Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Listen to John Rawls’ Course on “Modern Political Philosophy” (Recorded at Harvard, 1984)

by , Open Culture: http://www.openculture.com/2015/06/free-listen-to-john-rawls-course-on-modern-political-philosophy-recorded-at-harvard-1984.html

Some of the most-referenced Western political thinkers - like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Thomas Jefferson - have taken hierarchies of class, race, or both, for granted.

Not so some of their more radical contemporaries, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Paine, who made forceful arguments against inequality.

A strain of utopianism runs through more egalitarian positions, and a calculating pragmatism through more libertarian. Rarely have these two threads woven neatly together.

In the work of 20th century political philosopher John Rawls, they do, with maybe a knot or a kink here and there, in a unique philosophy first articulated in his 1971 book A Theory of Justice, a novel attempt at reconciling abstract principles of liberty and equality (recently turned into a musical).

Like the Enlightenment philosophers before him, Rawls’ system of distributive justice invokes a thought experiment as the ground of his philosophy, but it is not an original myth, like the state of nature in nearly every early modern thinker, but an original position, as he calls it, of a society that lives behind a “veil of ignorance.” In this condition, wrote Rawls:
No-one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance.
Clearly, then, this idea presupposes the opposite of a meritocracy built on labor, conquest, or natural superiority. In fact, some of Rawls’ critics suggested, the “original position” presupposes a kind of nothingness, a state of incoherent nonexistence.

What does it mean, after all, to exist without histories, differences, attributes, or aspirations? And how can we visualize an equality of conditions when no one experiences anything like it? What kind of position can possibly be “original”?

To clarify his theory and answer reasonable objections, Rawls followed A Theory of Justice with a 1985 essay called “Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical.” This rethinking coincided with a series of lecture classes he taught at Harvard in the 80s, which were eventually published in a 2001 book also titled Justice as Fairness, a promised “restatement” of the original position.

Now we can hear these lectures, or most of them, with the rest to come, on Youtube. Get started with the first lecture in his 1984 seminar “Philosophy 171: Modern Political Philosophy,” at the top, with lectures two and three above and below. There are six additional classes on the Harvard Philosophy Department’s Youtube channel, with a final two more to follow. (Get them all here).

In these talks, Rawls explains and expands on his core principles: equality of opportunity and the “difference principle,” which states that any and all inequality should benefit the least well-off members of a society.

Rawls’ brand of political liberalism (also a title of one of his books) has influenced presidents, judges, and legislators with arguments directly contrary to some of the right’s ideological architects, many of whom in fact wrote in reaction to Rawls. We are free to accept his claims or not, but Rawls’ significant contribution to the terms of modern political discourse is inarguable.

This set of lectures will be added to our collection of 140 Free Online Philosophy Courses, a subset of our meta collection: 1100 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Humanist Among Machines

Arnold J. Toynbee photographed in 1967. Photo by Marvin Lichtner/Getty
Arnold J. Toynbee in 1967 (Photo: Marvin Lichtner/Getty)
by , Aeon: http://aeon.co/magazine/society/why-we-need-arnold-toynbees-muscular-humanism/ 

Ian Beacock is an intellectual and cultural historian of modern Europe at Stanford University in California. He lives in San Francisco. Edited by Sam Haselby @HaselbySam.

He was an expert in world civilisations who made the cover of Time magazine in 1947, praised for writing ‘the most provocative work of historical theory … since Karl Marx’s Capital’.

But in September 1921, long before he was the most famous historian in the world, a young Englishman named Arnold Toynbee boarded the Orient Express in Constantinople, bound for London.

Fresh from a nine-month posting as a war correspondent for The Manchester Guardian, Toynbee scribbled down reflections about the shadow side of progress in his notebook, while the Balkans passed silently outside his window.

Modern technology had changed the world for the better, he observed, but it could also wreak great havoc; there was always the risk that ‘the machine may run away with the pilot’.

Human mastery of nature came at a price: in 1921, Europe’s battlefields were still cooling from the heat of industrial warfare and the blood of millions dead. They whispered the terms of this Faustian bargain to anyone who would listen. In the roaring 1920s, not many people were listening.

Europeans wanted better lives and they were certain that scientific progress would provide them. After the devastation of the Great War, rationalisation ruled from London to Moscow: empirical methods and new technologies were adopted to streamline everything from cityscapes to national populations, intellectual work to household chores. Many administrators and activists believed that there was no problem (material, institutional or social) that couldn’t be engineered away.

Sound familiar? Our times are confident, too. We’re optimistic that scientific thinking can explain the world, certain that the solutions to most of our problems are a quick technological fix away. We’ve begun to treat vexing social and political dilemmas as simple design flaws, mistakes to be rectified through a technocratic combination of data science and gadgetry. Progress is no longer a dirty word.

The most influential prophets of this creed are in Silicon Valley in California, where, to the tune of billions of dollars, the tech industry tells a Whiggish tale about the digital ascent of humanity: from our benighted times, we’ll emerge into a brighter future, a happier and more open society in which everything has been measured and engineered into a state of perfect efficiency.

And we’re buying it. We’re eager to optimise our workouts, our sleep patterns, our pregnancies, our policing tactics, our taxi services, and our airline pilots. Even the academy is intrigued.

From spatial history to the neurohumanities, digital methods are the rage. Lecture halls have been targeted for disruption by massive open online courses (MOOCs). Sometimes it seems as though there’s little that can’t be explained by scientific thinking or improved upon through digital innovation.

What are the humanities for at such moments, when we’re so sure of ourselves and our capacity to remake the world?

Toynbee wrestled with this question for decades. He was as curious as anyone about the latest discoveries and innovations, but he rejected the notion that science could explain or improve everything.

And his thoughtful criticism of technology reminds us that poets and historians, artists and scholars must be proud, vocal champions of the humanities as a moral project - especially at moments of breakneck scientific progress. Fluent in the language of crisis and decline, casting about for ways to defend ourselves, today’s humanists could use a little inspiration. We need our spines stiffened. Toynbee might be a man to do it. 

Yet Arnold Toynbee is about as out of fashion as possible. Briefly beloved by the press, he was scorned by his academic peers. Herculean but strewn with errors, his 12-volume account of the rise and fall of world civilisations, A Study of History (1934-61), collects dust on library shelves. But Toynbee confronted his world in admirable and inspiring fashion, a model humanist for technological times.

As a boy, he occasionally spent the night at the home of a family friend who was a distinguished professor of the physical sciences. The best part of these visits was the professor’s library.

The young Toynbee devoured everything he could: literary epics, volumes of poetry, the latest scientific theories, surveys of geology and chemistry and the animal kingdoms (maybe this is where he discovered John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which he allegedly read in three days at the age of seven).

As he grew older, however, Toynbee noticed that the ambitious works he treasured most were being replaced by scientific periodicals: ‘gaunt volumes in grim bindings’, technical and bloodless. This wasn’t intellectual evolution - it was a destructive (and rather lopsided) campaign.

The library had been ‘invaded’, he recalled, the shelves overwhelmed ‘by the relentless advance of half a dozen specialised periodicals … the books retreated as the periodicals advanced.’ Crestfallen, Toynbee found the volumes he’d once loved discarded in the attic, ‘where the Poems of Shelley and The Origin of Species, thrown together in a common exile, shared shelves of a rougher workmanship with the microbes kept on gelatine in glass bottles.’ Year by year, the library grew a little less human: ‘Each time I found the study a less agreeable room to look at and live in than before.’

Toynbee’s intellect was as voracious as his teenage reading habits. An intrepid gentleman scholar, he was anxious to absorb as much of the world as he could. In early photographs he certainly looks the part. Handsome and confident. Dream in the eyes. Dressed to the nines and possessed of a curious, imploring gaze.

His career was glamorous and global in a way that came to his particular generation of well-heeled young Europeans. First, Balliol College in Oxford; then, British intelligence during the First World War, and the Paris peace conference after it. He reported on war crimes in Greece and Turkey, swam across the Euphrates River near Aleppo, sat down with Iraq’s King Faisal and China’s Chiang Kai-shek, crossed the Soviet Union aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway. Even as he became a distinguished professor of history, he lived for the world beyond the ivory tower.

That world was moving forward at unprecedented speed. There was hardly enough time to figure out the latest invention before the next one arrived: the telephone, the wireless telegraph, electric trams, subways, massive ocean liners, airplanes, radio, the movies.

In the 1920s, Europeans were more astonished by mechanisation than anything else; the factory had become both dazzling idol and master metaphor. Fordism and Taylorism (also known as ‘scientific management’) applied the logic of mass production to human beings, calibrating people like cogs in a machine.

Toynbee looked at this popular amalgamation of scientific principles and mechanical processes and gave it a name: the Industrial System, a term he used throughout the first volume of his A Study of History (1934).

It was a perfectly fine approach, he thought, with real explanatory power and impressive achievements. But he bristled at the notion that it could do or explain everything. The problem with the Industrial System was that it didn’t know when to stop, pushing relentlessly into domains where it simply didn’t work.

Take the humanities, for instance. Historians had begun looking to the Industrial System for inspiration, borrowing its language and methods for their own work. Toynbee was scandalised (he shouldn’t have been: historians are scavengers at heart).

In 1934 he decried these developments as the ‘industrialisation of historical thought’ and warned that the results would be absurd at best, catastrophically sterile at worst. Certain historians, he reported, were now referring to their classrooms as ‘laboratories’ to keep up with the times. Toynbee thought this was ridiculous. Seminars, he reminded his readers, were not controlled chemical mixing sites but rather nursery gardens, places for students and ideas to blossom organically.

An even bigger concern was the rise of what we might call assembly-line histories: standardised collections of facts produced by the division of scholarly labour. Toynbee’s primary target was The Cambridge Modern History (1902-12), a 14-volume history of Europe since the Renaissance with four editors and dozens of authors.

He thought that such works were feats of engineering rather than achievements of scholarship: ‘They will take their rank with our stupendous tunnels and bridges and dams and liners and battleships and skyscrapers, and their editors will be remembered among the famous Western engineers.’ Impressive, in other words, but not really history.

Most of all, Toynbee lamented the career of Lord Acton, the late architect and editor of the series. Once ‘one of the greatest minds among modern Western historians’, Acton’s creative intellect had been snuffed out, the great man reduced to assembling facts and chapters by collected authors as though he were working in a factory.

Toynbee’s criticism was anthropological more than anything, a nimble skewering of the grand analogy nestled at the heart of the Industrial System. Human beings were not machines, he insisted. Minds were not factories. ‘In the world of action,’ he wrote in volume one of A Study of History (1934), ‘we know that it is disastrous to treat animals or human beings as though they were stocks and stones. Why should we suppose this treatment to be any less mistaken in the world of ideas?’

It was a deeply Romantic response to modern life: the conviction that what was most essential couldn’t be quantified or measured, that technology risked cleansing the universe of its poetry and meaning. The Industrial System seemed so powerful only because it had shrunk the world, congratulating itself on being able to know and control the fragment that remained. As the American poet Jack Gilbert would put it in ‘Winter Happiness in Greece’ (2009): ‘The world is beyond us even as we own it.’

‘The historical-minded student of human affairs and his scientific-minded confrère are really indispensable to one other as partners in their arduous common undertaking,’ Toynbee insisted in 1961. He was no Luddite. And like the scientists and industrial titans of his age, he thought it was a worthy goal to try and explain everything.

But Toynbee’s was a mosaic universe, variegated and collaborative. Grasping the whole would require every way of thinking that human beings could bring to bear. ‘One must be free to resort to the different methods of the poet, the historian, and the scientist in turn,’ he argued. Today, we could do worse than emulate Toynbee’s genuine and self-reflective brand of intellectual pluralism: ‘No tool is omnicompetent. There is no such thing as a master-key that will unlock all doors.’ 

Intellectual pluralism is important. It’s also pretty unobjectionable as far as banners go, easy to gather a crowd behind. Academics reminding one another to let a hundred flowers bloom are a little bit like politicians calling for a renewed spirit of bipartisanship: not wrong, but really asking only for the lowest common denominator of critical engagement.

Toynbee called for harmony, but he was never one to settle on such safe ground, rather continuing onto more challenging terrain. He dares humanists to imagine a more muscular role for themselves as engaged critics and moral thinkers.

We forget sometimes (or are uncomfortable in saying) that the humanities are at root about questions of value: what it means to lead a good life or how to build a just society. Toynbee never forgot.

Articulate and combative, he understood that humanistic inquiry is a moral enterprise, an unfinished project of exploration and improvement. And he knew that humanists must be crusaders, that their strength lies in their capacity (and willingness) to confront members of the public with hard questions about themselves.

Today, technology cries out for robust criticism. As Toynbee recognised, scientific principles and technical innovations might help us build a better railway, a faster locomotive - but they aren’t very good at telling us who can buy tickets, what direction we should lay the track, or whether we should be taking the train at all. ‘Man,’ he wrote in Civilisation on Trial (1948), ‘cannot live by technology alone.’

Humanists have a professional responsibility to challenge public faith in scientific progress and technological whizzbangery, to question how the future is to be conducted and to whose benefit. It’s our job to make sure that the machine doesn’t run away with the pilot.

There’s no shortage of writing about Silicon Valley, no lack of commentary about how smartphones and algorithms are remaking our lives. The splashiest salvos have come from distinguished humanists. In The New York Times Book Review, Leon Wieseltier, acidly indicted the culture of technology for flattening the capacious human subject into a few lines of computer code.

Rebecca Solnit, in the London Review of Books, rejects the digital life as one of distraction, while angrily documenting the destruction of bohemian San Francisco at the hands of hoodied young software engineers who ride to work aboard luxury buses like “alien overlords”.

Certainly there’s reason to be outraged: much good is being lost in our rush to optimisation. Yet it’s hard not to think that we’ve been so distracted by such totems as the Google Bus that we’re failing to ask the most interesting, constructive, radical questions about our digital times. Technology isn’t going anywhere. The real issue is what to do with it.

Scientific principles and the tools they generate aren’t necessarily liberating. They’re not inherently destructive, either. What matters is how they’re put to use, for which values and in whose interest they’re pressed into service.

Silicon Valley’s most successful companies often present their services as value-free: Google just wants to make the world’s information transparent and accessible; Facebook humbly offers us greater connectivity with the people we care about; Lyft and Airbnb extol the virtues of sharing among friends, new and old. If there are values here, they seem to be fairly innocuous ones. How could you possibly oppose making new friends or learning new things?

Yet each of these high-tech services is motivated by a vision of the world as it ought to be, an influential set of assumptions about how we should live together, what we owe one another as neighbours and citizens, the relationship between community and individual, the boundary between public good and private interest.

Technology comes, in other words, with political baggage. We need critics who can pull back the curtain, who can scrutinise digital technology without either antipathy or boosterism, who can imagine how it might be used differently. We need critics who can ask questions of value.

Our society isn’t very good at asking these kinds of questions. Since the 1970s, the free market has slowly become our master metaphor. Its benchmarks of efficiency and profit have become ours. Our capacity to respond to the world and engage with one another as citizens has eroded, and instead we’ve become consumers in all things, rational actors seeking competitive advantage.

To borrow a phrase from the essay ‘The World We Have Lost’ (2008) by the late British historian Tony Judt: ‘We have forgotten how to think politically’ (say what you will about the men and women of Toynbee’s generation: from far left to extreme right, they certainly had political imagination).

And so while the issues we confront would have been familiar to Toynbee - surging confidence in scientific thinking and technological wizardry - our challenge is in many ways much greater. For we’ve forgotten how to speak the language of value, how to think beyond the market.

Humanists are well-equipped to offer this kind of criticism and we should do so aggressively. The language of value is our mother tongue, after all. Freedom and justice, privacy and the self, right and wrong - these are complex and contested humanistic concepts, not economic or technological ones. What’s more, reimagining the humanities as a robust moral enterprise is the most compelling case we have for their continued relevance in a digital age.

The longer the humanities are roiled by crisis, the more arguments are mooted in their defence. Most of them aren’t getting us very far. They’re technical and small. We tell wary undergraduates that it’s possible to land a job with a literature degree, that in their courses on modernism and Jane Austen they will learn precisely the kind of writing and communication skills employers want.

Most of all, we remind students, administrators and legislators that the humanities teach ‘critical thinking’, a term used so frequently and automatically that it has lost whatever charge it once possessed. Not one of these arguments really captures what the humanities are all about. They fail to seize the imagination. And so the crisis continues.

It’s time for humanists to walk out on a limb. Like Toynbee, we should be as engaged in the world as we are courageous in our convictions. The humanities are most of all a moral enterprise, the pursuit of answers to big questions about how we live together and where we’re going. The stakes are high.

We must remember how to speak the language of value, encouraging our readers and students to ask not simply ‘Is it more efficient?’ or ‘How much does it cost?’ but ‘Is it good or bad? For whom? According to which standard?’

The US novelist Ursula K Le Guin put it well in her speech at the National Book Awards in New York last year when she observed that we need ‘the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies, to other ways of being’.

This is what the humanities are for - not writing better quarterly reports or grabbing a gig in corporate communications - but for posing fundamental questions of value and helping us imagine alternatives to the way we live.

A curious but trenchant critic of science and technology as well as a determined moral thinker, Toynbee can help light the way through the woods for despairing humanists. Neglected and overlooked, he offers a persuasive answer to one of our most troubling questions. What are the humanities for in a technological age? For Toynbee, the answer was clear: to save us from ourselves.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Art of Planning

The art of planning, Creatiespiraal van Marinus Knoopeby Arjenne Louter, the Dutch PhD Coach: http://www.thedutchphdcoach.com/process/the-art-of-planning/

A while ago I reread Marinus Knoope’s book The Creation Spiral (De Creatiespiraal 1998). The book is about the natural cycle from wish to reality, as mentioned in the sub-title.

In the book the writer explains how your wishes can become reality. He compares this cycle with the natural process of growing fruit.

In winter fruit trees are leafless and the roots take up all the energy. In spring, the tree starts to blossom, then the blossom drops and leaves start to appear.

In the summer the tree is completely green and the buds of the blossom start to grow which results in a tree laden with fruit. In autumn the tree lets go of the fruit, followed by the leaves. The tree retracts the energy in its roots, which is much needed for the blooming of the blossom the following spring.

It is a natural cycle. According to Marinus Knoope you can conclude that ‘like the apple tree knows for sure that his blossom will result in fruit, you will know for sure that your wishes are a foreboding of what you will experience’.

How does this translate to your research?

It all started in winter. Once you had the wish to write a thesis, to become a PhD student. You started to visualize how that would be; you imagined it. As a result of this imagination you began to believe that you could actually do it!

Then spring arrives: a new beginning, as it seems. You started to express yourself and stated that you would like to commence your PhD. Probably some people told you that it was a great idea, others gave you tips and from then on you started to investigate what needed to be done to become a PhD student. You made a planning: when should my research proposition be ready, when is the interview and according to the career you envisaged you considered your action plan.

Then summer approaches, the growing season.

You made the decision to start with your plans. You are in the middle of the action; you started your PhD program. And to make sure you realize the wish to be a PhD student you need to persevere, despite all obstacles, troubles and difficulties.

Autumn has arrived with the harvest season. If you persevere you will harvest as well and end up with your PhD title. You will receive all the accolades and best wishes. Appreciation will be laden on you and you will appreciate what you have achieved, you will enjoy this accomplishment! Then you can finally relax and unwind. You can sit back and reflect so new wishes can bubble up. And the cycle can start again.

Your PhD is a continuous cycle of creation for different parts of your research, writing an article, preparing a presentation. But how does this creation spiral relate to good planning?

Marinus Knoope presents some interesting ideas. What is planning? Planning is making a deal with others and yourself. To plan is actually to make a promise, promise that you will do as planned, as far as you can oversee. You make the transition from fantasy to goal-oriented steps, from thinking about research to actually doing it, from thinking about writing to actually compose something. Make sure you don’t lose sight of the fact that your planning is not your goal.

To plan can be a great experience; you are fulfilling your wishes, your ambitions. A planning might give you some pressure, however this pressure should feel confortable otherwise it will be discouraging in stead of stimulating.

A planning without margins or not making a planning at all can be demotivating and might result in procrastination. The art is to plan in such a way that it is stimulating and still realistic.

Unfortunately what happens often when you lose your passion, is that you will use your planning to motivate yourself instead of focusing on your original wish (why did I want to achieve a PhD in the first place?). This won’t work. You feel the lack of passion, you don’t know what you are doing and demotivation seeps in. You will regard your planning in a disorderly and unreliable way. You could end up hating your planning while it is such a helpful instrument.

the art of planning, Creatiespiraal van Marinus Knoope

A phrase from the book: ‘Ask yourself: “Do you plan or are you planned?” Reflect if today’s planning is compliant to the realization of your ideals (which is attaining your PhD!). Is the action point in your diary actually the result of your chosen strategy or at least the strategy that you are passionate about?

A disturbing fact: Knoope says that if you are not motivated you probably are not focused on realizing your wish. The question will then arise: ‘do I really want to attain my PhD?’ or ‘what was the reason why I wanted to be a PhD student?’, ‘what was my ideal?’. If you can answer this question your motivation is usually on the mend.

Do you struggle to answer? Then ask yourself what your wish is. The answer might be not to pursue your PhD.

Do you want to stay informed about all the handy tips, tricks and tools? Receive 244 #phd tips and get the newsletter as a bonus! Register here.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Free Courses in Ancient History, Literature, and Philosophy From the Best Universities


Monday, June 22, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: "Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide"

Helen Kara. Policy Press. April 2015
by Sarah Lewthwaite, Impact of Social Sciences: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2015/06/21/book-review-creative-research-methods-in-the-social-sciences-a-practical-guide/   

Helen Kara’s new book explores the messy realities of research and emerging, creative opportunities. Sarah Lewthwaite finds Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences a reflexive, dialogic book that demands active reading. 

As a creative text for students and teachers, the book is designed to enable and support, rather than prescribe. The book looks at the breadth of innovative research practices and is ideal for those seeking to gain a broad sense of this dynamic field.

This review originally appeared on LSE Review of Books.

Research methods present a particular challenge for academic authors. As Bourdieu (1992: 222) observes, the realities of social research methods require ‘a pedagogy which is completely different from that suited to the teaching of knowledge’.

Over-reliance on knowledge transmission can lead to ‘an idealised and misleading picture of the research process […] which ignores the messy and uncertain reality’ (Hammersley, 2012). Helen Kara’s new book Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide actively seeks to meet this challenge.

Its explicit focus on creative methods practice is matched with an acute awareness of the need to disrupt any tendency towards empiricist foundationalism and the ‘facts’ of research practice. Kara foregrounds uncertainty in a refreshingly open and accessible introduction to an expressive and enriching field.

Kara observes that ‘uncertainty is closely linked with creativity’ (Grishin 2008:115, and others), and there is a delicate balance to be struck between generic principles and the situated perspectives that advanced methods demand. To this end, Creative Research Methods delivers early chapters focussed on notions of creativity, approaches to creative thinking, the relation between creativity and ethics.

The methods discussion introduces arts-based research methods, research using technology and mixed-methods research as particular streams of innovation and interest. Across these and ensuing chapters, Kara maintains an emphasis on contextual decision-making; she highlights key research decisions necessary to any project, whilst gesturing to alternative approaches and discourses that might supply ways forward or issues for consideration.

In this sense, Creative Research Methods is a reflexive, dialogic book that demands active reading. As a creative text for students and teachers, the book is designed to enable and support, rather than prescribe.

Creative Research Methods also maintains an overt connection to the messy realities of research. In the research methods classroom, this is frequently expressed in emphasis on apprenticeship, student-centred and experiential learning, authentic involvement, tacit knowledge and learning-by-doing (Kilburn, Nind and Wiles, 2014).

To the same end, Kara punctuates her book with an intricate patchwork of dozens of carefully selected examples, vignettes and case studies that give the text a rich and ‘thick’ feel, connecting the reader to a wealth of literature.

Chapters on ‘gathering data’ and ‘analysing data’ introduce and demonstrate a myriad of approaches and techniques. Methods such as focus groups, diary method and photo-elicitation, are given fresh insight and advanced and niche approaches such as use of ‘grey’ literature, critical communication methodology (CCM), ethnotheatre, crystallisation, Open Space Technology, bricolage and re-mix (to name a few) are introduced.

The book moves easily through visual analysis, data integration, drawing, mapping, shadowing, vignettes, personal history and time-based analysis practices amongst others. A landscape of creative analysis from screenplay writing, poems, photographs and diagrammatic metaphors is clearly drawn, with a powerful cumulative effect.

Carnivale. Photo Credit: Faith Goble. CC-BY
Carnivale. Photo Credit: Faith Goble. CC-BY

Amongst cross-cutting themes, arts-based research methods are most vividly engaged and given space to inspire. Technology-enhanced and digital methods are not as clearly depicted in creative terms as other themed areas (mixed-methods, participatory and emancipatory, and transformative methodologies).

Kara quotes Gangadharbatla (2010: 225) to observe that ‘Technology itself has an influence on people’s creativity, yet the role of technology in the creative process has not yet been fully understood or theorised’. This may neglect what some disciplines say about how new technologies relate to innovative socio-cultural practices with direct implications for research methods.

At the risk of reviewing the book I wanted to read, rather than the book Kara set out to write - I would have welcomed a larger discussion of technology and innovation in the development creative methods.

Following analysis sections, chapter 7 ‘Writing for Research’ focuses on writing within research as a creative act - from reflexive writing strategies within the research process (through journals, blogs and devices such as I-poems) to a dissection of authorial ‘voice’ in its active and passive form at the level of the text, or showcasing opportunities to develop narrative modes of qualitative reporting such as screenplays, memoir, poetry and prose.

Kara moves to examine research ‘presentation’ in Chapter 8. This is usefully framed with a strong ethical dimension and attention to emotional impact amongst other critical issues. Ethnodrama, graphic novels, pantomime, stand-up comedy, props, and multi-media amongst others are discussed in applied terms.

However, given the burgeoning world of data visualisation, I had hoped to see more dynamic use of images in this section - there is a discussion on the presentation of quantitative data that works as a basic primer, but there is less space given to #dataviz. Where culturegrams, schematic diagrams, photo-essay, dance and infographics are mentioned, they are not visually illustrated.

This gap in the text could have been mitigated using online media, indeed, where links to video, blogs, podcasts and other relevant multi-media are available, an icon is shown in the margin. These icons are scattered across the book. However, whilst they do indicate the availability of online resources, the system employed is counter-intuitive.

Where the icons appear, there are no links, and at times searchable terms appear to have been removed. This leads to occasional bland statements as readers are unhelpfully funnelled through the companion website to resources that are otherwise public and directly, available.

For example, ‘A video about photo-elicitation can be viewed online’ (p85) refers to a YouTube film by Rao, Jackowitz and Miller, which in turn draws on Loeffler (2004). A name, title or link would allow readers to get straight to relevant content. This is a surprisingly obtuse aspect of a book that is otherwise generous and accessible in its style and approach. Links, QR codes, or even the direct, if historic, style of referencing that academic papers are granted would have served this content better.

The website itself will be a welcome resource for teachers and students of creative research methods, however, for readers who want to engage quickly with the supra-text, this gatekeeper mode of delivery turns the companion website from an optional resource into a necessary hurdle.

Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences opens a window onto some of the most innovative contemporary social research practices. It will reward active readers, new scholars, researchers and those seeking to gain a sense of this dynamic field. The book reflexively chooses breadth over depth, and in doing so provides an accessible route into more challenging terrain.
Sarah Lewthwaite is a research fellow at the ESRC National Centre for Research Methods, University of Southampton where she is conducting research into the teaching and learning of advanced research methods on the Pedagogy of Methodological Learning project with Prof. Melanie Nind. Sarah can be reached on twitter via @slewth

Friday, June 19, 2015

First Among Equals? Recommendations and Guidelines for Deciding Who Gets Authorship Credit

Image credit: Lisby (Flickr) CC-BY
by Emma-Louise Aveling and Graham Martin, Impact of Social Sciences: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2015/06/18/first-among-equals-guidelines-authorship-credit/

Across all disciplines, the course of determining authorship does not always run smoothly.

Emma-Louise Aveling and Graham Martin argue that with funders pushing for wider collaboration, dilemmas about how to allocate authorship fairly is set to intensify. 

They present guidelines for research teams to consider. To ensure all decisions remain transparent, start discussions on authorship credit early on in the research process.

If there’s anything actors get their egos in a twist about, it’s who gets top billing in a play or movie. If there’s only one big star, it’s easy, but what if there’re two or three?

Well, there’s staggered but equal billing - where the name on the left is placed lower than the one on the right - or a triangle. If it’s an ensemble cast, the names might be listed alphabetically. Then there’s the uncredited role, which in itself is a badge of honour - a really famous face doesn’t need to be named, right?

‘Billing’ on academic papers can be just as fraught: authorship order can make a big difference to academics’ careers. Researchers argue over who should be listed as an author on a paper and who shouldn’t, and then over where everyone should go - first, second, third and so on, until last.

In the social sciences, the first author is usually the one who designs the study, carries out or oversees most of the research, and possibly does most of the writing and editing of the manuscript.

Being first author is thus an indication of who should get most credit for the research being reported, and is regarded as the most prestigious position. The list of trailing co-authors reflects, typically, diminishing contributions to the work reported in the manuscript. The authors who follow on may have collected or analysed some of the data, or helped to write the manuscript, or some sections of it.

However, in other fields, such as medicine and the natural sciences, authorship positions have different connotations. For example, while the first author is likely to be the researcher who did most of the actual research (e.g. conducting experiments), the last author position does not connote the smallest contribution, as it does in the social sciences.

Rather, the last author will probably be the person who made a large research project happen in the first place - getting funding, running the lab that produced the research, establishing collaborations. In the natural sciences, then, the first and last authors are the ones who really matter.

There are good reasons for concerns over authorship, egos aside. An extreme example is that of the scientist Jocelyn Bell, who discovered radio pulsars in 1967. Some people think she lost out on the 1974 Nobel Prize for Physics because on the paper announcing the findings Bell was listed as second author to her supervisor (and winner) Antony Hewish.

Recently, close to home, historian Dr John Ashdown-Hill of the Richard III project claimed that our university (Leicester) failed to acknowledge his crucial contribution to the discovery of the king’s remains (the university denies this).

More prosaically, a good track record of first- or last-author publications can determine pay, promotion, even public recognition. The Big Bang Theory and the Piled Higher and Deeper comic strip satirise the importance academics attach to authorship position.

More seriously, though, ‘gift authorship’ (listing someone as an author who did not actually contribute to the research) or ‘ghost authorship’ (missing someone who should have been an author off the list) risk undermining the integrity of the research itself, or even discrediting academic research more generally if such falsification or exploitative practices are seen to be rife.

We expect more discord. Researchers working in the natural sciences are used to collaborating on papers involving dozens, even hundreds of authors. But in the arts, humanities and social sciences, single-authored papers are common and - crucially - traditionally considered more prestigious.

That’s all changing: public funders are increasingly looking at the impact of research on wider society when allocating grants - and they like research between different disciplines, across international borders and with other professions. Within the field of health, where we work, there’s been a push towards collaborative global research from funders such as the Wellcome Trust Major Overseas Programmes and the Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges.

While such collaborations bring many advantages, they can also intensify dilemmas about how to allocate authorship fairly for research groups like the one we work with, SAPPHIRE (Social science APPlied to Healthcare Improvement REsearch).

We conduct studies that are applied in focus (e.g. evaluating patient safety interventions) but use social science theory and methods. We work on large projects involving multiple researchers (academic staff and contracted researchers and health professionals) in different roles - as principal investigators, co-investigators, research collaborators, data collectors, data analysts and project managers, not to mention all the other tasks involved in the actual drafting and re-drafting of reports and academic papers.

We like to think of ourselves as fair-minded and supportive of our immediate colleagues and collaborators elsewhere, but as in so many academic centres around the world, the course of (true) authorship does not always run smoothly.

We found ourselves faced with a number of dilemmas at the start of a big project. How would we weigh up the contribution of someone who had done hours of painstaking data coding and analysis versus another with good language skills who has written and edited large parts of the manuscript? What do we do about a project manager who is particularly efficient, organised and tech-savvy, who gets lumped with administrative duties and so doesn’t get the opportunity to make a ‘contribution’ worthy of authorship?

Our position as group of (mainly) social scientists publishing in applied fields of healthcare and medicine exacerbated the dilemmas. Junior researchers - often fresh from the singular pursuit of a social science PhD, pumped full of careers advice that chances of a permanent job rested on proving their academic mettle through single-authored or first-authored papers - brought one perspective.

More senior researchers - with greater experience of the work that went into making a large research project happen in the first place (often before junior researchers had been recruited) and of producing papers that would be accepted by a highly ranked international journal - brought another. Our colleagues and collaborators in medicine, yet another …

Wanting to avoid the potential for discord, we looked at existing guidelines from a number of associations, from the British Psychological Society (BPS) to the the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE), and found them wanting.

The different guidelines were not always consistent, and where they were - for example, in insisting on a ‘significant’ or ‘substantial’ contribution - they lacked guidance on what actually constituted a ‘significant’ contribution. Most lacked specific guidance on authorship order.

So we set about a process of developing and reaching consensus on our own guidelines for authorship.

We viewed it almost as a research study in itself: over nine months we synthesised existing guidelines (our literature review), we went through a set of scenarios, each of which described a real situation where authorship allocation was not straightforward (our methodology), we drafted an initial set of authorship guidelines and good practice tips (our findings), and we arrived at a set of principles (our conclusions) which we think could form the basis of future fruitful collaborations.

Here’s what we recommend:
  • Don’t leave decisions about authorship until the paper has already been written! Start discussions early on in the research project, and make sure everyone is included
  • Find a way to make the decision-making process transparent - e.g. by keeping a ‘log’ of each person’s contribution to the research and the writing
  • Agree as a group what constitutes a ‘significant’ contribution worthy of authorship, and how different types of contribution are (more or less) valued
  • For large projects, what constitutes ‘fair’ allocation of authorship needs to be considered at the project (and possibly research group) level - not just on a paper by paper basis
  • Have an agreed for procedure for what to do if disputes do arise, and make sure junior researchers feel able to discuss their concerns with another senior researcher (outside of the project, if need be)
Ah, but here’s the rub - did we follow our own advice? For the principles, we agreed that as everyone in the group at the time had participated in the process, and, as far as possible, consensus was reached, everyone should get a ‘byline’, with the person who led the guidelines first, and others (who had contributed roughly evenly) in alphabetical order thereafter.

This article had three authors: Emma-Louise, who generated the piece, Christine, who turned these thoughts into journalism-speak, and Graham, who (as the academic saying goes) critically reviewed the text and made substantive contributions.

As academics, Emma-Louise and Graham share the byline. Our communications person, Christine, isn’t an academic and so doesn’t get a byline in this context. All amicably agreed over a drink at the pub. If only it were always so easy.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our Comments Policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the Authors

Dr Emma-Louise Aveling is Research Fellow, Department of Health Sciences, University of Leicester & Visiting Scientist, Harvard T.H.Chan School of Public Health.

Professor Graham Martin is Professor of Health Policy and Organisation, Department of Health Sciences, University of Leicester.

Contract Teaching: Taking a Toll

Help!by Severin Karantonis, The AIM Network: http://theaimn.com/contract-teaching-taking-a-toll/

A union survey has revealed a jump in the number of new Victorian teachers on short-term contracts.

According to the Australian Education Union (AEU), close to two-thirds of teachers in their first five years on the job are employed on fixed-term contracts.

The number of new teachers employed in ongoing positions has dropped 10 percentage points since the union surveyed its members last year.

“Try working on a ten-week contract, trying to learn the curriculum, 120 student names, 25 teacher names, inventing your own resources, putting up with screaming, swearing, abuse and going home at night to apply for other jobs and being scared to death you won’t get one”, writes one such teacher venting on an online forum. “You can’t focus on teaching when you have to write extremely long detailed applications for other positions every night.”

Australian teachers, on average, are also working almost five hours a week longer than teachers in other industrialised countries, according to research published by the OECD in its June Teaching and Learning International Survey.

At an average of 42.7 hours a week, Australian teachers work 10 hours longer than their counterparts in Finland, the international poster child for student outcomes. But the OECD figure is likely an underestimate.

“I’d love to know what teachers get done on 42 hours of work a week”, commented one teacher in response to the OECD study results. A Teachers Health Fund survey last year found that in Queensland a 54-hour week is typical. A study by Monash University researchers exposes the toll that long hours take on student-teacher relationships, detailing that more than one in four new teachers suffers from “emotional exhaustion”.

Speaking to the Age, Professor Helen Watt explained that this group report “much greater negativity in their interaction with students, such as using sarcasm, aggression, responding negatively to mistakes”.

The strain isn’t made easier by the perception that teachers have it easy. LNP Governments are eager to distract from their cuts to the public system, and love the lazy and incompetent teacher trope. In reality, teachers shoulder the impossible task of patching up the holes left in the system by indifferent governments. Conditions for teachers since union militancy peaked in the 1970s have stagnated at best, and in many ways worsened.

Sometimes where I work, in the western suburbs of Melbourne, I hear older teachers fondly reminisce about how things used to be. During my placement, I shared an office with a teacher who recalled what it was like when lunchtime was actually a time you could eat your lunch. Some teachers would play cards, he said.

Other teachers remember the culture of militancy before the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association was amalgamated into today’s AEU.

One who’d started teaching in the early 70s explained that back then they would walk out of the room if there were more than 25 heads in a class or if the maximum face-to-face hours set by the union were exceeded. In that period, the hated inspection system was abolished - an important victory - only to have the Performance Development system thrust upon us last year.

To reverse this trend, we need much more than the AEU’s current strategy of limited set-piece actions during EBA periods, and lobbying or pinning hope on Labor. It wasn’t always easy then, but when teachers used sustained industrial action, state-wide but also importantly at the local grassroots, they won substantial improvements.

Today we face our own challenges, with no-strike clauses so far keeping a lid on the local actions that were so important then, but there’s no doubt that a great many teachers (and support staff) are rightly dissatisfied and angry. This needs to be the basis for a revival of our compelling example of fighting unionism, not idle reminiscing.

This post originally appeared on Red Flag.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Finishing the PhD – Or What Happens to Otherwise Normal People in the Last Few Months of the PhD?

Exploading mind pic for claireby Claire Aitchison, Doctoral Writing: https://doctoralwriting.wordpress.com/2015/06/18/finishing-the-phd-or-what-happens-to-otherwise-normal-people-in-the-last-few-months-of-the-phd/

There should be a warning to family and friends about what happens in the final stages of the PhD and it should read something like this:

WARNING: Do not try to communicate or interfere with this person. Advance at your peril. If possible, for your safety, STAY AWAY.

In preparation for a workshop on the final stages of doing a PhD, I asked my family for their thoughts. As quick as a flash, the following words were thrown around the dinner table: obsessive, self-absorbed, single-minded, vague, emotional. They seemed to be talking about me.

When I tell this story it always gets a good reception because anyone who has done a PhD will immediately recognise these behaviours.

And that’s because at the end stages of the doctorate - people change. Take comfort: it is reversible! Bringing 3-5 years of work to completion requires significant mental effort, at times bordering on overload. There isn’t a lot of space left for getting the shopping right, listening to homework squabbles, thinking about dinner.

First, there is so much to do. In order to juggle the multiple demands of tweaking the text, re-checking calculations and results, revisiting arguments, citation choices and theories, sorting Endnote blips and so on, and so on, one has to block out peripheral, less important things. The primary final stages task is to bring all the components together into a coherent and unified entity. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. It is a big job.

Second, this can be a time of major emotional labouring. The stakes are high and time is tight. Nerves can fray and relationships become strained - both at home and between student and supervisor. In many ways those irritating but levelling parts of normal life (cooking, doing the dishes, family time and even working) can become valuable safety valves for releasing tension, forgetting the pressure, and keeping a sense of humour.

Another way to keep yourself sane is to begin (at least 4-8 months prior to the target submission date) to deal with the many important final stages tasks.

Final stages tasks:
  • Do a complete raincheck on what you have done - and what you have yet to do (vis a vis research and writing)
  • Get the latest versions of the rules and procedures for completion, submission and examination (they are likely to have changed since you enrolled)
  • Find and follow your institution’s ‘Countdown check list’
  • Ensure the Grad School has the right information about you and your project (you don’t want them reading out your former married name at Graduation)
  • Suss out a good proofreading/editing service
  • Budget for the final stages (costs may include editing and printing services, conferences, you may have to give up work for a period of time)
  • Plan what you will do after submission (eg take a holiday or polish off a couple of journal articles?)
Monitor your time very carefully making a time line that includes:
  • Final, final, revisions, edits and reviews - of each chapter - and the whole manuscript (including referencing, tables and figures). AVOID NEW WRITING/last minute brain waves - BUT do take action if it is really necessary
  • Supervisor availability and turnaround for final reviewing of chapters
  • 1-3 weeks for external editing, proofreading and layout
  • Time to discuss and plan for possible examiners (see last week’s post, and watch out for our next one)
  • Time for nomination, communication and approval of examiners (this process is usually conducted by the Grad School and it doesn’t happen overnight)
  • One week for printing and/making a digital version as required
Final stages writing

Here’s a quick check list for some of the final (is that word ever going to come to fruition!?) writing tasks.
  • Lock in the title
  • (Re)write the Abstract
  • Use your Table of Contents as a mechanism for reviewing logical consistency and structural cohesion. It must make sense on its own and also when read embedded within the manuscript
  • Everything you do now must be considered in terms of the project as a whole; whatever changes you make must be cognisant of the overall integrity of the argument or message. The Table of Contents will be your constant guide
  • Attend very carefully to reviewing your Introduction to check that your research problem, research questions, methodology and results - do, in fact, match what you ended up doing
  • Review your Introduction and Conclusion chapters against each other. They should ‘speak to each other’ working as book ends to hold the content together
Final stages editing

Even if you plan to send your thesis to an external proof-reader it is wise (and economical) to make the document as perfect as possible beforehand. Don’t underestimate the time this can take. One approach to editing is to review the thesis on 3 levels:
  1. Manuscript overview - review the whole document for cohesion and consistency of genre, voice, presentation, intellectual integrity, formatting and referencing style. Take the time to go through the whole document checking references for accuracy, style consistency, missing page numbers, and always double check their location (and presentation) in the Reference List
  2. Macro - check for consistency of structure, sequence and hierarchy of segments, paragraphing, and balanced chapters
  3. Micro - check for spelling, punctuation and sentence level grammar
So close and yet so far

Often doctoral students think that once the hard work of data collection and analysis is done that they are on the homeward track and completion is just weeks away. Sadly, this is rarely the case as these final stages can often stretch out for months and months.

It can get disheartening, and you don’t want to run out of steam, so - in addition to all the other tasks - see if you can schedule a break somewhere in the last months to rejuvenate your mind and your body (and supervisors may also benefit from setting it aside for a week or two). Both you and the thesis will be better for it!

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: "Writing Groups for Doctoral Education and Beyond"

Paul Farrelly is a PhD candidate in the Australian Centre on China in the World. In addition to researching the cultural history of New Age religion in Taiwan, he is also a contributing editor at The China Story. Paul is on Twitter at @paul_farrelly.

Book review: Writing Groups for Doctoral Education and Beyond: Innovations in practice and theory

Most PhD students enter their candidature having been praised throughout their education as “smart” and, perhaps, “a good writer”. Left unsupported these qualities cannot be relied on to produce the type of extended, coherent and innovative research necessary to satisfy doctoral supervisory panels and examination committees.

Writing a thesis will almost certainly be more intellectually demanding than any prior work and not having written anything as long or complex can be intimidating.

In recent decades the act of writing has been increasingly recognised as an important academic skill. It has direct implications for employment and departmental income streams. Writing is a practice that needs to be fostered.

In light of such pressures, writing groups are one way that PhD students have been encouraged to develop a sustainable and productive writing habit. Writing Groups for Doctoral Education and Beyond: Innovations in practice and theory (Routledge, 2014) offers a range of theoretical insights and practical reflections on writing groups for doctoral candidates.

As Anthony Paré noted in his context-setting chapter on theoretical and historical perspectives on writing groups, “Almost 50 years of arguments support a collaborative approach to learning, and still students compose alone” (p.24). Writing groups are one such collaborative approach and something that probably requires more consideration from the wider academic community.

I am reviewing this book not as an expert in the field, but rather as an enthusiastic participant in PhD writing groups. Like Glenda Caldwell (pp.227-228), I too enjoyed team sports in my youth and found the supportive dynamic of teams to reappear at times in the three writing groups I have participated in while at ANU:
  1. A centrally organised group of three. Set up after a university-wide writing group workshop in mid-2011, we sustained this group for about six months until fieldwork intervened and we lost momentum. It comprised one member from the humanities (me) and two from the social sciences.
  2. A group selected by a post-doctoral researcher. All members were focussed on East Asia and were primarily historians, with one anthropologist. Once again, this group also lost momentum (again primarily due to fieldwork absences) and folded in late 2013 after about 9 months.
  3. The ‘thesis boot camp’ organised by the research skills and training team headed by Inger Mewburn. I went to the first boot camp in January 2014 and since then have attended nearly all the monthly ‘veterans’ days’. Members are mainly later-year PhD candidates from across the campus. Like a flab-busting boot camp, I think the benefits of this method are most apparent over the long term when sustained practice follows the initial intense burst of training.
With this brief but varied experience, I was able to relate to many of the situations discussed in Writing Groups. In reading the various chapters I explored the text in two ways:
  1. As a critical investigation and theoretically informed appraisal of the pedagogy of PhD writing groups; and
  2. As an evidence-based assessment of a wide range of writing groups where knowledge is produced in an institutionalised environment.
It was in the second point where I found great value in this book.

Writing Groups is divided into 15 chapters, each of which is less than 20 pages long. As you would expect from professional writing instructors, the text is uniformly clear and pleasant to read. While two authors introduce theory that almost overwhelms their empirical material, the intention of the book - reflections and analysis on the pedagogy of PhD writing groups - remains present throughout.

There is a significant body of work about PhD writing groups freely available online which begs the question - why buy and read this book? The authors in Writing Groups offer a deeper and more considered critique than what is often found online and the extensive bibliographies provide the engaged reader with many departure points for further research.

Most importantly, Writing Groups is built around observations grounded in years of practice and experimentation. Reading such considered accounts of doctoral writing groups was fascinating.

About two thirds of the chapters drew extensively on the voices of workshop participants, as gathered through surveys and other data collection. While there is a risk that promoting participant voices can distract the reader (particularly with block quotations), I found such quotations to be one the book’s strengths.

In directly inserting the (selected) voices of writers into the text, the authors made their workshops and the subsequent analysis both real and relevant.

Defining a writing group very broadly (“more than two people come together to work on their writing in a sustained way, over repeated gatherings, for doing, discussing or sharing their writing for agreed purposes” p.7), the authors explored the topic from a range of perspectives.

While the examples all drew upon experiences in Western universities (admittedly from many different countries), the different formats (shut up and write, marathon, weekend retreat, student and supervisor together) and different cohorts (women, multilingual, design/practice-led) lent Writing Groups a solid and distinct foundation upon which authors could build their analysis.

There is a recurring theme that writing groups are safe places where students can experiment and develop. Yet Writing Groups is not a complete love-in (despite all writers supporting the concept). Doreen Starke-Meyerring, in her chapter ‘Writing Groups as Critical Spaces’ offered some critical reflection on the limits and risks of writing groups.

In her conclusion, Starke-Meyerring posed the poignant question “Created under pressure to make doctoral writing happen in institutional cultures that marginalize writing, do writing groups run the risk of research becoming ad hoc, add-on spaces where doctoral writing is kept apart from the research cultures doctoral students are entering?” (p.79). This is an important consideration.

In my school two thirds of PhD candidates are non-native speakers of English. Having shared many conversations about the challenges of churning out a thesis, I feel the general anxiety about dissertation writing is slightly more present in this cohort.

Linda Li’s chapter ‘Scaffolding the thesis writing process: An ongoing writing group for international research students’ emphasised the importance of recognising the diverse experiences and needs of non-native speakers of English. For me this chapter was particularly useful, and would be relevant to anyone in Australia considering PhD writing groups.

As a dedicated writing group participant, I found Writing Groups to be informative and affirming. For better or for worse, writing is the act upon which academic success is gauged and this book appears as part of the growing interest in group work and how writing habits can be fostered among graduate students. It enabled me to self-reflexively reconsider my writing habits when in a group and when on my own.

Importantly, readers will be left with no doubt that just as there is no perfect way to write a thesis, there is also no perfect way to conduct a writing group. The social and collaborative nature of writing groups lends them a malleability that needs to be considered for each situation. That said, feedback and support are important dimensions of any successful group.

Not surprisingly, I recommend Writing Groups for those who are involved in a writing group, or who are considering starting one. If you are trying to convince a sceptical administrator or professor of the value of a writing group, then referring to such a theoretically-informed and well-referenced book will be helpful.

I hope that application of the findings in Writing Groups will see the proliferation of successful writing groups, and that the act of writing a doctoral dissertation ultimately become smoother for all involved.

Thanks Paul! What about you? Are you a regular member of a writing group? What value do you see in participating in one?

Buy this book from this link and your purchase will benefit The Thesis Whisperer.

Mud Pies and Green Spaces: Why Children Do Better When They Can Get Outdoors

Pupils relax and play football after school on...
Pupils relax and play football on The Green (Wikipedia)
by , Schools Improvement: http://schoolsimprovement.net/mud-pies-and-green-spaces-why-children-do-better-when-they-can-get-outdoors/

Writing in the Conversation, Stirling University’s Greg Mannion looks at new research suggesting time spent in green places can improve cognitive development …

The first warm weather here in the UK generally means a few things - the impending start of tennis at Wimbledon, school examination time, and the smell of cut grass. Inevitably, pupils and teachers start to wish they were outdoors and not stuck in a classroom.

There is now a growing body of evidence why teachers should respond to these urges and incorporate outdoor places into their teaching and the school day more widely.

A new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by a team of researchers from Spain, Norway, and the US found that time spent near or in green places, especially those in and around schools, can improve learners’ cognitive development.

Payam Dadvand and colleagues found that pupils’ ability in memory tasks and to maintain attention improved over time if their schools had green spaces on their campus and nearby.

The study involved 2,500 children aged seven to ten in Barcelona, who were tested every three months over a 12-month period. The researchers found small but significant improvements in “working memory”, “superior working memory” and “attentiveness” in pupils with green areas near and in their schools. Importantly, in this rigorous study, the effects of greenness were found regardless of the socio-economic background and education of parents.

The Spanish-led team sought mainly to explain and explore the medical reasons for their findings. It could be, the authors argue, that with green spaces children are less exposed to traffic and the kinds of pollutants that are likely to negatively influence development, especially at the younger ages.

There are also possible explanations such as the reduction of noise, the likelihood that children will be more active, and, the presence of natural microbes - which I think we can take to mean that “making mud pies” is good for your development.

Good for well-being

We have some way to go to grasp the other knock-on effects of green space. For example, we know from other studies that exercising in green spaces and greenness in one’s neighbourhood improves mental health through lowering the risk of anxiety and depression. It could be that happier children are better able to learn too.

Finnish psychologist Kalevi Korpela has done useful work in this area. He found that spending “time out”, time alone or times in one’s favourite place in nature have positive effects: reducing stress levels, muscle tension, heart rate and other physiological factors.

It has been argued that being alone in nature is “restorative” for us, allowing us to clear our minds, and deal with our troubles, and feel better about ourselves. It even appears that the more stressed you are, the more likely that this solo time in nature will be the prescription required.

Different “dosages” of green space can have a range of different effects on different kinds of people that are only recently being uncovered. Richard Mitchell’s work in Scotland has found that access to green or recreational areas led to a narrowing of the differences between rich and poor on some measures around mental health.

Another recent study looked at how even visually experiencing nature - in this case looking at photos and videos - may increase one’s disposition to cooperate and to engage in certain actions. For some, the type and duration of the required “dose” of green space in our increasingly urbanised settings is an important consideration as we move towards deeper understandings of its effects.

Greening the curriculum

Lacking in much of the research reported upon above is any in-depth consideration of the way people’s engagement with nature and green spaces are influenced by society and culture, and by the types of natural places they go to.

In education, we need to do more work to understand better how pupils are using green spaces for travel to and from school, during playtime, and within the curriculum.

Given the wider literature on the effects of having green spaces nearby, we might expect that engaging in more purposeful activity in nature for educational ends (rather than merely looking at it or having it nearby) will boost pupil’s achievements and attainment. In my own research, funded by a consortium led by Scottish Natural Heritage in Scotland, we looked at the provision of outdoor learning opportunities for children.

Our study used teacher’s reports on pupil’s experience of over 1,000 lessons outdoors. We noted that outdoor educational provision had increased between 2006 and 2014. But, it was striking that outdoor experiences in green areas (such as parks, gardens, wildlife areas and woodland) were comprehensively seen by teachers as important for both increasing learner engagement and enhancing pupils’ “challenge and enjoyment”. This finding seems worthy of further investigation.

It seems that research across many areas and disciplines now needs to be combined to fully understand the green uplift effect in many aspects of education, health, development and well-being, particularly for young people.

The majority of us will soon be living in cities worldwide so there are new and important reasons for planning for green space in all local areas but within and around schools and pre-schools. In the meantime, I suggest that we should begin to green our educational provision - and our own backyards and schoolyards are certainly a good place to begin.