Tag Archives: research

Connecting up and creating a conversation

Lessons from doing an illustrated social history of Heffers of Cambridge

I don’t claim to be an expert on doing social history, or any sort of history, and I did have some terrific help with aspects of the Heffers project. My aim in this series of blog posts is to reflect on the experience and hopefully, by doing so, share some useful lessons for anyone who wishes to undertake a social history. I’d also love to hear from anyone who has advice to share, as this experience has left me wanting to do more, and I have a lot to learn!

The first post, Possession is a delicate issue tackled the tricky issue of having a personal connection with the topic of the research, and what to do if you find yourself being told what to write!

In this second post, I refer to the various networks and places that enabled me to reach many people who were willing to share their memories of the firm. I also refer to some of the sources for printed and digital materials, and will be expanding on exactly what I used in a later post. Links to all the networks and sources are provided, plus one or two publications written by authors whom I was fortunate enough to meet during the project.

Lesson number 2: Connecting up and creating a conversation

I may originate from Cambridge but having lived and worked in Norfolk until relatively recently, I had no network as such in the area, apart from family friends. Eve Stafford, who is featured in the book, was the first family friend to have a conversation recorded about her time at Heffers. Eve then facilitated my introduction to Heffers retirees, Marion & Dudley Davenport, Peggy Green and Audrey Coleman, who all have stories in the book.

It didn’t take long of course to identify other effective ways to reach those with memories of Heffers and start a wider conversation. On 23rd January 2016, Chris Elliott published a plea for stories with my contact details in the Cambridge News Memories section. Also, in January, I emailed Chris Jakes at the Cambridgeshire Collection at the Central Library, declaring my intention to carry out some desk research there. Chris responded with very useful and specific information on what the Collection held about the firm and the bookselling trade. Meanwhile, Robert Webb (who’s father worked for Heffers and who worked for the firm himself) found Becky Proctor (running the Mill Road History Project at that time), who suggested I put a plea via the Cambridge in the Good Ol Days Facebook Group. Robert Webb also contacted Fonz Chamberlain, the Cambridge Historian, who writes about Cambridge history and who owns a lot of memorabilia.

As it turned out, both Chris Jakes and Becky Proctor contributed stories for the book (Becky worked as a bookseller at Heffers in the early 1990s). The Facebook Group, run by Derek Smiley, was a great way to reach people with memories of Heffers. It really helped to have something interesting to say about the topic when exchanging thoughts on Facebook. This is where a personal connection or some local knowledge can be useful. Sharing memories, even brief reflections, is a great way to get a conversation going. It’s important to post regularly, whilst at the same time, not making a nuisance of oneself.

I wanted people to understand my motivation for writing the book, and to appreciate that I too, shared their enthusiasm and interest in the topic. To that end, I had already written about my interest in Heffers in my own blog, as early as February 2014, in Choosing books, living life. In fact, it was through this post that I met Robert Webb who must have been keeping an eye out for references to Heffers, as he contacted me after having seen the post. My next reference to Heffers was in Heffers & E.M. Forster, libraries, books & a Del Boy moment, followed by Heffers and the elusive bust, This book is about Heffers, Portrait of a bookseller: the pacifist, and Mr Reuben, Penguin Books and Lady Chatterley. I regularly shared the blog posts via Facebook and Twitter and made some really useful connections in doing so. Bookseller, Claire Brown, got in touch via my website (Claire’s stories are in the book) and I made a useful connection with Dr Samantha Rayner at University College London via Twitter. Samantha kindly facilitated my access to the Penguin Archive at the University of Bristol, and I’m planning to do a talk on Heffers for her Masters students in early 2017.

Whenever I refer to Heffers on Twitter, I use a hashtag. Over the past year, I found that if you googled Heffers or Heffers of Cambridge, images that I had shared, including the book cover of ‘This book is about Heffers’, which we had designed very early on (I shall be writing about the book layout and design later in this series), were fairly prominent. Along with images of large ruminants…

On 2nd February I attended the launch at Heffers of The Promise by Alison Bruce. I had met Alison a few months earlier when she kindly gave a talk at a writing group meeting that I had co-convened in our village. Alison, whose relationship with Heffers is shared in the book, invited me to attend her launch and it was there that I introduced myself to David Robinson (manager of Heffers), bookseller Richard Reynolds and retired bookseller Clive Cornell, who had kindly responded to the Cambridge News Memories plea. I subsequently had a meeting with David and Richard at the shop to tell them about my plans, and to ask if they had anything that may be useful. It turns out they did, including twenty years worth of staff newsletters, the Heffers publishing diaries and other fascinating memorabilia. Much later, in April, I attended another book launch for Timed Out by Barbara Lorna Hudson. Kate Fleet at Heffers had given Barbara my contact details, as she had worked at Heffers as a student in the early 1960s. I attended the launch, bought the book and not only enjoyed it but have retained my contact with Barbara who, as I learned later, was embarking on a second career as a fiction writer after working as an Oxford academic.

Also, in February I emailed the Cambridge University Alumni Office, asking for stories. By then I had written an Advance Information Sheet, which provided a useful summary of the proposed book. I received a swift response and the Alumni team used social media to reach out to Cambridge alumni all over the world. And I emailed Mike Petty, renowned local historian, and he not only agreed to meet up for a chat over coffee but also sent a list of useful references from his own ‘Chronicle of Cambridge News’, a terrific digital database of Cambridge events and stories.

Whilst virtual communication via Facebook and Twitter is great, never underestimate the value of getting together face-to-face. A pivotal moment in the Heffers project was a memory café at the Museum of Cambridge, on Friday 26th February. The Museum, located near the city centre, provides a tangible sense of place and plays a vital role in bringing people together for exchange and reflection. At this event I met members of the Heffer family and Heffers staff, past and present. David Robinson had always wanted to meet the Heffer family, and this was his chance, also. I brought posters and materials to the café and we had a small display. People like to look at photographs and memorabilia, which can of course trigger memories. Others also brought artefacts, including William Heffer who brought the original lease on the Petty Cury bookshop from 1896 –how exciting!

Hilary Cox-Condron at the Museum, made a terrific six-minute film of the memory café, starring Bunty Heffer, now aged 96 years. I was impressed with how relatively easy it was for Hilary to create the film on her mobile phone and I’m planning to use film much more in 2017 to share stories and images from my research and from Gottahavebooks publications.

Early on in the project, having received a communication from Kate Fleet, Heffer’s very enterprising Events Manager, asking if I would be interested in launching the book at Heffers, I had an opportunity to fix a publication date. Thus, I duly agreed with Kate we would launch the book at Heffers on 10th November 2016.

Now I had a DEADLINE.

Better get on with collecting and recording the stories.

How I did that is the topic of the next blog post.

Possession is a delicate issue

Lessons from doing an illustrated social history of Heffers of Cambridge

One day, back in February this year, whilst striding down Trumpington Street after spending an afternoon at the Cambridgeshire Collection, I felt a rush of pure elation and was reminded of some advice a friend had recently shared on my future direction after finishing the PhD. She said ‘do what gives you joy’.

Published 21st Oct 2016

Since that time the experience of researching, writing and publishing ‘This Book Is About Heffers’ has given me mountains of joy – as well as anxieties, challenges, frustrations, and sadness. There were many things to tackle. For example, the pros and cons of having a personal connection to the topic, finding people willing to share their memories, using digital networks without making a nuisance of oneself, making the most of a face-to-face gathering, visiting people in their homes (and finding their homes in the first place!), recording conversations (with rather odd, and sometimes peripheral, sound effects), finding myself dreaming about it all, and deploying diplomacy at all times.



I don’t claim to be an expert on doing social history, or any sort of history, and I did have some terrific help with aspects of the project. My aim in this series of blog posts is simply to reflect on the experience and hopefully, by doing so, share some useful lessons for anyone who wishes to undertake a social history. I’d also love to hear from anyone who has advice to share, as this experience has left me wanting to do more, and I have a lot to learn!

 Lesson number 1: Possession is a delicate issue

It’s not obligatory to have a personal connection with the topic but if you do, it can help, especially at the beginning when you’re trying to explain why you’ve embarked on such a major undertaking. And even when the word is out, (people said ‘she’s writing a book about Heffers’) you’ll need to revisit that special connection from time to time. For me, there were many quiet moments in the study when I thought about my family members who had worked for the firm. It sounds whimsical but I sensed their approval of the legacy I was trying to create and it gave me an inner confidence. It was, and still is, a nice feeling.

A personal connection can also, however, create a bit of a dilemma, as it did with this project. The book was inspired by my childhood memories of visiting Heffers Children’s bookshop every Saturday morning, and of course, by my family’s association with the firm. The memories are uncomplicated but the family association caused a moment of anxiety, which I will explain, as I suspect the scenario is not uncommon.

I hail from a line of Cambridge booksellers, bakers, college bedders and bus cleaners. Members of my family clocked up 120 years of service with Heffers, starting with my great-grandfather, Frederick Anstee, employed by William Heffer in 1896 when the Petty Cury bookshop was first opened. Frederick, along with bookseller F. J. Sebley, was one of the first employees at Heffers, at least on record. Since then of course, hundreds of people have worked for the firm and indeed there have been periods when Heffers employed well over 500 people at any one time across the bookselling, stationery and printing divisions. There are several stories in the book about the different ways in which people got started at Heffers, and how they fared. Frederick, who rose to become Head of Science, sadly died suddenly in 1944 whilst still in service.

The part that Frederick played in helping to build the firm is rightly something to be proud of. That pride is boosted by a letter from a family friend, Duncan Littlechild (bookseller with Heffers for fifty-four years), written in 1968 on the death of my great-grandmother, Frederick’s widow. In expressing his condolences, Littlechild declared that it was Frederick, along with Ernest and Frank Heffer, who ‘founded’ the firm. This of course is his opinion, his ‘selfish feeling’ as he describes it, about a friend whom he described as an, ‘oh such perfect father who lived for his family’. After careful consideration, I decided not to quote this in the book. Another of his ‘selfish feelings’, too indelicate to include, was his opinion that Ernest and Frank were, ‘the only two Heffers who were worth more than a pound a week.’

Littlechild’s letter wasn’t actually the issue that caused the ethical quandary as I wrote the book, though it probably contributed. In late July, I was told in no uncertain terms that Heffers is “our” family firm and that this must be stated in the book. This created a rather delicate situation. Whilst I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feeling, I wasn’t comfortable with making such a claim. Nor was I comfortable with being told what to write. I don’t mind being asked to take something into consideration, and in my work I do try to be sensitive to people’s feelings – and to my own. And so, when this exchange occurred, a number of questions, some of which I’d already been grappling with, came to the fore.

How do you balance personal involvement with a dispassionate telling of the story?

Perhaps it’s like doing sociology, you must hold your connection up to the light so that it can be seen and acknowledged. I did include a narrative about my family’s association with the firm and indeed quoted letters from members of the Heffer family who clearly had high regard for Frederick. I also acknowledged the claim about it being “our” family firm, whilst at the same time declaring that no doubt Heffers had engendered a similar sense of loyalty in many Cambridge families.

Who does the story belong to?

I’m collecting, curating and interpreting people’s memories that are given freely and openly. The history of Heffers, as with other histories, is not in some exclusive ownership. It lives in people’s minds and it’s evolving. The story belongs to everyone and no one. It doesn’t belong to the Heffer family or to any one family, and certainly not to mine.

Who has responsibility for the publication?

As the author, and the publisher in this instance, I have the responsibility. I may have an aversion to the phrase, ‘my book’ (for reasons I need not explain here), but it is my doing. I initiated the project, took control and decided what to write. I was sensitive to people’s feelings, I checked stories and quotations and I made changes accordingly. I did my best to get things right and I didn’t want anyone telling me what I should write. In that sense, perhaps is has to be ‘my book’.

The next post will be about finding people with stories to share.


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


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 –


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?


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…

The utility of the economic lexicon in HE

The utility of the economic lexicon in HE

This post is prompted by a reading of Philip Roscoe’s publication, ‘I spend therefore I am: the  true cost of economics’ (2014) Viking

Roscoe’s wistful and entertaining appraisal of the discipline that is economics provides another useful reference point in my quest to go beyond the technical instruments of capital in my doctoral research analysis. In a previous post entitled, ‘Conviviality with a cause’ I observe Bev Skeggs’ assertion that as sociologists we have a duty not to reproduce the logic of capital in everything we analyse. In applying the logic of capital we convert everything into commodity. We become the subject of capital and we internalise its imperatives. The notion of a commodity or commodification in this context merits closer examination.

Roscoe’s wide-ranging treatise which includes a section on, ‘Lists, rankings and the commodification of education’ highlights the malignant legacy of the Chicago School of Economics and in particular, Becker’s theory of human capital which has helped to, ‘reinforce a myopic understanding of the point and purpose of education.’ Roscoe depressingly describes the ‘subtle repositioning’ of education as, ‘some kind of experiential commodity, like a safari or an adventure day in a hot-air balloon.’

In my post entitled, ‘The marketisation marvel in higher education’, I bemoan the existence of a discourse and managerial structure in higher education that is dominated by enterprise and an emulation of the business world although I do assert that universities are still distinguishable from private sector companies. Roscoe it seems, is less optimistic as he contemplates the commodification of university education which has recast students as customers who, according to Roscoe, do not see that buying a tin of beans from the supermarket is a profoundly different transaction from embarking upon a process of education that requires them to participate, ‘to the limits of their ability, imagination and emotional reserve.’ He echoes Mary Beard when he calls for dissatisfied students who are unsettled by what they have learned and, ‘driven to a critical examination of their preconceptions.’

Has higher education become a commodity? Is it now ‘fungible’ (a term deployed by Roscoe); something that is freely traded; one degree or university being indistinguishable from the next with the ‘student experience’ being the differential?

What other signs are there of commodification in higher education?

At the Engage 2013 Conference in Bristol, Professor Ella Ritchie, Deputy Vice-Chancellor with specific responsibility for Engagement and Internationalisation (University of Newcastle), warned that we were in danger of treating university-community engagement as a commodity. And in my post entitled, ‘Why extreme volunteering is too extreme’, I express concern about the industry that has of late emerged around student volunteering or ‘employability’ as it is called these days and suggest that we are in danger of commodifying the very act of student volunteering.

So, does our use of terms and notions such as ‘capital’ and ‘commodity’ REALLY restrict our ability to critically reflect on these important issues? It seems to me that utilising the concept of commodification in this context actually galvanises the sort of reflection that is so badly needed in higher education today on many levels.

It is sometimes necessary to administer a little jolt!

Roscoe wants us to look beyond the ‘machinery of calculation’; beyond the ‘lists, rankings, scores, tabulations and algorithms that populate our lives’ and says that humans are, ‘distinctive because we can treat others as persons, distinctive in our ability to empathize with, commit to and understand one another, and to build relationships that are strong and mutually nourishing.’

But Roscoe does NOT want us to abandon economics altogether. Instead, he wants us to ‘occupy’ economics; make economics subservient to a higher social and democratic vision.

And why not; the economic lexicon does have its uses.


Bev Skeggs, ‘Values beyond value? Is anything beyond the logic of capital?’

2013 BJS Annual Public Lecture, given at the London School of Economics on 17th October 2013 –



It’s about the (academic) community, stupid!

I recently had a conversation about my doctoral research with an acquaintance I met at a dinner dance who asked, ‘what are you doing it in, what are you doing it for?’  Not an unreasonable response.  I began my reply by saying that it was in the sociology of education and whilst I was conjuring up an answer to the latter question (it changes from day to day), they retorted in a jocular fashion, ‘the sociology of vegetation? You’re researching vegetables?’  The acquaintance laughed, a little uneasily.  Perhaps they had misheard me.

My sense of humour is reasonably well honed but at that particular moment I was not in a frame of mind to see the joke; on them or on me.  I hadn’t wanted to be there in the first place.  Rather than finding the retort comical, I took it at best to be idiotic and at worst, mocking.  I raised my eyebrows and civilly withdrew from the conversation.  There was no other exchange on the matter until the end of the evening when we said cheerio and my hapless acquaintance wished me luck with, ‘the vegetable thing’.

How should I have reacted?  Maybe I should have given an equally jocular riposte.  Moments earlier they had told me about their counselling course and, thinking about the state of my vegetable patch at home, I could have suggested that my parsnips would benefit from some talking therapy.  Rather lame, I admit.

So, what is the research about? It’s about community in higher education.

When invited to talk about community, those participating in my doctoral research (all academics) chose to focus primarily on their experience inside the university; that is, on the academic community.

In the ‘80s, Cohen concluded that people construct community symbolically, ‘making it a resource and repository of meaning, and a referent of their identity.’ (Cohen 1985 p118); I invited the research participants to draw upon their repository, to describe their idea and experience of community and also to picture it in some symbolic form.  Some began by approaching the question as an intellectual exercise.  This was unsurprising.  However, as the exchange went on and as we explored values and a sense of belonging, more idiosyncratic thoughts and stories emerged.  These stories revealed deeply held values which manifested themselves, not only in their day-to-day academic practice, but also in responses to situations when they felt threatened or excluded by the academic community, or by their institution.

All have a stake in the game of higher education; all believe in the game.  They are complicit players in what Bourdieu describes as the, ‘prolonged cohabitation of a socially very homogeneous group’, linked by a ‘cullusio in the illusio’ (Bourdieu 2004 p7).  Higher education not only provides their livelihood but, more fundamentally, connects with their values and serves their need to do what they do; research, teach and, in many (but not all) cases, make the world a better place:

‘To the outsider the game may appear insignificant but to the players it becomes the meaning of their life, mystifying the underlying conditions of domination that make the game possible.’ (Burawoy 2010 p24)

Whilst I would question Bourdieu’s description of the academic community as homogeneous, particularly in a contemporary context, I find the notion of ‘complicit players’ worthy of consideration.  We are all potentially complicit.

In July 2012, I attended an excellent SRHE (Society for Research into Higher Education) symposium on ‘Structuring Knowledge: new visions of higher education’, where Ron Barnett made an entreaty for the play of the imagination, and for others to enter a dialogic community, and to see their world as he sees it – as a relational entity.  At the same session, Gert Biesta reflected on a need for a more accurate account of what is going on in higher education.  He called for a ‘non-epistemological’ approach, one that allows for the telling of different stories other than the story of knowledge – stories about what it means to be an academic or a researcher. And whilst in response, Michael Young called for a differentiated epistemology rather than none all (because then, ‘all we are left with is meaning making’), he did acknowledge a need for ‘community’ and for people to feel a part of something; a point that many of those present endorsed.

So, whatever your role in higher education or the vegetable patch; academic, student, administrator, volunteer, collaborator, dean, enthusiast…

what does (academic) community mean to you?

If you need a prompt, click here for a cut-out kit for you to assemble, ‘Communi-Tea Party at the Academy’



Bourdieu, P. (2004) Sketch for a Self Analysis, Polity Press

Burawoy, M. (2010) Conversations with Pierre Bourdieu: the Johannesburg Moment

Cohen, A.P. (1985) The Symbolic Construction of Community, Taylor & Francis