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November 2012


It's been a busy month!

Many academics have been participating in #acwrimo on Twitter, led by the dauntless @phd2published, who has just created a great productivity app to celebrate the end of the intense writing month. I continue to be impressed by the creativity of the PhD2published blog - if you don't follow already you should add it to your watch list.

I have resigned from RMIT University to take up the position of director of research training at The Australian National University in Canberra (Australia's capital city). I'm excited at the opportunity to work at The ANU which has such a high profile internationally for research excellence. I will be a FIFO (fly in, fly out) employee for the first year while Thesis Whisperer Jnr finishes primary school in Melbourne. Mr Thesis Whisperer is super supportive of the move, despite the fact that he will be up for a lot of solo parenting next year (thanks honey!). 

Many people have written to me to ask if the Thesis Whisperer will continue, to which I answer: of course it will! In fact, as @siandart pointed out, I live so much of the time online that many people will continue to experience me in exactly the same way.

RMIT's proposed social media policy was certainly a factor in my decision to leave. Despite the efforts of many good people, I was not confident that the policy, once implemented, would let me continue to run the site in the way I see fit. I revised my CV the day I realised that, regardless of the point of view that many of us expressed in consultations, the policy was going to be applied to activities of individual academics, not just communications people who run the 'branded' university Facebook and Twitter channels.

Universities will have to think carefully about how they attempt to control academic activity online, or risk losing staff who, thanks to these same online networks, now find themselves with increased career options. Are these online / media savvy people the ones Universties really want to lose given the current challenges to our business model by freely available educational material on the internet?

But you don't read this newsletter for my soapboxing, so now to some useful links sourced from my Twitter network this month.


Want to know how an expert does a Literature review? Professor Pat Thomson (@ThomsonPat) and I have been writing a paper about blogging and charting our progress on her Patter blog. We see this series as being like a 'making of the paper' movie but, you know, in text.

Pat is reading and attempting to make sense literature while I gather and do an analysis of academic blog sites. So far Pat has written a series of exellent and informative posts on scoping the literature, mapping the literature and note taking. She then concludes with a post on 'stepping back to focus in' . So far I have contributed two posts on the analysis process I am following; one on sampling (particularly on the anxiety about having 'enough' data) and the other on the mess I encountered in performing the analysis. Both of us were surprised about how much we had to say about how we did things once we started talking about the details of our working practices. So expect more!

As ever, the Explorations in Style blog continued to provide thought provoking posts on writing this month, such as this piece on conservatism in graduate writing and this excellent piece on the problem with comparing your insides to someone else's outsides, in which she wisely observes:

"But there is another option: maybe we should take other people’s good news in stride because, chances are, there is way more to the story than they are telling us. One of the most consistent practices that I see in graduate students is the habit of making harmful comparisons between their own ‘insides’ and other people’s ‘outsides’. At the simplest level, this means comparing our own awful first drafts with other people’s polished final drafts."

Academic Culture

I was asked to be the guest Twitterati on the Radio National Drive program for a second time, which was great fun - you can listen to my segment here. The first link I mentioned was a conference about note taking in the New York times. The 'Take Note conference was all about note taking practices - from medieval times to the present day. There were discussions of different mediums for taking notes, such as 'table books', which had specially erasable pages which you could record lectures, sermons and plays.Table books were a status symbol, according to Professor Tiffany Stern, who compares them to iPads today.

A piece from Melissa Terras on the LSE Impact blog about how search engines can affect your academic identity was a real eye opener. Terras was shocked when she discovered that Google Scholar thought she was an expert on Tarrot cards, not an area in which she wants to claim expertise! Her efforts to fix the mistake, which she attributes to faulty data entry on behalf of the journal publishers were, frankly, a little shocking:

"I contacted both Springer and the Press. Sense Publishers were very helpful, but ducked for cover when I hit them with the cease and desist. Springer said they would take it down. But they didn’t. I complained again, and lined up the UCL lawyers to begin legal proceedings. Springer said they would take down the content. It took 6 days of constant emailing to complain and escalating legal threats before they eventually assigned the correct authorship information to the publication, which really must have been a 5 minute job. I hate to think how they would handle a request from someone not nearly as… pushy as me"

I do wonder about journal publishers, surely this kind of database management is what we pay you for? It's not good PR for an industry which is struggling to assert it's value in an age where any academic can start their own online journal with a great product like Scholastica HQ.

Teaching News

The other thing I talked about in my segment how the debate about MOOCs is hotting up! In case you don't know, MOOC stands for Massive, Open Online Courses. The University of Texas is planning to embrace the MOOC model, replacing their undergrad statistics courses with a MOOC. This is being described as cheaper for students, but I bet it's cheaper for the University of Texas too. 

Free content via the internet can be massively disruptive to conventional business models, including universities as Martin Weller discussed in his excellent paper called The Pedagogy of Abundance, some time ago.The key challenge, as the VC at my new uni ANU put it, is that once you give something away for free it's very hard to get people to pay for it again. In my view, academics who teach courses like basic statistics, where information is relatively static and assessment can be carried out easily by quizes, should be really worried by MOOCS. If I worked in this area I would be making escape plans right now.

I bet the first to feel the effects of the changes will be causals and adjuncts. The most vulnerable of academics are also the next generation of academic talent, so we are all diminished if this happens. So what to do? Before you get the idea I am anti MOOC, I am most certainly not - despite my worries. One thing we can learn from the music industry and journalism is that those who embraced change survived much better than those who didn't.

If you are interested in doing some reading to do your own career planning, there's plenty of commentary to chew over online.

The conversation website ran a series of posts from big wigs in academia (well, there were a couple from vice chancellors) about MOOCs. But the interesting link came to me from @marksmithers via Twitter: a piece by Clay Shirky wondering whether MOOCs are the Napster of academia. Shirky's point was that Napster was defeated by the record companies in the courts, but the idea Napster enabled - that you don't have to buy a whole record full of mediocre songs to  get the one or two that you want - ultimately did cause record companies to implode. There's a strong call to action in his post:

"Once you see this pattern—a new story rearranging people’s sense of the possible, with the incumbents the last to know—you see it everywhere. First, the people running the old system don’t notice the change. When they do, they assume it’s minor. Then that it’s a niche. Then a fad. And by the time they understand that the world has actually changed, they’ve squandered most of the time they had to adapt"

I suspect Shirky is right about this last point. A recent Ernst and Young report on the future of Australian universities argued that many are not prepared for the change.

Personally I think the first step to embracing change is learning as much as we can about what is happening. I am taking the opportunity to explore the MOOCs - mostly because they let us see other university teachers in action. I'm a great believer in learning from watching, but most classroom action is hidden from view. MOOCs are great way for university teachers to get ideas for their own practice; or bench mark your own teaching against what happens in the 'Big Brand' Universities. I am lurking in two MOOCS from Coursera for this reason: one on scientific writing and the other on argumentation.


The change over between jobs induces a bizzare kind of lasitude. Nothing I am working on has any future which is demoralising at the same time as it is strangely liberating. The tidying up took a matter of days because so much of what I do is organised online, so I wasn't on the hunt for productivity apps the way I usually am.

I did start to play with the beta version of a new note taking app called Scrapple, which comes from that great house of software development "Literature and latte", home of the wonderful Scrivener. Although it does, at this point, require that you learn some keyboard commands, I am enjoying playing and will try to use it to take notes when I go to the AARE-APERA conference in Sydney next week (where I am giving a paper with the wonderful Dr Sarah Stow, whom is one of the people I will truly miss when I leave RMIT *sniff*). The key difference between this program and other mind mapping software I have used is that it doesn't force you to connect your ideas as you go, instead it acts just like a piece of paper that you can dump writing and images on.


I haven't read anything new this month, although my Amazon wish list is always growing (family take note for Christmas!). If you have a book you think I should buy or read, or you want me to review a book, I would love to hear about it, go to my about page for contact details.