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A success for Let Toys be Toys

As an avid social media user, when I see something astonishing and objectionable, my first thought is Twitter, for better or for worse. Thanks to the team that operate the Let Toys be Toys campaign account, however, and a very responsive PR team running the California Academy of Sciences‘ account, I’ve had a minor success, and I’ve put together a quick Storify to commemorate the occasion.


Accidental blogging: some thoughts on academia.edu’s sessions format

I’m a relatively infrequent user of academia.edu (aren’t we all?), but I noticed recently the ‘sessions’ feature. And by “noticed recently”, I mean that I logged on one day to find that academia.edu was telling me I had an “expired session”, and I had no idea what the hell they were talking about, so I went away to find out!

It turns out that a session is a piece of writing that is opened up for comment and discussion. To open a session, one uploads a draft paper. One can ask for feedback from specific people in your network, but the draft is automatically open to comment by certain groups of followers (e.g. supervisors or mutual followers). I now recall that when I uploaded the paper in question, I did upload it as a ‘draft’ because it was a record of what I had presented at a conference, which was still a work in progress. I didn’t realise that labelling it ‘draft’ would throw it open in the way it did. 

With this particular paper, I don’t mind too much that confusion during the upload process meant it was accidentally opened up, but: 

  1. I don’t particularly like the way that academia.edu is trying to redefine collaborative processes as inherently a public one; and 
  2. I think it will only lead to the site becoming a partial blog for people workshopping general ideas.

Rather than, say, uploading your paper to Dropbox, or iCloud, or Google Docs, or just plain ol’ emailing it around to people whose insights would be valuable, this proposed model of academic collaboration is open by default. There are some pluses, perhaps. Your paper might receive attention from those in your extended network, or beyond, who can offer valuable insights that you might otherwise have lacked. 

However, the process fails to take into account the fact that publication is a key metric for academics hoping to progress in their careers. There are relatively few disciplines or cases where the model that academia.edu is offering is a desirable one for academics. This is not necessarily a good thing, but it does mean that the incentives to share so publicly early drafts of exciting and publishable work is pretty low. 

In addition, particularly for those who are on the very lowest rungs of the academic ladder, for whom publishing might be a hurdle they are seeking to jump, academia.edu muddies the water. By taking steps to link one’s rate of “producing quality content” to the metrics of how much pieces have been viewed and commented upon, it constructs a competitive blogging environment. 

In terms of how the feature will be used in practice, perhaps it remains to be seen, but what I have seen of the feature so far doesn’t make it a great method for collaborative working. One session that I joined, out of curiosity both about the form and the subject matter, was on The Study of English Literature, based on a short paper by John Xiros Cooper of the University of British Columbia about the future of the discipline. I did not actively seek the paper out; nor did Cooper seek me out to solicit my feedback. His session simply appeared in a list of open sessions related to my research interests, floating on the right-hand side of my home page. I requested access and was granted it. (Many thanks, John!)

To me, the paper was the sort of thing one might expect to find on a high-calibre academic blog as an extended post, and the comments were similar to those one might expect on such a post. The feature doesn’t allow for in-line editing and commenting, such as might be seen on scribophile.com or even in OneDrive, that old corporate lag. In general, the way that papers are presented is a bit undesirable; they rely on scribd, and there is always a delay in viewing/downloading a paper. If the purpose of the ‘draft paper’ function is actual collaboration, then it lacks the features necessary for nuanced comment and discussion.

Personally, if I wanted to throw open ideas for comment by anyone with an interest, I would use a blog post with moderated comments and tweet the link… 

Disclaimer: I should also say that this is a very separate issue to open access to academic literature, which is one of academia.edu’s main aims, and a laudable one. As part of its general mission to open up more and more content to be available for free on its site, academia.edu encourages academics, particularly doctoral students and early-career researchers, to publish PDFs of their work. In 2013, when Elsevier issued a take-down notice for numerous papers, the site was clear and unequivocal in criticising the move, as were many academics (Michael Clarke’s analysis of the incident is particularly worth a read).

Imagination "cages"

Andrew Anthony’s article on Simon Schama was posted yesterday, but I only saw it today thanks to Fern Riddell‘s skewering commentary on Twitter, including:



This is all in response to what I’m sure Anthony thought was a charming link between two paragraphs towards the end of the article, jumping off a Schama quote about risking children’s imaginations being “held hostage in the cage of the eternal now” and remarking that Mary Beard is “never one to remain in her own cage”. It’s completely throwaway; Mary Beard is of no interest to Anthony, beyond using her to add “balance” by showing that Schama is not universally loved. (Edit: Anthony also horribly misquotes Beard to achieve this, making his apparent dislike for her doubly disturbing. Beard has tweeted about this herself.)

And that’s what makes it so disturbing. Because it’s obviously bad writing. It barely even makes sense. It’s made its way through Anthony’s drafting process and the online editors because none of them even thought about it.

The only way that one could interpret it as a follow-on from Schama’s use of the word “cage” is if we charitably assume that Anthony is remarking on Beard’s significant pedigree as a classicist. But that is a huge stretch. First, Anthony clearly disagrees with Beard; his article is Schama love-in, and so we doubt there’s much respect meant in his remark. Second, how come Mary gets her very own personal cage? Presumably because, subconsciously (come on, let’s be charitable!), the idea of women’s thinking being restrained (particularly when it disagrees with his) rather pleasantly resonated with Anthony.

So, let us romp wildly on Twitter and wherever else we can!

Blogger malfunctions

I schedule some posts in advance, as I can’t always manage to post every day. I’ve found that Blogger is rather glitchy when it comes to saving scheduled posts. For example, today I went into one only to find that it is missing the two final paragraphs!

You’d think ‘save’ meant save….

Terrible Books You Had To Read In School

Voxcorvegis has kicked off an interesting meme, which Clarissa has also answered, so I thought I might post my answer here, as well as in Voxcorvegis’ comments thread!

I’ve been forced to take a slightly broader approach to answering the question, as I think I had a really good experience with reading throughout secondary school. We read Shakespeare (The Merchant of Venice and Romeo and Juliet), great modern books (such as Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, about which Rachel recently posted), and wonderful poetry like Tennyson’s Ulysses, which I firmly believe was a major influence in my academic interests at under- and post-graduate level. I even enjoyed the more trite and stereotypical reading we had to do, such as Carrie’s War and Goodnight, Mister Tom. I have a dim recollection of being forced to read some war poetry, which I hate as a general rule, but I’ve evidently blocked out exactly what we had to read.

I would therefore nominate a book that I was forced to read at university: Hobbes’ Leviathan. I read this  as part of a class on ethical reasoning, which included Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Plato, etc. I find the ideas of the book interesting enough, but the actual reading experience is simply dire! I find most readings from the Age of Reason and the Age of Enlightenment surprisingly dull in contrast with Renaissance and Romantic writing, but I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid a lot of it. I could barely get through most of Leviathan, however, and needless to say that class was not one of my favourites!

PhD planning (or not…?)

My MA officially ends in January, which is a slightly odd time, and I will not have the results of it until March. I can’t decide whether waiting until next year’s applications round would do me a great deal of good. On the one hand, it may make it easier for my current tutor to write a compelling reference, as she will have my grade and my finished (hopefully excellent!) dissertation to hand. On the other, it will be yet another delay. I initially planned to undertake my MA (with a view to PhD progression) in the 2009-10 academic year!

With my dissertation result – provided it is at ‘distinction’ level! – I may have a better chance of obtaining some funding to study full-time. However, I doubt it will be enough to allow me to service my mortgage and my current student debt, even if I move to somewhere far less expensive than London.

So, part-time will probably have to be the way forward. I’m worried that this will reduce my ability to engage with any teaching or journal-based activities, though. Working full-time and doing research during the evenings and weekends (and in the mornings, if I can get myself together to partake of the Pomodoro technique so strongly advocated by lots of my favourite academic bloggers) will be a lot of work as it is. Nevertheless, I think that teaching, assisting in running journals and general ‘service’ activity is a crucial part of every graduate student’s contribution to a university. There will be plenty of time for me to be a lone researcher later on in life!

In short, I am dithering about this….

MA (non)progress update

Due to a failure to follow anything like the guidelines Thomas at Research as a Second Language recommends, or even the Seinfeld Chain recommended by Clarissa and Jonathan Mayhew, I have failed to do any work on my dissertation today.

I intended to. I emailed myself a copy of the chapter I wanted to work on so that I could print it out at work and look at it on the way home. However, when push came to shove, I forgot to print it until 7:30p.m., and the fact that I was still in work at 7:30p.m. indicates that there were many demands on my time. Unfortunately, I did not manage them well, and by the time I got home it was the time of the night when I am simply no good for anything except blogging, tweeting, and watching television.

I will have to take a look at it tomorrow now, instead, and I’m a bit disappointed in myself.