As so often happens, a post by Pat Thomson recently caught my imagination and left me thinking more deeply about an aspect of my own academic experience. There are lots of reasons I find the mechanics of postgraduate education interesting, foremost amongst which is probably the fact I’ve been one for rather a long time (and don’t feel like I will have stopped being one until my viva in September). But this personal dimension to my interest goes hand-in-hand with an intellectual fascination in the process by which postgraduate education is responsible for the reproduction of disciplines (or failure thereof). It has a similar importance for the university as an institution (today’s graduate students are tomorrow’s academics) and to actually existing HEI’s as organisations (today’s graduate students are today’s underpaid teaching assistants and tomorrow’s precariously employed lecturers – not to mention financial assets). When we look at this nexus (intellectual disciplines, higher education and specific universities) and the manifold tensions within it, it’s important not to forget the individual lives unfolding through it, as reflexive individuals try and negotiate a way through circumstances which may not be what they expected prior to choosing, drifting or being placed in postgraduate education but nonetheless constitute the reality they find once they are there (so basically S-A-C to anyone familiar with the latest realist lingo). Some of them may already know each other, they meet many others, develop enduring friendships (or resentments) and coalesce into networks which incorporate into and extend beyond the existing structure of social relations they initially encountered within these organisations and disciplines. They develop commitments to shared projects and values, unite around share identifications and even sometimes organise collectively (though usually not). They experiment with (and within) existing institutional forms, organising events, supporting certain norms (often implicitly propagating others) and both aggregatively and collectively begin to contribute to the reproduction or transformation of this complex system within which they were once so starkly peripheral, in spite of their notional centrality to the life of the organisation.

My point is that the way in which higher education changes is very complex but that the converging movements of graduate students into the system is crucial to understanding the dynamics we find within it. The issue patter’s post raised for me, which I’ve obsessed about from time to time but struggled to articulate clearly is: are graduate students becoming more reflexive and, if so, what are the implications of this for higher education? For younger graduate students, I’d argue this reflexive imperative reflects a broader set of social processes, though would certainly accept the reality of social inertia being facilitated by privilege. I’d argue that pursuing education at a later age is inherently reflexive (see the late John Alford’s PhD thesis which I’d love to help get published at some point). But does higher education itself lead to an intensification of this reflexivity and, if so, what are its implications for the system itself? This is where I found patter’s post so thought provoking and helpful. The post is definitely worth reading in full.

The plethora of advice books (Kamler & Thomson, 2008) were probably the first major indication of the trend to de-institutionalise doctoral education through DIY pedagogy. The advent of social media has exponentially accelerated it. Doctoral researchers can now access a range of websites such as LitReviewHQPhD2Published and The Three Month Thesis youtube channel. They can read blogs written by researchers and academic developers e.g. Thesis WhispererDoctoral Writing SIGExplorations of Style, and of course this one. They can synchronously chat on social media about research via general hashtags #phdchat #phdforum and #acwri, or discipline specific hashtags such as #twitterstorians or #socphd. They can buy webinars, coaching and courses in almost all aspects of doctoral research. Doctoral researchers are also themselves increasingly blogging about their own experiences and some are also offering advice to others. Much of this socially mediated DIY activity is international, cross-disciplinary and all day/all night.

We know too little about how doctoral researchers weigh up the advice they get from social media compared to that of their institutional grad school and their supervisors. We also don’t know much about how supervisors engage with this DIY sphere, particularly about how much they talk with their supervisees about what they are doing online. We don’t know what support doctoral researchers get to work out what is good and bad online advice. We don’t know how supervisors and academic developers build on what doctoral researchers are learning elsewhere.

As someone who is engaged in this DIY field with books, blogs and twitter, it seems pretty apparent to me that something is happening here and we (collectively) don’t know what it is. It’s largely outside the normative audit oriented training processes that Green and Lee were so concerned about. It’s a field which is fragmented, partially marketised, unregulated and a bit feral. But it’s big, it’s powerful, more and more doctoral researchers are into it, and it is profoundly pedagogical. I’m concerned that British universities are generally (and of course there are exceptions, but mostly this is the case)not helping supervisors to think about this DIY supervision trend and what it means for how doctoral education is changing – and crucially, what the implications for their supervision practices might be.

http://patthomson.wordpress.com/2014/06/16/are-we-heading-for-a-diy-phd/

I find the implications of this fascinating. If DIY educational practices are becoming a dominant feature of postgraduate education then what are the implications of this for how disciplines reproduce themselves and how higher education reproduces itself? I think there’s important work to be done both in mapping this trend empirically – clearly the social media sphere is integral to this (it has been to my own DIY PhD) but it extends much more broadly. Are there more reading groups, informal seminars, DIY conferences than have previously been the case? Do universities support these activities or are people creatively using the affordances provided by social media to organise outside of their institutions? Is the nascent industry of online coaching and training likely to grow and what are the implications of this? How do ‘para-academics’ and ‘alt-academics’ figure into this trend?

To what extent do precarious working practices explain this tendency and to what extent are they reinforced by it? If it’s becoming more common (note the if, I’m conscious of the risk of assuming a linearity to a change) to work as a research assistant outside the context of your doctoral education then how does this change your orientation towards your PhD itself? Does the reflexivity made imperative by a precarious labour market devoid of full time work (let alone ongoing contracts) for postgraduate students inculcate a greater degree of reflexivity about their studies? Is this intensifying the significance of peer socialisation in doctoral education and, if so, could we securely say that this is a good thing? What are the implications of these trends for intellectual quality and endorsement of the (conflicted) norms in virtue of which we seek to assess that ‘quality’?

There are lots of fascinating questions here. Not for the first time I find myself frustrated to realise that there’s another topic I’d like to do serious work on but, only having so much time and energy, I can’t given my existing commitments. Reflecting on my own experience (and resisting the urge to dignify it with the epithet auto-ethnographic) I think that a DIY PhD has proved inimical to specialisation. The range of experiences it has encompassed have expanded my awareness of intellectual variety (things to do, stuff to read, places to go, people to talk to) in a way which makes the necessity of patiently focusing upon one topic a deeply frustrating one. I wonder what other people’s experiences of a DIY PhD have been?

(and don’t even get me started on the politics of the DIY PhD….)

photo (3)

Thanks to everyone who tweeted nice things. Even those people who reminded me that I’ve still got to do a viva which, unfortunately, will not be till the summer.

In spite of what I wrote here I’m actually pretty pleased with it. Though some of the weekends in the last month that were entirely devoted to making the individual chapters fit together into a coherent whole were pretty unpleasant. I’ve learnt two important lessons:

  1. Always record full details for sources you’re using when you write. The process of reconstructing these at a later date because you were too lazy/stupid to do this is one of the most tedious, time consuming and irritating tasks imaginable. I spent years thinking “I’m going to regret this when it comes to writing up” and I really did.
  2. Don’t leave overarching questions of how it all fits together until the end. To a certain extent this is inevitable with a PhD, in so far as that the overall purpose only really becomes apparent through pursuing it. But I made it much worse for myself by not seriously addressing these questions until the end.

It occurred to me after I submitted it earlier today* that I can literally trace the development of the thesis through the ‘personal morphogenesis’ category on my blog. The first post in the category was in January 2011, at the start of my third year (part time) and around the time I seriously started writing. The last post is on March 26th 2014… now to studiously forget about my thesis until the viva.

*Unfortunately having had to get it reprinted because I was so overjoyed to have finished the damn thing that I didn’t think carefully enough about what I told the printing company.

I have a PhD to do list which now has six items remaining on it. When these six items, unlikely to take over seven or eight hours, are completed then I no longer have any excuse for keeping hold of my PhD/Green Ball panda

My supervisor is then going to have a final read through, as will a proof reader. I’ll then respond to their suggestions before handing in the PhD next week (or perhaps the following week if my supervisor doesn’t read it as unfeasibly quickly as I’m secretly hoping she will).

This is the last of this slightly self-indulgent series of posts. I think they have raised a serious question though: why do some people feel such an attachment to their thesis at this stage? I’ve wanted it to be over for ages and yet I’m now procrastinating like wild trying to string out these last few days. It’s not anxiety about the future (I’m employed in two roles I enjoy and I’ve got other writing projects I’m looking forward to) so what is it? Has anyone ever attempted to explore the experience of doing a PhD in psychoanalytical terms? I’m sure they must have and I’d love to read it. Though not until next week.

Am I procrastinating because I hate editing or because I don’t want to let go of my thesis?
panda

A follow up to this post. Currently contemplating the PhD as fetish object in psychoanalytical sense. Then becoming irritated with myself for getting distracted like this. Rather proving the point really.

(the connection between this GIF and a thesis was made on some grad student tumblr blog – I would HT but I can’t remember the original source)

This interesting post by Pat Thomson left me speculating on the future of edited books. I co-edited an edited book (see below) early in my PhD, with an existing project inviting me onboard as a fourth editor – largely, I assume, because my knowledge of the  asexuality literature was useful to the project. It was a great experience in many ways. I gained an understanding of the publishing proces and I realised how usefully such projects can broaden your grasp of the literature. So that was great. But on the other hand it also left a chapter which I was immensely proud of stuck in a book (which, as my first, I was also quite proud) with a price tag that might as well have gone hand-in-hand with a coversheet saying that it was intended for institutional libraries and everyone else should get lost.

Ok, so this is a problem, but surely they’re still worthwhile? So I thought as I set off on a second editing project. This time I put together a CfP for an Asexuality Studies anthology. Largely due to rookie mistakes and the intervention of some pretty major upheavals in my personal life during this time the project soon began to collapse into a bit of a mess. I also started to question my choice of publisher and, after consulting a number of people I trusted, settled on another. But the timescales involved at this stage were such that I had to go back and update all the existing contributors and gain permission to repackage the project. Given the real problem I was having with e-mail at the time (now resolved by becoming one of those irritating people who insists on getting to inbox zero everyday) this dragged on and on. While continually cursing the fact I hadn’t recruited a co-editor who was more organised than me (I’m great at time management but bewilderingly inadequate when it comes to the sustained feats of low level organisation necessitated by a process like editing a volume) I attempted to persevere, albeit punctuated by intermittent rounds of guilt ridden procrastination, before finally calling it a day a few months ago and sending profuse apologies to all concerned.

My third experience of editing has been brilliant. I led a team of guest editors for a special asexuality themed issue of psychology and sexuality (some of which is still open access) which came out earlier in the year. Some things went wrong. The aforementioned personal difficulties (a year that was in theory one for wedding planning had become a year for untangling lives instead – it’s the sort of thing which makes it hard to prioritise academic editing…) got in the way a lot, as my general level of self-organisation got way too low to be able to sustain a project of this sort in a manageable way. Thankfully my co-editors were wonderful (though one did understandably get rather frustrated with me at points) and we eventually pulled it together. The end result is a genuinely groundbreaking text and, if you’re interested in sexuality studies, it’s an interesting one as well. Plus we have a proposed extension of it into a book under review at the moment. So in all this was a good experience. Though it’ll probably be a while before I get involved in editing again.

So here are some things I learnt which might be useful to PhDs/ECRs who are doing this stuff for the first time:

  1. Don’t underestimate the amount of work involved. Or rather don’t underestimate the consistency of it. It’s not really that onerous in many ways but it does need little and often to succeed. If you are someone (like me) whose level of self-organisation veers between extremes then this is particularly important to address. As I found out to my cost, procrastinating for a month on an edited collection can make the mess you have to clean up afterwards radically more onerous as a result.
  2. Don’t underestimate the potential benefits attached to it. Assuming this is a topic you’re interested in then you’re likely to massively increase your connections with others working on the topic, as well as getting a broader review of the field as a whole. I have a vague anxiety that 75% of the world’s asexuality researchers think I’m a complete flake after my behaviour during the editing proceses described above. But on the flip side I’m pretty sure I know 75%+ of the people working in one of my fields.
  3. Don’t try and do it on your own! Just don’t. I did it largely because, well, I thought it would look better to have been a sole editor. But it was a disaster. Whereas if I had, so to speak, had a Todd on that project (my very experienced co-editor from the other two projects) then I doubt it would have failed. If anything is a natural focus for collaboration in the contemporary academy, it is edited collections.

So I think editing collections can be a very worthwhile thing to do but it should be approached cautiously for those in the early stages of their careers. I can say with near certainty that I will never agree to edit anything again unless I have a co-editor who I have a prior working relationship with. But what about the broader landscape within which an individual might choose to offer time and energy to a project like this? I still think there’s value in them for many of the reasons Pat describes in her article. After internalising the horrible attitude “book chapters are worthless” I’ve started to relent in recent months. I’m writing a chapter with Milena Kremakova for the Paracademics Handbook and I’m writing a chapter giving an overview of the asexuality studies literature for a psychology handbook later this year.

But the price issue still troubles me. Sure, I can post a pre-print on my academia.edu and on my blog. But that’s still an unsatisfying workaround. Edited books no longer have much credentialising function within the audit culture and their communicative function is hampered by the unit costs resulting from the commercial organisations to whom we are choosing to outsource the publishing. So more than any element of the contemporary landscape of scholarly publishing, it seems that the production of edited collections is a practice ripe for revolutionary change. I’ve written a little about this here but it’s something I want to come back to in future.