The practice of writing

Writing is a habit I have let myself neglect since completing my doctorate, and that is a very bad thing. One of the things I am always telling my students is no matter how short of ideas you are, sitting down and writing is a brilliant way of organising your thinking. My own preference is (well, all right, was) to try and force myself to sit down and write for an hour (0utside my normal work activities) at least 5 days a week.  I also believe that you should always keep at least one day a week free of any work, and I think it’s a good idea to keep one evening a week free too. I suppose that makes me a sabbatarian. Good Heavens! That had never crossed my mind before which just goes to show that writing can help you think about yourself  in new ways.

A policy of writing regularly though, does raise some questions. One, of course is what should you write about. For anyone working in an academic department, that shouldn’t present too many problems. There are lots of research questions, and given the “publish or perish” atmosphere of many universities most academics spend their evenings beavering away on some worthy treatise or other anyway.

Blogging, as with my post about attendance monitoring yesterday serves a dual function, of disciplining your thoughts and, of publicising what you’re doing, which might help you network with colleagues working in similar areas.  Another question is that of where you should write. I don’t mean physical location here, but rather should you blog, write word documents, use a tool like Evernote, or just scrawl in an old exercise book. I suppose  you could even spend your writing hour contributing something to Wikipedia. All options have merit, but I do think there’s something to be said for publicly sharing your writing. If nothing else, there’s a potential for a kind of putative peer review, although I think you have to accept that most of your blog posts will never be read. (Come on now, how often do you read your old posts?). That said, it is quite nice to be able to have all your ramblings accessible in one place, so when you do come across an idea or a concept that you remember having talked about before you can at least see what you thought about it last year. And if you really don’t want to write in public there’s always the option of a private post.

The final point I want to make here – and this is really a post to myself, is that writing is hard work. It’s physically demanding, and that shouldn’t be underestimated. I can feel my eyelids beginning to stick together, even as I write and there’s a much more subtle demand it places on the body – that of underactivity. Once the flow does start it’s tempting to sit and bang on for hours. That’s not a good thing, either for ones health, or for one’s readers. So I’ll shut up now.




Capital. An alternative?

Just finished Mark Fisher’s entertaining polemic “Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative?”  There were certainly some useful ideas in there. The notion of the non-existent “Big Other” to justify the use of surveillance and control technologies, which include processes like auditing as well as more obvious physical technologies such as CCTV and keystroke logging was particularly interesting.  Big Other was and is as prevalent in autocratic societies like Stalin’s Russia, as it is in the ostensibly democratic societies of today. Of course Stalin, (or News Corporation) isn’t watching everything we do. It’s just that we readily believe that they are.  Perhaps the really radical position to adopt is that none of it matters very much.

Now, following a technique used by Fisher himself, I’m going to make a popular culture reference. So, in fairness to anyone who has not yet seen the last episode of the BBC series Ashes to Ashes I’m going to warn of what I believe is known as a Massive Spoiler Alert. If you don’t want me to spoil the plot for you stop reading now.

OK? Right. Well, if you did see it, you’ll have picked up on the eschatological bent in the story line. (You couldn’t really have missed it.) What I think was very telling was that the Hell that the characters nearly ended up in was a police station. That is in their terms, a  place of work. And a place of work is a place where you have to portray yourself as something other than you actually are. In contrast the Heaven was a pub, where there is no real surveillance (other than the internal surveillance provided by the landlord), and there is a license to be yourself. (Admittedly the consumption of alchohol helps!). I don’t know if that’s what the writers had in mind, but the phrase “In your face, Protestant work ethic” did rather spring to mind.

Which brings me back to Fisher. I did rather like his suggestion that industrial action might usefully take the form of refusing to co-operate with those forms of labour that promote surveillance. (e.g teachers could refuse to co-operate with Ofsted inspections.) It would be interesting to see how the media reacted to this approach. Such action wouldn’t hurt the community that the service is provided for, and it would be very hard for employers to reduce wage bills (He claims at one point that colleges welcomed one day strikes, because they cause minimal disruption and significantly reduced costs.)  But there’s that Big Other again, and it makes me wonder whether the answer to Fisher’s question is actually “No”.  If no-one is actually listening, (at least for very long, ) does anything we do matter very much.  Perhaps if we all thought that… Actually, time for another cultural reference (and a bit more eschatology). In the 1960s  John Wyndham wrote a short story “Confidence Trick”  about a tube train crash.   After the accident the train continued underground with a few  passengers until it got to Hell. One of the characters looked about him, with growing disbelief and shouted that “I don’t believe any of this”. Whereupon the scene dissolved and they all found themselves  back on the street outside the Bank of England, under which the accident had evidently occurred.  Whereupon the same character looked at the bank,  drew in his breath, and began to shout “I don’t bel…” only to find himself pushed into the path of a speeding bus. In his subsequent explanation to the police the character who did the pushing said something like “Well, I couldn’t let him destroy civilisation. We have to have something to believe in”.

Maybe we don’t.

The nature of truth

A pretentious title if ever there was one! But, it is something I am going to have to address, if I am to write a convincing methodology chapter. Perhaps the question is “What characteristics of a proposition or phenomenon convince me that it is true”. But, then again, need I go into that? If I start with Cartesian doubt – (that I should be properly sceptical of everything except the fact that I exist – for, logically,  I must exist to think that  I am thinking) it doesn’t get me very far. Because, other than the cogito, I have no rational basis for believing that anything else is true. Empiricism would seem to be a better bet. Even if nothing is true, for all practical purposes, I can trust my senses. Hume’s remark about being free to leave by the window (from the third floor!) if I really didn’t believe in an objective reality seems to me a better guide to what course of action to take. Whether the world really exists or not, isn’t really relevant, because we all have to operate within it and we have a sufficiently shared perception of it to identify appropriate courses of action.

But there’s still a weakness. What I am interested in is other people’s interpretations of an empirical reality, because that provides a better guide to how they act than the actual reality itself. If you believe there is a mouse under the table you will act as though there is a mouse under the table, even if there is not. Human beings disagree about many things, especially in the social world. Which party has the better economic policy? What is beautiful?   I can certainly listen to their descriptions, although they may mislead me. (Especially if they are misleading themselves.)  Take the expresssion “That’s a good film, album, TV show, or whatever”. All I can conclude from that is that the speaker is saying is that they liked whatever it was, and perhaps that they would expect me to like it as well, were I to see or hear it. There’s nothing inherently “good” about it. It all depends on the extent to which I share their values, and empricism seems less helpful here.  So a good strategy for a future post will be to articulate my own values.

In the context of the research I can look at what others have done, how they organise their workspace, but here I can only use my interpretations of why they have done those things. In looking at the output of an EDU (let’s call it x) I can think “Why would I have done x?” and compare it with their answer to the question “Why did you do x“. But do these approaches help with predicting whether, and why another person (z) might do x in the future?  Maybe not, but they do help to arrive at an explanation, which informs why x was done in that spatial and temporal context.  Is that enough?

Even this little post is helpful because it is pointing me towards the case study as a research method. If I believe that my perception reality is heavily influenced by my values, then I am clearly going to have problems with a quantitative approach because I would be deciding what is worth measuring, which may not reflect objective reality. Also of course, I’d be attaching values to particular scores. (for example, a high percentage of whatever I measured, is better than a low percentage.)