All 18 entries tagged Ruth

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July 05, 2012

Television vs Research

I had a conversation with a colleague a few months back that really stuck in my mind. She argued that in the media decisions that would never, ever be considered ethical in the academic world are taken on an everday basis. I believe the conversation revolved largely around the activities of journalists working in print media, but I found myself thinking about the relationship between media and research once again whilst watching a couple of reality television programmes this week.

The first of these was Make Bradford British, a somewhat controversial two-part Channel 4 show from last year. The idea was to bring together individuals from across Bradford's culturally and racially segregated neighbourhoods, so they could learn more about one another's lives and make a series of spurious claims about what it might mean to be British.

Much of the programme was quite contrived, but there were some powerful moments: reactions to the casual, unthinking racism of a white former police officer; the journey of a mixed-race landlady who came to recognise her own prejudices; the young working class white man who learned so much from living with a devout Muslim fellow several years his senior that he decided to turn his life around, cut down on drinking a make a better for his daughter.

All very moving, but I couldn't help but remain somewhat cynical despite enjoying both the programme and many of its messages. Just how did the producers think it was okay to cherry-pick eight people from an area full of cultural tension, and throw them into a house Big-Brother style for a few days before sending individuals to live with one another just to show what happened? Why did no-one seem to intervene when a participant was being verbally abused and then sexually assaulted by racists and Islamophobes on-camera? And did they not predict that fascist blogs would pick up on the show afterwards and attempt to use it to inflame tension?

I'd like to think that most researchers would never allow themselves to get into such a pickle, knowing that gaining consent from human participants is not enough. I've read enough dodgy studies to know that this isn't true, but I feel that we at least have a culture in which ethical considerations are taken very seriously indeed.

The second programme was episode three of Cherry Healey's How to Get a Life. I'm not going to lie: I watched this because a couple of my friends appeared in it, bearing their armpit hair for all the nation to see. However, I found myself once again thinking about the relationship between media and research during this show. Like Make Bradford British, it was powerful, engaging television, with deep personal revelations and a surprisingly serious interrogation of social norms. In addition, I felt it stood on considerably firmer moral ground, with a greater appreciation of what not to film and an approach (and subject matter!) that minimised the potential for harm.

into the pit

This time around, I began thinking more about the differing truths told by research and the media. The issues at hand - feminism, bodily autonomy, tattoos, subcultures - were deeply familiar because they variously concern myself and/or my fellow PhD students in the sociology department. But where we might interview or survey many in order to examine themes of meaning or societal trends or, the show concentrated on individual experience.

Does this makes its conclusions less valid? I think not. There was a story to be told here, the truth of which complements the truths told by researchers. The same can be said of Make Bradford British. I feel that the real issue comes instead with the ethical decisions taken in the "uncovering" of truth, and this is perhaps an area where the media could learn from our world.

February 21, 2012

Cross–disciplinary approaches at the rhythm–melody interface – by Ruth

And now, a moment of shameless self-promotion.

I'm presenting some of my recent work this weekend, alongside two of my collaborators.

The registration fee is a mere four pounds, so it would be lovely if you could come along to hear our findings.not right

February 04, 2012

Learning to teach – by Ruth

I've been a bit worried lately that I spend too much time teaching. When I say that, I don't just mean the time spent teaching my actual single, two-hour seminar, but the time spent preparing, reading, and talking about techniques and approaches with my fellow sessional tutors in the department.

Ultimately the "teaching experience" takes up a lot of my time, but that only matters so much: I'm doing okay for jobs (and - therefore - money) right now and have five years within which to undertake my part-time PhD. I nevertheless keep worrying that I spend "too much" time on teaching preparation, and feel strangely guilty about the amount of time it takes away from my actual research.

However, over the past fmortar boardew days I've begun to realise that all of this time is very important. After all, this is my first year of teaching, and we recieve very little training. I'm ultimately learning to teach right now. That process is important, and deserves my time! It's a skill I'll hopefully be able to draw upon throughout any academic career.

This isn't to say that I should always be spending so long simply on preparation. I strongly believe that many postgraduate sessional tutors are shockingly underpaid, and that there are unfair pressures on academics to perform supreme feats of preparation that go considerably beyond what's expected of them in their contracts. I'm instead reflecting upon my own personal situation: in this time, in this place, I really should be putting the time into getting things right, and hopefully that experience will serve me well into the future.

January 05, 2012

An Obscene Post – by Ruth

TMI ("Too Much Information") warning: this post contains links to discussion of "extreme" sexual conduct.

Were you aware that the "Obscenity Trial of the Decade" was underway? No? Well, neither was I. It's not like it's received any attention in the mainstream media (unless you count a belated comment piece in the New Statesman), which is a little odd really.
The case, which seeks to establish whether or not videos of consensual, legal sexual acts constitute "obscene" images that can "deprave" or "corrupt", raises fundamental questions about morality, personal agency, the rule of law, anal sex, the role of the state, and the rights of (sub)cultural minorities. The background and details make fascinating - if sometimes disturbing - reading.

However, I post here about the trial in order to highlight the social media coverage the case is recieving. With mainstream journalists out of the picture, #ObscenityTrial has begun to trend on Twitter thanks to the ongoing live coverage provided largely by two individuals in attendence: freelance journalist Nichi Hodgson, and postgraduate law student Alex Dymock.

I find Alex's role in reporting the trial particularly interesting because it shows how PhD research that might at first appear somewhat obscure can be of great relevance and importance to public life. Through social media, her knowledge and access has become available to the wider world.

I have no idea how relevant the trial is to Alex's actual research project, but it's surely - at the very least - an important tangent. I only hope that her academic advisors agree: "Finally alerted my own supervisors/department as to what I'm doing with myself this week," wrote Alex late last night. Well, I figure we've all been there, sort of.

As a final point, I was interested to read about the comments from Dr Clarissa Smith, Reader in Sexual Cultures at the University of Sunderland. Smith was wheeled out as an expert witness by the Defence to provide information on BDSM subcultures in what strikes me as a glorious moment for the academic world. It's so easy to spend too much time stuck inside our heads and/or the academic world, so I'm always pleased when academics (particularly those from the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences) are called upon as expert witnesses during legal or legislative proceedings.

January 03, 2012

New Year, new enthusiasm – by Ruth

That's a lot to be said for a good break.

The last few months of 2011 were a whirl of activity for me, even if I didn't manage to get as much done on my actual PhD as I might have liked. Fortunately, I've really benefitted from a proper break over the Christmas period.

I've joined my partner in taking three weeks' leave (three weeks paid leave in his case, but that's what happens when you have a Proper Job). It's been really, really relaxing, with around a week each visiting our respective families and the rest of the time pottering around and watching TV/movies. My academic achievements involved the reading of just one measly article about the social determinants of health (a nice, easy World Health Organisation piece no less, rather than some dense journal paper).ideas

The rest has been fantastic, but during the last few days my brain has started to shift gear. I've started think about presentations, upgrade strategies, writing tactics. Yesterday one of the very first things I did in the morning was to excitedly plan an argument.

I think I've almost had enough rest now, but it's certainly done the job. I'm feeling extremely excited and motivated about my work again, and will hopefully get a lot done in the next few weeks because I - rather than anyone else - am telling myself that I need to do so.

December 18, 2011

PhD students in film – by Ruth

I sat down with my partner and a friend the other day to re-watch the 1972 classic Cabaret. Amidst the singing, dancing, decadence, romance and inexorable rise of the Nazis during the dying days of Weimar Germany, I realised for the first time that central character Brian is a PhD student. Indeed, during one of the opening scenes the polite academic explicitly describes how he intends to complete his doctorate upon an eventual return to Cambridge. I'm not quite sure how swanning off to Berlin to teach English and become embroiled in passionate drama is meant to help matters, but procrastination is as procrastination does.


Brian contemplates his viva.

phd movie

After watching the film, I got thinking. Why was I surprised to learn that Brian was working towards a PhD? I mean, there are thousands upon thousands of us in the world and the academics have to come from somewhere, so it shouldn't be too strange to see a PhD student in a film. But here's the thing: it is. We're largely absent from the film world, in my experience at least. Of course, there's always the PhD Movie, but that's a special example!

So, here's a question for you: how many doctoral candidates have you come across on the silver screen? Have I just been watching all the wrong films?

December 12, 2011

It's nearly Christmas…hurrah, I finally have time for my PhD! – by Ruth

Term is over, the undergraduate population has largely evaporated overnight, and Warwick's campus is once again quiet. Time for a well-earned rest? Hah! No way...whirlwind

I've had a pretty busy two or three months. This term has seen me teach for the first time; only one two-hour seminar, once a week, but I've never (formally) taught before and never did an undergraduate degree in Sociology, so I had a fair amount of preparation to do! Then there were the part-time jobs I've been doing to support myself during my part-time study. These are largely campus-based, which enables me to stay within the university environment and maintain (something of) an academic mindset.

Oh, and I've also been organising a number of events with various different teams, and spent a couple of weeks sleeping in a tent in the midst of all this, but that's probably because I'm a sucker for punishment.

As a result of all this, I've been working pretty much non-stop but don't feel like I've made much progress on my PhD. I've had some great ideas, sure, and some really productive conversations, but have barely had time to put pen to paper/ fingers to keyboard.

So, that's my "holiday" period sorted. I have a brilliant opportunity to catch up before I'm once again caught up in the hectic whirlwind of activity that will no doubt come with the spring term. I even have some kind of wild fantasy about completing a draft of my upgrade document by the end of January. Wish me luck!

December 06, 2011

Is the student occupation relevant to postgrads? – by Ruth

If you happen to have passed through the centre of campus during the last couple of weeks you'll have found it hard to miss Occupy Warwick. Student activists have pitched tents outside the Arts Centre as part of a protest against what they describe as the "marketisation of education".

occupy warwick

The occupiers largely exhibit the kind of bloody-minded youthful enthusiasm that is perhaps (stereo)typical of undergraduate protesters, but can their cause also resonate with PhD students? After all, we're not going to be effected by fee rises (right?) and many of us benefit from corporate investment in our research area. In fact, an injection of private money is just what many of our departments (and, by extension, we) need in this time of economic uncertainty.

For the sake of transparency, I'll admit my own participation in the protest at this juncture. I feel the aims and ideals of Occupy Warwick are deeply relevant to all members of the university body, as well as the wider public. As such, I've spent much of the last fortnight organising and publising occupation events during the day, and camping out at night.

Why would I put myself through this? After all, it's not as if it's terribly warm and sunny outside, and (sadly) I simply don't have the same energy that I did as an undergraduate activist. What keeps me going, and why do I care?

My primary reason for occupying arises from my concern for the future of the entire higher education sector in the United Kingdom. I believe that universities should first and foremost be centres of learning, where research and teaching is undertaken for the sake of public good rather than private profit. The tuition fee rise last year was just the start of a concerted attack upon the idea of a public university. The fee rise was accompanied by massive cuts, with the teaching budget for the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences entirely scrapped. Now, the government is planning further changes that will see universities run more like businesses and less like - well, universities.

This is a terrible move because the logic of neo-liberalism hardly entails a better environment for research and teaching. An example of this can be found in the University of Warwick's existing system of internal markets, whereby departments are expected to spend a portion of their budgets upon hiring rooms. The intention, presumably, is to force departments to budget wisely and spend their money efficiently. The reality is an inefficient system where many PhD students (and, for that matter, administrative staff) are crammed into crowded offices (if they're lucky enough to get one at all) whilst other rooms lie permanently empty because departments can't "afford" them. Meanwhile many of the departments worst effected compete with one another for a decreasing amount of space.

Moroever, if research budgets increasingly rely upon private funding, we can expect research itself to increasingly reflect corporate interests. After all, why would you want to pour money into the university system if you didn't expect to see something in return? This has already been happening for years, and it's bound to get worse, with research increasingly driven by private prioritity instead of academic inspiration.

The stated objectives of Occupy Warwick broadly address these twinned issues: marketisation and cuts. The points are admittedly somewhat vague and almost hopelessly idealistic, but in being so they push for a discursive shift in how we understand the university system in the UK. Many will argue that the occupation's objectives are impossible to achieve, with sacrifices necessary from the University in order to maintain a high level of research and teaching. However, the whole point of the objectives is that they resist the logic of "the cuts" altogether, and ultimately call upon the University to oppose the government's ideological committment to austerity measures that hit the public sector and the poor, rather than those who caused the economic crisis in the first place.

A second powerful reason for the occupation is that it provides a visible symbol of dissent. The Warwick environment is centred around the spending of money, from the millions invested in shiny new buildings (to be used only by private companies and economically "useful" departments) to the overpriced food we're expected to buy from University outlets. Meanwhile academic, administrative and interpersonal hierarchies govern our everyday experiences. In contrast, Occupy Warwick reflects the wider "Occupy movement" in rejecting the necessity of both profit and leadership. The occupation is an environment in which food, bedding and decision-making are shared, and undergraduates, postgraduates and staff come together to debate and discuss an alternative approach to the University "experience".

This brings me neatly onto my final reason for occupying: the space has provided a fantastic base for interdisciplinary conversations during the past two weeks. As a friend of mine (currently working towards an MSC in Physics) recently noted, if we'd organised the occupation's thirty-plus talks and workshops as a formal conference we'd have reason to be extremely pleased with ourselves!

Occupy Warwick will be packing up its tents tomorrow. However, the campaign for a better university system will continue well into the new year. If you feel our message is relevant to you, why not get involved?

October 22, 2011

Technological experimentation is FUN – by Ruth

A little while back I wrote about my experiences planning a videoconference as part of what we believe to be the world's first international gathering of researchers in the new field of asexuality studies. With the event - organised by a shiny new research network - rapidly approaching, I can think about little else!

I've ended up taking on the bulk of the technological organisation: becoming familar with the videoconferencing software in the seminar rooms, performing a couple of "dry runs" to test for glitches, looking into employing various screens, cameras and the Creative Wall within the Research Exchange. I think I'm gaining something of a reputation for being a tech guru, but in all honesty I don't really know what I'm doing - at least at first! I figure we have all of this amazing equipment sitting around for a reason, and have set out to employ it productively.

It's a learning experience quite different to my sociology research, but there's something deeply satisfying about it. Maybe it's moments such as that which took place last Monday, when I found myself sitting on the floor of Seminar Room 2 in front of a giant screen and surrounded by five laptops, giggling to myself with quiet glee as I hooked a number of programmes up with one another. Or maybe I just need a bit more fresh air.

As I mentioned in my previous post though, there's no point in doing any of this for the sake of it (unless your idea of fun doesn't really extend beyond my aforementioned inanity, of course). We're using the video-conferencing technology to connect with reseachers in the United States and Canada and to broadcast the event live on the internet, we're using the cameras to capture it for podcasting so that those who were unable to attend can still watch the event, and we're using the touchscreen to project traditional powerpoint presentation and to (hopefully) maintain a live Twitter feed that is visible to participants. Also, all of the above will look really cool. Yikes, my serious face is slipping again.

I'll see about posting an update in a few days to let you know how it went, and what lessons we learned. Even better - why not drop by yourself?

asexuality poster

Some shameless publicity: Spotlight on Asexuality Studies will take place in the Research Exchange from 1pm to 6pm on Monday, 24th October. All are welcome! We will livestream the first part of the event here from 1pm to 3pm.

October 11, 2011

Eureka! The cleaning ritual as a nexus of academic creativity – by Ruth

A month or two ago I had an extremely productive shower. As my thoughts idly wandered, I began to explore the concept of intersubjectivity - an idea I've had some attachment to since my undergraduate degree in Philosophy. I wondered if I could possibly apply the concept to an article I was working on, in order to better explain a particular social process I had observed.shower

Suddenly, everything made perfect sense! I spent the next couple of days blissfully fleshing out the idea in my head, wondering if it might even provide the foundation for an ontological backdrop to my PhD project. Before long, however, the niggling demands of everyday life thought to recapture lost ground. I incorporated my embryonic ideas into the ongoing paper and a conference abstract, and then settled back into my usual routine of worrying about money, grumping in the general direction of my department and planning extravagant events.

However, I returned to my thoughts of theory once again during this morning's shower. I'm due to meet my supervisor next week in order to discuss my (lack of) progress over the summer. I'd promised her a rough outline of my current theoretical and methodological direction: with part-time work taking up the bulk of my time in recent weeks, that seemed increasingly unrealistic. However, everything slotted into place this morning - I could work my ontological musings into a shiny new (draft) research proposal! I then gleefully began to fit everything together in my head, and hope to work from the resulting plan over the next week.

I quite strongly believe that my shower played a key role in this process. It's one of the few times in my day when I feel I can just let my mind wander, exploring as it will. I suppose I experience something similar when I go to bed, but any exciting thoughts tend to be rapidly lost as I drift off into sleep.

I figure the bath could provide a similar mental sanctuary. The myth of Archimedes' tub has resounded down the centuries, quite possibly because so many of us identify with the idea of mental insight whilst washing. Or perhaps we just find the mental image of a bearded greek fellow running naked down a public street deeply amusing. Either way, the story has stuck with us.

So, that's my story. Where do you find your greatest moments of random insight?

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