Friday, May 22, 2009

Aspiring Academics - Part Two (QAA and Curriculum Design)

At "Aspiring Academics," Dr. David Mossley (the Higher Education Academy Subject Centre for Philosophical and Religious Studies manager) gave a workshop on curriculum design. It was actually the first time I had heard of things such as the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), which was established in 1997 to as an independent assessment of HE standards. The website has downloadable subject-specific "benchmark" statements which set out the expectations at each level of degree (click here to download subject-specific statements for undergraduate, and here for Masters level). They set out what any student at any level should be able to do in their discipline. The programme specifications for university courses have to reference these documents, in providing details of intended learning outcomes and the means by which these outcomes are achieved and demonstrated. Also relevant for course design is the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications (FHEQ), which ensures a consistent use of qualification titles that correspond to qualification levels.

David (who works in philosophy) talked about the different ways in which teaching could be linked to research interests; namely, directly and, you guessed it, indirectly. Direct linkage between research and teaching generally comes in the form of relevant content: teaching what you research (i.e. a course of your own design), teaching in the field in which you research, and using your research to directly inform another field. Indirect linkages tend to be drawn through the particular delivery of your teaching: teaching that draws on your research (e.g. using a particular view of autonomy or agency to inform a philosophy of education and actual practice) and teaching that is informed by a more general approach to philosophy, derived from your research.

He also spoke about teaching portfolios. I have a CV (see blog sidebar to left) which I regularly update with my teaching experience, but teaching portfolios are more detailed, including a statement of your teaching philosophy. It coversthe levels of ontology (what is education?), epistemology (how do we know about education?) and ethics (what is the value of education? what is its value in society? why is it a "good"?)

We then moved on to thinking about whether we could design a course around our (current) research interests (the workshop delegates were early career researchers and finishing PhD students). In terms of creating a course that directly links to our research, he asked us to think about what about our research would be appropriate to teach undergraduates, for example, at their level? what criteria could be used to determine how our research fits the needs of an undergraduate audience? and, does it fit with departmental, institutional or national frameworks? He also reminded us that we may need to explore equality legislation and access issues.

My list of courses to offer in an ideal world included:
  • Progressive Christianity
  • Christianity and Culture
  • Christianity and Postmodern Thought
  • Deconstructive Theology
Courses to which I could easily adapt my knowledge included:

  • Contintental Philosophy of Religion
  • Sociology of Religion and Spirituality
  • Religion and the Internet
  • Religion and Gender
  • Research Methodologies
In relation to indirectly using our research, David asked us to think through the following questions. In terms of education and teaching practice,

  • What does your research tell you about: the world and beings in it, the contested nature of knowledge, agency and persons, value (ethics, culture, diversity)?
  • What implications can you draw from your research for how teaching should be done?

Some useful online resources in this area from the Subject Centre include,"The Qualifications Framework" by George Macdonald Ross and "Linking Teaching and Research" by Danielle Lamb.

The last session of the day ("Career Planning," Rebecca O'Loughlin) basically acted as a round-up of what had gone before. It concluded that the way to maximize academic capital was through publications, teaching and networking. In terms of publications, a strong publishing record is important, but what this means differs across disciplines. For example, Jonathon Wolff (Department of Philosophy, UCL) said journal articles were the way forward in philosophy, rather than monographs. For Mathew Guest (Department of Theology and Religion, Durham) the reverse was true. You can add to your own teaching experience before a permanent position through lecturing, tutoring and doing associated adiministration (e.g. managing modules, designing curriculum, developing curriculum, and working on departmental or module websites). Networking is, as always, important. Becoming part of your academic community (through conferences, discussion lists, etc.) will aid in building a network of contacts who can be a source of feedback on research and let you know about job opportunities, etc. Importantly, departments look for candidates who can integrate their published research with the institution's teaching and the current trends in the discipline.

The powerpoint presentations for Mathew's talk on funding (see my blog post here), and on curriculum design and teaching portfolios can be downloaded from the Subject Centre website, here.


Sim and I are taking a few days off and heading to Paris for a few days.

We're going to see Antony and the Johnsons tonight at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, staying in a hotel on Brindley Place and then Eurostar-ing it tomorrow.

I'm looking forward to some mellow time wandering around and looking at pretty things... Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur, Sainte Chapelle, the Louvre, Musee Rodin... Very excited!

While we're away I'm going to be (re)reading Jamie Smith's Speech and Theology Language and the Logic of Incarnation. Just in case you were thinking I was going to be able to leave work behind for a bit. Oh no. No time, missy!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Panel Review (2009)

So my fourth year panel review went fine. My panel consisted of my supervisor, Deborah Sawyer, and two colleagues from the Department, Shuruq Naguib and Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad. I've not had them on my panel before so was keen to hear what they made of my project documents (including a one page summary of my thesis [here] and an annotated plan [see here for current thesis structure]).

Ram was eager to help me avoid over-engineering my thesis, basically helping me see that I've got internal reasons (i.e. in the interviews) for the theorists that I need to use, so that I don't have to use everyone!!! It's always helpful to hear you can do less than you've been thinking you need to. So it was good to hear the message of less is more!

As I didn't hand in a sample of writing that showed how I would integrate theory and empirical data, Ram was concerned that I not give the impression of over-interpreting what participants are saying, but just to let them speak for themselves. This won't be a problem, as my work inter-weaves theory and data well, I think. It's just I couldn't show Ram that, and he wanted to just make sure. He talked about how it was okay to both a) let the data say it plainly and b) say I am usefully interpreting the data as saying it. Shuruq also asked some interesting questions about the relationship between the data from my participants and my argument, in terms of how I am using my data, and what my relationship is to my participants.

Shuruq was worried that my initial contextualization of the empirical data in the UK gets lost throughout the rest of the structure. I'm not sure what to think about this yet. I need a "what is the emerging church?" section as it is not a widely known phenomenon within academia, but this question is not my research question; just the context in which I ask my questions. But I don't think I am losing that context throughout the rest of the thesis because I am continually coming back to the fact that participants are engaging the postmodern turn culturally and philosophically.

I think she was more concerned about the gender imbalance in both my use of (largley male) theorists and (largley male) participants; but this isn't something that I haven't noticed or plan to ignore! As she didn't know that my MA work had been in Women and Religion, I think she just wanted to make sure that I would mention the implications of this imbalance as and when they arose (which I have and will continue to). But, as Ram pointed out, my thesis isn't on gender.

All good food for thought. I'm sure I'll be posting again shortly with an altered thesis structure and abstract to reflect my thinking after this review.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Aspiring Academics - Part One (RAE, REF, and Funding)

My second (of three!) trips to London this week (here's the first [update: and the third]) was to Woburn House for the HEA Subject Centre for Philosophical and Religious Studies career workshop for "Aspiring Academics."

The first thing I have to mention about this day is that the cheap advance ticket I bought for my journey was actually in First Class!!! I've never travelled anywhere First Class before so it was all very exciting. Though I declined the offers of various complimentary goodies (tea, coffee, cooked breakfast!!!) because I wasn't made aware that they were complimentary and I thought someone was going to come round with a chip-and-pin machine and I'd have no where to run and hide! Anyway, I think it was pretty obvious to my fellow First Classers that I didn't really belong there. A very nice man (actually a senior member of staff at one of the other secondary schools here in Lichfield - not Sim's school) got me a free bottle of water from the minifridge (Harrogate Spa, no less!) with the word "complimentary" clearly front and centre so that I didn't freak out! Thanks, nice man.

Anyway, to get my train journey cheap I had to arrive two hours early, so I spent a bit of time reading at Euston (I also had four hours to kill the other end of the day!) before heading off to drink complimentary coffee at Woburn House.

The day began with a very brief introduction to the work of the Subject Centre, and then cracked on with the main talks.

Jo Wolff (this photoshoot is a cool thing to include on your uni page) spoke about the shift from the Research Assessment Exercise (here's the RAE2008 webpage, and, as an example, Lancaster University's submissions and results) to the Research Excellence Framework (REF). Mathew Guest spoke about funding opportunities and Joe Cain enthused us with an exercise on networking. As the RAE/REF has remained a mystery to me for a while (staff often presume you know what they are talking about when they use acronyms and Higher Education lingo, and you feel like an idiot for asking) I'll blog mostly about that. But it was great to chat in more detail with Mat. He's lovely. David Mossley was also very informative in his talk about curriculum design, but I think I'll post about that a little later on when I've thought more about it. The career planning session at the end was possibly the weakest, only in that it tended to repeat what we had already covered during the rest of the day. It could have covered a specific aspect of career planning or given us time to actually sit down and, you know, come up with a plan! I think the latter would have been a good idea, particularly as there were people in the room who have already done what we are trying to do and could have given us their perspective on our hopes and dreams from within our own discipline - which hardly ever happens at more general careers events.

In our conference packs we were given some useful resources, including Paul Edwards' "How to Give an Academic Talk: Changing the Culture of Public Speaking in the Humanities" (which you can get online here) Matthew Eddy's "Academic Capital, Postgraduate Research and British Universities: a Bourdieu Inspired Reflection" (online here) and Clare Saunders' "Developing Researchers in th Arts and Humanities: Lessons from a Pilot Programme" (here).

Now, onto the RAE/REF and issues of funding:

There are two sources of funding for research in English HE: the money distributed by Research Councils (like the AHRC and ESRC) and other bodies (where funding is based upon proposals submitted) and that distributed by HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Counil for England) at the time of the RAE. This latter money is therefore backward-looking (i.e. is determined by the quality of previous research) while the former is forward-looking (based on the quality of proposals for future research). The money from HEFCE is therefore (in principle, Jo stressed) for "blue sky" projects, although in practice little is given directly to projects - more often than not going towards the overheads of projects or to fund sabbaticals or library resources.

The instructions for the RAE differ each time it occurs, but this time round (RAE2008) staff had to put forward 4 publications (authored books, edited books, book chapters, journal articles, etc.) which were then assessed and graded from 0 to 5 (click here for an explanation of the ranking system). Jo believes that the REF, although adding various metric indicators to the process and including an assessment of the "social and economic impact" of research, will still boil down to the quality of publications.

It was good to have a bit more clarity on both the nature of the RAE and the proposed form of the REF, as well as to be able to reflect about what this shift might mean for us as nearly submitted doctoral candidates and early career researchers. Jo said that the RAE has introduced a cycle into employment practices, as the more staff that are put into the RAE the more funding the department has a chance of gaining. Before an RAE, therefore, departments high candidates with a good amount of publications in prestigious journals, for example, to boost their chances. This means that, at this point in the cycle, just after an RAE, there are less full time positions on offer and more temporary (unstable) jobs around. However, it's not necessarily all doom and gloom because, as new researchers, we will have fewer publications but those departments who are hiring fulltime members of staff will be less obsessed with hiring someone with an "RAE-compliant" (read chocka of publications) CV. Yay!

Jo's advice, nonetheless, was to try to get at least one article in a really good journal, to increase your employment prospects. Quality is better than quantity.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Research Methods: Religion and the Internet

My workshop, "Studying Religion and the Internet - Challenges and Opportunities: Theoretical, Practical and Ethical," at the HEA Subject Centre for Philosophical and Religious Studies' "Exploring New Challenges and Methods in the Study of Religion" day at Birkbeck went okay. I definitely think that my topic could (should?!?) have been given an entire day in itself, which meant that I had a lot to get through in my presentation. They sprung on me that it was going to be recorded, so you should be able to download the mp3 soon... if you particularly want to listen to me nervously speaking! I usually speak using less notes and I think you can tell, as I felt rather beholden to using the phrases I'd written down rather than speaking more off the cuff. Oh well, lesson learnt!

But it was good to meet up with old and new colleagues, and I particularly enjoyed a presentation by Helen Purcell (Open University) on her position as a Pagan academic that also reflected on narrative. Another conference delegate mentioned an academic who decided to write a novel instead of a thesis because that seemed to better reflect the experiences of her participants and her time spent with them. It generated some more thoughts in relation to my own concerns about having to "represent" the "truth" about my participants, whose notions of "truth" are often neither "representational" nor "non-representational," but are of what I'm calling "undecidable representationality." This dilemma leads to interesting questions about the literary dimension of the academic presentation of research "findings." Anyway, enough of that...

It was ashame that I missed fellow Lancaster PhD student Janet Eccles' paper on the "pitfalls and possibilities" of conducting an interview-based study in her local community. But I was good to hear about some of the PhD students just starting out in internet-based studies, like Anna Rose Stewart (University of Sussex). It was also great to catch up with Gordon Lynch, whom I haven't seen in a couple of years. Susannah Rigg (Birkbeck), me and Sim's housemate when she was at Lancaster, was on hand in an organisational role and it was good to chat over coffee.

Anyway, here's the powerpoint presentation from my workshop. There's a very illustrative list of resources at the end of it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Religion and the Internet workshop

I just finished finalising my "Studying Religion and the Internet" workshop for the Higher Education Academy Subject Centre for Philosophical Religious Studies' postgraduate study day, Exploring New Challenges and Methods in the Study of Religion at Birkbeck. I'll post more about it, provide a link to the PowerPoint on Slideshare, and reflect on how it went after it, you know, goes (May 16th).

Friday, May 08, 2009

"Making Good" on a Paper Submission

So my abstract for the "Towards a Philosophy of Life" conference at Liverpool in June (conference details here, abstract here) was accepted. My paper will be entitled, "Making Good on the "Good" of Life: Emerging Logics and Poetics of the Kingdom," and is basically the last chapter of my thesis, "Poetics." This chapter demonstrates how the preceding findings regarding the notion of truth in the UK emerging church milieu informs the debate between Radical Orthodoxy (particularly James K.A. Smith's 'postmodern catholicism') and deconstructive theology (especially Jack Caputo's 'weak theology'). So I now have to fit writing this paper into my thesis writing schedule (see here). But it'll be worth it, as both Caputo and John Milbank will be presenting at the conference too, so it'll be a great room of people to present this stuff too. I'll also have a bit of time after the conference for any revisions from the paper to feed into the chapter itself.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Dark Night of the Soul at Lincoln Cathedral

My partner, Sim, is from the beautiful town of Lincoln. His parents still live there and are active in the life of the cathedral. In August, the cathedral is hosting "The Dark Night," an exploration of the mystical theology of St. John of the Cross.

The event will be a whole evening, running from 7pm on Friday August 7th, until 9am the next morning. It will include an introduction to John of the Cross' mystical poem, The Dark Night of the Soul, 'forged', the publicity reads, by his 'own experience of darkness and suffering.' The cathedral will look beautiful lit by candlelight, and there will be the opportunity to explore parts of the building not normally open to the public. Gregorian chant will be used to mark the passing of the hours until the morning. The evening also includes a performance of Bach's Goldberg Variations by Charles Harrison, and a cooked breakfast in the morning!

Tickets (£30) are available from the Cathedral Shop (01522 561544), although there is a limit of 80 participants.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Thesis Structure - April 2009

Another Panel Review document I submitted this year was an annotated plan, presenting the panel with my thesis in detail, from chapters to sections to subsections. I can't very well post all of that here (my annotated plan is 6,200 words) but I thought it could probably edit it down to something more readable. It might also be useful to have a look at the one page summary of my thesis argument thta I also submitted to the panel (here).

Thesis title (at the moment):

Emerging Truth/Justice: Towards a Poetic Understanding of (Christian) Truth.


Chapter One, Contexts
  • Presents the emerging church as a diverse milieu in which familial resemblances can nevertheless be drawn between those within it, providing the reader with an understanding of the context in which the research questions were asked.
  • Places the emerging church milieu in the context of current research within the disciplines of the sociology of religion and continental philosophy of religion, positioning the milieu in the wider religious and spiritual landscape and demonstrating the wider value of the research questions.
  • Explains my own position as a researcher in relation to the UK emerging church milieu.

Chapter Two, Methods
  • Reviews the research methodologies of currently available studies of the emerging church.
  • Gives the rationale behind my multi-methodology and presents these methods of data collection.
  • Justifies in particular my use of Internet-mediated research methods.

Interlude, Researching Truth
  • Problematizes the preceding chapters through a consideration of this thesis’ interdisciplinary position in relation to the philosophy of social science and continental philosophy’s critiques of representationalism.
  • Suggests that John D. Caputo’s distinction between logics and poetics (The Weakness of God) is not only useful for thinking about the nature of this thesis as a piece of writing, but also hints at a distinction between two understandings of truth explored below; namely, truth as representation and correspondence (logics) and truth as transformation (poetics).
  • Plays with the word “icon” and concludes that my work exists on the Derridean slash of undecidability in the word “i/con.”

Chapter Three, Truth(s)
  • Argues for the aptness of pluralism about truth, supplementing the recent work of Michael P. Lynch (Truth as One and Many) through suggesting that the concept of truth needs to also be explored as it operates in the domain of religion.
  • Constructs a set of truisms about religious truth (at least as it is viewed within the UK emerging church milieu) from interviews with participants.
  • Uses participant data to suggest the truism that truth in the religious domain is transformational.
  • Distinguishes between truth as transformative proposition and truth as transformative event, aided by Michel Henry (I am the Truth) and Jack Caputo (The Weakness of God).

Chapter Four, World
  • Argues that, for the first strand, connecting the truism of transformation to propositions results in a realist assumption about truth: ‘truth hinges not on us but on the world’ (Lynch, The Nature of Truth, p.9).
  • Shows why this assumption is questioned by the second strand.

Chapter Five, Event
  • Argues that, for the second strand, understanding transformative truth as an event of truth itself results in an important relationship between religion and deconstruction.
  • Shows why the first strand are wary of deconstruction.

Chapter Six, Justice

  • Argues that the property that satisfies the truism of transformation and therefore manifests truth for religious/spiritual propositions is the norm of justice.
  • Demonstrates that the event of “truth” itself can also be translated as “justice,” thereby augmenting our folk concept of truth as transformation.

Chapter Seven, Poetics
  • Demonstrates that the foregoing exploration of the notion of truth within the UK emerging church milieu enables an assessment of the extent to which two contemporary theologies that have been suggested as apt for the milieu are indeed appropriate.
  • Argues that, following some revisions, both Radical Orthodoxy and deconstructive theology are practically viable for the milieu.
  • Recalls the distinction between representational logics and transformative poetics to defend Caputo's theological agenda from James K.A. Smith's criticisms ("The Logic of Incarnation")
  • Uses Gavin Hyman's The Predicament of Postmodern Theology to argue that the latter option remains, however, preferable in my opinion.