Belated AcWriMo report

Well, AcWriMo is long over and done with, and I didn’t quite achieve my goals.  In fact, I didn’t achieve my goals at all.  And, to be completely honest, I think my goals were a bit bonkers, considering the point I’d reached at the beginning of November, and where I was hoping / planning / dreaming I’d be at the end of the month.

My initial goal was 10,000 words of my quantitative results chapter.  I knew when I set this goal that I still had some analysis to do.  Little did I realise how much time it would take…

I also set a secondary goal (for when I’d finished the 10k words!) of 30 hours of qualitative data analysis.  Unsurprisingly, this didn’t happen either.

I did, however, set a far more reasonable daily goal for myself, which was to do 10 tomatoes (sections of working time, using the pomodoro technique) per weekday on my thesis, and at least eight over the course of each weekend.  This goal was mostly achieved; there were some days when I didn’t do any work due to attending a job interview and a conference, and having visitors.

In a lot of ways I don’t have very much to show for AcWriMo – not in terms of Wri, anyway!  But I got a lot of quantitative analysis done, and that was hugely useful.  In the end, I wrote about 3,000 words altogether, but I laid the groundwork for a lot more (the chapter currently stands at 8,400 words).

I really enjoyed the experience and the challenge.  Although the challenge was one which I had made for myself, the public declaration of my goals and the public reporting of progress, in a Google Docs spreadsheet and on Twitter, helped me to keep going even when the statistics threatened to overwhelm me!



Goal Post by Richard SpencerGoal Post © Copyright Richard Spencer (More information)


I’ve just signed up for AcWriMo – Academic Writing Month*.

AcWriMo is loosely based on NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month – which has taken place each November since 1999.  NaNoWriMo pretty much does what it says on the tin; participants attempt to write a 50,000 novel during November.  A pretty tall order, you might think, but an awful lot of people take part, and an awful lot of those manage the 50k words.

AcWriMo is a little different.  It started last year as AcBoWriMo (Academic Book Writing Month), and also involved a commitment from participants of 50,000 words.  (I don’t remember hearing about it last year, but if I had I wouldn’t have signed up because I can’t imagine even attempting to write 50,000 words of my PhD in one month!)  This year it’s more flexible – participants can commit to whatever goals are most appropriate for them, including non-writing goals, though we are encouraged to push ourselves beyond what we think we can do!  Apart from that, the rules are simple: set your goals, declare your participation, make a plan, talk about it (not all the time, obviously, but post regularly on Twitter and Facebook to share the experience), work hard, and be honest about your AcWriMo success (or otherwise).

My ultimate goals are to write 10,000 words, preferably all for my quantitative results chapter, and to have done 30 hours of interview transcript coding.  But I have also (thanks to the handy Academic Writing Accountability Google Doc created by Jennifer Lim (@mystudiouslife on Twitter)) given myself the daily aim of doing at least ten tomatoes (or Pomodoros) on each weekday, and at least 8 over a weekend.  This means that I can also include the time taken to analyse my quantitative data before I write about it.

In a lot of ways November is not a good month for me to be doing this: I am away until the 5th for a family celebration, and again from the 28th for a conference; there is a marking deadline in the middle of the month, and I’m expecting quite a lot of assignments to mark; and I’ve just found out that I have a job interview on the 12th (about which I’m currently at 75% “Yay interview!” and 25% “Eep! Interview!”).

I’m not sure whether I’ll achieve either of my main goals.  Not because they aren’t achievable, but because, as I said, I still have quantitative data analysis to do, and there are other things which will take me away from my PhD work.  But even if I don’t achieve them, I really like the idea of public accountability, of stating your aims and telling other people whether or not you achieved them (which is why I also really like doing Shut Up and Write sessions, whether virtually or in-person).

So.  That is my plan for the month of November.  Wish me luck!

* explanatory blog post from PhD2Published here.

In Limbo

Well, I am no longer a student.  Or at least, I’m no longer a registered student. I am in abeyance, which is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as being in “the position of waiting for or temporarily being without a claimant or owner” (which is fairly accurate, particularly if you replace the words “claimant or owner” with “job or income”) and/or being in a state of “temporary inactivity or disuse” (which is definitely not accurate).

Either way, I am not what I have been.  And I don’t, at the moment, know what I’m going to be.  I’m not funded any more (my last payment was in May, but the funding period technically finishes today), I’m not employed, and I have no idea what my future holds. I’d like to say that it’s exciting, but in reality it’s just plain worrying.

It’s been a long time since I posted here.  Since my last entry I have:

  • edited and added to my methodology chapter;
  • interviewed 36 research participants;
  • transcribed 36 interviews;
  • given two conference papers;
  • had a journal article published, based on my master’s dissertation;
  • started both quantitative and qualitative data analysis;
  • spent a few months working part time for my department as an administrator; and
  • done various bits of marking and teaching.

(Oh, and turned 40.)

ICT in schools

Education Secretary Michael Gove has announced today that the teaching of ICT (Information and Communications Technology) in schools is going to be completely revamped, with the current teaching methods scrapped and “replaced by an “open source” curriculum in computer science and programming designed with the help of universities and industry.” (BBC News).  Companies like Microsoft and Google have been mentioned as potential partners for the new curriculum.

One of the reasons why I am so interested in this is that we had a discussion about exactly this subject over the lunch table yesterday.  Information Science and Computer Science overlap quite a bit, particularly when it comes to areas such as the internet and the digitising of information.  One of my colleagues had been on a course with some Comp Sci lecturers, who mentioned that some new students find the “reality” of Comp Sci very difficult because they have no background in the technical aspects of the subject.

I am happy to admit that I know very little about what is taught in secondary schools these days.  When I was at school we had a very small number of BBC Micro computers (three, I think, though I could be wrong) and, as part of a class I can’t remember (Art, Design and Technology or something similar, perhaps), we had the very basic basics of BASIC coding explained to us, and we copied lines of code in order to make a box appear on the screen. It sounds ridiculous now, but considering that computers were something most of us had only seen on Tomorrow’s World or in science fiction TV shows, it was quite impressive, if not terribly exciting.

I have no idea whether coding, to any level, is part of ICT teaching in most schools, but a common complaint seems to be that students are arriving at university with a desire to design games or apps, but no or little understanding of the theoretical foundations of the field.  Their knowledge is often top-level, surface knowledge of software and applications such as the Microsoft Office Suite, rather than knowledge about coding and the building blocks of the programs they use.  This means that there is a steep learning curve when they get to university – sometimes one which is too steep to climb.  A quote from Ian Livingstone, an advisor to Michael Gove, seems to sum up this point of view: “Children are being forced to learn how to use applications, rather than to make them. They are becoming slaves to the user interface”.
This is the link to the BBC news story.

(Something which is loosely related to this is the idea of 2012 as the Code Year, an idea from Codecademy.  The idea behind Code Year is that you learn to code, for free, via emailed lessons, and it really seems to have struck a chord with the librarian population.  The hashtag on Twitter for libraryish folks taking part is #libcodeyear.)

My Methodology (so far) Chapter

As of yesterday evening, I have a mostly-complete draft methodology chapter (“mostly” because there are obviously things that I can’t write about yet, because I haven’t done them and I’m not, in some cases, sure how I’m going to do them).  It currently stands at 11,590 words, so the final draft is likely to be about 15,000.  Too many, but rather that than too few.

I started properly working on the Methodology chapter in February, which was about 16 months into the PhD.  I spent a lot of time reading about methodology – some had already come up as part of my literature search, but I needed to convince myself of various points, including whether or not my research could or should be conducted within a grounded theory framework (yes it could be, no it shouldn’t, or at least won’t, be).

(I also needed to do a lot of reading about mixed methods research; although in many ways it does what it says on the tin, it is rather more complex than “collect one type of data, collect another type of data, and discuss the findings all together in one lump”.  One thing which was quite exciting was the discovery that my planned research design was a real, acknowledged mixed methods research design – the sequential explanatory design (participant selection model), described by Creswell et al in 2003.  I hadn’t known about this model when I first came up with my research design, but it exactly fits: collect quantitative data, analyse it and use it to select participants for qualitative data collection.  And there are lots of graphical representations of the process – I love a good graphical representation (as long as I actually understand it – not true of all that I have come across over the years).)

In May I had a meeting with my supervisor, which was faintly embarrassing – my extensive reading had not yet translated into extensive writing.  We had a good discussion about my methodology and resolved some issues, but neither of us was particularly pleased by the exchange of four sparsely populated pieces of paper professing to be a draft methodology chapter.

From May until yesterday I spent nearly every day (apart from a three week period during which I created and disseminated the quantitative questionnaire, and prepared a paper for the Research2 PhD conference) working on the chapter – reading, notewriting, structuring, synthesising, and finally – finally! – writing.

It took a lot longer, and was a lot more difficult, than I had expected, but it was worth it in the end.  I feel confident in my choice of methodology, and I’ve learned a lot that I didn’t know about research methods in general.  If anyone asked me for my advice on doing a methodology chapter, it would be:

Don’t underestimate the time it may take.
And don’t be scared.  It is intimidating – there’s a lot to read and to learn and to write, but it is also fascinating and engrossing (and tiring and frustrating and seemingly endless…).
You may become a complete methodology nerd, as well, but I’m assured that that wears off.  Eventually.

My progress so far

As I get close to the end of the second funded year of my PhD, I feel the need for reflection (hence this blog).  Though I have theoretically been working on my PhD for all of these two years, I haven’t got to where I’d intended to be at this point.  In terms of the work I’ve done, I feel that I’m probably at about the 15-month mark – maybe 18 months if I’m being generous.

During the first year of the PhD, my father, who was already ill, was diagnosed with cancer, and he died at the end of June 2010.  I spent most of that first year travelling back and forth to be with my family, and my concentration, though not my commitment, was severely affected.  In hindsight, I should have taken some time off – spent time completely away from my books and my computer – but at the time I thought it was best to carry on.  My supervisor called me ‘stoic’ once, and I think she was partly right; I stiff-upper-lipped my way through, when I should probably have spent a couple of weeks on the sofa with the DVD remote and a 12-pack of Hula Hoops.

It took me quite a long time to get back on my academic feet again, but I think I’m there.  I have a second-draft literature chapter, most of a methodology chapter, and my first lot of (mostly quantitative) data.  I still have some self-confidence issues, but they’re getting better.  I gave a paper in July at a PhD conference about my research.  And I plan to start interviewing in a few weeks.

It’s taken a while, but I think my PhD mojo is back, and I’m really looking forward to the next year (and a bit) of hard work.