Phd update: 13 months on since restarting

And just like that, it’s December. I’m writing this with my last hour of my third writing retreat of the academic year 2014/2015. I wanted to use this time to give a quick update & reflection on my PhD progress, as I started 2014 with the good intention of doing monthly updates, which subsequently ended up being kept offline instead. Regardless, I’ve managed to keep to the writing schedule that I set myself when I was appealing to restart, despite working full time in a fairly intense role as a project co-ordinator. So far, I’m on track to complete my entire first draft of my thesis by the schedule that my supervisors and I had set out as part of the re-start agreement.
I’ve now bypassed my one year anniversary of attending retreats – and the difference between where I was this time last year and where I am now is night and day. I’ve been to 6 in a 13 month period, the very first one being the first time I opened my PhD document since suspending back in October 2012, and subsequently feeling sick, upset, angsty and angry about what happened, yet the retreats forces me to keep looking at it and in turn writing myself out of the emotion that I attached to the document. If I’m being honest to myself, I had been quite a tough, mental excavation process, working out when to admit fault but also letting go of the rest.
Nevertheless, something clicked at the retreat last month, when I realised I was beginning to move on from feeling like a failed PhD student who had dropped out and was on the ropes, but instead a person that was capable to finishing it. I don’t know what was the reason for the shift in mindset, but I think the combination of the supportive peer-led environment, and the consistency of the space and place in which we work and socialise, it is easier to keep a tab on how you are feeling about your work and how much progress/confidence you are gaining as a writer. Finally, I was able to talk about my work without having to explain the messy context behind it, why I felt I wasn’t good enough to do a PhD and why I had had a break. It’s just something that I am doing now. And it is moving forward at a pace that I’m happy with (and, importantly meeting targets). I remember in the early discussions of returning, when my new supervisor offered to support me, I said that all I wanted was to get to this stage, the stage where I wasn’t having to contextualise my work with a massive diatribe of mis-justice and general distain for the academic system.
Thankfully, I can now say that this has passed. I can describe what my PhD is about without any of that.
I’m about to submit two redrafted parts of my thesis “Part 1: Purpose/Context/Literature Review” and “Part 2:Research Design/Methodology” based on all the documents, readings, writings and notes that I had available between 2009-2012 -the timespan of my full-time PhD prior to suspending. I will take joy in using a pun here, but essentially these redrafts represent a certain chapter in my life and now I can move onto the next sections, Part 3: Data Collection/ Discussion/Analysis – all of which is fresh new words and getting to grips with analysing ethnography data. They’ll probably need another million redrafts before they are ready to submit, I don’t doubt this for a second, but it feels so rewarding to have turned around what was essentially 3 years of jumbled lostness and arranged them into sections and chapters, without much additional reading or data collection at this stage.
I also have a ‘PhD shopping list’ for the work that I need to do between now and the end of January, things I need to do in the library, things that I need to do with my data, things I need to spend writing and things I need to discuss with my supervisor. I know that I will be able to pick up these tasks and systematically work my way through them, when in contrast I felt l was stabbing around in the dark, spending many a day in the library, feeling like I wasn’t writing when I was reading, wasn’t reading when writing, and not even sure I was I was there and if I was doing the right thing in the first place.
So yeah, December is always a pretty reflective time of the year anyway, and to be able to look back through what I’ve managed to achieve has meant that I’m now starting to see myself at a stage where I will begin thinking about my external supervisor, the viva and all the other things that start to come up on the horizon when coming to the end of a PhD. I don’t want to say that I never say myself at this stage, but, there has been times in the last few years where I felt like it would have been easier to just throw it in the bin and start again.
The best way of describing it now would to say that I now own my own PhD, its not this abstract scary document that I don’t want to show people because I’m not entirely sure what it is, but at the same, I’m about ready to let it go. I’ve been a PhD student for so long (Jan 2009, Leicester Uni moving in October 2009 to UWS) and so many things have changed in my life during this period of registration. I’ve lived in 15 different houses, I’ve lost count of how many jobs I’ve had to supplement my stipend, I’ve lived in opposite sides of the country and the people have came in and out my life, some staying & getting closer, some never seeing again. It’s just bizarre to think that actually, I might come to the end of being attached to this thing that has been consistent in my life when other things have been changing so rapidly and I’ve (only recently) have had any real stability.
Anyway, the purpose of this post really is so I can stick a flag in the sand – I hope by this time next year, I am writing about the end or being very near to it. Certainly, this will be the last time I will be writing about what came before, I’ve got to the end of all the materials that I had collected previously, those difficult conversations and reflecting on moments and memories that the writing brought up can now be concluded, there is no more I can work through at this stage. It’s only new words and new ideas from here on in. And this must be what doing a PhD should really feel like. Finally.

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Digital Commonwealth featured as case study in Creative Citizens’ Variety Pack.

After being included at the first Creative Citizen’s conference on the 18th-19th September at the Royal College of Art in London, we were approached by Dr Dan Lockton to contribute to the Creative Citizens’ Variety Pack that brought together case studies of inspiring digital ideas from community based projects. The pack is now available as hard copy and can be downloaded from here as a .pdf (or click the image below)

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Publication details: McGillivray, D., Jones, J., McCandlish, A. & McPherson,G., Digital Commonwealth (2014), in Lockton, D., Greene, C., Casey, A., Raby, E., & Vickress, A. (Eds.) Creative Citizens’ Variety Pack: Inspiring digital ideas from community projects, London: Royal College of Art. ISBN 978-1-907342-97-4. http://www.rca.ac.uk/documents/419/CC_Variety_Pack_sm.pdf

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5 Lessons I learned from teaching Digital Literacies in Scottish Schools

Through my role as project coordinator for the Digital Commonwealth, I’ve had to spend a lot of time this year behind my laptop, coordinating, making sure that the right people are in the right location learning the right things from the right people.

Working alongside the project’s education coordinator Alison McCandlish, the project developed a Scotland wide digital literacy programme that was to be delivered across all local authorities, to transition learners between p6, p7, s1 and s2 level – as well as a community media and creative voices element for adult learners to explore digital technology through creative practice.

That was the vision anyway – those who work in education, local government, digital, community learning, literacy training will understand that experiences when working across different contexts, sectors, authorities will vary tremendously, but when it works and factors comes together then it can be incredibly rewarding for those taking part.

Although my role has been mainly project management, recruitment and advocacy, due to the sheer scale off project like this, I actually managed to get out and deliver some of our sessions as a trainer in a couple of local authorities. Meaning that I would actually have to experience using the resources we had developed, tested and discussed in the office in an actual real life classroom with real life learners. As well as getting the chance to teach young people, rather than adults – a good opportunity to learn some new tricks in classroom management.

No pressure eh?

Anyway (being an Ayrshire lass) when I was offered Rothesay Primary on the Isle of Bute as my first school to deliver training to, I was on that 8am ferry as fast as a commonwealth games related athletic pun. I got to deliver 2 sessions to the primary 7s on blogging and audio recording.

Post games, I’ve been working with Our Lady of the Missions Primary down the road in Giffnock – and both these experiences made me think that I should write up some quick reflections on delivering digital literacy training in schools – from the chalkface, as they say.

So here we go, 5 lessons from my experience as a frontline trainer on the project…

1) Communicating Expectations

Managing expectations of all the people involved, the learners, the teacher, the trainer and the overall aims of the specific project that the workshops were addressing is probably the most important factor of ensuring the that the workshop and the contents produced at the workshops were a success.

As the workshops each focused on a different element of digital storytelling (blogging, audio, video and social media) each week had to have a distinct flavour, but at the same time had to work towards a final “product” that had hopefully been defined by the school in their application to take part in the project.

“Digital” can mean all things to all folk, so one person’s expectation of a blogging 101 session could vary vastly from producing content, web development or even building websites from scratch. How you do it, well, that could vary, but if you don’t have anything to talk about it is going to be difficult to write – no matter what technology you use. Trying to write a blog post from scratch is no different from trying to start an essay, write an email or begin a novel.

That why our commonwealth themes were important, they tied things together, they allowed us to explore ideas conceptually before having an attempt at writing down experiences. A blank page is scary no matter how scary you are, so much of the workshop was about getting people to think about what is possible, not just the art of sitting on a computer learning a new tool for word publishing.

We tried to avoid that at all costs, but that where expectations come in – I learned that you need to be super clear about the purpose of the workshop, the role of the technology in sessions (ie we will be doing things that are not on computers, in fact practice is more important than the tech you are using) and gaining access to it.

Which takes me to my second lesson…

2) Technology

When we began this project in October last year, a few people asked us at the launch event if we would be giving away tech to those participating. Judging by the range of equipment that the schools and community groups we were working with already had, many projects do come with a capital spend for technology for the activity, often leaving behind the legacy of some kit to carry on using later.

The problem is that this can often be a block in continuation of digital literacy projects. If we focus too much on the kit that we desire, without thinking about why we desire it, there is every chance that when a project concludes, that kit will sit at the back of the cupboard unused – with nobody around to take responsibility for its advocacy.

The ethos of our project was to encourage people to use what they already have. This is great in theory – as it allows for the groups in questions to conduct a mini-tech audit and activity reflect on what they have, dig it out and try using it again – BUT – it does make it challenging when delivering consistency.

Every local authority we visited had different set of tools to work with – when I went to Rothesay, I was greeted to a roomful of primary 7s who each had a wifi enabled laptop in front of them – where as in other schools, we did a fantastic job at planning blog posts using mini whiteboards, paper and pens and easispeak recorders – even if we couldn’t access certain social media sites. It just depended on what the school had access to, how the comfortable the teachers felt using the equipment and how much access to websites they had in the classroom.

Which takes me to my next part…

3) Flexibility

Delivering workshops of this nature, as an external project – across multiple local authority areas – is going to be challenging at the best of times, however, the most important factor of delivery was the ability to be flexible and be open to work collectively with the teacher(s) to ensure that the content that the learners make can actually happen.

We’ve all been there -walked into a room with a workshop plan, ready to take on a well prepared 3 hour session to a roomful of eager participants – only to find out that the entire internet is blocked and the projector doesn’t work. It’s not the end of the world.

For me, the heart of the Digital Commonwealth project was in teaching skills that allow to make your engagement with tech better. We prepared exercises in interview skills, all which can be done without a single piece of technology – we developed ‘paper tweets’ using post-it notes that allowed for the learners to talk about social media without having to be all over social media and developed scripts and storyboards for film and audio production. Flexibility was key – and having 4 sessions to develop a product meant that we could work closely with the teachers to ensure that we could find a solution around some of the more sticky technical challenges.

Which relies heavily on point number 4…

4) Relationships

The success in the workshops was all in the planning and communications with those involved. In some cases there were nearly 5-6 people involved in getting the workshops up and running in each area; local authority people, teachers, head teachers, cultural leads, legacy people. This involves a lot of phone-calls, emails and multiple cups of tea. What we must remember is that what we are developing and piloting here is new ways to understanding digital literacy in this context. When I started this job, it was a lot to get my head round in terms of communicating it to key stakeholders and participants – and now we are 2 months post games, it can become too easy to rest on hindsight, it was a long slog to convince people to work with us, but those who did, did so with great enthusiasm. Relationships are such an important factor – and I certainly hope that over the coming months that we continue to build on these connections to build and improve strategies around being able to teach digital literacies in these varying contexts.

Finally…

5) Empowerment (through demystifying risk)

This is possibly my most radical learning outcome from my experience as a trainer. Equipping and supporting those on the frontline with the language required to challenge and shape some of the existing practices associated with digital media in the classroom. I’m an ‘outsider’, I exist on the fringes of a lot of different things. I’m not a teacher – my role was to deliver this project, but my ‘outsiderness’ allows me to met with many people, share best practice, recommend techniques and strategies for overcoming blocks, matching up people across conventional work networks and be able to share this with the people I encounter.

That’s why I’m writing this blog post – I wanted to share these thoughts with you. Pass it on, add to it, but most importantly continue the dialogue around digital literacies. Like most things in the last few weeks, the more we talk to each other about these challenges and opportunities, the more confident other people feel about telling their stories within this context – and the more risk can be demystified.

With this in mind, does anybody have anything they wish to add or feel like I missed?

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So how was your summer?

Sorry, long time no blog. Mainly because my full time over the last 12 months has involved so much blogging in project spaces, blogging in other people’s project spaces and teaching other people to blog in their own spaces that my own blog has taken the hit when it comes to writing down my own thoughts about things and the stuff what I have been doing. It feels like I have been pretty much been blogging every day, just not here.

I’ve got a list of draft posts that need completing from back before the Commonwealth Games last month, some reflections, some from talks that I’ve taken part in, some PhD related – or audio/video recordings from other events. The biggy is that I’m going to be on the Community Channel representing Digital Commonwealth on Freeview 63/Sky 539/iPlayer from the 31st of August as part of the Media Trust’s Brilliant Scotland programme.

I’m honoured to be the chair of the steering group in Scotland – and in May, Peter Murray and I got to go an epic trip in May to Orkney and the North Highlands to delivery 4 rounds of Digital Storytelling workshops for the Digital Commonwealth project – the TV show features that trip, the Community Media Symposium at the Big Lottery Scotland HQ that we organised back in January and the #citizen2014 activity from during games time, where a group of us operated as community reporters from the Beyond the Finish Line shop-space in Trongate.

In my PhD/ ‘spare time’ (ha!) I developed a wee website for my 2nd supervisor Rowena Murray that gives more information about her writing retreats for academic writing that take place in Gartmore, near Aberfoyle. I’ve been a massive advocate of her writing retreats on social media, seeing as it was one of the main factors that aided me restarting my PhD after 16 months off and I’ve had a lot of people ask me about them – but with nothing ‘official’ to point people to. Rowena and I worked together to develop a website that will eventually become a group-curated resource for PhD students and academics to talk about writing – and at the last retreat, I interviewed 10 participants about what writing retreats meant to them – which you can view here. I’ve got three retreats booked up until xmas (that’s about 30k words hopefully!) – and I’ve got plans to return to Canada over the break to conclude my interviews for my PhD research.

I’ve given a few presentations on the run up to the games. The first was at the UWS learning and teaching conference in June with my colleague Alison McCandlish on the “University in the Wild” focusing on impact first, research later at the heart of a engagement project such as Digital Commonwealth (blog post to follow, I’ve to work on it for another session on research innovation in the new semester) – and a paper at the Leisure Studies conference in July with David McGillivray on event-led digital participation and how Glasgow 2014 can be used to empower communities to produce grassroot responses to major events. Both of these papers are now in the stages of being developed further ahead of the SCVO’s Comms Rewired in October and the Creative Citizens conference in London on the 18th-19th September. We were also invited to deliver a social media surgery for the PR and Comms group associated with Youthlink Scotland

Freelance-wise, I’ve delivered social media training for the National Union of Journalists Scotland which was really interesting to develop, especially as I’m normally helping citizens to become journalists, not the other way around. I’m also been actively involved as a board member at GMAC Film, taking part in some development days and beginning to look at helping develop a social media strategy for them – as well as media education element of the organisation. It’s exciting times.

And… I reckon I’ve probably delivered over 100+ workshops in 2014 alone. Now I’m properly back at my desk and the games are but a faded memory, I can get back to writing and researching and all that other stuff that you do at desks. So expect more blog posts!

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Research Seminar

Presentation (w @kierandhamilton): Morally High, Is Twitter being used as an online space to challenge dominant socio-political discourse around drug-use?

In my last post about writing goals, I said my February goal was to work on a paper with Kieran (who has just started a PhD in Alcohol and Drug Studies at UWS). Last Thursday, we were invited to present the work-in-progress at the UWS School of Education/Creative and Cultural Industries Research Showcase at the CCA in Glasgow. We are working towards a completed paper that has been accepted at the Leisure Studies conference that is hosted at UWS Paisley in July. I’m also on the organising committee for that.

This was a piece of research we had been discussing in the gap between me decided the future plans of my PhD and restarting, so it was nice to actually produce an outcome from that time away from my own research – and get to focus on some of the larger questions regarding social media ethics and public data using a subject such as perceptions of drug users and how people use social media as a socio-political device. We should have the full paper completed by July to be included in the proceeds. Slides and Abstracts are below.

Hamilton, K. & Jones, J. (2014) Morally high: Is Twitter being used as an online space to challenge dominant socio-political discourse around drug-use? 

Background: Current socio-political discourse around drug use delineates illegal drugs as “malevolent forces”, which “pathological” individuals succumb to as a result of moral or mental weakness (Tupper 2012). Drug users are designated as “outsiders” (Cohen 1956) with the result being that drug users are stigmatised as “disgusting” and “dirty” individuals (Tupper 2012) who pose a threat to the dominant normative values of society (Taylor2008). Although there is current debate around the “normalisation” of drug use within society, where it is argued that drug use has become an accepted leisure activity for “ordinary” people (Blackman 2004), the utilisation of simplistic and sensationalist portrayals of drug users by the news media elite has acted to reinforce negative stereotypes of drug users (Critcher 2003), contributing to issues of stigmatisation and consequently social exclusion and health-related problems (Taylor 2008, Butt, Paterson & McGuinness 2008). Emerging participatory transformations in digital communications, such as the ability to self publish through social media, blogs and virtual communities developed through online discussion forums, provide potential for the public to challenge existing socio-political discourse (Hands 2011), particularly around drug use and drug policy (Wax 2002).

Purpose: The purpose of this study is to assess the extent to which Twitter users utilised Twitter as an online space to either challenge or reproduce dominant socio-political discourse in response to the channel 4 documentary “Legally High”, which featured several individuals who use novel “legal” substances, as well as illegal substances.

Method: An algorithm was used to capture tweets which were published in response to the documentary “Legally High”, identified through the use of the hashtag “#LegallyHigh”. Discourse analysis will then performed on these tweets to assess the extent to which dominant discourse around drug use and users is either reproduced or challenged.

References:

Blackman, S. (2004) Chilling Out: The Cultural Politics of Substance Consumption, Youth and Drug Policy. Berkshire: Open University Press.
Butt, G. Paterson, B, L. Mcguinness, L, K. (2008) Living with the Stigma of Hepatitis C. Western Journal of Nursing Research, Vol: 30 (2), pp. 204-221.
Cohen, A. (1956) Delinquent Boys: The Subculture of the Gang. London: Collier-Macmillan.
Critcher, C. (2003) Moral Panics and the Media. Buckingham: Open University Press.
Haas, T. (2005) From ‘‘Public Journalism’’ to the ‘‘Public’s Journalism’’? Rhetoric and Reality in the Discourse on Weblogs.  Journalism Studies, Vol: 6 (3), pp. 387-396.
Hands, J. (2011) @ is for Activism: Dissent, Resistance and Rebellion in a Digital Culture. London: Pluto Press.
Taylor, S. (2008) Outside the Outsiders: Media Representations of Drug Use. Probation Journal, Vol: 55 (4), pp. 369-388.
Tupper, K, W. (2012) Psychoactive Substances and the English Language: “Drugs”, Discourse and Public Policy. Contemporary Drug Problems, Vol: 39, pp. 461-492.
Wax, P, M. (2002) Just a Click Away: Recreational Drug Websites on the Internet. Paediatrics, Vol: 109 (6), pp. 1-4.

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