Category Archives: Academic community

Who cares about the college servant?

A previous post on ‘Looking for the tradesman’s entrance’ briefly dwells on the notion of ‘service’ in the context of college, university and town communities. In asking what we mean by ‘being in’ and ‘being of’ service, I draw upon the Oxford English Dictionary which understandably focuses on the utilitarian nature of the act. Whilst there is reference to ‘helping or benefiting’ and to ‘friendly action’, there is scant consideration of whether or not a service is provided with care. One can of course be ‘in’ or ‘of’ service without caring.

My early conversations with retired college staff however, reveal just how much they do care. I spoke recently to a retired college bedder who sounded remarkably like a parent as she vehemently declared her loyalty to her charges, saying she would, “defend them to the hilt!” There were times when this bedder performed the role of surrogate mother, as no doubt many did. I certainly remember my Nanna, Ethel Driver, talking fondly of her ‘boys’ at Jesus College in the 1970s.

Just this week, a Queen’s College alumnus described the vital role his bedder played when he came up to Cambridge as an undergraduate in 1959. Without her prompting he would never have got up in the morning.

Sound familiar?

Enid Porter, Curator of the Cambridge and County Folk Museum from 1947 to 1976, states in her book on Cambridgeshire Customs & Folklore that the bedders of today (1969) are devoted to the undergraduates in their care and take a keen interest in their well-being. She says there are known instances of women turning up for work even though their husbands had died during the preceding night. One such woman, on being told she should not have come replied, ‘I had to; the exams are on and I had to be here to see after my gentlemen.’

In loco parentis

It’s perhaps not surprising that retired tutor Ken Riley entitled his Clare College memoire, In Loco Parentis: a light-hearted look at the role of a Cambridge tutor (2016). Riley acknowledges that the expression ‘in loco parentis’, in referring to the responsibilities normally associated with parenthood, may not be totally appropriate in the light of the age of majority being reduced in 1970 to eighteen years. Technically, all university students are adults. He does, however, still see the tutor role as guide, mentor and even ‘friend at court’ if the worst comes to the worst.

There were occasions when Riley, in his role as Rooms Tutor, had to discipline students (do parents not discipline their children?). He describes in some detail one such time when he received a report from the Domestic Bursar on the state of a flat occupied by three students,

‘in many ways, worst of all, [was] their lack of concern for the feelings of the bedmaker (bedder) who looks after and cleans the flat… the Domestic Bursar would not have visited the flat at all if their behaviour had not brought the bedder near to tears; it was his duty to investigate anything that upset any member of the College Staff.’

Riley demanded written assurance that the students had apologised to the bedmaker but some three weeks later just one had done so and two had never tried to find her to apologise, even though she came into the flat every weekday morning. Their ‘insulting’ excuse was that they were never up until nearly eleven o’clock at the earliest. A written apology was then sent to the bedder but they had made it impossible for her to resume her normal cleaning duties. After further developments, the College Master became involved and the three were exiled. That is, required to move out of Clare housing to non-college property.

For many of course it’s a different story and there are Cambridge alumni who keep in touch with their fondly remembered bedder or landlady, long after moving on. Billie Allinson’s mother, Mrs Bass, was a Hostelkeeper at Clare College’s Braeside for thirty-one years and is pictured in Clare Through the Twentieth Century (2001) with some of her students at the time of their matriculation in 1959 and then at a 1989 reunion in Mrs Bass’ eightieth year. Billie, who also worked at Clare College, still receives Christmas cards from her mother’s former charges.

In this post I reflect on who cares about the bedder. There are of course different perspectives to explore on the topic of college servants and a number of themes are already emerging from my early conversations.

Collecting your memories and stories

I plan to write a book that focuses on the period from 1900 to the present day. By ‘servants’, I don’t just mean bedders but also other staff such as butlers, porters, handymen, gardeners, buttery and pantry staff, and landladies.

As with This book is about Heffers (2016), my aim is to blend living memory with the desk research in order to create what I hope will be an informative and interesting portrait.

I’d be delighted to hear if you worked at a college and would be willing to tell me about your experience. Also, if you have a memory of college servants to share, no matter how fleeting.

Or maybe you have thoughts on the topic of college servants generally?

In researching the history of Heffers of Cambridge I had face-to-face and telephone conversations with former and current staff, customers and authors. People also kindly shared their stories via letters and emails. And contributions can be anonymised.

My email address is julie@gottahavebooks.co.uk

And do say hello to Ethel and Ivy

My Nanna worked at Jesus as a bedder for many years. And yet the college has no trace of her existence. This is not uncommon. Here she is with her sister, Ivy, who also worked as a bedder.

Ethel & Ivy

 

Looking for the tradesman’s entrance

Whilst giving talks on the history of Heffers of Cambridge, I’m reminded that many have memories of the firm. I enjoy sharing stories from the book and hearing anecdotes from members of the audience who were customers, authors, or employees.

Earlier this year, I received a communication from Sandor P. Vaci RIBA, who worked for the architects Austin Smith: Lord, at the time they were transforming Heffers’ Trinity Street premises into the radical new ‘University and General’ bookshop, opened by Lord Butler in 1970.

Sandor is kindly sharing his memories and images from the project, and I’m looking forward to meeting him later this year to hear more. A Hungarian born British architect who has lived in London since the 1956 Revolution, Sandor has many interests including cultural connections and sharing the public space.

He has put together a gallery of Budapest ‘portas’ (doors and doorways), from the city’s historic centre. As he says, the individually designed portas show astonishing variety, exuberance, originality and craftsmanship rarely found in other cities. It’s a lovely collection.

1930s modernist design. The coloured porthole grid and the Bauhaus composition makes this entrance unique.

It’s interesting to note Sandor’s observation that the doorways into residential blocks were single entries: all the residents, servants, tradesmen, deliveries and rubbish removals passed through (no back door or tradesman’s entrance for them).

As I start to work on my next social history project, on college service in the twentieth century, I’m prompted to wonder if the college servants used the same entrances as everyone else.

My aim is to explore the notion of ‘service’, in the context of college, university and town communities in Cambridge. As Alex Saunders from the Cambridge Antiquarian Society said to me recently, it’s a huge topic. My husband, Trevor, says it sounds like another doctoral research proposal (my first – and only PhD, was on the topic of community inside higher education).

When opening the door to a new project, I like to begin by contemplating the broader questions and possibilities. For this topic, some of the questions are informed by my own direct experience of working in higher education and of researching the field. Here are a few:

What do we mean by ‘service’, by ‘being in’ service and by ‘being of’ service?
The condition of being a servant; the fact of serving a master?
The condition, station, or occupation of being a servant?
A particular employ; the serving of a certain master or household?
Performance of the duties of a servant; attendance of servants; work done in obedience to and for the benefit of a master?
To do, bear (one) service, to serve, attend on (a master)?
An act of serving; a duty or piece of work done for a master or superior?
An act of helping or benefiting; an instance of beneficial or friendly action; a useful office?
Waiting at table, supply of food; hence, supply of commodities, etc?
Provision (of labour, material appliances, etc.) for the carrying out of some work for which there is a constant public demand?

(with thanks to the OED)

What roles in this context would be classified as ‘college servants’?
Bedder; porter; gyp; butler; waiter; clerk; librarian?

Who is ‘serving’ whom?
Individuals serving individuals?
Individuals serving institutions?
Institutions serving society?
Society serving institutions?
Institutions serving individuals?
Individuals serving individuals?

What is the impact of the changing undergraduate population during the twentieth century?
The demographic and size of the population changed dramatically between 1900 and 2000.

What is the impact of changes in the role of colleges and universities in society during the twentieth century?
A complex and weathered terrain, the sector saw sweeping changes during this period.

A family in service

Like many who were raised in Cambridge, members of my family were ‘in college service’.

My Nanna, Ethel Lily Driver (1914-2006), lived in Christchurch Street and was a ‘bedder’ at Jesus College. Her mother, Lily Ethel Parsons (1895-1952) who lived in Ross Street, is listed on the 1939 Register as a ‘college help’.

My great-grandmother, Henrietta Saunders (1877-1971) who lived in the old dairy in Gold Street, was a ‘bedder’ at Queens College. Her husband, George Saunders (1873-1965) was a ‘general labourer’ who, as the story goes, once stood back to admire his own work on the roof of the Senate House.

Thankfully, he survived the fall.

A surprise move for Bryan

One of three fictional vignettes contained in my doctoral thesis,

‘The academy and community: seeking authentic voices inside higher education’,

The full thesis can be accessed via this link –

https://ueaeprints.uea.ac.uk/id/eprint/58557

Bryan needed the paper that he’d left in his office at Greystone. He took one more look through his briefcase, despite knowing full well that the paper was still on his desk. He could visualize exactly where he had left it, next to the bright yellow desk tidy his colleague, Wendy, had given him for Christmas. Downloading the paper online was pointless – what Bryan really needed were the crucial, yet elusive, notes he had scribbled on a hard copy the day before his departure. He had been away for almost a month now, and was preparing for his third consecutive international keynote. It was no good.  Barbara, his wife and veteran Greystone researcher, would just have to go in and retrieve it.

Following his call, Barbara made her way to the Social Science building. Standing in the corridor, she felt light headed and wheezy.   She couldn’t decide what was making her feel sick. Perhaps it was the fumes from the emulsion. The breezeblock walls, it seemed, had been liberated from their bleak façade; a façade keenly unobserved by Barbara day in and day out for almost four decades, until now. How white they looked. How bright and clean. Equally, it could be the glue from the newly fitted plush blue carpet showered in tiny gold crest motifs. Soft underfoot and very unlike the brown rush matting that always so neatly soaked up the drips from spent umbrellas on rainy days.

Barbara planned to be quickly in and out but there seemed to be problem with the lock. As she stood there trying not to think about being sick, she tried the key again and then fumbled around in her bag, feeling flustered. She couldn’t believe it wasn’t the right key yet felt compelled to look for another. ‘Damn’, she said to herself, out loud. ‘He really has given me the wrong one’. She put her bag down and phoned Bryan. She’d no idea what time of day it might be at his end.

‘You do have the right key, don’t you?’ asked Bryan.

‘Yes,’ snapped Barbara

‘The one with the blue tab from my spare set’

‘Yes. It doesn’t work,’ said Barbara

‘Have you tried wriggling it?’

‘Yes, of course I’ve tried wriggling it.’

‘You need to push harder. It sticks sometimes.’

‘Bryan, I know how to open a door. The key doesn’t fit.’

‘Well, that’s ridiculous. How are we going to get the bloody paper? I can hardly come back from Brazil.  Wait! Wendy will have a key.  She’s always got spares.’

Hanging up, Barbara shuffled down the corridor, heading for Wendy’s office.  She turned the corner and stopped.  Her progress was halted by a clear glass wall painted with three towering white letters which she read out loud, ‘HUB.’

Inside there was a sign hanging from the ceiling, which read: ‘Learning & Teaching Hub: the key to your success.’

Walking through a roped off section which reminded her of the post office but without the queue – there was no-one else around – she reached a pristine counter, behind which sat a smart young girl who welcomed Barbara with a big smile,

‘Hi, how can I help you?’

‘I need to access Bryans’ office and he’s given me the wrong key. There’s a master key. Could I borrow it?’

The girl looked puzzled.  ‘No office here.  You can see we’re open plan… whose office?’

Barbara glanced back out into the corridor. ‘Out there… second door on the right?’

The girl shook her head.

‘Where’s Wendy?  She’ll know what I’m talking about,’ said Barbara

‘Sorry, there’s no one called Wendy working here.’

‘But I really need to get into Bryan’s office.’

Perplexed, the girl called a colleague over and asked her if she knew the whereabouts of a Wendy and also, an office belonging to someone called Bryan.

‘Ah yes,’ said the second woman. ‘Do you mean that rather quaint elderly gentleman who used to pop in and chat with Wendy before she left?   He did have an office here but that was cleared out a couple of weeks ago.  It’s now the Hub storeroom.  There were some old papers but I think they were put in one of the PGR cupboards.’

Barbara, feeling even more flustered and not quite knowing how to react, just wanted to get the paper and leave.

‘Is the PGR room still there?’  She was beginning to wonder.

‘Yes, of course.’

Barbara made her way out of the Hub, beyond what had been Bryan’s office, and stood outside the PGR room.  To her frustration, she didn’t have the combination for the keypad.

Back at the Hub she was told that as she wasn’t a postgraduate researcher, she couldn’t have the number.  Being the partner of an internationally renowned professor who supervises postgraduate researchers didn’t cut any ice.

No status.  No access.  No office.  No paper.

Learning & Teaching Hub 

Were you ever subjected to a surprise move?

We are not just ranked in the top; we are in the top 20 ranking

‘We are not just ranked in the top; we are in the top 20 ranking’

In writing my PhD thesis on the topic of the idea and experience of academic community, I followed Andrew Sparkes’ less traditional approach and produced three fictional vignettes, aimed a revealing elements of academic life within a fictional setting. All three pieces illustrate the institutional culture of contemporary higher education, or as observed, it’s brutality and crassness.  They also illustrate the day-to-day lives of the research participants. Bryan (an emeritus professor) is subject to a surprise move as, in his absence, his office (and his status) is eradicated; Jonathon (an academic leader) introduces a new member of staff to a different way of meeting the team, and the Vice-Chancellor gives an address that is steeped in the language of excellence that pervades the institutional discourse, a language from which there is no escape.

The Vice-Chancellor’s address, given below, is made up from phrases selected from the official corporate narrative of the University of Greystone, the site of the research. The confidence of the institutional discourse is emblematic of the grand narrative that tends to be a strong feature of universities today.

Greystone itself is included as a player in the research, with an articulated position in relation to idea of community. The institution is given a voice by the selection and presentation of corporate documents, including a number of corporate plans. Thirty-one letters from the Vice-Chancellor to all university staff were also analysed. Written in the first person, the letters reveal something about the character of the Vice-Chancellor as a person, through the way in which he chooses to convey his message, his observations and the language he uses. Through them he appears to be speaking directly to the staff and is creating an impression of sharing an almost intimate perspective on what is happening. The (not so) fictional address below, however, is less intimate and evokes what Readings described as the ‘University of Excellence’.

The Vice-Chancellor of Greystone gives an address.

‘Let me state at the outset that it is our leadership that is at the forefront of an outstanding reputation. The major contributions we shall make will undoubtedly be our greatest impact. Our particular strength is that we are well equipped for the pursuit of excellence. We are agenda setting internationally, avowedly ambitious and world-leading due to exceptional strengths that make us world-class. Being among the best with our high-quality, high-achieving and highest standards, which are undeniably of the highest quality and thereby market-leading at a high-level. This high-class and high-impact status must be the highest possible. Our highest ambitions, driven by the highest calibre leadership, enable the highest achievements and therefore the highest possible global influence. Inevitably this highest possible performance from our high performing team ensures a high academic engagement. From such a high base we can gain an edge. Our standards will be ratcheted up, supported by a long and proud history with its international distinction making us excellent in our excellence. This excellent achievement, regarded by all as an exemplar of good practice, is not just exemplary but is regarded as internationally excellent. Being internationally recognised, and being internationally aware, our international significance ensures us the strongest international position. Such international recognition of our extraordinary potential keeps us firmly in the top, in the top flight and on the top tier. And we are not just ranked in the top; we are in the top 20 ranking. Recognised as globally strong, the University excels and we can contribute equally with the best universities in the world. And this enviable reputation delivers an exceptional education, and with excellent research our excellent achievement is second to none. Building on the successes, which put us well within the world top 100, our intellectual power and influence obliges us to play a leading role. Our consistent top-20 ranking is an outstanding contribution, which is ranked in the top quartile. Being successful, inevitably there is public good flowing from what we do. This public good ensures a strong culture and our pioneering work in this area is a powerful combination, and a powerful platform. We are, simply, inspiring and innovative.’

What phrases would you suggest to make this excellent address more excellent?

 

Confident, not corporate: the way to a ‘no corrections’ PhD

Confident, not corporate: the way to a ‘no corrections’ PhD

We’ve all had that recurring fantasy, the one where the examiners pronounce that we have passed the viva with ‘no corrections’. In my case, I was convinced that it would remain just that, pure fantasy. Then, on 27th November 2015, it became a reality. I had passed with ‘no corrections’.

I couldn’t believe it and my examiners said, ‘what did you expect?’  A few days later I received their formal report which stated,

‘The thesis was very impressive and was well-defended. Both theory and methodology were well-developed and clearly explained and justified’

It wasn’t a dream.  I thought my responses during the viva could have been more specific. Also, I was rather taken aback with the first question which was, ‘what motivated you to do the PhD?’ I had rehearsed the presentation of a summary of my thesis but not an account of why I did it. On reflection it seems an obvious question to ask, as I hadn’t gone the normal route. I started the PhD in my forties whilst working full-time and it was not funded. I had, however, lived with it for so long that I’m still, even now, adjusting to the idea of living without it.

In a previous blog post on, ’15 lessons from doing doctoral research’, I reflected on some aspects of the doctoral experience. The final stage of my doctoral journey involved preparing for the viva, and this is what I did.

I read, and re-read the thesis.

I marked up the typos (n14). (I had decided not to ask Trevor, my husband, to proof read before the submission because he was under a great deal of pressure at the time with two major commissions. I did make an enquiry with a professional proof reading service and received a response stating that ‘proof reading is not a ‘cheap’ exercise when undertaken properly, and it is important to ascertain that your budget is in line with likely costs.’ Whilst appreciating the point, I decided to go it alone).

I wrote forty pages of notes on the following:

  • The conclusions of my research and how my findings fit in with or contradict the rest of the literature in the field
  • A sketch of the thesis, a summary of the eight chapters and eight appendices.
  • What my work tells us that we did not know before, and implications for the future development of the field
  • How the topic was framed, my reasons for using reflexive sociology and my specific take on my chosen theoretical framework
  • The practical and ethical difficulties encountered in conducting the research
  • Concerns about representativeness and how the data may or may not appropriately relate to the theoretical concepts and measure what is actually going on
  • The additional techniques and data I would like to have used and why I didn’t use them

Making such extensive notes was like revising for a major examination. The fact that I was revising my own work, words I had so diligently crafted, didn’t stop the fear of having my mind go blank. How on earth am I going to remember it all in the final interrogation?   If I took all my notes and my annotated thesis into the viva, perhaps they would act as a reminder. (Yes, I did take them in. I laid them out neatly on the table in front of me. I pointed to the notes a few times and opened the thesis once).

I had two mock vivas, the first with a brave and kind colleague from Cambridge, and the second with both supervisors. I hadn’t prepared sufficiently for the first and it (inevitably) ended in tears; I was annoyed with myself more than anything. The second was fine and gave me some useful pointers that I hadn’t previously considered such as reconciling the difference between a constructivist and structural reading, the longitudinal dimension of the research encounter, and why it is not a case study but still makes sense in an institutional context.

I wrote and practiced a short presentation under the heading of, ‘Please provide a summary of your thesis, describe its rationale and what you consider to be its main aims, key findings and contributions to knowledge’. I tested this out on colleagues at a research meeting where I handed out copies of my research poster and an explanation of the ‘Infinity Model of Academic Community’. They responded with constructive questions and I felt encouraged.

I wrote a blog post on ‘defining original contribution to knowledge’, which helped me think through the ‘value added’ aspects of my own work.

I researched papers written by my examiners and looked for similarities in their arguments to mine.   Gewirtz had declared that collectively, as sociologists, we need to be more ethically reflexive (Gewirtz & Cribb 2006) and Stronach, on professionalism, had emphasised the need for a theory of tension; tension between ‘economies of performance’ and ‘ecologies of practice’ (Stronach et al 2002 – online 2010). Stronach et al had called for a ‘more fissiparous employment that will keep tensions in movement’; their metaphor for professionalism (‘pulse’ rather than ‘push’) chimed with something one of my supervisors had said about envisaging my Infinity Model of Academic Community as pulsating.

I looked up recent publications on my topic. (I used to eagerly trawl the SRHE Research Into Higher Education Abstracts as a way of catching up on the latest literature. However, as I prepared for my final submission, I found that I couldn’t open the June edition for fear of finding something that would somehow crush the whole argument of my thesis. When I did finally look, I found a particularly interesting paper on ‘sense of community’ in academic communities of practice. It seemed fortuitous more than anything).

I booked a short holiday in Suffolk with Trevor, who accompanied me to UEA on the day of the viva and spent a happy hour or so at the Sainsbury Centre’s Alphonse Mucha exhibition as I underwent the examination.

At the School, when I came out to await the final verdict, a kind colleague handed me a slice of cake, declaring it was just what I needed. Within two minutes I had been called back in and I had to leave the cake outside. After congratulations and hugs from the panel members, I rushed over to find Trevor, as I wanted him to be the first to hear the news. I then phoned my children and my parents. Afterwards Trevor and I drove to Suffolk and spent an enjoyable but tiring three days visiting more galleries and museums, (not so) gently floating back down to earth.

Finally, in wanting to appear (and feel) more confident than corporate, I chose to wear my red patent leather DMs with a gorgeous mini-skirt my daughter, Phoebe, found for me in Top Shop.

Blue hair, green jacket, multi-coloured skirt and red boots.

What did you, or what will you… wear to YOUR VIVA?

Confident, not corporate
Confident, not corporate

References:

Gewirtz, S, & Cribb, A 2006, ‘What to do about values in social research: The case for ethical reflexivity in the sociology of education’, British Journal Of Sociology Of Education, 27, 2, pp. 141-155

Ian Stronach , Brian Corbin , Olwen McNamara , Sheila Stark & Tony Warne (2002) Towards an uncertain politics of professionalism: teacher and nurse identities in flux, Journal of Education Policy, 17:1, 109-138

 

Defining original contribution to knowledge

Defining original contribution to knowledge

Having submitted my PhD thesis on 28th July, I planned to take a well-earned break.  Much as I love writing, the marathon effort involved in completing a 100,000-word thesis was exhausting and I needed to re-charge my batteries.  As it turned out, I didn’t actually get that break, for reasons explained below, and I’m now preparing for my viva, scheduled for 27th November.

A good way to begin that prep, I thought, was to read the thesis.  My first reaction on picking up this weighty tome was to wonder who had written it.  It looks far too good for someone who failed the 11plus back in ’72 and who always had to work doubly hard to make the grade.  But then, it’s surprising how good a script can look when printed and bound. It can still, of course, be crap.

No matter (I tell myself). My enthusiasm for the topic was quickly rekindled, boosted by a recent positive exchange with the Senior Commissioning Editor of Palgrave Macmillan about a possible book publication based on the thesis.  I had already decided that I wanted to make a statement with my research and a book seems the ideal way to do it.  All well and good but now I must press the pause button on the book plans and focus on the prep for November.

If I want to make a statement (in whatever format), I must demonstrate that I have something original to say.  It may be useful, therefore, to consider the notion of originality, as in ‘original contribution to knowledge’, the doctoral requisite that strikes fear into the hearts (and minds) of all postgraduate researchers as they lurch or limp towards the final hurdle.  It is of course sensible to check what is stipulated in the guidelines for examiners (don’t want to trip up by not understanding the question). The University of East Anglia requires,

‘the discovery of new knowledge, the connection of previously unrelated facts, the development of a new theory or the revision of older views.’ (Guidelines for Examiners)

Dunleavy, who imparts indispensible advice on doing doctoral research, stresses the importance of grounding your originality in your research.  He warns against, ‘value-added’ artificiality and observes that coining new concepts or terminology that are not really needed is not being genuinely original. (Dunleavy 2003 p110)

In my own case, I declare that my newly devised ‘Infinity Model’ of academic community provides a cohesive framework for critically appraising academic community, by balancing extrinsic (value) and intrinsic (values) elements, taking us beyond the notion in its most limited form (the form that is dominant today).

In order to avoid an accusation of artificiality, or to be ready with a convincing repost if I do stand accused, I must explain my approach to constructing the research object (the idea and experience of academic community) and to engaging with the literature and the data. Doing so in a way that clearly demonstrates how the act of construction was necessary (it was a problem that needed addressing) and how it has brought about new knowledge.  At the very least, I plan to demonstrate that I’ve made a connection between ‘previously unrelated facts’ about the topic.

Dunleavy believes that originality is a cumulative achievement, that new ideas,

‘most often reflect the patient accumulation of layers of small insights and intuitions that only taken together allow an alternative view of a problem to crystallise.’ (Dunleavy 2003 p40)

Whilst many of those layers are set out in a fine-grained analysis, no thesis can truly impart the extent and depth of the incremental cognitive activity that doctoral research entails; how, as a researcher (and a human being), you never totally switch off the cogitation, no matter what you’re doing or how long it takes (nearly seven years, part-time in my case). Perhaps the viva is an opportunity to communicate some of that as a way of demonstrating originality.   However, best not to bleat about the protraction.  And it wasn’t really that bad.  Tony Judt, in his exquisite memoir, ‘The Memory Chalet’, describes how he did much of his doctoral reading whilst working in the kitchens at the Blue Boar Hotel in Cambridge,

‘Once mastered, short-order cooking does more than allow for the life of the mind; it facilitates it.’ (Judt p133)

I can’t imagine the mundane travails of doing doctoral research would be of any interest to the examiners. It comes with the territory.

I mentioned that I didn’t take a break after submitting the thesis.  Instead, I went about setting up our new small publishing venture called ‘Gottahavebooks’, including pre-selling our first publication and assisting Trevor with preparing a 124,000 word manuscript for press.  The publication is a compilation of first-hand accounts of ‘60s Rolling Stones concerts, told in the words of those who were there, gathered by Richard Houghton.  It’s a great read.  The stories are original and the book contains previously unpublished images of the band.  By bringing the fans accounts together in this format, Richard has helped to shed a new light on the social history of the period, on the Rolling Stones and on the fans themselves.

This in itself is new knowledge but it is different from the sort of knowledge created through doctoral research.  For example, Dunleavy tells us to focus on ‘added value’, to keep a critical eye on the extent to which you have transformed or enhanced or differentiated the starting materials of your analysis (Dunleavy 2003 p31).

Whilst the fans’ accounts may be viewed as starting (or primary) materials and whilst they’ve been through a transcription, editorial and publishing process, they’ve not been analysed or interpreted – not in an academic sense.  That wasn’t the intention.  As I understand it, Richard’s intention was to retain as much as possible the authenticity of the fans’ voices.  I too, in my research, wanted authenticity; the title of my thesis is, ‘The academy and community: seeking authentic voices inside higher education’.  But the similarity ends there.

The accounts that I had gathered through conversations and focus groups with academics were also transcribed but then subject to a detailed and extensive heuristic analysis.  The object of my research (the idea and experience of community) is interpreted and (re)constructed in a way that blends its disparate elements, as revealed through the research itself.  The approach to my analysis is briefly explained in my blog post published 28th February 2015 –

http://jebounford.net/the-heuristic-value-of-a-visit-to-the-optician/

Dunleavy says that doing genuinely new theory at PhD level is now very difficult in all of the humanities and social science disciplines,

‘The large empty spaces and opportunities for making major intellectual advances available earlier on have tended to be colonized.’ (Dunleavy 2003 p38) He says,

‘being original in the modern social sciences and humanities is rarely about coming up with an entirely new way of looking at things… it is mostly a more moderate activity… originality involves encountering an established idea or viewpoint or method in one part of your discipline (or in a neighbouring discipline) and then taking that idea for a walk and putting it down somewhere else, applying it in a different context or for a different purpose.’ (Dunleavy 2003 p40)

It is true that much has been written on the topic of academic community.  The tone of that literature implies a sense of something that may have been lost but is on the brink of being found, if only we knew where to look.  That’s where the contribution of my thesis comes into play, by setting out where to look and by developing a framework that helps us to do so; a framework that leads to a fresh insight and a new model.  Yes, I have utilised established constructs, such as the infinity symbol, for the purpose of describing and understanding the relations of the homology that is the idea and experience of academic community.  The model is an outcome of the research and it is to be taken forward.  It has significant potential as a conceptual framework for exploring, through research and through dialogue, the conditions that create, define, sustain or destroy community inside the academy.

This is the key message for my examiners.

Does it sound convincing?

 References:

Dunleavy, P (2003) Authoring a PhD: How to Plan, Draft, Write and Finish a Doctoral Thesis or Dissertation Palgrave Macmillan

Judt, T (2011) The Memory Chalet Vintage Books

Research posters can be fun!

Research posters can be fun!

I have precious little time for new writing this month as I put the final touches to my doctoral thesis, which goes to print in mid-July (hooray!).  One of the appendices is the poster that I presented at the Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE) Annual Conference in 2012.  I recall it was enormous fun working with Trevor Bounford on the poster design. Trevor, a talented designer and illustrator, ably captured my ideas and ‘cut-out’ tea-party concept in his drawings.  The text in the poster is from the research data, not my words but those of the research participants.  It was also fun presenting the poster at the SRHE Conference, especially with the design being a little out of the ordinary.   As well as A4 handouts of the poster, I gave out postcards printed with a design on the front, based on the poster content, and an explanation of my methodology on the reverse.

You can see the postcard and download the full poster as a pdf via this website using the link below –

Communi-Tea party at the Academy

Hope you like them!

 

Marginal native

15 lessons from doing doctoral research

15 lessons from doing doctoral research

Work on my final chapter is progressing well and I should have the draft finished soon.  Meanwhile, my supervisor asked if I would jot down some lessons I had learned about research through doing the doctorate.  Whilst the list below is not exhaustive, it is hopefully useful to postgraduate research colleagues and possibly others.

  1. Reviewing the literature is a continuous process.  Keeping abreast of relevant abstracts, preferably via a learned society in your field is essential.  Maintaining an accurate electronic library of sources from the beginning makes checking and cross-referencing so much easier.
  1. Printing source material may be costly and is not environmentally friendly but doing so and having it constantly on-hand, significantly aids your review.  Spending time sifting through the literature and reflecting helps you to fully comprehend the conversation that you are joining.
  1. Searching electronic databases is essential but do not ignore the benefits of simply walking around the university library.  Useful publications can unexpectedly leap off the shelves.  Know the value of a book as opposed to a journal paper.  A book enables you to see how a sustained argument can be (well or badly) constructed.
  1. Getting into the habit of writing, right from the start, makes the task of drafting chapters easier and more enjoyable.  A regular writing routine pays huge dividends in productivity and can be very gratifying.
  1. Keeping a monthly blog during the research provides an arena for thinking out loud about emerging ideas and conclusions.  It is also helps to introduce discipline into your routine.
  1. Doing doctoral research part-time whilst occupying a professional role that entails different forms of writing makes it more important to distinguish between your academic and managerial forms of writing.  Do not be afraid to share what you have written and nurture your academic voice as well as your academic identity.
  1. Doing doctoral research is a form of continuous meditation. The cognitive process is never entirely switched-off.  Always be prepared to record emerging thoughts and ideas, whatever time of day or night.  Those light-bulb moments really do happen.
  1. Pilot data gathering is an effective way of refining the overarching research question.  Do not underestimate the value of testing out your initial ideas and be open to variations.  Your question is likely to change.
  1. Understanding the heuristic value of combining your existing practical knowledge of the field and the newly formed scholarly knowledge gained in doing the research helps you to manage boundaries and determine what is data.  Do not see every scenario as a data gathering opportunity.
  1. Transcribing is time-consuming and using a professional transcription service helps to save time.  Do your own transcribing wherever possible and if you do use a professional service, check their transcripts against the audio-recorded data before commencing any analysis.
  1. Taking the opportunity to assess the data analysis tools at your disposal means that your ultimate selection is well informed and can be justified, even if you decide not to use any.
  1. Listening to the opinions of others (especially your supervisors) about content and structure aids reflection.  Do not worry if those opinions are variable or if your supervisor’s opinion changes from draft to draft.  Take time to consider them all but remember that the ultimate argument you are making, and therefore justifying, is yours.
  1. Researching researchers who share your discipline can make it easier to communicate concepts through a common vocabulary. Do not be surprised, however, if your participants turn your questions back on you.  Utilise such exchanges to enhance your reflexivity.
  1. Explaining your research to others, both inside and outside the academy, helps to crystallise your argument.  Unlike you, others are not immersed in the topic and do not feel passionate about it in the way that you do.  Treat every encounter as an opportunity to question your own assumptions.
  1. Backing up your work may be a no-brainer but do not take it for granted.  Always take your memory stick away with you. If the house burns down you will at least not have lost the countless number of hours you have spent on this project.  A colleague once said to me, ‘it is only a PhD’ but losing the work would be catastrophic.

What you cannot account for is the stuff that happens along the way. Since starting the doctorate in October 2008, I have been divorced and remarried, I have changed jobs and I have moved house four times.

So what, you might well say…

Camp-us coffee al fresco

Camp-us coffee al fresco

It had been a trying few days for Ruth, a newly arrived lecturer at Greystone.  She felt disconnected, almost cut off, despite having received a thorough induction from the administrators in the local support office and a five page checklist of departmental directives which seemed to cover every conceivable aspect of campus life.  And that was only a part of it.  After a campus orientation tour and yet more briefings on this, that and the other, Ruth was finally issued with a gleaming campus card.  Now a fully signed-up member of the university, she had access to the hallowed ground that was the staff car park, just as long as she made it to work by nine every morning – before all the spaces had gone.  Reeling after this most thorough initiation, Ruth still felt somehow lonely.  She was dying to meet her teaching colleagues and wanted to get on with the teaching.  She was also by now quite frankly desperate for a conversation about something more stimulating than first aid kits and fire drills.

The design of the arts building where Ruth had her office seemed to make things worse.  When she first saw the rows of closed heavy oak doors along both sides of the narrow and dingy breeze block corridor, it crossed her mind that the place could easily be mistaken for a monastery, or a prison. She even asked herself,

‘Who occupies these cells, saints or sinners?’

For Ruth it felt like a more like prison.  Confined to her cramped office behind one of those doors with barely enough room for a single desk, she found herself wondering where everyone was and how she could meet them.

Just that morning as Ruth was unlocking her office she heard a door open at the other end of the corridor.  She turned quickly, ready to give a smile and at least wave good morning but to her disappointment, no one materialised and the door closed almost instantly.

Not to worry, she thought. This morning’s meeting will change all that. Ruth had received an invitation by email from her new academic director, Jonathon to a ‘scheduled conversation’ about the course she would be teaching.  After locating his door, she knocked gingerly and heard a gentle voice,

‘Do enter’.

On the other side Ruth found Jonathon sitting in a comfortable room with a desk, a meeting table with four chairs and a large window which overlooked the walkway, a long concrete pathway which zigzagged through the centre of the campus.

Across the room Jonathon was smiling.

‘Hi Ruth, welcome to Greystone.  Glad you managed to locate my room.  I know it isn’t easy for the uninitiated.   I hope you’re settling in OK.’

Thinking but not dare saying, ‘I’d hardly describe myself as that’, Ruth enthusiastically greeted Jonathon and blurted out how she keen she was to meet the team.

‘It will be nice to finally meet everyone,’ she repeated.

‘Ah yes’, he replied, and looking at this watch he added, ‘but it’s not quite time… coffee?’

Reaching up to a compact coffee maker tucked neatly on top of his filing cabinet, Jonathon asked,

‘What will it be, Cappuccino, Latte or Americano?’

Ruth imagined she might be in Costa, a brand seen on almost every campus.  Not wanting to give the impression that having a barista for a boss was anything out of ordinary, she opted for her usual – an Americano.  Jonathon happily obliged and poured it into a paper cup.

‘You’ll need a lid when we go out.’ He said. ‘I have some here.’

‘Go where?’

‘Onto the walkway… to meet the team. We’ve just a minute and then we’d better go down.’

‘On the walkway? I thought we might be meeting them in the staff room. You know, at coffee time.’

‘Oh we don’t have a staff room any more. And coffee time was stopped last year as part of the ‘Use or Lose’ Campaign.  The school office did an audit.  Something about the number of ideas for successful research grant applications and stuff like that, and then declared we didn’t need coffee time.  In my opinion, use or lose doesn’t come into it.  We were using it.  I don’t think they realised just how much business is done over coffee.  So we’ve had to find an alternative way to meet.’

‘What happens now then?’ asked Ruth.

‘We make our own coffee and meet on the walkway between 10 and 10.30 every day.  It’s a bit random as you can often get what feels like the whole university wandering up and down.  It gets really crowded out there. They must’ve shut down coffee time in all the schools.  At least when we had it in 0.23 you knew who you’d be seeing.’ He paused. ‘Didn’t they cover this in your induction?’

‘I thought they covered pretty much everything. Seems not.’

Jonathon handed her a lid.

A moment later, he led Ruth down to the walkway.  She wondered what exactly was going to happen. They stood in the walkway at the school entrance and waited.  At first, there was hardly anyone around. Gradually people began to emerge from the various school entrances. Most were holding coffee cups, along with notebooks and iPads.  Some were holding up sheets of paper with names written on them as if they were meeting someone at an airport.

After three for four minutes, people were milling around along the whole length of the walkway, in eager conversation.  It gave Ruth the impression of exercise time in a prison yard.

With a shout of ‘Follow me!’ Jonathon started moving towards the top end of the walkway.

So, thought Ruth, this is how we meet the team.

 Do you still commune for ‘coffee time’ at your university?