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Transitions: Reimagining your academic output by embracing a mind-set of abundance by Christopher Hill

chris_h_post-4_lead-setDr Christopher Hill is a creative writer, who works in the field of academic writing as both a teacher and researcher. Originally from New Zealand, he has spent over a decade living in Hong Kong, Indonesia and Singapore. Chris has a passion for the histories and cultures of the Asia-Pacific region, which form the inspiration for his writing in the form of essays and a novel that is currently in progress. He currently works as a lecturer at the Communication and Language Centre at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore where his research focuses on pedagogical strategies for the teaching of writing. He is currently focused on developing a study investigating the transfer of learning from writing courses to students’ specific disciplines. This is his forth and final post for the series. His twitter handle is @chrishillnz.

In David Bale and Ted Orland’s 1993 book, Art & Fear they describe a study in which a ceramics class is divided into two halves: one half of the students are asked to focus on producing a large quantity of work, while the other half is tasked with producing a small amount of high quality work. The notable result of this study was that not only did the first group produce the most work, but also the best work.

This example illustrates the psychology of human productivity. By concentrating on quantity as opposed to quality one can be produce better work and greater volumes. This example is drawn from a creative field, so does a quantity over quality mind-set work for more general academic research?

Bill Gates is quoted as saying that ‘most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.’ However, the opposite holds true of many academics. We often plan our academic goals and careers in the long term, but are sometimes guilty of assuming that writing and researching takes a long time. After all, a PhD takes years to write, and this instills within people the notion that good research and writing should take forever.    

One of the eye opening experiences about academic writing month #AcWriMo is realizing how much you can get done when you focus on producing a large quantity of work in a short amount of time. It involves reimagining the potential of your output by focusing on quantity and setting strict deadlines. If you took part in this year’s event, you may already be beginning to think about the possibilities of sustaining November’s yield throughout the year, or at least between semesters.

David Hare offers some great insights into this topic in his article here, and makes the important observation that for many researchers it’s not just a case of increasing word count but also transforming ideas and existing projects into publishable and presentable work. Dave also has suggestions for developing a publishing strategy here. Whether you are building your first strategy spreadsheet, or revisiting an old one, keep in mind Cyril Northcote Parkinson’s famous quip that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” By setting challenging goals for your academic output and combining this with a good research and writing routine you can sustain your #AcWriMo habits throughout the year.

But what about the quality? The quality vs. quantity axiom assumes that one prohibits the other leading many of us to focus on quality. However, as the ceramics class example illustrates, this need not be true. A frame of mind that focuses on quantity involves re-evaluating what you are capable of, and, through repetition, improving the quality of the work you produce rather than compromising it.

While not all academics are perfectionists, it would be fair to say that academia as a profession is one that lends itself to perfectionism. If you set good habits with your research and writing, then concerns about the quality of the work shouldn’t be an issue. For example, by sharing your writing or collaborating with others you can use feedback as a barometer for the quality of your output.

Remember also that focusing on quality may not only result in lower output but also lower quality work. For years I approached research and writing at a snail’s pace. I simply assumed that I was slow or not as smart as my swifter colleagues. We also often blanket these types of issues with excuses: teaching, administration and life always seem to get in the way of our research. But as #AcWriMo demonstrates when the goals are set and the determination is there, somehow you just get the work done.

So are there any limits? A mathematician colleague of mine recently lamented that there are only so many theorems a human being can produce in a year and hence a limited number of publishable papers that can be originated from them. But on the other hand, why let limits constrain you? There is nothing to be gained from placing conscious ceilings into your research strategy. Aim high and even if you don’t hit all your targets your likely to beat what you could produce with a ‘quality-first’ mind-set.

Ensure that you exploit your work for the most publishable opportunities as possible. Over the course of my studies I queried several of the most distinguished professors at my university and all of them agreed that leveraging every project, study and experiment for a maximum number of publishable articles was crucial to their success. This ‘waste not, want not’ philosophy guided each of them to great achievement.

There is one caveat to consider when focusing on quantity. In your drive for more output don’t get caught into thinking about publishing in contexts that won’t advance your career, because it seems easy and you want to produce more. In her excellent book, The Professor Is in : The Essential Guide to Turning Your Ph.D. into a Job, Karen Kelsky notes that many young academics ‘squander the best years of their academic lives on worthless (for the purposes of the job market) publications such as book reviews, conference proceedings, and chapters in edited collections that a) never see the light of day, b) take endless years to get published, or c) get published but only in obscure hardcovers that even university libraries don’t buy.’

In other words, in your pursuit of greater output keep your focus on the best journals and conferences within your field. If you need further convincing take China as an example. According to a recent article by Changhui Pen in Nature. China’s total output of academic publication is now ranked second in the world, behind the United States. However, in terms of citation numbers it is ranked ninth equal, a statistic that dampens the country’s great strides in research over the last decade. The same holds true for academics, embracing a mind-set of abundance must be matched with a desire to produce the best work.

 

Transitions: Transforming your students writing with feedback for future work by Christopher Hill
January 18, 2017
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chris_h_post-3_futureDr Christopher Hill is a creative writer, who works in the field of academic writing as both a teacher and researcher. Originally from New Zealand, he has spent over a decade living in Hong Kong, Indonesia and Singapore. Chris has a passion for the histories and cultures of the Asia-Pacific region, which form the inspiration for his writing in the form of essays and a novel that is currently in progress. He currently works as a lecturer at the Communication and Language Centre at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore where his research focuses on pedagogical strategies for the teaching of writing. He is currently focused on developing a study investigating the transfer of learning from writing courses to students’ specific disciplines. This is the third of four blog posts he will write for the series. His twitter handle is @chrishillnz.

It’s the long holiday weekend and everyone is posting their day on Instagram while you are chained to your desk grading your students work. You tell yourself it’s worth it. Your students’ written work deserves your detailed analysis and feedback even if it means sacrificing your holidays.

The day arrives when you finally return said work to your students. You watch in horror, as students glance at the grades on their assignments and then shove them in their bags. Your comments succumb to the darkness never to be glimpsed again.

It was after one such episode that I started to rethink my approach to feedback. Clearly, something wasn’t quite working. Perhaps, my feedback was arriving too late, and maybe what I had to say or how I was saying it wasn’t resonating with my students. I began searching for new strategies for writing feedback. I found inspiration in an article on written feedback by researchers Chris Glover and Evelyn Brown, who point out:

‘Where feedback is given, its prime function is to inform the students about their past achievement rather than looking forward to future work.’

I had always adhered to the traditional model of imparting my “expertise” on students’ work. Before students submitted their work, I would review drafts and offer comments when solicited, but would reserve most of my feedback for after an assignment’s submission.

The idea of reversing this approach and giving feedback for future work rather than past achievements was one that resonated with me. I also had in mind a method which would enable students to take feedback into their own hands, so that it wasn’t just me imparting knowledge, but student’s discovering it for themselves. Finally, I wanted to incorporate blended learning and enable students the flexibility to interact with each other within and without the classroom.

With these goals in mind I hoped that feedback would be less about me defending a grade and more about students learning and engaging as they thought and wrote. I decided to trial these strategies on a first year writing assignment – an argumentative essay by asking my students come up with an argumentative topic in the form of a statement or question and a thesis outlining their position.

The students posted their topics and statements onto the announcement section of our class Blackboard (the online platform not the chalkboard). I asked each class member to give critical feedback to one other student by analysing their topic and statement and assessing whether it was arguable.  

Although I chose to use blackboard any online platform would have worked: Canvas, Turnitin, Google docs and Facebook could all be employed for this type of activity. With educational technologies there is no perfect bullet for solving education challenges.

A mistake I made early on with blended learning was to try to fit my classes and goals around the technology. Instead, I now think about how technology can help achieve the learning outcomes I set for the class. In this case, I simply wanted to give the students a virtual space to share and critique their ideas and blackboard served this purpose just fine.

The results of the activity were encouraging. The students’ feedback on each other’s work was insightful and accurate. Colleagues had warned me of the time danger that these type of activities can involve. For example, it can be easy for an educator to lose hours giving feedback on an endless list of comments.

To avoid this, I told the students I would only give them feedback via email if I thought they were off track. I then looked through the statements and the peer feedback comments and identified a few outliers 4-5 students in a class of 25 whose comments or feedback confused or astray and offered some suggestions. I then asked these students to re-post/re-critique afterwards.

An unexpected effect of this trial was that some students put some extra work in and added claims to their topics and statements, and their peers in turn gave feedback on whether these claims were strong or weak and some even come up with counter claims. This was not planned at all, but it got me thinking about how to expand the approach further.

As a result, I am planning to expand the activity, so that it becomes a weekly homework activity in the month running up to the submission date. Students will upload a topic and thesis statement, followed by claims, and then counter claims and brief outlines of examples to support claims. Each week students will offer their peers critiques of these posts, guided by some questions and approaches we study in class. It would also be possible to have students give feedback on entire drafts of each other’s work depending on your university’s policies. To ensure my students stayed motivated I let them know their peer feedback would go towards their class participation grade.

My initial impression of this experiment is that my students have produced better work. Previously, I often had a few students who submitted assignments that weren’t arguable, were off topic or poorly structured. By employing this feedback for future work approach I saw an instant improvement.

The process of giving feedback and working through the stages of writing in steps, also helped to enhance the students understanding of academic writing processes and meant that even if they decided to write the essay at the last minute, a lot of thought and effort has already been put in. They had been critiquing other’s work for several weeks and had been thinking about their own topic, had a clear structure, and in some cases, examples to work from.

This type of activity can be implied to a wide variety of writing contexts simply by thinking of strategies for putting feedback in students’ own hands, making sure that the feedback happens for students’ future work and giving students opportunities to participate both within and without the classroom.

In most cases university policy around the world dictates that there still must a grade and a justification, so no promises that this approach will save your holidays, but possibly at least you can grade with the confidence that your students have already discovered much of the feedback they really need.  


Glover, C., & Brown, E. (2006). Written Feedback for Students: Too much, too detailed or too incomprehensible to be effective? Bioscience Education, 7(1), 1-16. doi:10.3108/beej.2006.07000004

 

Transitioning Fields: Turning and facing the strange of a new academic specialization by Christopher Hill
January 11, 2017
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chris_h_post-2_david-bowie-with-mirror

Dr Christopher Hill is a creative writer, who works in the field of academic writing as both a teacher and researcher. Originally from New Zealand, he has spent over a decade living in Hong Kong, Indonesia and Singapore. Chris has a passion for the histories and cultures of the Asia-Pacific region, which form the inspiration for his writing in the form of essays and a novel that is currently in progress. He currently works as a lecturer at the Communication and Language Centre at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore where his research focuses on pedagogical strategies for the teaching of writing. He is currently focused on developing a study investigating the transfer of learning from writing courses to students’ specific disciplines. This is the second of four blog posts he will write for the series. His twitter handle is @chrishillnz.

You dedicate 3+ years of your life to graduate studies that promised to make you an expert on something. But what happens at the end when you can’t get a job, or you don’t care anymore, or you feel like a change? The question of what to do next, can be a little scary.

Last week, I wrote about transitioning countries, and in this article I explore some of the reasons behind why you might change or develop a new academic specialization and a few strategies that have helped me make the transition from one specialization to another – because, yes as crazy as it sounds, I did change countries and fields at the same time.

There is an antiquated culture in many university departments around the world that believes if you can’t make it in your specialization you are a failure. There is also a huge amount of pressure on PhD graduates to transform into tiny little diamonds of expertise. There is a logic behind this model, we can’t be experts in everything. In the past, if a graduate didn’t make the cut he or she was discarded. There was no discussion of alternative careers or of new possibilities, you were deemed a failure and that was that.

However, there are now communities of PhD graduates, researchers, and professors who are reinventing themselves in new ways. The term “recovering academic” has been a prominent one over recent years. The twitter hashtags #postac and #altac feature inspiring stories of academics that have found new paths.

For those not quite ready to walk the plank and take a dive into the unknown, academia offers opportunities beyond the specialization you trained for. This is because academia is changing; the new technological landscape of education and research is evolving new roles and possibilities. Among these are new interdisciplinary fields. You may not be able to switch from psychology to biology without further training but as a psychologist you might be able to work with a biologist on an interesting project that braids the two disciplines together.

There is also the prospect of developing a second stream of research or moving into a related field as I have recently done. Like many PhD graduates I had a tough time after I finished my degree. My family had just survived my studies, and so, I wasn’t about to drag them through more lean years as a post doc. I needed a job. This required an honest assessment of my career prospects.

I think it’s fair to say that I am an extraordinary academic, but not in the way that you might think. If you were to pass my CV to your supervisor, or a colleague they would probably shake their head and mutter, “There’s a cautionary tale, whatever you do, don’t be that guy.”

That’s because I never intended to be an academic, so I didn’t exactly plan my career. Over the last twelve years I have earned degrees in philosophy, communication studies and literature and have worked in a variety of institutions teaching a kaleidoscope of humanities subjects from creative writing to business English. My CV embodies the chaotic lights and noise of a Hong Kong night market in full swing.

During my PhD studies I dreamed of being a literary theorist. But after one year and 50 odd job applications I knew that this wasn’t going to happen. Not only was my CV a mix-and-match collage, but I wasn’t exactly setting the world alight with trailblazing research. Universities wanted focused academics, with degrees from prominent universities and a small ton of journal articles. I felt frustrated and a failure.

The ‘a-ha;’ moment came after many months when I started thinking about myself and my CV differently. After all, Hong Kong night markets are wonders to behold. I thought about how my ridiculously eclectic CV might be relevant to jobs in academia beyond literature. Often we think we have attained expertise in a subject and ignore all the valuable skills that we learn completing a PhD such as research, computer and communication skills along with project management to name a few. These skills are valuable and can help you move into administrative or consulting roles and new areas of research and teaching.

To guide me in a new direction and reimagine my career, I spoke with senior colleagues, my supervisor, friends and family. They pointed out that because of my experience I knew a lot about writing styles in different disciplines and genres and could teach a variety of different kinds of students. They also pointed out that Academic English was in high demand among universities, especially in Asia – my adopted home. I had worked for a couple of years at an editorial assistant at an Academic English journal so I had some ideas about this field even though the applied linguistics research it involved was very different to literary theory.

It was clear that I wouldn’t get a research track job in this new discipline. Research track was a dream installed in me since my first days of graduate school. It was and remains hard, but I had to let this dream go at least for a while. I set my sights on academic English lecturing jobs. I interviewed for a few and accepted a job at a good university. Although my new role was primarily concerned with lecturing I was also expected to do research, so the door was still open.

Six months later and I am on my way to developing a second stream of research. I am still writing up articles from my PhD, but I have also just finished my first grant application for an Academic English research project. I won’t pretend it’s been easy, teaching is one thing, but there is a steep learning curve to the research. I am embracing it anyway, jumping in the deep end and have been surprised by how much overlap there is between my existing skills and knowledge and the new field I am working in.

Nobody said it would be easy, but in the words of the philosopher Bowie, “turn and face the strange.” Consider all the things that are “wrong” about your skills and experience and see how they might be right for other specializations and opportunities.

Transitioning Abroad? Insight on Working Overseas from an Academic Rolling Stone. By Christopher Hill
January 4, 2017
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c-2-metroDr Christopher Hill is a creative writer, who works in the field of academic writing as both a teacher and researcher. Originally from New Zealand, he has spent over a decade living in Hong Kong, Indonesia and Singapore. Chris has a passion for the histories and cultures of the Asia-Pacific region, which form the inspiration for his writing in the form of essays and a novel that is currently in progress. He currently works as a lecturer at the Communication and Language Centre at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore where his research focuses on pedagogical strategies for the teaching of writing. He is currently focused on developing a study investigating the transfer of learning from writing courses to students’ specific disciplines. This is the first of four blog posts he will write for the series. His twitter handle is @chrishillnz.

In this age of adjunct academic positions and relentless competition for jobs, the temptation to cast off for exotic shores and low-tax salaries is an alluring one for many young academics. Before taking that leap consider this testimony on the trials and tribulations of transitioning between academic jobs in different countries.

In 2005, fresh from my master’s degree, I decided to leave my hometown of Auckland and take my OE (Overseas Experience). The OE is a mandatory rite of passage for those of us who grow up closer to Antarctica than the rest of the world. At the time I was convinced that London did not need another Australasian, so I headed in the direction of Shanghai convinced that it was destined to be the New York of the 21st century. As so often happens with adventures I never made it, and still haven’t ever been to Shanghai. Nonetheless, I also haven’t returned home either. Instead, I have lived and worked in universities across Asia.

People often ask me “Why did you choose to live abroad?” There is often a subtext to this question: “You grew up in one of the most beautiful countries on the planet so why the hell leave?” It can be difficult to offer an honest answer. In such situations I am reminded of a quote from The Odyssey which roughly paraphrased goes something like this: “A person who has been through bitter experiences and travelled far enjoys even his or her own sufferings after a time.” I will admit that living abroad has been hard for me, but in the end worth it. And I have managed to get by focusing on one challenge at a time.

So what kind of problems can you encounter working overseas? There are a number of professional challenges involved in transitioning between academic jobs. However, academics that make the move often overlook the injuries to their health and happiness that such new environments can present.

As an example, I consider myself a person who lives reasonably healthy, avoids excess for the most part, and grew up without any significant health issues or allergies. Yet each time I have moved country my body has been dealt a brutal blow. In Indonesia, within a 3 month period, I suffered dysentery and 3 separate bouts of food poisoning that left me 12kg lighter and with a chronically irritable bowel that took several years to recover. In Hong Kong the pollution brought on a lengthy bout of bronchial asthma. I recently moved to Singapore and my first semester of teaching has coincided with an extended battle with pneumonia inspired, my doctor tells me, not by age but by allergies and the climate.

Matters of the heart can also be difficult for academics transitioning to new countries. Trailing spouses of academics often learn too late that finding work can be difficult and even impossible in certain places. Life is not necessarily easier for singletons either. For every tale of cross-cultural love you might hear there are several other stories of souls left lonely and distraught by the enigmatic dating scenes of foreign shores. While these matters are not limited to academics they merit mention because even when your health and sense of wellbeing are tested you are still expected to bare the intense intellectual demands of our profession.

There are a number of often hidden professional challenges you can face working in a new country. Job interviews and university tours often don’t reveal the nuance of a foreign university’s culture, which can quickly leave newly hired academics perplexed and estranged from their employers. In Asia, for example, the bureaucratic nature of many universities can make you feel like you are trapped in a scene out of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

In the UK, North America and Australasia your specialisation and research are respected to a certain extent. You expect to be hired to do research and teach on subjects related to your own field. In overseas universities this is not always the case. Academics are frequently expected to be more flexible: “Literary theorist you say? This makes you a perfect candidate for developing our English for business communication course. By the way, what do you know about social science?”

While living in a foreign country, social, cultural and language differences can impact your everyday interactions with students and colleagues, and this can take a toll over an extended period of months or years. Some find these experiences engaging and invigorating, while others feel as if their souls are being sapped of vitality.

Whether you see working overseas as a short jaunt or a long term move, consider carefully your exit strategy. My career outside New Zealand has involved living and working in three different countries and developing a specialisation in an area that is not in particularly high demand back home. I may find it difficult to get work should I ever decide I want to return to New Zealand one day. However, I have other friends and colleagues who carefully managed the development of their research, bided their time and leveraged their overseas experience for better positions on their return home.

For all the laments and sufferings described above, there are many advantages to moving overseas. In places like Asia and the Middle East salaries are often higher and taxes low. Universities may have more money for conferences and grants which can provide you more opportunities to develop your research. Living in a new country offers the chance for you to establish new perspectives and insights into the world and your own work. And, if there is anything that I am truly grateful for it is the friends I have made along the way—a network of people that now spans the globe. A group who have helped shape me into a better human being than the one that left home.