The Power of Peer Support

Peer support for doctoral students meets emotional and cultural needs outside power relations imposed by institutional structures and authority figures.

I was recently invited to contribute a blog post to the Trust Me! blog, an amazing resource for research supervisor development, helmed by Dr Kay Guccione, Chair of the University of Sheffield Mentoring Network. My post is based on a recent article I wrote about how peer support and student advocacy are important resources for supporting international (indeed, all) doctoral students. The original post is re-produced here with kind permission from Kay Guccione.

[Journal article ref: Lee, S. (2017). Peer Support for International Doctoral Students in Managing Supervision Relationships. Journal of International Students, 7(4), 1096–1103. http://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.1035971]

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I write from the perspective of a former postgraduate student leader (peer-mentoring others) and an international doctoral student. Based on my personal doctoral experiences, and interactions with fellow doctoral students, I share how peer support addresses supervision-related issues that are not easily met by administrative processes or supervisors themselves.

In the New Zealand context, the early period of one’s PhD candidature is ‘conditional’ and the candidate has to prepare a research proposal (or report), and a research ethics application if applicable, to be approved by the end of 6 months (extendable to 9 months). Thus, the most important milestone of a first-year PhD student was reaching ‘confirmed enrolment’. The stress of not seeming to make progress in meeting that milestone is compounded for international students who face family, societal, and/or financial pressure to succeed.

The stress of possible failure, as I have experienced for myself, comes about from supervision practices that do not provide encouragement to the developing researcher, and/or clear guidance for the documentation required for confirmation. Students who are new to the country and the institutional culture may be trying to make sense of their supervisors’ communication style and unspoken expectations. One may be trying very hard to read between the lines, while respecting the supervisors’ authority, and at the same time, wondering how far, and how best to assert one’s autonomy and epistemological perspective. Such negotiations may even continue past the confirmed enrolment stage and into the unfolding doctoral journey.

Across self-help guides and well-meaning (or maybe just mean) advice, such worries are often dismissed as ‘normal’ or somewhat needing to be better managed by the student. Rare is the response that asks supervisors to take greater responsibility in engaging with their students, especially those who are negotiating with intersecting demands of cultural ‘adaptation’, scholarly independence, and personal pressures of dealing with failure (however defined by the individual).

In my role as a postgraduate student representative at the university, I regularly engaged with international doctoral students. After I stepped down from the leadership position, I continued to mentor peers as and when the need arose. Having gone through a fairly rough first year, but coming out stronger at the end of it, provided me the insight to assist my peers in making sense of their experiences. I had also personally been on the receiving end of constructive advice from a more experienced peer. Had it not been for her regular following up on my situation, I might not have taken action to address my own well-being as a doctoral student.

In my conversations with fellow doctoral students, the issues they raised was more often than not related to the supervision relationship or supervision/communication practices. I usually respond by pointing out the various institutional structures that provide support for doctoral students. While many students had some idea of the hierarchy and reporting lines, few were prepared to use official routes of seeking redress. The suspicion of the efficacy of bureaucratic intervention was one reason; not wishing to expend additional emotional and mental energy was another; avoiding the embarrassment and shame of being exposed was also a likely reason if admitted. We would then discuss communication strategies, talk through possible outcomes, and debate on what a best case scenario would look like. Sometimes they concluded that institutional intervention was necessary. At other times, they chose to ‘wait and see’. It was also useful for us to rehearse what they wished to say to supervisors or other authority figures. Our conversations, done in private, did not promise to make things perfect. If anything, it reinforced the reality of imperfect but negotiable supervision experiences.

The doctoral journey is notorious for being isolating and emotionally draining. Institutions, especially at the faculty level, need to make concerted efforts to encourage peer interactions and peer mentorship so PhD students have opportunities to consult, debate and consider possibilities regarding supervision issues in a safe and supportive environment. As an international doctoral student, I have experienced and observed the benefits of peer support, especially when institutional structures and authority figures are not able to satisfactorily meet emotional and cultural needs.

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Being optimistic through academic networks

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I start off this year with several goals, the biggest being completing my PhD. One of the main reasons for doing a PhD was to start an academic career, which I now realise, after several years of PhD-ing, is what James Burford recently referred to as Cruel Optimism (drawing on Lauren Berlant’s 2011 work). Briefly, cruel optimism describes the doctoral aspiration for the academic good life in spite the depressing reality of scarce academic positions and short-term contracts.

Admittedly, I am an optimist, even in the face of the ‘precarious’ academic existence (see this article for example). Job stability is, after all, not a defining characteristic of many contemporary jobs and careers. A friend in an administrative role in New Zealand remarked to me that since graduating about five years ago, she has had five different positions in two different organisations. While she would have liked a more stable job, she has come to accept that positions come and go as companies restructure, chop and change. Her conclusion: Build and maintain your reputation. It was personal recommendations that enabled her to move from one position to the next.

I have taken her advice to heart and my other goal this year is to build and maintain my reputation. But then I start asking myself, what exactly is my reputation about? To answer this question, I turned to recent ‘how-to’ books on being an academic: How to Be An Academic by Inger Mewburn from Australia (aka The Thesis Whisperer), and Optimising your academic career: Advice for early career scholars by Carol Mutch, a New Zealand-based academic. Their advice has affirmed what I’ve been doing to build my reputation as an emerging scholar.

From Mewburn, I learnt about the academic ‘gift economy’ where giving gifts (e.g., sharing a journal article, donating time to a project) has unwritten rules about timing, expectations and reciprocity. So building a reputation could be about building social capital where the giver gets to be recognised as expert/generous/etc., and the receiver gains something valuable/solve a problem/etc. through various social relationships. But what if someone in the lower rungs of the academic hierarchy attempts to give gifts? What kinds of gifts would be appropriate and accepted? What kind of capital can be built through experiences and other relationships? Are the actions of gifting necessarily calculative? And do lower status givers eventually run into the cycle of cruel optimism?

These are questions for one or several PhD topics, but my tentative response is that building relationships come first before getting involved in the gift economy. This was especially so as I had relocated from Singapore to New Zealand for PhD study, and did not have much of a Kiwi social circle to begin with. My experience with academic relationships, or social relationships for that matter, were initially disappointing. It seemed hard to connect with people or get the momentum going for more lasting relationships beyond the friendly his and byes. The faculty didn’t seem interested in engaging doctoral students in the wider academic community either, especially with restructuring and staff movement humming in the background. But over the years, having learnt lessons of patience and endurance, I’ve developed positive academic connections, some at the university, but mostly beyond my immediate physical location. As one academic shared with me, it’s unlikely that you meet a whole bunch of like-minded souls in the next room, or next corridor, or even the next building. Networks need to be built outside your immediate affiliations.

I have done the usual route of conferencing, and depending on which conferences, some were more rewarding than others in terms of finding my ‘tribe’. But as Mewburn notes, social media is an underrated and underused resource for building social capital, reputation and relationships. I’ve been a techie of sorts since high school and I embraced social media several years before I started thinking about academia more seriously. While I do not expect any sort of close friendships through social media, various channels have enabled me to build an academic network with relations of varying closeness. Facebook helps me keep in touch with conference buddies, some of whom have become friends. Following various academic-related people and organisations on Twitter has led me to staying in touch with trends and the latest research. ResearchGate, the social media networking site for academics, has done exactly that for me – I follow academics of interest, and participate with everyone else in a mini gift economy: sharing and recommending articles with the wider network.

While going social for academic purposes has its drawbacks such as potential time wasting, privacy issues, risk of having intellectual property ‘stolen’, I’ve come to embrace the benefits, mostly because I recognise my limitations. I came into academia relatively late in the game and I do not have an established professional network in New Zealand. Being an outsider and precarious on various levels, social media became for me a more level playing field. Even though there are clearly more established and experienced players in the academic social media space, it seems easier for me to navigate the rules and boundaries within a virtual space than the world of ‘real’. Some of my peers, however, see no immediate benefit in getting involved with multiple social platforms. I agree – the benefits are not immediate, and sometimes not even obvious. I’ve only seen the fruit of my social media ‘investment’ in the past year, after engaging with various academic others in the course of the PhD work of conferencing, publishing and the like. For example, through a conference call going around Facebook, I tested the social waters for interest in doing a symposium. After a few hits and misses along the way, our symposium made it to the 2017 New Zealand Association for Research in Education (NZARE) Annual Conference.

Going social has also helped me shape my academic identity and find my niche, a topic that Mutch devotes a chapter to in her book, Optimising your academic career: Advice for early career scholars. In that chapter, she takes us through a series of questions such as: Why is it we want to do research? What is our passion? What makes us excited? What disciplines and areas does our research relate to? What do we want to be known for? Where do we want to go from here? It’s not an easy task to answer these questions by myself because sometimes the answer is: I don’t really know. But surveying research interests on social media leads to other topics, other strands of thoughts, and sometimes leads me to the answers to Mutch’s questions.

So what can I conclude about my academic networks? Firstly, they are both real and virtual, one reinforcing the other. Sometimes the face-to-face relationships gets reinforced in the virtual, sometimes the virtual appears in the real. Sometimes the virtual will likely stay virtual, but who knows when a conference might change that. Secondly, my networks have grown alongside my PhD journey, again, one feeding the other. My PhD work not only results in the ongoing drafts I have to write, but also reflective blog posts, publications, and conference presentations. These more public endeavours lead me to virtual chats, meeting actual people, and expanding my sources for calls for papers and collaborative projects. Lastly, whether or not we call it social capital or gift economy, there is a sense that networks thrive because of everyone else believing that there is value in networks – the belief that you will find out about important information more readily, that you can throw up topics for quick discussion, and that you might find a gem or two (or a much needed recommendation) among these virtual conversations. And not to mention the sense of belonging to a wider community of scholars interested in the things you are.

While the thought of a difficult and uncertain future after the PhD seems truly cruel, my experiences with social networks tell me that shares, likes and comments, plus longer and deeper conversations elsewhere, go a long way. So I choose hopeful optimism to start this year–and for the years to come.

Conference Season 2017

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The year-end was a bumper crop of conferences, varied and productive but for different reasons. At the beginning of 2017, I had only planned on presenting at one conference, but along the way, other opportunities came along that were hard to turn down. Despite working up a hectic schedule of five presentations at four events over three weeks (and managing sore throats in between), it was an extremely rewarding period of connecting my work to a larger audience, establishing new connections, and reinforcing existing ties.

My first conference was the annual NZARE (New Zealand Association for Research in Education) held on home ground at the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand, from 20 to 22 November. This was my first NZARE conference and actually hesitated submitting an abstract because I had the impression that my field of international education was not of particular interest to an audience focused on domestic issues in New Zealand schools. However, being in contact with the ‘Students and Emerging Researchers’ caucus group representative led to several conversations on Facebook and I was able to gather some momentum for an idea to propose a symposium on international education in New Zealand.

Subsequently, I rounded up two other postgraduate colleagues who had similar research areas, and called on my supervisor to be our chair for the symposium. Preparation for the symposium took some effort to coordinate, such as tying our different research topics together and doing our own internal peer review of abstracts and presentations, mostly through email or online meetings I’m glad to report that we worked well together and our symposium attracted a warm and cozy audience of about 15 or so people. Although international education has yet to catch on as a special interest group or an important theme within NZARE, I’m pleased that I’ve made a start in raising the profile of this particular aspect of education in Aotearoa New Zealand.

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Presenting on my research on international students

I also presented another paper at the NZARE conference, not based on my research, but on my personal experiences as a PhD student in New Zealand, titled “The promise of diasporic academics: Potential partnerships between the local and global”. More about this presentation here, but would like to add that the presentation resonated with many in the audience, especially the postgraduate students. This then led to interactions with new postgraduate friends from other universities in New Zealand and Australia. Connecting with other emerging researchers in education was certainly one of the highlights of the NZARE conference, and I hope future iterations of the conference will consider having a larger focus on postgraduate students.


The next couple of events took place at the University of Otago in Dunedin, an institution which I’ve long admired from afar. On 26 November, I attended the Education, Migration and Translation Research Symposium organised by the Centre for Global Migrations. The one-day multi-disciplinary symposium was varied in its presentations ranging from the classroom, to community, to larger ideological issues operating in diasporic and multiethnic spaces. Despite the wide-ranging topics, I enjoyed and learnt from the high quality presentations, not least the keynote presentation by Professor Michael Singh who demonstrated strong theoretical and historical links among the three big themes of education, migration and translation.

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Education, Migration and Translation Research Symposium organised by the Centre for Global Migrations, University of Otago, 26 November 2017

This one day symposium was truly an unforgettable experience where we spent most of that Sunday in one seminar room, not only sampling a large array of research, but having rich conversations with one another. In contrast to the intimate setting of the symposium was the NZASIA Conference held from 27 to 29 November, also at the University of Otago. The disciplines represented at this conference stretched widely from studies on various Asian countries or cultures, in both the humanities and social sciences. The wide spectrum, however, meant that it was challenging to connect with others working in a similar field. In fact, only a handful of presenters were researching educational issues and were dispersed in various session across the conference.


Paper presentation at NZASIA Conference 2017

While the intellectual engagement was not as rich as I had experienced at the symposium, the pre-conference postgraduate workshops facilitated by representatives from Asia New Zealand Foundation were practical and immediately useful. In particular, the workshop on engaging with the media stood out for me as I learnt about how to interact with the media productively and how to maximize my social media presence. Something new I learnt was that Facebook is by far the most used social media platform in New Zealand, and that Facebook videos are becoming more mainstream in showcasing new ideas, policies and products.

The final conference I participated in was the ISANA/ANZSSA Conference held in the Gold Coast from 6 to 8 December. This was the one conference that I had planned on attending just as the last ISANA conference ended last year. The International Education Association ISANA conference is the one conference that brings together practitioners and researchers in the field of international education in the Australasia region. Having participated and benefited from the 2016 conference, as well as being involved with ISANA in New Zealand, I was looking forward to the 2017 edition, this time co-hosted with its ally organisation, ANZSSA (Australian New Zealand Student Services Association), the peak professional organisation for staff in the post secondary sector in Australasia.

The Gold Coast setting was probably popular with many, especially those who love the beach. Admittedly, I am not a Gold Coast fan and was missing previous conference venues such as Dunedin and Wellington. I did enjoy, however, staying at the Meriton Serviced Apartments which felt more like a 5-star hotel with its excellent amenities and service. Waking up to the 4:30 am sunrise meant I had several hours in the morning to do my rounds on social media and email, work on blog posts, and have a leisurely breakfast – all in the comfort of an air-conditioned living area.


My paper presentation was scheduled during the Doctoral Consortium breakout session on the first day of the conference. While I was not expecting a huge turnout as there were several other practitioner-focused breakout sessions to choose from, there was an enthusiastic response from the audience who asked questions relating to both practical and theoretical aspects of my research.

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The many faces of conference presentations

Apart from presenting my paper, I also managed to connect with various delegates from both Australia and New Zealand, and getting a sense of the nature and scale of international education business at different institutions. I also managed to meet other postgraduate students and academics with similar research interests. As brief as our encounters were, our conversations nonetheless sparked the possibility of future collaborations.

My conference season ended on a high with my paper being awarded the IELTS Student Bursary Award for Best Paper during the conference dinner. What made this award extra special was that previous award winners were two female academics whose work I admired and whom I also looked up to as role models in academia. This was definitely a positive step towards my aspirations to be a researcher in international education!

It has been a whirlwind ride of seminar rooms, coffee breaks and networking, but I’ve been enriched by the many different conversations in the past three weeks. To mark the end of conference season, I’d like to give out my own awards for the following:

Best conference city: Dunedin, New Zealand. The lovely weather sustained throughout the five days I was there was simply unbeatable.

Best accommodation: Meriton Service Apartments. The Nespresso machine won me over in an instant. Uninterrupted wifi came a close second.

Best intellectual engagement: Education, Migration and Translation Research Symposium organised by the Centre for Global Migrations, University of Otago.

Best response to my presentation: NZARE Conference presentation – “The promise of diasporic academics: Potential partnerships between the local and global”.

Most relevant for my PhD research: Doctoral Consortium , ISANA/ANZSSA Conference.

Most conducive for postgraduate networking: NZASIA Conference. While I did not meet many in my field, there were plenty of opportunities to meet other postgraduate students during coffee and lunch breaks.

Not sure what conference season will look like next year but here’s hoping for similar, if not better experiences!

The Never Perfect World of Translation

 

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I’m coming towards the end of my data analysis involving Chinese/Mandarin data. It has been an exhausting process of working in two languages, whether at the technical level of translation or the analytical work of making sense of utterances in one tongue and articulating the analysis in English.

I’ve taken different approaches toward translation for two different types of data. For the data sets involving mobile phone messages, I did the translation on my own and asked my primary participants to verify my interpretation. I felt confident of undertaking the translation on my own as the data was textual and was therefore faster to process the meaning from one language into another in the same textual medium. Furthermore, I was able to dictate the style of translation, aiming for a similar informal style of exchange in English. Also, because I had continued contact with my informants who had provided the data, I was able to consult them to verify my interpretation of the text messages.

For the data set involving audio-recorded interactions, I asked a professional translator to do the transcription and translation. The reasons for not doing the translation on my own were related to my  own limitations: i) The exchange was fast-paced and it would have taken me an inordinate amount of time to undertake the translation; ii) Translation was also difficult for me as I was not familiar with the style of speech of one of the participants. I wanted a full transcription of the audio data in order to do a comprehensive analysis, and I needed to have this textual form in a matter of weeks, not months, in order for my data analysis to progress and not stall. Thus engaging a professional and experienced translator outweighed the benefit of undertaking the translation on my own.

The process of the two different approaches have been illuminating in understanding the nuances of translation from the broader perspectives of pragmatics and linguistics. I learnt a few lessons about translation. One, there may be several possible translations but one may fit the cultural context of the interactants more appropriately than others. Two, in using a Conversation Analytic approach to analysis, there is an inevitable tension between idiomatic and literal translations.

The many face of 恩 (ēn)

In both text messages and face-to-face interactions, the character 恩 or the sound represented by the character 恩 was used throughout. In English, the sound of 恩 is equivalent to ‘uhm’ or ‘um’. If you heard ‘uhm’ in an exchange, it would be transcribed as such and be understood as a continuer in most cases. However, to transcribe it literally as ‘mhm’ would be to miss the point of the 恩 utterance in Mandarin. In text messages, it is more often than not, a response to acknowledge or agree with what was said in the previous turn. In verbal speech, it can be similarly used, or it may also occur as a continuer. Even in the use of as acknowledgement or agreement, there are choices when deciding on an English equivalent: ‘Yep’, ‘yeah’, ‘yes’, ‘ok’, and the like.

When translating the text messages, I read the original exchange several times before deciding on whether 恩 was a nodding ‘yeah’ or a resounding ‘yep’ or an agreeable ‘ok’. In my participants’ review of my translation, there were times where they indicated a preference for a particular translation, e.g. ‘yeah’ instead of ‘ok’, which I incorporated into the final translation. With another similar sort of acknowledgement, 喔喔 (ō) (the character is used in duplication), my initial translation of ‘oh ok’ was replaced with my participant’s preference for ‘O I C’, a common shorthand for ‘oh I see’ in text messaging.

How much translation do you need?

Another lesson in translation came about when I dealt with the audio-recorded data that had been transcribed and translated by a professional translator. After I had received the transcription, I listened to samples of the recording to check against the transcription. My translator had done a stellar job. There were parts of the conversation that were difficult for me to ascertain such as particular words and phrases and what was said during overlaps. But the translator had meticulously captured the details and I was satisfied that it was a job that I could not have accomplished as well on my own.

When I started to read through the transcription and the translation, I then noticed that the translator had taken a particular approach. She had chosen to provide an idiomatic translation at the sentence level, rather than at a phrasal level. This only became obvious to me as I had done the translation of the text message data set on a phrasal level to preserve as much of the sequence and structure of the original text. While it was relatively easy to do a phrasal translation for text messages, doing so for the verbal interaction was not so straight forward. There were many false starts and instances of careless speech which goes mostly unnoticed during actual conversation, but stand out most clearly in transcription. I could appreciate her choice of a coherent translation that conveyed the intended meaning of the speakers, rather than a slavish translation of odd sounding phrases.

However, as I read and re-read, analysed and re-analysed my data, I found myself amending the translation to bear closer resemblance to the sequence and structure of the original language, as far as it was intelligible in English. This allowed me to note what the speaker was emphasising, as well as identity specific points where topic changes occurred.

Another issue I had to grapple with was the level of detail I wished to show in my transcription. In the Conversation Analysis (CA) literature, Hepburn and Bolden (2013) recommend a three-line transcription comprising the original orthography in the first line, a morpheme-by-morpheme translation in the second, and an idiomatic translation in the third. I hesitated to incorporate this detailed level of transcription as I felt that the bulkiness of having a three-line transcription would detract the reader from ease of reading and understanding. Although I used a CA approach in analysis, my research was not solely centred around the CA methodology but rather CA was used as tool to support my analysis. Thus for the verbal data, I decided on a two-line transcription with the Chinese characters in the first line, and the English translation in the second. For the text messages, however, I wanted to re-create the appearance of the text messages as it was on the mobile phone which meant placing the original text in text boxes. The translation of the messages were then placed below the box, rather having it after each line of text.

And the moral of the story is …

Never work alone in translating your data. Tap on your own linguistic and cultural resources but also recognise your limitations. Apart from making accurate translations, other equally important considerations are understanding context and speaker preferences, as well as the analytical goals of transcription.

 

Reference

Hepburn, A., & Bolden, G. B. (2013). The conversation analytic approach to transcription. In J. Sidnell & T. Stivers (Eds.), The handbook of conversation analysis (pp. 57–76). Oxford, England: Wiley-Blackwell.

The diasporic academic – a narrative in the making

This post marks the start of a new blog – The Diasporic Academic. Starting a new blog allows me to choose a more appropriate title to reflect my current state of affairs. For the past two years, I was using Teacher Sherrie, a blog I started when I embarked on my MAT in TESOL, to write about my PhD experiences and research topics. I’ve been thinking about my academic narrative recently, and I realise that the ‘teacher’ label is simply not the right ‘frame’ for my current, and potentially, future endeavours.

I first heard about the term ‘diasporic academic’ from Wendy Larner during her Keynote Presentation at the 2016 ISANA conference. The presentation was based on her 2015 paper, and according to Larner (2015), the diasporic academic is defined as one with multiple national affiliations. Examples include a researcher from one country based in another country working on a collaborative project, and a doctoral student from one country carrying out research in another country, or travelling between countries for research purposes.

Image credit: Imma Moles

Apart from identifying academics as having links in more than one country, ‘diasporic’ further points to these individuals as being intermediaries, acting as transnational knowledge brokers. They broker international relationships between countries by using “their experiential understandings, linguistic skills and ability to read cultural nuance by providing insider accounts” (Larner, 2015, p. 202).

I remember being inspired by this perspective of foreign/non-native researchers. I wrote down personal notes on what this term meant to me and I discussed this term with some fellow international doctoral students. We concluded that the concept of the diasporic academic was promising but also lamented that the current university climate viewed international doctoral students as funding and research targets more than transnational knowledge brokers. My initial enthusiasm was snuffed out quickly enough.

Recently, however, the term ‘diasporic academic’ began to resonate with me again. In the past six months, I’ve been translating my data, analysing it through translanguaging efforts (Lewis, Jones, & Baker, 2012), that is, thinking in both English and Chinese to make sense of Chinese text and presenting the argument in English. I also finished a draft article on being a bilingual researcher, and presented about conducting cross-cultural research in an English-dominant environment. And then as I sat down thinking about who I was as an academic, what kind of narrative I was trying to write, the answer presented itself: I am a diasporic academic.

I am a diasporic academic, not only as a foreigner researching about international students in New Zealand, but also as a third generation Chinese Singaporean having to differentiate myself from other Chinese, both nationals and diaspora, to those unfamiliar with the ‘Chinese diaspora‘. I have to point out that ‘diaspora’ is a highly contested territory and many may disagree with how I have used the term. Nonetheless, I believe it is a term whose meaning is evolving with changing patterns of migration, whether temporary or permanent. And so the meaning I attach to being a diasporic academic will no doubt change in the course of developing an academic identity and career in the years to come.

 

References

Larner, W. (2015). Globalising knowledge networks: Universities, diaspora strategies, and academic intermediaries. Geoforum, 59, 197–205. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2014.10.006

Lewis, G., Jones, B., & Baker, C. (2012). Translanguaging: Developing its conceptualisation and contextualisation. Educational Research and Evaluation, 18(7), 655–670. http://doi.org/10.1080/13803611.2012.718490

Surviving the PhD in an Age of Uncertainty


I’ve entered my third year of doctoral studies and looking back, I’ve learnt many lessons both pleasant and painful. In this post, I’d like to reflect on what has been important to me in ‘surviving’ but also at times ‘thriving’ in a journey beset by uncertainty.

Uncertainty lurks in all corners of doctoral study, including the research itself such as grappling with theory and data collection and analysis, as well as the supervision relationships. There’s also uncertainty in what comes after – what kind of career will my PhD lead to. There’s no way to avoid uncertainty, but there is a phrase my supervisor introduced to me at our very first supervision meeting that may help manage it – ‘ambiguity tolerance’.

When I first heard it, my first reaction was to shake my head. I didn’t give up a job and travel all the way here to deal with ambiguity. I came here to do research – unambiguous research! Looking back at my naive response,  I can now say that a good measure of ‘ambiguity tolerance’ will get you through uncertainty. If you’re willing to accept that answers don’t always come immediately and may change along the way, uncertainty doesn’t have to turn you into a train wreck.


I’ll frame my reflection about being (in)tolerant about ambiguity along three points: i) research, ii) relationships, and iii) results.

Research

Research is a long and intensive search for answers do I absolutely do not recommend flying solo. Sure, the PhD is about being independently developing new ideas and forming critical thought, but being independent doesn’t mean not using resources and resources include other humans, more specifically, mentors. These are not your supervisors but people who are able to help you make sense of your research.

Recent graduates help you see that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Research groups that meet regularly help create a space for intellectual (and social) development. It think one of the most valuable mentors a PhD student can have are those whom the PhD student aspires to become – the academics or professionals in your chosen field. In my experience, they are all around you but challenging to connect with, especially when you’re a cultural/professional outsider. But they’re valuable enough for me to keep trying, even if it’s a brief coffee chat, or several failed attempts before we sit down face to face.

While establishing real life connections with mentors can be hard work without any assurance of success, connecting with virtual mentors, thankfully, is within your control and full of certainty! By virtual mentors, I’m referring to those whose work is about demystifying the PhD process. My top virtual mentors are (in no particular order) Inger Mewburn aka Thesis Whisperer who regularly blogs (and does research on) PhD issues, Pat Thomson who offers nuggets of golden advice on writing, and the ThinkWell team of Hugh Kearns and Maria Gardiner whose advice on achieving and maintaining high performance is spot on.

Relationships

Supervision relationships for me are really about changing identities over the course of dong the PhD. At the beginning, I believed I was an apprentice learning from the master, expect that it wasn’t clear to me how I was supposed to learn from the master. I simply felt thrown about by the waves of insecurity and feelings of being inadequate. After confirmation of the research proposal, however, I felt that I had finally earned the right to research and became a lot more confident. I was still ‘learning on the job’ and made mistakes along the way, but I saw myself at the steering wheel most of the time. Although my supervision relationships never really took on the apprenticeship model I had hoped for at the beginning, I feel that I’ve thrived in other ways. I had become more tolerant of ambiguity and allowed the ‘unknowns’ to drive me towards searching for clarity – one bit at a time.

Results

Now as I’m working on analysis and figuring out the meaning of it all, while being mindful of deadlines, I’m feeling I should be less tolerant of ambiguity. Yet, there’s still no escaping the process of discovery – one that takes time and patience. For example, the three weeks I had planned on analysing a data set eventually took double the time – and double the agony. I remember feeling that I needed to come up with an answer by the end of the day, but each end of the day seemed murkier than the previous one. But allowing the process of discovery to take its course – as well as stepping back from it to let the mind rest – was what yielded results.

Apart from the results of my research, I’m also concerned about what kind of person I’m becoming as a result of being intensively involved in research. Is life and its periods of illness and mood swings affecting my PhD, or is the PhD affecting my life? This is one thing I don’t want to be ambiguous about – I am not my PhD; it mustn’t end up controlling my emotions and self-image.

A quotation from C.S. Lewis sets me thinking about who I am beyond the PhD: “To what will you look for help if you will not look to that which is stronger than yourself?” It reminds me that achieving a PhD is not the be all and end all of my life. That I – and my research – is really not the most important thing. That an all-powerful God is the one who gives me purpose and the ability to fulfill that purpose – ambiguous to me for now – but will surely be revealed in His time. I can only truly be ambiguity tolerant if I can trust in an unambiguous God.

2016 – A year of living intensively

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My candle burns at both ends;
   It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
   It gives a lovely light!
First Fig by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I look back at this year and I think of myself as a circus performer balancing plates on my fingertips, toes and nose. Those plates represent data collection, conference papers and presentations, thesis writing and serving the postgraduate community. At times, some plates were spinning slower than others, but none of them came crashing down. I could be extolling the virtues of productivity, but I have to concede all that scheduling and compartmentalising has awful side effects that affected not just myself, but my family as well (a Guardian article elucidates this reality).

Through this one very intensive year, I learnt lessons that no textbook can teach you about doing research – that you never only embody a single role of the PhD researcher; that you mustn’t confine yourself to just doing the PhD; but that in the end, you are ultimately human, not machine, a being with limitations and a spirit that needs to be nourished.

“I am a PhD student.”

Sure, I am a PhD student. My purpose is to conduct research and report on it. And while it is a time and life consuming endeavour, I am also many other people – a mother, a wife, a friend. However, the personal realm didn’t feature much on my very filled out Google calendar. In fact, maybe because it didn’t get penciled in, it just didn’t get done. Since the better part of the day was filled with academic, mostly mentally exhausting, activities, by the time I came home, it was pretty much leftovers for my family in terms of energy and attention. As a non-resident and non-local, building relationships with other families and peers was also important, but that simply dropped off the radar – there were no leftovers after the leftovers. And as for the fabled ‘me’ time, it was barely experienced except when I was on a plane to Wellington to attend a conference.

“Publish or perish!”

And of course, when you do research, there is a need to communicate it to a wider audience. Conferences and publications are important academic/research activities – especially when future employment opportunities are dependant on them. While the PhD research is the central focus, there is also a need to seek out appropriate conferences and publishing opportunities. I was very fortunate to have participated in the recent ISANA Conference, a conference that nurtures doctoral students by having a doctoral consortium and encouraging doctoral students to publish refereed papers. It was also at this conference that the mantra of ‘publish or perish’ was put in perspective. The life of an academic is one of writing – and very importantly – publishing. Getting your work reviewed by intellectual others who are detached from your work and yourself (i.e. not your supervisors and friends) builds the inner capacity to be critiqued and to respond as part of the scholarly conversation. So even though doing the PhD is demanding, it’s simply not enough to write a long and complex tome only a handful of people will read. And even if you were interested in non-academic jobs, prospective employers would still need to see you doing more than just being holed up in a room writing endlessly.

“Is there any wax left in the candle?”

So I’ve realised that I’m more than just a PhD student but the commitment to doing it is draining my energy away from important relationships in my life. I’m also convinced of the need to be a productive academic during my PhD candidature, and not wait till after the PhD. This seems to be leading to a conclusion where I resign myself to another busy year ahead and hope that family and friends will be understanding and forgive me for my lack of tenderness towards them.

But I reject that conclusion. It will be another busy year, without a doubt, but it will also be a more intentional year. My intentions are not grandiose plans, but about making family time a non-negotiable part of my schedule. I’m thinking short trips with the family during school holidays. Better yet if I have to pay for the trips. I know I can’t devote the same amount and kind of energy towards friends but my lunch and coffee breaks can be planned with them in mind. I think the main challenge, however, is to have ‘me’ time that sits outside academic and personal demands.

So instead of going through another intensive year with relationships dangling at the periphery, my hope for 2017 is to be intentional with my time with people who matter, and perhaps I should start with myself. It won’t be a solo trip to a mountain top, but a still morning or quiet evening in prayer.
O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.

Relationships in research

lightbulb

I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about interviews. I’m preparing to recruit research participants and the entry point into their lives is the interview. But setting aside the interview for a moment, my biggest challenge is to even get research participants. I know who I want, but will they want me?

The process of gaining entry into people’s lives appear to be quite matter of fact in so many reports. It could be a case where the researcher has an existing relationship with participants, e.g. classroom teacher, or has approached relevant gatekeepers, or has simply cast a net out and caught some fish. Yet whether it is a case of familiarity or looking for total strangers, any research involving human beings surely deals with having some kind of relationship with them – establishing one, maintaining it, and towards the end of the research, perhaps ending it or leaving it to wear off its novelty.

Even approaching gatekeepers is a matter of managing relationships. This is the stage I’m at. I find myself consciously courteous, watching for signals of disinterest. No one owes me my research participants, I tell myself as I carefully explain what I want to do and hope that they smile, nod, and say a few words. Perhaps be interested in my research? Offer me encouragement? Give me tips on how to approach their students?

Some of these gatekeepers are warm, some cold. Some appear genuinely supportive, others are managing my presence. Again, who am I to make demands? Who am I? Someone who needs them more than they need me. And this, too, will be the case with my participants.

In the earlier stage of planning the research and submitting the ethics application, my supervisors and I agreed that the incentive for students to take part in my research was the opportunity to be able to talk to someone and reflect on their learning. And now I’m thinking about why they would want to talk to me. Who am I? A friendly face who wants to chat? Someone who shares the colour of their skin? Someone who will shower her attention on them?

I will find out in the course of the next few weeks whether any student will respond to my call for participants. Perhaps they will be curious and come and talk to me. Perhaps they will be amused but turn away. I don’t need too many, ten will be nice, but I will need to earnestly seek them out till I find them.

I can’t really predict what these research relationships will be like. I feel a great responsibility towards my participants – not wanting to exploit them but eager to dig into their experiences. Relationships, especially new ones, are really made up of the moments and encounters that take place. I hope these moments and encounters hold some value for my participants. I’m not sure what, and I’d like to find out. If they let me.

Using Google Hangouts on Air for a Research Presentation

Using Google Hangouts on Air for a Research Presentation

Although Google Hangouts on Air launched in May 2012, I only recently discovered it when I chanced upon a colleague’s live lecture while scanning my Google+ feed. And what I saw, I liked. Google Hangouts on Air (or HOA for short) broadcasts what happens in a Google Hangout session. In that session, you can choose to have a conversation with people you invite, work on Google docs, or what I thought was the most promising, conduct a presentation via screenshare. The live session is streamed via YouTube and that live stream is automatically saved as a video whenthe broadcast ends.

Google Hangouts on Air
Google Hangouts on Air

Practice Makes Perfect

While the process sounds simple, I had to practise going through the process of setting up a HOA, broadcasting it and checking if the recording of the session matched what I imagined it to be – five times to be exact – before I was convinced I was sure of what to do at the actual presentation. Through the practice sessions, here are some of the pitfalls I encountered:

  • Entering a name for your HOA generates a YouTube link for the live session in standby mode. Hitting the broadcast button makes the video ‘live’. However, if you open the page for the YouTube live session and record at the same time, you will get two sets of audio being recorded. So after checking that the YouTube link has been created, close the browser or tab.
  • There are several options for screenshare – desktop and the various windows that are open. Although it may seem obvious to screenshare the particular application you are using for your presentation, that did not work for me – the slides did not appear to move as I clicked through them in presentation mode. What was more reliable was screensharing the desktop and then activating whichever application I wanted.
  • A mic is necessary for the best sound input. Otherwise the sound quality in the video sounds muffled.

HOA For Real This Time

The use of HOA at my presentation (of my research paper Understanding the Identity of One ELL in Singaporewent fairly smoothly but it was only after the whole process was completed did I realise the finer details of implementation. A few realisations as I watched the playback of my presentation:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tPO8943kD3M&w=560&h=315]

  • The screenshare (using desktop) of my powerpoint presentation was exactly what I had on my desktop (presenter mode), but not on the projector screen (full screen mode). Using Microsoft Powerpoint 2013 meant that once the application detects a projector, it goes into presenter mode with the notes of the current slide and a preview of the subsequent slide show at the side of the screen. I didn’t like it but others thought it was cool. Note for future HOA: change the default presenter mode to full screen presentation.
  •  The mic I used was an arm attached to headphones and had a long wire so that I could move around with ease but stay connected to the laptop. While the long wire was helpful for movement, the awkward shape of an arm mic dangling from my neck resulted in inconsistent volume in the recording.
  • I recorded both the presentation and the Q&A which meant a 58 min recording. 58 min is an overwhelming duration for a YouTube video clip. In fact, some friends gave feedback that the video would stall halfway through. Not sure if it’s because the recording is too long or it’s a technical glitch. Either way, I intend to edit the video to include just the presentation portion which would last about 30 min.

More Tech Won’t Hurt

HOA aside, I was also experimenting with the use of Padlet during the presentation for audience members to post their questions, comments, etc. As it was a live audience, I guess few were inclined to post anything since there was going to be a Q&A session immediately after the presentation. A friend who was keen to try out Padlet did a little more than post comments. He posted a related link as well as uploaded a few photos of my presentation to my Padlet wall. I wasn’t expecting photos but this turned out to be a neat way of capturing moments of an event.

Using Padlet during a presentation
Using Padlet during a presentation

Conclusion

The best outcome of my presentation experiment was that the entire event was captured and archived. The YouTube video serves as a reference for me to reflect on how I could conduct a presentation more effectively, on how I could refine my thought process, and provides another avenue for me to share my research ideas with a broader audience. As long as HOA remains free, it will probably become the tool of choice among tech novices like myself to create (and archive) live presentations.

Me and those English-speaking Elites

Blog Post - Me and those English-speaking Elites

Last month, I presented a paper based on my Masters research project at the 2013 Joint SELF Biennial International Conference and Educational Research Association of Singapore (ERAS) Conference.

My research was a single case study which analyzed the English language learning experience of my student using Bonny Norton’s notion of how identity intersects with social relationships, and James Gee‘s take on Discourses.


Me and those English-speaking Elites: Uncovering the Identity of One ELL in Singapore from Sherrie Lee

Here’s a Google Hangouts on Air recording of my presentation of my research

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tPO8943kD3M

For the abstract, read on:

Me and those English-speaking elites: Uncovering the identity of one minority ELL in Singapore

The minority English language learner (ELL) in Singapore is one who does not have English as a home language nor considers English as one’s first language even though Singapore’s education system and virtually every aspect of civic life uses and promotes English as a first and official language. Using the narrative inquiry method, I explore one minority ELL’s (“Rachel”) past and present schooling experiences in learning English. In understanding Rachel’s identity as an English language learner, I consider how her primary Discourse – a Mandarin-speaking working class family background – influences the acquisition of the secondary Discourse of school and English as a first and academic language (Gee, 2012).  I also show how her identity is shaped by how inequitable social relationships influence language learning, and how investment in learning English is driven by both real and metaphorical capital to be gained (Norton Peirce, 1995; Norton, 2000).  I then suggest that Rachel’s apparent contradictory attitudes of desire and reluctance toward language learning opportunities can be resolved by Gee’s (2012) notion of a mushfaking learner.

References

Gee, J. P. (2012). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourse (4th ed.). Oxford: Routledge.

Norton Peirce, B. (1995). Social identity, investment, and language learning. TESOL Quarterly, 29(1), 9–31.

Norton, B. (2000). Identity and language learning: Gender, ethnicity and educational change. London: Longman/Pearson Education.