Friday, 19 April 2013

Getting it done and turned in on time...

My lit review is a month late.

It's still not done. I've reworked it several times and I've reread a lot of books and articles, hoping for ideas to jump out at me. Each time I rewrite it, it gets better but at some point I need to just consider it done and submit it.

80% of life is getting it done and turned in on time.--Woody Allen

Well, at this point it's no longer possible to be on time, but I need to just get it done.

I had a look back at old notes from my research seminars and found the one about writing a lit review. They recommended going for quality over quantity--limit it to the seminal works and analyse them in depth. Don't make a laundry list of what you've read, they told us first-year PhD students.

So, I went back to my draft and deleted the unnecessary works (the laundry list contained some that aren't really related to my PhD's central arguments/research questions). That left it quite short and sad, around 3,000 words.

For whatever reason, I had 10,000 in mind. I realise now that 10,000 won't happen at this rate. I'm extremely disappointed in myself. My failure to meet deadlines has a very ugly, self-perpetuating effect--I get depressed and struggle to focus, which then keeps me from making progress on my writing.

Not sure what to do, but for now, I'll focus on my Woody Allen mantra and try to get it done.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Listening Skills

Yesterday after the PhD research seminar, my colleague told me that I was a great person to have in the audience when you're presenting your work, because I listen & smile & nod. When he lost his train of thought or thought people weren't following his ideas, he said he'd look at me and I'd be listening. It's a lovely compliment, and one that I've heard before actually. My 10th grade world history teacher picked up on it once, saying that he liked having me in the front row because my smiling & nodding encouraged him. He said it was "motherly"--very embarrassing to have a teacher call you that in front of the whole class, but he meant well. My Spanish teacher put it in a much nicer way, telling my mom at graduation that he appreciated my enthusiasm and engagement in class, and that he wished he could have "a whole class full of Molly Sissons."

Listening in class or a seminar presentation has always just come naturally for me--I've always seen it as a matter of being polite and treating others how you'd like to be treated. I know that I'd feel demoralised if I were giving a talk and the audience was sleeping or texting or passing notes, etc. Public speaking is daunting enough without a disengaged peanut gallery for an audience. During these talks, I'm usually too busy looking at the speaker to notice what others around me are doing, but since my colleague brought it to my attention with his compliment, I had a look around the seminar later that afternoon. To be fair, most people were active listeners--looking at the speaker, taking notes, no looking at phones, etc. But there were some who glazed over, especially near the end of the talk. I'm not saying I was a perfect audience member--I took 1 page of notes about the talk but also jotted down about a page of ideas for the chapter I'm working on at the moment--but I think listening skills in general are undervalued. Maybe it's because they don't think it's rude to do those things, to be a multitasking audience member.     

How do you teach listening skills? Is there something lecturers can do to encourage active listening (apart from just being fascinating speakers), or is it too late by the time these kids get to uni? Is it all down to our multitasking, multiscreen lifestyle that discourages giving your full attention to any single thing? Or can we relearn how to listen, despite the gadgets?

Monday, 15 April 2013

Journalism, Ethics and Student Exchange

The story of BBC Panorama journalists posing as LSE students to get into North Korea has made me think about the way that educational exchange can be used and misused. Students are a "safe" category, considered to be pretty harmless and free of controversy. This good reputation can help students gain access to places, people & things needed for educational purposes. Unfortunately, the guise of "educational purposes" can be used to cover up other uses. The journalists posed as students to gain access to North Korea--despite the fact that the North Korean government does allow Western journalists to get a journalist visa (no doubt it demands more paperwork and time, but it does exist). By lying about their status, they endangered the students who travelled with them, the North Korean tour guides, and damaged the reputation of the BBC, LSE, and Western journalists in general. For a paranoid country like North Korea, this act just reinforced all of their fears. 

I think that what upsets me most is the fact they were from the BBC. Putting aside the huge fact that the BBC is publicly funded, the BBC is considered to be the standard bearer for journalism & ethical practices. When stories about wiretapping and hacking come out, it's Murdoch, not the BBC, behind it. The Jimmy Savile cover-up damaged the BBC's reputation a bit, but it's still a surprise to see stories like this. Have standards fallen at the BBC? And if so, why?

On the other hand, it's possible that both the Savile story and this one were both encouraged in the media, in order to make the BBC look bad on purpose. The Conservatives don't like the BBC or the NHS, and even though they are stuck with both institutions due to overwhelming public support, they're not happy about it.  Stories like this one, and NHS-related scandals, are the only way they can chip away at these institutions, because they diminish public support.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Maggie's Legacy

Margaret Thatcher's death has been all over the news here in Britain. It's amazing how fast the media gets saturated--I found out on Facebook in the early afternoon, and all of the news sites already had the story on the front page. By 8:30pm, BBC One was showing a special about her. I wonder how long they've been putting that together. It must be upsetting to be a friend/relative of an aging celebrity and be asked to contribute to a documentary like this, before they're gone--before they're even ill.

Today the American version of Huffington Post has moved on, but on the UK version Thatcher completely covers the front page with coverage of reactions, reflections on her life, discussions of her legacy, etc. 

For me, as an American and as somebody under the age of 30, I don't feel I can add much to the discussion. I didn't live in 'Thatcher's Britain.' Until I came to the UK, in fact, I didn't know anything about her policies. I knew she was conservative, and had a good friendship with Reagan (who my firmly Democratic family actually liked, too), but above all else, I knew that she was the first female Prime Minister.

I can clearly remember being told about Britain as a little girl--age 4 or 5, because it was when we were still living in Missouri--and I remember being in awe of the fact that Britain had a Queen and a female Prime Minister. To a little girl being raised by a divorced mom and older sisters, this fact made Britain seem amazing. As the years went on, I admired Britain for electing a woman, and thought the US couldn't be far behind.   

Now imagine my disappointment when I came to the UK and found out that Thatcher was not a feminist, and that her policies did a lot of damage. She was especially hard on the north, my adopted home. 

In many ways, Thatcher made the UK more like the US--and not in good ways, either. Privatisation is the most obvious example of Americanisation under Thatcher. She privatised British Gas, which is why the utility companies reported record profits last year. She privatised the National Rail and that's why travelling by train on the continent is so much better & cheaper than it is here. Tories don't use public transport, apparently--maybe they don't like to ride amongst the great unwashed. (I kid, I kid...)

One of my loveliest British friends is a very active member of the Conservative party, and a leader in the youth branch Conservative Future. She met Baroness Thatcher at a reception a couple of years ago, and my heart goes out to her at this time. There were people celebrating Thatcher's death in Brixton and Glasgow, and a handful of places across the country last night. I know that must be hard for Thatcher's supporters to see. I'm genuinely sorry for Thatcher's family & friends, because death is painful for those left behind. It must be all the more painful when the media is saturated with it, too. 

Monday, 8 April 2013

Finland Conference

The current main cause of my performance anxiety is this upcoming conference. To be honest, I didn’t know anything about Finland going into this. I’ve only met one Finnish person ever, a friend’s housemate when we were studying in Bath. She was nice, and we shared a mutual interest in Colin Firth, but we really didn’t get to know each other. My knowledge of Finland doesn’t go much beyond its geography—it’s between Russia & Sweden, it has forests & lakes, and looks a bit like Minnesota, where lots of Scandinavians have settled in the US. That’s really about it. My grandmother was Swedish—close, but no cigar.

Since I heard that there was going to be a conference there in my field, with some big name keynotes, I’ve been learning more than I ever wanted to know about Finland. Did you know its public education system is the best in the world? And it’s been rated as the least corrupt country? And Finnish doesn’t use genders for its nouns, but it does have fifteen cases? Amazing facts, all of which are useless when it comes to my actual conference paper and presentation.

My paper was a struggle--I seriously don't think I've worked that hard on writing since my undergrad days. It's very difficult to write about something completely unfamiliar to you. In writing this paper, I went against the classic "write what you know" advice. I went to sections of the library that I'd never used--the Scandinavian section of Modern History for a better understanding of Cold War neutrality, for instance, and Geography for a look at Finnish culture. It was a bit like my undergrad research paper on television in Uzbekistan (fascinating stuff, and even more obscure than this topic).

As a PhD student, you really have it easy when it comes to writing. You get three years to research, write and rehash the same topic over and over again. It's really luxurious, actually, and I've never appreciated it until now. Still, this conference paper has been a good challenge, and it's nice to know I can still blag my way through writing a research paper on something completely unknown...

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Performance Anxiety

 When I started the PhD & created this blog, I planned on using it as a research diary. I imagined that, 3 years hence, I’d have a record of the whole PhD process. That hasn’t happened, unfortunately—I haven’t been keeping it up nearly enough. It’s not that I don’t write because I don’t have time. I have plenty of time—I talk to my family for an hour or so every day, and I waste plenty of time on Facebook and YouTube.

I don’t update the blog because I have a bit of academic performance anxiety. I’ve only recently noticed it, and it’s definitely become an issue for me. Basically, I’m afraid of sounding stupid, or naive, or just plain being wrong. Looking back on my K-12 years, I’ve always had this problem. I never volunteered in class, I hated public speaking, and I was always afraid of looking stupid. But then, ironically, when I was recognised for being bright, I was shy about getting positive attention, too. I can’t win—I’m anxious either way. 

For some people, going online can be an outlet for this IRL problem. You can be anybody online, which is a very freeing thought. For me, though, and for this blog, it’s not really freeing. I have very few readers/followers, and they’re people who know my research field intimately. They’ll know when I get things wrong and this thought heightens my insecurities and keeps me from writing.

I’m working on getting over it. For too long now, I’ve been keeping my head down writing and not making enough progress. Something needs to change, obviously, and I think updating the blog more frequently might be a step in the right direction.

5 months to go before hand-in. 2 conferences coming up in the next few weeks. Several papers and chapters are late (another reason I don’t write on the blog—I always feel that I should be writing these papers and chapters, not blogging, especially when my supervisor will see it...very tricky situation!).

Time to get crackin’.