Three risks I’m glad I’ve taken as a researcher

Self-promotion, standing out from the crowd, and developing a good reputation are said to be key to climbing the academic ladder. One way of standing out is by doing something unconventional or daring. Here Sarah Foxen describes three situations in which she has taken risks as a junior academic. For each she discusses the dangers involved and illustrates why it paid off to take the risks.

I was bricking it right up to the moment I heard the first reactions to my audacious behaviour. As soon as the room erupted, though, I knew taking the risk had paid off.

Have you ever found yourself thinking, “oh, I’d love to XYZ, but I’m not sure I’m daring enough?” About a year ago I was invited to lead a discussion seminar at Cardiff University. In advance, one of the conveners emailed me with the instructions: “you’re welcome to use any format you wish…”

What would you do faced with that information?

Amazing I thought to myself, for once I don’t have to prepare a standard PowerPoint-And-Paper-Combo; I can do something different! But what?

I’d been asked to talk about my first experiences of ethnographic fieldwork, and I felt like I had a story to tell. Hmm; a story. One idea sprung to mind, but it seemed a bit outrageous. It was logical but was so far removed from the PP-A-P-Combo. I grappled with it for a few days then decided I’d take the risk.

Fast forward to that cold, grey Wednesday afternoon. People start filing in. It’s not my institution, so I’ve really got no idea who anyone is: that chap coming in with the stripy jumper, for example, could be a PhD student or lecturer or dean of faculty.

Everyone is finally installed: It’s showtime.Thump, thump, thump: I can hear and feel my heartbeat. Why did I ever think this would be a good idea? No going back. I begin:

“Hi everyone, for those of you who don’t know me, I’m Sarah, and for today’s discussion I’ve drawn a cartoon…”sarah_foxen_cartoon

Cue: excitement, amusement, surprise, interest, laughter, recognition, engagement, questions, tangential thoughts, and animated discussion…

Like I said, as soon as the group reacted I knew the risk had been worth it. Just because we are scholars and are used to traditional forms of delivery doesn’t mean they’re the only ones we should use. I’m so glad I didn’t play it safe, because five awesome things happened as a result:

  1. I got a great reaction to my presentation
  2. I got to consider my research in a completely different way
  3. I was able to contribute in some small way to diversifying the appearance of academic research (cf. the ocean being made up of drops of water)
  4. I got to bring my creative skills into my research
  5. People remember me (a year down the line, the convener emailed me asking if she could use my cartoon to illustrate a blogpost on the discussion group)

Maybe cartoon drawing isn’t your thing, but I bet this next risky situation is one that has been – or could be – on the cards for many of you: the interdisciplinary conference.

An opportunity recently arose for me to submit an abstract for an interdisciplinary conference. I thought to myself: Interdisciplinary? Hmm, risky: I’d be out of my comfort zone, I might look stupid. Though that probably is the worst thing that could happen. 

But lets be rational: it’s interdisciplinary; everyone will be a bit out of their comfort zone. People sort of expect you not to be an expert.

And what about the best thing that could happen? It’s interdisciplinary: people will have very different research backgrounds to mine; they could give me really great input and insight.So shall I take the risk? Yes.

And so what happened on the day?

Well, I went to the conference and ‘confessed’ to my audience that I wasn’t an expert and that I wanted to learn from them. Then this happened:

  1. I felt liberated because no one expected me to be an ‘expert’: I could legitimately be a ‘learner’
  2. Others imparted their wisdom to me
  3. I met people from really different disciplines, and diversified my network
  4. I got to enrich the minds of my audience by sharing theories and ideas from my discipline

Now finally, some reflections about the biggest risk I think I’ve taken, and a risk I imagine at least some of you have contemplated: tweeting data, results or research as an expert.

Last summer an article appeared oni100 listing the top ten baby names for boys and girls.  Something linguistically interesting appeared to be going on. So I did some basic data analysis and visualisation.

The patterns that emerged were fascinating (we have a gendered alphabet: boys names favour consonant letters and sounds, whilst for girls it’s vowels). The thing is, the patterns were so striking, I wanted to share what I’d spotted with the wider world.

But there was a problem. I’m a PhD linguistics student: I’m supposed to be (becoming) an expert. What if I’d miscalculated something or made an error? Putting my calculations into the public domain felt quite risky. But the data was astonishing. So what did I do? I checked my calculations a zillion times, scrunched up my eyes and clicked tweet.


In came the likes and the retweets. I was beaming; others had found the linguistic patterns equally fascinating.I was loving seeing the retweets, then suddenly I got a notification of a reply: someone had said I’d got it wrong; I’d done my vowel analysis wrong.

What you have to know is that my PhD is all about vowels.

Ground swallow me up. Not good. Not good.

I looked again at the data; I was sure I hadn’t made a mistake.

And then salvation came: another linguist pointed out that I’d analysed the data with a British accent in mind and, since it was British data, I hadn’t made a mistake. They supposed my accuser had had an American accent in mind, which would explain their confusion.

Big sigh of relief.

So what did I learn? Well, it was a high risk, but, because I went for it:

  1. I got to use my skills and expertise to analyse data not related to my research
  2. I was able to share some remarkable linguistic patterns with experts and non-experts
  3. I strengthened (virtual) links with my research community
  4. Will I do it again? Yes. But I’ll continue to look at my calculations a squillion times, which, let’s be honest, is no bad thing.

And so to conclude, I encourage you to think about taking a risk or two – with presentations, conferences, social media, or whatever. What’s the worst thing that could happen? But what’s the best thing that could happen?

Author’s Bio

Sarah Foxen is a postgraduate researcher in French Linguistics. Her research investigates the interactions between language and identity in the Franco-Belgian borderland. She is also interested in trends and developments in academia, and blogs about researcher skills, research and impact from the perspective of a junior academic.

This piece originally appeared on the author’s personal blog and is reposted with permission.

Balancing academia and music

This post first appeared on The Exeter Blog.

The life of an academic is full of deadlines and conflicting priorities; however, how do you balance these priorities, if you add an emerging band and a record contract?

This is the situation which PhD researcher, and member of The Echo and The Always, Angela Muir finds herself in. In this blog post she talks about how these different roles have become intertwined.

Photo courtesy of Polly Thomas
Photo courtesy of Polly Thomas

Like most PhDs and career academics I lead a very busy life with conflicting deadlines and priorities, and an endless struggle to find the time and inspiration to write, all of which needs to be managed with an eye on future opportunities and the endless funding applications they require. Like most (if not all) academics this is balanced against other personal and professional commitments outside academia. For me, that second commitment is music.

I’m in a very fortunate situation. I’m funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada to pursue my PhD on the experience of childbirth for unmarried mothers in eighteenth-century England and Wales. Outside academia I’m in a signed indie band called The Echo and the Always which has been funded by the Arts Council of Wales to promote the release of our debut album ‘…and After That the Dark’.

The first two weeks in December highlight just how busy these two careers can be. In addition to the inevitable endless marking that comes with the end of term I was also writing an academic article, writing funding applications, fulfilling my duties as PGR Liaison for History, and preparing for upgrade before I left to spend Christmas in Canada. At the same time, the band was chosen to be BBC Wales Artist of the Week. In addition to this I stepped in as a session musician for a BBC Horizons Maida Vale session, which involved travelling to West Wales for practice sessions with another band, then to London to record and film. At one point I showed up to an Ex Historia colloquium with my trumpet on my back because I had to leave straight after to catch a train to London.

This is just one example. On several occasions when we’ve been on tour I’ve spent my morning on my laptop in a hotel room analysing statistics on infant mortality or writing a conference paper, or making a detour so I can spend my day in the archives before meeting the band at the venue we’re playing that night. I spent part of the weekend of Green Man Festival sat backstage reading secondary literature for a chapter. This may not be for everyone, but I find it exhilarating.

For the past five years my academic and musical careers have been intertwined. I moved from Canada to the UK in 2010 to pursue my MA in Early Modern History, and even before I landed I was in a band with friends I had made on previous trips. Although our line-up has change over the years the academic links are still there – I met our guitarist (and my partner) during our MAs Swansea University.

It hasn’t always been easy, and the fortunes of the band and academia seem to mirror one another. The band had a great debut year at the same time I graduate with my MA and published my first academic article. Things slowed a bit with the band as we cycled through members trying to find the line-up that ‘clicked’. During this time I was turned down twice for international PhD funding. When I finally secured Wellcome funding the band signed to the independent record label, Jealous Lovers Club. Finally, not long after I was awarded SSHRC funding from Canada the band was awarded Arts Council funding. Surely this is just coincidence, but it’s been an interesting pattern nonetheless.

My schedule may seem hectic or unmanageable to some, but I’m one of those people who thrives when I’m at my busiest. Other than the never-ending worries about funding and constant self-promotion academia and music are very different, which is a blessing as each gives me an opportunity to clear my head of the other. This juggling act is also helping me learn how to make the best use of my time, and when necessary learn when and how to say no. The problem of major conflicting priorities has been mitigated by extensive planning and by making choices such as releasing our album at the end of October, which meant we could tour during reading week to promote it.
Photo courtesy of Gemma Conde

Swn-Festival-Photo-Credit-Gemma-Conde-224x300My schedule may seem hectic or unmanageable to some, but I’m one of those people who thrives when I’m at my busiest. Other than the never-ending worries about funding and constant self-promotion academia and music are very different, which is a blessing as each gives me an opportunity to clear my head of the other. This juggling act is also helping me learn how to make the best use of my time, and when necessary learn when and how to say no. The problem of major conflicting priorities has been mitigated by extensive planning and by making choices such as releasing our album at the end of October, which meant we could tour during reading week to promote it.

This balancing act is also made possible by the support networks I have working around me. I have a great relationship with my supervisory team, Dr Sarah Toulalan and Dr Alun Withey, and there is a fantastic community of PhDs and early career researchers at Exeter. The band serves as a surrogate family for me, and the music community in Cardiff is incredibly supportive and inclusive. Plus we have great management behind us.

I may be busy, but I’m also fully aware of the privileged position I’m in – I get to pursue not one, but two of my passions at the same time.

The University of Exeter host landmark Lusitanist International Conference

Dr Ana Martins and Dr Susana Afonso lecture in Portuguese in the Modern Languages Department at the University of Exeter.

The Association of British and Irish Lusitanists (ABIL) met for the VI International Conference at the University of Exeter, on the 7-8 September. The event attracted attendees from across the UK, Ireland and overseas, including Brazil, North America and Mozambique to discuss cultural developments across the Portuguese-speaking world.

The conference also coincided with a series of celebrations, including the 10th anniversary of the Association of British and Irish Lusitanists (ABIL), and the 50th anniversary of the publication We Killed Mangy-Dog, written by acclaimed author and keynote-speaker Luís Bernardo Honwana.

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Dr Susana Afonso and Dr Ana Martins with guest of honor Luís Bernardo Honwana and the president of the Association, King John II Professor of Portuguese Phillip Rothwell

The international event also marked the first official UK visit for the acclaimed Mozambican writer, who penned the influential collection of short stories in 1964, We Killed Mangy-Dog and Other Stories. Mr Honwana’s achievements extend beyond his literary accomplishments, having worked as Director of the Mozambican President’s Office in the newly independent Mozambique in 1975. Mr Honwana later went on to serve on the Executive Board of UNESCO (1987 to 1991), Chairman of Unesco’s Intergovernmental Committee for the World Decade for Culture and Development, and Director of UNESCO’S office in South Africa.

Keynote speakers also included Professor David Treece, Camoens Professor of Portuguese from Kings College London, and Professor Anna Klobucka, Professor of Portuguese and Women’s and Gender Studies at UMass Dartmouth.

Dr Ana Martins, lecturer in Portuguese at the University of Exeter, and local organiser said: “The papers presented at the conference were of a very high standard. The plenary speakers in particular offered insights into topics as varied and timely as the politics and aesthetics of black music in Brazil, the linguistic future of Mozambique, and the politics of gender in Portuguese modernism, setting the tone for the ensuing general panel discussions. There were also three exciting thematic panels dedicated to ‘Translating Cultures,’ ‘Lusophone literatures and environmental criticism,’ and ‘In Memory of Professor Clive Willis,’ as well as a postgraduate session and a publisher’s talk. We would like to thank all our panellists for contributing to creating such a vibrant and scholarly debate throughout the conference.”

Null_A_MartinsFocussing on the theme “De/formations: Illegitimate Bodies, Texts and Tongues”, the international event offered postgraduate students and early career researchers the opportunity to share their latest research, and explore aspects of Lusophone culture from the medieval period to the present day.

Fellow organiser Dr Susana Afonso said: “The conference was particularly significant for Portuguese in the Department of Modern Languages, as Portuguese was one of the languages which was launched quite recently, in 2014. It was therefore an honour to have hosted such a fantastic event at Exeter.”

This was the first time the conference was be held at the University of Exeter, in partnership with ABIL, Instituto Camões in Portugal, The University of Exeter, and the Anglo-Portuguese Society.

For more information about the VI International Conference, please visit the VI International Conference of the Association of British and Irish Lusitanists webpage. To learn about the conference, please use the accompanying hashtag #abil2015 on Twitter, or visit the Facebook page.

‘Science at the Seaside’: Experiential learning and public engagement

Dr Kyriaki Hadjiafxendi and Professor John Plunkett, from the English Departments of  Bath Spa and Exeter Universities respectively, talk about their ‘Science at the Seaside’ project which focuses on environmental tourism in North Devon during the Victorian and Edwardian periods.

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Year 3/4 children from Denbury Primary School, drawing sea creatures based on illustrations by the Victorian naturalist, Philip Grosse.

If you thought that the Victorian seaside was just about Punch and Judy, promenades, and amusement machines, think again. Before the heyday of Devon’s tourist resorts, its coast was a place of discovery and inspiration, somewhere to visit and enjoy a hands-on engagement with the environment. We strongly believe that the rich history of scientific and literary writing about the North Devon coast deserves to better known and celebrated. In 2013, we received a grant of £30k from North Devon Fishery Local Action Group (FLAG) to work on the public engagement project ‘Science at the Seaside: Pleasure Hunts in North Devon’. Our aim was to highlight a neglected aspect of south-west heritage; namely, the growth of seaside science and environmental tourism in North Devon during the Victorian and Edwardian periods.

Our interest in this area was kindled by our research and teaching interests in literature, landscape and the environment. The primary investigator on the project, Dr Kyriaki Hadjiafxendi (Bath Spa University), is a specialist on the Victorian novelist George Eliot, who wrote her first collection of short stories, Scenes of Clerical Life (1857), while accompanying her partner, George Henry Lewes, to Ilfracombe to gather material for his work, Sea-side studies at Ilfracombe, Tenby, the Scilly Isles, and Jersey (1858). What was it that led two of the foremost versatile figures of the age to choose the West Country for their holidaymaking in 1856? North Devon was not the most obvious and accessible location for metropolitan intellectuals, who would have to travel by rail and then coach for many hours to reach Ilfracombe. Intriguingly though, Eliot and Lewes were far from alone as an increasing number of middle-class tourists made their way to Devon.

Anna-Marie Linnell teaching   the 'Science at the Seaside' project  at Danbury Primary School.

Anna-Marie Linnell teaching the ‘Science at the Seaside’ project at Denbury Primary School, near Newton Abbot.

The research of the co-investigator on the project team, Professor John Plunkett (University of Exeter), is concerned with the growth of Victorian popular science across the south-west. Natural history was a popular Victorian leisure pursuit. At a time when the population of towns and cities were expanding enormously, there was a contrary desire to research and explore the natural environment. The rockpools, beaches and marine biodiversity of North Devon attracted many individuals, literary and scientific, local and distinguished. In addition to Eliot and Lewes, those helping to popularize North Devon included other well-known writers such as Charles Kingsley and the naturalists Philip Gosse and George Tugwell, all of whom published accounts of their explorations. The rich history of writing about the North Devon coast played an important national role in the national growth of popular science in the Victorian period.

Ilfracombe and the surrounding area developed its own niche brand of tourism. As the North Devon Journal declared in 1871:

Like pebble-hunting at Hastings, Ilfracombe has also its speciality of amusement — natural history; everyone hunts for anemones, sea shells, and sea weeds, and everyone has got an aquarium. If you wish to stand well with Ilfracombe society you must, if not already in love with its marvellous beauties, go in for natural history.[1]

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Year 5 pupils from Littleham C of E Primary School, Exmouth, holding some of the sea objects upon which they based their stories.

‘Seaside science’ was so popular because it accorded with the contemporary belief in ‘rational recreation’ – the notion that leisure time should be used in a way that was both educational and entertaining. With this mind, we used our FLAG grant to create a programme of activities with Ilfracombe Museum in a similar spirit of experiential learning. The organised events included a number of hands-on, family activities, ranging from Victorian rockpool rambles and handicraft workshops to marine collages, nature writing retreats and a symposium on ‘Curious Objects’. Over 400 children attended the family activities in 2013; around 18,500 visitors have seen a new permanent exhibition on seaside collecting we curated at Ilfracombe museum since it opened in April 2014.

The success of the museum education programme motivated us to extend our activities into schools. Thanks to funding from Bath Spa and Exeter Universities, we were able to design workshops for Devon junior schools to be delivered by PhD students. We were amazed at the interest shown by junior school teachers; we also found ourselves in a new world of Key Stage 2 learning outcomes, national curriculum objectives and the challenge of translating our research into 2-3 hour workshops suitable for years 3-6 students. What knowledge can you expect of these age groups? Can you relate the Victorian passion for natural history to the children’s own curiosity about the seaside?

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Describing Coastal Objects: Brainstorming for Creative Writing Workshop.

Working with schools was a steep learning curve but it ended up being a fantastic and engaging experience for all of us. Stephanie Devoy, a teacher from Lifton Community Primary School, has told us that the children ‘loved exploring the objects, creating their pastel drawings and starting their stories. . . . people outside of school coming in to interact with the children is an invaluable experience in itself and heightens the “cultural capital” for all.’ We have been working with 17 schools this year and we delivered workshops to circa 1000 pupils at Bassetts Farm, Cockwood, Dartmouth, Ermington, Halwill, Horwood and Newton Tracey, Littleham, Marwood, Newton Ferrers, and Pilton Blue, among others.

The school workshops were very much a collaborative effort and we are enormously grateful to the Exeter University Outreach Officer, Dr Rosalind Leveridge, as well as the workshop leaders who helped us to continuously improve them (Sophia David, Georgina Hunter,  Anna-Marie Linnell, Tamara Sharp). As Sophia commented, participation in the project demonstrated both the fun and the employability skills that public engagement can foster:

Science at the Seaside was a very rewarding project to be involved in. Working with primary school children across Devon was an entirely different experience from my usual doctoral activities. . . . I quickly found that primary school students are full of wonderful, imaginative and original ideas and it was not such a difficult task, after all. Teaching the children was a more reciprocal experience than I had anticipated. The workshops aimed to develop ideas about the significance and value of the pupils’ local seaside through art and creative writing. Yet, the insights that they shared gave me an entire new perspective on these notions.

We already have a line up of new schools that have expressed an interest in participating in the project in 2015-16. We are in the process of developing a web resource that will continue to inspire curiosity and interest in the coastal heritage of Devon and can be used for teaching activities (which will supplement a digital eHive of ‘curious’ objects created at Ilfracombe Museum as part of the FLAG project).

For more information on the project, the school workshops, the teachers’ training days, or the e-learning resource, please contact Kyriaki Hadjiafxendi (k.hadjiafxendi@bathspa.ac.uk) or John Plunkett (j.plunkett@ex.ac.uk). You can now follow us on Twitter @ScienceSeaside for new developments on the project.

PhD student and creative writer, Tamara Sharp, talking about her experience of working on the project.

[1]‘At Ilfracombe’. North Devon Journal, 2 November 1871: 6.


Dr Kyriaki Hadjiafxendi is Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at Bath Spa University; she is also the programme leader of the MA in Literature, Landscape and the Environment. Her research interests are in Victorian women, work and art as well as literature and place; her publications include Crafting the Woman Professional in the Long Nineteenth Century: Artistry and Industry in Britain (Ashgate, 2013), What is a Woman to Do? A Reader on Women, Work and Art, c. 1830-1890 (Peter Lang, 2011), and Authorship in Context: From the Theoretical to the Material (Palgrave, 2007). She has now embarked on a new book project on nineteenth-century women, place and creativity, which explores the material practices of interior design through which middle-class women claimed recognition of their (taste in) art and makes an argument about how they form part of a broader narrative about the way in which transnational ways of thinking and living entered British culture.

John Plunkett is Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Exeter; he is also Director of the Centre for Victorian Studies. His publications include Queen Victoria – First Media Monarch (OUP, 2003), the co-edited, with Andrew King, Victorian Print Media: A Reader (OUP, 2005) and Popular Exhibitions, Science and Showmanship 1820-1910 (Pickering and Chatto, 2012), co-edited with Joe Kember and Jill Sullivan. He is currently working on a book of nineteenth-century visual entertainments, covering the panorama, diorama, peepshow and magic lantern, provisionally entitled, Picture Going: Popular: Popular Visual and Optical Entertainments 1820-1914.