Friday 26 July 2019

By invitation-only, at a secret location, with no agenda - this is Sci Foo ‘unconferencing’

Amelia Lake, Associate Director of Fuse and Reader in Public Health Nutrition at Teesside University

I’ve been back home from Sci Foo for more than a week. I’m not missing the Californian sunshine as the North East weather has actually been rather seasonal, but I am missing two things; the incredible Google micro-kitchens and the people I had the good fortune to meet.

Before the email arrived - which incidentally, I almost deleted thinking it was another spam invitation to a fictional conference in some far flung location - I hadn’t heard of Sci Foo. Thankfully, I forwarded it to our University Director of Corporate Communications and Public Relations, who was suitably excited.

That was April.  Fast forward to July and I’m on a 10-hour flight to San Francisco (feeling very relieved that I don’t have to entertain the kids on such a long haul). At this point I’m still not that clear what an ‘unconference’ conference is.

When I arrive, I have to download Uber to my phone (not a necessity when living in rural north Yorkshire) and I find my destination with only jet lag to contend with - a theme common throughout my three days at Sci Foo. To be fair, I had jet lag before getting here courtesy of a three-year-old.

On Friday evening, we are bused to the top secret Google X complex and it starts – as all good things should – with food. I can’t remember the last time I went to an event where I didn’t know anyone at all other than some vaguely recognisable faces from the twittersphere.
But with food came conversation. 
Participant-driven 'rugby scrum' 

At around 8pm the conference started (bearing in mind that I had been awake since 3am) and the message was clear. Be inclusive, be kind, be curious and talk to people from as many diverse fields as possible. That was very easy, as I soon discovered, most people were doing or studying things I hadn’t heard of, or had zero comprehension. It was awe inspiring.

I soon discovered that an ‘unconference’ is completely participant-driven and from a distance this looked a bit like a rugby scrum.                                 

       But with encouragement from my new found food friends I joined the pack and put down a session on ‘silencing science’ - discussing whether our role as scientists is to be neutral or advocates. I met Prof Shaun Hendy and Dr Siouxsie Wiles both phenomenal science communicators from the University of Auckland, New Zealand and we devised a session for Saturday morning based on the range of experiences Shaun had collated in his book ‘Silencing Science’.

The rest of the day was incredible – from sessions on trust in science, to the future of scientific publishing – and did I say that the food was great?! Sleep deprivation is nothing when you have access to kettles with higher and lower temperatures depending on the type of tea you select.

On Sunday morning it was my turn to give a ‘lightening talk’ on our Fuse energy drink research, alongside a handful of other presenters. Speakers one and two were incredible with amazing graphics, audio and visuals. My more low-tech approach highlighted the powerful words of our young respondents, illustrating what the consumption of energy drinks means to them.

Sci Foo was only three days but it felt longer, in a good way. There were many highlights, including holding a Woolly Mammoth’s actual tooth during breakfast [add photo], discussing galaxy formations with cosmologist and Prof of Physics Risa Wechsler and attending a session on ‘fully automated luxury feminism’!

There can’t be many conferences – no make that occasions in life - where you can share the same room with the most influential skateboarder in history, Rodney Mullen and a Nobel Laureate.

I hit a conference high attending Sci Foo. It was incredible and lots of people worked very hard to make it such a brilliant event. Particularly Cat Allman, the team from O’Reilly Media, Digital ScienceNature Publishing Group and Google Inc.

My take home message is: if you ever get invited to one of these ‘Foo’ events, say yes - you won’t regret it.

2: Courtesy of Alex Cagan:
3: Amelia Lake with Prof Shaun Hendy
4: Quotes from the young people involved in Fuse energy drinks research
5: Amelia Lake with a Woolly Mammoth tooth 

Friday 19 July 2019

Struggling to see a way through your data? Try a different lens

Posted by Peter van der Graaf, AskFuse Research Manager / Fuse Knowledge Exchange Broker, Teesside University

“Having trouble analysing your qualitative data? Are you lost in the sheer amount of data you have collected and don’t know where to start?”

This was the strapline of a course at Kings College London last week, called ‘Ethnography Language and Communication’ and a big reason why I attend the summer school. Within my NIHR Fellowship research, I have collected big piles of observation notes, interview transcripts and meeting minutes and struggled to make sense of them. So did the course deliver?

Over five days, we were presented with a range of analytical tools borrowed from linguistics and applied to qualitative data (interview transcripts and video recording of job interviews and classrooms) with an ethnographic lens. In essence, this means trying to understand how meaning is constructed in social interactions by studying text and recordings generated from these interactions in fine detail. First from the perspective of the specific situation in which these texts were constructed, but with an explicit aim to make valid statements about the wider social structures in which these interactions are embedded.

The course leaders* have even come up with a name for this academic discipline: ‘linguistic ethnography’. Linguistic ethnographers acknowledge that texts are representations of social actions and, therefore, that to understand these texts you need to closely investigate the social interactions that produced them.

However, they also explore how these interactions are embedded in institutional contexts and are closely linked to social interactions elsewhere, both in time and location, adding a historic and place perspective. Sociological concepts of power, social class, inequality and identity feature eventually in these analyses but are not presumed and not used in the first instance. The specific context of the social interaction is initially key for understanding what is going on.

The course attracted speakers and participants from across the globe, including the UK, US, China, Spain, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Turkey, Israel and many more. This international gathering aligned nicely with the aims of the course: being highly interactional, working across different contexts with different types of data and approaches coming together to co-create a better understanding of their data.

Although we discussed many theoretical concepts, the course was also practical and gave us the opportunity to experiment with a range of analytical tools (or what Ben Rampton preferred to call ‘sensitizing concepts’): from micro-analysis (a form of Goffmanian conversation analysis: applying a dramaturgical lens (life is a stage!) to data interpretation) to discourse genres featuring The X Factor, multi-modal analysis (looking simultaneously at different modes of communication such as language, gaze and gestures), semiotic landscapes (e.g. how shop signs in neighbourhoods communicate change) and trans-contextual analysis (how text moves and changes across contexts and interactions). If you are confused by the plethora of terms and concepts, you feel exactly as we did during the course!

However, this was also the point: gaining experience of applying a range of tools that overlap or sometimes contrast with our data to find new insights that we wouldn’t otherwise have discovered. If it is helpful, use it; if not, try another tool or a combination of tools. In this sense, the course was very pragmatic. And this also applies to the role of being a linguistic ethnographer. You do not need to do X, Y and Z as a minimum, with a potential dusting of C to call yourself a linguistic ethnographer. Instead, you prescribe to a set of principles about the nature (social interaction), context (multi situational) and structure (institutional framing) of texts and recordings, that help you to choose from and apply an analytical toolkit.

Applying a different lens
Did it help me make more sense of the qualitative data I collected for my research project? No (at least not yet), but the course provided me with a starting point for analysis. It also helped me realise that trying to incorporate and do justice to all the data that I collected is simply not possible. Instead, applying a linguistic ethnographic lens to my data will help me to identify instances of text that signify social interactions that are critical for my understanding. This will ultimately help me to build an argumentative structure for my papers.

I will still need to go through all my qualitative data in detail but have a better sense of how to navigate this now.

*Ben Rampton, Kings College London; Adam Lefstein, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev; Jan Blommaert, University of Tilburg; Jeff Bezemer, University College London; and Julia Snell, University of Leeds

Friday 12 July 2019

Managing difficult conversations at work; ambulances, snow ploughs and submarines

Posted by Peter van der Graaf, AskFuse Research Manager / Fuse Knowledge Exchange Broker, Teesside University

We all face difficult conversations in our work; whether as a PhD student trying to tell a supervisor that they are not very helpful, or as post-doctoral researcher, explaining to your line manager that you really don’t want to take up any more teaching responsibilities. Or even as a practitioner having to point out to an esteemed researcher that their pet project is not relevant at all for your practice.

Like most people, I try to avoid these conversations as much as I can and prefer ‘flight’ rather than ‘fight’. Best to give in and avoid confrontation than have an uncomfortable row that will keep me up at night.

But could confrontations also be useful, and if so, how could you manage them in a way that they benefit you? This was the aim of the Courageous and Compelling Conversations Masterclass I attended in London as part of the NIHR Leadership Development Programme. Before starting the masterclass, I had to complete a self-assessment of my preferred response mode to confrontational conversations, which neatly confirmed my ‘flight’ status and gave me new labels for it: 60% Give In; 20% Run Away; and 20% Compromise.

What the masterclass taught me was that confrontation is not about preparing well for the other’s potential responses; for instance, by endlessly scripting clever and rational dialogues to counteract every accusation that a person could throw at me.

Instead, the course focused on better understanding my own response style in relation to other people. My light bulb moment was the realisation that you can’t control the response of the person you are talking to, but that you can manage yourself on how to respond, and take time to formulate this response during the conversation. Therefore, my nights (more preferably work hours) would be better spent understanding what I want to get out of the confrontation (outcome) and plan my conversations accordingly, instead of worrying what the other person will say and need.

During the course we were split into three groups, according to our preferred Motivation Value Style, with each group given its own emblem in the shape of a transport vehicle. Apparently, I am an ambulance, which is the symbol of the ‘carer’ group, who are motivated by the protection, growth and welfare of others. We prefer to ensure that everyone is happy, relationships are good and don’t want to be a burden to others. As an ambulance, I am responsive to other people’s needs and therefore go into conversations where I am needed (with blue lights if possible!).
In contrast, the ‘driver’ group (snow ploughs) - motivated by task accomplishment and achieving results - prefer to exercise persuasion. The third group, technicians (submarines) are different again in that they are motivated by meaningful order and thinking things through; they want to be practical and fair.

Although, these three styles feel quite stereotypical, I was surprised to see how much each of us on the course was conforming to these styles when explaining their behaviour in difficult conversations. We discovered that we incorporate elements of each style into our conversations but have a natural gravitas to a particular style. Realising your preferred style and working out the preferred style of your conversation partner, proved really helpful.

For example, someone who prefers to be a submarine (technician style), does not respond well to pressure to make an on the spot decision. Forcing them to agree to a solution at the end of the conversation will only escalate the confrontation. Instead, agreeing to give them time to mull the problem over and come back with a response later, will likely result in a much more favourable response and implementable solution.

Under stress, people tend to respond in either of two ways: they become more extreme in their preferred style (dig their heels in) or switch to a different style. What we were encouraged to do during the training course, was to play with different styles and practice switching during a confrontational conversation to a different style that would be more attuned to the person we were speaking to. In that sense, we are better able to manage ourselves and the responses we get from the person we are confronting.

A key part of this switching of styles was being assertive; not shouting over the other or ignoring what they say, but quite the opposite: taking more time to listen to the other and trying to understand what they say and where they are coming from. Are we really hearing what the other person is telling us or are we too busy trying to contain our emotions and constructing our next argument in our heads? Armed with this understanding, you will be better prepared to say what you think and feel, and, most importantly, what you want to happen.

As an ambulance, I need to be patient with submarines and focus on the practical, while being more competitive and assertive with snow ploughs, or team up with submarines to create new opportunities in joint conversation with snow ploughs.

  1. 'Arguments' by Jeff Eaton via Flickr. Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0):