Hands up who likes bees?

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…

We all like positivity, yes?

If I organize it, will you come along? (Actual turnout not shown)

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From the books to real life

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.

Positivistic framework is positivistic

Positivistic framework is positivistic

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.

Numbers? Oh boy

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?

Not shown: rude jokes on the production line

Work - a draft flashcard for my research

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.

Adapting and adopting methods

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.

No time for plagiarism, Dr. Jones!

Above: a famous archaeologist demonstrates "the 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!

Fieldwork, schmieldwork

Six years as a student, reading other people’s work, is long enough it seems for the University to set me loose on the world. This winter has been my last one turning in essays, having them marked, and waiting for the results. From now on my study is going to be increasingly about my own fieldwork until I finish, hopefully, my PhD in that impossible year 2015. How weird! I remember hearing that Atlanta was going to host the 1996 Olympics, counting up the years to figure I’d be 11, and boggling at the distance between.

My fieldwork is planned for the spring. I’m anxious but can’t quite discern whether that’s because I haven’t planned my methodology thoroughly enough, or because it feels like my first day at a new school: new notebook, nervously chewing new pencil, a year to fill with pages and pages of words, essays, pop quizzes, exams… a blank page strikes your brain doubly, at once a field of fresh fallen snow to cross and recross with innocent bootprints, and meanwhile cavernous as cosmic noise through radio static both demanding a voice and already full of voices from Cicero to Hendrix. How the hell can a kid like me write anything when so much as already been written?

My goal for this blog is to share my experience and my work with all you that help me along the way. My first research will be this month with luck on College Green in Bristol at the Occupy site, and I’ll be out there in my wellies with a notepad and a voice recorder. Watch out 2015!