Archive for May, 2011

Thesis Whispering

Friday, May 27th, 2011

The Thesis Whisperer is a terrific website ‘dedicated to the topic of doing a thesis’ that seems to be well-liked and respected amongst the online postgraduate community. I was kindly invited by the site’s creator and editor, Dr Inger Mewburn, to contribute a guest post on PhD blogging to launch a series exploring professional digital identity. For my part, I tried to establish a balance between presenting a personal and subjective view of my own blogging experiences, and providing an enthusiastic and critical overview of the multipurpose of academic blogging within doctoral practices. I hope it’s useful.

Wooh! New Adam Curtis

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

An Adam Curtis TV series is always something of an event, and his new work, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (starting tomorrow on BBC2) promises to be a welcome addition to an already impressive resume.

His previous works include Pandora’s Box (1992) – on political and technocratic rationalism – The Century of the Self (2002) – Freud and mass-consumerism – and The Power of Nightmares (2004) – radical Islamism and American Neoconservatism.

Curtis’s distinctive style combines critical insight – typically delivered in a calm, reassuring voice – with a highly creative use of imagery and sound. Though hardly unique, his technique of mixing archive footage of reportage and popular culture with eclectic soundtracks pre-empted web-based mash-ups by years, and the effect is still disturbing, compelling and at times, hypnotic.

In this new work, Curtis takes on the internet, suggesting that the myths of utopianism and democratisation that evolved from ecology, systems thinking and the hippy counter culture, are serving to contribute to the illusion of social connectivity and the perpetuation of a global capitalism.

Much of Adam Curtis’s previous work is available to view at thoughtmaybe, and to download from Internet Archive. Hopefully, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace will be added sometime in the future. In the meantime, it will no doubt be available for viewing in the UK on BBC iPlayer. Adam Curtis also blogs at

Communities of Practice Webinar

Saturday, May 14th, 2011

George Roberts, Educational Development Consultant at the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development (OCSLD), has kindly invited me to participate in their latest one-day webinar on Communities of Practice in Higher Education this coming Wednesday. I’ll be presenting briefly on examples of emergent and institutional models of communities of practice within a doctoral education context, before taking part in a follow-up discussion with other presenters including George, Rhona Sharpe and Jenny Mackness. It will be my first time using BigBlueButton, an open source web conferencing platform that looks like a tidy, stripped-down alternative to Eluminate.

Tribes and Territories: Academia in the Wild

Tuesday, May 10th, 2011

This is the final post related to my participation in the New Research Trajectories event, Contemporary Art of Walking, in which I am exploring the use of geographical metaphors in educational theory and practice.

“It seems natural enough to think of knowledge and its properties and relationships in terms of landscapes, and to saturate epistemological discussion with spatial metaphors: fields and frontiers; pioneering, exploration, false trails, charts and landmarks.”

Becher & Trowler (2001, 58)

Becher and Trowler use the metaphor of academic tribes and territories to explore the relationship between the normative mode of disciplinary and professional contexts, and the operational mode of academic participation and interaction. Basically, territories provide the cognitive perspective whilst tribes provide the social perspective.

Whilst disciplines are partly socially (re)constructed through tribal activities, they are primarily territorial possessions, defined by their production of knowledge. Disciplinary boundaries can be tightly knit and heavily defended, or more distributed and open. But generally, disciplines do not map neatly with the tribal tendencies of academic communities, which operate in a state of constant flux due to the convergent and divergent patterns of mutuality and fragmentation inherent in academic migration, interdisciplinarity* and multiple membership.

Disciplines exhibit both cognitive (epistemological) characteristics – commonly classified in hard/soft and pure/applied terms – and social characteristics, defined by their forms of aggregation within the academic population, which Becher and Trowler describe as being predominantly urban or rural.

Those displaying ‘urban’ characteristics are tightly-knit and communal, engaged in intensive, highly clustered and competitive themes of enquiry. Those displaying ‘rural’ characteristics are individualised and solitary, engaged in numerous themes of enquiry that are highly distributed with far less, if any, overlap between them.

* Though we may be instinctively drawn towards interdisciplinarity, Garber (2003) suggests:

“If the new interdisciplines and study groups that now occupy and preoccupy us so excitingly were to become the centre of the academy, they would in turn become conventional, and the centre of intellectual interest and provocation would move elsewhere.”


Becher, T., & Trowler, P. R. (2001). Academic Tribes and Territories (2nd Ed.) Buckingham: Open University Press.

Garber, M. (2003). Groucho Marx and “Coercive Voluntarism” in Academe. The Chronicle of Higher Education (January 10).

Activity Theory: Mapping the Terrain

Monday, May 9th, 2011

This is the second post related to my participation in tomorrow’s New Research Trajectories event, Contemporary Art of Walking. Curated by Alison Lloyd, it aims to explore wandering and journeying, mapping or the notion of getting lost as a practice / methodology through participant contributions, discussions and performances.

Spatial and geographical metaphors are frequently employed in educational theory, particularly to describe domains of practice and knowledge. There is something instinctive about seeing how we orient our way through these domains as trajectories and pathways. Yrjö Engeström (2010) describes the landscape in which we practice “as a terrain of activity to be dwelled in and explored,” possessing both opportunities for being controlled, and possibilities for individual agency.

All ‘dwellers’ and ‘explorers’ we interact with the environment and each other to create multiple and intersecting trails. Similar to Cussins’ (1992) concept of cognitive trails, where movements of information create traces or trails, our movement through this terrain is described by patterns and directions of motion representing activity which is simultaneously cognitive (in the mind), physical (in the world), and discursive (in the social space).

Whilst linear types of movement can be seen as describing traditional practices associated with craft and mass production, emergent forms of ‘mycorrhiza’ activities exhibit movement akin to ‘pulsation’ and ‘swarming’ describing practices of social and peer production (including Web 2.0).

The terrain has pre-existing trails, as well as landmarks and boundaries made by others through historically-located social, cultural and power-related activities. When new dwellers enter the terrain, they “both adapt to the dominant trails and struggle to break away from them” (Engeström, 2010). In this conceptual context, the nature of agency is described through the increased capability to move in the terrain effectively and independently of institutional and organisational frameworks.

Similarly, Deleuze and Guattari (1988) describe space as either striated or smooth, conceptualised through a series of contextual models. Bayne (2004) suggests striated space is formal, structured, closed, and sedentary. Movement in stated space is limited to pre-existing trails between fixed and identifiable points aligned with hierarchical and institutional knowledge structures. Smooth space is informal, amorphous, and infinite. Here, movement is free, open and nomadic and aligned with rhizomatic knowledge structures.


Bayne, S. (2004). Smoothness and Striation in Digital Learning Spaces. E-Learning. 1(2). 302-316.

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1988) A Thousand Plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia. London: Continuum.

Engeström, Y. (2010). The Future of Activity Theory: A Rough Draft. In A. Sannino, H. Daniels, & K. D. Gutiérrez (Eds.), Learning and Expanding with Activity Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 303-328.

Communities of Practice: A Topography

Sunday, May 8th, 2011

This is the first post related to my participation in the forthcoming New Research Trajectories event, Contemporary Art of Walking. Curated by Alison Lloyd, it aims to explore wandering and journeying, mapping or the notion of getting lost as a practice / methodology through participant contributions, discussions and performances.

Spatial and geographical metaphors are frequently employed in educational theory, particularly to describe domains of practice and knowledge. There is something instinctive about seeing how we orient our way through these domains as trajectories and pathways. For the purposes of the event, it’s not particularly important how effective these metaphors are per se, but rather, how usefully they may be understood by a non-specialist audience whilst exploring the landscape itself, and how they may create opportunities for participants to reflect and engage in discussion about their own practices.

Etienne Wenger situates practice in specific contexts within particular social and physical environments. I’ve shown this video on here before, but it’s worth another look.

We can easily visualise a Community of Practice (CoP) as a hill, but taking the topographical analogy a bit further, mine has increasingly steep sides giving way to a relatively flat top.

The trajectory described by participation in a CoP addresses not only skill and knowledge acquisition but also socialisation, as we become enculturated in the values, behaviours, and language related to the CoP. According to Wenger, the process of socialisation is at first legitimately peripheral but increases in engagement and complexity. So, it’s easy to get initially involved with a CoP – it’s a shallow climb to start with, fairly easy going, and the top doesn’t seem that far away – but gradually we realise it’s not so easy, as the terrain gets steeper and the climb gets tougher.

Eventually we get to the top, as we become fully participative in the core membership and knowledge production of the CoP. It’s a fairly level plateau, We find it easier to navigate now, and we do so with a new confidence and sure footedness. There’s space to explore, to establish our location and find new routes. However, we are instinctively curious and interdisciplinary. We will, by choice or circumstance, interact with people visiting from other hills, and occasionally, we will gaze over at those hills – some near, some further away – and wonder what it might be like to be on the top of those too.*

We may think leaving a CoP is difficult, but it needn’t be. It’s the same terrain on the way down as it was up. All we need to do is jump right off.** We might get a few bruises, but it’s quicker than the climb up.

But mostly we don’t because it’s easier staying where we are. So instead, we just peer over the edge before turning back…

*Of course this analogy doesn’t accommodate the issue of multi-membership. As Wenger explains, we can belong to many CoPs simultaneously, or at least one or two dominant ones, and others peripherally. But that probably requires some better sketches!

**In certain situations, we might not want to leave, but get pushed off!

The Use of Tense in Literature Review

Thursday, May 5th, 2011

A recent flurry of tweets, seemingly initiated by @thesiswhisperer, discussed the use of tense in literature review. There doesn’t seem to be a definitive rule to using either present or past tense (i.e. Smith (1989) argues… vs. Smith (1989) argued… etc.), though switching from one to the other can be problematic and should only be done within grammatical conventions.

I tend to get into all sorts of tangles with tense, so I try to be consistent and use the present tense*. It feels more immediate and dynamic, centralising the key arguments within contemporary debate rather than the historical perspectives of individual academics. From a doctoral perspective, this approach seems favourable to the role of the literature review in enabling the emerging researcher to locate herself within the key debates she has chosen to explore, and to developing an active rather than passive voice.

* The only occasion I tend to use the past tense is when a specific historical or developmental context becomes the key focus, such as describing a change of opinion or evolution of an idea or concept. For example:

…seems to be a significant re-evaluation of the perspective she adopted in her previous study (Smith, 1989), when she argued…

Presenting Research Data and Information

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

Yesterday I attended Warren Pearce and Nicola Underdown’s enjoyable and informative workshop on data presentation at the Jubilee Graduate Centre. Whilst I doubt I will be using any quantitative data in my thesis, there was plenty here to take away for future reference.

Warren talked about the ‘curse of knowledge,’ and demonstrated how our assumptions of audience understanding can affect the process of communicating information. He recommended Made to Stick, a useful looking book by the Heath Brothers on communicating ideas, as well as the ‘bible’ of statistical graphics by Edward Tufte, which has helped establish some of the key principles of visual communication.

Nicola introduced the acronym LATCH, to describe the fundamental elements on which different presentational figures (graphs, charts etc.) are based: Location, Alphabet. Time, Category and Hierarchy, and discussed the importance of context, describing how the interaction of the author in environments related with different dissemination formats (paper, poster, presentation etc.) influences audience understanding.

Overall, this was a great introduction to an element of research dissemination that is often overlooked and undervalued. There has been such a good response that Warren and Nicola are running the workshop again next week. They’ve also set up an excellent online resource at

Academic Discipline

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

“A colleague once defined an academic discipline as a group of scholars who had agreed not to ask certain embarrassing questions about key assumptions.”

Mark Nathan Cohen (1989, viii)

Cohen, M. N. (1989). Health and the Rise of Civilization. New Haven: Yale University Press.

The Elusiveness of Flow

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

I first came across Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow Theory (1990, 1996) whilst doing my MA in Falmouth, as it tied in with my research into the systems thinking and ecoliteracy of Fritjof Capra whilst doing a design project with Creative Partnerships. I’ve not looked at it since, but as I recall, flow is described as an optimal state of activity or engagement, which has become closely associated with happiness and creativity.

I’m not sure how Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas are currently perceived in the academic field, and I appreciate his concept of flow is far more complex than that which is presented here. But for me, it is a surprisingly effective barometer for how I instinctively feel I am coping with studies or workloads, and more specifically, as an indicator of opportunities for creativity. By creativity, I look beyond traditional artistic and elitist conceptions. In my current role, for example, there are many possibilities for creative outlets; in exploring research methods, in formulating theoretical frameworks, in academic writing, and in disseminating and presenting research.

Arguably, such creative approaches are integral to good scholarly practice, yet I would question whether, during the course of my PhD, I’ve sufficiently developed the skills, and gained the experience and enculturation in the field to levels that satisfy any real creative attainment. It was the same to an extent with my Masters degree (in Interactive Art and Design), and with my first degree. This may be because they have commonly been undertaken following significant career or disciplinary shifts. On my MA for example, I recall spending endless hours learning new graphics software skills, which other, more experienced students were able to use exploring ideas and concepts, or engaged in the production of creative outputs.

Indeed, for most of my educational career, I would roughly locate myself (above) as predominantly fluctuating between the areas marked Anxiety and Arousal. In contrast, I’d place many of my past work experiences (which have consisted of a lot of manual work) in the areas approaching Boredom.

But I do have a real sense of experiencing the flow state, often fleetingly, and occasionally for sustained periods. Its sense of immersion is tangible, yet it’s difficult to describe (it’s been compared to improvised jazz). Though, as Csikszentmihalyi demonstrates in his repeated references to blue-collar workers, flow is not the exclusive pursuit of an intellectual or artistic elite. I can certainly recall some sense of flow with the essential skills of product memorisation, speed, and spatial awareness I mastered after months of stacking shelves on the night shift for Tesco.

Achieving sustained flow seems then, in its simplest form, a constant and precarious balancing act between the predominant states of anxiety – where the difficulty is too high for a person’s skill level – and boredom – where the difficulty is too low. Flow is dynamic, and it seems we can fall either side very easily. I would, for example, put my experiences working as a care worker with adults with learning disabilities as wildly fluctuating between both sides.

Perhaps the parameters that determine how people identify experiences of flow differ from person to person. Those for example, with positive outlooks, or limited ambitions, may perceive far wider flow ‘corridors’ than others who are less easily contented or of a restless nature. Perhaps the corridor widens as we get older, and come to accept the limits of our aspirations.

Over the years, I have worked and studied alongside colleagues and peers who have seemed to be fortunate in demonstrating considerable and sustained flow characteristics (apparent in their general disposition, activities and quality of work). I might be wrong but this seems very much to occur with people who already have substantial foundational knowledge and experience in their chosen field, the self-assuredness and confidence to explore new ideas and take risks, and above all, the agency and motivation to be creative.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Perennial.