Anarchy in the academy: why create an academic poster?

Academia is an institution predicated on convention. The choreography of our words, actions and – dare I say it – ‘outputs’ is implicitly shaped by the historical establishment. As well, of course, as by contemporary agendas: the need to publish; to be measurable; impactful; REFable. Typically, we operate in sentences and paragraphs, charts and graphs, chapters or papers. Images are often secondary, whilst for some they are a seemingly unaffordable luxury.

The academic poster is a form of knowledge communication which explodes the boundary walls of academic convention, opening up a space for alternative forms of expression. Prose is often ousted, or at least demoted, as shapes and forms, space and image shoulder the semiotic load.

The academic poster is an act of liberation – perhaps even peaceful protest. Not only for the researcher, but for his or her research. In our thesis we all tell the story of our research, except it’s not the story; it is merely a story: the tale we choose to tell as we navigate our way along the doctoral path: through supervision meetings, conferences convening colleagues and chapter revisions, towards the Mecca to which all PhD students are directed: the successful viva. Subverting the linear constraints of the thesis, the academic poster provides a stage upon which an alternative research narrative may unfold.

It is for the reasons above that I was drawn, some months prior to the submission deadline, to start planning an academic poster for last year’s postgraduate research showcase. I understand the constraints within which we as scholars must operate, and I know how to do so. Yet I am of an academic generation that is hungry for change, for opportunities to express, communicate and engage in the research process in new and innovative ways, a generation that has not been in the game for long enough to believe that change is not possible. The postgraduate researcher showcase provided me with a platform upon which to enact my frustration with the academy simultaneously with my belief in the power and value of alternative mediums of academic expression.

What is more, I don’t know about you, but I have to do a lot of reading and writing as a PhD student. Creating a poster gave me a break from obsessing over paragraph, chapter and thesis structure, as I was forced to think about colour and composition. It also made me feel good knowing that I was creating something that others would be able to engage with without having to burrow into line-crossing, multi-clausal sentences.

Creating an academic poster enabled me to see my research differently. Simple as. It also forced me to think about how to make my research interesting to an audience that isn’t composed of geeky linguists like myself. It required me to take off my academic blinkers and think about my research from a real world perspective. I have benefited from the activity, as has my research. I can’t really comment on the effects it might have had on others, although it did win the prize for most innovative poster, so I must have done something right. Which is interesting in itself, because what I did was cover my poster with actual swatches of wool. And the judges voted for it. Which goes some way to proving the point above: that there is power and value in alternative forms of academic communication.

So my advice would be to do two things: become proficient at operating within the rules, but also know how not to. Disrupt the norms, push the boundaries and challenge conventions, because that, dear colleagues, is what academia is really all about.

This post was originally written for the University of Exeter’s Doctoral College Blog, which can be found here






What academic publishers wish we knew

Friends, colleagues,

I have privileged information that I need to share with you.

A couple of weeks ago I went to a seminar for academic publishers. They were in attendance to learn about ‘the researcher of the future.’

I was there as a ‘future researcher’ panellist along with six other ECRs, and we were joined by individuals working at the intersection of academic publishing and innovation.

The delegates came to learn about our perspective on the academia-publishing relationship, and they’d paid between £200 and £500 for the privilege. Being surrounded by academic publishers all day, I couldn’t fail to learn about their perspective on the relationship. And, though some of it seems obvious, I want to share what I learnt:

1) Let’s start with this: academic publishers would not exist if academics didn’t exist; without us they got nothing! Sure, we need them because they publish our work for us, but at a push we could find other ways of disseminating our research whilst they, on the other hand, would cease to have a raison d’être.

2) Next: the word in my uni corridors is that to get published you have to jump through whatever hoops the immovable academic publishers throw your way. But that is so not what our relationship looks like to them. Remember, there are lots of academic publishers, all vying for our custom, all competing with each other. To survive they’ve got to attract us, and to attract us they’ve got to be attractive. Let’s take a moment to think about the fact that ±40 organisations were prepared to pay between £200 and £500 to learn about the needs and wants of the academic community. Friends, colleagues, they are not immovable; they want to flex to meet our needs because that means we’ll give them custom and keep them in business.

3) And so here’s the next point: although they want to flex to meet our needs, they don’t know what our needs are. Because we’ve got it into our minds that they are immovable and don’t care about us, we don’t reach out to tell them what we want.

4) Final point: this is kind of surprising, and also kind of not: lots of them don’t know what it’s like to be a researcher. It’s not just our needs that they don’t know about, they don’t know what our day-to-day life looks like, nor the nature of the patterns on the many plates we are trying to keep spinning. And why would they? They work in publishing houses; we work in universities. But they want to know. In the afternoon networking session, seminar delegates started coming up to my ECR colleagues and me, telling us that our insights were the best part of the seminar. At first we joked and assumed they were just being polite. But so many publishers said it to us that we ended up believing it. One publisher said she had been to a similar meeting about researcher needs and that there had been 200 publishers and just two researchers! It seems that, except through article submission portals and the likes, communication between them and us is lacking. Yet this isn’t what they want: they want to build, strengthen and develop communication channels.

To summarise:

  • Academic publishers exist because we exist.
  • They want to flex to meet our needs and wants.
  • They won’t know what we want and need if we don’t tell them.
  • They want to develop the relationship between them and us.

To conclude:

A few months ago a friend told me about ‘the Hero’s Journey.’ It’s a narrative structure that crops up in countless stories. Once you’ve heard it, you start seeing it everywhere. The bare bones are this: there is a hero. He or she sets out on an adventure. Along the journey the hero encounters obstacles and villains, but also meets helpers who help the hero overcome those obstacles. There’s an ultimate challenge, and though it seems touch and go, ultimately the hero overcomes it and returns home changed and triumphant.

Why am I talking about the Hero’s Journey? Like I said, I’ve started seeing the structure everywhere, including in the researcher-publisher story. So let’s tell the story:

We, the researchers, are obviously the heroes (!) and to survive and triumph we must publish. Along the journey to publication various obstacles get in our way, including academic publishers….

See, I reckon we’ve spun a story for ourselves wherein we see academic publishers as obstacles; it’s us against them. But that’s not how it is. They want to help us, they want to get our publications out there; they aren’t villains, they’re helpers!

I’m not suggesting that the journey isn’t challenging and problematic, but actually, if you think about it, the obstacles we encounter such as the process of peer review, are issues with the system, and they are challenges that publishers have to deal with too.

So my concluding thought is this: why don’t we write a different narrative, see academic publishers as they want us to see them, engage when we can and look for opportunities to do so? We should remember that they want to meet our needs and want to help us. Let’s try to see them as helpers. After all, in this new narrative we’ll still get to be the heroes.

What next? 




How and why we can and should be more creative in academia

I spent the best part of a decade thinking there was no place in academia for paint, scissors and glitter glue. It turns out I was wrong.

Feeling my off the wall ideas were unwelcome, I’d been all set to walk away from academia after my PhD. That was until a couple of weeks ago, when I went to a university workshop on ‘creative journaling as a research method.’ Now I want to stay.

That day, enlightenment and salvation finally came, delivered by Dr Ian Cook, a tall man with thick-rimmed black glasses and stories of Lego and Guantanamo Bay. Ian talked about how he and colleagues in his department had used Lego to explore different news stories. The material nature of the activity had shaped both the process and the thinking. The team posted images of their creations on social media, and contacted some of those involved in the stories, many of whom responded; the use of Lego as a research tool sparked conversations that would otherwise not have taken place.

Not only did he illustrate that creative approaches do have a place in academia and are welcome, he also demonstrated why we should be more creative. And, unlike junior PhD student me, he’s a senior and respected academic. So, if he says it’s okay, then it’s okay! To pick out and paraphrase some of Ian’s points:

Why we should be more creative in academia

  • Processes of making and creating provide us with a different way of exploring the world
  • ‘Materiality and remembered physical experiences stimulate the imagination’ (Treadaway 2009: 236)
  • We need to make our research interesting for the people who are going to be reading it
  • What we are trying to convey might be better understood in different formats

In other words, creative approaches may give us greater insight, enable us to do better research and be better at communicating it.

Looking back over the past two and a half years of my PhD, I see my project has been peppered with creative moments which have been invaluable. These have helped me understand my research questions and talk about what I’m trying to find out with others. I’ve picked out six ideas that will hopefully inspire you.


1) Making sense of the literature

Reviewing the literature in the early stages of my research, I had information overload. I was trying to get my head around all of the factors that might have an impact on (Franco-)Belgian borderlanders’ speech and their beliefs about and attitudes towards language. I had compiled a long list, but it just wasn’t user friendly; I needed to see how they interacted. So I made them into a collage.


(info here)

Not only did the collage help me to make sense of the literature, I have since gone back to it and used it to stimulate my own questions. Sharing it with non-experts, it has been a way for me to start conversations about my research.


2) Sharing a research experience with peers

I was asked to lead part of a discussion group at Cardiff University about my first experiences of fieldwork. I wanted my colleagues to feel what I had felt. So I drew a cartoon! Little bit risky!

FOXENLEDS12.11.2014 jpeg

(info here)

The storyboard format enabled my colleagues to relive my experience with me, but it was abstract enough to stimulate their own memories of fieldwork. What is more, it was so distinct from forms of presentation we are used to, it engaged and held their attention.



3) Developing a methodology

How do you get the measure of a person’s complex, composite, fluid identity? Thinking about this whilst planning my methodology, I felt a visual translation of identity might be more insightful that something gleaned from responses to a written questionnaire. I considered the dimensions of identity then thought how I could translate them into physical dimensions, for example:

Identity Cloud

  • Different traits become different colours
  • Importance becomes size
  • Interaction becomes spatial configuration
  • Fluidity becomes movement

What emerged from my reflections and discussions with peers was the idea of visualising identity through creating an Identity Cloud; a visual interpretation of the arguably intangible. Peers had a go at making their own identity clouds at a conference workshop. They described how the process of making and doing had stimulated thought and discussion.

(The image is of a made up Identity Cloud.)

(Check back for details of a forthcoming journal article about this.)


4) Processing and documenting the emotions tied to my own research experience

When I first moved to France for my year abroad, I started making postcards with chopped up free magazines and pens. I made them for no one but myself. When I looked back over them, I realised they were an articulation of my emotions – living abroad for the first time is pretty scary and challenging.


I still make postcards whenever I’m abroad. I don’t really think about what I want to create; I just start chopping up magazines. Nevertheless, when I look back on my creations, I see that they are (sometimes cathartic) translations of emotions and experience. Looking at the postcards I created on my first trip to the field site reminds me how overwhelmed I was. I’m not sure I’d remember those emotions as clearly without the postcards, yet I think an awareness of the emotions we experience on our research journey is important in our understanding of our research and ourselves as researchers.

(info here)


5) Preparing to interpret my data

At the creative journaling workshop two weeks ago we were encouraged to explore part of our research. I’d brought along the questionnaire I gave my participants. One question asked participants the top five places they spend their time (it will contribute to an index for mobility). In the workshop I decided to try responding to this question visually.


(info here)

Through creating this piece, I realised I couldn’t think about the places I spend my time without thinking about how I feel about them. The activity flagged up to me the fact that when I interpret my questionnaire data, I must remember that behind the quantitative responses are emotions and feelings and these may explain things better than numbers.


6) Sharing aspects of my research with non-specialists

Recently, I created a poster illustrating my research journey. Knowing the audience were not specialists, and that attention is precious, I wanted to do something engaging. Having decided to collect a ball of wool every place I stayed during my PhD, I made a poster telling the story of my research through swatches of wool.


(info here)

The novelty, and the fact that viewers were encouraged to engage physically through touching the wool, appeared to engage viewers and passers by.





So why are creative approaches so marginal in academia?

The benefits of being creative are evident, and clearly people are being creative in the academy, but it’s definitely not the norm. I’ve been thinking about why this might be, and so far I’ve come up with five reasons (which I went into more detail about in a recent post):

  • The system has not been built for us to do it
  • We aren’t used to doing it
  • We don’t know what to do
  • We think we can’t do it
  • No one likes to fail

Nevertheless, there’s never been a better time to try something different!

Now is the time to go for it!

As I said in my previous post, ‘interdisciplinarity and impact might be unpleasant buzzwords in the minds of many, but, buzzwordiness aside, the do open up spaces in which creative approaches are more esteemed, if not encouraged. Technological advances, the move towards more collaborative work, and the rise of social media are also developments which work in creativity’s favour.’

What is more, beyond the academy others are getting on the bandwagon: in their document on ‘Digital Investigation and Intelligence: Policing capabilities for a digital age’ (April 2015), the College of Policing and partner agencies state ‘we need to engage with artists and innovators to help us think creatively and see things differently.’

If we don’t dare to try new things, how far will we get? Einstein was of the opinion that ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’ was tantamount to insanity. And Ed Catmull, the founder of Pixar, wrote a book about how creating an environment where people aren’t scared of failure is key for enabling creativity. 

Now, whilst I’m a fan of glitter glue and have A-level art to my name, I realise not everyone is in this position. But creativity is not limited to the art room – Lego, for example, requires no drawing implement. Everyone has the potential to be creative, and it’s something that must be practised and developed.

To finish I’m going to give you some ideas for ways to kick-start your academic creativity.

I’d also love to hear what you do to help you feel and be creative – do feel free to comment or tweet me. I’ll get our collected ideas together in another post!

20 ideas for kick-starting your academic creativity

Take little steps

1) If you’ve never done it before, submit a poster to a conference. It’s a well established format, so it’s not going to upset the academy; it’s just going to help you practise taking risks.

2) Physically chop up something you’re working on into sections and re-arrange it in different configurations; not just linearly. Keep rearranging and see what emerges when you change the connections in your research.

3) How much colour do you have in your work? Invest in a pack of felt tips or crayons and use them freely. Maybe get some stickers too.

4) Take a draft of a piece of your writing and illustrate it with stick people and images in the margins. Reflect on what emerges.

5) 1) Raid the recycling bag for magazines, then 2) think about any aspect of your research, then 3) start cutting and sticking without worrying about the outcome.

Seek out creative spaces

6) Find the space where your mind wanders and go there.

7) Seek out ‘interdisciplinary’ events or projects: discipline boundaries have already come down and there’s a sense of openness and exploration; an ideal space in which to take a risk.

8) Want to try delivering something in a new way? How about in a seminar in your institution? It’s not too formal, and you’re amongst familiar faces.

9) Want to try delivering something in a new way? How about in a seminar somewhere else? People have (maybe) got less of an idea of who you are. There are no preconceptions. What a way to make a splash!

10) Find public engagement opportunities. Engaging the public with our research requires us to bring them into the mix and that means we have to think differently.

Think differently

11) Play helps with innovation (Gross & Do 2009). Get out the Lego, plan a treasure hunt, turn your research into a Monopoly-esque game, make a costume and act out an aspect of your research.

12) Question why you’re not doing something differently. Is there a good reason why not? Would there be a good reason to do it differently?

13) Do you do any crafts (knitting, candlemaking…) or have any hobbies (baking, orienteering…)? Have you ever tried doing an aspect of your research with or through them? Try it.

14) Think about your research journey. Think about what’s happening and what you’re doing and feeling. How could this awareness shape what you’re doing and where you’re going?

15) Got a totally radical idea you love, but scared to go for it? Is what’s stopping you really a valid reason not to?

Learn from others

16) Seek wisdom and inspiration from people writing and speaking about creativity. Rod Judkins’ ‘The art of creative thinking’ is packed with ideas, and there’s a wealth of inspiration to be found in TED talks.

17) Go out and seek inspiration: visit a gallery, listen to a piece of music, go to a museum, go for a walk.

18) Have a conversation with someone about part of your research you’d never imagine having that conversation with. What comes out of it?

19) Talk to the people in your office, your institution, your network. And people who’ve got nothing to do with your area. What different things are they doing?

20) Look at how your or your friends’ children tackle a task. Try emulating their approach.

Kick-starting your academic creativity

(pdf here)

Don’t forget: I’d  love to hear what you do to help you feel and be creative – so feel free to comment or tweet me and I’ll get together a blogpost on our collected ideas.


Gross, M. & Do, E.Y-L. (2009) Educating the new makers: cross-disciplinary creativity. Leonardo 42(3), 210-215.

Judkins, R. (2015) The art of creative thinking. London: Sceptre.

Treadaway, C. (2009) Materiality, memory and imagination: using empathy to research creativity. Leonardo 42(3) 231-237.


Taming your inner procrastinator: how to start a task you’ve been dreading

I’ve been a procrastinator for as long as I can remember. Literally: I have a clear memory of my parents informing an eight year old me that the bedtime delay tactics I was employing were known as ‘procrastination’.

When it comes to procrastinating, I’m an expert.

But procrastination is a pain and it stops things from getting done and moving forward. And since I’m a great fan of both of these, I’ve had to find ways to tame my inner procrastinator, particularly when it comes to doing things I’m not looking forward to.

So, in this blog post I’m going to share three techniques I’ve found which help me with starting tasks I’m dreading. Hopefully they’ll help you too!

1) Zooming out

I don’t know about you, but I have a tendency to build up tasks that I am dreading: somehow I package them up as huge, scary, untacklable beasts. What’s more, the more I think about things I’m not looking forward to doing, the bigger I allow the ‘beast’ to get.

So, what I try to do is zoom out.

When you’re looking at the ground from an aeroplane, things seem considerably smaller. And for me the same applies with intimidating tasks. When I zoom out and get some perspective – get some context around ‘the task’ – it suddenly seems much smaller. Thinking about what’s come before, the hurdles and tasks that I’ve overcome which once seemed insurmountable (GCSE maths is a prime example), it makes the beast less intimidating.

If that’s not enough, zooming out and looking at where the task sits in the context of my whole life, usually helps me to shrink the beast. And when the beast is smaller, I feel way more positive about attempting to tackle it.

2) Psyching up

I’m guessing that most of you have at some point swum in cold water, so you’ll know what I mean when I describe the pre-plunge moment. That moment when you’re at the water’s edge, maybe you’ve even dipped your toes in: boy, it’s freezing, and if you want to go for a swim, it’s going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better.

If you’re anything like me, the only way to go from toe- to whole-body-submersion is by psyching yourself up for it. (“Come on Sarah, it is going to be painfully freezing for a few moments, but the agony will be fleeting; it will be over soon because it always is. Then you’ll be fine”.)

I’ve found that often the same applies with intimidating tasks: the hardest and worst part is starting the task. I’ve also found that the cold-water-plunge tactic helps me commence something I’m dreading.

So, what I do is psych myself up for the plunge.

I don’t try to pretend it won’t be painful; on the contrary, I allow myself to acknowledge that beginning the task is going to be painful and is going to be unpleasant but that this is the worst part, the pain will be short-lived, and afterwards I’ll feel so much better.

3) Looking around

I wonder if this final tactic is less obvious. I’ve had to ponder a bit harder to realise what’s going on, but I’m convinced I’m not the only one who procrastinates for this reason.

You know, sometimes the reason I procrastinate with a task I’m dreading is because I’m not confident about it: it’s going to be a shaky start and, most importantly, I don’t want everyone to see me working out how to do it. It’s a subtle and powerful psychological block, but it’s actually often unfounded and silly.

Why unfounded and silly? Well, how many people are looking at your computer screen when you open a new MSWord document to start something? It’s usually just you, right? And how many people are sat behind you watching you hit the backspace and delete buttons over and over until you get something you’re happier with? Still just you, yeah?

As I recently realised, the fact is, no one saw the first or second or even third draft of the section of thesis I had been procrastinating about doing. No one saw me hit delete or backspace, and no one saw me stumble, look things up, re-do things, play around with things until I’d got something I was at least part happy with.

There’s a reason why they are called P(ersonal) C(omputer)s.

If this resonates with you (perhaps you hadn’t realised that this was what was going on), then give yourself a logical talking to and, next time you’re procrastinating for this reason, try this:

Look around: no one is watching your shaky start! You’re free to find your way: proceed!

So, to reduce this advice to some Dizzee Rascal-style lyrics:



Don’t fear the feedback!: how to handle edits as a writer

I’ve never been particularly good at handling criticism, particularly towards my writing. This isn’t a great attitude when you’re a postgraduate researcher and what you do is write.

Over the past three years, my writing has been subjected to scrutiny by peers, supervisors, colleagues and journal editors. With every piece of feedback I have been growing increasingly insecure about my writing, opening edited documents with anxiety and trepidation. Or rather, I had been; my recent fellowship at POST completely transformed my attitudes both towards my writing and towards the feedback of others.

What I didn’t know when I embarked upon the POST fellowship was that it would also turn out to be the writing equivalent of an SAS training programme. So, sparing you the pain (although more later on good pain) I’m going to share three insights I gained into how to handle feedback on your writing.

Insight #1: an edit is like a massage

Pretty much from the get-go I was submitting drafts to ‘Officer X’ (my supervisor) on a weekly, if not daily, basis. When the first one came back all I saw was a sea of red tracked changes and my immediate response was to panic and feel gutted. Then I read her changes and, unsurprisingly, they were good: it sounded better and she’d made it way shorter. Alongside this I also had ‘Agent Z’ (a friend trained in web-writing) editing a couple of my blogposts, giving me feedback and explaining why he’d done what he had. He too had the knack of making it better and shorter. At first, his edits had a similar deflating effect on me.

With time, though, and as the edits continued to come in, my fear diminished and I started looking forward to them. And that’s because getting an edit is like getting a massage…

Imagine you’ve never had a massage before, you rock up not quite knowing what to expect, but since you feel more or less physically fine, you’re sure it’s going to be an enjoyable experience. You get into position and the massage starts. It’s all going well, then suddenly – OWW – pain! Operative S has come across a knot in your back that you didn’t know you had, and now they’re trying to sort it out – and it hurts! Afterwards, though, when it’s over, you realise your body feels better. You get the picture? If there’s a bit of pain in an edit, the outcome is a better piece of writing. So it’s good pain!

Insight #2: an edit is like a free personal training session

There came a point a couple of weeks into my fellowship when I realised that not only were Officer X and Agent Z’s edits making my writing better, but the tracked changes on my writing meant I could see exactly what my writing needed to improve. None of this generic advice! I also gave myself an attitude check and got off the defensive: no, they weren’t ‘criticising me’ because they wanted to destroy me (bit dramatic, perhaps); they were giving me constructive criticism because they wanted to help me improve…just like a personal trainer.

Officer X and Agent Z taught me to be ruthless in cutting out the unnecessary. Officer X taught me to reword sentences from the passive voice to the active voice. For example, ‘Samples of speech are analysed…’ becomes ‘Experts phoneticians analyse samples of speech…’: when you pin down who the agents are in a sentence (in this case, the ‘expert phoneticians’), you pack more punch. And finally, Agent Z taught me that the beginnings and ends of sentences are the most important bits. I’ve tried to apply that in this post; thinking especially about my subheadings.

Insight #3: edits on a document do not mean you’re wrong and they’re right

Usually when you send something for review it’s to one or two people. I don’t know about you, but when I’ve done that in the past I’ve sort of felt that the edits that come back must be right – otherwise they wouldn’t have said anything in the first place.

I’ve got empirical evidence to suggest the contrary.

Like all POST notes, my briefing went through intense SAS-style review. As well as reviews and edits from Officer X, it got reviewed by 5 of Officer X’s comrades (colleagues) and 25 external contributors. And here’s the thing:

Their comments and edits were NOT unanimous.

That’s right: different reviewers picked up on different things, which meant that where one person had deemed something in need of editing, another had deemed it perfectly fine. Of course, sometimes several people made the same point – and that was a pretty good indication that change was needed. But there was one instance where three different reviewers all wanted to insert a word in one particular place; however, they all proposed a different word! What do you do with that?

Well, you draw this conclusion: just because someone has made a suggestion, it doesn’t mean it’s right. The chances are it will be insightful and helpful, but don’t just assume that they are ‘right’ and you were ‘wrong’.

So, to conclude, next time you get some edited work back, try to:

  • see the edits like a massage: the pain is good and its purpose is to make you better!
  • feel jammy about the fact that it’s basically a free personal training session – lucky you!
  • remember that it’s not always a case of the editor being right and you being wrong.