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. 

7 November 2014

Towards a Feminist Viewpoint via Motherhood

There is much preparatory learning required around understanding what a PhD is, what it should do for the subject area, institution, sponsors and for you, before you actually start writing it. Early on, one of the academics at Heriot-Watt said to my new PhD cohort, “The only problem you are solving is that of how to do a PhD” and that sums it up well, only that is the umbrella problem, with lots of little issues hanging off it. One issue to resolve – an example of the academic-in-training experience – is learning what sort of researcher you are before you storm in, regardless of any awareness of your own overt or hidden bias, and understanding the approach your subject matter requires.

Developing an understanding of social research philosophies, in order to establish and be able to develop and justify my own methodological approach to my research, is a heavy-going task. The weekly social research workshops I’ve been attending have been about ontology and epistemology, the nature of reality and approaches to investigating it. While I’m not sure I know much about anything anymore, I do need to decide which philosophies will inform my approach to my research. If I can draw some conclusions about the type of theorist I am going to be, I can move forward with more confidence in my research planning.

There are numerous philosophical positions in the field of management research. In our workshops we have discussed researcher bias and this is what I am going to need to be careful about, realising what I now realise about myself. My conclusions so far are that my bias leads me towards feminism while my subject matter requires investigation using an interpretivist approach. This sits alongside my ontological position of relativism. More on how interpretivism and relativism will suit and shape my research in later posts, after this evaluation of my feminist slant and why I need to acknowledge and reflect on this bias.

My research topic is gender and modern apprenticeships. Feminist research does not have to be on gender and not all gender research is feminist, but what a feminist approach allows for is acknowledgement of gender and sensitivity to other discriminatory barriers. In my field of research discriminatory practice directly influences career choice. This broader sensitivity to discrimination is key: if one area of discrimination is dealt with within an organisation (while it doesn’t always follow) it is more likely that other areas of discrimination will also be dealt with. This is why, when delivering career guidance/ jobseeking sessions, I often direct clients to the Stonewall guide to gay friendly employers  (although on reflection this also demonstrates my bias towards reducing discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation). This is my rational, outward looking reason for being drawn towards feminism.

There is a deeper rooted, personal reason why I am being drawn to feminism though; this is the bias I need to limit. It would be fair to say that I find life harder to negotiate since having a child. I wouldn’t have said my earlier career choices were affected by my gender therefore I didn’t need to be much of a feminist. I felt my career choices were more affected by being an only child (a research project for once I have my doctorate). Maybe I had an equal enough journey through my career field to date, mixed with blinkered eyes and naivety, but I didn’t want to have to be a feminist. I didn’t mind being a disability rights campaigner or wanting equal treatment for everyone regardless of sexual orientation based on the experiences of close friends, but when it was me, well that was different. Maybe this is why my research topic appealed to me. I thought I was detached from the major themes. I was wrong.

A year ago, I was a woman with an established career, planning to take just a few months off to have a baby. How simple that sounds! How minimally disruptive to my life! I took nine months in the end, and came back as a mother with a different, re-evaluated career path and career plan for the next five years. I had a primarily work from home job that had been sculpted to work around a child. I wanted a flexible career that enabled me to spend as much time as possible with my son; I’d planned ahead. While I wouldn’t be treading water while he was young, major career progression wasn’t likely but I was happy with that; I liked my job. Then something else came up: a PhD opportunity. I gathered opinions not on whether I could do it academically (there was however agreement across the board that I could) but on whether I could do it with a young child. The answer was yes, and that it’d be a good time to do it. The PhD ticked the same boxes as my job, with a few more for good measure.

A PhD fits well around a young family. A recent Guardian Online call for images about PhD study included several parenting-meets-PhD images  – there are a good few teddy bears in there. One of my closest friends, by unexpected coincidence, a single parent with two primary school age sons, has also just stared a PhD. So why has it been so hard?

I’ve gone from being the higher earner in a partnership, to a full-time student on a bursary, with primary childcare responsibility and a part-time job and because of circumstance we’ve had to manage the first term without any childcare support. And a home doesn’t make itself, however fairly the tasks are split. But that doesn’t, on the surface, explain it. That isn’t in itself a gendered reason.

In some ways it is about managing change. Much has changed in the past twelve months; work, child, family, home – but this is not the change I am talking about. Amongst female friends who’ve had children in recent years I see patterns: is it their lives and careers that have been re-evaluated in light of how society perceives them, now they are mothers. I do know a smattering of dual-career parents working in non-standard jobs/industries, full-time dads and same-sex couples breaking the mould with pride, determination and – more often – due to circumstances that make it impossible to manage otherwise.

A friend of mine had an identical career path to her male colleague: same degree, same grade job, same company. She had a child, took nine months off and became her baby’s primary carer. Her colleague is now a managing director. She’s reduced her hours to part-time, is planning to have another child and another period of maternity leave. I know of two other similar scenarios. This happens, over and over. Women, mothers, have a tendency to take a career break at what becomes the most inopportune time. They have a tendency to change their job/hours/role after they become mothers. But what changes? Why can’t they resume their working life where they left off? Let’s put the ‘unaffordability of childcare unless you are on a significant wage and have accessible and flexible childcare provision near to work’ issue aside for a while. I’ll come back to that in future, I am sure.

 …in most cases, work is organized on the image of an unencumbered worker who is totally dedicated to the work and has no responsibilities for children and family demands other than earning a living. (Acker, 2009)

Work isn’t set up for those with childcare responsibilities, let alone working mothers. Joan Acker writes about inequality regimes. Work structures aren’t built around workers with families or caring commitments, or heaven forbid lives outside of the workplace, they have to be adapted. The built environment isn’t built around any mothers, let alone working ones. It is set up for people who go out and about at peak-time, free and easy, without baggage and without wheels. It is set up for fit and healthy white men in suits. It is set up for the character that George Clooney plays when he stands grinning next to the machine in the Nespresso advertisements, and I’m not convinced that even George Clooney fits the business-suited manager image he’s portraying. Pods of coffee? Really? He’s a coffee-in-a-cup-from-a-shop-supporting-the-local-business kind of guy, surely?

Motherhood, I’ve come to realise, is as clear-cut as it comes in causing a woman to be held back due to her gender, and it is a shock when it happens. This is what has changed: my gender has started to make a difference. Having a child could well push you into feminism, perhaps with a little militancy. You are asked questions you weren’t asked before and they seem out of place, presumptions are made about what you think and might do before your own thoughts or actions are allowed to stand for themselves. Maybe similar things were said and done previously, but you laughed them off or proved them wrong. You realise that mechanisms to bring about change are hard to find or engage with. Gender has appeared, and it’s standing in your way. The hardest thing is, you can’t put your finger on exactly what it is that is wrong, but you know it’s there. It’s everywhere.

Thinking about this tangible yet intangible concept in relation to being a researcher clarifies why I need to understand my own ontological and epistemological positions. If I know my own philosophical assumptions about reality and can find a social research approach that correlates with this and the topic I need to explore (which I may have a strong personal link to), I will have a framework and the vocabulary to make the not quite known knowable. That is my job as a PhD researcher. I’m hoping a final decision on which philosophies these are will have been made in time for my next post…

Acker, J. (2009) From glass ceiling to inequality regimes in Sociologie du travail vol. 51 pp. 199-217

5 November 2014

November 5th: “baby you’re a firework…”

…perhaps a Catherine Wheel attached to a garden fence that stutters at first but gets going properly if you give it time, usually after the other fireworks have already gone off. Remember: never return to a lit firework, it most likely will go off in its own time.

Hopefully that sets the scene for a less academic and more personal blog post. It is almost two months since PhD enrolment and there has been a noticeable lull in blog posts, which is not without a run of legitimate reasons. Having managed to actually start, despite the lingering effects of Bell’s Palsy (recent news of a previous series winner of XFactor having it means people understand better why I went into hiding for a month), the Bolger household has been repeatedly struck down with various germs (onslaughts of fresher’s flu in both directions as my husband also works for a university) plus the smallest member of the family picking them up wherever he crawls and popping out new teeth at the most inconvenient moments. What else could happen within the first months of a PhD to keep the harvest-time apple cart well and truly upset? Let’s buy a house! That’ll do it!

Buying a house is an outright faff from start to finish. At one point I applied for us to go on Location,Location, Location. We were very close to being on it, at which point we realised we really needed to just find a house ourselves and didn't want to go on the telly (never mind that I was still very self-conscious about my Bell's Palsy). We found a house. We bought it. We moved in. See those ten words I just wrote? To get from the first “we” to the “in” involves more angst, upheaval, meeting of people, going to places, things not happening, then happening, then stalling, then more stop-start-will-it-won’t-it-has-the-bank-just-lost-our-deposit than I thought was imaginable. Then add an incompetent telecommunications provider creating an issue with your account closure so unfathomable that even they can’t work out why it’s gone wrong and charging you for the pleasure of not fixing it and you get the picture. Moving house is not easy.

House move complete, I have an “office” at home to work from. We’ve also got a downstairs w.c./ cloakroom so I am quite beside myself and convinced I have moved up a social class. A friend commented to me when I was offered a PhD scholarship: “Take it, these things don’t happen to the likes of us.” That’s how I feel about the toilet and vanity basin by the front door.

My PhD has been rumbling on in the background, with just the one workshop missed throughout it all caused by an inexplicably spotty eleven month old who came and sat in my office on campus for the afternoon instead. Without a reliable internet connection at home, it’s been “old school.” Books! Offline resources! Remember those? I found them, many of them, during the unpacking of boxes.

A new routine is emerging out of a higgledy-piggledy few months. There is even a part-time childcare place on the horizon, once a slot becomes available, which comes in at just under the cost of a daily flight to Sweden and putting my child in nursery there. IPPR research translated into a tidy BBC article on why the UK needs more affordable childcare here. Yes, those figures are right. It is over £100 a week for a part-time nursery place. In Sweden you pay a maximum of £113 per month for a full-time place. 

In summary: soon I have the potential to get back to business with a seasonal bang and maybe even an internet connection at home from Friday. For now, I'm in a McDonalds car park (other car parks are available, most recently Asda) using their WiFi to do some work and write this blog, while my son sleeps in the back seat. That's what this particular working/studying mummy looks like in today's Britain, where appropriate, flexible childcare, essential to enable working parents live a less stressful, less guilt-ridden life, and boost the economy, is not only expensive but is also very thin on the ground.