Monday, July 6, 2020

What academics misunderstand about ‘public writing’: popular writing should be as rigorous as scholarship — but much easier to read

by Irina Dumitrescu, The Chronicle of Hiogher Education:


Public writing can be a touchy subject. From one perspective, we are living in a golden age of public intellectualism. Today’s scholars have numerous ways to reach a broad audience — from online magazines hungry for fresh takes on the topics of the day to print magazines looking for authoritative essays. Writing coaches and programs such as the OpEd Project  offer training in how to pitch to general-interest publications, while grant agencies in Europe and North America increasingly require recipients to communicate with the public. To some scholars, public writing has even started to seem like yet another skill they are expected to master to stay competitive.
At the same time, academics often approach newspapers, magazines, and websites with assumptions drawn from the outlets we’re used to writing for: scholarly journals and, since the early 2000s, the blogs that flourish as a faster, more casual medium of scholarly exchange. Trying to write for the public can mean a series of unpleasant surprises about what happens to our work at every stage of editing and publication.

Even as readers, however, scholars tend to misunderstand how public writing — or as the public would call it, “writing” — works, what it’s for, and what makes it good. The result is both unnecessary frustration for academics making that first foray into newspapers and online outlets, and misplaced indignation among certain scholars who think their colleagues’ public essays should read just like scholarship.
In more than a decade of writing essays and reviews for the public, both in my academic wheelhouse and outside of it, I have gathered a number of lessons that I offer here to spare other freelance writers some pain and annoyance. My comments are specifically about the process of writing — sometimes with a contract, and preferably for pay — for editors at established print and online publications aimed at a general audience.
Control. As a scholar, you are used to having an enormous amount of say over your writing and how it is presented. It may not always feel that way, particularly when you are responding to Reader B and revising that article for the fifth time. Yet the final work represents your vision.
The moment you write for general-interest outlets, however, you are subject to their editorial vision. What that means in practical terms: Headlines, illustrations, and publication dates are decided for you. Sometimes the headline will misrepresent the article it accompanies, or exaggerate your message to attract clicks. Readers angered by the headline tend to direct their rage at you, the writer. In some cases, you will see the draft headline during the editing process, but it can still change after that point.

All of the above holds for art, too, which can range from subtly inaccurate to deeply offensive. The worst headlines usually appear online, but the good news is that you can sometimes persuade the editors at online outlets to change a particularly egregious headline.
Much the same goes for the publication date. Unless a piece is pegged to a quickly developing news event, it’s likely to go into a publication queue and appear anywhere from weeks to months later. That can be challenging for writers impatient to see their work appear. Even when an outlet gives you a publication date, it can be delayed without notice, either due to more pressing pieces or because the editors saved it for use with other articles on the same theme. In one case, I had a book review appear online as announced, but in print a month later.
Meanwhile, readers used to the fast publishing potential of  Medium or personal blogs might wrongly assume that a newly published essay reflects your current thinking, when, in fact, it may only reflect how you viewed the matter six months ago. Just as work in scholarly journals suffers from a time lag, so does much popular writing.
Even once your essay has been published, you may be surprised to find it syndicated to other outlets or translated into foreign languages — all without your knowledge or permission. In some cases you will receive a permission request and a fee for the reprint, but in others you will not even be informed.
Before you allow your work to be published by a particular venue, ask your editor to spell out the copyright arrangement (since it’s not always clear in the outlet’s “terms and conditions”). If the terms don’t include nonexclusive reprint rights, you can sometimes negotiate for that. Check the publication to make sure it fits your ethics, but know that the moment you agree to sell the rights, you have limited say over how your work will be presented.
Editing. Editors for general-interest publications usually like to play an active role in shaping articles, to an extent that can be bracing for scholars used to solitary writing. With a few exceptions, such as op-eds and literary essays, you will usually land assignments with a pitch outlining the story you plan to tell and how you will go about it. Most editors prefer a pitch to a draft, as it allows them input at an early stage of the work.
Once a draft is done, the fun really begins. Some editors make only general comments or tiny changes, while others revise the text intensively. We academics tend to be precious about our prose. It can be hard to receive a draft in which the editor has mercilessly slashed our darling paragraphs, rewritten our brilliant sentences, and inserted her own writing.
Viewing writing as a collaborative endeavor has been one of the most difficult lessons I have had to learn as a crossover writer. Once I learned not to be so prickly about what happened to my prose, however, I began to see the bright side. If you have a hands-on editor, you can ask for advice early in the process, and worry less about providing a perfect draft — the editor will work with you to improve it.
I knew I had reached a new point in my freelancing education when I received page proofs from a new publication and marveled that the editors had not changed a word. Later, when I compared the proofs to my original draft, I realized that every single sentence had been rewritten.
Style. Much has been written about bad academic prose, and I do not need to repeat it here. Even good academic prose, however, is ill suited to a general audience.

The habits we learn in writing scholarship serve us poorly in popular writing. Graduate school teaches us to craft our prose defensively — to ward off possible attacks from colleagues. We shy away from strong claims, watering down every sentence with “perhaps” or “one could say.” In the worst cases, we make our prose completely impenetrable, figuring that if our critics can’t understand what we’re saying, they won’t be able to tear it down. But the qualities that make scholarly writing unassailable turn off general readers.
One of our key defenses is citation, which is what makes it so unsettling to write something without footnotes — particularly if the essay is related to our research. A public-facing piece will not cite all of its sources. It may not cite any.
I have seen that prompt consternation among colleagues, who grumble that the foundational work of Professor X wasn’t mentioned in that (enviable) New Yorker feature written by Professor Z. But the public does not want to read about Professor X’s contributions. Readers of your general-interest essay don’t expect in-text citations of everything you read that went into writing it.
Purpose. Public writing has a different ethos from scholarly prose. We write scholarship to establish our credentials in a field, to lay stake to original claims, and to build a name for ourselves in the profession. For general-interest writing, however, you should follow Horace’s advice for poetry: Aim to instruct or delight — ideally, do both. Tell your readers a story, and give them the basic information they need to take it in. Avoid jargon for the most part, but teach your readers a key term when it will help them understand your topic better.
One genre that can be confusing in this respect is book reviews. They are an easy entry point into public writing, as they draw on skills that scholars already have. But the point of writing a book review for the public is not to show how clever you are or what typos you have caught in the text. Rather, it is to help readers decide if they want to buy the book, and to offer them insights and information to enjoy even if they choose not to.
To be fair, the most useful book reviews in academic journals do that, too, in their own register, but general publications usually are more interested in the experience of the reader than in the egos of the reviewer or the author whose work is being reviewed. This also means that if your book is the one being reviewed in a mainstream publication, you may be dismayed to find the “review” is an independent essay using your book as a hook. Try to appreciate the publicity.
Quality. Academics sometimes make the mistake of thinking that their standards do not need to be particularly high when writing for the public. Even though you will not be writing with the precision of scholarly prose or citing every source, you should still strive to be as accurate and careful as you would be in your scholarly publications, especially if you are drawing on your specialization.
A few mainstream publications still have fact-checking departments, but, in general, assume you bear full responsibility for ensuring the truth of what you write. You owe the public an even higher standard of rigor than you do your colleagues, since the public is more likely to trust your credentials and has less access to your sources. If you get proofs before publication, check them carefully to make sure that no inaccuracies have slipped in.
The uncomfortable reality is that — while crossover work counts for little in the way of raises or promotions in academe — it can still hurt your reputation if you do a sloppy job.
Given all of those warnings, why write for the public at all?
There are strategic reasons, such as raising your visibility or showing the relevance of your research. It is also satisfying to reach readers who are curious about your field, but do not have the training necessary to appreciate your scholarship. As a public scholar, you have the freedom to write about topics beyond your area of specialization, which in turn can enrich your research and teaching. Finally, many of the qualities that make for good public essays — clarity, conviction, style — can improve your scholarly writing too.
Irina Dumitrescu is professor of English medieval studies at the University of Bonn.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

The PhD: Voice in thesis writing – why does it continue to engage us?

So much has been written about voice in research and thesis writing and yet it continues to be a perennial concern amongst bloggers, writing teachers and researchers. In a recent supervisory discussion, I was reminded again of just how contentious this issue can be.

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash
What is voice?
Some people consider voice simply in terms of rhetorical and linguistic devices, but for me, it is SO much more.
I think of ‘voice’ as the sense of the author conveyed, intentionally or otherwise, through a host of interacting features including affect, tone, style, self-revelation and involving complex issues of identity, intent, and academic and disciplinary practice. In other words, I regard voice as a social practice of identity making. In this, I am heavily influenced by the work of Ros Ivanič (1998) who sees voice in relationship to an author’s struggles with authority, self-representation and personal history. For doctoral writers and their practices, these struggles are in direct relationship with questions of the ‘autobiographical self’ (the writer’s life-history, the motivations driving their research scholarship), the ‘self as author’ (i.e., the authorial self, the authority they bring to their writing) and the ‘discoursal self’ (a writer’s representation of self).  Some of this identity formation through writing is conscious and some unconscious, sometimes it is conflictual, and it is always contextual – influenced by the norms and practices of the discipline, the methodological approach, the topic itself, the impending examination, and perhaps even the preferences and predilections of the supervisor!
What kind of voice is acceptable in doctoral writing?
In some disciplinary traditions, factors combine to inhibit doctoral writers from straying too far from historical notions of scientific objectivity in their writing. For example, quantitative researchers in STEM often work within strict expectations concerning writing style which require the author to keep their presence at bay and foreground factual, objective ‘truth-telling’ as if untainted by humans. This kind of writing generally eschews the use of the first person, favours the passive voice and adheres to well-established structural forms. The voice of the individual scientific writer is less easy to identify in such writing – many of these theses and publications are formulaic.  The ‘voice’ matches the expectations of the scientific community of readers and researchers (and examiners).
For many humanities and creative practice researchers there is the opposite expectation – that is, that these writers develop and demonstrate their own authentic writerly voice. Even social scientists will be more likely than STEM writers to put their own stamp on their doctoral writing. However, when candidates wish to break away from ‘the long arm of the scientific method’, there are fewer certainties, and the job of the supervisor can sometimes be tricky as they steer this exploration of voice towards a safe and appropriate version.
For these scholars, their voice will likely evolve over years and iterations of writing the thesis. The shape and form of this voice will be determined by their growing dexterity with linguistic and rhetorical devices that traditionally signal authority, such as use of the third person, active/ passive/ agentless passive constructions, nominalization, reporting verb choices, the appropriate use of hedging and modality and so on.
Importantly, too, other aspects of voice such as tone and stylistic conventions will be explored for their suitability to the task and audience. Self-revelation, the explicit bringing of oneself into the text, can be overt (as in putting oneself into the research story), or more covert where a writer takes a stance (as in a critical evaluation of literature or theory). Self-revelation may also be unintentional, for example, where an author’s bias is clear to the reader (but perhaps not to the writer).
These signalers work together to create a sense of the author – their ‘voice’ – and this sense needs to be holistic and consistent. Achieving this across the thesis can be a challenge.
Getting the voice ‘right’
Many a supervisor, reviewer and examiner has identified when the voice is wrong – for example, when the writing is too tentative or timid, when the style is defensive, bombastic or pretentious, when there is simply too much of the writer and their presence overshadows their message, when the voice is too flowery or too sharp, when we ask ‘where are you in this?’ and so on. Other times the voice comes and goes – or only features once, in the methodology for example. This litany of complaints about inappropriate voices, defined by their wrong-ness, doesn’t help us help students get it right.
Getting the voice ‘right’ involves making sure it matches the kind of study being undertaken, that it enlivens the thesis but falls short of making it ‘entertainment’, that it maintains a sense of authority and gravitas appropriate to the task. The right voice needs to be authentic for the writer and the identity they wish to wear – and it needs to engage the reader and meet (or even exceed) the expectations of the examiner.
In workshops on voice in doctoral writing I have found it useful to ask students to bring their favourite thesis and, in groups, discuss what they like and why – and what aspects they might adapt to their own thesis writing. The groups then discuss the following questions in relation to their own thesis writing.
Identity and intent
  • What kind of person do you wish to portray through your writing?
  • What kind of writer/researcher/academic/person do you want to be known as?
  • What aspects of writer identity will be foregrounded in your text?
  • Can you identify if, and where, in the text your writer identity may shift?
Content and audience
  • Who is/are your audience(s) and what are their needs/expectations?
  • Does your writerly voice change depending on what you are writing about?
Disciplinary and methodological practices
  • What are the disciplinary expectations of you as a scholarly writer?
  • In what way(s) is your writing influenced by the theoretical and methodological frames you are working with?
Personal aspirations
  • Are there tensions between these expectations and your own desires as a writer? And, if so, how do you resolve these tensions?
If you’re interested in more on voice in doctoral writing a good starting place would be to explore posts on the subject in our blog, and at Patter and Exploration of Style.
And, please let us know of other useful blogs and resources you’ve come across.
Ivanič, R. (1998). Writing and Identity: The Discoursal Construction of Identity in Academic Writing Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Coronavirus and university reforms put at risk Australia’s research gains of the last 15 years

Image: The Conversation
Education minister Dan Tehan will be meeting with university vice-chancellors to devise a new way of funding university research. They will have plenty to talk about.
Australia’s universities have been remarkably successful in  building their research output. But there are cracks in the funding foundations of that success, which are being exposed by the revenue shock of COVID-19 and the minister’s reforms announced this month, which would pay for new student places with money currently spent on research.
I estimate the gap in funding that needs to be filled to maintain our current research output at around $4.7 billion.

The funding foundations crumble

The timing of Dan Tehan’s higher education reform package could not have been worse for the university research sector.
The vulnerability created by universities’ reliance on international students has been brutally revealed this year. Travel bans prevent international students arriving in Australia and the COVID-19 recession undermines their capacity to pay tuition fees.
Profits from domestic and international students are the only way universities can finance research on the current scale, with more than A$12 billion spent in 2018.
Based on a Deloitte Access Economics analysis of teaching costs, universities make a surplus of about A$1.3 billion on domestic students. Universities use much of this surplus to fund research.
Tehan’s reform package seeks to align the total teaching funding rates for each Commonwealth supported student – the combined tuition subsidy and student contribution – with the teaching and scholarship costs identified in the Deloitte analysis.
On 2018 enrolment numbers, revenue losses for universities for Commonwealth supported students would total around $750 million with this realignment. With only teaching costs funded, universities will have little or no surplus from their teaching to spend on research.
International student profits are larger than domestic – at around $4 billion. Much of this money is spent on research too, and much of this is at risk. The recession will also reduce how much industry partners and philanthropists can contribute to university research.
Australia’s Chief Scientist estimates 7,700 research jobs are at risk  from COVID-19 factors alone. Unless the Commonwealth intervenes with a new research funding policy, its recent announcements will trigger further significant research job losses.

Combined teaching and research academic jobs will decline

Although less research employment will be available, the additional domestic students financed by redirecting research funding will generate teaching work.
More students is a good thing in itself, as the COVID-19 recession will generate more demand for higher education.
But this reallocation between research and teaching will exacerbate a major structural problem in the academic labour market. Although most academics want teaching and research, or research-only roles, over the last 30 years Commonwealth teaching and research funding has separated.
After the latest Tehan reforms, funding for the two activities will be based on entirely different criteria and put on very different growth trajectories.
An academic employment model that assumes the same people teach and research was kept alive by funding surpluses on domestic, and especially international, students. With both these surpluses being hit hard, the funding logic is that a trend towards more specialised academic staff will have to accelerate.
We can expect academic morale to fall and industrial action to rise as university workforces resist this change.
The funding squeeze will also undermine the current system of Commonwealth research funding. This funding is allocated in two main ways. In part, it comes from competitive project grant funding, largely from the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Australian Research Council.
Academic prestige is attached to winning these grants, but the money allocated does not cover the project’s costs. Typically, universities pay the salaries of the lead researchers and general costs, such as laboratories and libraries.
Universities are partly compensated for those expenses through research block grants, which are awarded based on previous academic performance, including in winning competitive grants. But because block grants do not cover all competitive project grant costs, the system has relied on discretionary revenue, much of it from students, to work. It will need a major rethink if teaching becomes much less profitable.

The stakes are high

University spending on research (which was over $12 billion  in 2018), has nearly tripled since 2000 in real terms.
Direct government spending on research increased this century, but not by nearly enough to finance this huge expansion in outlays. In 2018, the Commonwealth government’s main research funding programs contributed A$3.7 billion.
An additional $600 million came from other Commonwealth sources such as government department contracts for specific pieces of research.
In addition to this Commonwealth money, universities received another $1.9 billion in earmarked research funding from state, territory and other (national) governments, donations, and industry.
These research-specific sources still leave billions of dollars in research spending without a clear source of finance. Universities have investment earnings, profits on commercial operations and other revenue sources they can invest in research.
But these cannot possibly cover the estimated $4.7 billion gap between research revenue and spending.
With lower profits on teaching, this gap cannot be filled. Research spending will have to be reduced by billions of dollars.
We are at a turning point in Australian higher education. The research gains of the last fifteen years are at risk of being reversed. The minister’s meeting with vice-chancellors has very high stakes.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

The PhD: Why is Academia so damn SLOW?!

Compared to my friends who have gone out of academia, into business and the corporate world, I am moving at a very slow pace. They run several projects a year and publish reports, I still haven’t published results from research that was run in November 2017. Yes, that is effectively two and a half years ago. Most projects in the private sector don’t take that long to run fully, let alone if we are only talking analysis and writing up.

Academia, unfortunately, just seems much slower than the private sector. Not only does it seem slower, it just is. And there are a few reasons for that. The most prominent ones being the setting up of the study and the publishing process.
Setting up a study
If you have ever had an idea, and wanted it to exist in reality, you know there is a massive difference between theory and practice. In theory things work, in practice they are more likely to fail. Testing an idea is much the same. What you will have to come up with is a plan of testing something. This plan has to be well thought out and pre-registered, that is, specifying every detail of the study, including the recruitment process (tools, sample size), the methodology (what, where, which stimuli and actions), exclusion criteria and the analysis to be carried out.  
This may seem rather obvious/self-explanatory, but all these things will have to be mentioned and justified in the write-up as well, so there needs to be a lot of reasoning and intent behind each answer to these questions. This process takes a long time.
Conducting the study
Now your initial set of months is up. What will happen now is that the study will be published online, and data collection will happen, or the study will be done in the lab or the field. With online collection you just have to wait, with lab and field experiments you often have to be present when the experiment is running.

You will have signups for different timeslots, not all people will turn up, they just never do. So account for that too, and probably double your expected running time. Especially if the study has multiple sessions, meaning a participant would have to show up to three separate occasions, expect a massive drop-out rate. It will take much longer than anticipated.
Now, however long it has taken, it is complete! Now, the analysis. The speed of this process depends on a couple of things, starting with your own skill level. If you are good at coding, this will go a lot quicker than if you are not and need a lot of help.

The pre-registration can help a lot with this, as you have essentially specified what you were going to do before you even conducted the analysis. But this can backfire. Sometimes the data isn’t shaped the way you thought it would be, and the original analysis doesn’t work. You’ll have to come up with a new one: more delay.
Write up
The writing process, just like the analysis, depends mainly on skill level. Are you a good writer? And are you a fast writer? Make sure you have good examples you can copy from.

Some people write without a journal in mind, they have a general version of the entire paper. Then they select a journal, and a category of paper within that journal. They then adapt the paper to fit the criteria of that journal and its style. Others don’t have a general version, they select a journal, and then write around these criteria, they do not write beforehand.

Writing does not just happen when the study and analysis are done. Most of the literature tends to be reviewed before the study is even set up, where else do the idea and methodology come from? A lot of the paper can be written before the experiment stage.
One version of the paper is finished. Excellent! I would recommend you take a moment to appreciate how far you have come. Now the paper should be in the right shape to submit to a journal. Upload your documents, following the criteria, fill in all your details (and those of co-authors) and select your reviewers and editors, upload cover letter and submit. Now you wait.

Depending on your field of work there is going to be a waiting period to see whether editors and reviewers like your paper and deem it worthy of publishing. This process can take very long, and during it, there’s not much you can do about this specific project. If the paper gets accepted it will be (often) with edits, which will also require work and time. Most often, the paper will be rejected.

After rejection, what you do depends on the comments given to you by the reviewers. Some comments indicate that your research would benefit from having more experiments, increasing the robustness of the result. Others need a better analysis. Some are just not a good fit for that particular journal. In the latter case, you have to re-write parts of this paper to fit a different journal and go through the process again. You might even need to start again, conducting more experiments, or doing the analysis and write-up again.

This costs a lot of time. So far, the time passed between an idea, and actually getting it published has been a long time already. And this is normal in academia.
If you have experienced this long process and have tips for dealing with it,  tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at, or leave a comment below.
by Merle
Merle van den Akker is a PhD student with the Behavioural Science Group at WBS, looking into the effect of contactless payments on how me manage our finances. She tweets at @MoneyMindMerle.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Beyond the black hole of global university rankings: rediscovering the true value of knowledge and ideas

Image: The
The recent release of global university rankings and the way these are reported raises important questions about the role and reputation of our tertiary institutions.
Are universities measured and ranked according to what we really value? Or are they ranked and valued only by what is measured? And are those measures authentic and trusted indicators of quality?
There was a time when no one feared that a university might slip a quality ranking or two in the eyes of the world, the taxpayer, benefactors or students considering domestic or international study. Nowadays, however, universities see no limit to the black hole of global rankings. Its gravitational pull consumes their attention.
While a modern phenomenon, rankings have historical origins. The birth of the modern research-intensive university  can be traced to Western Europe in 1665 when the first academic journals appeared. In Germany, more than 3,000 journals were published between 1665 and 1790, marking an institutional move from the teaching university to the research university.
Academics were able to share and legitimise their research by publishing in these journals. Students who were called on to write and defend their essays orally could draw on the journals to support their learning.

There is no one ranking standard

Today’s journals and the number of citations academics can claim in them are key indicators of a university’s rank and quality. However, when a university has to research and teach in a language other than English, the effect on its ranking can be drastic.
Databases used by the larger university ranking systems, such as Scopus and CSI/SSCI, don’t automatically pick up non-English journals. Opportunities for researchers to gain “ranking points” through peer citations are therefore reduced.
The University of al-Qarawiyyin in Morocco, the oldest operating institution in the world. Shutterstock
In the global rankings of university quality, various factors are weighted slightly differently. The QS World University Rankings pay particular attention to reputation among colleagues in the discipline. The Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) considers citations in journals as a proxy for research quality. And the Times Higher Education World University Rankings (THE) allocate equally across peer reputation, citation and institutional self-report surveys.
The systems are far from simple and universities increasingly invest in experts to advise on how to improve and maintain ranking scores, especially as more universities crowd the global ranking field.
If we are to accept this imperative to measure and rank universities by academic reputation, publishing record, teaching and research intensity, then we need to ask another question: what other indicators of quality and value might be included?
While online programs have often been considered inferior to “live” learning, for instance, the impact of COVID-19 has forced us to reconsider. There is now broader awareness of the opportunities online teaching opens up – including its positive impact on universities’ carbon footprints.
In fact, the THE rankings tracked progress towards the UN’s  Sustainable Development Goals for the first time in 2019. One example of such sustainable activity is Goldsmiths College at the University of London, which banned the sale of beef on campus.
Oxford University: ‘The Lord is my light’ Shutterstock

How do you measure intangible value?

Taking an even broader view, might we consider the spiritual dimension of higher education? The university has long been valued for its divine contribution: Oxford University’s motto has been “Dominus illuminatio mea” (the Lord is my light) for at least 200 years. “O my Lord. Advance me in Knowledge” is the motto of the University of Karachi.
This marriage of the sacred and the scientific has been a theme since the founding of the University of al-Qarawiyyin in 859 AD in Morocco. It’s said to be the oldest continually operating higher educational institution in the world.
In the rush to measure quantifiable indicators of output have we obscured these less tangible forms of value?
If COVID-19 taught us anything, it was the value of communication and connection (sometimes called  connectivism). In fact, experts from universities came to the fore as rarely before. Rather than handing more influence to PR and social media experts, might this be an opportunity to re-create the university as the place for exchanging ideas, teaching and research?
Maybe we should look back to the House of Wisdom (بيت الحكمة‎), founded in Baghdad in 786 CE, where scholars met daily to translate, discuss and write in many languages: Arabic, Farsi, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Greek and Latin. Aristotle’s work was famously translated from Greek. So too the work of the physician Hippocrates.
What hadn’t been accessible was made accessible and shared. The “West” benefited from this knowledge from the East, laying the foundations for the Renaissance.
This was a true academy of the arts and sciences, valued not for its citations, number of Nobel Prize winners or the ratio of doctorates to bachelor degrees, but for the exchange of knowledge and ideas. One wonders how this global multilingual forerunner of a quality modern university might fare under our ranking regime.
By reaching back in history we might recover those other measures of quality and value that formed the foundations upon which modern universities are built. The adage that “if everything is to be as before, then all must change” rings true. How we value and rank the exchange of knowledge and ideas will once again become something worth striving for.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

The PhD: Online conferences - the new normal?

by Lúcia Collischonn, PhD Life:

It seems that even if we get out of lockdown, social distancing measures will be around for a while. It makes it hard to plan anything, especially events that involve socialising and networking. And, to be honest, what are conferences? They are social events with an aim to present our research and exchange ideas and experiences with other researchers. Only there’s more to it than just that. In a time in which everything has been moved online, how will we cope with the new normal? Our editor shares her experience and her thoughts on Online Conferences.

You never think it will happen to you, until it does: you’ve been invited to an Online Conference. The email starts the same way “I hope this finds you well”, only this time the words “unprecedented”, “COVID”, and “current situation” are thrown in for good measure, and as a warm-up to what’s about to come: an invitation to an Online Conference over Zoom, Skype, Teams, or any other new conferencing tool that rose from the ashes of internet obscurity to aid us all in feeling a bit more normal. But this isn’t normal. We want it to be, but let’s be honest: nothing in this situation can be anywhere close to normal. I admire those who want to keep on and who try their best to make the best out of a bad situation, but can we just talk a little bit about this weird collective experience we are going through? Can we talk about how odd, annoying and depressing it can be? Well, I know I need to, so I don’t feel like I am alone in that.
Ah, do you remember those PRECEDENTED times? Those were the times! Going to conferences for the coffee break, the wine reception, the excuse to travel a bit and, more importantly, to feel like you are not so crazy and you are not talking to a wall. If you’re stuck in a lab, in the library, in the archives, seeing people and talking to them is a breath of fresh air. Otherwise you might be talking to a wall, literally. In any case, in my experience, there are some lessons to be learnt.
Grieving normal life
Recently I read a piece which helped me understand the sadness that encompasses me everytime we start an online call. It is like grief, we are mourning the time before this pandemic, because even if things do go back to ‘normal’, we are all changed by this collective experience. Everytime you click on ‘Join a Meeting’ you are reminded of the fact that you would be actually joining that group of people, you would be able to see them properly, without any freezed frames, lags and the like. 
I’ve been to online quizzes, reading groups, lectures, conferences, translation clubs, workshops, etc. It makes me sad that I am not with those people. Don’t get me wrong, I join all of these events, they help me feel less alone, so there’s definitely great things to be said about them, but if I am being totally honest, I don’t feel excited about any of them. I also don’t like the assumption that, because we are all at home, we have all the time in the world. Joining an online conference takes up a substantial part of your mental energy, as well as your social one. Introverts need some time alone more than the usual, and the amount of socialising going on online at the moment can be overwhelming and can make us feel drained anyway. 
On the spot!
When you are in a conference or a talk or a group chat, if you have a comment to make you can usually say it to them, there are many parallel conversations, but what I noticed is that in online conferences, if you want to say something, everyone has to listen, and that puts you on the spot, which can be bad if you are shy and don’t feel comfortable asking questions. There is a feature, however, that in-person conferences don’t have: the chat. In the majority of events I joined so far, the chat was a welcome tool to organise questions, comments, share resources, or anything you feel like you don’t want to or need to say. This also opens up the possibility for people to think of questions and write them down beforehand, and for the person being asked to think more about their response and send them later on. I am wondering if there is a way to keep that feature somehow when we are back to ‘normal’…
There are good things we can learn about this to apply it to conferences IRL: if you have nothing useful to say and don’t want to bother the speaker, mute your microphones (be quiet), if you have a question but couldn’t think of it on the spot, message them later on and maybe you’ll create new connections. 
That being said, I like to know that we are able to adapt, I am also privileged in that I have time, resources, a proper internet connection, etc. I think we have learnt something from this, and I hope we take some of it into our post-pandemic life, but I sincerely hope we get to go back to seeing people in vivo again, not only through our screens. As an international student, I already have to see my family and close friends through a screen, if I have to do that in all areas of my life I might as well become a machine.
And what about you, did you join an online conference, reading group, or any other online social event during this quarantine? What did you think? Can you imagine what that would be like? Let us know! Comment below, tweet us at @warwicklibrary or email us at!
by Lúcia

Lúcia Collischonn is a second-year PhD student in Translation Studies at the Warwick Writing Programme. She is the editor of the library blogs, Study Blog and PhD Life. Lúcia is an award-losing literary translator, writer and language nerd. Her translation of Yoko Tawada’s Etüden im Schnee was published last year in Brazil. You can find her ramblings on twitter @lucycolli.