I’ve not written a blog post for quite some time and not because I’ve not had much to say, rather because there has been far too much going on. However, the occasion of being appointed a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy has prompted me to write a short blog post about this. Also because I have offered to mentor and support others and to share my fellowship claim.
It’s a few weeks since I returned from the OER19 conference held at the National University of Ireland in Galway. I have been to the OER conference twice before, in 2017 when I presented on research into university copyright and IPR policies on lecture recording, and in about 2012 when I ran a session about OER and information literacy. Both times I found the community really welcoming, friendly and there was a real mix of people, some of whom work in the educational technology field, some in the library world but many others in education. It was through attending OER17 that I ended up meeting Virginia Rodes and going to Uruguay last year, but that is a whole other blog post and story I’ve already written about! However, I was delighted to catch up with Virginia who was presenting her doctoral research into open educational practices in Latin America, as well as plenty of other friends (Claire McAvinia, Bill Johnston, Sheila MacNeil, Marion Kelt and many more) and people I know via twitter, some of whom I got to meet in person for the first time. Many congratulations to Laura Czerniewicz and Catherine Cronin who were the co-chairs of the conference, they did a fantastic job. And there were delegates from many different countries attending the conference, which made it a really rich experience.
It’s always good to reflect on a conference a few weeks later, because it’s a chance to see what has stuck in my mind, for me beautiful patterns and images stick in my mind from the conference, not just because it was on Ireland’s wonderful west coast. I am still thinking of Kate Bowles opening keynote where she talked of the ‘Quilt of stars’ showing us pictures of beautiful quilts of the night sky, but also using it as a metaphor for how work often goes outside the boundaries of working life, spilling over the edges. She asked some tough questions about the growing trend to commercialise higher education and how at odds this is with the open education agenda. I agree that the open education community often relies on the labour of those who through their employment at a university, can give their work away for free. Not everyone is in such a privileged position. It is something Chris and I thought about long and hard when creating resources such as Copyright the Card Game and the Publishing Trap and then giving them away for free by licensing them under Creative Commons. It’s what I want to do, but it’s also work that I invest in over and above what the day job would ever cover, and it does mean this often spills into my own free time.
I went to several fascinating talks at OER19 including one on research in Portugal by Paula Cardoso and Lina Morgado into whether there is a relationship between academics likelihood to publish their research openly and the creation of OERs. I also attended a great session on creating through crowdsourcing an open textbook on learning design. It led to some really interesting discussions about what a textbook was and I was struck by how the open textbook movement is really taking off in many other countries, but not the UK. Virginia’s talk about her research into OER adoption by academics in Latin America, using a grounded theory approach was fascinating and her model highlights the many dimensions that impact on the decisions around openness, including teacher identity and agency, their view of the curriculum and curriculum development. She also talked about the agenda to decolonise the curriculum and why the views of teachers in Latin America might differ substantially from those elsewhere. Other people’s who’s talks stood out were Johanna Funk from Charles Darwin University, who described four open education projects, Taskeen Adam who talked about her research into MOOCs in South Africa. I was pleased to hear Helen Crump and Caroline Kuhn speak, two people I follow on twitter. And Nick Baker from Canada, who talked about lighting fires in open educational practices.
I was struck by the keynote from Su-Ming Khoo, who I met at the evening social when Dave White decided to give her some keynote pointers (it largely involves a special type of pointing!). Su-Ming also used beautiful imagery based on the legend of the raven in Haida mythology, which are First People from Canada’s west coat. The raven was curious about what was in a clam shell and in opening it, so the world was created. There is a wonderful sculpture by Bill Reid in the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. I realised at once I have seen this sculpture, when taken to the museum by my great uncle, Michael, who in fact was a good friend of Bill Reid. Su-Ming talked about the beauty in things that are broken, the gift economy and talked about ‘eccentric’ open education which draws attention to what is missing, and engaging with difference to make us think differently. I really resonated with the theme running through the conference about how education is social justice, but it is also for social justice. Su-Ming urged us not to be ego-centred but to be decentered. But asked us whether there was there a time when education wasn’t broken? Are we harking back to a golden age that didn’t exist? I often think that when lecturers talk about students and critical thinking, or attendance at lectures or engagement in class – did this golden age ever really exist?
Another highlight for me was the opportunity to run a panel discussion based on my new module I launched at City, University of London last autumn as part of our MA in Academic Practice. My module, EDM122: Digital Literacies and Open Practice is something I enjoyed every moment of preparing and teaching. I also was so pleased that I decided to include a webinar programme as part of the course and to invite a series of experts in the field of both digital literacy and open practice to participate. It was great to be joined on the panel at OER19 by three of my webinar presenters: Lorna Campbell, Dave White and Chris Morrison who reflected on their experiences of being part of the course. One thing that struck me was a comment by Dave, when I remarked on how many people had come to our session, which was late in the day and in a different building. He said ‘well Jane, there are a lot of people talking about open practice and you’ve actually done it, in terms of launching this course.’ I’m not arrogant enough to think I am the only person who has ‘done it’ but judging from the interest I got, then there are not a lot of examples out there yet. I want to be clear, I was totally inspired by the University of Manchester for their Open Knowledge in Higher Education module, which they invited me to teach on a couple of years ago. Martin Weller had a big impact on that course, and his work on Digital Scholarship has shaped my thinking for many years. So others such as Martin and Manchester are definitely leading the way! And I also piloted this course in Montevideo, Uruguay last August, and they are also pioneers when it comes to open education. The slides from the panel discussion are online. Thank you to my speakers for sharing their insights, and thank you to everyone who came along to the session and asked such thoughtful questions.
As with all good conferences there was time for networking, some great food and a few drinks and it being in Ireland we got to experience some live music too. I was sorry I could stay for longer in Ireland, but it’s going to be a busy few months on the Copyright Literacy tour. But thank you to ALT, (to Martin and Maren) and to Catherine and Laura for putting together such a memorable and thought provoking conference. And finally, thanks to Dom Pates for giving me some time and writing space on Friday, so I could get this blog post out there in the open finally!
I’m helping re-launch the LEaD writing group on the 8th February at City University and I am a little bit excited about running this group with my colleague Dom Pates. It turns out we have both been blogging for over 10 years, and we are both keen to support people who want some time and space (and maybe a bit of technical assistance with WordPress) to do some writing. Interestingly we are both looking forward to having the time and space to do some writing ourselves and may finally finish a draft blog post we’ve been working on for over 6 months now, on academics’ attitudes towards lecture recording.
Aurora made me remember this, and I also recall thinking to myself one day, that when asked by a stranger ‘what do you do for a living’ that nothing would give me greater joy than to be able to say ‘I’m a university lecturer’. And now I am, thanks largely to Aurora and to the wonderful opportunity at City University to join the Learning Enhancement and Development team. And now I have my own module teaching all the stuff I really care about and this term has been a wonderful combination of fabulous, terrifying, exhausting and inspiring. I felt I wanted to write a blog post about what I’d learnt teaching this module, but in fact I feel a bit like I’m still so wrapped up in it that I don’t know properly if I can reflect. I know I’ve worked really hard, preparing the reading list, devising all the teaching activities, offering webinars with guest speakers and opening those up to the wider world. I know I have some marking to look forward to next week. But I’m not yet sure what I’ve learnt about teaching Digital Literacies and Open Practice. I thought I’d try to write a few things down that struck me that might help me make sense of it. But the overwhelming feeling I have is how wonderful it’s been finding the things that I love actually mean something to other people. I have known for some time that what I did meant a lot to librarians, but becoming an academic in educational development means I have to teach people from all sorts of disciplines. And so I wondered, would they find the topic interesting? Would it resonate with them and would it hang together, or just be a weird perspective on the world that people would later call the ‘being Jane Secker’ phenomena? So what have I learnt so far?
The Publishing Trap and other games have got a real value in academic practice – that’s not to say it didn’t before, but the best part of the course for me was taking all the things I love and seeing them work in my teaching. And on the final afternoon when everyone played the Publishing Trap and really enjoyed it, I felt all my hard work was worth it. That game is mine and Chris’s greatest creation in many ways, but I’ve also felt it like a millstone round my neck as well. I love it and hate it in equal measures! I love it’s a game of life and I love the characters (particularly dear Brian the microbiologist with a big beard and an allotment). But I hate how complicated it is (but then so is academic life) and how people have nit picked about certain aspects of the game that aren’t quite like real life. Playing it last week with everyone as the culmination of the module, and having them really enjoy it, was just wonderful though. And I am delighted to report that Brian came joint first and Mary made it to NASA!
Be grateful for your friends and colleagues – I guess the key thing with teaching this module was that I didn’t do it on my own. I’ve had the wonderful support of my academic team mate, Ali Press throughout. Sense checking my ideas, helping me create a wonderful glossary tool and just being there to support me. I’ve had my colleague Ruth who actually has had the patience to take my module (brave soul) and made such an excellent contribution throughout as a participant. I’ve had the amazing group of guest webinar presenters who joined me, you can see the full list of speakers on the blog, but special thanks to Chris who not only presented a webinar but tuned in to almost all of them. And they are not over yet as there is my final webinar on 11th January with Catherine Cronin. And finally colleagues from the City Educational Technology team who helped with day two of the module with DIY video production (and particularly thanks to Peter and James who have taken the module!) and Stephen and Lenka from the library who joined me on day 1 and day 2 respectively to provide a perspective on copyright and open access. It’s been quite amazing how willing people have been to help and support me. And I am particularly grateful to Virginia Rodes at the University of the Republic in Montevideo, Uruguay who gave me the opportunity to teach a version of this course in August and the wonderful students that I met during my 10 days in what was a magical country.
I keep saying I want to encourage everyone I know to do a PhD which is not entirely true, but there are some of my friends who have been thinking about a doctorate and so I hope writing this might help them. I realise that not everyone enjoys research but for me it was a life changing experience. I wasn’t always planning on doing a PhD but in some ways it was an inevitable step after I finished my undergraduate degree. I desperately wanted to prove I was clever, I didn’t feel ready to leave university and get a job and I started on the path of doing research as an undergraduate and found it an amazing experience. Partly it was because I had some freedom to follow my interests, partly I realised how exciting it could be to find stuff out. To find a little niche in the world where no one else had been. However there were a whole set of factors that helped me really thrive as a researcher. A set of specific circumstances that I think are worth discussing and sharing as they seem useful for anyone who might be thinking of doing a PhD. I also realise that I was fortunate, being in the right place at the right time, but I also realise that anyone doing research now has so many more opportunities to connect with like minded researchers. Anyway, here goes with some advice…
1) Find the right supervisors. I say that because I had 2 supervisors which at the time was relatively uncommon. But it meant I had two perspectives on my work and two experts in their own field which I think helped me work in an interdisciplinary way, but meant I could take advantage of their respective strengths. Supervisors are so important as they guide and support you and having two of them really worked well for me. It also really helped that they were in different departments and really did have quite different specialisms. They both helped me in different ways as I learnt to write about my ideas and refine my thinking.
2)Become part of an inter-disciplinary community. The year I started my research my university (Aberystwyth) had decided to invest in PhD studentships across all departments. Not only did it mean I got some money to live on and to pay my fees but it meant there was around 100 people in my year all starting our research together. We were effectively a cohort who together became a community of researchers. I was a founder member of the Postgraduate Association and we had an excellent Dean of Graduate Studies who was keen to support research students. We organised social events (cheese and wine related usually) and held regular meetings to discuss any issues people were having. We were lucky to get support from the Guild of Students and our Dean gave us a small budget. What is meant for me though was I didn’t ever feel alone. Yes I was the only one studying my strange little topic on historians and newspapers, but I had the support of my friends who were doing PhDs in astrophysics, maths, geography, history, international politics and all sorts of other weird and wonderful subjects. We shared our experiences of the progress we were making, of the issues were were having with our supervisors or with our families (who clearly thought we were all slightly bonkers) and it motivated me and made the experience rewarding on a personal basis.
3) Get some research training. While I may not have appreciated all aspects of the research training course I did in my first year I was effectively taught for the whole year and the course covered all the main social science research methods. Not only did it give me an excellent grounding in theoretical frameworks and research methods it meant I met researchers from all different departments across the university. We learnt qualitative and quantitative methods and analysis, philosophy of social sciences and much more. The course was compulsory for anyone in the Faculty of Social Sciences and it had been devised in response to guidelines from the ESRC, but it was really ahead of it’s time. And even today I still an amazed at how few universities have such an extensive programme. My experiences working in research support in the years since then showed that treating doctoral students as people who might understand all their needs is fundamentally flawed. If you had given me the option of not taking that course, I suspect the confident, know it all I was back then would have decided to opt out. But I’m glad that wasn’t possible and passing that course was an essential part of progressing to my second year, but also made me the researcher I am today.
4) Become part of an academic department. In addition to being part of a wider community of researchers across the university one of my departments had an excellent ethos in the way it treated doctoral students. We were given shared office space on the same corridor as the academic staff, we were allowed to use the staff room and we had many of the privileges of staff. It really felt like an apprentice scheme in being an academic and it was amazing how such little things, such as being able to go into the staff room, made a real difference to how you felt about your identity. We had regular research seminars where we were encouraged to present our ideas and get feedback from our peers and colleagues from across the department showed an interest in my research. It gave me the confidence to submit a paper for an academic conference in my third year, and attending that event at the University of Westminster proved to be a pivotal moment for me.
5) Take the opportunity to teach. Teaching wasn’t really something I had considered before becoming a doctoral student, but it was also something I didn’t have much choice in doing, because I needed the money. I was in fact awarded half a studentship from the university which meant without teaching to earn some extra money, I would have been pretty poor. I can remember being terrified about what I would be expected to do, how I would answer students questions, having to teach subjects I had barely understood as an undergraduate (Dialog and Datastar searching!) But as the time went on I realised teaching was actually fun. I could often get by when a student was struggling by asking them lots of questions and actually reading the handouts the lecturers had prepared (I realised how few students seemed to be able to read and follow a help sheet when doing any form of computer practical!) And I got to chat to the students and learnt so much myself during my time as what we called a ‘computer demonstrator’. I sometimes wonder now if I really was a teacher, but what I know is that I had found something I enjoyed, that gave me a source of income and students seemed to like me.
6) Write from the start. Since doing a research supervision course last year I learnt that factors for success with doctoral students are many, but one thing sets many students apart and makes them far more likely to complete. That is the student who writes from the start. I was encouraged to do this by both my supervisors, but I also remember early on in a meeting them being surprised at the volume I had written. It’s quality Jane not quantity they said, but I often feel I have to get the words out my head and onto paper to start to make sense of what I might be thinking. This was effectively what I spent the 3 and half years of my doctoral work doing, writing and writing and re-writing and re-drafting until finally some of it started to make sense. There are loads of other factors that contribute towards success, but this for me was critical and is something that has stayed with me always. I write so I can think and in writing it helps my thinking, which in turn improves my writing. It’s not perfect, but I’ve never let that stop me. I don’t always write things grammatical correct, but it all comes out in the wash in the end and that’s what proof readers and critical friends are for after all!
7) Avoid perfectionism. Few people who know me would say I was a perfectionist. I work hard, but I also have a sense often of the effort needed to make something perfect, which can be far greater than the time that is available. So I have never been afraid to hand in a first draft, knowing it’s not great. Or to ask someone for help with redrafting a paper that I just can’t get right. Perfectionists don’t finish PhDs. What you do has to be good, you have to work hard and put in the hours, when you are collecting and analysing your data, when you are searching the literature and when you are drawing it together into some sort of conclusion. But no one expects perfection. Do your best, in the time you have available, but be willing to put your work and ideas out there to get feedback on them. It’s the only way to learn.
8) Have a hobby. You can’t spend your whole life working on your PhD for 3-4 years. It will feel like that is what you are doing but you need to take time out. I effectively treated it like a job. I worked 9-5 (or in my case more like 10-6). But then I went to the sports centre and did aerobics classes, and went out walking in the hills at the weekend, and socialised. I also did a lot of cooking and learnt to make jam. I didn’t work endlessly into the night (except perhaps right at the end) and I even went on a couple of holidays. Yes you feel guilty the whole time you are not working on the thesis, but you have to do other stuff and for me cycling and aerobics and making the most of the beautiful West Wales countryside at the weekend were the way I survived my PhD.
I do realise I was very focused during this period of my life. From 1995-1999 there are very few TV series I watched. I did go to the cinema still but I didn’t listen to a lot of music – I have huge gaps in my cultural references because I was immersed in my own world of academia (I never watched a single episode of Friends). I threw myself into my research, to such an extent that it’s painful sometimes to go back to it. Since my thesis has been digitised and made available online I have cringed a lot at my writing style. I’ve wondered why I was so enthralled with the topic. But I have never, ever regretted it for a moment. It set me on the path I am on now and has instilled in me a love of research, a curiosity that I hope never leaves me. A desire to ask questions, to present at conferences, to write papers and hopefully one day soon to start supervising some PhD students of my own!
Thanks to Emma Wilson, for inspiring me to write this piece. I hope she finds it useful after our recent discussions. I’d love to hear from others about what doing a doctorate meant to them and how it might have contributed to who they are. A doctorate gives you many things, but it also sets you apart from people, such as making your family think you are strange or terribly clever. That can be both a blessing and a curse! But I say to anyone thinking about doing a PhD, find the right topic, the right supervisors and plenty of support and then do it. You won’t look back and remember life’s a journey so don’t forget to enjoy the ride!
May is my favourite month of the year. I have been telling everyone this recently and when they ask why I say it’s because of the light, and the very specific shade of green that is in my garden and in Northampton Square when I look out my office window at City University. I love the fact the days are getting longer and it’s getting warmer. I also feel there are so many exciting things coming up to look forward to, including kicking off the Copyright Literacy tour next week by heading down to Dartington Hall for the DARTS conference. The week after that I’m off to Strasbourg, then to Dublin, then to Berlin! It’s all go and that is only half of it.
My mood lifting is probably also helped by the fact I finished my Copyright X course, the 12 week online course I did at Harvard Law School. It culminated in a 96 hour take home exam 2 weekends ago and ever since I finished it I can’t believe how much lighter I feel! Studying the course was fantastic but it was also really hard work, which isn’t surprising I guess. And I have a month or so to wait until I find out if I passed. Ask me about US copyright law some time, I’d love to talk about Fair Use and some of the underlying philosophies of copyright and IP!
Last week also saw the launch of the podcast I recorded back in January with Jo Wood, for the Librarians with Lives series. I had been looking forward to (and slightly dreading) listening to it again and hoping I said a few things that made sense. So far a few people have told me they liked it and I really enjoyed Jo’s style of questions, which were both serious and light hearted – I suspect quite a few of them didn’t get to the bit about flip flops and Indiana Jones! It turned out to be good timing as it came out the day after a blog post I wrote for the ILG blog, on my role as Chair, saving the world and rewriting the CILIP definition of Information Literacy. And I’d spoken at CILIP on Monday, which led to some fantastic tweets about the new definition doing the rounds. There is lots to look forward to, and lots to do. In some ways I want to bottle this month though, it’s a beautiful time of year. My greenhouse is full of seedlings and as everything breaks into bloom I’m waking up early, doing my mediation and feel I have a lot to be grateful for.