Monthly Archives: September 2012

Dude, where’s my pen?

I’ve lost my pen.

This might not seem like a disastrous situation to many. After all, while I’m a writer, surely I don’t write everything out with pen and paper. I mean, what century are we in??

Well, it is a big deal. It is my favourite pen. It was a present from my late grandmother, so it has sentimental value. I have appalling handwriting, and there are many pens I just cannot write legibly with, but I have used this one for a long time, so we are as comfortable together as a pair of old shoes. We have also been through a lot together. It accompanied me the whole way through my PhD, underlining key phrases, scribbling fieldnotes, writing notes at conferences, jotting down eureka moments on the move, or at 4am, whenever they struck. It has survived so many demanding research encounters, from infant classrooms to dementia care wards, that now to lose it in my house somewhere is infuriatingly mundane.

The long and the short of it is that I will either need to turn my house upside down in order to find it. Not appealing. Or I will have to go out and find a new pen. Heart wrenching.

There is a point lurking somewhere in this personal tale of woe. I’ve been fairly unsettled by this seemingly slight turn of events, now that might appear silly to some, but the fact is that it’s broken my stride a bit. It’s a little niggling thing that I notice whenever I reach for my pen and it’s not there. It’s like a little scratch that I can’t leave alone so it doesn’t heal. I think it is a part of a delicate thing that we all construct to help us administer our lives, which is routine.

Whether or not we realise it we all have our routines. Little things which we do in the same or similar way, or at the same time, on a regular basis. I would think the majority of people are aware of many of their own little routines – getting up at the same time, to go to work at the same time and place, where we all start the day in the same way, by turning on our computer, hanging up our coat and making ourselves a cup of coffee in our usual mug. Ok, this is a little glib, but you get the idea. But then I think even for those of us who are well aware of our routines, there are still more that lurk somewhere beneath consciousness, things that we are not really aware that we do in a patterned and predictable manner.

I also think we sometimes don’t understand the power of a routine, until we find it is not there anymore.

Routines are immensely powerful little strategies. They enable us to be the productive little nodes that we all can be. And taking them away can bring you to the edge of abyss. They are the rhythms through which we experience our lives, our selves.

I’ve written a fair bit about routine. When I first went into working in infant classrooms for my PhD research, routine was one of the ways I started to make sense of life in the classroom. And that is exactly what they do. They organise, they make sense, they rationalise. Thus the argument that I began to develop was that the manner in which the school child had their day organised for them – the time/space regularities of the school day, the uniform, the rules of interaction, the behaviour codes, etc., were all designed to internalise a sense of the right way to do school, the right way to be. Once there is a clear sense of what is right then those who don’t ‘fit’ are made clearly visible. Thus, routine is a fundamental principle of inclusion and exclusion. If you want to read the full version of this argument you can do so here or there is an older, not as good, but free, version here.

My scholarly interest in routines has also driven a personal love/hate affair with them. While I recognise the productive potential of a routine, and I have many of my own, I am still bothered by the somewhat disembodied nature of the routine. It feels like they require us to place a little bit of control for ourselves, a little bit of our personal sense of agency, into something impersonal, outside ourselves. I worry that we can become overly dependant on these little objectified parts of ourselves. I worry that the web they construct can become a very significant in providing us with an everyday sense of security, a sense of ourselves.

Then there are all the implications of the argument about the routine being a means of inclusion or exclusion. I worry about the manner in which I make myself visible via the routines that I either subconsciously accept or reject. Consumer behaviour makes an obvious example. To what extent can some clever marketer come along and simply map me around a supermarket? Or those ‘reccomendation’ pages that you get on places like Amazon. They bug me.

If routines are essentially about rhythm, then think about the power of the algorithm. Amazon and Last FM might be among the most benign uses of these – what about insurance companies?

Now, it is not my intention to instil a debilitating sense of paranoia in anybody. But, I’ve always thought that paranoia becomes a lot less irrational when we think about the forces well beyond our control or comprehension that we are subject to. So, a productive skepticism about routines, I think, reflects a healthy sense of paranoia.

I still use them of course, but they can be a bit like rights, they can clash.

I know the best times of day for me to write is between about 6am and 10am and the best places to do so is at home. However, I also know that being in the office from 9-5 is the best means of ensuring I’m up to speed with work. And there’s the clash, and one of my fundamental sources of Doctoral Nostalgia – writing gets squeezed out by the day job. True, I could get up at 5am, do three hours writing then get on the train to work and be there by about 9.30. But then I would have to go to bed at about 9pm, and that clashes with my swimming routine, and if I don’t do any exercise I become far too apathetical to even consider 5am a reasonable time to get up in the morning.

Routines can take you beyond yourself. How many clashes does it take before you reach your elastic limit?

Nevertheless, they can be handy little designs for life.

I know that if I read some fiction everyday then I will read more, not less, academic literature as well.

I know that if I do some form of exercise everyday then I will be happier.

I know that my coffee tastes better from my favourite mug.

I know that losing my favourite pen leaves me with a deeply unsettling sense of ontological insecurity.

Odd sort aren’t we?

Deep in Digital Distraction

This piece was inspired by a short report I read on Big Think, which asked: ‘Does Digital Distraction Stunt Your Creativity?’. You can read it yourself here.

The question in itself is quite interesting to me. I know there are times when I am particularly vulnerable to digital distraction – usually when I have some large, difficult, or simply annoying task to achieve. Writing is a fine example. Writing is hard work for all sorts of reasons. It’s hard to find the right words, not simply because complex realities defy description, but because every word put down is a part of you, part of your identity as a scholar, they represent you, they carry your hopes and aspirations. When writing is going well it can feel like a mystical process is in flow, where the words are simply tumbling off the ends of your fingers. When it is going badly, it feels like you are trying to scrape a fountain pen the wrong way over sandpaper, it jars, it frustrates, it physically hurts. At such times it can be very tempting to take a break, some light relief, and what better way than to simply swap one virtual window for another, and find yourself in the comforting anonymity of the world wide web.

The web has contributed to much transformation in the way we live, work, relate, and relax. As I have written before, here, the web has certainly transformed research, through organising and making instantly available a world of scholarly resources which previosuly would have required arduous hunting among the library stacks, and then cataloguing manually. Nevertheless, with promise comes danger. I think there are several ways in which the internet is a dangerous medium for scholars, and one that requires cautious, reflective, engagement.

Firstly, as the Big Think piece suggests, it does not tend to be a very productive distraction. I know from bitter personal experience that if the first thing you do when you turn on your computer is check your email then your day will be less productive than if you just go straight in and start writing. I think this is one of the reasons why early mornings were always my favourite writing times – early, like 5 or 6am, in my dressing gown, in my home office, which is a little attic room with a sky light and walls of overcrowded shelves. If I started early and started well – i.e. without distractions, I could often turn out 1 or 2 thousand words before lunch. Then I could spend the afternoon catching up with email, researching new resources, and editing and shaping what I’d written that morning. This is all in the past tense for a reason, part of my ongoing sense of doctoral nostalgia, but that’s another story.

Writing is not the only example. I’m currently analysing around 70 interview transcripts for my current project. Now I really enjoy analysis, it is one of the ‘proper’ bits of research, where you really get to engage and try and make sense of this mass of data in front of you. But it’s tough. There’s loads of data. And there is loads you could say about each and every sentence. Therefore it takes a long time and it takes intense concentration. The internet can seem like a perfect way to give yourself a rest every now and then, but I know that once this route is taken, then that concentration will never quite go back to what it was before, and the gaps of productivity in between surfing breaks will get shorter and shorter. Much better to have a little walk around, make yourself a cup of tea (non-caffeinated if this is going to be an all day session), get some fresh air, unplug. Much as I mistrust external forms of discipline, I would be very interested in finding out more about the ‘Freedom’ software referenced in the Big Think piece, which somehow, prevents your computer from tapping into any online resources while you have it running. Much as I feel like this might be philosophically contemptable – a sort of Clockwork Orange-like intervention – I am all too aware of my inability to regulate myself in this regard, so I might just give in to it.

Secondly, the internet is a dangerous place for the kinds of things we can learn on it and the manner in which that learning takes place. Merely having access to a greater quantity of more diverse resources does not necessarily make you better informed. The unverifiable nature of much that comes through the web is certainly something to be wary of for anyone engaging it for scholarly purposes. Then there is the old cliche that ‘less is more’. This can be proved valid when you find yourself with such an excess of resources that your original purpose is lost in the myre. If you are looking to contribute to knowledge then it is essential to define your research questions really closely, and then really narrow your online searches to match your requirements. Otherwise you will end up trying to account for the whole stinking universe and you will drown in it.

Keeping with this second concern, but branching out from the practical need to focus for depth, I am interested in the slightly messier conceptual world of depth, and whether the internet can offer it. I know very little about how our brains work in the language of neurochemisty. But what I do know, or think I know about synaptic exchange, has given me an image of our brains as being a little like an Edwardian telephone exchange, in which a conversation between two sides can only take place if an operator makes a meaningful link between them. Thus I think, brain chemistry, and therefore knowledge, is fundamentally about connections. I find this image holds some water if we apply it to making a scholarly argument. A good focussed argument for a 5000 word paper, for example, really only has to make one point. However, in making one point we have to draw on and link a range of resources and try to connect several ideas together, then we have to piece it together in 5 or 6 moves, which again need to be seemlessly connected. The importance of signposting in academic writing undelines the importance of these connections, they are your telephone operators: ‘this is where I’ve been, this is where I’m going, this is how I’m making the transition’. Click. And you’re through.

So, connection. That also seems to be fairly fundamental to the internet. I think you could safely say that it is the dominant metaphor when thinking through the virtual. One requires a connection, once one has a safe, reliable and speedy connection, one can make a world of connections at the merest click of a mouse. And yes, the internet is a great big dizzying world of potential for knowledge. However, I worry about it. I worry that quantity can take over from quality. That the kind of knowledge to be gained from endless skating across the surface of many different debates is rather thin and superficial. And this is the kind of working that the internet seems to encourage. There are always more links, more resources, more chains, more connections. Yet, we rarely land on something that moves a debate beyond,  more often finding ourselves moved further across. This of course is not an inescapable state of affairs, but something we have to be very wary of if we are to avoid it and achieve depth of engagement with a given subject.

Lastly, the internet is dangerous because much as it might appear to be an anonymous, private little world of your own, it is not. Perhaps this is something that people are more aware of now that most of us have been exposed to the storm of spam that follows allowing your first Facebook app to access your personal information. Yet we carry on doing it. Online information, far from being ‘merely’ virtual, can be very difficult to conceal, and impossible to kill. That means that if you are representing yourelf online in some way, particularly for occupational purposes, then you’d better be pretty damn careful about what you say. We all say things we regret from time to time. The internet allows those things to come back and bite you.

I would not advise anybody to stay away from the internet as a means to accomplish any of the things that I have written about here. I use Facebook and Twitter, I’m Linked-In, on Google Plus, I have an online research profile, and I have a blog (which is currently distracting me from my ‘real’ work), and I spend hours a day trawling through online databases trying to find new words on my topics of interest. I merely warn those who do so to do so reflectively, and to remember these wise words from Michel Foucault, which I take with me everywhere:

‘Nothing is inherently evil…everything is dangerous’

The Big ‘C’ of Contract Research

I have loads of many more apparently interesting topics to blog about at the moment, but I am simply too busy for words. So I’ve got a short piece to write about a topic which is unusually of great interest to me at the moment, and that’s the ‘contract’ bit of contract research. Why is this unusually interesting to me at the moment? Because mine is about to be terminated.

So. This is the sharp end. The reality of all contracts. They end. The end of a contract, like the end of a life is very much a part of that life, it infuses it through and through, to paraphrase the sublime Yukio Mishima, it is almost like the end is the only reality of a contract’s life, who’s true meaning is tending to that end.

But, enough lyricism. I have come to learn a little bit about tending to the very end. Mostly through mistakes, but this is a pretty good way to learn. My situation at the moment is a slightly complex one, but certainly not unusual, so I’ll tell you my predicament and maybe I’ll have a few pointers to offer at the end.

My contract is due to expire at the end of December this year. My boss very much wants to keep me on, and we have been having discussions in the last few weeks and months about how this might be secured. As there is no major project funding in the pipeline it is going to be a case of trying to piece together an extension, possibly from a few different funding sources. As a team we were approached by one of our current research partners, asking us to do some consultation work, and we have since sent back a proposal which would give me six months full time salary. This was certainly very fortunate, but I’m not quite ready to sit back on my laurels, because we do not have anything formally agreed yet, and we are now getting very close to the time when my official termaination of contract will be issued, which is usually 3 months before the end of contract.

I’m not too worred though. And there are a few reasons for this. Firstly, being issued with notice of termination of contract is not the same as having one’s contract terminated. There is three months between the two and if anything can be formally agreed in the meantime then the termination will be withdrawn. This gives us three months to badger our research partner for some formal sign off, if this looks like not coming through (and it really needs to soon for me to be happy) then my boss reckons he can get hold of about three month’s salary for me, and it also gives me three months on the redeployment register, so if both the first two options falls through.

Being on the redeployment register means that I will be given the opportunity to apply for jobs I am qualified for before they are advertised externally. If I apply for a job and I meet the essential criteria then I am guaranteed shortlisting for interview. It’s a pretty good system, but does have its flaws. There is no guarantee for example that I would stay at the same level of responsibility and salary than I am now. There are also some organisational politics often at work, where such and such in the sociology department doesn’t want to employ the internal candidate from the business school, but rather wants an external sociology candidate, and writes the job description accordingly.

The other fact is I don’t particularly want to move away from my current team. I like it. Sure I don’t want to stay in the business school for ever, but if I could stay on for 3 – 6 months and write a load of papers out of my current work and perhaps collaborate with them in a major funding bid then those would be significant feathers in my cap, and would give me intellectual closure on the project – which is going to overrun whether I am still employed on it or not.

The other reason I am not *too* stressed out (and I place those aserisks there to tell you that this is still a rather nasty situation to be in) is that I have been having these conversations with my line manager for some time. I have made sure, despite all our busy schedules, that he is behind me, that he knows what he is required to do in terms of the official procedure, and that he is doing it. I guess I really am getting used to the whole ‘managing up’ thing. But seriously, when it comes to termaination of contract, you need to make sure you are receving this support, because the great big organisational wheels turn slowly and without a senior member of staff helping to push them along for you, they will grind to a halt.

The very most important thing I have learnt from experience though is make sure that you own this procedure yourself. Make sure you know all your rights. Make sure you are in conversation with HR if you have any issues, and even get an employment rep in if you don’t feel like you are getting the kind of support from management or from the wider organisation that you require.

I have not owned this process in the past. I’ve been guilty of denial with contractural processes and allowed the wheels to turn all by themselves and it has worked out badly for me. One time I had been working on a project, which had been extended, and then we had been given a bit of extra work by the PI from their own personal research account. However, I made the mistake of not ensuring I was given an extension of contract, but rather a new contract was made and so officially I had my contract terminated – even though I started a new one the same day. As far as the organisation was concerned I was then a new member of staff, not an existing member with 18 months service.  Most universities allow for temporary contracts to become permanent after 4 years service – so that’s pretty much your pot of gold as a contract researcher –  and so not taking ownership of this process put me back to the beginning of that chase.

You are always aware that a contract is going to end. Do not let this draw you into fatalism or denial. Make sure you have a plan of action and that you have the right people behind you to make it happen.