Reflections on blogging

I am sure no one has noticed that my blog went quiet for a while. Without airing my personal life via social media, the last few months have been a time where I felt I needed to hunker down and blogging just could not be a priority. Now that I’m adapting to a new normal I have been thinking about returning to the blog and how my motivations for doing so have changed.

I had clear reasons for starting my blog:

1. To communicate with my research participants. Using interviewing methods, I wanted an online presence where I could find and talk to research participants, eventually feeding back the results of my interviews.

2. To communicate with other students, academics, and researchers. I like reading about other people’s research and I like to be able to talk about some of the common experiences of researching and the PhD. I enjoy using the blog and twitter to talk to people about a wide variety of things – research methods, the voluntary sector, policy and current affairs. As a PhD student without any books or journal articles to my name, blogging also provides a way for people to find out about my research outside of the formal publications which I will need in the near future.

3. To develop my writing for different audiences. It is important for me to develop my writing, both in terms of working on those important formal documents such as my thesis, but also in terms of going  beyond academic audiences. I like using my blog to communicate to a range of audiences and know that being able to communicate my research outside of formal academic structures will be increasingly important.

However, with my recent blog-sabbatical I have also been reflecting on the downsides to blogging and my experiences of blogging to date. In the past I have written posts as part of a team of authors for the Voluntary Action History Society blog and more recently, here, on my own blog. The former provided an opportunity to write short posts contributing to a regular forum for talking about voluntary action history and topical developments. There was an editorial structure and a plan for who would blog when. As one of a team of contributors, I found that there was less of a time commitment than individual blogging can require, but still the opportunity to be topical and responsive. Sometimes I wrote posts a few weeks in advance. On other occasions I wrote a post and got it published within a day in an immediate response to something. When I started my own blog I knew that to blog regularly would require a time commitment from me, and so it was likely to be a different type of blog.

Time pressures aside, there are other reasons why my blog is the way that it is. Firstly, I do not write much about my thesis research. This is in part because my research has not been developed enough for me to be ready to put it in a public forum for wider feedback. I have been unsure where certain avenues of research were going. I think in the future the blog could be a good place to disseminate research and formulate ideas around my research, but personally I do not think I am there yet. I would like my thesis to be more developed before I begin to write about it in a completely open forum. I am also to concerned to read other bloggers accounts of having their research lifted from their blogs and used elsewhere. I will have to work hard enough to disseminate my research, without someone else doing it and not even putting my name next to it.

I’ve also thought about how blogging links to my wider online presence and the time I physically spend online. Not only is there a time commitment involved in being a regular blogger, but you can be part of conversation taking place 24/7.  I could spend all day talking to other researchers, academics and interested people about different areas of my research and policy experience. Earlier this year, immediately preceeding my blog-sabbatical, I was simply spending too much time online and I needed to take a step back. I decided to stop my phone from notifying me about emails and twitter between certain hours every day and I am extremely glad I did. Yes, it is great that you can be online all the time talking to other people, but it is important to realise that it might not be the best idea for your ‘work-life balance’ if you are.

However, overall I have found blogging to be a really positive experience. When I think about the pros and cons and the time I have taken away from my blog, I have realised that I miss it, and more than that, that it is a useful and effective tool in my research. It has been really important for contacting people I might want to interview. I have had over 350 hits on my posts about recruiting oral history participants and dozens have retweeted or shared it. While I have also been developing methods to reach those who do not use the internet, I have been able to reach a large group of potential participants this way. I know it has been effective because a significant proportion of my interviewee recruitment has come via the contact form on my blog. It has been very important in being front-of-house for my research.

With this in mind I have been thinking about my slightly neglected blog, how I might return to it and how it might work differently to fit in with the stage in my research that I am at. I originally thought I needed to blog regularly or not at all. In the interests of my wider work and life interests, I am unsure whether this remains the case. Maybe I should try to blog smarter, rather than blog more?

The posts where I have offered (unsolicited) advice to fellow PhD students have been the second most popular on my blog after my oral history posts. I’ve had over 150 hits on my posts reflecting on my experiences of applying for PhD funding and supervisor absence. The next most popular group of posts are event reviews. These two types of post, where it is my opinion and experience that are in the foreground, have been generally well received and it is tempting to think that this might indicate how I can blog more effectively in future. Perhaps I should set out my personal stall a bit more – with more policy comment and personal opinions and a little less reservation about how a future employer might view my blog?

On reflection, I think that blogging should be something you find useful rather than something you feel pressured to do regularly. For me, I think posting something new should be based on having something to say rather than something I do as a matter of course. I am aiming to make my blog work for me, and not make myself work for my blog. When I do this, I enjoy it more.

What do other bloggers think? I’d be especially keen to hear the opinion of people at a similar stage to me, so PhD students and Early Career Researchers. Why do you blog and how do you fit it in with wider work and life strategies?

Linking young peoples’ benefits to training

The Labour Party are set to announce their plans for cuts to the welfare budget. It is being reported that among them is a plan to link benefits for young people to training. For young people between 18-21 who do have such training, the Job Seekers Allowance will be replaced by a payment that will require recipients to be in training at level three, equivalent to an A-Level. The JSA will remain for those with that training already, meaning the policy will affect seven out of ten 18-21 year olds currently on JSA. The money received by young people will be broadly the same, though means tested and tapered off dependent on parental incomes between £20,000 and £42,000.

The idea of linking benefits to training is interesting and the devil will be in the detail in this case. Helping young people get the skills they need to find work is a good idea, but making this a condition of receiving benefits has a touch of the workfare about it. In addition, it is not clear how such training will operate and what will happen if the jobs these young people are expected to go on to fail to materialise. What kinds of training will be considered? Will volunteering count? Volunteer work has the potential to help people learn new skills, but is often not considered within the realms of formal training. The presumed links between volunteering and employability are also not entirely supported by research. And again, Labour and those who might vote for them to introduce such a policy will have to decide if this is a step too far towards workfare, and if they think that is the right thing to do.

Looking at what detail has been announced, I am not sure how comfortable I feel with the idea of linking benefits to parental income, especially at the lower income ranges. Families with more children will suffer disproportionately if having more mouths to feed is not taken into account. This also presumes that parents will continue to support children after an age at which they are legally independent. I am sure many will, but it makes assumptions that all young people live in families where this is possible and therefore could leave vulnerable those that do not. What does it mean for how we view young people if parents are still partly financially responsible for children under 21 who are not working, but that state wants to divest itself of some of that responsibility?

The Guardian have asked a few young people what they think of the proposed changes. Two say that the young are being hit because they do not vote as much as older people – a post for another day perhaps. Another says it is unfair for young people to be hit with austerity measures when they had no part in causing austerity. One sees it as potentially a good move. But as is often the case with stories about young people in the media and policy about them, their voice is not particularly loud and frequently drowned out. I’d be interested to hear in the comments if any other young people have an opinion on the proposal.

Until such time as a fuller policy is revealed and indeed only if Labour are elected to implement it, wondering how this might work is little more than an interesting exercise. Looking at the coverage of It does reveal something of assumptions about young people and the families they live in though. It also reveals continuity with earlier youth policies and perceptions, where boundaries between adulthood and parental responsibility are somewhat malleable. Finally, it continues the long running debate about precisely where the parameters of state responsibility for citizens lie. It is perhaps these assumptions and blurred boundaries that make policy-making around young people fraught with difficulties, and definitely one of the reasons I am so interested in researching them. This, from Labour is not the last we will hear of young people’s welfare policies in the run up to the 2015 election, but it sets out to continue the debate along familiar lines. Whether anyone will seek to move debate forward, especially by bringing the voices of young people to the forefront, I will wait to see.

Oral Histories of Voluntary Action

Humanities Research Centre University of York

Humanities Research Centre University of York

On Friday 7th February 2014 I co-organised a workshop at the Humanities Research Centre, University of York for PhD students and practitioner researchers who use oral history or interviewing methods as part of their research. The event was funded by the Humanities Research Centre and supported by the VAHS New Researchers Committee. The day comprised of six papers from PhD students, volunteers and voluntary sector researchers, including myself. The day ended with a roundtable panel where more established researchers helped us to problem-solve and reflect on some of the intellectual and practical issues involved in interviewing methods.

Susanne Martikke from GMCVO comparing academic research with her previous experience as a voluntary sector researcher

I was really pleased with the mix of papers we had on the day. Myself, David Ellis and Jessica Hammett, formed the first panel. We talked from an academic viewpoint on oral histories. David and I discussed why we had used these methods and in what ways, with Jessica offering an interesting paper on re-using oral histories that have already been recorded for a different purpose.

The panel after lunch offered a different perspective. Susanne Martikke from GMCVO talked about the differences between the ‘Quick and Dirty’ interviewing she has done previously and being involved in a more academic project. Katrina Foxton reflected on her experiences as a volunteer conducting interviews on a local heritage project. Lastly, Lucy Binch talked about the difficulties she experiences doing interviews with people involved in sex work, via a charity she volunteers with.

Lucy Binch giving her paper on accessing marginalised groups

Lucy Binch giving her paper on accessing marginalised groups

We had a real mixture of papers and discussion from a range of areas: historians, social scientists, researchers from within the voluntary sector, PhD students, Professors and people who had experiences from more than one of these standpoints. This was one of the real benefits of the day. Not only could more experienced researchers offer their advice, but other people’s perspectives also offered a chance to think through issues from a range of viewpoints, enabling us to learn from each other as well. 

Our Roundtable Panel in full swing

Our Roundtable Panel in full swing

One of the strengths of the day was that it provided a constructive place to talk over issues and discuss problems. While we did not always come up with solutions, it was reassuring to know that some of the challenges of interviewing methods are common. We spent time discussing the often overlooked practical issues of interviewing, from arranging interviews to how the way we will present our research, such as in our theses, affects the approach we take.

I was also particularly glad that we spent some time talking over the personal and emotional impact that this type of research can have on researchers. Many described how they felt that interviewing was a unique and intimate interaction which required an emotional engagement with the interviewee as well as a great deal of the researchers attention. Examining the personal and emotional in research was something academic contributors acknowledged was less familiar to them and perhaps something they could learn from their counterparts interviewing within and on behalf of voluntary organisations.

While there were differences in approach, I think these only helped me as they challenged my previous training on oral history and interviewing which had been rooted in academic practice. On this topic,  I found Professor Paul Ward from the University of Huddersfield particularly engaging as he discussed shared authority and co-production. This is something I have not thought of much to date, but which I would like ponder regarding my oral histories of youth clubs.

Overall I thought the day provided advice and peer support with the practical, intellectual and emotional aspects of conducting oral histories, while providing a positive atmosphere for discussing this research, which is exactly what I was hoping for.

Some more highlights of the day:

Our great venue, the Treehouse, Humanities Research Centre, University of York

Our great venue, the Treehouse, Humanities Research Centre, University of York

Our workshop hashtag, check out #OHVA2014 for more details

Our workshop hashtag, check out #OHVA2014 for more details or our storify 

Never underestimate the importance of conference cake

Never underestimate the importance of conference cake

Central Hall and Lake, University of York

Central Hall and Lake, University of York

All photographs © Charlotte Clements, February 2014

Supervisor Absence

My PhD supervisor has written a couple of blog posts about her experience of pregnancy and motherhood having spent the last term on maternity leave. However supervisors can be absent for a number of reasons, such as illness, research trips away from the university etc. Reading my supervisors pieces got me thinking about it from another perspective which might be valuable to some of you. How do you cope when your PhD supervisor is away? I think I can offer some advice having considered over the last few months how her absence has affected me.

Change can be worrying. The news that my supervisor was expecting came as I was preparing for my upgrade (a very stressful time for me) and as the person whose own research interests drew me to the department, I wondered if her absence in particular during my final year would be a problem. Luckily we had the months beforehand to talk extensively about how it would work. I felt reassured and confident that if I held up my end of the bargain everything would be fine. Below are some of things we discussed, plus my own tips.

1. Don’t panic. Don’t worry. There are plenty of things to worry about as a PhD student, but this scenario should not be one of them. Academic staff can be away for many reasons. Departments know this and plan for this. There is no reason why your research should suffer, and if for some particular reason this does not seem to be the case, there are ways to handle that too. Panicking is unlikely to make things any better. Take a deep breath and instead think about what you can do.

2. Plan ahead (if possible). In my case we had plenty of warning that my supervisor would be away. I appreciate that this may not always happen, but for me it meant that any specific questions were handled months ago.

We talked through the timetable for my research and writing up, and who would be doing what during the leave. This was in fact quite useful. It is only too easy to lose sight of the bigger picture when you are deep in research mode. Thinking through the practicalities  made me plan my work more holistically, and think about what will be required in terms of support and supervisor time over a substantial chunk of the rest of my PhD.

Planning ahead also allowed me to bring up specific worries and concerns. I would recommend this in this case, but also more generally too. Without sharing anxieties about what would change and how, they remain unresolved. Talking them over provided reassurance and helped us to plan the best way forward.

3. Arrange alternative supervision. The main worry for many may be who will be looking after you in the meantime. Will they have expertise in your research area? Will you get on? Can they offer you the support you need at that point? Here is where I have been quite lucky as my department supervises PhD candidates in teams. I have three supervisors who I have already been meeting regularly for two years, so to temporarily be down to two is a lot less of an issue. This is one of the main benefits of team supervision.

If this is not the case for you, I’d say that making sure you get to know the academic staff in your department before any such situation arises is a good thing. It is useful for networking too, but existing relationships within your department mean an absence will not leave such a big hole. It may help you to quickly build a good relationship with your stand-in if you already know them, indeed you may even be able to identify the right person for the role and talk to your existing supervisor about this. It also helps with more general support to have familiar faces around you on campus.

4. Alter your timetable. One of the biggest changes has been a change to the way I work, which is no bad thing. My supervisor outlined that she was still happy to read and comment on my work, but that her previous super-quick turnarounds were no longer realistic. Therefore we decided to work to a two-week turnaround for written work for the duration of her leave. Again, this had a significant upside; making me more disciplined in getting writing done. During a PhD, this is no bad habit to cultivate. 

5. Communicate. In the case of maternity leave in the UK there are ‘Keep in Touch’ (KIT) days, which do exactly what the name implies. They are for my supervisor to keep in contact with the department, including her PhD students. KIT days meant that, in the end, my supervisor only missed one formal supervision during her maternity leave. KIT days apply to maternity leave, but similar arrangements might enable you to maintain contact, perhaps where a staggered return to work is planned.

In addition, if it is appropriate to the situation, other forms of communication can be used. Email can be useful, especially if you have previously discussed the time frame you can expect a reply within and remain flexible. You could use Skype too. Make use of the tools you have available, while keeping in mind what is appropriate in your situation.

If communicating with your supervisor is not an option, talk to someone else about what is going on. It might be best to try the person in charge of research postgraduates in your department, or someone else within your department who you know can provide a friendly ear. Communication beforehand and during leave has been crucial to my experience. If things are not working out as well for you, communication is also part of the answer. Talk to someone about it.

Finally…

7. Have a little faith in yourself. I can understand a certain feeling of anxiety about coping without the feedback  and guidance of someone who is part of your PhD process. Supervisors can be an important compass as we conduct our research. However, it is important to remember that you are the one doing the PhD. Have a little faith in yourself. Do not be afraid to ask questions, put forward a plan or take a bit more control than perhaps you are used to for a while. Be the one scheduling meetings and sending documents well in advance. There will still be plenty of support available to you if you need it.

In closing, I’d say that all of the above notwithstanding, I am glad to have my supervisor back. Her leave has not had any significant impact on my research at all, except maybe to make me a little more organised, which is hardly a bad thing. While I had some anxieties, these all proved to be unfounded and merely a distraction from other, better-founded anxieties about PhD and post-PhD life.

What do you think? What have your experiences been like? Do you think it makes a difference where in your PhD you are? I’m always willing to find out if there are things I can do better, and as I said earlier, I am neither the first nor the last PhD student to have had supervisory absence. How have you handled this? Supervisors – what is your take? What can your students do to help themselves?

Charity Closures and Changing Fortunes

This post originally appeared on the VAHS blog in January 2013.

In all of the pre-Christmas frivolity you may be forgiven for having missed an article in the Observer late last year, detailing how one in six charities could face closure this year. In the cold light of a New Year when many households are tightening belts and we have already seen some high-profile casualties on our high streets, it is striking to think that we may lose such a large proportion of our charities. When so many voluntary organisations provide much-needed services in straightened times, this raises a question of how society will fill the void they may leave and what the voluntary sector will look like by the end of this Parliament.

Frank Prochaska

Frank Prochaska

While concern about the future of the sector is valid in the face of a stagnant economy and budget cuts, history shows that voluntary action adapts and rises to the challenges of circumstance. More recent literature on voluntary action history, for example from Matthew Hilton in his edited collection on The Ages of Voluntarism, tends to stress the diversity and adaptability of voluntarism. It seeks ‘to tackle specifically the decline narratives’ and ‘champion interpretations of continuity and change’. One of the ways recent historiography on voluntarism has done this is by shedding light on previously neglected areas and inviting us to consider voluntary action in a wider sense.

Edited by Matthew Hilton and James McKay (Oxford University Press/British Academy)

Edited by Matthew Hilton and James McKay (Oxford University Press/British Academy)

By seeing the history of voluntary organisations as one of ‘constant renewal and adaptation’ we can perhaps more optimistically anticipate what the sector may look like in the future. For people within the sector, the call by Colin Rochester and Meta Zimmeck, for voluntary organisations to ‘return to their roots’, might provide a starting point for this latest renewal.

Despite the bleak outlook, even from Colin and Meta in their recent review of 2012, there is hope that the sector will once again prove resilient and innovative. There has also always been a vibrant, though little understood, swarm of informal voluntarism which may yet soften the blow of fewer organised voluntary services. Whatever manifests itself in the short term, in the longer term the ‘big society’ and the new emerging welfare economy will appear to historians as parts of the same continuity and change which have always characterised voluntary action history. This, at least, should offer us some reassurance as most of us start the New Year, like many charities, with a bit less money in our pockets.

Matthew Hilton talks about his research into Non-Governmental Organisations.

Breaking new ground or digging up the past?

This post originally appeared on the VAHS Blog in March 2013

I’ve been watching the Channel 4 programme ‘Secret Millions’. The programme is a step on from the popular C4 format ‘Secret Millionaire’ where wealthy people give some of their money away to shocked recipients and the good causes they have been working with. The new show is about the distribution of Big Lottery Fund funding to voluntary organisations for ‘innovative and ground-breaking projects’. It uses a line-up of well-known C4 personalities looking to tackle some of Britain’s most pressing issues, working on pilot projects with voluntary organisations, with the prospect of the Lottery windfall hidden until the end.

The first episode featured C4 regular George Clarke tacking the issue of youth unemployment and empty homes. He worked with a local London youth club and the organisation London Youth getting young unemployed people involved in renovating a disused house with the help of retired mentors from the building trade. The programme followed the young people on trips, highlighted some of the social problems they face and showed them working on a house to get it renovated within two weeks. At the end the big announcement was made that they had been awarded funding by the Big Lottery Fund, £1.7 million over two years, aiming to help 1500 young people into work. I really enjoyed the show. It was an interesting way to look at the work of small voluntary organisations, raises several social issues and came with a big feel-good factor at the end.

However, the historian and critic in me was not quite sure how new, big and bold, the innovative idea being tested was. Surely this was just reality television gloss? Then today in the archives while researching London youth clubs I discovered the London Federation of Boys’ Clubs working with the Manpower Services Commission and the Job Creation Programme on a scheme where unemployed youth were trained up in the trades, in 1974. Admittedly these youngsters were renovating youth facilities and George Clarke has long campaigned about empty homes, but I was still struck by the similarities in the scheme: Both used youth clubs to target vulnerable youths, both looked at practical work experience, both projects took place during times of high youth unemployment where many young people lack opportunities to get into work and neither set of youngsters appear to have been paid for their work. Of course it is unlikely that C4 undertook extensive archival research prior to recording and I am sure all involved thought they were on to something new.

The innovation role of voluntary organisations has often been praised and it has been an important justification for their place in our contemporary welfare system. But how many other examples are out there of ‘innovations’ that have been forgotten and rediscovered? How new does an idea really have to be? And if it works, does it matter?

New Researchers at #VAHS2013

This post originally appeared on the VAHS Blog in July 2013

I hope that my positions on the New Researchers Committee and as co-publicity secretary for VAHS do not stop you from taking me seriously when I say how impressed I was with new researchers’ presence at #VAHS2013.

My overriding impression was of the size and strength of the new researchers’ cohort in this area. The conference programme deliberately left out titles, so I was left to do a bit of sleuthing but have found at least 15 papers delivered at the conference by new researchers. One of the most striking things about this was that it was very difficult to differentiate between those papers by established academics and those by new researchers. Indeed, a number of people commented to me that they could not tell them apart. This speaks volumes about the quality of new researchers’ papers, in a conference, where the outgoing chair’s closing remarks stressed how high the overall standard had been.

Because the standard and content of papers was almost indistinguishable most new researchers were only identified where speakers alluded to their paper as part of a wider PhD project. Where this was so, and again echoing a conference-wide theme, there was a great deal of support, helpful questioning and suggestions coming in from other academics. There was a real sense of trying to support and encourage new researchers whilst still taking their research as seriously as that of anyone else speaking.

While it was great to see new researchers so firmly embedded in the main conference programme, a series of events to introduce the work of the New Researchers Committee were also held. A registration meeting, invitation to attend our breakfast committee meeting and what turned out to be a somewhat pub-centred Shut Up and Write all helped to demonstrate the work of the committee. Indeed what better advert could they have had than the announcement on the final day that they had just been awarded full funding to run their next interdisciplinary workshop on Oral History and Voluntary Action in the coming few months.

Finally the bursary and paper prize winners were the icing on the new researchers cake! Emily Baughan, winner of the EHS Bursary and Marie-Luise Ermisch, winner of the HWJ bursary have both blogged for VAHS recently and it was great to see them at the conference presenting their work. In the closing plenary it was announced that Claudia Soares had won the CGAP New Researchers Paper Prize and Gareth Millward had won the VAHS New Researchers Paper Prize. Overall it was a great conference for showcasing the doctoral and early career research being done on Voluntary Action History across centuries, continents and disciplines. Especially exciting are the opportunities for the field in the years to come as demonstrated by our new researchers. I am already looking forward to our next conference, by which time many of these new researchers (hopefully including myself) will have completed projects to report back on, or perhaps will have new ventures underway.

Were you a new researcher at #VAHS2013? Did you hear new researchers’ papers? I’d be really interested in your comments and feedback on the new researchers’ papers and sessions.