Exhaustion

Jonathan Laskovsky Jonathan Laskovsky is the Senior Coordinator, Research Partnerships in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University. He is primarily responsible for managing research partnerships support and administration within the College.

Alongside this role, Jonathan has research interests in modern and postmodern literature with a particular focus on fictional space and critical theory.

He tweets infrequently @JLaskovsky and can be found on Linkedin.


I’ve been playing squash for about 12 years.

I play quite poorly (especially given 12 years of practice), but I enjoy it. Although I don’t really have any desire to get any better than I am, I’m naturally quite competitive. So, I’m there to win even though I’m only playing with friends for fun.

Over time, I’ve found that the one advantage I have is persistence. I run down every ball. Balls that I’ve only got a 3% chance of getting to – let alone making a shot off – I’ll run down. I’ll run down a ball if it means hitting a wall, hard. If I can’t run the ball down, I’ll throw my racquet at the ball on the 1 in 1,502,402 chance that it may just bounce off the racquet and hit a winning shot (which, not surprisingly, hasn’t happened in the 12 years).

Man playing squash - the image is blurred because he is moving fast.

Blurry, by Ed Houtrust on Flickr

Inevitably, this is an incredibly tiring way to play. After four games or so, I’m usually exhausted and my advantage has pretty much been nullified. At that point, something strange starts to happen. I start to play better shots. I’m now so tired that I can’t run everything down so I need to play better shots to avoid total defeat. Remember, I’m there to win.

All of this sports malarkey leads me to this: there’s something to be said for exhaustion. For being tired, miserable, irritable, and downright sick of your grant application. Because there’s a certain amount of clarity that comes with the exhaustion.

At that point of exhaustion, you are in a similar frame of mind to your reviewer. They have read 50-odd applications and are tired of it. They are incredulous that ‘an interdisciplinary approach’ is still being touted as innovative (it isn’t). They are probably wishing they hadn’t volunteered to be a reviewer. They’re trying to fathom the incredible project that is hidden in the convoluted language and structure of grant applications because they want to still believe that it is in there.

Your exhaustion is the key here. Like the poor squash player, you can harness your exhaustion to play a better shot.

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Golden-brown grant applications

Mmm, pie (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Mmm, pie (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

A colleague once boasted to me that she had pulled together an ARC Discovery over a weekend.

I asked if she thought the application had a chance of being awarded. She shrugged and said she didn’t care; she was under pressure to submit an ARC application and that was what she was doing.

Even then, before my life as a research grant developer, I immediately thought, “Well, that’s a waste of everyone’s time.”

Yes, major grant systems are overloaded and under-resourced.

Yes, many excellent and worthy projects go unfunded.

And much that is not so excellent or worthy goes unfunded, too. I would venture to say that these should never have been submitted in the first place.

You can’t write a great major grant application from scratch in a weekend.

You just can’t.

As I’ve become more experienced on this other side of the fence in the area of research development, this fact has crystallised.

Even if you devote the whole weekend’s 48 hours to pulling it together, it won’t be great. It might be eligible and compliant, but chances are it’ll be flabby, inconsistent, and unpolished.

In other words, half-baked.

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Easing the load

The Fairy Horde and the Hedgehog Host, an artwork featuring a hedgehog that has been colonised by fairies

When fairies attack, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

People seem to be talking about how the peer review funding system is in crisis – more applications, less funding, not enough reviewers, etc. Always eager to help, here’s this Research Whisperer’s Top Five ideas on how funding organizations can reduce their workloads.

My examples are based upon the Australian Research Council (ARC), as this is the system I know best. However, these ideas can adopted by any funding agency. After all, I pinched three of them from existing funding schemes.

1.  Review a set number of applications

One of the fears seems to be that a rising number of applications is forcing the quality of peer review down. The thinking goes like this: more applications means more reviews required. More reviews means more applications per reviewer (on average). Reviewers, therefore, may be spending less time on each review, or even be refusing to review applications. Without suitable reviews, the system of peer review falls over, catastrophically.

If this fear is justified, one response could be to cap the number of applications accepted. This process is known as ‘demand management’ in the UK context. The ARC knows how many admin people it has, how many people it has on the College of Experts, how many assessors it sends applications to, how many reply, how long the average application is for each scheme. These figures could be munged together to provide an upper limit of applications that the ARC would accept for each funding scheme that it runs.

If they know their capacity, the question then becomes how to make sure that only that number of applications are presented each round.

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How my research changed my life

Rod Pitcher is a PhD student in Education at The Centre for Educational Development and Academic Methods at the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. The focus of his study is the metaphors that doctoral students use when describing their research and other matters related to their studies. He uses metaphor analysis to arrive at an understanding the students’ conceptions.


A tightly closed rosebud, full of promise

Rosebud by aussiegall on Flickr

Research changes the researcher. It’s not only a matter of gaining more knowledge – doing research changes the researcher as a person. That might be obvious, but why and how does it change the person?

Doing research is an emotional as well as an intellectual occupation. It involves feelings, as well as thinking. We make every effort to keep our feelings from influencing the results but we can’t keep ourselves from being affected personally by the work and results of the research.

Because of the nature of my PhD, I am writing my thesis in the form of a story about my research, including how it has changed me. My research uses metaphor analysis to understand students’ conceptions as expressed in an on-line survey in which they answered questions about their research. I extract the metaphors and then consider what they tell me about the people who answered the survey and their conceptions. Metaphors are very useful in this way as they express some of the personality of the person and provide insights into their thinking.

Searching for metaphors in my survey responses has heightened my sensitivity to them. I am now more aware of them in my own speech and writing and those of other people. This has changed my own ways of talking and writing because I feel the need to control my own use of metaphors.

When talking to other people or reading their work I take more notice of the metaphors they use. I will often think ahead in the sentence to see what metaphors are likely to appear. This can sometimes interfere with my understanding as I am concentrating on the metaphors more than the sense of the sentence. I find this particularly galling when reading fiction – I find myself critiquing the author’s use of metaphors and suggesting, in my mind, alternatives that could have been used and which might have given a more picturesque or colourful view and better understanding of the topic. I am certainly more sensitive to the colour added to the sentence by the metaphors, but I am also, with part of my mind, analysing the person’s use of metaphors and trying to attribute meaning to it.

In my own writing and speaking I tend to look ahead and notice if any metaphors are on the horizon. I then often make an effort to avoid using them for fear that I am revealing something about myself that I don’t want to give away. I find that this happens both in my academic and non-academic communications. I know that the metaphors reveal the user’s inner thoughts and emotions, as they have done in the survey responses. It is not so much that I want to hide my inner thoughts as a desire not to let out too much of myself for public view, since I am very much an introvert and private person. It sometimes makes my writing or speaking a little stilted as I try to quickly rephrase the sentence to avoid the metaphor. Sometimes I have to allow myself to consciously insert a metaphor so that the sentence makes sense or so that meaning and colour is added to it. And sometimes I use metaphors because I feel the need to aid my audience’s understanding of what I’m trying to say.

This change in me also reflects a change in my attitude to the participants in my research. I have come to realise how valuable they are to me. Without them I would have no data to analyse, but I now see them as people rather than just sources of data. The act of observing my participants and analysing the data they provide has changed my attitude towards them.

If you think about your own research and its implications you will find that you have been changed by it. If it is obvious that observation changes the observed then it should also be obvious that it changes the observer. How have you been changed by your research? Hopefully, for the better.

The auspicious university

Dear reader: Let me save you some time. This post is written specifically for practice-based researchers.

If you aren’t a creative type (artist, writer, poet, dramaturge, designer), you can probably stop reading now. If you are, please keep reading – I need your help.

What’s an artist to do?

Coloured grain/seed artwork that was filled by the general public

Seeking completion by Tseen on Flickr

I work with the cool people at the university: artists, designers, architects, social scientists, humanities scholars and educators – all sorts of excellent people.

Many of them are professionals in their chosen professions. That is, they are professional artists, designers, architects, poets, writers, etc. Their research is ‘practice-based’ research; they create stuff. The process of creation is an integral part of the research process. It meshes with their teaching, which is often studio-based, using workshops and mentoring rather than lectures and tutorials. These people fit very well into a university landscape.

Until it comes to funding.

Arts funding, like all funding, is built for the people who need it. It is organised around independent individuals (or small collaborations) or highly focused arts-based organisations (theatres, for example). These are the people who need the funds, so that is how the funds work.

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Making co-writing work

Four people, concentrating on their laptops, in a library

From 'Writing like the wind' by snigl3t on Flickr

Writing with your colleagues can be as fantastic as it can be abysmal; it’s all about who you’re playing with, and what kind of experience those dynamics create.

Academia in general appears to be increasingly geared towards multiple authors and team-based research, even in the traditional bastions of sole authordom such as the humanities. Most of those in the sciences co-author and team-write as a matter of course, though many admit that the process can still be a fraught one. Susan Cain, in her recent New York Times article, “The Rise of the New Groupthink“, focuses her criticism on the context and implementation of that collaborative work.

While performing a critique of prescriptive collaborative work cultures, Cain notes: “recent studies suggest that influential academic work is increasingly conducted by teams rather than by individuals. (Although teams whose members collaborate remotely, from separate universities, appear to be the most influential of all.)”

This post is about the process of intensive co-authoring. I’m not talking about the formality of including a research team on a publication, where only a handful of the listed researchers may have actively worked on the paper. Nor will I cover the situation where one person does all the work and then feels obliged to add a senior colleague’s name on it.

ALL successful intensive co-authoring requires:

  • A feasible, agreed-upon schedule for drafting and deadline for completion.
  • A strong leader for the paper, someone who takes final responsibility for its proofing and submission (even though the actual tasks may be devolved to someone else…).
  • Proper version control. That’s why I emphasise the serial process of sending it around the team. When X has done their bit, they send it to Y (cc’ing the others), who then sends it to Z (cc’ing the others). Don’t fiddle with the writing till you are the one the document is sent to.
  • All members of the team to be committed to adding value to the publication, and doing their bit.

The three approaches that I’ve experienced (for which I’ve committed the sin of neologism) are:

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