Tips for writing

6 Dec

Writing

In recent years I have struggled to carve out time for writing. A mix of family demands, an increased administrative load, and the sheer busy-ness of academic life (particularly the never ending stream of emails) have meant that writing projects have suffered. The following are the tactics that I have used (with varying degrees of success) to try to protect writing time.

Put it in your diary

Teaching and meetings go into our diaries but do we cordon off time for writing? If we don’t specifically block-off writing time in our diaries, the danger is that the time will be seen as blank and therefore will be eaten up by last minute Skype calls and meetings. So put it in your diary (“Writing 8AM – 12 NOON”) and treat it like a meeting that cannot be re-scheduled.

Set a daily word target

On writing days I set myself a 1,000 word target. The target is realisable. If it was too high, I might very well miss it and thus feel that I had ‘failed’. By having a realisable (and respectable) target of 1,000 words, I can feel that I have made real progress and that sets me up for the next day of writing. I can only keep the 1,000 words per day rate up for about four days. After that I would have to spend some time – usually a few weeks – taking notes and reading.

Write messily

I write first and insert full references later. I do not use referencing software as I have found it to be very untrustworthy (for a start, it cannot deal with my name). Instead I just write and insert full references later. If a reference is at hand, I will insert it or I will simply write “REF” as a reminder to myself, but I would rather use my writing time to get my words on screen than track down whether the year of publication was 2007 or 2008. The result might be a messy draft but at least it you have something to improve on.

Work with your biorhythms

Some people are early birds and others are night owls. Whatever you are – work with it rather than against it. I write best in the morning and so would not dream of grading or engaging in admin tasks on the morning of a writing day. The morning is for writing and the afternoon is for editing what I have written, answering those emails, and those dull administrative tasks.

Get feedback as you write

If possible, I try to get feedback on drafts of my work – even if it is messy. Good, critical feedback is invaluable. People are often busy and I understand completely if they don’t come back to me with feedback, but often my informal reviewers are aware of a literature that I have missed or will have a different disciplinary perspective. Psychologically, I think, the informal feedback process helps me believe that my writing is moving forward towards publication. I also grab any opportunity – brown bags, invitations to give seminars, teaching – to float ideas I am writing about. Some of the best feedback I have ever received has been in MA classes when I incorporate some ideas into a class. If it can survive a good MA discussion – it is likely to survive Reviewer 2.

Press send

There is no such thing as the perfect essay, article, book chapter, dissertation or thesis. There will come a point though when you cannot do any better without feedback or a break. It is better that a draft is out there getting feedback (even rejection) than sitting in a file. Even if a manuscript is rejected by a journal you are likely to get feedback that will help you improve it. A manuscript squirrelled away on a file might as well not exist.

None of this should give the impression that I am some sort of writing machine and that I have it all sorted. I have really struggled to privilege quality writing in recent years. Indeed, writing this blogpost is an act of prevarication – I really should be dealing with the second set of revisions for an article. And none of the (let’s face it, really obvious) points I have made above speak to the quality of our writing output. That might be the subject of another blogpost. I would hugely appreciate if readers would share their ‘top tips’ on writing.

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Guidelines on Preparing a PhD Proposal

22 Nov

This document is intended to help you write the PhD proposal that will accompany your application to undertake a PhD. It is written from the perspective of someone wishing to undertake a PhD in Politics and International Relations, but could well apply to other areas of the humanities and social sciences. As well as putting together a proposal and application, it is recommended that you get in touch with prospective PhD supervisors (especially in the UK system) to check their availability and interest in your topic. If they are poor email correspondents at the proposal stage of your PhD, then they may well be poor correspondents when they are your PhD supervisor.

Prospective PhD students are not expected to compile the ‘perfect’ proposal: all research proposals change – especially in the first few months of PhD research. A proposal is likely to be an iterative document that you will update following correspondence with a prospective supervisor. The proposal is an indication of the research to be carried out so that prospective supervisors can judge whether or not the proposed project is viable and whether or not they would have the expertise to act as supervisor. It is worth bearing in mind that a PhD should seek to make an original contribution to the study of a particular issue. A PhD is an opportunity to study a particular issue in great depth, so it is prudent to maintain a concentrated focus rather than attempt overly broad research such as presenting a grand narrative history of a long time period or research based on very general terms such as ‘conflict in Africa’. By far, the most common reaction to a PhD proposal is: ‘It’s too broad’, so you it is worth thinking about how your proposal can be narrowed down: narrow concepts, single theories/thinkers, just one or two case studies rather than many, a limited date range.

Given that a PhD is expected to make an original contribution to knowledge, a good way to approach your proposal is to identify a particular policy/practice or academic puzzle. For example, there might be debates in academic and policy circles about where a particular policy (like peacekeeping or a specialised from of transitional justice) works. A PhD proposal could be developed around answering that puzzle and using a mix of empirical research (perhaps through fieldwork) and concept or theory-building.

Different institutions will prescribe different word limits for a PhD proposal, but they are usually around 1,500 words – that is enough to set out the basic parameters of the proposed research. A research proposal should cover the following:

A working title

This should do more than convey the key words associated with the proposed research. It could be phrased as a question or a hypothesis and can help narrow down the focus of the research.

Key Research Questions 

It is sensible to separate out the key research question from subsidiary questions that are in service of the main question. Getting the right question(s) is the most important way you can narrow down the focus of your study.

Key theories, frameworks or concepts

If your proposed research will depend on key theories, frameworks or concepts then it may be useful to indicate your understanding of them and how they will be utilised in your research. A few references to relevant literature may help.

Methodology

Specify the approach you feel will be most appropriate to the topic and mention any ethical and access issues connected with the research. Is the methodology feasible? Universities are keen that research conducted in their name does not endanger those being researched and the research.

Thesis structure and Chapterisation

How will the thesis be organised into chapters? Again, it is recognised that this is a draft document, and so the chapterisation is preliminary. It would useful to write a paragraph on each chapter and think about how each chapter will connect to create an integrated document. Depending on the topic, many theses will have a trajectory that begins with chapters that unpack key theories or concepts, then uses those concepts to develop an analytical framework (or set of questions), then discusses the methodology to be used, and then presents and discusses findings. It is worth stressing that not all these will have this structure.

Timescale/research planning

You need to demonstrate an awareness of the need for planning and the timescale of the research. A useful way of doing this is to break the proposed research into chapters.

A note on the literature/debate/(sub-discipline) you would like to contribute to

This will show prospective supervisors your knowledge of the literature and it may give you an opportunity to provide a rationale for why your research is necessary.

Bibliography

You should include a short list of references to key articles and texts.

Other things to consider:

It is worth asking yourself: “Why do I want a PhD?” Or to put it another way, “What will I do with a PhD once I get it?”



It is also worthy bearing in mind that there are quite different systems for PhDs – the US and UK systems differ considerably.

It may be that your work will be inter-disciplinary and supervisors from different disciplines will be required. Also, think about the implications of inter-disciplinarity if you are considering a career in academia. While inter-disciplinarity is a good thing, unfortunately most job opening are for single-discipline scholars.

Delighted to say that the Everyday Peace Indicators project has produced a short video explaining its bottom-up methodology

17 Sep

Here it is: New Video

For further project details, check out the Everyday Peace Indicators site

New book – read the first chapter for free!

26 Aug

I am very pleased to announce a new book edited by myself and colleagues:

The Elgar Companion to Post-Conflict Transition

Edited by Hans-Joachim Giessmann, Roger Mac Ginty, Beatrix Austin and Christine Seifert

You can see the book details, and read the first chapter for free, here

Available in hardcopy and as an e-book. I particularly recommend the final chapter by Beatrix Austin and Christine Seifret which is a wonderful example of how comparison should be done: rigorous, systematic but aware of context and nuance.

Published:
31 August 2018
ISBN:
9781783479047
DOI:
https://doi.org/10.4337/9781783479054
Pages:
c 392

Letter to Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley MP

26 Jul

Dear Karen,

I hope you do not mind me intruding on the parliamentary recess and offering the unasked-for advice that follows. But, you see, I think you do need some advice related to your day job as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Remember that? The day job?

As you know, the devolved Assembly that was established under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement has not been sitting for over 18 months. It is your job to getting it back to work – and thus to get one of the major world achievements of the 1990s – a comprehensive peace accord in Northern Ireland – back on track. It is a difficult task and let’s face it, the principal political parties that you have to work with – the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Féin – have very different aims and absolutely loathe one another. And then there is your own political party: it’s is at war with itself over Brexit. So you could be forgiven for pulling the bedcovers over your eyes on a Monday morning and thinking ‘I don’t want to go into the office today’. Believe me, sometimes I have the same feelings about Manchester.

Anyway, I hope you don’t mind if I observe that since taking over as Northern Ireland Secretary of State you don’t seem to have had much impact. Admittedly, you have a tough task but the impression of many observers is that you could try a bit harder with the day job. I read something the other day that compared your dedication to the job unfavourably with that of your predecessor, James Brokenshire. That must have hurt. To call his tenure as undistinguished would be unkind to the undistinguished.

Here’s my unasked for advice … it comes in two parts. The first part is a bit blunt but sometimes things need to be said in a straightforward manner. The second bit is somewhat more nuanced. So here comes the blunt bit: In order to do your job it might actually help if you spent a little bit of time in Northern Ireland. We all know it isn’t your dream job, but you said yes to it and are happy to accept the frills (and cash) that go with it. Your attendance in Northern Ireland is something akin to David Davis’ attendance in Brussels when he was in charge of the Brexit negotiations. If we were talking about school attendance then, at this point, social workers would be involved. Is it really up to another adult to tell you that in order to do your job you have to be prepared to travel to Northern Ireland and show a bit of effort?

The second bit of advice on getting the devolved Assembly up and running is to think about harnessing people power. If you talked to people in Northern Ireland – that is real people outside of your protected bubble – you would know that they are utterly fed up with what they see as a political class who are not terribly interested in getting the Assembly up and running. Democratic Unionist and Sinn Féin antipathy for one another outweighs any perceived advantages they see in cutting a deal. This is facilitated – in part – by direct rule that means most public services function more or less as normal. This is where your opportunity is. There are a few pinch points: budgets and decisions delayed because of the stasis at Stormont. People care about frontline public services. Dinner table conversations revolve around hospital appointments, school places and the he pothole on the road just by the Centra. There is space for a campaigning Secretary of State to build on public resentment and turn it into something positive. There is a golden opportunity to hold a series of public meetings all across Northern Ireland that would highlight the delays and how the inability to put the powersharing deal back together again is having a real impact on everyday life. You are the one with the data to know where the pinch points are and where they will be. You are the one with other data – polling and intelligence – that could make this work. You could turn this into a mass movement that would not necessarily have to rely on a Northern Ireland civil society that is – well – a bit tired. It would require energy, charisma and commitment. It is not unkind to say that those qualities have not been evident in your first months in the job, but you could surprise us.

What I am suggesting is a summer road show. It would get you out of the security bubble (honestly, no one is going to hurt you – especially if you tell people that you want to make life better). It would give you an opportunity to get people on your side. Fundamentally, it would scare the main political parties if they could see that they were being outflanked from the ground up. You could work on a rhetoric that elected politicians should do their job, that public services are at risk, that public services will decline if politicians don’t get their act together. The nature of power-sharing means that parties from opposing groups do not have to like one another – but they do have to work together. These are simple messages that could be repeated night after night in a series of town hall meetings. It would be truly non-partisan as it would be shaming the Democratic Unionist and Sinn Féin. They will try to bang the ethno-nationalist drum about culture war, but if you stick to the theme of public services there is a real chance of having an effect.

And, the people that probably matter to you most – the chatterati in London and political/media elite – would take note. Look at Gavin Williamson and Michael Gove – not particularly likeable people but they have gained a reputation for being passionate about their brief (Williamson) and having mastered the detail and being full of initiative (Gove).

Or you could stay in London, visit Northern Ireland very occasionally, and give the impression that you couldn’t care less.

Yours truly,

The anthropology of dog-walking

12 Jul

The anthropology of dog-walking

I am not an anthropologist, but I want to be one when I grow up. There has been a noticeable ‘turn’ towards anthropological methods in the study of peace and conflict, and international relations more generally, over the past decade or so. It coincides with a lending and borrowing of concepts and methods from sociology and feminism too as peace and conflict scholars have moved beyond looking at institutions and combatants to take a whole-of-society approach to their subject.

While anthropologists are rightfully suspicious of those who claim to use ‘ethnography’ without training and a deep grounding in the literature, many have been generous in encouraging peace and conflict scholars to use ‘ethnographically-influenced’ methods in their research. I would like to showcase the anthropology of the dog-walk, or how walking a dog (or dogs) allows you to see sides of a community that you ordinarily would not. I have been a dog owner for about 12 years – first for Paddy a loveable but scheming chocolate Labrador and now Ted and Bess, black and chocolate Labradors. In York, then St Andrews, and now in rural southern Scotland I have walked these dogs three or four times a day around villages, along lanes and across beaches.

Walking along familiar routes, often at reasonably set times of the day, allows you to engage in and with a community in different ways. I have never used my dog-walking for research purposes (most of my research is overseas) but it has encouraged me to think about research processes and the value of ‘slow research’ – or repeated and close-level engagement with the same site. Here are four advantages of research observation by walking a dog (or dogs):

Firstly, you get to meet people and speak with them. I lived – dog-less – in York for about five years. In that time I really only knew academic colleagues. They were completely unrepresentative of the city. None of us came from York, listened to the local radio station, or read the local paper. It was a very insular life. Very often I would give the dog his lunchtime walk in a large park near my house. Other dog walkers would gather and we would spend a few minutes chatting while the dogs played and sniffed each other. This was a very different York: van drivers, care-givers, single mums. It was working class and unvarnished with a good deal of xenophobia but also an honesty and lack of sophistry that I hugely appreciated. The dog-network allowed me to see a side to York that campus life excluded. I heard about the issues that affected people and how they saw their own city. That pattern of being able to meet so-called ordinary people – through the technique of walking a dog – has been replicated everywhere else I have lived.

Secondly, you notice the small things. I usually walk the dogs at set times: first thing in the morning, lunchtime, teatime and last thing at night. Three of these walks will be 30 minutes plus (usually longer) and the bedtime one is usually 10 minutes. There are a limited number of places that one can walk nearby so I will often walk the same routes several times a week. And it is here that you notice things. In particular, you notice the small things: a car parked in an unusual position, a new garden decoration, a freshly painted fence. All of this probably is of negligible social significance, but it does allow you to piece together a picture of a community: who is well networked, who never has visitors, who is more prosperous, who is house-proud, who doesn’t give a damn? Although it is simply walking around with your eyes open, I like to think that it is the amalgamation of multiple data points that gives you a comprehensive picture of a community.

Thirdly, it gives you an excuse to go places that ordinarily you would not go. Acquire a dog and a lead and immediately you are empowered to walk up lanes, around the margins of fields, and places that it would be odd to go if you did not have a dog in tow. You can see views of the locality that you otherwise would not. Particularly in rural areas, the topography explains much of the political economy and the built environment: who had access to the good land, who had the water, why does the road take that odd turn? A dog allows you to be noisy – to walk to that hilltop to get the view and to go behind those farm buildings and find the water-source that explains why the community was built there.

Fourthly, you move (reasonably) slowly. The pace of research (or at least the expectation that we publish often and have impact) seems to be increasing. Walking a dog allows you time-out. That’s good for thinking time and our mental health. But it allows us to make ‘slow observations’ – to see something, to study it, to hazard a guess why it is like that. I often pass things that puzzle me (why has the farmer dumped that there, why are there so many cars at that house, why is that place busier than usual today?). By slowly ambling past – because the dogs have found something interesting to sniff – you can usually get the answer.

I am not suggesting that we all find and dog and bring it on ‘fieldwork’. I can think of multiple reasons why that would be inappropriate and impractical. I am, instead, celebrating the value of walking and keeping you eyes open. None of this uses Nvivo, draws on the corpus of dead French philosophers, or involves the construction of a dataset. It does involve the genius of dogs though.

USIP Publication draws on Everyday Peace Indicators methodology

6 Jun

This March 2018 report from the United States Institute of Peace draws on the Everyday Peace Indicators methodology.