#HEblogswap My PhD Journey by Chrissi Nerantzi

blogswap logo with image of Chrissi Nerantzi

Bought to you from Chrissi Nerantzi, Principal Lecturer in Academic CPD at the Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, MMU.   


Thank you Santanu Vasant (@santanuvasant) for bringing #HEblogswap to life. It is a great way to share and connect experiences among practitioners.

Doing something in tandem with Sue Watling (@suewatling) came to my mind as soon as I received the information. We first met at Lincoln University in 2012 during an HEA OER Change Academy project. Since then we both changed institutions. But we stayed in touch, have worked together in the open and are both PhD students. When Sue invited me to write about my PhD journey for this blog swap, I thought do I really want to reflect on the experience of the last 4.5 years at this moment in time? I just survived my viva last Friday. Everything was still very fresh in my mind… I decided to go ahead and am looking back not at the whole experience but specific aspects of it.

Ok, how did it all start?
When I was an academic developer at the University of Sunderland, I started an MSc at Edinburgh Napier University in Blended and Online Education. My dissertation brought me to experiment with academic development initiatives that had a cross-institutional and collaborative dimension. I immersed myself into this study. The seeds for my doctoral study are in there and for the many open projects that followed. I was encouraged to consider a PhD by my personal tutor. That was then Dr Keith Smyth was leading the programme and who moved to a different institution and is now a Professor. The PhD I started was at a distance, part-time, self-funded, while working full-time and with a young family. Even before I started it was evident that it wouldn’t be a smooth ride. In fact it became a rollercoaster ride. There were ups and downs… Good times and bad times. I will focus only on a few aspects of the journey today.  

highs and lows of a PHD journey

Closing my eyes and transporting my self back in time, the following fills my mind…

Loneliness
Community, or the lack of community, during the first years. I felt lonely and in the dark for a long time. I had no cohort, no peers to turn to. I was doing this study on my own and really felt it. It was hard, super hard. I missed the conversation with peers, other PhD students. People I could share my struggles with and my ideas. The lifeline came when I joined the Global OER Graduate Network for PhD students in open education from around the world. A project led by the Open Education Research Hub at the Open University in the UK. The network literally saved me and helped me grow and believe in what I was capable to do. The network has a face-to-face and online dimension and both are equally important. My own research has illustrated the importance of community in the context of professional learning. Find your network and if there isn’t one consider creating one. My colleague Penny Bentley did exactly that. She needed help with phenomenography, the methodology we both used in our study and decided to create a FB group, which has become a small but useful hub for phenomenographers, where we can support each other. So a sense of belonging was important to me and when I found my home as a PhD students, I started growing and gaining confidence in who I was and what I could achieve. 

Oh, no, what time is it?
There were time pressures from work, my studies and often I felt that I neglected my family. I felt guilty. Guilty for coming home switching on the laptop and working. Guilty for working during many many weekends and holidays. “Mummy will you get that PhD?” Is a question that my boys often asked. I needed to be disciplined, determined and stubborn, I guess, to keep going and bring this study to fruition. The discoveries I made during the study fascinated me, helped me to look beyond time. I did find time where there was none. In the end everything came together. It was an exhilarating process and I wanted to share my findings with others. I started sharing my work in progress with others through conferences and articles but also used my learning to develop open initiatives. Some might thing/say that these were distractions but in reality they helped me test some of my ideas and were invaluable for my development as a researcher and practitioner. I could do all this as my study was linked to my work. Some might not have this opportunity. 

Writing is super hard!
It is one thing to do the research and another to write about it and articulate it so that it makes sense and is appropriate for a thesis. I am not an English native speaker, so conducting the whole research in English was not easy. However, I am not sure if it would be any easier in Greek or German, as my professional language is actually English. Whatever the language, academic writing does not come naturally to me. My background in teaching languages and translation literature, means that some of that more playful flavour was making its way into the thesis. What helped me was sharing early drafts with colleagues and friends. Even my husband read multiple versions… They could see much quicker what didn’t make sense, what needed to be explained better… Write everyday a little bit, set realistic targets so that you get a sense of achievement. Stick to the routine. Write, write and rewrite. We are all getting better at it through writing. I accepted criticism and learnt through this process. More recently, I have started helping other PhD students unofficially and I can see that I have grown and can help others. Something else, I did to get a break from academic writing… I started writing children’s stories again, especially near the end when I was preparing my thesis for submission.     

There were sunny times too
Some might get the impression that it was all a struggle… Yes, there were moments when I thoughts this is never going to happen. But I kept going. My supervisors kept saying “keep going”. I kept going. They were right, I got there in the end and much sooner than the supervisory team expected. And the feeling was amazing. You just need to get through the challenges and you will. A massive portion of determination and stubbornness is of course needed. And support! So so vital. Becoming a member of a  community really helped me and filled my batteries with determination and self-belief. I can do this and so can you. 

Viva o’clock
As mentioned at the beginning of this post, I just had my viva on the 8th of September. There were many moments where I thought this day would never come. But it did. Today, I feel a real sense of achievement and can see that I have contributed a little something that can make a difference to my own practice and help others consider collaborative open learning in cross-institutional academic development settings through the cross-boundary framework I developed and released under a creative commons license and the specific new insights I have gained into collaborative open learning and the course characteristics that play a key role in shaping that experience. If you would like to read about my viva experience, the preparation I have done for it, check out https://chrissinerantzi.wordpress.com/2017/09/09/i-have-survived-big-friday-go_gn/ and related posts to the viva.

I hope some of these reflections on the journey will be useful for other PhD students, potential and current ones, especially those at the initial stages of their studies.

If you need help, remember to reach out! I think this is key!
Through the PhD journey you will discover who you are and who you are becoming.

I hope some of the above will be useful for you.

If you would like to get in touch with me, feel free to tweet me at @chrissinerantzi.

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#phd shelfie-blog challenge

image showing top ten books being written about in this blog post

The image is a bit of a spoiler!

#PhDShelfie has appeared on Twitter. Followed by shelfie-blog and an invitation from Julie Blake @felthamgirl to join in. I’m easily distracted, especially when challenged with words. I’d contributed a #phdshelfie, extended to tablie and floorie, so why not a blog post too? Would be rude not to and technically it’s no distraction – the letters P H and D are in there – somewhere – a bit.

image showing piles of books on shelves and tables and paper piles on the floorSo here’s my top ten books choice from the research corner of my room.

  • Starting with the field of education technology, I offer Rethinking University Teaching by Diana Laurillard (2002). The book suggests the socially constructivist Conversational Framework for harnessing its communicative and collaborative potentials. I find the book more accessible than the later Pedagogical Patterns while the focus on how students learn earns it a place on every educational developer/researcher’s shelf.
  • Moving from the potential of TEL,  pause a moment for Distrusting Educational Technology by Neil Selwyn (2014). A critical attack on technology determinism, the book shines light on the relationship between digital platforms and the wider society in which they’re developed and used. Agree with him or not, Selwyn offers a PoV well worth consideration.
  • Staying with digital media, the next book is Amusing Ourselves to Death; Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman. You’d think it was the result of an internet click-binge on a wet bank holiday weekend, but oh no – this prescient account of cultural transformation was written in 1985. Postman is responding to the rise in US cable TV and subsequent lack of serious news in the public domain. My goodness, what would he say today?
  • So how has technology got such a hold over us? Try Propaganda, a slim volume by Edward Bernays, first published in 1928. If you haven’t come across Mr B you’ll have heard of his uncle, Dr Sigmund Freud. Using the application of Uncle Siggy’s psychoanalytic techniques, Bernays developed what came to be known as Public Relations (which he tellingly named the ‘engineering of consent’).  Achievements included persuading young women to smoke Lucky Strikes which he’s renamed ‘Torches of Freedom’ and convincing all of America the best breakfast in the world was bacon and eggs. I’d also recommend watching Century of the Self by Adam Curtis. This uses archive film to document the cultural influence of Bernays across the 20th century.

  • To help deal with a world full of devious advertising and rogue technology, I offer The Consolations of Philosophy by Alan de Botton (2000). Some academics may look down their purist noses but I loved how this friendly, accessible book introduces philosophers such as Seneca, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and my favourite, Montaigne. If education is about different ways to see the world, then here’s a great example. The human condition is universal and this book is full of ageless advice on how to cope. Read from front to end or simply dip in and out if you’re having a bad day. You won’t be sorry.
  • Feeling better? Shh….. nothing is quite how it seems. The Sociological Imagination by C Wright Mills was written in 1959 and stayed in print ever since. Demanding we ask questions to ‘make the familiar strange’ it applies the principles of Socratic questioning to the social world. Today we’re more likely to call it ‘thinking outside of the box‘ but whatever phrase we use, Mills’ advice never ages – it gets more relevant as time passes.
  • One of the problems with a critical lens is it can make the world seem a bit wobbly (when it’s too early for wine) so why not sweep away everything you relied on as a truth and start again. The Postmodern Condition: a report on knowledge by Jean-Francois Lyotard (1984) questioned the legitimation of truth claiming grand narrative explanations were no longer credible. Instead, knowledge was situated, diffuse, fractured and worst of all, unreliable. All researchers have to grapple with the nature of truth and knowledge while  postmodernism went a bit overly pretentious, it still deserves more credit than it gets. We owe much to the PM years, not least drawing attention to diversity and structured inequalities. PM threw the rule book out of the window. It legitimated parody and pastiche. Introduced identity performance while troubling and collapsing binaries. It promoted the subversion of anything which could be deconstructed and then reconstituted it in more challenging ways. Sometimes that’s not such a bad thing – is it?
  • Phew, ready for some light relief? I wanted to include some poetry but that’s a different bookcase – maybe a blog for a different season? This call was related to research so I’ve chosen The Action Research Dissertation by Kathryn Herr and Gary L. Anderson (2019).  The full story of the difference this book made is on Thesis Whisperer Know Your Limits. Suffice to say it helped validate my PhD choices and gave me the confidence to stick with it when the going got tough – which it did – very tough…
  • This week I’m reading The Digital Academic; Critical Perspectives on Digital Technologies in Higher Education by Deborah Lupton, Inger Mewburn and Pat Thompson. Hot off the press (July 2017) it deals with the digital as in social media and MOOC while reinforcing (maybe not intentionally?) the existence of on-campus digital divides between those who do technology and those who, often with pride, announce they don’t. For the latter, who may be less likely to find anything familiar in these well researched chapters, the book raises the question – how long can academics in 21st century HE continue to avoid issues of digital scholarship and practice?
  • To finish I’ve chosen Learning with the Labyrinth; Creating Reflective Space in Higher Education edited by Jan Sellars and Bernard Moss (2016). I’ve been involved with the use of labyrinths as creative spaces and meditative walking experiences for some time e.g. Walking the Labyrinth and was delighted to review this book for Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. The origin of the labyrinth symbol and shape is unknown and it’s this ‘not-knowing’ has always intrigued me. Labyrinths are not mazes , despite the linguistic confusion in dictionaries and encyclopedias. With no dead ends, their circular path winds round and round into the centre and back out again. Walking a labyrinth offers the experience of pressing the pause button, taking time out to focus on the journey and maybe reflect. You don’t realise until  afterwards how you’ve stepped out of the world for a few moments, something we don’t do often enough. The book takes you on a fascinating journey around the use of labyrinths within student learning and educational development.

Note to the University of Hull – the space outside the library cafe would be perfect for a permanent labyrinth installation. This is the one Jan Sellers facilitated at the Canterbury campus of the University of Kent. Looks lovely. Just saying…

empty space outside of the university of hull library  labyrinth in the grounds of University of KEnt Canterbury Campus

Now the challenge is for anyone reading this to select their own top ten books from their research bookshelf #phdshelfie-blog