If We Should Dress for Sun or Snow

Despite feeling pretty good about my work-life balance last year, I’ve been a little humbled by 2019 so far. My personal life has needed more attention than my work life, and I’ve been feeling guilty about shifting the focus.

Before Christmas I got very into the Groundhog Day musical soundtrack, particularly If I Had My Time Again, which is my new favourite shower sing-along. I was also thinking a lot about academic workload last year, and how the varying pressures of the academic role can be challenging.

Despite feeling pretty good about my work-life balance last year, I’ve been a little humbled by 2019 so far. My personal life has needed more attention than my work life, and I’ve been feeling guilty about shifting the focus. It’s been difficult to keep on top of things, and I hadn’t quite appreciated how much I’d let things creep into the evenings.

There were two articles recently that my mind kept returning to. One is Dr Anderson’s widow speaking out about academic workload, and this article about email’s influence on workload. Particularly on Monday when I was attending an Echo 360 community meet-up about learning analytics.

I had good reasons for wanting to go to this community meet-up. I’m interested in analytics, and I’m the PI on our university’s evaluation project so a little networking is always valuable. I’m also in the rare academic position of having some spare money floating around so it all seemed worthwhile. Except there was a very west-of-Scotland sounding voice in the back of my head wondering if I’m worth spending that money on. Who am I to go to That London to talk to people? Shouldn’t I be slaving over a hot laptop?

On the other side of this, I’ve also spent a little bit of my evenings this week working on a Shiny app. Now I want to emphasise that ‘a little bit’ in this context literally means five or ten minutes here and there when an idea comes to me, but it’s still very much useful time. And yet I’ve been frustrated that I haven’t been able to spend more time on it.

A couple of months ago I had a devil’s advocate style debate with my good colleague Ian about how much these kind of extracurricular activities should contribute to our CVs. We kept circling back to how much the open science and open data analysis movements favour those people with the spare time to dedicate to this kind of work. If all your work is on proprietary data, you maybe can only contribute to things like a github repository in your spare time. And if when you get home you start doing the childcare, or can’t get away with not cleaning the house because you prefer to spend that time tweaking a package. What if all your hours out of work are spent on other tasks, and when you have that lightning moment of “ah – I should use enquo()!” you can’t immediately go to your laptop to check it out?

There are many people much busier than me who manage to contribute way more than me. Those people should be applauded. And we should definitely still value the amazing resources people put online. I think it is our responsibility as academics to support ourselves (and our managers too).

All this is a round-about way of saying that having a little bit less time to make-up for my business has highlighted to me how very important it is to protect time for the things that are important in your work. During one of our protected analysis times today I started a new package which I hope will be able to be incorporated into a shiny app I’m planning for our students. Tomorrow’s my first Writing Friday since before Christmas.  This is the way to do it. And yes, my emails have been slipping in the mean-time. Let ’em.

We should believe we are worth the time.

(And also I managed to go to work today wearing two different earrings and no one pointed it out. That’s not relevant but it amused me greatly.)

Productive Wastage

I’m often accused of being productive, which is not how I think of myself. Instead, I spend time on things I never think will be finished . . .

I’m often accused of being productive which I find hysterical because I have had to dedicate a whole cupboard to my unfinished crafting projects and my list of ‘started’ papers is longer than my list of actual finished ones, never mind just the published ones.

Some colleagues and I were discussing productivity on Friday and one of my accusers said she’d read that the key to productivity was focussing on the process and not the end product. When I describe my work process I often say that I hate ‘kidding myself’. If I’m not going to do the thing that I’m supposed to do I don’t sit staring at it, instead I do something else. For example, my NSS package happened when I was supposed to be addressing some reviewers’ comments for our assessment paper. And on Friday, when I was supposed to be addressing those comments again, I went home and played Assassin’s Creed because it had had been a bit of a difficult week and the freedom to say “bugger it” is one of academia’s greatest perks. (Never underestimate the power of ‘bugger it’ when talking about productivity). I don’t kid myself about the work I’m doing.

I have never considered my ‘don’t kid yourself’ motto in terms of ‘process’, but it might actually be a more useful way to conceptualise it. I like exploring different processes. I usually have a little chunk of something I’ve tried before – you want to know about ‘play’? Well one Monday afternoon I randomly did a lit review for the beginning of a paper, here it is. You’d like to know how to make an R Package, well one week I wrote a data package for fun. While there is an end product for these things, I don’t necessarily bother with them.

One of the greatest examples of this is NaNoWriMo. For the uninitiated, National Novel Writing Month takes place in November each year and encourages everyone to write a 50,000 word novel. I love NaNoWrimo and have taken part several times, and finished only once. NaNoWriMo does not care about the final product. A common solution to writer’s block is to have ninja’s jump through the window, which will take at least ten pages to resolve before you have to get back to wherever you were doing. To me, this is the ultimate test of process.

I’ve been idly playing with my own idea for 2018 and I decided to announce the name with this blog post – I’ll be writing “Love in the Time of Elk Cloner” this year, and I probably won’t finish, given that November has a lot of marking for me, but that’s not the point. The point is that I will work on those skills, and exercise my creative muscles, and next time someone needs something a bit left-field written, I’ll be ready.

So, academics and technical folks – this is my recommendation for being productive like me – waste more time on stuff that won’t be finished, especially ridiculous novels with barely thought out premises. If you want to give it a shot, you can start NaNoWriMo with me this year. Follow me over there.

Dear Readers

Dear readers,

I have confession to make. In 2017 I did not publish a single paper. In fact in 2018 so far I’ve only had one paper accepted. That’s worrying for someone whose job is ‘researcher’. Someone whose worth is often judged by the length of the publication section of their CV.

It’s fair to say I’m quietly shitting myself about this and it’s been the source of great existential angst.

First of all – there are lots of ways to explain and justify why my publications section is light at the moment, but I should not. I am trying, very hard, to internalise the message that I am more than my publication count, and I don’t want to spend time justifying why I haven’t met an arbitrary target. Suffice to say there’s little I would have done differently.

Instead I want to talk about some of the steps I’ve taken to change this.

Over the last six weeks I’ve adopted a practice I’ve called ‘Writing Fridays’. This is where I’ve blocked off the whole of a Friday simply to write. In this period, I wrote and submitted a short paper, did major revisions on another paper, and published my first preprint. Writing Fridays has been successful enough for me to decide to maintain the practice.

I remember once taking a workplace personality test, most likely an MBTI rip off (see the book for my feelings on this), and whatever my type was called (Eldritch Abomination?), the test made this prediction. “Whenever someone knocks on your door for help you’ll drop everything to do it, even if there’s somebody already talking to you mid-crisis. You just want to be needed.” It’s one of the few times personality tests have really ‘got’ me. I am very guilty of this behaviour.

For me, writing is not about finding ‘time’ but about finding and protecting the mental space to write. I need a whole day set aside, with no meetings, with no expectation that I’ll also be supporting students and colleagues. That support is a hugely valuable part of my role, and I love doing it, but for me writing papers is an expensive mental activity. By blocking off one day in the week I’ve been much more productive at what is actually a core part of my role. I think when I return to work next term, I will be very explicit about my office hours being Monday-Thursday.

The next step has been about more positive about feedback. I’ve spoken about feedback a lot on this blog, and my challenges with it. So part of that, and part of making my work more accessible, has been publishing my first pre-print.

Pre-prints are inarguably a good thing, but somehow in my head only hard science is ‘deserving’ of pre-prints. The kind of fluffy science I do is somehow trying to hide behind pre-printing. This is yet another example of my own internalised prejudices about the kind of work I do. For example, I am more than happy to share a git repository for example about the NSS analysis even though it’s an unfinished flow of consciousness, but my carefully collected thoughts about Discipline Based Educational Research in two fields I know well feels . . . it feels presumptuous.

I hope the pre-print gets feedback, and I hope I listen to it.

And finally, I have been keen to keep a record of my other activities. All academics should be recording their publications and activities for ref. At Edinburgh we use a tool called Pure for this (pure dead brilliant so it is). In pure there’s a category for publications > other> multi media forms. This blog lives there, so do other types of entry.

Let’s be clear. This blog doesn’t, and probably shouldn’t count towards my ref eligible publications. But the other types of publication do matter, and we have the facility to record it. We should be tracking all of our activity, especially as publications become more contentious.

But for now it’s time for me to take some annual leave. I’ve uninstalled outlook from my phone, I’m going to work very hard at forgetting about work, and I’m going to come back to it more productive.

We all have dreams 😉

Seven PhDs

So a few days ago I stumbled across Josh Raclaw’s tweet:

And this is the result:
Continue reading “Seven PhDs”

On Writing Books

After a week of annual leave my first draft of the book broke 60,000 words. I promised a minimum of 70,000 and it looks like I’m well on track to have my first draft finished by the end of this year. That gives me five months to edit, which has always been my least favourite part of the writing process.

It turns out that writing what is, essentially, a whole other PhD on top of your full time job in the space of eighteen months is really hard. Who knew?

I miss this little blog though, and I miss things that aren’t about animal personality, but the end is very nearly in sight!

Fluffy Friday – Office Romances

“And they’ll try to mount you.”

Jenny, an affectionate Irish woman, a guru at my new work place, nodded vehemently as I stared at her. “Oh yeah. Especially at certain times of the month. You just feel this big head on top of yours. It’s horrible. All the girls on the farm talk about it.”

Before my PhD I’d never worked with cows. Seals, deer, horses, but never cows. My knowledge of them started and ended at big black and white things that stood beside country road accidents, and big black and white things talking about humans in a Gary Larson cartoon. So it was thought, a general opinion held by all involved in my PhD, that I should do a little work on the research farm to get used to handling the animals.

“And the heifers are the worst.” Jenny’s briefing was an informal one, I’d popped into her office to ask about something else and cows, as they always did, came into the conversation.

“Yes,” Jenny observed, mistaking my regret for disbelief. “It’s scary!”

As I slunk from her office, I didn’t need her to tell me that being mounted by a 500 kg animal was scary. I had enough problems shaking off my friend’s dog.


Office romances don’t come easily to people like me. In child care, you’re surrounded by the end result of flirting and it does put a dampener on things. There’s also a limited amount of romancing that can be done among brightly coloured Ikea plates and sweaty faced children. Animals lend an entirely different atmosphere. All that energy and unabashed sex. It’s carnal. Unfortunately, those that work with animals are usually covered in shit and their own sweat. It’s not a good look.

Despite this handicap, I can recall a few great love affairs. There’s the tragic love affair, the beauty and the beast situation between an RTA goose and a lead poisoned swan. That goose spent many a warm autumn evening chasing the swan round and around the pool, while she serenely floated away with a couple of flips of her black webbed feet. The fact she was on a course of antibiotics and so had to be captured twice a day was of no small concern to the goose, and he defended her virtue rigorously. I’m not sure she ever noticed, or appreciated those attentions. The staff at the wildlife hospital noticed. The goose had a powerful bite. One evening, after my colleagues watched me fend off the erstwhile lover while simultaneously stuffing an antibiotic tablet the size of my thumb down the swan’s gob, I returned to the kitchen picking white feathers from my hair. “It’s cute,” said one of my colleagues. My supervisor, shaking his head sadly, managed a morose: “It’s wrong,” which we all felt was rather unprogressive of him.

Swans lend themselves to love. Even in old age. They mate for life, so people tell me, and I try not to bring up the literature that says otherwise. The biggest problem about working with animals is how often people will tell you things they know to be true. I’m guilty of it myself, but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating. That same autumn, working the isolation unit, I opened up a swan’s pen and stepped onto the sawdust covered concrete. These pens are roughly 2m by 1m square and painted a soothing, hospital-y shade of green. I don’t think any of the animals appreciated that. The swans were bedded on sawdust, which could flake and get into your eye with alarming frequency. In two big, black plastic bins we kept protein pellets for ducks and corn mix for swans. The ducks and ducklings would get their specific kind of pellets in a shallow bowl. Swans would get their corn in a plastic basin filled with water, occasionally with a garnish of lettuce on top if we had some going. Carrying these basins into the pens was sometimes a balancing act, as the decaying plastic threatened to split from its heavy, sloshing load. This evening I gave the admission card a once over, noted the treatments on the back of my glove, and entered the pen.

The swan was lying with her head submerged in the bowl of water.

While birds, particularly diving birds, are capable of going without oxygen for considerably longer than humans, my initial reaction was to dread the impending paperwork. I plucked the animal’s head from the water and gave it a little shake on the end of its long neck. It rolled one yellow eye in my direction and gave a little flutter of its wings.

Just let me die, it seemed to say.

I cleaned the pen, medicated the bird, and made a slightly facetious note that the bird should be kept on suicide watch. On a more serious side of things, I recommended the vets upped the dosage, as her lead poisoning was severe.

On my final round of the night, I popped my head round once more to find her submerging her whole head. As she had plainly ate nothing, before I left, I made sure to move her bowl a little further away. Do animals have a concept of suicide? Did the poor bugger feel that bad? That didn’t matter. I was three shifts in to my four nights on the isolation ward and I hadn’t lost a single animal yet. The day shift had, but I hadn’t seen them, so it didn’t count.

The following evening I found her again, drowning herself. The day shift had written “seems to like submerging head in bowl” on her card. “Have moved bowl away”. I studied the sawdust shavings. Had the listless animal dragged herself closer to the lurid orange bucket in order to end her days? Could I really justify snatching that chance at swan heaven yet again? Maybe swan suicide was against swan religion. I couldn’t take that chance. Besides, the vet had upped her EDTA dose so surely she’d start feeling better after the double injection I was going to give her. Was this not what we lived for? The healing of poor, innocent animals?

EDTA solution needs to be diluted in saline, so the higher dose resulted in two injections, one in each leg. Despite her attempts at drowning, she was massively dehydrated too. Already feeling as though I was taking this far too seriously, I popped my head out of the door and tried to catch the attention of the vet nurse as she walked by.

The vet nurse was a dedicated woman who lived on site and, seeing the state of the bird, she went to set up a saline drip. I lifted the bird from its sawdust bed and saw, for the first time, its terrible case of Angel Wing. Her wings drooped at the ‘wrist’, she was probably flightless. I mentioned, gently, to the vet nurse that it might be kinder to euthanize. But no, she wouldn’t hear of it. There were plenty of ‘sheltered housing’ lakes we could rehome her to. The next morning, the swan was sitting on the sawdust, head up, a drip sellotaped to the wall above her.

I watched her recovery over the next few weeks and it was with some delight that we released her into the outside pen where she wasn’t even tempted to drown herself in the large pool. And a large one-winged male swan took one look at her and in the golden light of the sun setting over the aviaries, reflecting off the algae tinted pond and the fluffy yellow backs of the last of the year’s ducklings, he fell in love.

We rehomed the pair together in a stately Cheshire home where they could be flightless and happy together.


Not all love stories end well. Particularly when I’m involved. 813 and I had known each other for a little over two months. I was working on a farm in Friesland, a land so flat it gave me vertigo. 813 hadn’t paid too much attention to me until the unfortunate few days my hormones happened to spike at the same time hers did. Suddenly I was irresistible. Some things, like laughing at small women being pursued by amorous cows, transcend language barriers, and I never had quite such a good relationship with the guys on farm as when I was the subject of their amusement.

For this particular experiment I spent a lot of time in the pen moving cows, selecting cows, and for a whole week I was also avoiding 813. Sometimes I was even physically fleeing from her. I’d be checking out my notes to find out what cow I wanted next when I’d feel a slobber-covered chin alight upon my shoulder. 813 was nothing if not ever hopeful.

Alas, when her hormones subsided she wanted nothing further to do with me and all that remained of our love was a long drool mark down the right side of my overalls.

I’ve given up on office romances. It’s all very mooving at the time, but it seems best left to the birds and the bovines.