Posts Tagged ‘academic practice’

Thinking about durability…

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

It’s easy to fall into the trap of equating different publishing genres or formats with one-dimensional perspectives of what constitutes academic ‘quality.’ Further still, we often make assumptions about their durability.

Academics have the right (and the inclination) to question their ideas, change perspectives, and even – especially in the formative years of their training – challenge fundamental epistemologies. Yet I’ve found early-stage PhD researchers in particular have a tendency to assume they will never come to question anything they have or will formally publish. Conversely, they suggest there is every chance of them regretting virtually anything they might blog.

Of course, the not inconsiderable process of writing and articulation required in getting formally published (not forgetting the accompanying peer review) cannot be overlooked. This indicates that such texts have been well considered and argued. However, the perceived reliability of the format does not guarantee the durability of the relevance or inclination of key arguments contained within them over any given time. Whilst it is equally possible that some blog posts – however informal and unstructured they may be – will continue to resonate and influence.

Writing: Process and Media

Monday, May 7th, 2012

For me, writing papers and thesis chapters has become routinized in the interchange between screen and print. The digital environment is great for building and developing structures – I’ve found Scrivener particularly useful for this. But I often find reading printouts and correcting with a pen a more effective process for assessing and refining overall narratives, as well as spotting grammatical errors. One doesn’t necessarily follow the other: it’s rather a reciprocal process between the two media.

Commonwealth Scholars

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

I’m just off to the Engineering and Science Graduate Centre to run a social media training session for the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission (Midlands and Oxford). Here’s the slides:

(R)Evolution in the Head?

Monday, January 2nd, 2012

According to Ian Macdonald’s Revolution in the Head – his brilliant account of every Beatles recording – the band’s most creative period is conveniently bookended by their two most famous chords; the (contested) G eleventh suspended fourth that begins A Hard Day’s Night (and the album of the same name), and the multi-keyboard E major that concludes A Day in the Life and the Sgt. Pepper album. There are similar creative peaks in popular music – such as those represented by Stevie Wonder’s ‘classic period’ albums in the early 70’s and Tom Waits’ ‘Island trilogy’ in the 80’s – and many equivalent examples in other genres and art forms.

Scholarship is generally recognised by its contribution to knowledge, which is seen as being more evolutionary than revolutionary – ‘shoulders of giants’ and all that. But do academics have distinguishable periods of peak creativity, and if so how might academic ‘creativity’ be conceptualised? At what stage of an academic career is the capacity for creative output and innovation best enabled and legitimised? Are our best ideas formulated early in careers when key epistemological positions and academic identities in the research field are still being negotiated? Or does the nature of academic enquiry lend itself to experience and longevity?

Though it still has strong aesthetic and spiritual connotations within artistic domains, modern definitions of creativity discount popular misconceptions based on the romanticism of divine inspiration, which celebrated the originality and imagination of a select few. Freudian and Marxist critique helped reconceptualise creativity as a cultural process, relocating the creative practice from the individual to the social. Therefore, contemporary pedagogy generally views creativity not as a skill related to talent or artistic sensibility, but as a strategy or technique that can be learnt and developed in situated social and cultural contexts.

At a psychological level, creativity is a function of intelligence that exists as a form of self-expression. It satisfies our expansive tendency: our instincts for exploring and risk taking (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996). Most contemporary interpretations of creativity also acknowledge an act of novelty or originality, which in a world increasingly dictated by the knowledge economy, has to have an effectiveness or value. Therefore, creativity does not occur in a vacuum, but is “defined and assessed in relation to the context in which it is achieved” (Seltzer & Bentley, 1999: 13).

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s (1996) systems model for creativity consists of three elements:

  • The Domain: a culture that contains symbolic systems and rules.
  • The Field: consisting of ‘gatekeepers’ to the domain; experts that can recognise, appreciate and validate a creative product. They assert a type of control and can act as filters to a wider social and cultural audience.
  • The Individual: whose creative product significantly adds to or changes the domain at the consent of the field, and who must learn the domain and field to ‘internalise’ the system.

If we have insufficient domain knowledge, Csikszentmihalyi suggests we are incapable of discerning creative ideas from other forms of personal expression and are therefore merely engaging in play and experimentation. So called ‘everyday’ or ‘low range creativity’ may account for spontaneity or expressiveness – at least on cognitive developmental terms – though these may be considered peripheral in their contribution to domain knowledge.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York: Harper Collins.

Seltzer, K., & Bentley, T. (1999). The creative age: Knowledge and skills for the new economy. London: Demos.

Related post: The Elusiveness of Flow

A Note on Note Taking

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

I’ve just been catching up with the notes I made at last week’s ECEL 2011 conference.

Chuck Palahniuk once said; “the best way to waste your life is by taking notes.” Admittedly, he probably meant it in the context of its inferiority to the lived experience, but note taking can sometimes seem like a fruitless or trivial activity.

Note taking encompasses a number of contexts, situations and formats, yet collectively these represent an undervalued scholarly activity that is not given enough attention when we consider core academic skills.

Note taking can be purposeful or opportunistic, structured or unstructured, original or augmentative. There are situations when the note-taker can dictate time – such as annotating a paper – and those when (s)he can’t – such as fieldwork, or during a conference presentation etc.. Visual forms of note taking such as doodling or mind-mapping introduce entirely new creative processes.

Note taking can be instantaneous – I’m particularly impressed by live-bloggers. Yet often notes are repurposed to a form or format appropriate for formal documentation. How much of their value is lost? How important is time here; not just in the time you may (or may not) have in making the notes, but in the time you allow to elapse before formalising them. Raw notes can be untidy, incomplete and virtually incomprehensible. How is the sense making embedded and translated, and what role does the reflective process play?

Blogging can be thought of a form of note taking. This post is a note to self. I’m not sure what to do with it now…

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).

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 a sense of flow stacking shelves on the night shift for Tesco; when the essential skills of product memorisation, speed, and spatial awareness that took months to achieve reached a point of optimum efficiency.

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.

Web 2.0: Reflective and Critical Practices

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

The postgraduate and early career researchers who have attended the social media sessions I’ve been running with LeRoy Hill over the last year bring with them rich and wide-ranging learning experiences and perspectives.

Some might have been under the impression that we are on some sort of crusade with web 2.0, but we are not. It’s always been about raising awareness of its potential. We recognise that the values of these tools are highly situated in each researcher’s individual practice and disciplinary research culture, and many attendees are rightly apprehensive over the appropriateness and usefulness of social media in their studies and work. We welcome current users who share their social media practices with other attendees, often supporting our enthusiasm with fresh and unique perspectives. But we are equally happy for them to share bad experiences, misconceptions and concerns. This is why we try to encourage an interactive environment and opportunities for discussion.

I can’t speak for LeRoy (though I think he’d agree), but I’m happy for attendees to go away choosing not to adopt any or all of the social media we discuss, as long as the sessions have given them the opportunity to reflect on their own use, or potential use, of these tools, and encouraged them to think critically about their applicability to their own practices and the wider contexts of web 2.0.

This approach also informs and underpins the modes of enquiry and analytical model I am developing for my current PhD work with doctoral students. But what do we mean by critical and reflective practices? Both draw on rich historical and contested models and definitions, which I will not attempt to review here. Rather, I’d like to suggest how these (in my view, often interrelated) practices should be embedded in the processes postgraduate researchers adopt in using social media.

Reflective Practices

  • Identifying appropriate web 2.0 resources and services, and evaluating the affordances of specific tools and platforms for academic practice
  • Developing self- and collaborative organisational and time-management skills in relation to social media use, including the use of technology-supported strategies
  • Identifying appropriate technical know-how and training needs, and using training opportunities (formal and informal), online resources and other sources of support
  • Recognising the transferability of web 2.0 skills and digital literacies in lifelong learning, professional development and employability contexts
  • Engaging in opportunities for sharing practice and technological skills with peers
  • Developing potential for individual, participatory and collaborative action planning and learning design

Critical Practices

  • Negotiating new socio-technical academic community and network development and boundary-crossing activities within disciplinary and interdisciplinary contexts
  • Recognising shifts in academic protocols; new modes and means of production, peer review and knowledge resources
  • Adapting to new practices in academic integrity and responsibility; referencing and attribution of digital sources and artefacts
  • Identifying inconsistent pedagogies and socio-cultural and political ideologies that underpin social media practice
  • Challenging rhetorical representation of social media historically founded in the business metaphor of web 2.0
  • Negotiating increasingly blurred boundaries defining institutional, proprietary, freeware and open-source tools and platforms
  • Understanding emerging multimedia and multimodal literacies
  • Managing online identities and reputation

Today’s workshop at the AGC

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

Earlier today, Leroy Hill and I ran the latest in our social media sessions; our first at the Arts Graduate Centre.

The sessions are designed to integrate a range of interrelated key concepts (e.g. networking, digital identities), underlying processes (e.g. folksonomy, aggregation), and tools / media (twitter, blogs etc.), with the hope that personal and disciplinary perspectives, and wider socio-cultural and political contexts will emerge.

Today’s attendees – a mix of doctoral and masters degree students, primarily from the arts and humanities – didn’t let us down, demonstrating thoughtful, reflective and critical approaches to adopting and using social media in their practices.

Within our structured programme of presentations, we try to adopt a flexible approach to encourage an informal and interactive environment, and today, it’s refreshing to note that by the time the two sections we had factored-in for group discussion came around, the attendees had already brought up many of the key issues we were planning to introduce. Key concerns raised during the session included the usual suspects:

  • Difficulties in developing critical mass in networks / communities
  • Questioning the academic ‘value’ of web 2.0 compared with established practices
  • Negotiating multiple online identities and reputations
  • Perceived risk factors in sharing work in progress
  • Time constraints

We hope all the attendees found the session as useful and rewarding as we did, and we look forward to seeing them again on November 24th.

the rationality we routinely adopt in reviewing formal texts belies the personal traits and circumstances and social glue that underpin academic discourse

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

Guides to writing a dissertation / thesis, particularly within the social sciences, often stress the act of ‘locating’ or ‘positioning’ oneself within the field of research being studied. In interpreting and conceptualising selected arguments we are expected to take sides; to critically evaluate different perspectives, look for synergies, contradictions and gaps in the constructed debate. Whilst this spatial metaphor is largely confined to the context of literature review, it is seen as a crucial component of doctoral study, indicating the student’s development as a critical and reflective researcher, and representing the process of finding her own voice as an independent scholar.

Depending on your research field, some of the authors you reference may be long departed. Many however, will be your contemporaries; living, breathing academics, fellow early researchers, postdocs, supervisors, professors, each with personal perspectives and motivations, influenced by ongoing professional experiences, incentives and constraints. The ‘I agree with x but disagree with y’ type of rationality we routinely adopt in reviewing formal texts belies the personal traits and circumstances and social glue that underpin academic discourse, and the nuances, cliques and politics of faculty and the wider academic field.

How much I wonder, does engagement in Web 2.0 environments indicate these often hidden influences? Does the informality and transparency evident in blogging, Twitter and personal learning networks etc. give us a richer, more authentic perspective? What these practices reveal may not be transferable to the formal structural requirements of the literature review, but they may help us signpost key arguments and their proponents, and give us an ‘edge’ in understanding the social complexities that influence contemporary academic debate.