Tag Archives: University of Stirling

Witching hour comes to University of Stirling

I do love a good conference. And I’m happy to say I wasn’t let down by this year’s 8th International Researching Work and Learning conference “The visible and invisible in work and learning”, held, I’m proud to say, at our university’s Management Centre. The Wallace Monument towered over the venue, reminding those well travelled that they were, indeed, in Scotland [they did need this visual reminder – it was warm and sunny].

When I’m at a conference, and especially because they are often in the niche field of researching work, learning, and higher education, I often think we must look not dissimilar to the hotel convention in Roald Dahl’s The Witches (not least, at this conference, because of our mutterings about the ‘invisible’). Except, in place of our scratchy wigs, we are marked-out by our purple lanyards. Instead of sighing with relief when we free our toeless feet in the safe confines of the conference venue, we sigh instead with unadulterated satisfaction as we let free our epistemological and ontological chatterings and postulations, secure in the knowledge that we are in kindred company. And we don’t smell out the children, we just smell out the coffee breaks. Or, in this case, the Arbroath Smokies cooking during the publisher’s complimentary drinks hour:

Arbroath Smokies

Back to this conference. Firstly, I admit that I was star-struck with the big names that appeared (I’m still new to this…): Paul Hager, David Boud, Barbara Czarniawska, Yrjö Engeström, to name but a few. But the real interest lay, for me anyway, in the sessions that were attempting to answer the question: How do we ‘catch’ practice (in Ann Reich and colleague’s terminology)? There seems to be so much written about the ‘practice turn’ but a lot less on how empirical work is actually carried out using a practice-based perspective. The method pieces were what people wanted to hear about.

Dr Maja Korica, for example, gave an illuminating presentation about the methodological practices of making the work practices of chief execs in the NHS visible (and yet by doing so, necessarily leaving other practices in the shadows). She used intensive work shadowing as the method du jour, but noted that a single method was inadequate to do justice to the work’s complexity and called for ‘ecologies of visibilities’, or multiple methods, to make such a study rigorous.

Other presenters affirmed this need for multiple methods. Ann Reich presented her audience with a list of researchers currently doing practice research along with the methods they used to ‘catch’ practice. The list was ethnography-heavy: a few had used Davide Nicolini’s  Interview to the Double technique, some analysed organizational documents to catch organizational practice memory, and others studied regimes of familiarity.

In one of my next blogs I will sketch out how I have used a ‘methodological bundle’ to try to make visible the work practices of my engineers. Bet you just can’t wait!

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Conference Alert!

I am very excited to announce that my research network, ProPEL, is hosting their Second International Conference, Professional Matters: materialities and virtualities of professional learning, next year at University of Stirling, 25-27 June 2014.

The key strength of the conference is its promotion of a multi-professional and interdisciplinary audience. Social work, teaching, nursing, police, social scientists, management, law, art – the range of professional disciplines is impressively represented. I know I am biased but last year’s conference was a huge success and I can honestly say those who attended raved about the community that gathered as well as the quality of presentations. Last year’s keynote speakers included Prof. Hilary Sommerlad, Prof. Julia Evetts and Prof. John Urry, who, although he gave a great talk about The Tourist Gaze, referred a little too much about the end of the world for my liking and left me in need of more than just a whiskey ‘tasting’ that evening…captivating nonetheless!

In June 2014, we are proud to announce as our keynotes:

  • Professor Yrjö Engeström
  • Dr Beverly Metcalfe
  • Professor Mats Alvesson

Check out the call for abstracts and the conference theme – abstracts are due November this year, so plenty of time to have a mull over what to submit this summer…

Hope to see you there!

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The Tentative Academic

Welcome to my blog!

A brief introduction – I am a full-time PhD student in the School of Education at the University of Stirling, working within the research network Professional Education, Practice and Learning. That’s what my business card says anyway. But before I get into any more of ‘how I got to where I am today and why’ spiel, I feel I have to confess that I’m having some identity issues.  Even though I would situate my job title firmly in the academic arena, I would call myself a ‘tentative academic’.  This is grounded in the feeling that I’m not quite sure what an ‘academic’ is anymore. I have always been put off by the idea of joining what I (along with many others, I’m sure) view as a solitary, ego-based and quite lonely profession. When an offer to do a PhD came about at Stirling on the back of completing my MRes in Education, I expressed my concerns to my potential supervisor. She waved away these stereotypical images promising an interactive, dynamic and exhilirating experience. Hmm… Nevertheless, she is an incredibly energetic and convincing speaker so I decided to suspend my preconceptions, and became a phd candidate in 2011. No regrets yet. But what does it mean to be an ‘academic’?

One of our first graduate training workshops explored the learning process – On being a PhD Student. On the first morning, Sarah Goldsworthy, the facilitator, asked those in the room to raise their hands if they thought they were an academic. Not one person put their hand up. When do you become an ‘academic’, she asked? When you publish your first paper, first book, hold your first lecture, supervise your first student? Nope, apparently we were academics now.  No one looked convinced. And one and a half years into my research project, I’m still not sure when I can confidently claim this title. I have come to the conclusion that, thanks to today’s international and technological academic networks, a PhD is very much a creative process; a three or four year ‘job’ that can be shaped in so many ways.

Holding fast to the ‘learning’ status of the PhD this past 18 months, I’ve been happy to hang out in the banlieues of academia. I don’t mind it out of the headlights, sitting on a park bench with Jimmy and watching what’s going on, figuring out when and what bits of the hustle and bustle I’d like to get up and join. This freedom to observe has afforded me the realisation that it’s okay to play with the boundaries of academia. With the rapid increase and innovation of technology and social media being created for and by PhD students and academics, you can operate in a personalised ‘world’, choosing the medium you feel comfortable with and attuning your work and outputs to where your natural strengths lie and still expect a successful career (economic climate pending). For example, I love networking, working in groups, conferences and meeting to share ideas face to face. Writing concise, yet dense and theoretically profound paragraphs within a strict word count and hiding behind it, not so much. On the technological front, communicating through Facebook groups, emails and texts are like drinking water; I’m sitting comfortably amongst the digital natives, albeit I’m a late bloomer. But twitter, blogs, webinairs; I’m out of my comfort zone. Who wants to hear my opinions, rants, half-baked ideas, apart form my long suffering PhD buddies? What would I say in a blog that could be earth-shatteringly original? After all, am I not just adding to what the comedian Chris Ramsey calls offer-mation, to the pile of ‘not very interesting personal information that we haven’t asked for’?

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em…

This last year a couple of things swam into my conscious that made me realise it was sink or swim with social media, especially if I ever become inclined to break free of this academic ‘tentativeness’. Firstly, my supervisor asked me to register with Twitter and tweet during an international conference that our research network, ProPEL was hosting at Stirling. After much agonising about how to best use my 140 characters, I finally clicked that it didn’t matter particularly what you were saying, it was the virtual presence you were creating with your hashtags and your snippets of that day’s proceedings that were breaking through the physical walls of the conference rooms, inviting colleagues in Australia to feel part of our community in real time. Next realisation: I was asked for my ‘blog address’ on a recent conference application form as nonchalantly as they requested my postal address and phone number. I left that pointedly blank. Then my PhD colleagues started to create blogs (for example, the eloquent and thought-provoking Knowledge is Porridge by Daniel Sage), our supervisors pointed us to ‘professional’ and trending PhD blogs for helpful thesis writing tips (for example, Patter and The Thesis Whisperer), and friends were creating blogs post-PhD to kick-start their careers (Positive Performance headed up by Dr Anna Serlachius). For these reasons, coupled with a vague 2013 New Year’s resolution that I need to be less self-conscious about my writing and just ‘get it out there’, I am slowly starting to concede to the value of blogging.

So, turning my back on Mr Ramsey’s warning of offering unsolicited ponderings to the public, I present to you ‘the office dog’ – a blog positing my reflections on research in Higher Education,professional practice, workplace learning, practice-based knowing, sociomaterial discussions, assessment and feedback issues, and my musings about what it is to be a PhD student in today’s world. Even if reading this gives you momentary respite from trying to figure out the intricacies of capitalising your references in RefWorks, I’ll feel like creating this blog has been worth it….

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