Everybody wants to save the world

Darkseid vs. Thanos (86365) [Photo by JD Hancock | https://www.flickr.com/photos/jdhancock]

Darkseid vs. Thanos (86365) [Photo by JD Hancock | https://www.flickr.com/photos/jdhancock%5D

Everyone loves declaring that their research will influence policy, and thereby be the catalyst for enduring, transformative, and positive change.

But is it all just wishful thinking? How much does research actually influence policy?

With the Australian Research Council touting a new Research Impact Principles and Framework, being able to demonstrate that your research has influenced policy or program implementation becomes even more valuable. In the UK, with its Research Excellence Framework (REF), ‘impact’ has already become quite the dirty word.

I’m writing about this now because, in the craziness of November last year, I attended a seminar hosted by La Trobe University’s Institute for Human Security and Social Change. The presentation was by Duncan Green, Senior Strategist for Oxfam, and it was advertised as a talk about “how change happens”.

Given grant application and national research council demands, this topic is hard to resist, right?

As flagged above, “influencing policy” is one of the things that many academics argue that their research outcomes will achieve, along with produce a generous number of publications, storm the frontiers of new knowledge, and bring forth a herd of rainbow unicorns.

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The tyranny of the timesheet

This post was inspired by the National Tertiary Education Union 2014 conference on Insecure Work. Thanks to the National Tertiary Education Union for inviting the Research Whisperer to be part of the conference, and for paying for my airfare and accommodation. I learned many things, and this post covers some of them. 


A timesheet with 'No more!' across it in big red lettersI hate timesheets.

It has been a while since I needed to fill out a timesheet, but my visceral distaste for the timesheet ritual remains very strong.

It wasn’t just that they were fiddly and annoying and stupid (although they were). I hated what they represented – they made me feel unvalued, disempowered, and disposable.

At the back of my mind was the lurking knowledge that I could be dismissed with an hour’s notice, that I was a ‘resource’, that I was temporary.

It didn’t matter that my boss valued my work, and I had excellent relationships with them, or that we had a long history of working together.

When you work at a university, you learn that there are two different drivers for all activity: personal ethics and institutional imperative.

When the institutional imperative calls for a review or a restructure or any other activity that requires shedding jobs or saving money, the nicest people can end up doing truly horrible things, no matter what their personal ethics call for. If the rules say you get sacked without notice, you get sacked without notice.

Timesheets, at their heart, represent hourly paid work. This work gets called different things in different places – sessional, casual, adjunct, whatever. Names have power, though, so I think that we should call it what it is – hourly paid work (except on your CV, when you want it to sound as shiny as possible). By doing this, we take away the mystique, the special language, of the academy. By calling it hourly paid work, we bring it into the same world as stacking supermarket shelves and flipping burgers. We bring it into the marketplace.

It is important that we do that, because one in two jobs at Australian universities are now casual or contract. [1]

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Do you have a toxic collaborator?

What's yours? (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

What’s yours? (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

At some time in everyone’s academic lives, there will be cause for collaboration angst.

It may all start golden: big ideas, excitement about working with new colleagues, the potential for fancy-pants funding and intellectual glory.

And if you were invited onto a prestigious team by a favoured prof…well, you’d almost fall over signing up, right?

Then, down the track, you’re looking at the fifth ‘I still haven’t done it’ email from Collaborator 2, or – worse still – finding no email from Collaborator 3…ever.

How many times is it physiologically safe to roll one’s eyes at Collaborator 4 for declaring yet again that they should be first author?

I’ve written before about how to find research friends and make co-writing work, which have focused for the most part on the positive habits and traits that lead to successful, satisfying collaborations.

This post focuses on the flipside.

Finding out that your co-writer or co-investigator is awful to work with could be a gradual soul-destroying process, or a very rapid soul-destroying process. Either way? Soul destroyed.

Added to the mix are complicated intersections of status, power and privilege, and often emotional baggage from professional (or deeper) friendships. The earlier you can see that the collaboration isn’t going to work, the easier it may be to duck out of the project, or at least implement processes that will mean you emerge with your sanity and sense of self intact.

Here are 5 signs that you may have a toxic collaborator: READ MORE

Escaping the ivory tower- if only for a little while

dani-barringtonDr Dani Barrington is a Research Fellow jointly appointed by Monash University and the International WaterCentre.

Her work focuses on water and sanitation in developing communities, meaning she is often referred to as ‘The Toilet Lady’ by strangers and ‘Sani Dani’ by at least one of her friends.

She tweets at @Dani_Barrington.


Detail of Borugak Jagyeongnu, an enormous Korean water clock

The water clock, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Put your hand up if you feel guilty leaving the office at 5pm.

Keep it up if you feel it makes you a ‘bad’ academic.

I realised a few weeks ago that I consider myself a ‘bad’ academic for having a healthy work-life balance. And this really p*ssed me off.

I made a deal with my supervisor when I decided to apply for a PhD: I was over the undergraduate student lifestyle, and I would only do a PhD if I could treat it as a ‘real’ job, where I worked normal hours and took normal holidays.

Otherwise, I was going to accept a graduate position in an engineering firm (the fact that professional engineers may not have a healthy work-life balance was not apparent to me on graduating in 2007, pre-Global Financial Crisis, especially when taking an engineering position in Perth seemed the ‘safe’ option).

I LOVED studying for my PhD – I was making a fortune (well, compared to my previous casual income of $100 a week plus Youth Allowance), I got to work on stuff I was interested in, and I travelled overseas to conferences.

Yet, throughout my PhD, I kept attending seminars where I was reminded that if I wanted to continue in academia I was going to have to dedicate my entire life to the cause, including working weekends and potentially neglecting family obligations.

As a result, I wasn’t that interested in staying in academia when I finished my PhD.

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What’s on a good research project site?

Old Story (Photo by Place Light | www.flickr.com/photos/place_light)

Old Story (Photo by Place Light | http://www.flickr.com/photos/place_light)

It seems to be the done thing these days to have a webpage about your research project.

In fact, I think it’s fair to say that it’s considered an increasingly essential part of research engagement and dissemination, and – really – it is so easy to set something up these days.

Right?

Well…yes and no. (Stay with me, I’m a humanities scholar and that’s how we answer everything)

I had a great chat recently with a researcher who was wanting to set up an online presence for his project. Part of the task of this presence was to recruit subjects for his PhD study.

It was a valuable conversation for him (or so he tells me…!) and also for me, because it clarified our perceptions of what was necessary, good, and ideal.

What I’m talking about in this post isn’t focused on what specific funding bodies may want, or elements that fulfil project final report obligations.

I’m looking at the website as something that showcases the research project and aims to engage the right groups. I’m taking the perspective of an interested member of the public, or a non-specialist academic colleague, more than peers who are in your exact area.

There are heaps of pieces out there about how to create an effective website, but I get derailed when they keep referring to customers and brands. Put your filters in place, though, and you can still glean a lot of good info from these articles. Pat Thomson has written about her experiences with blogging her research projects, and discusses the uneven results.

This post is my take on what the basics are for a good research project website. It presumes a small to non-existent budget, and no expert team of web-design or site-construction people at your disposal.

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Free to good home – one Research Whisperer

Map of Melbourne city, showing three campuses

RMIT’s city, Brunswick and Bundoora campuses, courtesy Google Maps

I’ve just finished a ‘grand tour’ of all the Schools in our College (read “Departments in our Faculty”, depending on your terminology).

It was great! I spent three days a week, for a month at a time, working in a completely different space.

In the middle of last year, when I came back from China, I sent a note to our seven Deputy Deans (Research). It was headed ‘Free to good home – one Research Whisperer’. In it, I asked if they would be interested in hosting me for a month. They would need to provide a desk and a chair, and access to electricity and the wireless network.

In return, I would spend three days per week in their School for a month. I’d still be doing my normal work, but I’d be a visible presence and would be able to meet with their staff, etc.

I was overwhelmed with the response. One school came back literally within minutes of the post. Every other school responded positively, with the last one even expressing the fear that they might be too late, and have missed the boat.

Every school was different. Some had real difficulty finding a seat for me. Others were able to give me a room with a view. For me, it didn’t matter where I sat, as long as I was where the action was.

Being in a central unit, it is easy to be seduced by the image that the centre is the focus when, in fact, the work happens in the schools, departments, and centres. That is where the teaching and research happens. Everything else is a scaffold to support that work.

Getting back to the periphery is a very simple, very powerful way to demonstrate that you recognise that fact. This is how it worked for me:

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We need to talk about titles

Jonathan LaskovskyJonathan 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 as @JLaskovsky and can be found on Linkedin.


A colon

The dreaded colon

We need to talk about titles. We’ve been neglecting them and it’s starting to show.

Neglect signifies that we once cared for titles but, for some reason, the care has ceased or become sporadic at best (insert your favourite garden-tending metaphor here).

This neglect might partly be explained by the ever-increasing pressure on academic life: large teaching loads, increasing demands for research output, conferences, meetings and other administrative distractions, as well as our paltry attempts to maintain some kind of work-life balance (one more reason to attend Shut Up and Write).

Being time-poor means we are often in such a rush to write that we don’t spend the time needed to gather our thoughts and really nail what it is we are writing about.

But we should. In particular, we really need to work on our titles. Those little summaries are the first thing that people read.

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