It’s time! Viva Day – Reblogged

This is my guest post for the University of Reading ‘Engage in Teaching and Learning Blog‘. (Click here for original post)

There can’t be many more nerve-wracking oral exams than the PhD viva. A several-year build-up –and then… what? To give research students an impression of what’s it actually like on the day, Dr Carol Fuller from the Institute of Education has produced a short, entertaining and informative video. Using some Teaching and Learning Development Fund (TLDF) money, Carol, who is Director of the Institute’s EdD Programme, has teamed up with film maker Henry Steddman – a UoR alumni — to provide reassurance to potentially anxious candidates. Starring some IoE colleagues as well as professional actors, the video thankfully stays clear of vague and meaningless advice often found in self-help type viva-survivor tips, such as ‘just be yourself’ (which is fine if your self is a confident academic on top of your game, not so much if it’s a nervous wreck.  As Father Ted says to Dougal: never be yourself! That’s just something people say!)

So how should you be, then? First, let’s remember the cornerstones of the situation you’re in here:

  • You’re the expert on your thesis
  • The examiners have read your work thoroughly…
  • ….and they’re keen to discuss it with you.

On viva day:

  • dress smartly
  • refer to your thesis
  • keep eye contact
  • if unsure, ask questions
  • stay hydrated
  • ….try to relax!
  • at the end, if you’re asked whether you’d like to add anything, take the opportunity.

Then, you’ve done all you can for now, and there’s no more to than just wait, until… it’s time!

Hopefully, you’ll get the desired result, and will be awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy! Congratulations!

If UoR PhD’ers and EdD’ers find the video useful, Carol is keen to hear their feedback – via any means possible, be it the YouTube comment box, on Facebook or twitter, or via email.” It’s a good way to give students access to an easy-to-use resource”, says Carol. “If students tell us they like this video clip, we can make the case for funding to make more such short films, for example on epistemology or methodology.”

What do you and your students think of Carol’s video?

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Brexit: A victory for ordinary people?

brexit

Words are distributed unevenly in texts. This is a lucky fact for corpus linguists, who study the nature of this distribution, and are often able to identify linguistic patterns which may otherwise remain hidden.  Why should we care?  Here’s an example, based on a) evidence from my collection of 40.000+ digital newspaper articles, aka ‘corpus’, and b) my heart.

This morning that same heart was broken, when I woke to the news that Britain had voted to leave the EU. I can’t even begin to tell you how devastated that makes me feel. Only yesterday I had such a happy day, because I’d reached a milestone in my PhD: I’d finished processing all my data and had excitedly begun to explore the above-mentioned corpus.

Some words have a tendency to co-occur with others, which is known as collocation. Corpus linguistics makes a strong case for collocations being a more helpful unit of meaning than words.  Take for example the collocation ‘friendly fire’: this phrase means something entirely different to just simply the sum of the words ‘friendly’ + ‘fire’.  So playing around with my corpus of British articles on German, the Germans and Germany, I made a list of frequent collocates of ‘Germans’. Right at the top of the list: ordinary.  When I looked at the concordance lines in detail, they showed that ordinary Germans was almost exclusively used in the context of the darkest chapter in German history, such as:

  • Did ordinary Germans know what was going on?
  • Ordinary Germans were more complicit in the liquidation of European Jewry than historians have previously supposed
  • There were widespread denials by ordinary Germans that they had known about the existence of internment and death camps
  • A television drama exploring the guilt of ordinary Germans during the Second World War
  • The issue of how much the inhumanity of ordinary Germans was an acquired survival response to the prevailing Nazi terror is sidestepped
  • Her account of ordinary Germans coping with life during wartime
  • At the time Nazism had a powerful appeal to ordinary Germans
  • Hitler didn’t use violence against most ordinary Germans
  • The Nazi party championed ordinary Germans

The Nazi party championed ordinary Germans.  As opposed to whom, extra-ordinary Germans?  Who are these ordinary people?  I don’t really know, but what I do know is that splitting any group or society in a polarised way is a very very bad idea.  Early this morning, an icy chill took hold of my heart when I heard UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s comment on the referendum result: “This will be a victory for ordinary people”.

When Sandi Toksvig asked me about my PhD

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Can’t think of any character from Scooby doo. Not even Scooby doo.

Missing your regular dose of TV quizzing now that University Challenge is done for the season?!  No need to mope – Fifteen to One’s back on, hoorah!

I love this show – so much so that I seem to make a habit of exposing my lack of general knowledge publicly by appearing on it every ten years or so.  So against better judgement I did it again for the third time – and these days you get to go on three shows in a row!

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I think we need some more makeup

Contestants were sworn to secrecy about anything to do with the casting and recording until the show you’re on has aired. Well it has, and the gagging order’s been lifted!  After a whittling-down process involving pen and paper tests and onscreen auditions, eventually whoever was left standing was invited to the BBC studios in Glasgow in October last year – yes I know it’s a Channel 4 show, but that’s where it was.  Extremely lucky for me, as Glasgow’s practically my second home!  Presenter Sandi Toksvig was hilarious and made a point of having a little individual chat with everyone.  “So, Heikie, what’s your PhD in?”  Now we’d been briefed that if Sandi asks you something, give a bit of detail.  So I droned on about my PhD until she could take no more – needless to say, that bit never made it onto the show.  But I’ll never forget the moment when Sandi put an end to my monologue with a desperate “that’s really interesting” and turned to the next person: “So, Vicky, I hear you breed bunny rabbits?”

If you really must, you can watch me on catchup for the next few weeks (13/14/15th April episodes).

RX5

The Glasgow Fifteen, with Sandi

German is like a mushroom…

This is my guest post for the Oxford German Network

Oxford German Network

This is a guest post by our PhD researcher, OGP coordinator Heike Bruton, who is investigating motivation for German learning.  You’ll know her as the author of our ‘Joining up German teaching in the UK’ newsletters, top tips, events and resources from the world of German teaching (to sign up for the newsletter click here; to see past newsletter editions click here).

German is like a mushroommushroom (2)

The year is 1994.  In a comprehensive school on the outskirts of London, a newly qualified German teacher takes up her first job.  She’s brimming with plans and enthusiasm, and she’s looking forward to her many questions being answered.  How do students in this country feel about learning German?  What makes some people here just take to all things German, and what’s the best way to share the love?

That teacher is me.  Two decades later I’ve taught countless numbers of…

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DATA! Or doing research in schools

 

IheartData

 

I’ve created simply the most exciting folder of my PhD so far. It’s called DATA! Complete with capitals and exclamation mark – I just couldn’t stop myself. I’ve actually gone out ‘in the field’ and gathered some real data! I never thought the day would come, but it did, and here’s what I learnt:

Research in schools. Who needs it? Well yes, a lot of us, but don’t forget that everything about fieldwork in schools is hard, from A for access to Z for… it’s just hard, ok? Don’t get me wrong. I love education, I love schools. I’ve spent most of my life so far involved in some sort of educational establishment or other, be it as ‘educatee’, educator, or both. But the three top things to remember are:

 

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  1. School teachers are busy, busy people. I should know, I used to be one. Make it easy and keep wordy emails and long lists of things you want done to a minimum. If you’re lucky enough that someone responds and offers you a time slot, take it, even if it means getting up a silly o’clock, finishing at silly o’clock or rushing madly from one appointment to the next, which will be at, yes, silly o’clock.

 

  1. Waste Spend your own time and money to make sure all documents are copied, stapled and ready to go. Don’t expect the teacher to take the time to prepare this, or the money for it to come out of the departmental budget. Put it all into one big bag and be prepared to hand over the bag as well – if you’re lucky you’ll get it back at the end, full of completed questionnaires. If you’re lucky, that is.

 

  1. Never been to this particular school before? Allow A LOT of time. Last week I was waiting outside of firmly locked electronic metal gates for what seemed like ages, worrying I might miss my appointment. And the parking! Parking’s always, always an issue. What’s legal isn’t always acceptable to the local community – if you’re parked in a side street, you’re almost certain to put someone’s nose out of joint. On my return to the car I found a handwritten note – impersonating a traffic warden – on the back of an envelope, telling me that my car was parked illegally (it wasn’t). The message was clear: “Don’t do it again”.

 

parking note

 

This was only day one of my data collection schedule. I interviewed two teachers at two schools – the text books say to only do one interview a day, but hey, see point 1) above. I’ll be back for more interviews, questionnaire sessions, lesson observations and focus groups – I can’t wait. So then, what to do with all this lovely, fresh and juicy data? Well, before you can crunch it all up and then spit it out again in some sort of (hopefully) meaningful fashion, it needs to be transcribed. But that’s a blog post for another day!

 

Are you conducting research in a school? How’s that going? Please post your comments below!

So you think you’re doing a PhD?

 

upgrade

 

I’ve been upgraded! Yes I know the old version of me did suffer from bugs and sudden crashes, cheers for pointing it out, so an upgrade was long overdue, and thanks to the procedures of the PhD machinery, I’ve now got one, hoorah! Confused? Then read on…

So you think you’re doing a PhD? Often, not so, at least not to start with. You might be registered for a lesser degree first, and only clamber up onto the PhD train, destination graduation, later. Or your status might officially be ‘PhD-initial registration’, and you need to have your registration confirmed. Who knew? Not me! So this is the CoR, confirmation of registration, aka upgrade, aka transfer. Requirements for this vary between institutions and departments, but often you’re asked to produce a mini-thesis, bar findings, and just a general intro-background-methodology-findings-discussion list won’t cut it, sorry, it’s got to contain some serious content. Then you get to discuss this with a panel, with your supervisors sitting in but not allowed to say anything. Sounds like scary stuff – so preparation is everything.

Anyway, for me, it’s over. I’m a officially a fully signed-up PhDer now, and I couldn’t be more relieved. When I was preparing for it though, it struck me that I can’t be the only person who was struggling to piece together some info about how the whole CoR process works, or that it even exists in the first place! So here are a few key points that might be worth knowing (NB this applies to my institution and my home school – do check how it works with your own uni/school/department). If you look for it, the info CAN be found out there, you just need to know a) where to look, and b) that you should look in the first place! Since you’re reading this, you got b) covered. As for a), here are some….

…Top tips re preparing for your CoR:

  • Check your VLE (Blackboard, Moodle, etc). Mine actually has a useful section on the CoR, but I only came across it quite late. So save yourself some hassle and have a look on your VLE as your starting point! It will probably also say what paperwork you need to complete. Look out for these forms (again, this might be different for your department):
  • CoR new paperwork (honestly, it’s called that in my case, yours might not be ‘new’ :-))
  • Example document (extremely useful: someone else’s completed report – hopefully it was someone who passed!)
  • Annual Review of Progress – CoR – student template (don’t think just because you’ve already done a review of progress report not too long ago you don’t have to do a new one! You can just update the previous report though, self-plagiarism rules don’t apply in this instance).
  • Learning Needs Analysis (update and submit to assessors)
  • Check your Graduate School website. Mine has useful links to forms, policies and procedures.  (Don’t switch off at the sound of this – knowing this stuff will help you navigate the PhD maze! Familiarise yourself also with the CoR section in the Code of Practice on Research students, or your institution’s equivalent.
  • Good practice guides are helpful too, e.g. Monitoring and Assessing the Practice of Doctoral Researchers. Knowing the criteria against which you’re assessed is rather essential, but this information isn’t always easy to come by, astonishingly.
  • Read your PhD handbook!!! This is worth its weight in gold and your starting point for every general PhD question you may have. Avoid feeling a fool if the answers to your questions have been in there all along.
  • Put your CoR document through Turnitin. On my VLE there’s a button saying ‘draft chapters’, which I ignored until after I’d submitted my CoR document. THEN I found out that you can check, completely confidentially, for instances of unintended (and intended, I guess) plagiarism, by uploading your work onto Turnitin. With trepidation, I did this – and it came back as 28% plagiarised! Shock horror! If this happens to you, don’t panic. When I checked each item, it was all references or template ethics documents form the appendix. Phew! I do recommend before checking your document before official submission though, not after. All official University student work is now put through Turnitin as a matter of course. Use this tool to your advantage.
  • Your institution’s researcher development programme might run a seminar on preparing for the CoR. I went to one and it turned out to cover the whole of the PhD assessment process, not just the CoR. Quite useful but I’d have liked to spend more time on ‘the thing that it said on the tin’. Still, it alerted me to the documents above, and that’s definitely as good thing.
  • In the actual CoR session (not sure what to call this: a chat, an oral exam, a mini-viva? Let’s stick with session), relax and enjoy discussing your project with academics in your field. I think it’s a real privilege to have someone read and comment on your work – make the most of it! I finished my session with a feeling of renewed energy and inspiration. It reminded of why I embarked on this project in the first place. I can’t wait to get out into the field and collect my data now!

So the last thing then is to be aware of the criteria used to assess your application for full registration (again, this might vary from institution to institution). At my university these are:

  1. Is the work presented by the student such as might reasonably be expected as a result of their having studied for the equivalent of around 12-18 months full-time for a PhD, depending on the timing of the confirmation process?
  2. Has the student shown that he or she is able to exercise independent critical judgement?
  3. Has the student demonstrated that he / she understands how his / her research topic is related to a wider field of knowledge?
  4. Has the student demonstrated the ability to produce an original contribution to knowledge?
  5. Is the amount and nature of the subject-specific and generic research skills training that has been undertaken by the student appropriate to his / her needs, as identified through a Learning Needs Analysis or similar process?
  6. Is the student’s work, and his / her understanding of it, of a standard that indicates that it will lead to the successful submission of a PhD thesis within 3-4 years full-time registration (or part-time equivalent)?

Amazingly, the answer to all of these questions for me today seems to have been YES. So why do I still feel that everybody else knows what they’re talking about, whereas I don’t? To answer this, I’ve signed for a course called Imposter syndrome. But that’s a blog post for another day!

 

How is/was your upgrade experience? I’d love to hear from you via the comments form below!

 

 

The tentative German book prize 2015 connection

German Book Prize 2015: what have these two books got to do with it?!

So! The shortlist of the six novels in the running for the German Book Prize 2015 is out – winners will be announced on 12th October, can’t wait! Click here for a short description (in English) of each novel, the authors’ bios, and an audio-sample. Want to follow the prize and all its goings on in English? No worries, New Books In German (click on the words!), the prize’s English language media partner, has got it covered. Want to read about it in another language? The first website above can be changed to French, and the second to Spanish – the latter one even mentions Italian content but the link didn’t work for me. Still, quite the polyglot atmosphere! Sadly I haven’t read any of the shortlisted books, shame, but I just haven’t. Reading through the list though made me think of my encounters with the author of one of the shortlisted novels, well not with her directly, but with one of her previous books and with her portrayal in an interview-based article in the Guardian.

So this writer is on the shortlist then with her latest novel, Gehen Ging Gegangen/Go Went Gone, of course she is, seeing that in German book terms she’s – and I’m just stopping short of abusing the word ‘literally’ here – everywhere: Jenny Erpenbeck. Erpenbeck’s sixth novel Aller Tage Abend/The End of Days won the Independent Foreign Fiction prize earlier this year, and that’s just one of the many awards and accolades heaped upon her. If you’re interested in German contemporary writing, Erpenbeck is not a name you can easily avoid. My own ‘Erpenbeck experience’ hasn’t had the smoothest of starts ever since I meant to read Das alte Kind/The Old Child, her debut novel, but ended up mistakenly reading a book of the same title by Zoë Beck, I mean come on, same title, and, then, the author’s name, enough to get anyone confused. Beck, Schmeck, Erpenbeck. What didn’t help either was that Beck’s novel is truly, erm, awful, sorry, and I only finished it because of its twin location setting of Berlin and Scotland, which are both close to my heart. I know that’s not Erpenbeck’s fault, but somehow the momentum was lost.

This summer, when I read an interview with Jenny Erpenbeck in the Guardian, I was taken aback by two things she said. The first point is about growing up in the East and people’s attitude in the West:

“People don’t tend to believe me, but our default mode in the east was skepticism towards the government, especially among those who still believed that socialism deserved a better chance. When we read a newspaper, the first question was always “What does it really mean?” It gave us a much better training, alertness to manipulation. Sometimes I think that people in the west were much more streamlined, much more easily manipulated with their 100% faith in democracy while remaining largely unquestioning of the economic system”.

Wait a minute. Surely “what does it really mean” is everyone’s first question, not just if you grew up in East Germany? 100% faith in democracy? Unquestioning of the economic system? What is this? I don’t recognise it. Sounds like Erpenbeck herself was manipulated into subscribing to a simplistic view of each and every ‘Westbürger’ as an uncritical consumer of capitalism. Very odd indeed.

The second thing that strikes me as strange is the point she makes about the reception of her books in England (not the UK, mind, though it doesn’t look as though this is a deliberate distinction on her part, but rather a common European pars-pro-toto misconception):

“I sometimes get the impression that readers in England are more appreciative when you are brave enough to experiment with form. Not because that is more common here, but precisely because it is even less common than in Germany.”

Now apart from the fact that experimental writing is far from uncommon in ‘England’ – just look at contemporary writers Tom McCarthy, Stewart Home, Ben Brooks for starters. Also what puzzles me here is that no reference is made to Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life. Atkinson uses the same conceit of a character living out several different lives within the course of the novel, and she does this, in my (not so?) humble opinion, better.  There’s also a strong German connection running through it right from the start; the novel opens with the main character, Ursula, shooting Hitler dead. Bang, take that. Then I dare you to read Life after Life and not fall in love with Teddy, yes I know he is a fictitious character but somehow the understated brilliance of Atkinson’s writing makes you forget that, and yes he did bomb my home town of Bochum with his Halifax, but hey, we’re all friends now. Not keeping your critical distance comes at your peril but works out completely fine until right at the end of the novel’s companion piece, A God in Ruins, which came as a complete shock to me – although I do like to flatter myself as not exactly an uncritical reader. Maybe I should have seen it coming, but I didn’t, just as I never saw it 20 years ago when reading Atkinson’s first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Afterwards it’s so obvious that it was always there, running through the novel like red thread, but a slim, thin, easily missed one. No wonder Atkinson states that A God in Ruins is about fiction itself – that makes complete sense, and although I felt heartbroken and not just a little duped when I got to the end, I have to agree and admire the intelligence and crafts(wo)manship that went into it.

I can’t say that I feel like that about Aller Tage Abend/The End of Days. Yes the style is seductive in its consistent curliness, which feels both old-fashioned and post-modern, and that’s not a bad thing at all. But altogether though I felt more annoyed than intrigued, especially when the number of a spider’s legs are referred to as six, not eight, call me petty, do, but I’ll still feel the same. And the repetitions, and the repetitions… not for me, no really, not for me, for what it counts, and it probably doesn’t, and that’s ok, and not a bad thing either.

Have you read any books with a German connection lately, tentative or otherwise?

Update: 

And the winner is (deep breath):

Die Erfindung der Roten Armee Fraktion durch einen manisch-depressiven Teenager im Sommer 1969/ The Invention of the Red Army Faction by a Manic-Depressive Teenager in the Summer of 1969 by Frank Witzel. Ohne Witz.

Read more about the winning novel here. I’ve ordered my copy – have you?