Open plan, not working

Nanobot protected cubicle (Photo by Kevin Trotman - https://www.flickr.com/photos/kt)

Nanobot protected cubicle (Photo by Kevin Trotman – https://www.flickr.com/photos/kt)

This post has taken me an eon to complete. Most of the time, when I’ve wrangled with it, my biggest difficulty was trying to find a rational voice to use.

Academics like to think of themselves as adding reasonable, informed voices to debates. Conflicts of interest and biases must be declared.

Instead of waiting for a rational voice, then, I’m just going to write this post and declare my huge bias against open plan offices.

If you follow me on Twitter and elsewhere, you’ll know that I’ve ranted consistently about them, and the weasel-worded reasoning that’s often presented as their justification. I’m writing from the perspective of a humanities/social sciences background academic, not someone who works in a lab-based or research-team environment (so, ymmv).

In May this year, Oliver Burkeman (Guardian) wrote a cracker of a piece against open plan offices and who they actually benefit (hint: not those in open plan). This arrangement of workers has become the norm for new offices in most sectors, and universities are no exception.

The reasons that are most often given to staff as the benefits of open plan include: free flow of ideas and heightened collaborative opportunities among staff, easier identification as a cohort with your colleagues (recognition of your ‘team’), and better communication overall because of frequency of seeing others. You’ll see that I’ve deliberately not used the word ‘synergies’.

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Are you being ‘grantist’?

wire basket eggs (Photo from Mazaletel - https://www.flickr.com/photos/meg-z)

wire basket eggs (Photo from Mazaletel – https://www.flickr.com/photos/meg-z)

I sometimes get the feeling that crowdfunding is considered the crass second-cousin of genteel, Category 1 research council grants.

The same way people can be ageist, racist, sexist, and all manner of other -ists, I think many academics are ‘grantist’.

The recently successful Hips 4 Hipsters campaign by Dr Mel Thomson (@Dr_Mel_Thomson) and her team from Deakin University was Mel’s second crowdfunded research project (after the Mighty Maggots last year).

In the aftermath of this year’s successful Pozible campaign, several tweeters lamented that she should be ‘reduced’ to having to ask for research money in this way. A few declared that it was an indictment of Australia’s skinflinted approach to research and innovation that forced this initiative.

While I do believe that current directions in research funding are disheartening, I found the responses interesting. I’m a staunch believer in the crowdfunding model, and an active contributor to various creative and research projects. Overall, our blog is pro-crowdfunding.

The ambivalent congratulations to Mel about the fact that her research was crowdfunded taps into several assumptions, many of them persistent in our current university/research sectors.

These are the three assumptions that I’ve found most commonly expressed about crowdfunding:

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Is growing your own researchers a luxury?

catapult (Artwork/image by Tony Dowler: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tonydowler)

catapult (Artwork/image by Tony Dowler: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tonydowler)

Is a university that provides internal funds to its researchers being indulgent?

After my post about the dangers of internal funding was published, Stephen Matchett picked up on part of it in this issue of Campus Morning Mail.

Matchett wondered whether internal funding would be a luxury that our brave new world of deregulated universities could not offer:

the days when universities can afford such relatively low impact schemes may end once deregulation kicks in – it will be harder to fund lab time or a travel grant from undergraduate fees if they are set in a competitive market.

This got me thinking about the consequences of deleting the capacity-building potential of internal funding for researchers or research projects.

What would happen if this development did not happen at this level? Is helping to build your own institution’s research capacity and experience a ‘luxury’ that universities today can’t afford? Is growing your own fabulous researchers an impossible aim?

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Dangers of internal funding

Photo by Vadim Sherbakov (http://madebyvadim.com), sourced from unsplash (http://unsplash.com).

Photo by Vadim Sherbakov (http://madebyvadim.com), sourced from unsplash (http://unsplash.com).

I’ve benefited from different types of internal university funding for my research over the years.

The schemes I’ve accessed range from conference money to pilot project grants and new staff grants. They’ve offered the stepping-stones I needed to get projects going and build momentum.

This post talks about the dangers and opportunities presented by internal research funding, and flags the Top 3 types of internal funds that I’ve found most useful.

It’s important to plans ways to do research, even without a fat grant.

One of the internal grants I secured was specifically for developing and writing up a major grant proposal. It paid off a couple of years later when our team got that ARC Discovery project. Being able to get together for concentrated periods of time to nut out the grant application saved us heaps of time and focused our energies. It really worked well.

Most institutions have some form of internal funding for their researchers. Some have more than others. Some barely cover their researchers’ conference travel, others offer plush suites of articulated funding for just about every segment of the research cycle.

Internal funding is a good thing. It can boost project competitiveness and track-record before a go at a bigger external grant. It can certainly boost the confidence of researchers trying to get their work off the blocks, or build their CV in the early days of their research career. It can bridge external grant gaps and allow researchers to stay on the radar.

Internal funding can be a bad thing, however, when you have too much of it and no consequent profile in securing external funds.

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Working on commute?

Lonely platform (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Lonely platform (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

How many of you like feeling ignorant and dependent?

Me neither! But that’s how I’ve felt for the past month and a half.

Since I started my new job, I’ve been acclimatising to a new institutional structure, set of personnel, and need to find the right rooms (and buildings).

It has been hard. Harder than I’d thought starting new jobs normally would be.

The reason for this is that the new job is accompanied by a bigger, and more disruptive, commute.

Previously, I had a simple commute that was a half-hour train ride into the city.

Now, I have a two-step commute: a half-hour train ride into the city, then a 1-hour bus ride to the campus. That’s three hours a day on public transport.

When I told people about my new commute, they would cluck sympathetically.

Many of them asked why I didn’t just drive there myself, instead of ‘wasting time’ on public transport. There are quite a few reasons, including environmental and financial ones that I won’t bore you with. But, yes, reasons.

Others immediately offered suggestions about how I could best use the time, different ways to do constructive things, and resources I could load on various devices. There are lots of people out there who have given thought to, and written about, productive commuting, if this is anything to go by.

From the start, the conversations around my new job ended up as discussions about how to make the commuting time work for me, about not wasting it. I found myself talking like that, too, and feeling that it would be terrible to ‘lose’ that time. I was stressing about it ever so slightly.

Heaven forbid that anyone in academia is unproductive.

In practice, after more than a month’s experience, this is what happened.

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It’s not you, it’s me

Prebake diversity (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Prebake diversity (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Does like attract like?

I’ve had a majority of introverted friends in my life. My most enduring friendships are with those who are poster-children for Susan Cain’s book, Quiet.

As we now know, because internet checklists and Cain keep telling us, no-one is ever 100% introvert or extrovert – we have tendencies towards each type, and there are some of us who can move between them such that the category of ‘ambiverts’ has now entered the conversation.

William Pannapacker wrote an excellent piece about academic introversion in 2012, which discussed the rewarded behaviours of academia, as well as how students’ academic participation is valued (i.e. through visible, heard contributions). His sketch of ‘wallflower’ students and how they can shut down and disengage reflected aspects my university student experience all too well (my personal blog post “Once a wallflower” gives you the goods on this front).

I recently attended a conference with my new job hat on. It was a conference I’d never been to before: the biennial Quality in Postgraduate Research (QPR) conference in Adelaide.

This post gives you an insight into the contrasts between how an extrovert and an introvert approach the conferencing game. Many thanks to Inger Mewburn (@thesiswhisperer) for playing along!

Now, to the conference! [Bonus: there's a quiz!]

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Raising the risk threshold

Sumo! (Photo by Tim Ellis: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tim_

Sumo! (Photo by Tim Ellis: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tim_ellis)

When you get rejected from a journal or conference, or your grant doesn’t get up, do you retreat to your cave?

Do you have a bit of a tantrum and declare ‘What’s the POINT?’ to innocent passers-by?

I’ve done my fair share of this, and it’s all perfectly normal and healthy for a time. But you have to eventually leave the cave and stop yelling at passersby.

I was talking to a colleague about academic resilience recently – the ability to ‘bounce back’ after papers are heavily criticised or rejected, grants not awarded, or promotions not given.

I’ve seen people respond so differently to these events, though they all start with the same fallen expression.

Some take the entire process as an indictment on their work and position within the field, swear off wasting their time with it all, and disengage.

Others revisit the critique and feedback, and start reworking their submission for the very next round.

Still others revisit the critique, acknowledge that the comments about track-record or scope of project (or whatever) have truth to them, and they take a step back to work up those aspects before investing more time in the application and submission (and waiting…) process.

These responses align with a particular researcher’s level of professional resilience and their ability to absorb setbacks. Someone who is a tenured professor, for example, has more opportunity to choose their response. Those in the research precariat or on fixed-term contracts, however, may not have the luxury of resubmission or reworking; there may be no support to do these things at all.

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