Sunday, October 07, 2018

Diary of a Mature MSc Student - Week 2

If you are familiar with the sound of cicadas on a summer evening you will know how it feels to be sat in a lecture room with a hundred students around you tapping into their laptops. The background noise rises and falls as the lecturer pauses, makes key points then moves on to the next slide. Lecture rooms were a lot quieter back when I was studying in the early 1980s.

My biggest discovery this week is the sheer wealth of free events and talks that take place in London. Last week I attended talks by Alan Rusbridger, former editor of The Guardian; Amy Goldstein, the author of Janesville and Amy Mitchell , director of journalism research at Pew Research Center.

Upcoming free talks include how digital is disrupting democracy organised by Kings College London and how Trump mobilised a digital army organised by UCL. Do book a place if you want to join me. The richness, variety and depth of learning events available in London is simply unparalleled.

I also completed my first set of readings this week and although I really enjoyed the articles, I found it tough and the biggest challenge so far. As I travelled home this week I reflected on the differences between reading newspapers, blogs and business publications, and deeper academic reading.

A Note on Academic Publishing

Before I share my thoughts on academic reading I wanted to take my hat off to the entrepreneur who came up with the idea of academic journals. Their core idea was to get academics to provide them with research articles for free (this is research funded by taxpayers and universities), to get academics from other universities to peer review and edit these articles, again for free or rather paid for by the universities, and then to sell these journals and articles back to the same universities at a super high mark up.

I admit I am new to this area so my understanding may not be accurate but this is how it appears to work. It seems that your academic career, and often funding, is based on being published in these peer reviewed journals. Thus these journals are now part of the system and while there are open access journals, being published in these journals does not achieve the same kudos, money or promotions. Thus we have what appears from the outside to be a very bizarre system which restricts access to academic research and delivers high profits to companies that don't pay for the research, authors or reviewers. Note: Since publishing this post I am told that Open Access is now the norm.

Normal Critical Reading Is Not Enough

I have always read a lot. I tend to read the Financial Times each day along with many other newspapers, blogs and publications. I also tend to be a critical reader constantly alert to the evidence that backs an author's arguments. For example, I was critical of the Guardian publishing constituency level polling results based on multi-level regression and post-stratification but failing to publish the margin of error for this methodology. The sample size was reported as 15,000 but you need very large samples to have a reasonable margin of error using this method. YouGov previously did a similar survey with a 50,000 sample and the margin of error was 5%. Thus I wanted to know the margin of error for the 15,000 sample reported. I contacted both the Guardian and the polling company for the figure and both refused to reply. Ok, you get the point that I am a bit nerdy and critical on these things.

Despite my normal critical approach to reading, the academic articles took far longer to read than I anticipated. I knew it would be slower, as I have to reflect and make notes as I go, it is really studying texts rather than reading. However, I found it took significantly more time than I had planned for, resulting in many late evenings this week.

Thoughts on Academic Writing and Reading

Newspapers and business publications are generally written by journalists that write well, who aim to inform and who have a focus on clarity and brevity. Sites like Axios also have a very specific structure to support these objectives, with sub-headings like Why it Matters, What is Going On and The Bottom Line. This structure makes it very quick to skim an article and to grasp the potential significance of what is being reported. Academic articles are very different, particularly research reports in journals.

One thing I understand better after this week is that academic research always takes place within a specific context or paradigm which has an associated or underlying set of theories, models and assumptions. Academic writing by its nature includes constant references to these theories and often assumes these are self-evident. It is therefore difficult to read research articles without a fairly firm grasp of the paradigm and associated theories. In my case I came across many new concepts which I had to stop to look up. I found Google and Wikipedia to be very helpful in giving me a quick overview when an article referred to a theory or scholar I was unfamiliar with but this constant referencing slowed the reading process considerably.

Each academic area also has its own language. I often understand every word in a sentence but find it hard to fathom the overall meaning of a sentence. When unfamiliar words are used in combination such as constructivism, aleatory and hermeneutics, I find myself having to read some sentences many times to grasp the meaning. I would also add, that in my limited experience so far, many journal articles could benefit from better writing and editing.

It is also not helpful when some words and concepts have different meanings in academic literature from those in everyday life. For example, commodification is a word we use a lot in business. It means when products or services become hard to distinguish such as broadband, so people buy on price and typically this drives the prices down. However, in marxist political theory commodification is where something is given a value and can be traded such as say music.

My main tip from this week for mature MSc students new to an academic area would be to try to map out the dominant paradigms, theories and key scholars. This helps to set the readings in context.  For social science students I would also really recommend one of the books we were given to read this week 'Research training for Social Scientists.'  The section on the philosophy of science was a joy to read and clarified much of my thinking.

The LSE run a whole number of sessions to support new and mature students and next week I am doing a session on critical reading. Let's hope they can give me tips to improve the efficacy of my reading.

Further Thoughts 

I have also been reflecting on some the cultural differences between tech startups, where I have worked in for the last 18 years, and academia. I will try to find time to organise these thoughts and write them up. In the meantime it is back to the lectures and cicadas, although luckily one of my lecturers has a 'lids down' policy which I think works better for everyone.