Changing disciplinary horses

Since the beginning of this year, I’ve been mired in active discussions around who I am as a scholar.

Luckily for the world at large, these discussions exist mostly in my head, and only occasionally weigh upon the ears of close colleagues and my lucky, lucky partner.

The reason for these internal discussions is that I’ve started an academic job in a field that’s unrelated to my previous disciplines.

As a PhD student and then a research fellow, I have meandered through literary studies, cultural studies, heritage and museum research, touched on sociological work, and wished repeatedly that I’d built my expertise in science fiction and horror screen cultures.

The hinge that my scholarly work depends on is critical race studies, and the sub-field of diasporic Asian studies.

I have a shelf in my study that carries books and special issue journals that I’ve written and edited. It is my (occasionally successful) talisman against imposter syndrome. However, none of the publications I’ve had or journals I’ve published in overlap with the field Education Studies, part and parcel of the new role I’ve taken up.

Many times recently, I’ve moseyed through the literature around diversity and leadership in the academy (new field), and found a mini-Ygritte on my shoulder intoning, “You know nothing, Tseen Khoo.” And mini-Ygritte is right.

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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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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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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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Back from the research fringe

Beware the Unstable Cliff Edge (Photo taken by Oanh Tran)

“Beware the Unstable Cliff Edge” (Photo taken by Oanh Tran)

Do your peers go around talking about how that colleague is ‘useless’ or a ‘lost cause’ when it comes to research?

How prevalent is the sentiment that – if you’re not a proven, grant-landing researcher – you’re not worthwhile having in the contemporary university system?

This has been something I’ve been wanting to blog about for a while. A recent anecdote from a colleague spurred me to consolidate my thinking about these exclusionary ideas surrounding research productivity and notions of staff worth.

The Anecdote:

A colleague told me about a mid-career academic in their department. This academic had never landed a significant competitive grant, wasn’t publishing very well (standard of journal papers was questionable) or consistently (lots of ‘revise and resubmits’ in the top drawer that never made it to the next stage). He was bitter and defensive about his research track-record, often hostile to feedback, and he appeared to withdraw from broader faculty research life.

He was considered a lost cause. Someone who would never be much chop in the research game.

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5 quick and dirty tricks for the terminally busy researcher

This post is written by Dr Inger Mewburn, over at the Thesis Whisperer, who is struggling on a number of fronts to keep her research work cooking and stay sane.


Short Cut Road (Photo by Nic McPhee - http://www.flickr.com/photos/nicmcphee/)

Short Cut Road (Photo by Nic McPhee – http://www.flickr.com/photos/nicmcphee/)

Busy-ness is something of a badge of honour in academia, but I am genuinely busy right now.

I fly 500kms to work and back each week, hold down a fairly demanding job, and want to spend some time with my family. When I am busy, ‘good practice’ goes out the window. At home, this means I stop planning dinners, cleaning behind the toilet, or pairing my socks. At work, I stop filing my references, tagging entries in my database, or cleaning out my inbox.

Chaos reigns but, curiously, things still get done. I’m a productive person who is deeply lazy, so I’m open to any and all hacks that make my life easier. This is a small selection of my quick and dirty research tricks. These tricks save me time and, if I can be honest with you, I use them even when I’m not very busy. I share some of these with you in hope that you will share some of your own in the comments.

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Myths about research cultures

Water Dragon (Photo by Jonathan O'Donnell)

Water Dragon (Photo by Jonathan O’Donnell)

As I was digesting information about the funding cuts a few weeks ago, I read Kate Bowles’ considered piece on the folly of applying an “efficiency dividend” to higher education.

At the time, I wanted to blog more specifically on the idea of applying such a mechanistic and corrosive idea as an “efficiency dividend” to research institutions and the effect it would have on research cultures.

When I sat down to type it up, I realised that it would be a long, tedious rant that no-one would want to read.

What I thought might be more useful is a post focused on myths about research cultures, and letting these cultures’ specific, complex forms speak for themselves.

Universities and institutes scrambling for pieces of the (often shrinking) grant pie is a narrative as old as time. OK, maybe not quite that old, but certainly old enough to scar the past few generations of academics and researchers. There’s the constant hope for a slice of the grant pie; sometimes, we make do with crumbs and, at other times, we go hungry.

As the pressures of chasing the funding dragon bite deeper into research organisations, many in senior roles talk ever more loudly about building research capacity and structuring researcher development. These strategies are meant to result in better and more research wins (and outputs), and institutional hopes of establishing a research workforce that’s upwardly mobile for excellence metrics (e.g. Excellence in Research for Australia) or other metrics that might come out of the oven.

Before I spend too much time mixing metaphors about dragons, pies, and baking, here are five myths about research cultures I want to debunk:

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