29 December 2014

Why over 50 is too late

I’ve been waiting to comment on this story and press release regarding a new UK government “fundamental reform” (promoted as a jolly, we can mend everything tale from the pre-Christmas bulletins, some might say), setting it aside from the hyperbole surrounding it and having read through the various responses posted on news outlets. It is so closely related to the trade union funded and freelance work I do and I wanted to scream when I first read what I felt to be a patronising, disengaged and ageist approach (what that the policy purports to stand against).

Here is the press release in full: Fundamental reform to fight ageism in the workplace: older workers’ scheme to tackle age discrimination. We are promised a “a world-leading new approach” so hold onto your hats blog-readers, what follows may shock you! 

Change on the way?

I regularly work with older adults in employment and (through SUL funded projects) adults in employment who are facing a very real possibility of redundancy in later life or after their career has been well established in a certain field. I read this new story and I was irritated; it highlights so many things that are wrong with how we perceive older workers and it highlights a lack of understanding of the importance of all age / adult career guidance and when it should take place. I'm going to try to be positive though…

In the BBC article, Esther McVey references “training in CV and interview skills, the internet and social media, as well as "career reviews" with an expert to identify skills from previous work and any training needs.”

An Expert is on the way! No mention of any external organisations or businesses in the policy or in any of the media reports so we shall wait to find out whether this Expert may be drawn from the membership of the CIPD or perhaps be an established HR professional, maybe a qualified career guidance counsellor or a representative from business. It can’t possibly be a civil servant on a secondment with a few weeks of training because it is going to be an Expert. 

OK, I did say I was going to try to be positive. I look forward to finding out when this policy is streamlined into practice whether it will it be delivered in sessions covering options such as career planning strategies, career changes, life journeys, retirement planning and using counselling techniques, addressing an individual’s perception of what is possible, drawing on their transferable skills, explaining the differences between hidden and open jobs, discussing labour market information? These are amongst the topics I cover with staff in the workplace when delivering employability skills and career planning workshops. Hey, I could be one of the Experts the government could employ to delivery these courses, because I’m doing it already. I even have qualifications and a proven track record in this role. But this isn’t an extended and rather obscure job application for the role McVey and her colleagues are creating. 


McVey says the policy is about tackling outdated views and stereotypes. Brilliant, I thought, when I first saw this in the headlines and read on, interested to find new approaches to inform my own work. Then we get to it: computer training. Yes, computer training! Imagine that! Because people over 50 can’t use computers! I don’t personally know anyone (and I’m including people who have been away from the labour market for a very long time) who is over 50 and of working age who can’t use a computer but I appreciate that there are people who can’t. However, while most over 50s (and indeed many people in their 20s, 30s and 40s?) might not be able to use a computer as well as a primary school aged child, I also know plenty of under 50s who can’t sew on a button, work out how to maintain or repair household appliances or boil an egg. Let's just think about it: in how many cases is “being unable to use a computer” the sole reason stopping someone getting a job? How many of your colleagues have little more than the basics and use Caps Lock instead of Shift when they need one capital letter? Knowing keyboard shortcuts isn’t the answer to everything.

There will be training on the internet and social media for those who need it. Social media can help you find employment opportunities and in specific fields a LinkedIn profile can get you a job. But this isn’t how the majority of people find work and it certainly isn’t the key to performing well in an interview or making the most of your existing skills on an application form. It is how the majority of people waste their hours away and spend their leisure time and for most the only bit of social media training you need is this: make your personal pages private and have a smart LinkedIn page if you want one because in this day and age, potential employers will Google you. If you have the ability to set up a facebook profile then you have the ability to make it private. I’ve just covered social media, for the majority of jobseekers, in two lines.

Tackling stereotypes

I have wandered off. What I really wanted to say was that my big issue with this policy isn’t with its yet-to-be-revealed delivery, it is with the wording surrounding it. Let’s look at McVey and Webb's statement:
As part of our long-term economic plan, our champions will tackle outdated views that older workers are somehow ‘past it’ so that more people get the security of a regular wage in 2015.
Yes, in a policy designed to steer employers and the workforce away from negative perceptions, they've used the term “past it”. One of the things I talk about in application writing and interview skills workshops is not to compare yourself to a negative idea but to compare yourself to something proactive and positive. 

Dr Ros Altmann, the Government’s new older workers champion’ goes a step further with the negative language: 
I’m so pleased the Government is going to do more to help these people, who are too often consigned to a scrapheap, jobs-wise, when they just need help to retrain or cope with modern job searching. Daily Mail Website*
A full-on image this time! Let’s all imagine a scrapheap and pull those over-50s out of it!

Could the government please stop using terms like past it” and “scrapheap” to describe older people who are out of work? It’s offensive and creates a negative image and perception of the 1.2 million person mass of out-of-work over 55s. 

My answer: (in-work) career information advice and guidance

Why do older workers struggle after they lose their jobs? It is simple. We do not support enough in-work employability training. If an older worker loses their job, they will find it harder to find a new job. There is no point treating the problem, if we do not research and tackle the cause of the problem. We can avoid sending folk to jobs A&E through a much cheaper and beneficial to all preventative lifestyle.

Workers are often told that the best place to find a new job is while you are in work. It is also the best place to develop an understanding of your career and employability. Workplaces should offer in-work employability training and career planning either via HR or through external agencies. We should ensure that people of all ages, not just those in target groups can speak to a careers adviser when they need to, or access employability skills training. We need a culture of lifelong career management. This is what the career guidance community promotes. We aren't regularly funded to do this though. If an individual wants to improve their employability skills or see a careers coach/adviser, they have to do it in their own time and more often than not at their own cost. 

I welcome that there will be more help for the out of work over 50s, but this isn’t a fundamental reform, a fundamental reform would see a much earlier intervention and in-work support for lifelong career planning. 


10 December 2014

Three well-timed reassurances, an ongoing aside and dinner parties

I’m currently sitting at a table in my local Sainsbury’s café typing this blog post, while eating soup and keeping an eye on my son who is asleep next to me in his pram. This is pretty representative of how this particular mummy has been managing to maintain her own career around a baby-toddler since the start of term. I think he is a toddler now, if we go by the terms laid out in this guide.

[In one of my other lives, I’ve been trying to convey to employability course students that using examples of competencies in your personal life makes it easier to find examples in work/academic reflective practice so I am trying it out in this blog post myself >>> Teaching by example]

PhD year 1 semester 1 ends on Friday and unlike many PhD researchers, I’m about to spend a month working as much as I can, rather than resting up over the festive season and reading interesting books. I suppose the perk is that I get to eat mince pies as I go. My husband is about to start four weeks off work, using a mix of parental and annual leave which means I will be able to settle myself in front of my desk rather than try to keep my research brain ticking over by reading, note-taking and typing up ideas and trains of thought to later follow up whilst simultaneously building towers out of wooden blocks and making the most mundane of household tasks interesting to a small person. Multitasking: I’m the expert. Turns out you can paint a wall, entertain a baby and work out your ontological viewpoint all at once, if you can block out the headspace.

[Son has woken woke up so I am typing whilst feeding him lunch>>> Multitasking]

I’m a big fan of thinking time. I was at a conference last month and attended a presentation on resilience, where I learnt that resilient, high achieving people block out time for thinking. Let’s call this Reassuring Moment Number 1. When I write stories, I don’t just sit down with a blank piece of paper. When I write, I write quickly after months of thinking around my characters, plots and themes. If it isn’t straight in my head first then I cannot sit and draft and draft and draft. I think this is where I have struggled previously on academic courses. I’ve started too soon, before I really understood what I was doing. No danger of that this time round as thinking time has been enforced on me, on afternoon walks and during night-feeds. It has been a very hard first semester, mainly because of how difficult it has been managing all of our family commitments. In September I was “about to start a PhD” and given my only previous experience of doctoral study was two aborted attempts to do a PhD in creative writing, I didn’t really know what a PhD in Management would entail. I needed a good bit of time to work out the structures, timelines and approaches. I needed to do some thinking before typing.

[Son is now staring at two people having lunch next to us and is demonstrating that what other people are eating is always more interesting than what you are eating yourself. Son occupied (aka nosey-poking at others) means a window for writing >>> Time management]

Onto Reassuring Moment Number 2. Prof. Gillian Hogg visited our research workshop last week, and she mentioned how her PhD was in a different discipline to her undergraduate degree (I knew this was possible but I’d just not met anyone with an English to Management discipline switch) and how despite her rapid career ascent from researcher to professor, her children “still knew who she was.” Actually, let’s combine this moment with a selection of blogs and blog posts I’ve found in the last week (including the new Academic Motherhood and Tenure, She Wrote) . There are other academic mothers with young children out there! I have finally found some! What I have learned is that it is a damn sight more difficult in America; we definitely aren’t emigrating across the Atlantic. Poor maternity leave options, unpaid at that, just being the start of it. In short: it is possible to be a mummy and do a PhD. I knew this from the start, but I didn’t really have any evidence of it or any examples of people saying exactly how they manage the challenge. We all need role models. It is also much harder to do things in life compared to in theory (must remember this in research interviews).

[Son has just grabbed notebook off the table as bored of rice cakes, but I had already typed up the notes therein>>> Planning and organisational skills]

Prof. Hogg also said we should have a “dinner party sentence” for when we are asked about our PhDs. This couldn’t have been better timed with Christmas on the way. Although, despite me now living in a house with a downstairs toilet and an upstairs bathroom (I really am middle class now,aren't I?), we don’t have a table that could host more than two people (luckily the little one is still in his high chair and has his own tray) so it won’t be our own dinner party it’ll be getting said at. This sentence is useful as when asking about your PhD, people can either immediately change the conversation because they have no interest whatsoever in your research (fair enough, I’m the same on science) or ask us more and quite possibly start up a fruitful conversation.  Quite a few people have asked about what I am doing and I’ve waffled a bit. However, since it did come highly commended in the Heriot Watt School of Management and Languages poster competition last Friday (Reassuring Moment Number 3) and therefore demonstrates that what I’m doing does actually make sense outside of my head, I can now direct those with further enquiries to my Year 1 PhD poster. Several people have already remarked that “now they know what I am doing” which is good because more than anything my PhD needs to make sense inside and outside of academia/outside of my academic circle and discipline.

[Son now fully awake, full of food and throwing his already-leaky beaker around. Let’s go buy something for our tea tonight before the next wave of the storm hits>>> Basic survival skills, useful in all careers]

Oh and my dinner party sentence is… I’m researching why women, especially young women, choose to do apprenticeships and which apprenticeships they do/don't do...  I might tweak it after I find a festive party or two to go to.

5 December 2014

Poster Competition Success

It was the Heriot Watt School of Management and Languages annual poster competition today and
my poster came, rather unexpectedly, in second place for the first year group.

Here is the highly commended final version of my poster. This has been amended--a rather embarrassing typo I spotted at the last minute this lunchtime has been removed!

4 December 2014

Standing out or blending in

A brief post to record thoughts on two issues I’ve been thinking about this week:

What are the implications if a person thinks of themselves as a trainee or a learner rather than a student and where does an apprentice fit in amongst these titles?

 - What differences exist in experience and perception of a course of study between that which is embedded within a traineeship, internship or apprenticeship rather than as a standalone course?

Where this stems from is that I was recently talking to a representative from one of the armed forces about apprenticeships and he–quite interestingly–told me, “most of our trainees are apprentices, they just don’t realise.” I’ve been thinking about the idea that someone might well be in formal or fairly structured learning without realising it, admitting to it or it being made public knowledge. Going off to be a student at 16, 17 or 18 perhaps even dependent on the subject, isn’t always the “coolest” thing to do.*  This is something I want to explore further, the idea that we may have to hide our aspirations and ability. Much of this stems from my own background (researcher bias alert!).

Having come from “couldn’t be further removed from higher education” beginnings, I now have an undergraduate degree plus four postgraduate qualifications and I’m (hopefully) on my way to a doctorate. (Certificates that haven’t come without a struggle and at great cost, self-funded prior to my current studentship and one previous fee waiver. My higher education has come at far greater an expense than would be covered by the proposed new postgraduate loan figures hitting the news today).

The nature of my work and postgraduate higher education sees me now mixing with people who’ve been pushed to achieve their highest, often through private education. People sometimes presume that is where I come from, a well-educated academic background (not least, a senior careers adviser who once said to me, “It will have been like this when you mum was at university.”) I don’t come from a pushy, achievement-orientated background. I come from one of the most deprived and lowest achieving educational boroughs in the UK. My experience of secondary education could only really be described as years spent immersed in a culture of publicly denying your aspirations and pretending to be less clever than you are.

So why consider the relevance of this in relation to apprenticeships? Much of my concern around my research so far focuses on the general perception and place of apprenticeships, not least in relation to who “advisers” perceive as being appropriate for apprenticeships. As demand and competition are potentially increasing (debateable, and very much related to employer-workforce skills matching) are apprenticeships rising in status? Who are apprenticeships for?

Many years ago when I went to university, I remember a tale of a boy whose family threw him out for signing up for a university course, because they weren’t willing to support him in doing so. We hear about it so much, but is higher education always the best or acceptable goal? It seems to be on the surface, but I'm not convinced this is universally true. Are there some individuals for whom a job or an apprenticeship (perhaps in a certain field) that leads to a job, of greater value and kudos?

*On being “cool” I can certainly give an education related anecdote here from my own teaching experience. The older male students I’ve at taught the OU studying creative writing modules have often cited how they couldn’t admit to wanting to write when they were younger, or indeed publicly.

30 November 2014

Opening up Open Educational Resources

I attended The Open University in Scotland’s (OUiS) annual residential staff development event held at Tulliallan Police College this weekend. Alongside my work for the Arts Faculty (see previous post) I am a project worker for The OUiS Learning Development Team.

Much of the work I have done in the last two years has engaged with our Open Educational Resources (OER). At Tulliallan, I presented with a colleague on use of The OU’s OpenLearn materials in Skills in the Workplace workshops we've delivered on behalf of Scottish Union Learning

OpenLearn provides free online educational resources which includes some samples taken from The OU’s modules. The origins of OpenLearn and its intentions are explained here

Opening Educational Practices in Scotland (OEPs)
I was keen to hear about other OER projects. The first session I attended of the Saturday programme was delivered by Pete Cannell and he spoke about his and Ronald Macintyre's work on the OEPs project.

Projects like this one strive to find means of engaging non-traditional learners, one of those often-used educational terms. I don’t know what the collective noun might be for this group  (suggestions below?); an 'innovation' of students perhaps? We most frequently hear it used in the sense of non-traditional higher education students, and that is certainly the pool that The OU has drawn from for many years. We’ve done and continue to do it well. It works on both sides too, making the teaching work both rewarding and unpredictable. There is always scope to improve beyond the current remit/target are of who we engage and support to study to as high a level they can, through either our own or other providers courses.

Students versus learners and user perspective
I’ve been thinking about the difference between a student and a learner. It is interesting that a student is primarily defined (dictionary definition) as someone in formal education linked to an institution, whereas a learner is primarily defined as someone learning a skill. Does that mean that all users of an OER such as OpenLearn are students rather than learners, as the courses are linked to a university and follow a fairly traditional structure? Are we engaging students or learners?

I think OERs should focus on learners first and students second. Knowledge is for all and we must not be precious about what should be confined to formal, institution-based learning. 

OERs can offer a route to learning without it feeling like it is education. While OERs filter through to social media and other networks to pique interest we are a long way from knowing what the perfect online learning portal is and rapidly tiring of the word ‘hub.’ New frameworks are still emerging from traditional higher education teaching methods and this could put users off, making them think it’s not for them. Massive Open Online Courses (known as MOOCs) such as those on FutureLearn might well be the latest big thing but they still offer a fairly traditional model of university learning for fairly traditional students. It will be interesting to see the statistics and critique of MOOCs in the coming years.

Creative versus ‘traditional’ use of OERs
Ordinary folk are searching the web for resources that bridge the gap between a library book and full-on official learning, which they can access as suits them. An OpenLearn module that I contributed to, Rural entrepreneurship in Scotland, has reached a high number of users despite no official launch. OERs can be more formally used to reach even wider networks  this might be through heavy influence in partnership working or by more organic means.

While an OER can and should be written and set free, Pete Cannell asked those who attended his presentation if we knew of any creative use of OERs. Creative is the key word. These are resources we can adapt and incorporate into teaching in its many guises.

We think about how an existing OER might be used by employers and we limit ourselves. We revert straight to: "They could get all staff to complete it as Continuing Professional development!" Could such as top-down approach be the death of a suite of OERs? Once your manager tells you to do something it becomes more work. It’s not about discovery any more and it’s not about you finding information. It’s about you being told what you have to learn. A barrier goes up.
“Whether it’s a five minute exploration or a 50 hour expedition into learning that you’re after, you’ll find it on OpenLearn.”
My thoughts are that the key words are exploration and discovery. OERs give people the freedom to learn under their own terms. I think OERs offer the privacy to study that people often can’t get elsewhere. Someone who is ‘just on their tablet’ might in fact be doing anything, perhaps even heaven forbid! – studying something just for the heck of it. We must provide learning for people without always thinking of formality and what the outcomes and destinations might be. We need to be like a bookshelf.

OERs and teaching practice – example of an adapted OER
OERs also provide ready-made resources for tutors at various levels which myself and my co-presenter Khadija Patel covered in our Tulliallan presentation, OEP: Using OpenLearn to support teaching.

I talked about teaching session plans adapted from OERs, using the example of an OpenLearn course which I have used on Skills in the Workplace workshops with civil service staff. Tying this with practical exercises takes an online, more ‘traditional’ looking learning resource, brings it to life and may break down some barriers to formal learning. It is not just about easy to use teaching resources, it is about removing the “that’s not for me” aspect of OERs.

Worth noting is that the OER Working in groups and teams is an adapted extract from a level 3 module. I have used this with very mixed groups, including some participants with no experience of further/higher education. While third level courses in specific fields will usually contain subject specific terminology, what I like about this particular OER is that is uses minimal specialist language yet shows learners that they have the critical thinking skills needed to study at higher education level.

After an initial icebreaker activity, and talking through the OER I give out group work tasks which students then have to evaluate their input to, in the context of the OER. This is also a good session to help a tutor understand group dynamics when working with a group for a short amount of time. 

I also made people get up on their feet to try the practical activities out at Tulliallan, as I like nothing better than a tactile conference presentation and a lively face-to-face workshop! And it meant that some of my recycling got reused before it made its way to the Tulliallan recycling bin…

Useful Links and Resources

26 November 2014

No toddler-juggling allowed: university library access for student-parents

In early November 2014, I attempted to visit the library of a Scottish university with my 11 month old son. I was told by a security guard at the gate that due to the library’s rules on children I couldn’t access any area other than the ground floor, where there were only student access PCs and some study desks. There was no mention that during staffed hours a member of staff could retrieve materials for me to use on the ground floor (which in the process of collecting information for this extended blog post I discovered may be the case). So for starters, there was possibly an internal communications issue, but I want to put that aside for the moment and unpick the entire matter of library access for student-parents.

This issue was highlighted in the Nuffield Foundation’s research (2012) into student-parent support within in English higher education institutions which concluded:

…students with children are not getting the support they need to succeed in higher education. While student parents are a growing presence in higher education, national and university policies continue to address the needs of students as if they had no caring responsibilities.

However, there was also some variation between universities, with some offering some extensive provision for student parents and reviewing their policies on the basis of how this group would be affected.

I had previously visited this library with the same child, in the same pram, without any issue! I was put out, to say the least. I was not allowed full access to an otherwise publicly accessible building because I had my baby with me. I did some preliminary research and discovered this wasn’t the only university library with a child policy (or rather a parent-of-a-child unfriendly policy). How does a student who is a parent/guardian access physical library resources if they are only able to visit a library when accompanied by their child and perhaps outside of staffed hours? A rule that states accompanied children are not allowed in or only allowed in designated areas (perhaps at set times) prevents student-parents from accessing vital resources.

“Oh,” you say, “but I don’t want a screaming child racing up and down the aisles while I study.”

No, neither do I.

Would a student-parent sit in the silent study area, head-in-book, while their child was audibly upset? Would they leave their toddler to pull books off shelves, singing a CBeebies theme tune medley, while they looked for journals elsewhere? Would they take their offspring in if they weren’t settled/asleep or couldn’t follow the simple ‘we must be quiet’ instruction? Would they time their visit to coincide with a child’s hunger pangs or a pre-nap, overtired grumbling session?

No, they wouldn’t.

The presumption being made is simple and it is this: you have a child and you immediately lose all control of your own ability to behave in an orderly fashion within a library. You will not monitor your child appropriately or supervise their behaviour without a stern reminder to do so. You have to be reminded to keep them quiet. Indeed, a full on ban suggests that it is likely you would to choose to visit a library when your child is at their peak levels of disquiet, because you are irresponsible, inconsiderate and infuriating. You and your child are a public nuisance. And as for your pram, well, it takes up space.

Heaven forbid we responsible student-parents might infiltrate, passing other students as they take hard-earned breaks from their hours of slog to post on facebook [status update: woman with pram in library. I CANNOT WORK IN THESE CONDITIONS] or cause them to have to tweet a complaint about our inconsiderate behaviour [@unilibrary Child on the 5th floor. He’s quietly reading a book while his dad collects his reading list. Please investigate] or impel them to fill in the feedback slip for the library [Dear Library, the queue in the third floor library café was made bigger this afternoon as there was a parent and child there. This extended my latte queuing time by 30 seconds while the child chose his biscuit.]

I appreciate that as a funded doctoral student I do have to organise some childcare (although at circa £40-£45 per day, work out how many days an entire bursary stretches to if you want to have childcare and some money to live off). I attend conferences and workshops and seminars and training events, I undertake some teaching and I have a part-time academic job outside of my PhD. I have provision in place for these planned ahead, regularly scheduled commitments and for which a baby’s extended presence would be utterly disruptive (at the moment this is my husband using his flexible working hours and annual leave for this as we are still on several nursery waiting lists – no holidays or free time for us!). Student-parents should be able to access a university library on an ad-hoc basis when they need a particular resource. These buildings offer public access (if the visitor brings ID) which means a tuition fee paying student-parent could be turned away while a non-student is allowed to visit.

I am not asking for university-funded nanny services (*looks wistfully into the middle distance and imagines this for a moment and the wonderful and equal society in which this exists. Sigh.*) I simply expect to be able to access the same services at the same times as other students, to be trusted to do so in a responsible manner, and for there to be flexibility to allow for my circumstances. I don’t bring along my child every time I see my supervisor or other academics (not least because he is more fun than academic matters so we end up getting less done). I do however know that if my son is poorly or childcare isn’t possible that I can, in pressing circumstances, bring him with me.

And of note is that I have insider experience: I used to work in both a university and a college library. From my previous employment, all I can say is worse things happened in those particular learning resource centres than a well-behaved child holding her dad’s hand as they walked through to the audio visual resources section.

It is difficult to obtain information from library websites/codes of conduct on whether children are or aren’t allowed to accompany a parent’s visit. This lack of information led me to wonder if all university libraries adopt this same approach and whether it is a formal or unwritten rule. I wanted to know where my son and I would be welcome. I emailed the main campus library of fourteen of Scotland’s universities as follows:

Subject: Library Access

Dear XX Library,

I’m a PhD student at another institution (Heriot-Watt) and I would like to visit the library at XX.

I will have my young son with me in his pram – can you let me know where I will be able to access in the building / if there are any areas I won’t be able to access?

Thanks and kind regards,
Emma Bolger

Yes, I skirted round the issue a bit. While it was the pram not the son that was the focus, they come clearly as two-part unit. I also emailed my own institution. Most of the libraries responded quickly and I will explore the responses shortly. First of all, I want to contextualise why limited or refused library access matters:

The wider picture:

Universities focus on supporting non-traditional students. Primarily, this issue relates to the aims stated in strategic plans and in some cases therefore, internal policy contradicts overall strategy.

·         Many student-parents study part-time, often from home around their children. I also work for the Open University and our students come from a diverse pool, the majority of them in employment, perhaps with caring commitments. They are, like other university students, allowed access to local ‘bricks and mortar’ university libraries via the SCONUL scheme. If a parent can’t afford to pay someone or use goodwill carers to look after their child – say, in the evenings, on an ad-hoc basis, outside of core childcare hours, on top of paying for childcare during their working hours, then do the child-unfriendly institutions offer a crèche on site or untaxed bursary payment towards childcare while the student-parents visits the library? No, they don't. Universities with restricted library access expect a parent to cover an expense that non-parent-students do not have.

·         In the majority of cases, the primary carer of a young child is still a woman. Gender inequality exists. There is occupational segregation. Women face structural barriers. Women leave the workforce after having a child and often cease to progress professionally after having children. A route to professional progress is retraining or job-related study. Flexible study during maternity leave or while a child is young enables a woman to maintain contact with the world of work and continue her professional development. Women can do more than one thing at a time (crazy stuff, eh?); they can look after children and study. However, yet another hoop to jump though, another rule to work around, just keeps the incline steady on the uphill struggle.

·         Higher education institutions are criticised for the smaller number of female academics, moreso at professorial level. This is not going to change unless a woman (such as the author of this blog) is fully able to access the same resources as a childless male student when they undertake doctoral study.

·         And the relevance of this to my PhD: apprentices study towards qualifications alongside work. What are the rules on child access to the libraries within the HEIs and colleges that are supporting delivery of apprenticeship-linked qualifications? Well, we will see: I plan to research this more formally as I undertake data collection for my PhD.

I didn’t declare that I might publish the responses I got from the institutions therefore I will not name any of them, other than to state that they are in Scotland and (using an interpretivist research approach) I suggest that institutions with similar policies may exist in the rest of the UK.

Out of the 14 universities contacted:

Number of Universities
No children under 16 in the building
Limited access if you visit with children*
Full access
Would not disclose without further information

*both of these institutions said a library staff member would retrieve materials or “help” me but only during staffed hours. So that’s a no, outside of core staffing hours.

Child Policies
Number of Universities
Referenced a child policy
Referenced a child policy in draft form
No reference made to a child policy

So there it is: if you are a student-parent attending a university library in Scotland and they say no to you visiting with your child or that you can only access part of the building, then they are, without doubt, in the minority.

However, of the 12 who stated they do allow full or limited access, I want to break down their replies a little further.

Email Phrasing
Number of Universities
Yes, with a welcoming and understanding comment
Yes, without a comment regarding conduct
Yes, with a comment regarding conduct

There is an issue was with the language used. From some institutions there is a lack of polite exchange forthcoming and the presumption conveyed, as stated earlier, is that student-parents aren’t able to independently, or without reminder, show initiative and remove a potentially disruptive child from a library space. I don’t need reminding that I should remove my noisy child from a quiet space. I don’t need to be told of the CONSEQUENCES if my child makes a noise.

It is a story of mainly positives: one university gave a perfect response. Not only could I visit, but if my little boy decided he didn’t want to cooperate with my intention to use the library as a polite and aware student, they’d retrieve my materials for me so I could work in the non-silent study area. i.e. We were welcome in the whole building and should I need help they would be available. No, “and if he makes a noise we’d expect you to leave” comment because they know there is no need to make it. I am, until proven otherwise, a sensible library user.

As for ‘child policies,’ I would argue there is no need for them, if libraries have any trust in their student-parents. Also worth considering, is how busy are the specially designated areas where children are allowed? Busy, I’d bet, given they are predominantly on the floor next to the entrance and service desks. Minimal likelihood you’d get a space during staffed hours, even to make a few notes from a journal. One library replied to say that we’d be confined to a certain floor because of space limitations and what they phrased as “resource”, whatever that means.

And the one institution that said a flat no: I could come to visit on my own with my SCONUL card but as no under 16s are allowed in… I wonder how, if my home university also had the same no under 16s policy, I would get the SCONUL card in the first place?

So, after exploring this (not something I thought I'd have to do, but as my research has the potential to take me across Scotland and as my home institution isn't the closest to my home) I hope this post encourages other student-parents in Scotland to check with university libraries what their policy is before turning up, as I did, only to be turned away.  Here are my personal conclusions:

·         Restricted access, for any user, to any university resource, is a barrier and causes inequality.
·         Restricted access discriminates again student-parents who cannot visit a university resource without their child.
·         ‘Polite’ courtesy reminders issued in person and in library policies can be patronising.

My plea to university libraries: please bear in mind that the parent who has brought their child to the library hasn’t done so for entertainment (we have Bounce and Rhyme for that) and would much rather be able to spend an hour, unencumbered, studying alone while our child is safely looked after, having fun elsewhere. We aren’t all potential library louts. We’re just juggling study, work and children as best we can. Not juggling our children literally though – and certainly not in a university library – because we’d expect to be thrown out for doing that (and would hope the same rules to apply to anyone performing loud circus tricks within the quiet study space).

Further Reading

15 November 2014

Epistemology Revealed

To define an epistemological approach is to define general assumptions, as drawn from a particular school of thought, regarding ways of enquiring into the nature of the world. Epistemology describes the relationship between the researcher and what she researches. 

I have reached the conclusion that my theoretical perspective is that of Interpretivist. As with ontology, this is not the place to define in detail each of the alternatives; suffice to say a semester of workshops on the various perspectives only scratches the surface. Instead, I will summarise  an Interpretivist approach. The assumptions of this school of thought influence and impact upon my methodological approach and will in turn be reflected in my methods.

Interpretivism has a subjectivist ontology, so first box ticked: my ontological and epistemological approaches correlate.

It is also important to note that Interpretivism can be considered an umbrella term. There are variations covered by this, from the straightforward sounding “anti-positivism” through to a full three way split into hermeneutics, phenomenology and symbolic interactionism. At the core, it carries the belief that the social sciences are fundamentally different to the natural sciences. As I will - at least initially - be adopting a broad Interpretivist approach, (some of) the assumptions of an Interpretivist epistemology to note are:

·         Reality is socially constructed and there are multiple social realities
·         The focus is on meaning as a way of understanding society
·         Social meaning is derived from culture (signs, symbols, meanings) and history
·         It is idiographic, i.e. concerned with the individual, individual experiences and individual cases – it is about people on an individual level
·         Looking at people’s perception/interpretation of phenomena, meaning that while a phenomenon exists, it is possible for different stakeholders to see it differently
·         Research is empirical; phenomena is verifiable via observation and/or experience
·         It considers the subjectivity of human knowledge
·         Looking at lived experiences; what do some people think and do, what problems do they face and how do they deal with them?
·         Looking at that which is specific, unique and deviant
·         It is only possible to generalise inside cases (it may be shown within this group, and may be similar for others)
·         There are no true statements of facts, so no interest in arguing against them
·         Values are binding
·         Limited replicability
·         Describing rather than explaining phenomena; interpreting and translating data
·         Data gathered can generate theory (options for both deductive and inductive theory)

I have come to the decision that Interpretivism suits my topic of research and personal approach to research as it has been introduced to me in class and in my own reading and not just on the basis that I like the sound of it. It fits the proposal I made for my study – I will of course relate my specific research methods and techniques to my research perspectives in my thesis (and perhaps here too) in due couse. However, briefly, core Interpretivist research methods would be qualitative (although not always), use ethnography, be observational and include techniques such as interviews and case studies. Research is open-ended, unstructured and uncritical. I will re-evaluate the research methods and techniques I will be adopting now I have an awareness of social research philosophies, however – thankfully – an Interpretivist approach appears to correlate with those listed in my research proposal, so hopefully it will be a case for tweaking rather than a wholescale rewrite (!) of methods, now I have an awareness of my methodological perspectives.

Interpretivism also fits my own approach to social research. Regarding an Interpretivist approach, there are a few things to note about the researcher’s role/relationship to the research:

o    It is interactive
o    It is co-operative
o    It is participatory
o    The researcher is visible
§  she is self-reflexive
§  research is reflective, perhaps reflecting on power dynamics or the performance of those being observed and disrupting them if possible
§  research can involve the researcher putting herself in the place of another

Where Am I?
So in summary thus far: I am a subjectivist, whose research will adopt a feminist-interpretist approach. In using the term feminist here, I am referring to the multifarious feminisms, and defining my approach as one that will invoke an awareness of feminist issues, as opposed to just one specific or dominant form of feminism/feminist theory.

I am glad to have this part of my PhD settled. I can see why it is so much easier and enables more consistency to understand and apply this now, rather than tag it on in a couple of years time. I can honestly say that it has been incredibly hard work for my brain. My brain is now going to have a bit of time off from deep philosophical thought to concentrate on drawing together my work so far into something a bit more ‘fun.’ Fun in academic circles being designing a poster for the Heriot-Watt School ofManagement and Languages Poster Competition 2014. No felt-tips allowed!

14 November 2014

A Creative Interlude: A Conference and A Story

Tying in well with my previous post, today is a day away from Management PhD matters and back into the arts world I come from. It’s the annual OU in Scotland Arts Faculty Residential Conference at New Lanark. I have presented papers here before, and expect to again, drawing from arts-relevant research that emerges from my PhD. However this time around, alongside papers on colleagues’ research in the arts I’ll be presenting a slightly different form of research output: reading a selection of short prose on the theme of the craft of writing.

These stories emerged from my MFA in Creative Writing and after editing have joined a wider collection. Some have already found homes in various journals, short story magazines and one even won a competition. I’m hoping they go down well today, as they cross the boundaries between story for story’s sake, and pedagogy. They are of stories of varying length, so here is one of the shorter, suitable-for-a-blog-post-size flash fiction pieces, which hopefully provides a little light relief on a Friday. 


Consistent Characters

After fourteen years of service, Mike had been summoned to the city office, along with other members of his team, to be told exactly what the new system was.
             One of his colleagues asked for clarification.
            ‘Your new job title will be Parking Awarder,’ responded the Parking Manager. ‘It’s simple: if you see someone parking well, say reverse parallel on a hill, or pulling to the side of a busy road with an adverse camber without breaking the flow of traffic, then you ticket them. Any questions?’
            ‘And they come here to redeem the ticket. Or can they do it by post?’
            ‘We hope to have a postal redemption scheme in place before Christmas.’
            The Manager looked out at his assembled staff. He had never seen such a miserable response to a popular idea before.
            ‘We can always go up to people and tell them they didn’t quite make the cut,’ whispered Mike to the person sitting next to him.
            ‘Yes,’ replied his colleague, ‘or that they parked just outside of our hours of operation.’
            ‘It sounds like a great idea,’ said Mike. ‘Right up our street.’

The Reluctant Subjectivist


As previously mentioned, the weekly social research workshops I’ve been attending have covered ontology and epistemology, the nature of reality and approaches to investigating it. My next two posts will cover how my perspectives shape and suit my research, exploring and (hopefully) explaining my theoretical approach.  As a researcher, the two questions I need to answer in relation to my research are “the ontological question” and “the epistemological question.” These are related; it is not possible to have an ontological position that doesn’t correlate with an epistemological position. Similarly it is not possible to state your perspective without rejecting the other options with reason, but I can’t pretend to have found this part of becoming a researcher easy in any way.

Ontology concerns the form and nature of reality. It is, in short, “what exists?” and “what is reality?” This was very hard for me to comprehend. There are a lot of ontologies to wade through and many scholars with differing perspectives. This isn’t the place for a detailed critique of each viewpoint and I am certainly not, with very little in the way of a philosophical background, the person to even attempt a summary. I can just about put into words where I am now, after weeks of thinking about this.

I do not sit at the realism/objectivism end of the scale. Maybe this stems from me not understanding natural science. I blame having been through English secondary education in the 1990s where all natural science had to be categorised into one of chemistry, biology or physics. Science = a Bunsen burner (chemistry), woodlice (biology) or - actually, I can’t honestly remember what we did in physics. I don’t believe social entities/phenomena are external facts and exist separately to social actors. My understanding of the world is not that it is concrete and external; I don’t think reality is facts waiting to be discovered. I believe social actors shape phenomena.

At first, I felt I was a relativist. I’m not one for the middle ground or fence-sitting and on thinking further about myself, my approach to life and the way I have previously approached research projects, uncertainty crept in. Why did I think I was a relativist? It felt like the simpler yet comprehensive approach I was looking for. I was a relativist for eight weeks because going further meant acknowledging what I didn’t want to acknowledge. I asked myself why I wanted to stop there. It is the language issue, the idea that discourse plays a part. Similar to my reluctant feminism (see previous post) I’m going to have to admit that I’m a reluctant subjectivist.  

I’ve spent over fifteen years writing and critiquing fiction, the essence of which is viewpoint, character and story. As a writer; I construct meaning. I create stories from ‘facts’ that enable readers/viewers to experience universal truths. After a career spent primarily on creative writing my first concern was that positions towards the nominalism end of the sliding scale seemed to lead to a creative, shifting explanation of existence. I wanted nothing to do with what seemed to be storytelling, influenced by first person narration. Then I thought of my own shifting sense of existence. I thought about my relationship to my own life, and how after a year of immense change I no longer feel like myself anymore. I thought about the structures around me, how they used to influence me and how they influence me now. I thought about how these social entities have not changed but that I have. I thought about how at the same time these social entities have changed over time due to the impact of social actors. I realised I believe this: nothing is definitive and reality is in a constant state of revision.
With that settled, I hope to not have to return to ontology. If asked, I know where I am.