Category Archives: Writing

Book review

Last year I wrote a review essay for Europe-Asia Studies, which is the journal produced by the department where I did my PhD. That review is now (finally) online first (not sure when it’s going to be in a print version). I thoroughly enjoyed both reading the two books and writing the essay – I’d highly recommend both books (“Democracy Building and Civil Society in Post-Soviet Armenia” by Armine Ishkanian, and “Women’s Social Activism in the New Ukraine: Development and the Politics of Differentiation” by Sarah D. Phillips) if you are interested in development issues particularly as they pertain to civil society – although both set in former Soviet countries, a lot of the issues raised are extremely relevant to development studies more widely.

Although my PhD was not a development studies PhD, and I was not looking specifically (or rather exclusively) at civil society issues, it was something the PhD touched upon as several of my respondents were from civil society organisations and reliant on donor funding in order to provide their services and to carry on functioning. I certainly found myself nodding in recognition at several points in both books. In some senses they were a bit depressing – the findings from both studies seem to be that little has changed or been learnt in how many years of development funding and civil society promotion – but as thorough and thoughtful studies which go into enormous detail of both macro-level (Ishkanian) and micro-level (Phillips) experiences of activists and organisations, they are both welcome additions to the literature. As an extra plus, neither of them are remotely stuffy reads (which let’s face it makes a pleasant change from a lot of academic tomes!).

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Reflections on a new article

Last week I was delighted to have an article published in the latest volume of Anthropology of East Europe Review. The material in this article was originally intended as a case study for my recent talk at this year’s BASEES conference, but it ended up being such a big issue that it really merited a more detailed treatment. Recently I replied to a tweet I spotted on twitter where a PhD student was lamenting that she had to relegate some data to a footnote in her thesis – the case on which this article is based was a ‘mere’ footnote in my thesis, and here it is published. So there is hope – the thesis is not the end product, but I’m certainly finding that 2 years on from graduating my thinking has developed and the things I am wanting to write now are very different from what is in the thesis itself.

The article is called “Constructions of childhood, victimhood and abortion in Romania: the ‘little-girl mother'”, and is based on articles I gathered during a 2 month period as part of my (much bigger) media review on sexual and reproductive health issues. This is the article abstract:

In June 2008 in Romania an 11-year-old girl found herself thrust into the media spotlight when it was discovered that she was 17 weeks pregnant after being raped by her uncle. Romanian abortion laws permit abortion only up to 14 weeks gestation. In the weeks that followed, the case was rarely out of the popular media, with debates about both the minutiae of this particular case and more general discussion about the appropriateness of the current legal provision taking place within the context of widespread concern about the phenomenon of fetiţe-mame (‘little girl-mothers’). This article considers the way the extensive media coverage of this case contributed to debates in Romania around abortion, childhood and child protection, but also exposed insecurities around national identity and Romania’s place within a wider Europe. It argues that this case serves as a “critical discourse moment” (Brown and Ferree 2005:10) which highlights concerns about legislative shortcomings around abortion, media and professional roles in child protection, and the construction of childhood more generally in Romania.

The full article is available here (open access). In one sense the choice of journal was a bit of a risk – Anthropology of East Europe Review is a journal produced by Indiana University, and submissions are generally editor-reviewed rather than peer-reviewed so from a career perspective it may not be the best thing in that it is not an article that could be submitted for the REF. However I like to think I was very strategic in my choice – due to my current contract I am not being submitted for the 2014 REF in any case, so the first REF (or whatever it will be that replaces it in 2020) that I need to worry about will be considering my publications from 2014 onwards. Obviously I also have to think about my publication record when applying for new jobs, so do need to also be targetting peer-reviewed outlets, but I did feel I could afford for this one article to think about where I would gain most exposure/impact for this particular piece, which as a case study may not have been considered by higher-impact journals. I also really like AEER’s philosophy of aiming for a fast turnaround of research, and of a commitment to disseminating research from regional and early-career scholars. I also very much admired the editor (although this is her final edition before handing over to a new editor) and many CEES scholars (both early career and senior) whose work I respect immensely have also published in AEER, so I am proud to be part of their number. I’m pleased my work can join their conversation. I’m also hopeful that as well as the area studies conversation, this article can contribute to the ongoing debates worldwide about abortion policy and legislation.

‘Fessing up – my #acwrimo experience

Last year I didn’t take part in the first #acbowrimo because I was moving house in the first week of November and so knew I’d struggle with existing work commitments never mind take on any more, all whilst surrounded by boxes and chaos! I was though inspired by all the tweets about productivity, top tips, finished (or at least substantially progressed) work and overall enthusiasm for academic writing. I vowed that I would take part in the next one, and as the blog post before last shows I certainly thought about what might be attainable and had ambitious but not (I thought) impossible plans. My experience though has been somewhat different to what I expected, and so I wanted to try and tease out why that might have been.

I always knew that the bulk of any extra work would be at weekends, and that the first two weekends in November were basically out due to essay marking commitments. However I did have a bit of preparatory work planned just prior to November starting, in my week off at the end of October/beginning of November, and I was reasonably optimistic. There were one or two setbacks which I couldn’t do much about, but initially I was still optimistic. My plan to spend my week off doing some work in NVivo via remote working on my work computer was thoroughly scuppered by a software upgrade at work which knocked off my ability to log in remotely, but undeterred I scoured my transcripts and media articles manually using Word’s Edit-Find facility, which (as you might imagine) took a lot longer and ate into all my planned writing time for the first week. Another (not entirely unforeseen) spanner in the works came in the form of essay extensions – students for very good reasons required extra time, but rather more than usual did this time which meant that as well as the first two weekends being taken up with marking, so was quite a bit of the third and I still have a couple to do.

By this point I knew that I was spectacularly behind on my plan and was wondering how to salvage it. I decided to put the new articles originally planned for this month on hold for a few weeks to finish some already started work (a conference paper which I have recently decided to turn into two papers) – this is probably cheating a bit, but does mean that those two article drafts that I had pledged may still be possible (or at least one of them). So I finished last weekend with that decision and was happy enough with it, and started to sketch out a plan for future papers over the coming months.

Then the curveball came, and given the computer woes and longer-than-planned essay marking this might seem a bit strange. Having checked the #acwrimo feed regularly on twitter up till now and cheered everyone on, the last few days I have found it really irritating, and that really troubled me. Of course I am still cheering everyone on, it is great to see so much progress, but so many people sounded so cheerful when I just felt so tired that it made me just feel immature, petulant and a bit of a failure. Then I had the idea a few days ago to write a moaning and slightly self-pitying (but also incisive and insightful, of course!) blog post about why #acwrimo just wasn’t working for me, and in all honesty it was the most enthusiastic and energised about writing I have felt all month! Luckily, I read this blog post a couple of days ago which made me feel tons better that it wasn’t just me, but which also was realistic rather than the self-pitying moan I would probably have come up with! I know exactly how the blog author feels and really sympathise! You can also be grateful that reading that knocked the worst of the moaning out of me so at least you’ve been spared that!

That said, I did want to think about why #acwrimo hasn’t worked for me as I’d hoped (and even if I do get those two papers written I still won’t feel like it’s worked for me). Firstly, and most superficially, it turns out November is a rubbish month for me to do this! My OU teaching starts in October and the beginning of November is when the first essays come in (for two courses), and they took a huge amount of time, work and energy which simply couldn’t be displaced (either by handing to someone else or put off till December). Next year if I do something like #acwrimo I will choose one of the summer months between courses (they run for 9 months), so I can write without guilt that I’m not selling my students short, and in November I can mark without guilt that I’m not writing.

Secondly, I have to face the fact that I need time off to wind down. I have a long daily commute and am out of the house for 12 hours a day, and when I’m home in those 3 or 4 hours between getting home and going to bed, most days at least some of that time is spent sorting out stuff for my OU students online. I simply cannot sustain doing more on top of that, and it also means I’m more reluctant that I wanted to admit to spend weekends writing. The writing I’m wanting to do (and had planned for this month) is not related to my work research, so at the minute I don’t feel like I can spend lots of work time on it, as I need to prioritise my work project there.

Thirdly, like the other blogger linked to above, I really don’t think I’ve established the best pattern for how I write, but I do think that mad intensity in an already intense month isn’t it! (and this is why I said above that even if I do get an article or two written I still won’t feel like #acwrimo has worked for me). And the longer the month has gone on the more guilty and a failure I’ve felt, which has just added to the overall negativity.

However, I don’t want to end with ‘poor me’ or being negative. Having established that #acwrimo, at least in November, isn’t for me, what it has done is helped me think about what might be best for me instead. To that end I have identified a number of papers I’d like to write from my PhD thesis, and plan when over the next year (up to the end of 2013) I might write them, at a rate of around one every 2 months. That’s still pretty ambitious, but I suspect much more realistic for me and means that I’ve been able to incorporate marking time, holidays, other commitments, leisure, and revision time for articles within that. If that works out then I would have several papers written by the end of 2013, before I even think about work-related papers as well – but, I believe, without the unexpected and unproductive angst that #acwrimo has wrought this year.

And with any luck I’ll still have a paper to show by next week as well!

#acwrimo commitment!

Along with academics around the world, I am committing myself to a month of concentrated academic writing in November. The inspiration for this activity, followable on twitter with the hashtag #acwrimo (academic writing month) can be found on PhD2Published. This blog is outlining in a bit more detail than my twitter post what my goals are for the month.

Unfortunately there’s not a lot (read: not anything at all) that I can palm off to other people, and so this writing will be on top of my other commitments. Specifically, the first two weekends of November will be out as I will be marking essays for both of my OU courses – these are first essays for both courses, and in order to manage my time I always aim to mark during the weekend after the deadline. The deadlines for these courses are 31st October and 9th November respectively, so those two weekends are definitely out. I will be doing plenty of academic writing, but it will be essay feedback so I won’t be counting it for #acwrimo, and given that I have around 20 students per course, I am not going to even pretend that I can do some non-OU writing whilst marking 40-odd essays! I know my limits 😀

However, there is plenty of time to be getting on with writing as well! I have next week off work (from 29th October) and will be using the first three days to prepare for writing by doing some reading and NVivo coding/searching (note to self: check that remote use of work PC works for NVivo!). Then the plan is for the Thursday and Friday, 1st and 2nd November, to do a big chunk of a paper which is a proposed conference paper for next year and which I also want to submit to a journal (as an aside, if I carry this off then expect apocalyptic amounts of snow: never before have I written a conference paper 5 months early!). I’m aiming for 3,500 words a day, so 7,000 words which is very ambitious and not sustainable over several days, but I am not at work so if I can get into the groove then it’s not beyond the realms of possibility. The following week, on 5th November I am heading down south for a meeting so have several hours on the train to occupy, so the plan is to tidy up the article then (rather than spend the time gawping out of the window, which is what I always want to do on the train!). The word limit is 7,500 words so hopefully that will be one completed article (first draft but hopefully in a good state) by 5th November. This is a tall order but by putting it down here hopefully I will stick to it!

I’m not planning on doing much writing the rest of that week, although at work I am hoping to run some reports on NVivo which may be used for writing later in the month. I have some work to do with my OU students (plus as already mentioned marking at the end of the week) and I have no intention of neglecting them!

The following week (w/b 12th November) I am hopefully doing more NVivo reports/analysis at work, and in the evenings planning (reading; sorting out quotes) for another article. I want to write the bulk of that article (2,500 words per day) at the weekend, and then the following week (where I am down south for a conference so more train journeys) finish it off. Hopefully my first draft of that article will be around 6,000 words and will be done by 25th November.

The final week of November I want to return to a book chapter I drafted ages ago but which needs quite a lot of editing still. So although these won’t be new words, hopefully by the 30th I will have a version of the chapter that I am happier with than I am at present! Again during the day at work I will be doing more analysis and reports hopefully for my current project.

Re the reports/analysis: I am not sure till I start how much I am going to write for them. I will be doing the analysis with my boss, and this is a new experience for me so I have no idea whether I will end up writing tons or just notes or what. The idea is that these reports (on our individual codes within the data) will form the basis of all our subsequent journal articles, so although there will not be any concrete output from them by the end of November they will hopefully make the job of writing articles from the project much easier beyond November.

I’m wondering if I should also commit to a blog post a week as well?

So, at the moment my commitment to #acwrimo is: 2 finished good first drafts of articles (total words: c13,500) and a revised book chapter (total words: approx 8,000, not all of which will be new but I’m not counting individual new words so the total word count will have to do!), giving a total of 21,500 words. In addition to that, who knows how much writing in reports of analysis of my current project data, and maybe another 2,000 words in blog posts. That sounds pretty productive to me.

Mind you I will probably need to sleep for a month afterwards!

Catching up with myself

My poor neglected blog! I have done a number of things in the last month, including attending and presenting at the Health in Transition conference in Bucharest, and spending a week down south observing a course in preparation for the interview stage of my current research (which I start next week).

Casa Presei Liber (House of the Free Press) from Herastrau Park, Bucharest

Being back in Romania was wonderful. I was delighted that my language skills were still up to the job, I reacquainted myself with my favourite Bucharest restaurant and – probably for the first time – felt relaxed and ‘at home’ in Bucharest (previously I have lived and worked in other towns and cities there, and whenever I was going to Bucharest I would be regaled with tales of muggers, thieves and ne’er-do-wells, so I was always on edge whenever I went). The conference was great, quite small but that meant that delegates had the chance to listen to all the other papers and do lots of networking. There is a lot of fascinating research going on in central/eastern Europe, and some really interesting debates (such as around the validity/utility (or not) of the terms post-socialist and neoliberalism) which have been going on for ever but it was good to still hear some new and refreshing takes. There is also a lot of research going on with various vulnerable groups – as you might expect in a conference focusing on health – much of which was very moving.

My own paper (on morality and its role in sexual/reproductive health in Romania and Moldova) went well, I think – I was nervous as when I had practiced the night before it had gone way over time and I’d had to chop quite a bit out of the talk, so I was worried about it not making sense, but I got some great questions and people seemed interested in what I had to say. I now need to think about turning it into a journal article – my challenge is finding somewhere where it will best ‘fit’. That is one of the good things, but also one of the disadvantages, of research in area studies: there are lots of journals, either area studies-specific (Central/East European Studies, CEES) or discipline/methodology-specific where the research could be disseminated, not least because a lot of area studies work is cross-disciplinary, but the best ‘fit’ journal might not necessarily be such a great idea if I am looking for a position in a department which is not an area studies department. I have a couple of journals in mind, but will need to think (for the non-area studies ones) how to explain the contextual background for non-CEES specialists, background which is much more familiar to those working within the CEES field. It’s a good dilemma to have though, I do like writing so once I know where I am aiming I will enjoy writing this paper.

My week down south also went well – although observation isn’t strictly part of my research, intensively observing one course generated lots of insights which have now informed my interview topic guide. I am really looking forward to the interviews next week and getting into a new project. It is in an area I’m not so familiar with, but as a colleague pointed out yesterday, that’s not necessarily a bad thing – hopefully it will mean that I will let the participants talk more rather than interrupting them with all my vast knowledge!

It will almost feel odd this time that I am doing the interviews in English, with English-speakers. I spoke briefly at a Doctoral Training School event co-hosted by my former department on language issues in research this week (although sadly I had to leave after I had said my bit, as I was not well; up to then the debate had been really interesting and I may well come back to revisit the issue here as well as possibly in another journal article). I think most of us who were either conducting or writing up our research in languages that were not our first language had found language a ‘magnifier’ for our reflexivity and for noticing things which may otherwise have been taken for granted, so it will be really interesting to see if I experience any differences interviewing in my first language this time round.

I think that’s me caught up now, after a month of not blogging. The #acwri targets fell by the wayside slightly due to travel, but I have plans to get myself back on track so am still bearing the at least 100 words a day in mind and will hopefully get back to that with a vengeance in the next couple of weeks.

#acwri challenge so far

A couple of posts back I challenged myself to write at least 100 words per day of academic writing, over and above essay marking comments (I would only include them if I did 100 words of something else as well. But did want to include them, mainly because they take so much time and effort!). I realise this is hardly riveting reading, but here’s my progress so far as much as an encouragement to me to keep going as anything else:

1 May: reflective diary, 300+ words
2 May: reflective diary, 140 words
3 May: reflective diary, c250 words
4 May: fail. But good intentions for the weekend!
5 May: outline of book review, c100 words. Also around 1500 words (conservative estimate) of essay marking comments.
6 May: revised conference paper – words unknown (a few added, a few taken out, bibliography added), plus around 300 words (again conservative estimate) of essay marking comments.
7 May: notes on articles read for work project, c800 words
8 May: blog entry (book review), c900 words
9 May: notes on articles read for work project, c500 words. Plus around 300 words of essay marking comments.
10 May: notes on articles read for work project, c300 words
11 May: notes on articles read for work project, c500 words. Plus one side of A5 (c150 words) notes in preparation for a talk I’m giving next month (more on that when it happens).
12 May: fail.
13 May: fail. (I have though been doing tons of marking this weekend – just no other academic writing so much as it pains me, the words don’t count!).

Next week my plans are:

1. More marking (sigh), plus tutorial preparation.
2. More reading at work.
3. Firm up next month’s talk.
4. Firm up next month’s conference paper.

#acwri challenge

On twitter, the #acwri (aka academic writing) hashtag has been around for a while to try and galvanise people into actually doing more writing (unsurprisingly). So I have set myself a mini-challenge, starting yesterday – I intend to write at least 100 words per day of academic-related writing. Which sounds miniscule and silly, but it is so easy to get distracted that I often end up with a blank sheet of paper and an entire article to write after a week of doing other things, whereas this way I could write a paragraph, or a paper outline, and by the time I come to a serious writing day I’m not starting entirely from scratch. Obviously if I can write more than 100 words then that is a bonus, but 100 a day is surely manageable even with loads of distractions.

I am newly in post in the new job (I started yesterday) so am currently doing quite a lot of reading rather than writing, and preparation for fieldwork. So I have decided that, at least initially, the types of things I will count for my challenge will include:

* reflective/research diary entries
* blog entries
* notes on articles/books I’m reading
* plans/outlines of papers

as well as actual articles. I also have a fair bit of essay marking coming up in the next couple of weeks, and have decided that I will count essay feedback, but only if I also do another 100 words of another type of academic writing as well (ie my essay comments will add to the total from another activity, rather than being the only academic writing that day, which means that even when I am marking I can’t use that as an excuse to not think and write about my research).

I will record my totals here around weekly, for accountability purposes (to my vast audience :D). My reflective diary is hand-written and so I haven’t counted the words, but yesterday I wrote just over 2 sides of A5 so would estimate around 300 words. Today’s writing will be the diary as well. At the weekend, as well as my marking I have to finish my conference paper; I wonder how I will count negative word counts as I have at least 1000 words to cut out (whilst still wanting to say more).