Feedback and me

Photo by Charles Deluvio | unsplash.com

Photo by Charles Deluvio | unsplash.com

I have a troubled relationship with feedback.

It has been this way for many years, from my days as a PhD researcher in literary studies (where someone has literally fallen asleep in front of me while I was tutoring) to disjointed gigs as a guest lecturer and convenor where my contact with the student cohort was minimal and very episodic.

These days, I teach classes, convene intensives, and run multi-part programs all the time. And I must evaluate them constantly.

I’ve recently had a revelation that you should feel free to roll your eyes at: getting feedback is meant to be helpful, not harmful.

Let me sketch what’s happened a bit more.

One of the final things I had to do last year was convene three days of researcher intensives – two days for the Early Career Researchers and one for the Mid Career Researchers. It happened in the first week of December and I spent my last working week in 2018 following up properly with materials and links, and clearing urgent backlogged tasks. Never has a week appeared so short!

The theme was ‘engagement and impact’. This was not surprising seeing as ‘engagement and impact’ are the Sonny and Cher of Australian and UK higher education research circles in recent years. I invited Tamika Heiden of KT Australia to run a couple of workshops for us and it was great to have a Research Whisperer buddy come to play at my institution.

I also had the benefit of great chats with Tamika during those days. One of the things we discussed was the way we solicit and act on feedback. Read more of this post

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Digital portraits for academics

This post started life as a comment on Yammer at RMIT (thanks, Hans).


Drawing Hands by M. C. Escher, 1948, (via Wikimedia).

Recently, Hans Tilstra was talking about digital twins – online identical models for offline objects. He talked about our personal digital twins, the representations of ourselves online. It is an intriguing idea, but not one that I really buy into.

Our various digital personas are too fragmented to be considered real twins. I think of online personas more as digital portraits. Some are pointillist – search results composed of tiny points of information. Some are abstract – the array of data that retailers collect about you, never fully realised, never really seen. Some, like Instagram, could be self-portraits. Others, like Facebook, may be family portraits.

Of all of these digital portraits, I think that there are three that are vital for any academic:

  • LinkedIn: Among other things, this is the perfect place to build your own personal alumni group. It is your industry portrait.
  • Google Scholar: This is where other researchers are most likely to find your work. It is your intellectual portrait.
  • Your university profile: When industry people, journalists, or other academics find you, they will look for your university profile to establish your bona fides, and find your contact details. It is your calling card.

I’m not saying that you should give up your favourite social media space for just these three. I love Twitter and I’m not giving it up for anything. What I am saying is that I think every academic should actively maintain these three profiles.

Read more of this post

The care and feeding of critical friends

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 14 December 2018 and is reproduced with permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.


Photo by Glen Carrie | unsplash.com

Photo by Glen Carrie | unsplash.com

Getting critical feedback on your work is one of the most difficult things to negotiate, whether you’re just starting out as a scholar or have published and been applying for grants for years.

We know that academia requires us to jump through hoop after hoop, so finding good ways to deal with this process of receiving feedback and constructively moving onto the next stage can make life a lot easier.

Often, the feedback you receive on your work will be from gate-keepers and assessor types or senior researchers in your area, possibly even your direct manager. These are often authority figures from whom you need ticks of approval, and they may not be of your choosing.

The value of a critical friend

To make research life and your academic career easier, I’d recommend finding – and keeping! – good critical friends. The idea of critical friends is extremely well established in education circles, and most academics have them even if they may not call them that.

As researchers, we need critical friends at all stages, and for many aspects, of our careers. Chief Executives of organisations often need them, and some universities even ‘out source’ critical friends for you.

Critical friends are colleagues whom you trust to read your work (whether that work is a grant application, journal paper, promotion document or research report) and give you rigorous, constructive feedback. They are supportive and invested in helping you develop your track-record. Read more of this post

Goodbye 2018 / Hello 2019

Where are we going? [Credit: Noly, on Pixabay]

Where are we going? [Credit: Noly, on Pixabay]

2018 has ended with a rush for both of us. This is always a busy time of the year, but it seems extra hectic this year.

For Jonathan, he’s driving towards a 19 Dec deadline for a big bid application. For Tseen, she’s just finished convening 3 full days of researcher development for ECRs and MCRs and is now contemplating the work back-log.

Each year, we try to take a bit of time to think about what has happened and what might happen in the next year. We think it’s important to know where we’ve travelled, and where we are going – it helps us to keep track of where we are right now.

So, that’s what we are doing in this post. Looking back at where we’ve been over the last year, thinking about where we might wander next year, then reflecting on where we are right now.

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The measurement tail should not be wagging the impact dog

Helen Sowey, smilingHelen Sowey was Senior Research Support Officer at the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, UNSW, from August 2017 to October 2018. Prior to this, she spent 20 years working as a practitioner in the health, justice, and social services sectors. Contact helen.sowey@gmail.com.

This is an edited version of a paper presented at the Australasian Research Management Society Conference, Hobart, 20 September 2018.


A pop art representation of a puppy dog, mostly in different shades of blue

‘Blue Dog’ by Romero Britto. Photo by Jonathan O’Donnell.

Australia’s Engagement and Impact Assessment encourages universities to ensure that their research is of benefit to the world beyond academia.

Or does it?

Having spent more than a year in a dedicated “engagement and impact” research support role, I am concerned to see that institutions tend to be narrowly focused on the task of showing evidence of engagement and impact, rather than thinking about what kind of impact their work might have and what kinds of engagement would allow that to happen.

This is problematic, because knowing what kind of impact is intended is a logically prior step to collecting evidence of it! If you don’t know what you are aiming for, you can hardly hope to achieve it, much less document it.

The focus on showing evidence is also problematic because it shifts attention away from creating impact, which is something grand, visionary and inspiring, towards creating only the kind of impact that is measurable – a smaller, more individualistic, and potentially less relevant endeavour. Read more of this post

Narrative of ideas

Old volumes of books: Historian's history of the world volume XXIII, and three volumes of Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopedia

Ideas of the world, by Jonathan O’Donnell

I’ve just been reading a Fellowship application. The applicant is brilliant. She has a great project idea that is urgently needed, and had excellent potential to lead to both theoretical developments and real changes in practice.

I was excited to read her application, because she has done great stuff in the past. She has an amazing international network, both in her research field and across academia generally. She has developed really innovative methods and theoretical developments, as well as doing exemplary work with the community and the profession that her research serves.

Perhaps you can imagine my disappointment when I couldn’t find much of that great stuff in her CV. There was one specific question that asks for research achievements and contributions. She had answered that question correctly, but… it didn’t sparkle.

All the amazing things that I knew she had done were listed in her CV, but I had to dig for them. I found the fact that she had been offered two different international fellowships at once buried in a discussion of opportunities to do research, along with the fact that she had chaired an international committee auspiced by the UN. I found some of her theoretical contributions and the translation of her research into practice buried in her list of ten best publications. Her leadership work with African researchers was listed as an interruption to her research career.

To help her turn this around, I suggested that she provide a narrative of ideas.

Read more of this post

Reflections on doing an invited keynote

Donald Nicolson has worked in academic research since 2001 and is still an independent scholar, much to the chagrin of himself and his family.

In July 2018, he gave an invited keynote address to the Association for Borderland Studies conference in Vienna, from which this piece arose.

His first book ‘Academic Conferences as Neoliberal Commodities’ was published by Palgrave Macmillan. Some people think it is not bad.

He can be approached on Twitter @the_mopster.


Photo by Nathan Dumlao | unsplash.com

Photo by Nathan Dumlao | unsplash.com

“We would like to wholeheartedly invite you to give the introductory keynote speech at our conference,” said the message on Research Gate.

“Oh yeah,” I thought, “Another scam conference invitation!”

But one that was not scheduled for Las Vegas or Bangkok. Working from the cautious maxim that I should not be so cynical, I decided to do some investigating, just in case. A one-hour Skype call with the Conference Chair convinced me that she and the conference were both real.

This was not a case of too good to be true. Very quickly, I had gone from cynicism, to shock, to pride, to excitement at being invited.

One year on from this invite, with said keynote done in July 2018, I am in a better space to be able to reflect on this. I learned a few things, and am sharing them here!  Read more of this post