The following is an adapted excerpt from a thematic literature review, following a pilot study, that I carried out last spring. I proposed the finding that young people’s experience during the contemporary transition to adulthood challenges researchers with a complex, dualistic relationship between narratives as young people make reflexive, self-narrative transitions to adulthood. The accepted narrative is something like Horatio Alger Jr.’s ‘bootstrap’ novelle about the heroic self-made man. I drew examples from Nayak and Kehily’s studies of young masculinity and femininity during the dual transition of individuals from childhood to independence, and, as a period effect, the transition of British society from an industrial one to a neo-liberalist economy (Nayak and Kehily, 2008) in which making one’s own way in the world represents both a newfound freedom and new post-industrial shackle.
I had a shock on Google Scholar when I put in one of my usual search terms, young antipolitics, found an unread article, and found that it was mine. My name in lights! Well, Google lights, anyway. The paper is a literature review I wrote for a master’s course and I had placed it on my University website to point interested folk at a conference towards it. I guess the Google scholar robots stumbled on it and figured with a bath.ac.uk address it must be legit.
The paper has been graded now – it was alright – but for a good month or so the top result for young antipolitics on Google scholar was some old junk I had parcelled onto a uni website without any reading or review. I reckon the Google robots must check references with some accuracy – you can surf through articles that cite each other – but in the end, it turns out like Wikipedia. Can you really be sure who writes what you find on the internet?
Of course, we’re all good students and take web papers with a pinch of salt. You check the name of the journal, you recognize the major citations… and so on. What’s interesting to me here isn’t the potential to fall foul of Google’s robots but ways we as students can play the robots at their own game: juice up our papers to look good to robots, get the top spot on Google scholar, cross-reference our research blogs, and so on. Coming up with a cracking neologism – antipolitics is an accidental one – and stamping your name on it as a search term might be one way to do it.
And wouldn’t that be great, if some day, some stranger typed your name into Google and got a wonderful academic treatise, rather than the Facebook account of a dude in Iowa by the same name…
One thing I really like about student life is the conferences, and the way ideas cross-pollinate when a conference is set up right. That is, when there are spaces at a conference to ignore the conference and just shoot the breeze with some other student you’ve never met, from wherever, doing whatever. It’s best not when you find someone doing a whatever that’s similar to yours, but one that’s totally different but using the same framework, or language, or technology for understanding. What can we do to promote this kind of productive collision between ideas?
My secret plan, which I’ve been cooking up for some time, is to set up a collaborative blog, primarily for postgraduate research students, but inviting others along for the ride too, so that people can share their ideas whether thought through or not, and get that oh-so-important “web presence”. Even if it’s just to copy out a couple of sections from a paper they’ve already published, even only to point to a seminar group to check out the blog. Sounds good so far, right? And everyone says: yes! A lovely idea. Yes! I’ll write for you and that sounds just terrific and yes, yes, yes…
One reason I would like to keep this blog going is to experiment with ideas that turn up in my uni work but that would be more fun without all the citations and wide interrogation that come with doing academic papers.
The big idea in my head right now is youthful antipolitics (from Rys Farthing, 2010) which you could say is a criticism of depicting young people’s political engagement vs. disengagement as a binary. Is young politics so simple, that some kids vote and are good citizens, and some are basically Beavis and Butthead, and don’t give a damn? Or, is there something in sitting at the computer, for example, that doesn’t fit the paradigm of engaged politics but is still useful to young people and the societies they live in?
This month I am running my first three focus groups – one with a team, and two alone for my PhD project – and it feels different to the way I expected it would. I am very nervous! To my imagination this step would be a peak of certainty, my head full of answers provided by scholars in their firmament and brilliant journals and this theory executed on willing volunteers with more answers to give, if only I pose the questions correctly.
Oy vey. Every suggestion in a journal leads to six more questions each of which point to this or that idea and – ack! more like a Looney Tunes character who runs off a cliff and legs spinning, is stuck in mid-air until he looks down to realize the ground has gone (and whhhhheeeeeeeooooo…. splat!) enthusiasm, and lurching at deadlines, has gathered me so many well informed uncertainties that the original truths show up diaphanous.
At the moment with the radio on sketching a blog post it seems clear. I hosted a pub quiz for postgraduates on Monday, up on a dais both thrilled by the game of it and embarrassed and wanting to disappear as I guess everyone feels on a microphone before a crowd. Afterwards with a(nother!) beer a PhD student recommended to me a yearly talk by “Hugh somebody, he’s Australian” and told me this Hugh’s message was: I hardly ever meet a student who doesn’t have the capacity for it, maybe one in twenty, but the secret is that all of you especially the other nineteen will feel deep down like you’re too stupid to be a PhD student (all agreed: I hope that’s true!).
Well. So: the words are clear, that lacking confidence is fine. Deeper down, I wonder if our agreement on Hugh says, maybe, it’s OK to have little failures. It may be enough to keep hold of the questions, and not chase pure answers. In that case my reading isn’t in order to build, and complete, a great research method. It’s to improve my questions and stumble, hopefully, on something useful. I would like that. Because, according to Hugh Somebody, I will never know if I have a great research method because all students feel like idiots. I like that too.
Friday brings Quantitative Methods 2, a heavy class for an innumerate politics student like me concerning an alien language only highly tuned brains and computers can comprehend. Flashback to my New York high school Precalculus class as I blink at the lecture notes mind blank and thinking: Is that you, John Wayne? is this me?
It’s tough to stick with quantitative methods given the effort I have to put in and the low pay off. I might never use these methods, and especially not for my research project. On the other hand, I am determined to give it a go. A skill learned might come in handy – presuming I actually learn anything – and it stands me in better stead when I argue that, say, politics and culture can’t be separated, not to separate myself entirely from another important part of the world, which is counting and calculating the things in it. But boy, is it a terrible experience to swing and miss at everything a teacher throws at you.
The above picture is a draft card for my research. It’s one of my better drafts, I think. Crude, in a good way. I’m not entirely happy with the face but I tried having a blank figure at the sewing machine and it looked more serious, somehow, like a logo for an Olympic sport, while the two dots and line mouth imply the person is a) ticked off with working past six o’clock and b) an honestly crappy drawing. I have sketched lots for Crime and Justice (or “Crime”, or “Law and Order”, etc.) and rejected them all. At first I drew a stick figure with a knife chased by police, then I gave him a hoodie, then I decided against the knife, and finally junked the hoodie as it makes him look a bit like a motorcyclist or Rastafarian. I guess I prefer to the old stick figure, which is not a bad thing.
My big task at the moment is devising flash cards for my focus group method, which is supposed to be a development of Jonathan White’s from his Political Allegiance after Integration (2011), a crafty method for stimulating political content from a discussion. I guess I perceive a few challenges in adapting the method: first, to do the work and do it right; second, to make sure I have some ownership of the method, rather than performing a presto change-o switcheroo.
I want to adapt the method rather than adopt it, so it’s important I design important parts, like the flash cards used during the discussion, myself, not least because I’ll be able to make the method specific to my empirical intentions. The key to gaining ownership won’t be adapting the method itself but, instead, constructing a new method derived from the same basic ideas.
This is where things get difficult. To adapt an idea presupposes understanding. If you were looking to make a movie based on Romeo and Juliet you’d have to know what happened in Romeo and Juliet first, right? By the same token, if I’m to appropriate the essentials of someone else’s successful methodology I’m claiming to understand them. So that’s one thing: making sure that I fully comprehend the original author’s intentions and perspective and staying aware that his method, adapted, is an interpretation of his ideas.
Second, I have to actually sit down with some pens and do the work, pulling out my hair over trying to be sort of lackadaisical and cartoony with my drawings (it wouldn’t do to look like I tried too hard) while staying close to theoretical principles. Oh boy! I find myself looking back at my work and feeling either that I’ll show them to a group and they’ll scoff at me, or else I’ll turn up before the department and they’ll roll their eyes at my mindless doodles. Low confidence yields procrastination.
Third, it’s important that while doing the work and not trying too hard at it I keep a firm track of my ideas as they develop so that, step by step, I can explain my rationale to others and myself for the cards and topics I devise. Though the card exercise is not central to data collection I can’t simply ignore it: it’s important I am aware of the ideas I’m spreading around with my cards and those I have not included.
I am nevertheless happy about the methodology and its potential. It will be fun, too. I am not sure about posting example cards here but I am leaning towards doing so, just because I love the idea of open research. I will have to speak to my supervisor about it… peace all!