working on a weekly spread and daily spreads for each day that week. Since I hadn’t worked on my bullet journal for a while, I really enjoyed that process.

In August, I made a monthly tracker page that I really liked. I used elements from June and July that I really liked and wanted to keep going, and used a different design for my mood tracker. I didn’t use this page. At all. To be fair, I wasn’t at home fore 2.5 weeks that month, but still. I didn’t use the tracker before I went on holiday either. When I came back at the end of August, I used my lovely Leuchtturm 1917 as a to-do list. It really wasn’t an appropriate use of the expensive notebook!

So last week I decided to pick it up again. This time however I spent a little less time on it. I used what I had learnt from the various different types of weekly logs that I had made and created something that combined the best elements of each of these. It’s a new month now, but I don’t have a monthly log. I’m not even tracking everything I’m tracking in a monthly cycle. I’m trying a weekly cycle of tracking. I don’t know how it’ll go. And I don’t know if it’ll work. But I’m giving it a try.

I like the way the spread looks, but it didn’t take ages to set up. It’s got enough space for personalisation (I’ve got two little doodles in the bottom corners of the spread), and I’ve got everything I want to track on the page. I’ve also got a section of ‘notes’ for things I need to do at some point during the week (or at some point later) but that I don’t have a designated day to do the things on. I’ve got a ‘focus’ section for three things I need to focus on this week, and a meal planner (because I liked it the one week I had it and used it previously – I’m not sure if I’ll actually be following / using it…but we’ll see).

For each of the days I have an outlined column to write my daily tasks in: daily tasks are a bit strange for me. I love a good to-do list, and like to be very precise about the tasks that I need to get done when I have a lot of things to remember and get done. But when I’m working on a few different big tasks, that becomes hard to do. So I then go through a cycle of writing down fewer tasks that end up taking more time. It’s weird, and I don’t fully understand why I do those two completely different types of to-do lists, but I do. And this week felt like I’m not going to be writing down every little thing I need to do but rather the big tasks I need to work on. It’s weird because it’s harder to tick things off, which in turn makes me feel less accomplished at the end of the day or week. At the same time though, this kind of meta-to-do list is the only thing I can really do at the moment. I’ve got three big things I’m working on, and while each of those can be split into micro tasks, even those micro tasks will take a few hours each to complete – so I don’t have very ‘much’ on my to-do list this week even though I’ve got a fair bit of work to do.

Okay, that’s enough of a rant on to-do lists. Ultimately, this was just a check-in for myself on my bullet journaling. It’s not been the super productive, beautiful notebook I’d hoped it would be, but it’s been a nice learning journey that I hope to continue. I like the process of setting up the pages (even if I don’t do it properly every evening / week), and I like that I can make it look as pretty and detailed or as to-do list-y as I want. It’s a nice thing to play with, and I really really like the dotted notebook. How have I not ever had a dotted notebook before?!

Book chapters are a weird beast to master

I’ve not blogged here for a long time, so again I’m going to say how strange it is to get back into this. This time, I found this title in my ‘drafts’ in the blog post folder, so let’s see where this takes me in the next half hour or so.

Book chapter are a weird beast to master. There are so many different types of books and types of chapters, and it’s all very dependent on discipline and methodology. It’s a weird and complex hodgepodge of words.

Maybe I should explain myself a little before I get too far down the rabbit hole about how weird I think book chapters are. So, essentially I’m a PhD student who’s trying to write words for her dissertation while simultaneously trying to publish my academic work in a number of different formats. I’m working on stuff that is very much at the intersection of HCI and social sciences (and I’m using the term ‘social sciences’ here because I can’t figure out where in the social sciences my work actually fits in quite yet…). Since I’m still not entirely sure whether I want to go into social sciences or HCI after I finish my PhD, I want to try to publish in both spaces, in different formats. I’ve published papers in HCI, and have started going to social science focused conferences recently, but I’ve yet to publish in the social sciences.

That’s about to change!

A few months ago, I received a CfP for a book surrounding sex industry research. One of the sections of the book was something like ‘underresearched areas’ and another one was ‘technologies’. In my head, I think technologies and sex work are generally underresearched so I decided to write an abstract for the ‘underresearched areas’ section of the book.

Writing this abstract took me aaages. I couldn’t quite figure out how I could write what I wanted to write and have it make sense to a social science audience. I hadn’t realised just how much of the language I use in my writing is HCI-specific! So I went through and edited, edited, edited. I re-wrote things, took things out, restructured my abstract until it was the deadline.

To be fair, I probably freaked out much more than I needed to, but I wanted my ‘social science debut’ to be good. A few weeks later I get an e-mail from the editors and as it turns out my abstract was good enough! woop! So I’ll be writing a book chapter for the ‘Handbook of Sex Industry Research’. They did however change my chapter into the ‘technology’ section, which I wasn’t super happy about – but I can see why they did it.

So anyway, a few weeks roll around and I decide to get over my fear and try to figure out how to even start writing a book chapter. I remembered the vast amounts of editing and re-writing it took me to get the abstract into somewhat send-off-able shape, and just tried to have a go at the chapter.

At first, it went really slowly. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, what I was trying to say, or even how to get a start at my chapter. I wrote a few sentences and let it sit for a while. Even though I had months before the deadline, I was starting to get worried that I hadn’t given it a proper go yet, but still couldn’t figure out how to go about doing it. It kept sitting in my head as something that I needed to figure out. It wasn’t something that actively stressed me out or scared me, but it was just this little thing in my mind that, every  now and again, would come up.

One Saturday, pretty randomly, I felt like I wanted to have a proper go at the chapter. I lied in bed thinking about what I wanted to write and it seemed to all make sense. It seemed like I knew what I wanted to write, what pictures I wanted to include, and how I wanted to shape my argument that would be my ‘social science debut’. It would be political and strongly worded, it would be reflexive, show what cool work I’ve been doing, but then also questioning why I did things in a certain way. I got out of bed got ready really quickly and headed outside to go to Pink Lane Coffee. I ordered my flat white, sat down on their brown leather couch, and had a go. I started with writing notes in my notebook, then developed a skeleton for the chapter in a word document and then had a go at writing the thing. I spent hours that day writing away, not really re-reading what I had written – just getting words on the page. I ended up with more than 5,000 words that day and still wasn’t completely finished. But I left it at that.

I don’t really remember what I did the rest of that day, but I’m pretty sure I slept well that night.

After having that start on the chapter, I felt good about it for a few weeks – I thought I had figured it out and was happy with what I had written, knowing that I had a lot of work left on it (I had still to write the conclusion, for example). So I let a few weeks pass again before I had another go at it. This time I picked up a printed out copy of the words I had written that Saturday that I had lying on my desk and started to have a go through it. I put it down almost instantly as I realised how bad the words I had written were.

Instead of being discouraged by this, I told myself: at leat you’ve got words down. Words are editable. You can re-write the whole thing, but at least you’ve got an outline that somewhat makes sense, and at least you’ve got words. You can edit them.

I don’t remember whether it was a few days or weeks later, but I had to go to a cafe again to get this sorted. This time I sat in the Settle Down Cafe and took the chapter and a pen out of my bag. A sip of my flat white, a deep breath, and then I started. I don’t think a single sentence was left in tact from my initial chapter. Almost all the pictures were deleted, and the structure changed drastically. It was a pretty  heavy re-write of what I had done on that long Saturday in Pink Lane Coffee. But this time I actually felt good about it.

I had essentially hand-written the entire chapter through my edits on the printed out page; many of my notes were now only legible to me, and the arrows and asterix’ stopped making sense after a while.

After a change in scenery I decided to try to type up what my hand had spilled on the page – I went through all of my notes, typing things up as I went along. Trying to decipher what I was trying to say wasn’t always easy, and I changed a few things in the process of typing them up, but it kept me going. I had something on paper that I just had to type up – this wasn’t a hard task, it was do-able. Much of the hard work (to this stage) was already done.

So I typed and edited, and had another read over, and changed many things again, and then changed some more before I was happy enough with it to send it to my co-authors and supervisors. It’s still not done, and I’m still not 100% happy with it (and I don’t know if I ever will be), but I’m in a good place with it now.

What was hardest however, was trying to write in such a different style and for such a different audience. A book is written so differently from a paper. Even though I actually have less space in the chapter than I would in a CHI paper, the format makes me want to write more reflexively; it makes me want to explain things more and not cram everything into a single paragraph or sentence. The different referencing format (Harvard as opposed to the ACM CHI format) makes me want to reference fewer papers, but spend more time explaining them and how they relate to my argument. It makes me slow down, think, and really appreciate the words I put on the page.

It’s weird.

I think working on this chapter is helping me re-calibrate the way I write. It’s helped me start to write for my dissertation. I know the dissertation is yet another type of writing with yet another audience and yet another purpose, but the way I want write about my work seems to be closer to how I am working on this book chapter than how I work on CHI papers. I don’t think I can really explain why (yet)…but for now, that’s where I’m going to leave it. An open-ended sense of wonder as to what my dissertation is going to look like, and how writing in different formats has helped me see my work through different eyes. It’s helped me look at different things, and it’s developed me as someone who puts words on a page.

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?”


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!

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.

Finishing bits of writing is hard, but possible (thanks to great support networks)

Yesterday was a strange day. This whole week was a little bit weird. I didn’t actually do very much, but felt very accomplished. It was a weird situation where I had been working towards a couple of things that I finally felt the courage to finish off. I have a problem with finishing things off, in that I don’t like doing it, and avoid it whenever possible. That’s why I have so many unfinished pieces of knitting on spare needles and pieces of yarn, it’s why I have so many paper outlines and so few finished articles. It’s why I have four potential outlines for different chapters of my PhD, and it’s why I have so many stacks of papers and notes on my desk.

So, I’ve been working on editing a journal article post-reviews, have been sitting on an abstract for a book chapter, I’ve re-written my rejected CHI paper, and have been meaning to write an abstract for the HaSS PGR showcase. I’m sitting on a couple of paper ideas with half-formed argumentations and outlines, and am constantly trying to figure out how all my work fits together to form a coherent PhD dissertation argument.

On Tuesday I met with my supervisor to have a chat about the journal paper followed by an update of what I’ve been working on, thinking about, and writing.

On Wednesday it was international women’s day, and while I’m usually not one to over-celebrate holidays, this year was a little bit different. With everything that’s happened this year, and my growing involvement in activist groups such as yarnbombing for solidarity,, and most recently the North East Women’s huddle it felt a lot more powerful to me. Usually, I quite liked international women’s day because it meant that even those that were generally not so great towards women at least made a tokenistic approach to be nice to the women in their lives. This year however it felt powerful. I have built a network of powerful, supportive, and brilliant women around me – and we all sent each other supportive messages on various social media channels (but let’s be honest, it was mostly through snapchat…).

I’ve been working on trying to finish things, have been working towards finishing off various bits and bobs of writing and editing, and had a major power- and solidarity-boost on Wednesday, so I guess it only makes sense that Thursday would be the day I finish stuff. Upon reflection, it makes sense, really. Right?

This is where I come back to what I wrote in the beginning, that I really hadn’t done too much, but felt accomplished. I’ve been working on all these different bits of writing and editing for months and weeks, but it was yesterday that it all came together. I submitted the edited version of the journal paper, sent in my book chapter abstract, wrote an initial draft of the abstract for the HaSS PGR showcase, and the most recent PhD outline makes sense in my head again. It really was a culmination of a lot of hard work, but I think most importantly it was a coming together of my unintentional support network of amazing people, and a few continuous days of fabulous support from a number of different social and academic levels.

Thank you. Thank you to all the amazing women whose shoulders I can stand on, and thank you to my supervisor for reading and commenting on all the different drafts of papers I send your way. Thank you to everyone who marched and protested and made pussyhats for international women’s day. I really think it is about confidence, and I continue to build mine. Not a day goes by that I feel like I’m faking it, that I really shouldn’t be here, and that I somehow managed to weasel my way into doing a PhD, that I have no idea what I’m talking about. I work too much, and have too many #phdweekends. But I’m sick of romanticising the overworked PhD student. I take time off. I’m sick of romanticising this idea that I should be quiet about my accomplishments. I write about them and text my friends.

This week I accomplished two amazing things. I fully understand that the book abstract will most probably be rejected (it’s a bit left-field, and also, I have no idea what I’m doing), but have decent hopes for the post-review (major revisions) journal paper.  So let’s just say I’ve had a good week, and wanted to make sure to capture this so I have somewhere to look back on next week. Of course I’ll have good and bad weeks, but I’m going to try to learn from this week. To celebrate the small successes and to be vocal about them. To continue to have supportive, celebratory, and emoji-laden conversations with other women that go something like this:

There are very few things that are more powerful than women supporting women