Posts Tagged ‘ academia ’

How (not) to write a paper: part III

[continued from here and here]

4,356 words down, and the paper is progressing, slowly, but quicker than I’d expected. I’m already wondering what other work I can fit into April. There’s the book proposal, but the co-editor wants to wait a few weeks until she visits London for a face-to-face meeting. Then there’s the paper I’m co-writing, but the other author can only do his sections in the second half of April and I can’t guarantee that I’ll be finished soon enough. Then there’s my Master’s student whose thesis I’m supervising. I worry about her progress, but supervising from a distance is so much harder than in person. How do you kick someone’s arse by email? What can you do from 600 miles away but send nagging emails covered in a thin veneer of pleasantries anyway?

But back to the paper. Check back over the old manuscript that I presented at the conference. Cut and paste and – hey presto – I’ve got another few chunks of text. Now to edit them into the flow of the paper, which is harder than it sounds. I’m beginning to wonder if it would have been easier to do it all afresh and avoid trying to shoe-horn this old stuff into the new paper. Oh well, I’ve started so I’ll finish.

This paragraph doesn’t fit at all, but I like it. Where does it go? It’s floating around and has no home. Sod this: shove it anywhere – highlight to remind myself – I’ll try again later – ctrl+s.

Now the theoretical sections are taking shape, maybe it’s time to look at empirical things. What themes do I have? Do I have enough material to make the argument I want to make (and do I need to ‘stretch’ it to sound definitive)? I’m certainly not the only one who has pushed the boundaries of how far one can take an argument without losing sight of the empirical material.

[Musical interlude as I take a few hours to help H with job interview preparation. I reassure myself that I’ll make up the time in the future. Brief gleam of happiness that my job allows me to do such things, followed by a dark cloud that reminds me of how much extra work I do on top of 9-5]

Completely lost my train of thought – check Facebook, check Twitter – nothing interesting. Check again. Check emails. Make cup of tea and pick the lumps out of the peanut butter while I wait for the kettle to boil. I need to get more exercise: working a few feet from my kitchen is a serious occupational hazard.

Back to the desk – check work emails, Facebook, personal emails – back to the paper. God, this floor is filthy – hovering is very tempting right now. FOCUS, DAMN IT.

One week until the deadline: when will the panic resurface? I need that fear to get the work done and stop faffing around. Why did I even consider what other work I could do this month? I must be delusional.

Check emails, read call for papers on entirely unrelated topic. Search author of said call for papers on the internet for no apparent reason. Yes, I definitely need the fear.


How (not) to write a paper: part II

[Continued from here ]

LIGHTBULB MOMENT! I wrote a formal paper for the Paris conference – surely I could lift quite a lot of material from that? Check back over old paper: most of this is irrelevant now. My topic has changed too much. Plus I spliced half of the lit review into that paper I had to stop in order to write this one. Damn.

But I can use some of the work on autonomy, and bits of the empirical sections. Good, good.

Still not sure what my conceptual ‘hook’ is. Autonomy is a bit over-done and I think it needs nuancing. Maybe this is my contribution? I bet no-one has applied autonomy to mobility, certainly not in a geography of tourism context. Better check to be sure…

Search Google Scholar, Web of Science et al.

Autonomy geography mobility

“autonomous geographies” mobility

“autonomous geographies” tourism travel

Geography “autonomous travel”

“Autonomous space” mobility travel tourism


OK, nothing. Looks promising, but “autonomous travel”, really? What does that even contribute to the world? Isn’t it just co-opting the concepts and theory of autonomy for some managerial tourism type to rip off and make mega-bucks? I need to be careful to protect the paper from this.

But either way, I still need empirical material to back it up. Grounded theory and all that. OK, check over my coding: “geopolitics”, “mobility”, “globalisation”, “state”. Damn it, I’ve only compiled “state”.

**Musical interlude while I spend an entire day compiling, cross-checking, thinking about the empirical material**

Geopolitics looks meaty – lots to do with travel routes and modes (e.g. cycling, couchsurfing, hitching) blocked, shifting, changing qualitatively, speeding up and slowing down, fragmenting and converging according to visa and border regulations and inter-state conflicts. OK, I like where this is going; I think I can work with this. I’ll cross-reference with globalisation and mobility (and possibly economy) and there could be some good intersections of capital and state to eek out somehow and squeeze in an (indirect) critique of the complicit tourism industry on the side.

Still stuck on the literature and theory. Didn’t Lucy Finchett-Maddock write something about entropy? Check paper. Still none the wiser about what entropy actually is. Something to do with energy and complex systems theory. Good read nonetheless – if only I’d remembered this for the VR and Formas funding applications I put in last week. Never mind. I really should make contact with her – we have some good crossovers – but how to approach someone you’ve never met? I’m quite socially awkward at the best of times. Perhaps I could ask for a paper of hers, pretending I can’t get it at my library. Yes, that could be a good way of introducing myself and my research interests. But then again, does it sound too… DAMN IT STOP PROCRASTINATING.

The irony, of course, is that I check Facebook about ten times a day. Surely that kind of procrastination is even less productive. I kid myself that Facebook and Twitter are important networking tools but they’re not really. I just end up watching MMA videos or commenting on funny pictures of cats. Perhaps there is some value in it though, as the… GET ON WITH IT.

Back to the paper. Amend the bullet point skeleton and I can see it coming together. Some progress is being made. Now to quickly check my emails / Facebook / Twitter just one more time…

[To be continued]

How (not) to write a paper: Part I

Over the coming few weeks I’m going to be covering the progress of writing an academic paper, from start to finish, including all the gory bits. We see academic papers only when they are finished, neat, unitary. We don’t see the mess, the revisions, the pain and the corner-cutting that goes into their production.

Euan Craig, a potter originally from Australia who’s lived in Japan for much of his life, was once asked how long it takes to make a pot. He replied “about 30 seconds to throw the pot, and 20 years to learn how.”

So the only thing that you won’t see in this process is the long, non-linear, tangled threads of intellectual development and change over the course of my entire life that have, in one way or another, influenced the production of this paper. However, what you will see is a genuine, warts-and-all impression of what really happened.

I will also add another caveat: not all papers work like this. Each has its own life, some ebbing and flowing gently over years, others crammed into the space of a few weeks (like this one), others still never quite ever being finished and sitting, waiting, hoping to be ‘complete’ one day under piles of more pressing labour to be completed. Academics reading this may deeply identify with this process, but other academics may not understand at all. We shall see…

Finally finished the commentary for Dialogues in Human Geography. Now to the next project, after a little break. A bit of reading around the subject of encounter and difference. I think I know where I’m going with this. Good, good. I can see where this paper is going.

Oh, wait, wasn’t there another submission deadline coming soon? The one I presented in Paris? Shit – quick check of old emails. SHIT. Deadline is 30th April??! That’s three weeks. Oh God oh God oh God. My brain is now full of encounter and this is about territory. What the hell is territory anyway?  A raft of concepts and definitions comes flooding back: territory-as-effect (Painter), calculable space (Elden), rebuttal of Elden (Antonsich), deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation (Paasi, Newman, and the border studies types), multiple non-linear territorialisations (can’t remember who said this off the top of my head), etc etc ad infinitum. Didn’t Sam H write something about territory too?

Quick check of my 2012 territory paper. This is useless, but maybe I can lift some of the lit review out and re-work it for this topic. Not sure if I can get away with that.

Check back over the abstract. Completely impenetrable. What did I even mean?

Check back over the presentation notes. What a load of crap. How did I ever become an academic with such half-baked ideas?

OK, breathe. Let’s do a little mind-map. What are the issues? I always see people draw these wonderfully chaotic and creative mind-maps – maybe I’ll try that and hope that some inspiration comes:












Right, well that wasn’t much use.

I wonder if I could just duck out and hope the guest editors won’t mind. I’m really good at letting people down gently. But I respect them and want to support their project. I hung out with them in Paris and they were really welcoming to me, despite being this dumb Englishman who can only muster shaky A-Level French. No, I owe it to them, plus it gives me a deadline – I need deadlines to get things finished. Otherwise, I just faff around and get frustrated.

So, if a mind-map won’t work, maybe let’s get the logic straight and fit the structure into that as I go. OK, back to good old bullet point lists. Let’s do this.

bulletpoint screenshot








Cool, we’re getting somewhere now. But – ‘labour’ – how does that relate to territory? I don’t know if I have enough empirical material. And I’ll need to theorise it very carefully. OK, sideline that – I can always splice it in later if I have time and space.

Oh, space, shit, forgot about that – what’s the word limit? 60,000 characters – what the hell is that in words? OK, looks like it’s about 10,000 words. OK, that’s a lot of space to fill, but doable. At least I won’t have to edit it heavily to cut it down to the word length before going to review.

But I still need a conceptual ‘hook’. It needs to be somehow “innovative” but I literally have no theoretical innovations to offer. Quick scan through old papers and notes. Still no joy. Maybe if I just start writing, something exciting will magically emerge from the writing process? Wishful thinking.

OK, breathe. You can do this.

[To be continued]

Hello… again

This blog has laid dormant for several years, and now it’s time to reinvigorate it, phoenix-like, from the ashes of internet history. You’ll see that I’ve updated the ‘about’ page to reflect actually what’s going on in life right now, and that times have changed since I set up this blog back in 2010.

Since I last logged in, I’ve got married to the long-suffering H., we’ve travelled the world together for two years, I’ve had several jobs (currently doing a postdoc at Stockholm University), and we’ve settled in lovely Brockley in south-east London.

So… blog Mk. II. We’ll see how long this lasts.

Career suicide

I wrote the below email today to the Principal of Queen Mary, after a horribly patronising email was sent around about impending cuts. It probably wasn’t a very good idea, but it was one of those situations when i was absolutely fuming and couldn’t stop myself.

Have a read – I might put it on the gravestone that I’ve ordered…

Dear Ms A**** – FAO Prof Gaskell,

Many thanks for this email. I am especially grateful for this email as it confirms a
number of suspicions held by myself, but I suspect also widely held among us staff,
postgraduate students, and the undergraduate students whom we teach and support.

First, that the strategy of UUK and its affiliates (including QMUL) is chiefly to
patronise and belittle the intellect of our workforce and students, claiming that we do
not understand our position in relation to the economic conditions that we currently
face. This approach is, presumably, in the vague hope that we might just be persuaded
that HE (and education more broadly) is about to hit free-fall as a result of the chums
and business partners of university leaders.

Second, that university senior managers have swallwed wholesale the vacuous “we are all
in this together” rhetoric that has dribbled wetly from policy-makers’ mouths since the
first days of the current government. It is a sad day when an entire industry based on
rigorous thought and research for the furtherance of society’s wellbeing becomes subsumed
within the whimsical fantasies of this peculiar brand of right-wing ideology. Many of us
HE staff are also complicit in this but many more continue to expose and confront it as
it is – an ideological construct opportunistically using recession as a means of
strengthening itself and its privileged supporters.

Third, that management of universities around the UK actually think that they can get
away with their unquestioning compliance with these draconian cuts without some sort of
active opposition from those whose livelihoods depend on this broken education system we
inhabit. On the contrary, do not expect that the job of Principal will be an easy one in
the coming months. Sadly, for university leaders, you are presiding over a workforce and
student body that – despite the best efforts of policy makers and managers alike – has
developed critical and creative intellect sufficient to develop new structures; new forms
of learning and sharing that could quite easily be undertaken in a self-managed way
beyond the confines of the education factory we now find ourselves in. In many places, in
the cracks between the pavement, this is already taking place.

Fourth, that managers believe this crisis of HE has somehow happened in a space out of
the reach of university leaders. UUK and senior management at universities around the UK
have, for years, been complicit in the war waged against the latent possibilities of an
education system based on rigorous intellectual and practical development, accessibility,
critical pedagogy and democratic practice. This cannot have come as a surprise to
so-called leaders who have followed sheepishly the whims of each government as it has
proactively built on the commodification of the education system in progressive steps.
Had university leaders wanted to confront the clear dangers of this process, they were in
a perfect position to do so, but instead they remained silent, safe in the knowledge that
their compliance would retain for them a lofty and comfortable seat among the elite
minority which cannibalistically feeds off the sweat of the rest of us.

Fifth, that QMUL management would like us to believe that Queen Mary staff and students
need only worry about the financial health of our own college. Sadly, as much as we would
like to think that our own wellbeing is the only thing that matters (cf. “there is no
such thing as society,” as our current Prime Minister’s idol once said), this parochial
misrepresentation of the interconnectedness of the education system – especially HE – is
disingenuous at best. We are not just facing tough times here in Mile End, but
everywhere, and our wellbeing is intimately entwined in the wellbeing of all other
education institutions across the UK and beyond. Denial of this fact is tantamount to
sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting “LALALALALA” in the hope that what you
ignore will go away. If only it were that simple.

Please do not take this as a personal attack, Prof Gaskell. On the contrary, the
landscape that universities inhabit is one that is reproduced at a much bigger scale and
in a much deeper sense than that which we are experiencing in HE. The Browne report is
small fry in comparison with the bigger picture across the UK and elsewhere, and, as I
have said, is just the most recent manifestation of a much longer process stretching back
many years that university leaders failed (or refused) to address. However, the active
complicity of universities in this market-led and state-approved eating-away of education
as an a priori good is something that cannot be ignored, not even when the very poorest
students are thrown a few crumbs from the table as a stunt to appease the moral dilemmas
of wavering observers.

One can only hope that the mess that will be caused by these cuts will help us rebuild a
truly liberatory system of education from the rubble of the old.

Kind regards,

Quoting Kate A***:

Dear Students, 

You will no doubt have been aware of the announcement last week of the
outcomes of the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review, following
the release the previous week of the Browne Review of Higher Education
Spending and Student Finance. The latter was produced independently of
government but was clearly informed by an understanding of the economic
environment and the government’s headline spending plans.  The
government is reserving judgement on whether to implement all of
Browne’s recommendations, and on what time scale.  Nevertheless, we can
be clear that a number of changes will take place:

* The overall resource budget for higher education, excluding
research funding, will reduce by 40% from £7.1 billion to £4.2
billion by 2014-15.

* As it is now, a university education will be free to students at
the point of delivery.  The fee-based payment method will be
supported by loans.  Where a student applies for a loan to cover
the cost of fees, the government will pay their university the
fees on their behalf. The idea of a graduate tax has been rejected
by the Government.

* Fees will increase.  It is estimated that an average fee of £7000
pa would be required (in the absence of cost savings) to replace
the reduction in teaching grant from the Higher Education Council
for England (HEFCE).  Browne proposed that there should be no cap
on fee levels, but that universities should be charged an
increasing levy the higher the level of fees above £6000 pa.       Comments late
last week from David Willetts, the Minister for
Universities and Science, indicated however that the government is
undecided on whether or how to enact these changes.

* The current zero rate of interest paid by graduates will be
replaced by a rate reflecting the government’s cost of borrowing,
thereby substantially reducing the cost to government of the loans
scheme. Students who fail to graduate will not be exempt from

* The threshold for graduate earnings at which repayment will begin
will rise from £15,000 to £21,000 and will be linked to average
earnings; the maximum repayment period is to be increased from 25
to 30 years.  Payments of 9% of income over £21,000 pa will be
collected through the tax system.

* Part-time students devoting at least a third of their time to
study will be entitled to the same loans as full-time students to
cover the cost of their fees.

* The arrangements for maintenance grants and loans have become
slightly more generous.

These are huge changes for the funding of teaching in higher  education institutions in
England and their implications require  careful examination. This has been in progress
for some time at  Queen Mary (in anticipation of the Browne proposals and the funding
reductions), but more detailed modelling is required.  The  £4.6million government
allocation to universities for research will  be maintained in cash terms over the next
four years.  Whilst in  real-terms this represents a cut of approximately 9% over this
period, it is better news than was feared and suggests that  arguments put forward from
Queen Mary and elsewhere for the  fundamental economic importance of its research have
been heard by  government and at least partially understood.  The “dual support”  system
will be maintained, whereby government funding for research  is channelled partly
through HEFCE and partly through the Research  Councils.  Both the mechanism and the
magnitude of research support  are important to Queen Mary be
cause of our commitment to research-led teaching and our education of
postgraduate research students.

The reductions in government spending create enormous challenges for
all universities in England.  As we face them at Queen Mary, however,
we should recall our particular advantages.  We enter this period in
sound financial health, the result of recent successes and careful
husbandry of resources.  To complement a talented and dedicated staff,
we have teaching and research accommodation of a generally high
quality, including some striking new, or newly refurbished, buildings.
Our increasingly elevated position in national and international
rankings means that we are an attractive destination for talented
students from the UK and abroad.  And finally, we have in our recently
published Strategic Plan a clearly articulated set of core values and
ambitions, providing a clear direction of travel in difficult times.

I have every confidence that the coming months and years will see Queen
Mary continue to develop its twin missions of knowledge creation and
knowledge dissemination, and build upon its fundamental commitment to
the provision of the highest possible quality of education, across a
broad academic range, to those students most able to benefit,
regardless of their background.

Simon J Gaskell
25 October 2010

The technocratic perils of having a niche

While i was doing my PhD I managed to bash out a few moderately interesting publications. Nothing too groundbreaking, but good enough to publish. Since early 2009, I have had a pretty dry spell, with a grand total of one paper submitted and accepted for publication. Wilderness months of unemployment and casual waiting work put paid to any real zest for writing for quite some time during the early months of this year.

Now, settled into a half-decent job, I find myself inundated with requests for articles. One introduction to a special issue of Antipode. One full article for Antipode. One progress report for Geography Compass. At least one or two papers from my current research.

The world of academia is a very small, rather in-bred one where, despite efforts to the contrary, you become pigeon-holed and assigned a certain (largely static and bland) niche identity. For me, i’m “that guy who writes about geography and anarchism”, meaning that if anyone wants a token anarchist geographer to write something, they almost inevitably find me, even though there are many, many others (Gavin Brown, Paul Chatterton, Simon Springer, Nathan Clough, etc etc) who are just as – if not more – able to write interestingly and coherently on the subject.

I sometimes wonder if it’s to do with the title of a chapter i wrote that was published a year ago entitled Whither Anarchist Geography? and whether part of it is inflienced by online search engine rankings. So i did a little experiment by typing in “anarchism geography” into Google, and discovered that my chapter is third in the list, beating big names like Colin Ward, Jane Wills and Gavin Brown.

So Google’s imperium seems to look kindly those with short, snappy titles that are easily identifiable. This quirk might, then, actually structure the real-life relations between people, certainly in academia, connecting disparate nodes acording to a programming language developed by some guy in a computer lab. So this unknown stranger who i’m unlikely to ever meet is partially to blame for my (otherwise inexplicable) rise to popularity among journal editors. Perhaps an article entitled Whither Google Geography? should be the next project…? No, wait, i have, like, four others to get done first. Damn. Maybe this popularity lark isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Fear and Loathing (and Doubt) in London and Glasgow

Yes, I know it’s been quite a while since I last posted to this blog. I promise I’ll try harder. In case you don’t know, here’s a rough overview of what’s been going on:

  • May: Got offered a job as a cycle courier.
  • May: Never started said courier job because I got a job at UCL Students Union doing impact assessment on voluntary projects the following day.
  • June: Decided with partner to postpone our wedding.
  • June: Left job at UCL after 5 weeks to pursue an as-yet-nonexistent academic career in a post at Glasgow University doing a ‘policy relevant’ research project on relationships between globalisation and community.
  • July: Submitted final PhD thesis and formally became a doctor.
  • August: Finalised new wedding date with girlfriend.
  • September: Started applying for overseas research funding for 2011-2012.

Um… that’s about it. So there’s the update. Generally quite dull (apart from the wedding thing which, of course, is awesome).

But what I want to write about is that last night I had an attack of academic doubt. It happens to us all, is never ever spoken about, and is utterly horrible. It started for me when i wandered onto Gumtree and spotted a job advert as a cycle courier for the same company that offered me a job back in May. Most people i know were very relieved to hear that i had turned down the opportunity to become a courier in favour of a ‘proper desk job’; i wasn’t fussed either way at the time, but seeing this advert hit me pretty hard.

What the hell am i doing?

Why do i spend my life observing life rather than participating in it?

Why do i spend what little spare time i have writing crap that no-one cares about, rather than a) enjoying what little time i have on this planet and/or b) trying to make it a little better?

Doesn’t my research just grease the cogs of academic capitalism, no matter how ‘radical’ or ‘subversive’ it is?

What real-life impact is my research having, if any?

How can i ever look myself in the mirror and say that what i do is anything more than regurgitating obscure and trite academic rhetoric and vacuous trendy theory?

It was a pretty self-indulgent moment, really. We academics have it pretty good, even people like me at the very beginning of our academic life: good pay, good benefits, good ‘social standing’ (whatever that means), good job security if you’re lucky. Most people out there would probably sell their granny to do what I do.

At the same time, there is a powerful and largely unspoken sense of ‘inauthenticity’ (for want of a better word). It’s a bit of an elephant in the academic room, and few of us like to confront our position, our subjectivity, our human condition. That is, except in the safe and comfortable confines of ‘reflexive’ academic journals.

I often have fantasies of running away to sea. No kidding. I also wanted to be a welder when i scraped through my GCSEs but teachers, parents, other ‘elders’ and social expectations forced me into sixth form, then university then to where i am now. I am now happiest on my bike, and often wonder “what if i did take that courier job?”.

Well, frankly, if I did take that courier job, i don’t know what i would be doing right now. A couple of wonderfully insightful blogging courier women – 24tee and thatmessengerchick – have both given powerful insights into both the tough life of a courier and the joys of blogging. They are both so eloquent in their writing style and sharp in their critical engagement with their own proffession, it should make us academics frightfully embarrassed. And this is another driving force in this current wave of self-indulgent middle class doubt passing through me right now, and the drive to start making real use of this blog.