The Discursive Construction of Motherhood in Mumsnet Talk: In Simple Words

I’ve been meaning to write an ‘up goer five’ explanation of my thesis for ages and finally got round to it today. If you haven’t heard of it yet, up goer five is a method created by geneticist Theo Sanderson for explaining complex ideas in a way everyone can understand: by using only the top 10,000 words in the English Language. If you want to know more, the scientific american blog has a great summary. This is what I came up with:

I’m looking at how mums say who they are when they talk to other mums on the computer. I’m looking at what they can say and what they can’t say, who they can be and who they can’t be, because of the words they can use, the words all around them and the words that have been said before.

I want to know whether having a child is about being a man or a woman, and if it is, how we make it that way. I want to know what it is possible for women who have children to say, what it is easy for them to say and what makes sense to them. I also want to know how they try to use words to say or to be something different even when it’s hard to do and it doesn’t seem to make sense. I want to know whether the computer helps them to do this, makes it harder, or maybe both.

The up goer five version of my thesis is kind of a perfect example of how language constitutes reality. It was very difficult, if not impossible, to express certain concepts within this kind of restraint. Just like it’s very difficult to envisage new ways of being a female parent within the discursive constraints at work in everyday interactions. If you want to have a go, there are a few editors around to help you keep within the strict constraints! I used Sanderson’s own.

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A child’s take on academia

Last night, I had a conversation with my seven-year-old about peer review. It went like this:

Child: What did you do today, mum?

Me: Well, I got some feedback on a paper I wrote. They liked it!

Child: A paper? How many questions did you have?

Me: Uhhh… None.

Father: It’s like a big write. Have you done those at school?

Child: Oh! Yes. So what’s feedback?

Me: Well, comments on what I wrote.

Child: Ticks and crosses?

Me: Well, sort of like that, yes.

Child: Oh. So how many ticks did you get?

Me: Um, well, none really. But they did say they liked it.

Child: Did you get any crosses?

Me: Um, well, I got some comments on things I need to do better.

Child: Are they like crosses?

Me: Well, yes, I suppose they are.

Child: *wide eyed* How many crosses did you get?

Me: Well, uh, at least 20, I suppose.

Child: *looks horrified* Oh. Well… Never mind, mum.


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Blogger’s Block

I’ve been struggling to find the motivation to write a blog entry over the past few months. Since August, I’ve been writing, writing, writing – chapters, journal articles, abstracts and presentations. Adding another writing job to that list has not been a very appealing thought. It’s been so long since I last posted that WordPress have only gone and changed the bloody posting format again and I am back to being a completely clueless novice.

But today I finally found myself at a hiatus, with about an hour to kill, and I thought ‘Aha! I will write that blog post. With all these things I’ve been working on over the past few months, I must have loads to write about. Here goes…’

Document 1.

Blinking cursor.


No inspiration.

No thought-provoking, interesting, anecdotal nuggets to share with the world. None at all… How can this be?

But wait, my chronically forward-thinking past self has been making a list of potential blog topics for just this very moment.

But nothing on this list appealed. Top tips for the self-reflexive researcher? Boooooring! Using NVivo? Done to death. My thoughts on researching Mumsnet? Ugh. I couldn’t summon the enthusiasm to write about any of these things.

So, in despair, as in all times of desperation, I turned to Google. Ah, Google, my faithful friend. You seem to have an answer for almost every problem I can conceive. Can’t find my car keys? Google! Lost the page reference for an important quote? Google! Child refusing to eat, drink or sleep? Google knows what to do! And sure enough, Google did not let me down. I searched using the terms that seemed to most accurately sum up my predicament: ‘bloggers block’. And sure enough, this is a thing! I felt immediately vindicated. What I have is an actual real problem! Lots of good people get bloggers block! I am totally normal and should not immediately delete my blog in a frustrated rage.

I clicked on the first link (, if you’re interested), but I didn’t need to read it. Of course, I will just write about my experience of having bloggers block!

So there you have it.

Today I had bloggers block.

And that’s all she wrote.


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Five tips for better, stress-free writing

freddie boy / Foter / CC BY-SA

Last week, I attended a course on the topic of ‘writing for publication’ with Trevor Day. I gained some really useful insights into the writing process and tips for becoming a more effective writer, which I’ve already started to apply to my first attempt at an academic paper. Ever the sharing type, I thought it would be rude to keep these revelations to myself. So here’s the short version – five things I learned about (academic) writing from this course:

1. Make sure your work is original and/or better than the competition. At the start of Trevor’s session, he asked us to write down five ways in which our work would be original and/ or better than the competition. When I did this, some aspects of my paper that I had seen as ‘side’ issues, to which I thought I would perhaps devote a few hundred words, turned out to actually be the most original elements of my work. Doing this activity early on set me on a better path from the start by forcing me to identify what would be attractive about my paper, to editors and to readers.

2. Write in stages. Now I’m sure I knew this, or at least I should have. But somewhere along the way it got forgotten. Good writing usually happens in three stages: planning, composing and editing. Simples, huh? So why is so much of my writing a mash-up of all three? For this paper I actually sat down and wrote a proper plan. This is an iterative process – I’ve returned several times to re-work and develop plans for particular sections – but that’s a strength, not a problem. I’m now on the second stage, ‘composing’, or writing a ‘first draft’. This brings me to the next tip…

3. ‘Compose’ when you’re at your most alert. This is probably the single most valuable piece of advice I took from the session. I know I struggle to focus mid-afternoon (as do most people, apparently), so why do I torture myself, trying to press on with writing challenging sections straight after lunch? This usually results in feelings of frustration and despair and a pitifully blank page. This time I’ve planned my time carefully, writing in the morning, until I’ve done what I set out to achieve or until my eyes begin to glaze over, whatever comes first. In the afternoon I read, review others’ work, edit a first draft, send emails, write less intellectually challenging blog posts…! It’s working well and I’ve churned out around 1,500 words a day, meaning that my first draft is almost finished!

4. Let your ‘creative’ mind flow when composing. I can’t tell you how relieved I felt to be told that a first draft doesn’t actually have to be much good. In the past, I have spent hopelessly long hours trying to make one point, perfectly, first time. I drift away from what I’m writing to find the perfect term to express what I want to say, find the reference that explains a concept better than I can, email my supervisor to clarify something. Often this leads to a chain of related tasks that take up the whole morning. By the time I come back to what I was originally writing, I’ve forgotten what I was trying to say and the mid-afternoon slump has crept in. But when you relax, and put your ‘critical’ mind on hold, your ‘creative’ mind can flow. This technique has allowed me to express myself, to get down the main point of what I want to say. Precise terminology, references and eloquent expression can come later. The important point here is that it doesn’t have to be great writing – it’s just a first draft!

5. If it doesn’t advance your argument, don’t use it. Last but not least, a crucial one for academic writing that’s most relevant at the planning and editing stage, the aim being to make sure all your paragraphs are doing one job: moving your argument forward. This is the first thing to check after the ‘composing’ stage and one of the reasons there’s no point trying to be a perfectionist at that point. If you realise the paragraph you wrote is all very interesting but does nothing to support the crux of your paper, it’s probably got to go.

If you’d like the long version, consider booking yourself on one of Trevor’s courses or reading his book.

Happy writing!

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Learning to teach again

From the very first day of my PhD study, I’ve been keen to seek out teaching experiences.

As a former secondary school teacher, this was one aspect of my ‘past’ that I didn’t want to give up. There’s a lot I love about teaching: the buzz, the variety, the opportunity to be creative and to engage with young people.  My aim from the start has been to return to teaching at some point, but in a higher education institution.

I’ve been lucky enough to take some undergraduate seminars and lectures and it’s been a happy companion to my studies. This academic year I also had the opportunity to complete a postgraduate certificate in learning and teaching in higher education (PGCert).

I’d love to say I came to the PGCert with the same optimism I felt towards higher education teaching in general, but I didn’t. I already had a PGCE, to which I had devoted a year of my life, 8 years of teaching experience and an MEd. So I was more than a little miffed at being told this wouldn’t cut it in higher education – that if I wanted a permanent lectureship in the UK, at some point I’d have to do this course. It felt like going backwards. But, ever the precrastinator (it’s a real thing, look!), I decided that if it had to be done, I would just go ahead and get it out of the way.

I was expecting to have to grit my teeth whilst being told things I already knew, with perhaps some modifications for the higher education context. What I wasn’t expecting was to have my passion for creative teaching re-ignited. I wasn’t expecting to be encouraged to innovate, to be a facilitator of learning, to take students out of their comfort zones. I wasn’t expecting to be able to bring my research in to my teaching, and vice-versa; to have the freedom, space and support to develop my philosophy of teaching from the ground up. I wasn’t expecting to be encouraged to question everything I take for granted about what learning and teaching even are.  I had thought of teaching in higher education as ‘lecturing’. That had certainly been my undergraduate experience. Lecturers stood at the front and imparted their wisdom; we dutifully scribbled our notes (and likely never looked at them again). But our tutors for the PGCert have shown me that learning and teaching in higher education can be so much more than that.

Last week, as I attended the penultimate teaching day for the PGCert, I suddenly felt very sad that it was coming to an end. I realised that I felt excited about teaching in a way I hadn’t done since my PGCE training 10 years ago. I knew I wasn’t happy as a secondary school teacher but I hadn’t realised how much my growth as a teacher had been stunted by red-tape, targets, disaffected students and constant criticism in a mainstream secondary institution.

The down-side of this unexpectedly inspiring experience is that I wonder whether I made the wrong decision to do the PGCert early. I’m impatient now to get on and teach more, to try out some innovations, to develop my teaching philosophy further, but I need to focus on my PhD. Maybe it would have been better to do the course if and when I gain a teaching position at a university. What if I forget everything I have learned? What if I lose this feeling of excitement and enthusiasm? I can only hope that I will be able to build on the foundations laid this year as my career develops.

What I can say for sure is that I absolutely don’t regret giving so much time and attention to teaching and learning and developing my skills as a higher education practitioner during these past two years. As a result, I have become more well-rounded and confident as an academic. My wings have been unclipped; now, it’s time to fly.

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Seven maxims for surviving your PhD

Photo credit: UBC Learning Commons / Foter / CC BY

Photo credit: UBC Learning Commons / Foter / CC BY

Two years in to juggling a PhD, work, and family life, I like to think I’ve learned a few things about managing my time, keeping on track and staying sane. I’ve been wanting to share some of these tips for a while, and what better place than here?

  1. Keep a notebook. Ideas come at the most inconvenient times and in the most inappropriate places. If you have somewhere to scribble (or tap) them, great ideas will never be lost. I use evernote because I can access it on my phone, but there are plenty of options out there.
  1. Write often. Notes, abstracts, memos, papers, chapters, blogs, tweets… it doesn’t have to be big. It doesn’t even have to be clever. But you do have to get in the habit of writing. This is how you will be assessed and there’s no getting away from it.
  1. Keep going. Some days you will feel like you are wading through tar. Keep going. Some days it seems everyone and their dog is smarter than you. Keep going. Some days all your great ideas lead to dead ends. Keep going. Some days the mountain of reading on your desk seems insurmountable. Keep going. One book at a time. One paragraph at a time. One day at a time. Keep going. You get the message.
  1. Talk to others. Researchers, professors, administrative staff, students, cleaners, friends, the cat. Talk to them. About your research, your ideas, your plans for the future, your day. Talking can help you crystallise your thoughts. It can make problems seem more manageable, calm you down, lead to helpful advice and useful contacts. It’s good to talk.
  1. Go to events. You’ll have to choose wisely here so you don’t flout maxims 6 and 7, but you do need to put yourself out there. Be brave. Try something new. Present somewhere scary. Go where you’re invited. Good things will happen, I promise.
  1. Allocate working hours. And stick to them. It’s not just kids who need routine. Grown-ups do, too. If you allocate working hours, you will be more productive at work and more carefree at play.
  1. Look after yourself. Nothing is more important than your health. And I’m talking both mental and physical. Finishing your PhD will be all the more difficult if your mind and body are not in good working order. So don’t put off that doctor’s appointment. Make time for physical activity. Make time for you. Laugh, play, socialise. Eat well and drink plenty (and I mean water).

Of course, the beauty of a PhD is that it’s yours, to manage in a way that suits you. So feel free to flout my maxims to your heart’s content. But if you take just one piece of advice from this post, let it be number 7. There will be life after your PhD. Look after it.

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Becoming a New Optimist

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been working on something completely different from my usual PhD research.

I was recently commissioned to do some analysis by Kate Cooper of the ‘New Optimists’, a not-for-profit organisation interested in humanity, sustainability and food insecurity. Kate wanted a ‘rough-and ready’ linguistic analysis of several hours of conversation arising at a Birmingham Food Council workshop on the theme of food insecurity in Birmingham.

Yesterday I presented my analysis at a thoroughly enjoyable, innovative and thought-provoking debrief with Kate and her team.

My brief for the project itself was both exciting and scary. Kate didn’t have any specific research questions for me, preferring, rather, that I ‘follow my nose’. She did, however, express an interest in hearing some of the more marginalised themes that came out of the
workshop, and also what was ‘missing’; what feasibly could have been discussed, but wasn’t. This freedom was a little unsettling but it appealed to my postmodern sensibilities. Here was an opportunity to make some unconventional methodological choices. Here also was a challenge: to analyse quite a large amount of data quite quickly, yet pay attention to marginalised and potentially silenced voices.

Though my initial thoughts were to use a corpus tool like Wordsmith or AntConc as a ‘way in’ to this data, I decided in the end to stick with my old friend NVivo. I was pleased to find that NVivo has some basic tools that rival its quantitative counterparts. Though it does
all sessions all groups word frequencynot offer the same precision and statistical counts, what it does offer was more than enough for my purposes, allowing me to engage quickly with my data, whilst keeping an eye to qualitative detail. I was able to generate quick lists of the most frequently occurring terms and see them at a glance in striking wordclouds like the one shown here.

feedI was particularly impressed with how easy it was to create a personalised ‘stoplist’ (a list of words I didn’t want to include in my search). Nvivo also dealt well with my data in their original Word formats and created some fantastic ‘instant’ visuals like the one above, but also word ‘trees’ like this one, showing the word ‘feed’ in context.

I identified some marginalised themes by comparing the most frequent words of individual group discussions versus the set of transcripts as a whole. As for ‘missing’ themes, I was able to pinpoint some words and themes that could feasibly have been discussed by liaising with Kate, looking at previous analyses of Birmingham Food Council meetings, and conducting a good old-fashioned google search for ‘emergency food aid’, which led me to some words commonly associated with the workshop topic. In the end, in my analysis I conclusion diagramwas able to draw attention to some of the ‘key themes’ of the workshop, but also some ‘outliers’; marginal or atomised discussions that were often innovative and challenged conventional thinking. I created a diagram to summarise these findings, which includes some of the ‘ghost themes’ that could have been but weren’t discussed.

My work for the New Optimists has been a refreshing and enjoyable experience. It made such a change to go from proposal to presentation in a few short months, rather than several years! It gave me an opportunity to try out some of the things I’ve learned during my PhD studies in a different context and also to immerse myself in a completely new topic for a time.

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