Category Archives: Working Methods

WISPS 2017: Virtual Shut Up and Writes

Today (Saturday 11th November 2017), I presented virtually on the phenomenon of virtual shut up and writes as part of a roundtable on Digital (R)evolutions in Academic Writing. I was honoured to be asked to participate in this panel by Niamh Thornton (you’ll find her on Twitter at @enortee) and delighted when she accepted my suggestion that I present something virtually. If you’re interested in viewing my presentation, it’s on YouTube and I’ve embedded it here:

 

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(The) Power (of) Walking

(Image taken from: http://www.active.com/walking)

Due to a change in personal circumstances, I am not currently working in the academic sphere nor am I able to dedicate much, if any, time to my academic work. This is not to suggest that I’ve given up on academia. Far from it. In the last few months, I have edited and submitted the final version of a journal article following peer review (I wrote about this here), peer-reviewed three articles and I’m at present completing a book review. I have also very recently signed a book contract for my first monograph. With limited protected time for academic work, my usual working processes are no longer an option. Instead I’m having to find new ways and means of carving out valuable thinking and writing time.

One of the main ways I’m doing this is through walking. I’ve always, or at least for as long as I can remember, found walking both therapeutic and productive. I’m clearly not alone in this given the recent attention paid to concepts such as walking desks, walking meetings and the like (you can read about these phenomena here and here). When I was completing my PhD, I went for a walk every day. It was sometimes only a brief 10-minute stroll around the block, sometimes slightly longer. The main purpose of this walk, which I usually took after eating lunch, was to get out in the fresh air. But I also found the act of walking coupled with time spent not consciously thinking about whatever I was working on would often lead to breakthroughs in terms of my thoughts and ideas connected to my research. The act of allowing my mind to wander unanchored in conjunction with the physical exertion demanded by walking facilitate, for me at least, the emergence of new synergies.

To give a concrete example, earlier this year I was working on an article following peer review. The article contains two main strands of argumentation and one of the peer reviewers had commented that I should explicitly connect these two lines of thought and that this would reinforce my argument. Though in agreement, I could not see, in the little time I had to spend working on the edits, how I might do this. I spent a good few hours puzzling over this during some elusive #acwri time. I got nowhere. It was only when I went out for a walk, during the sleepy mid-afternoon period, that things clicked into place.

I am very lucky to live in an area with beautiful walks on my doorstep. I particularly enjoy walking away from roads where possible. I’ve recently devised a route around the village that takes me along a disused railway line which backs onto fields and then into our local country park before heading along a wooded path back home. There is something very relaxing about being surrounded by nature and away from houses, cars, roads, people. My plan is to keep walking in the hope that the thoughts, ideas and inspirations continue to flow in spite of the limited time I have available to act upon them.

What about you? Does walking aid your thinking? Are there any other activities you find similarly productive? I would love to hear others thoughts on this!

#AcWriMo 2015: Day 15

So today marks two weeks since the start of #AcWriMo 2015 and the halfway point of the initiative.  This is the first time I’ve engaged in #AcWriMo – short for Academic Writing Month – despite following the trend on Twitter for the past few years.  I signed up for it on a bit of a whim in the last week of October, thinking that I didn’t have much on the go.  November has conversely turned out to be an extremely busy month for me work-wise: I’m checking page proofs of a co-edited book on the avant-garde which will be published in Spring 2016; I’m participating in a Pecha Kucha event next week at the Belmont Cinema in Aberdeen; I’ve a book review due in at the end of the month; I’ve an abstract for a journal article due mid-December; not to mention all the other various publication projects I’ve currently got on the go in relation to my PhD thesis!  I also work part-time (three full days a week) which limits the time I have to work on academic stuff.  So signing up for #AcWriMo and pledging to produce the first draft of an article that I’ve not yet done a whole lot of research for was perhaps not the smartest move I’ve ever made.

Continue reading #AcWriMo 2015: Day 15

“I Will Survive” (The Viva): Part Three

This is the third in a series of posts (you can read the first two here and here) about the viva.  In this entry, I’m going to list the bibliography of resources I used, the list of questions I came up with to ask myself as practice questions, a handy checklist of equipment you might need and my final hints and tips, in the hope that it might prove useful!

Continue reading “I Will Survive” (The Viva): Part Three

“I Will Survive” (The Viva): Part Two

While my last post focused on viva survival from the perspective of preparation, in this post I deal with my experience of the event itself.  As I mentioned in my earlier entry, every viva is unique.  So while I anticipate this personal account might not be of much use to others, I think it’s important to share our stories – as Dr Nathan Ryder encourages in his “Viva Survivor” podcast series – about the examination in order to debunk some of the myths that surround the whole experience.

My viva took place at 10am on a Monday morning, which, for me, was ideal.  I am a morning person.  I work better in the mornings than in the afternoon/evenings.  I’m most productive and alert in the morning.  And I was also extremely nervous on the day of the examination, so knowing that it would be taking place first thing was definitely a plus for me.  In terms of nerves, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so nervous.  Prior to the viva I had been fortunate enough to have been interviewed for a few academic jobs, which had stirred similar feelings of anxiety.  However, the interview feels like less of an unknown, given that there is a host of material online about how to approach academic interviews, the sorts of questions you might be asked and so on.  The viva felt like much more of a mystery to me.

Continue reading “I Will Survive” (The Viva): Part Two

“I Will Survive” (The Viva): Part One

“As those of you who follow me on Twitter will know, earlier this year I successfully defended my PhD thesis on the topic of childhood, performance and immigration in post-Franco Spanish cinema.  Since then, I’ve been meaning to write a post or two about this, including my experience of the viva, how I prepared for it and a list of handy resources for those yet to face the dreaded examination.  My thought had initially been that writing these posts immediately after the viva would be favourable, given that the whole experience would be fresh in my mind.  Life, inevitably, got in the way so here I am writing these posts nearly five months after the event.  Taking inspiration from both Gloria Gaynor and Dr Nathan Ryder’s superb podcast and workshop series “Viva Survivors”, I’ve titled the posts ‘“I Will Survive” (The Viva)’.  In this post, I concentrate on how I prepared for the viva.

To a certain extent, viva preparation is shrouded in mystery.  It is something I genuinely did not spend time thinking about prior to the submission of the thesis (other than way back in 2011 when I “helped” a friend prep for her viva – and all I succeeded in doing was freaking myself out that I would never be able to produce a piece of work THAT BIG!).  In addition, the viva was not discussed in any capacity within an institutional framework, other than a brief chat with my supervisor about prospective examiners.  I do not say this to sound critical, but rather to highlight that the impetus tends to rest with the production of the manuscript of the thesis rather than on what follows.

The other curious aspect of viva preparation is that it, like theses and viva examinations, varies from candidate to candidate.  Just as each candidate, thesis, viva examiner and viva examination are distinct, so too is the preparation that each candidate undertakes.  This can make approaching viva preparation extremely daunting.  Where do I start?  What should I do?  How should I divide my time?  None of these questions have easy answers.  I make this point not to intimidate, but rather to encourage those still to sit their viva that they should have the confidence, power and authority to shape their viva preparation as they see fit.

That said, there can be a lot of crossovers amongst approaches to the viva both within and across disciplines and fields.  With this in mind, I’m sharing here the ways in which I prepared for the viva.

Continue reading “I Will Survive” (The Viva): Part One

Work: What Counts?

I’ve just taken a whole week off.  The first full week I’ve taken off work in a long time.  My first week off since the Christmas break, (during which I was working a part-time job so I was still working).

I’m not very good at taking time off.  For the last five years I’ve had to juggle PhD research, term-time teaching, and part-time work, not to mention domestic chores and keeping up with family and friends.  By now I am well accustomed to a hectic schedule in which every moment has to be utilised effectively and efficiently.  Working a lot and being busy is thus borne out of necessity.

There are other reasons supplanting my chaotic schedule.  Firstly, I feel incredibly guilty if I do take time off.  This phenomenon – often referred to as “PhD guilt” – is, by all accounts, a commonly experienced sentiment: you can read more about it here and here.  In addition, I actually enjoy what I do.  I mean, I get to watch Spanish films, read interesting books, write about these things, and call it “work”.  And this is related to the third reason for not taking time off: what counts as “work” in my case?

I ask this question because I think it is fundamental with regards the much-discussed work-life balance, which often seems to tip towards the latter rather than the former in the case of academics.  Clearly, time spent working on my thesis counts as “work”, whether that involves reading, writing, thinking, planning, editing, watching, analysing, and so on.  But does writing blog posts count as “work”?  What about answering e-mails?  And chatting on Skype with two colleagues about our edited book project?  What about reading and sharing academia-related links, and connecting with other academics, on Twitter?  And watching Spanish films?

The truth is: I enjoy what I do.  I enjoy doing these things.  Yes, there are days when I would rather not watch a film and analyse what’s going on, or when I would rather read anything other than material connected to my research topic.  But on the whole, I enjoy reading, watching, writing, and so on, and that’s why I think I personally find it hard to take a week off, in which I do not do any of the above.  I feel at a loose end, purposeless, like I’m not sure what to do with myself.

However, that said, I’m glad that, following my supervisor’s advice, I took a week off.  It allowed me to catch up with friends, and begin packing (my husband and I are moving house this summer).  In addition, I feel rested, refreshed, and energised to begin what will be an intense summer of thesis-ing (and house-moving!!).

I’ve been thinking about these issues – time off and what counts as work – a lot over the last week, and I wondered whether I was alone in this, or whether this is something others have experienced too.  How often do you take time off?  Do you enjoy it?  Do you feel guilty?  What are the benefits and/or disadvantages to taking time off?  What counts as work for you?  Please feel free to leave me feedback as I’d be interested to hear how others experience this facet of academic life.

Happy 1st birthday, blog!

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Image taken from http://www.graphicsfactory.com/search/dessert_P1.html

One year ago today, I created this blog and posted my first entry.  To mark this date, I had hoped to be able to write something reflexive on how blogging has helped with regards my life as a PhD student over the last year.  However, given that I’ve recently had to apply for an extension in order to finish my thesis, I’ve simply not had the time!  I cannot stress enough though, how useful I think blogging is for the graduate student: it forces you to write regularly, and not always in an academic style – two aspects which I think epitomise the necessity of blogging in the current graduate student environment.

In lieu of my own more detailed reflection on the usefulness of blogging, I’ve decided to post a couple of links to recent posts that themselves address this issue.  Ellen C. Spaeth has also recently blogged about her blog’s life in the first year; you can read her post here.  See also the list – still being compiled – of reasons you should blog about your research over on The Sociological Imagination blog; read it here.

Over on Twitter today, I’ll be posting links to a few of my posts over the last year.  Happy reading!

A Bit on the Side: On Having Future/Sideline Projects

As I indicated in my first post on this blog, I am currently in the writing-up year of my PhD in Hispanic Studies and Film & Visual Culture.  This is the fourth year I have spent working on my doctoral dissertation.  I love my topic.  But this does not mean that, from time to time, I look forward to future projects I will be able to tackle once my thesis has been submitted.  This is an experience I’ve seen my friends go through.  As they near the end of their time as doctoral students, as they become experts in their fields, as their area of research becomes increasingly familiar, and thus arguably less exciting, new thoughts, new ideas, and new projects become all the more attractive and inviting.  I take comfort in the fact that I am not alone in this experience.  And I think that it is part and parcel of being a researcher – having a keen interest in learning, learning more, learning new things.

ImageImage from http://www.freeimages.co.uk/galleries/workplace/office2/slides/notebook_and_pencil.htm

It is for this reason that I have a ‘Future Projects’ notebook.  In fact, this is something I started in November 2010, when I had just entered the second year of my PhD.  It was recommended by my supervisor following a meeting in which I had identified a motif in Spanish cinema that has yet to be explored in detail – the depiction of food and mealtimes.  This has nothing to do with my doctoral project; it was simply a recurring theme that I had picked up on when scouring several different Spanish film objects to compile my filmography.  My supervisor advised me to write it down in a notebook, and to label this notebook ‘Future Projects’.  Since then, I have dutifully scribbled down any ideas I have in terms of things I’d like to work on when I’ve finished my doctoral research.  I have no clue as to whether any of these future areas of investigation will prove fruitful when/if I carry them out.  But for now, simply knowing that I have a handful of ideas I can turn to on submission of my PhD, to fill the PhD void (another common sensation after completion according to those I know who have submitted) is both comforting and exciting.

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Image from http://www.raindance.org/lightbulb-jokes-for-filmmakers/

While these ideas constitute fodder for future conference papers and/or articles, it is worth noting that the experience of doctoral students today, at least as far as I have seen, is epitomised by the act of balancing their PhD research alongside a number of other ‘sideline projects’.  On a personal level, the last four years have been a juggling act between PhD research; teaching on multiple modules in different departments and disciplines; other paid work; writing conference papers; attending conferences/workshops/seminars; organising conferences/workshops/seminars; keeping up with family and friends; and finally, trying to maintain some semblance of a social life.

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Image from http://www.oxfordschoolblogs.co.uk/psychcompanion/blog/category/psychology-as/stress/

This can of course become extremely stressful at times; however, what it also does is allow you to appreciate the importance of your doctoral research.  When there are other constraints on your time, the time you do have to spend on your own work becomes even more precious, and can lead, again at least in my own personal experience, to higher levels of productivity.

For me, the value of having ‘a bit on the side’ while completing your PhD is thus twofold.  On the one hand, the promise of future projects is exciting, is something to look forward to, and inspires you to keep going.  On the other, the contemporaneous sideline projects, the ones that take you away from your research, force you to evaluate the significance of your work, to refocus your energies and motivation precisely at the point that they are waning.

Any feedback/comments/questions welcome!  How do you cope with juggling your PhD research alongside other projects and commitments?  Do you have a ‘Future Ideas’ bank?  What form does it take?  What constitutes your ‘bit on the side’?

On the Writing Process

When I started writing this blog a few months back, I thought that I would focus primarily on Spanish cinema as the subject matter for my posts.  However, in the last couple of months, I’ve read so many useful links, usually posted on Twitter, about the processes of PhD research, and academia in general.  These links have prompted me to reflect on how I work, what I find useful, and how I could improve.

As I indicated in my last blog post, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks writing and redrafting a section of my thesis.  I’ve thus felt inspired to write something personal reflecting on the writing process as I experience it, and I’m intrigued to know how other people approach tasks relating to this process.

When writing, I tend to work through four key stages:

  1. Planning;
  2. Writing main body;
  3. Outlining;
  4. Writing introduction/conclusion.

Planning

Typically, when I approach a piece of writing, I begin by compiling a Word document in which I map out a prospective outline.  I tend to do this in a linear fashion, beginning with contextual information before moving on to the specifics of my argument.  In the process of compiling this document, I also rely on the use of some more old-fashioned tools: a pencil and paper.  Using these tools, I mind-map the key ideas that I want to feature in the piece.

Writing main body

Having constructed my plan, I then proceed to the writing.  Beginning with a blank document, I tend to write, as with the plan, in a linear fashion.  I write quite quickly, not dwelling too much on word choice, but trying to focus on expressing the ideas as coherently as possible.  My thoughts, I’m not afraid to admit, are often very sketchy and under-developed in the pre-writing/planning stage; it is through writing that I begin to cultivate my ideas.

Outlining

Once I’ve written the main body of my piece of work, I usually have to re-read through it, and map out my argument – usually in the form of a flow chart, again with my trusty old favourites (pen and paper).  I often struggle with the writing of introductions and conclusions, largely because I find it difficult stating my argument in clear terms.  I am in my comfort zone when working at the level of the micro reading, and I am particularly confident writing close analyses of my films.  I am not so confident when making big claims, and I do not relish making that move from micro to macro.  I find that mapping the outline of my piece of writing helps me to understand the direction of my argument, although I would happily admit that I’ve much to learn about stating my claims clearly.

Writing introduction/conclusion

My final moment in the writing process is to frame the piece with an introduction and a conclusion.  As I mentioned above, I always find writing these components particularly difficult.  I’ve usually written a very rough introduction when writing the main body – typically ending with a wee note to myself in brackets along the lines of ‘Come back to this when written main body!’.  I re-work this based on how my argument has developed.  My conclusion usually traces the line I’ve taken throughout the piece, recapping my main points, and gesturing towards a claim, even if not stating it coherently.

With all of this in mind, I’m intrigued to know how other people experience the writing process.  What shape does your writing process take?  Do you plan before you write?  How do you plan?  How much do your plans change in the process of writing?  Do you plan mid-writing, based on how your writing differs from your original plan?  How do you tackle the writing itself?  Do you write in a linear, segmented, or anti-linear fashion?  How do you tackle the introduction and the conclusion in particular?  Do these elements constitute the starting point, midpoint, or endpoint for your writing?  Any comments or questions gratefully received!