Supervision and PhD completion

Two days ago I posted a tweet thread that has been bouncing around quite a bit and generating much more of a reaction than I expected.

That comment was provoked by something I was reading at that moment, in which the author mentioned ways of reducing PhD times to completion. But I didn’t want to speak only to that specific article or post it, because my point was about what I see more generally in op-eds and white papers, where “recommendations” never seem to have much to do with supervision (yes, many people pointed out to me –and I was aware – that funding usually isn’t mentioned either; I’ve seen it come up in other areas of discussion, such as critiques of contingent academic labour).

I was surprised this tweet got so much attention – it’s no different from what I’ve been arguing in my blog. Given the response to what I said, I thought I would put up a quick post with some links to other information and to a few things I’ve written about this issue in the past.

Here are a few blog posts I’ve written:

Related posts on the lack of data available for Canada:

A few years ago I also posted a bibliography of research on graduate education, it’s badly in need of an update but it’s a start if you’re interested (the link’s here).

This is really only the tip of the iceberg because it’s only what I happen to have written about; there are (of course!) hundreds of other articles and posts out there. Also, many others responded with stories and good points to add to what I was saying, for example several people raised the issue of supporting, mentoring, and compensating faculty supervisors so they can do better at this work. But I hope some of what I’ve shared here is helpful for those who’ve been asking for more information.

More than a storm in a teacup – the debate on academic blogging

This was a follow-up post that I wrote (published on October 21, 2011) after a briefer article of mine on academic blogging was published in University Affairs. I wanted to get into some more of the reasons why blogging is still considered a lesser form of communication, and therefore isn’t something that usually contributes to building an academic career. Here is a link to the original post from October 21, 2011: More than a storm in a teacup – the debate on academic blogging.

Last week an article I wrote about academic blogging was published in the print and online editions of University Affairs. I decided to provide a follow-up to the article, because there were so many interesting comments from bloggers that couldn’t be included in the scope of the original post.

I also want to take time to link their points to those from another discussion over at The Guardian, involving the critique of academic publishing and the call for its reform. Many of the issues mentioned by bloggers were clearly entwined with this recent thread of criticism that targets academic journals and their business model, one that is described by its current critics as restrictive, exploitative and out-dated.

A benefit of blogging cited by most of those who commented was the development of a public profile independent of the regular channels of academic validation. This visibility tended to lead to more (and diverse) opportunities because of exposure to different audiences. Having a public “face” meant being recognizable as an expert on a particular topic, and PhD student Chris Parsons (UVic) explained that “this is important for graduate students, in particular, given that most of us lack established publishing records.” Because of his active construction of a body of “alternative” online work, Parsons has been invited to contribute to more traditional peer-reviewed publications, the accepted signifiers of academic success.

The bloggers also described using social media for professional networking and collaboration. Blogging sparked dialogues and exchanges across disciplines, facilitated by what David Phipps (of York University) describes as “enhanced reach and two-way communication,” enabling new connections that were unexpected, serendipitous, and productive. Blogs were also viewed by students as more inviting and accessible than traditional publications; UVic professor Janni Aragon discussed how students have become engaged with her online work, many of them reading and responding to her posts.

A related theme was that of the benefit of gaining access to different audiences. Academic publications are associated with specialized audiences confined not only to the academic realm but also to disciplinary areas. Professor Marie-Claire Shanahan (U of Alberta) discussed how blogging has helped her to build a research community, allowing her to “meet people with similar interests who work in different areas” and also to reach out to audiences for whom the research is relevant but who don’t normally have access to it. All the bloggers who sent me comments made mention of this relationship between development of a public profile, and the ways in which “blogging extends our ability to communicate our research beyond academic circles in an accessible and timely manner” (Alfred Hermida, UBC).

Several bloggers expressed their frustration with traditional academic publishing, including complaints that the regular publication process takes too long and that the resulting publications are inaccessible to non-academic audiences. Sharing ideas through accessible online sources is more efficient because it isn’t hindered by the gatekeeping function of peer review (part of what validates academic knowledge). Chris Parsons described how his work has been cited in “government filings, academic papers, news sites, and so forth […] none of that would have happened if I was constrained to the slow process of peer-review or forced to utilize traditional media outlets.”

The publishing model that currently dominates renders research inaccessible to the publiceven though much of the research done in universities is publicly funded, and the journals technically acquire their content for free. Parsons argues that his work “is publicly funded, so it should be available to the public” and blogging is a part of this. The current model reflectsthe concept of knowledge as a “private good” rather than a “public good” (Slaughter & Rhoades, 2004, p.28). A private-good model goes against an ethic and practice of sharing as discussed by PhD student Rebecca Hogue who explained, “I like to get my ideas out there, and by sharing them (and writing them down) they become more solid […] I hate to hold stuff back because someday it might be published.” In spite of the myth of the lone scholar, collaboration has been an essential feature of academe in the past. How does an increasingly proprietary, private model of knowledge affect collegial work?

Those academics involved in blogging are engaging with new modes of communication and new models of scholarly collaboration and research dissemination. The vehemency with which this practice is debated by bloggers and non-bloggers alike speaks to the deep roots of the issue; because academic publishing is key to professional advancement in academe, everyone has something at stake. This debate touches on the heart of the university’s mission, and what accompanies it — a continued struggle over the definition of authoritative knowledge.

Should you enter the academic blogosphere?

This article appeared in both the print and online versions of University Affairs; it addresses the pros and cons of engaging in blogging, for academics. 

The article was re-published on the LSE Impact Blog site on November 30, 2011. I also wrote a follow-up blog post dealing with some of the issues I couldn’t include in the original post (due to lack of space). Here is a link to the original article from October 11, 2011: Should you enter the academic blogosphere?

Blogging, the practice of updating a personal website with “posts” or short articles including news, commentary and journal-like content, is making inroads into Canadian academia. While the “blogosphere” has always included sites by students, professors, librarians, administrators and other university members, more scholars are now tying their blogs to their work-related activities and making the connection between online presence and career development.

Academic blogs by definition tend to focus on professional rather than personal topics, showing explicit connections between blog content, research issues and academic life. However, blogging is not viewed positively by all members of the academic community, and recent exchanges online – including on the Guardian UK and London School of Economics websites – reflect the controversial position of blogging in a new debate emerging around the issues of open access to research, public scholarship and expert knowledge.

Peer-reviewed articles are still the benchmark for academic professionalization, and some graduate students and early-career academics feel that blogging is a waste of precious time that could be spent on “legitimate” publishing. Because it’s a form of self-publishing that lacks peer review, blogging isn’t usually viewed as a legitimate form of scholarship. Chris Parsons, a PhD student in political science at the University of Victoria who writes the blog Technology, Thoughts, and Trinkets, has experienced “dismissal of my work because it’s online [and] criticisms that my work isn’t good enough to be published anywhere else.” Sometimes blogging is even seen as disseminating one’s ideas too freely. In a competitive academic field, research ideas could be “scooped” from a blog, while established journals may not want to publish work that’s available in some form online.

Yet, for a growing number of academics the benefits of blogging outweigh the drawbacks. Those who blog – including me – agree there are positive outcomes, such as networking and collaborating, finding new audiences and opportunities, disseminating research more widely, and building one’s reputation. Bloggers argue that far from diluting scholarly success, online writing can be a serious tool for academic practice.

David Phipps, director of the office of research services at York University and co-author of the ResearchImpact blog, explains that “rather than replacing traditional scholarly activity, blogging amplifies the reach and thus the impact of those messages derived from your research.” Academics can use blogs alongside formal research to form collaborative networks and to disseminate their work to different interest groups in new ways.

For example, Marie-Claire Shanahan, a professor from the University of Alberta, uses her Boundary Vision blog “primarily for outreach. I work in science education and there are lots of people (including scientists, science writers, museum staff and parents) that have an interest in science education, especially in schools.” The public, collaborative nature of blogging has helped writers to develop new relationships with students, peers and other audiences and to build new partnerships across disciplines.

Another benefit of blogging is that accessibility and exposure to different audiences tend to broaden academics’ reputations, which opens up new professional possibilities. Blogging can lead to contract and consulting work, public presentations and interviews, as well as invitations to write for academic publications. “This kind of exposure is important for graduate students … given that most of us lack established publishing records,” says Mr. Parsons, the PhD student at UVic.

Most academic departments don’t yet recognize blogging in any formal way – though this could change. Alfred Hermida, newly tenured at the University of British Columbia graduate school of journalism, saw his blog recognized as Best Blog at the 2010 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. Because of the blog’s success and the close relationship between his research, teaching and online work, Mr. Hermida included social media materials (including blog and Twitter statistics) in his tenure portfolio.

More formal recognition may come when academic administrators and established scholars begin to take more seriously the importance of engaging with publics in ways that show what academics do. This kind of transparency helps counter the assumptions that can circulate in the media and highlights the notion of knowledge as a public good, as something that shouldn’t be confined within university walls.

The Public Intellectuals Project at McMaster University: A case study in social media use

I presented at this conference last Friday with Dr. Grace Pollock, Alexandra Epp, and Danielle Martak. Our presentation was titled, “The Public Intellectuals Project at McMaster University: A Case Study in Social Media Use”. Here is a link to the Prezi we presented.

Minding the gaps – PhD students and social media

For HASTAC I participated by helping to create a panel with Bonnie Stewart, sava saheli singh, and Trent M. Kays. The panel was titled “Cohorts without borders: New doctoral subjects”.

I have the basic outline of my talk in a set of PowerPoint slides (I’ll possibly turn it into a better version on Prezi later on): Minding the Gaps: PhD Students & Social Media.

Technology and research, part 2.

This is the second of two posts; it’s about using Twitter as a research tool, which at the time I incorporated with but which I now use with Diigo, and Chrome instead of Firefox. Here is the original link from October 24th, 2010: Technology and research, part 2: tweeting and blogging.

Continuing my little discussion of the ways in which I’ve most recently been using online technologies in my daily research and writing habits, today I’m moving on to the complementary combo of Twitter and Blogger.

Since one of my goals over the past six to eight months has been to interact more with people who share my research/academic interests (outside of my graduate program), I’ve been doing more social media exploration than usual. A relatively recent major change to my online habits has been my increasing use of Twitter as a way of connecting with strangers and keeping up with news.

I operate with a kind of minimalism when it comes to technological tools–as I mentioned in a previous post, I tend to want only the tools I need, and only the tools that work. It’s for that reason that I (and others) didn’t start using Twitter until quite a while after I first looked at the site and logged on to create an account. I simply couldn’t see any point; like so many people, at first I thought of Twitter as a useless stream of trivial chatter that would only further clutter my already-limited field of attention.

In spite of my own skepticism, at some point earlier this year I decided to try “tweeting” a bit more in earnest. Since that time I’ve decided that there are “two Twitters”: the banal barrage of idiotic celebrity gossip and predictably dreary/melodramatic personal updates, yes, that Twitter does exist (of course!). But the flip side of it is a fascinating and wide-reaching series of exchanges, often with people I’d never have encountered otherwise; it’s a stream of useful news and links that I couldn’t possibly have rounded up on my own; and it’s a means of responding to those things, and sharing my own, in such a way that the conversation continues and expands.

But it does take time to learn how to use Twitter effectively as a tool–assuming you know what you want to accomplish with it. At first, without a list of “followers” and with no sense of who else was using this tool and what they might be doing, I felt as if I was sending messages into the aether with little idea of “audience”, tone, or purpose. Fortunately I had a few friends already tweeting busily, who helped set an example for me in terms of Twitterquette.

Among the more important things I learned was that while it’s more or less true that the more accounts you add to your own list, the more “followers” you’re likely to gain, the best way to get the most out of Twitter is by participating actively. For example, a means of navigating Twitter is through using “hashtags”, or words/terms attached to a tweet with a # sign: e.g. #CdnPSE for “Canadian post-secondary education”. You can “meet” other followers by using tags, and interact with them by “replying” to their tweets or by “re-tweeting” them (passing their content around). A system of crediting others is integral to all this; another aspect is that of suggesting users to other users (often with the tag “FollowFriday or #FF). I found that one of the biggest challenges here was feeling confident to interact with strangers, but once I was over that hurdle things became much more rewarding.

To sum up: I like using Twitter because it affords a form of participation in an ongoing conversation, but it’s one that isn’t limited to–for example–my Facebook contacts, who are an entirely different group. While on Facebook I keep things generally quite private, on Twitter I’m happy to see strangers adding me to their lists–unless they’re bots or marketers. (Now the only thing I can’t find, or haven’t found yet, is the perfect Twitter client. But that’s a whole different blog post…)

Tweeting got just a little bit easier a couple of months ago when (as mentioned in the previous post) also linked to the site, so now you can bookmark, tag, and send a link to Twitter–with a comment–all in the same pop-up window within your web browser (for Firefox, anyway). The other way I access the daily news is through Google Reader, so now I have a Reader–>–>Twitter process that works pretty well for finding and reading relevant news, saving articles for later, and sharing them with people who are likely to want to read them.

And lastly, there’s the blog. Even as an ex-zinester I’ve never felt comfortable writing blogs; the required regularity felt somehow journal-like, and I’m terrible at keeping journals. So I began, in fact, with a photo-blog that was at first a daily affair but eventually became weekly as the posts grew longer and often incorporated multiple pictures. A year later, after I’d managed to maintain Panoptikal and even pick up a few “viewers”, I decided to incorporate my academic interests and my new Twitter habit by starting an education-oriented blog (the one you’re currently reading), with the goal of practicing writing outside a formal academic context.

I’ve found that the blog is a great place to say something shorter and less formal than I would in an academic paper or presentation. It’s a place to brainstorm without pressure, a venue for painting a small picture of my own views and for developing them further, and conversing with others about the issues raised. It’s also something expressly public, so it’s accessible for those who can’t view journal articles or even private web sites where such conversations might happen in a more regulated environment (for example, Facebook). For anyone considering becoming an academic, the public nature of blogs can be a means of reaching a broader audience, of “engaging” multiple publics in the conversation about your research–and seeing immediate commentary. To keep building on that conversation, I embedded my Twitter feed and a list of links from into the blog’s format.

At this stage you may be thinking–this sounds like a lot of effort; what’s the point of all this reading and commenting and tweeting? The interesting thing is that I wasn’t sure myself, for quite some time, why I was “doing all this”. But I got more of an idea this past Friday when I got to sit in on a workshop run by Alex Sévigny, a friend who also happens to be a successful professor, a professional communicator, and a prolific blogger and social media buff.

The overall event, organised by Hamilton’s Cossart Exchange, was ostensibly for graduate students who are interested in developing non-academic careers. But I think Alex’s message was valid beyond its immediate context. His point was that for those people operating outside of existing/rigid employment structures, the process of “self-branding” (as unpleasant as it may sound) has become an integral part of professional success. Before social media, this was more difficult; but now that so many of us have access to social media tools, the opportunities have expanded dramatically. Development of an online “identity” or “face” helps you to make yourself known to potential employers and collaborators, and helps you connect better with those you’ve already met.

So it turns out that maybe there has been a use for all my blogging and tweeting, one beyond the immediate gratification of chatting with strangers about the things that interest me most. And here’s the lesson for grad students: so many of us are spending too much time online anyway, we should really learn how to channel those efforts and make them count towards career-building (!).

Technology and research, part 1.

This is the first of two posts, and focusses on Delicious (which at the time was called, a social bookmarking tool that I used to use but which I’ve now replaced with Diigo. I switched sites when the original version was sold off and it was unclear if or when the site would be usable again. Here is the original link, from October 7, 2010: Technology and research, part 1.

Perhaps it’s my background in visual art that makes me more prone to this, but for much of my life I’ve been suffering from pack-rat-itis. For example, I still maintain (though adding less to it now) my large collection of clipped images and texts from magazines and other paper publications. I keep a stash of various art supplies and a stocked “toolbox” with everything from string to copper wire to paintbrushes and tape measures. I’ve acquired a collection of notebooks and sketchbooks over the years and I keep these as well, as records and notes about ideas and projects both finished and unfinished.

And yet there’s a sort of competing tendency that keeps things in check: I’m also one of those people who loves the storage and organization section of IKEA, because I like the thought of keeping practical items handy in such a way that I can easily reach them and use them. I hate having mounds of stuff and no way to do anything with it; I dislike even receiving gifts if they have no useful purpose and simply require “storage” (sitting on a shelf). I don’t even see the point of having two of the same kind of screwdriver. Periodically I “purge” my supplies (usually when I move house) to make sure I’m not holding on to anything completely useless. My need for workable space may occasionally collide with the squirrelly tendency, but usually the one cancels out the other.

These habits have been transferred, now, to the work I do researching for my dissertation and other projects. Not only do I stash books and papers; my computer “desktop” itself has become a version of the way I’d probably organise my apartment if it were possible–everything is kept filed away, labelled clearly and in embedded folders, but everything is kept. And I’m finally at the stage where this habit is starting to pay off: I have a searchable library of notes and PDF files to which I can refer while working on the next phase of my dissertation. It looks slightly over-done to the casual observer, but then what is academic work if not retentive?

The latest manifestation of all this, and one that has become like a third arm to me when it comes to online research, is the social bookmarking tool This little slice of magic won me over when I realised that all my current, browser based bookmarks–which couldn’t be accessed from multiple computers–could be a) uploaded with minimal effort and b) tagged (categorised and labelled with key words), by me, in such a way that they would become useful.

Not only is a powerful tool for sharing things with others and seeing what others are reading; it is–more important to me–a means of creating a personal database of web-based content, accessible from any computer I happen to be using. Why is this desirable? Because I view the web as a major part of my research process, not only in terms of finding the materials I need (books, journal articles, etc.) and connecting with new people (including academics, writers, politicians and policy-makers) but also as a one-stop supersource for media content and information/commentary on current events–crucial to my interest in universities, post-secondary education, politics and policy, and the ways in which ideas about these things circulate discursively. also has some pretty desirable features that make it easy to incorporate into my daily news-reading habits. As I mentioned above, existing browser-based bookmarks can be imported, saving a lot of duplicated effort (I was able to use about 4 years’ worth of saved links). There is also an extension integrating into your (Firefox) browser, so that clicking on a single button allows you to tag and comment on something before saving it to your account; the same extension allows you to search existing tags in a side-bar. The list of PSE links at the left-hand side of this blog page is channelled to Blogger from as well, showing only those recent links tagged as relating to PSE. As you can tell, the tagging system is key to the usefulness of, and I soon developed my own strategy for maximising the usefulness of tagging.

And while all this seems like a lot of work, it really isn’t–compared to the ways in which it’s paying off. During the York University strike over 2008-2009, I tagged/bookmarked over 300 news items–press releases, articles and blog posts–which I was able to use later for a media analysis that became a conference presentation. I’ve saved clusters of articles on a series of specific themes that will work as media case studies in the future (possibly for publications); one of these I’ve already used in a class lecture on Critical Discourse Analysis. And then there’s the usefulness of simply being able to access “that article” that you read two months ago, the one about gender and accessibility and women’s pay (for example), and bring it in to class or into a paper or blog post or–you name it. I see this not only as a way of keeping up to date with current developments in the “field”, but also as a means of enriching what I’m writing by referencing a more diverse array of sources. is one of those Web 2.0 tools that makes me feel blessed to be researching in the Internet Era. And, I admit, it’s also just a teeny bit enjoyable to be able to justify my storage and organization “habit” (hobby? Obsession?) as a means of actually advancing/enhancing my own research work.