Monday, 24 December 2012

The twelve days of Christmas

"For many people around the world, A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, from the candlelit chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, marks the beginning of Christmas." 
Fuse don't have a choir, an organ, or a college chapel. But we have commissioned a new Christmas carol from Lisa Anderson to mark the festive season.

The tune should be obvious.

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my research gave to me…

Twelve stressed PhD’ers
Eleven hours of transcripts (and counting)
Ten ethics form errors (only!)
Nine analysis methods
Eight journal rejections (argh)
Seven policy outcomes (zzz)
Six backs are aching
Five sleepless nights
Four logic models
Three degrees of freedom
Two frozen shoulders
And a cluster analysis tree!!!

Thursday, 20 December 2012

A Christmas Blogpost

Posted by Heather Yoeli

And so, it’s That Season again. The time of year to do everything with alcohol and food which Public Health Guidelines say you shouldn’t, the time of year to tie-dye six multi-packs of Primark socks as Christmas and/or Hannukah presents for your ever-burgeoning brood of nephews and nieces, the time of year to argue with one’s partner about whose should come to fix your perennially inept combi-boiler. Happy times. Well, maybe; maybe not. This year, things do feel different.

The time of year to think about Those Less Fortunate Than Ourselves
This year does feel very different. It’s the first time – within my lifetime, at least – that such austerity and hardship and poverty in Britain have been so widespread. Certainly, this country has always had its marginalised and disadvantaged and poor... but the food banks, and the stories of people walking ten miles on foot to reach one because they cannot afford the bus fare, and the talk of “nutritional recession”: that’s new. It’s new, and it’s frightening. It reminds us that we live in one of the most unequal countries in the developed world and that, whereas that inequality is getting worse, we are most of us just one job loss, one relationship breakdown or one investment disaster away from destitution.

And so, it’s That Season again. The time of the year to think about Those Less Fortunate Than Ourselves, the time of year to try and decide whether to donate to That Charity or to get angry about the need for That Charity even to exist, the time of year to give an extra few quid to the Big Issue seller and to awkwardly wish him a merrier Christmas than he’ll probably be having. And so, I’m now going to propose that we in Public Health research do need to invest some more thought about what we’re doing to address this new sort of poverty and hunger we’re seeing across Britain. Do we organise collections and donations for our local homeless charity, or do we set up evaluations of cookery classes for vulnerable families, do we invite Osborne round to tea for a chat about the bankers and their bonuses, or do we set up a protest camp and get radical?

I don’t know what the answer is, I really don’t. But let’s talk about it, anyway...

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Time management

Posted by Lynne Forrest

I constantly worry that I’m not spending enough time on my PhD. When I hear of other people who work weekends and do 60-hour weeks then I definitely feel that I’m not putting enough hours in. I struggle with fitting a full-time PhD around all my other life-commitments. And I worry that this makes me look like I’m not taking it seriously, when I definitely am.

I’m lucky enough to be a full-time, fully-funded PhD student and I’m totally in awe of those people who are fitting in a PhD around working. I really don’t know how they do it. It’s hard enough to find enough hours in the day without having to juggle a job as well.

I presume that if my supervisors thought I was skiving off, they'd have said something by now
Prior to the PhD I worked part-time whilst my children were little. So the switch to a full-time PhD commitment was initially a bit of a culture shock to everyone. I was no longer able to attend all the school plays, concerts and sports events I used to and my children did guilt-trip me with this. Once everyone had adjusted their expectations it became manageable.

When I started the PhD I decided to give up my gym membership as I couldn’t find the time to go. However, as I spend most of my working day sitting down analysing data I found that the weight was creeping on, so this was probably not the best idea. So I’ve decided I need to fit exercise back into my life – I’m just not quite sure how I’m going to manage this. I’m currently experimenting with going running and am in the early, enthused stage of taking up an exercise regime. So when this wears off it can give me something else to feel guilty about. When I’m exercising I can worry about not doing enough hours on the PhD and when I don’t get round to exercising I can feel bad about that too….

A couple of days a week I finish at 4pm to do the school pick-up and encounter the usual guilt as I furtively sneak off early out of the office. I do a further hour or so when I get home but this can be regularly interrupted and so isn’t ideal. I actually find working from home really difficult as it’s too easy to become distracted by all the domestic drudgery that needs done. I prefer to work in the office and, even though I have to factor in travel time, I’m definitely much more productive. To maximise work time I just eat a quick lunch at my desk and do sometimes feel I’m missing out on being more sociable, but I really can’t spare the time.

I am aware how lucky I am to be able to work this flexibly and I know how much more difficult it is outside academia. In one of my (many!) previous jobs I worked as a computer programmer for a large Scottish bank. All staff had to clock in and out and, although there was some flexibility, a core 7 hour day had to be worked. All time spent on a project also had to be logged weekly under different headings and I really hated having to account for every hour in this way. I love the flexibility of academia where, within reason, you can spend as long as you need on a task without your every action being scrutinised.

Anyway, I presume that if my supervisors thought that I was skiving off then they’d have said something by now. As it is, my PhD does seem to be going pretty well. As much as possible I’ve attended conferences, done external training courses that have meant staying away for days at a time and have also tried to get involved with other aspects of the Institute where I work. But I’m aware that other people are in earlier and work later. I just have to keep reminding myself that it’s quality not quantity that counts. And that I’d be worried if I didn’t have something to worry about…

Thursday, 13 December 2012

On tea, and what is normal

Posted by Heather Yoeli

There were two things which drew me to Northumbria University in seeking a Fuse studentship. The first was the refreshingly sociological and social justice based ethos within the health improvement focus of public health within the department. The second was the invigorating friendliness of its Coach Lane East canteen staff. And I’m writing this not to ingratiate myself to my supervisor nor wrangle another cuppa off my Go Catering loyalty card. I’m going somewhere with this, I promise…

One of the greatest contributions which the social sciences have made to the practice of health care has been their critique of fixed notions of norms and deviance. Whereas both conventional biomedicine and the biopsychosocial model assert the existence of an objective, positivist distinction between normality as healthy and abnormality as pathological or deviant, the social sciences tend to adhere to the structuralist or poststructuralist view that what constitutes the ‘normal’ is merely a social construction and thereby likely to change in response to a number of social, cultural or economic processes.

Nevertheless, it is my observation that academics from a range of disciplines of social sciences and health studying and working at a range of institutions possess a disturbing tendency to overlook this vital insight whilst operating a crucial instrument of research equipment: namely, the kettle. Even amongst academics with a resolute and impassioned commitment to language and terminology that is respectful, empowering, enlightened and anti-oppressive, there exists a tendency to express a preference for ‘normal tea’ (or sometimes ‘ordinary tea’). I would even contend that, were tea leaves to possess sufficient consciousness to comprehend the concept of prejudice, such a careless deployment of language would leave bags of Assam, Ceylon, Darjeeling, Earl Grey, green teas, redbush, peppermint, camomile, ginger, rosehip, lemon and numerous other blends feeling seriously discriminated against.

Certainly, such an unreflexively-assumed norm accords very closely with the way in which the UK beverage industry regards tea. Whereas Twinings and Clipper sell ‘English breakfast tea’ and Twinings also sells a cheaper ‘Everyday tea’, all other leading brands (Typhoo, Tetley, PG Tips, Yorkshire Tea, Cafedirect) simply market their product as ‘tea’. It is with Tesco own-brand basic of ‘Quality tea’ that the semiotics of this becomes clearest. However, I’d argue that social researchers possess a responsibility not to allow their attitudes to be determined by the global multinationals in control of the marketing industry. Peppermint tea must not be relegated to the deviant or abnormal.

The idea that the language we are given to use will insidiously determine our thoughts and attitudes is generally attributed to the polemic and scare-mongering of the literature of George Orwell. However, the idea has a rigorous and respected evidence base established through the ‘linguistic relativity’ research of Sapir and Whorf and more recently developed by Lakoff and Fairclough. Therefore, if academics within the social sciences can be manipulated by the tea manufacturers into talking about ‘normal tea’, it may only be a matter of time before they revert once more to talking about ‘normal people’. 

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Oh, you’ve been playing in the Sandpit again?

Posted by Avril Rhodes

When you mention to colleagues or to your nearest and dearest that you’ve spent your working day going around country hotels trying to find the best venue for the Fuse Sandpit residential training event some really sceptical looks are forthcoming. They don’t say it, but each is thinking “What a waste of time – hasn’t she anything better to do?” But, honestly, it really is hard work.

When M’Lord was building his country seat, he thought about creating spectacular grounds, rooms for an army of servants, stable blocks, fine dining rooms and a grand entrance. Strangely, he did not think about the post-aristocratic world of conferencing, or even imagine electricity and internet access. Consequently, whilst ambience, embossed wallpaper, log fires, wonderful views, and curtains that could be turned into seven man (sorry, person) tents are there in abundance, they do not necessarily make for suitable workshop or break out rooms. Country house eccentricity, whilst good for life-size Cluedo (was it Professor Plum in the drawing room with the digital projector or Research Assistant Scarlett in the library with the flip chart?), doesn’t always readily adapt to one’s conference needs.

The final decision: Linden Hall
Some of the country hotels adapted for conference purposes seem to have lost their individuality. The brochure might show a glorious Adam frontage or Palladian columns, but your event mysteriously turns out to be in a windowless, purpose-built block with polystyrene roof tiles, refreshment points (read rubbish coffee machines) or in a wing that separates you from other patrons as if you were somehow infectious.

Never mind, these monstrosities shouldered aside, we have a lovely venue which oozes individuality and charm. Now to envision our use of the space… Yes - the lounge makes a good plenary room, until you realise the public are going to troop through to the dining room. Yes – the library makes a good workshop, until you realise that it only has one socket. Yes – the so-and-so suite would be good until you realise that it’s the wrong shape or size, or might be cold, or doesn’t have enough clear wall space, or is miles away from the other workshop rooms. Debates break out like, “Well, if we use room A for B and space D for C, then we could use room E for G and that will still leave the informal seating area F untouched”, only for someone else to undermine everything you’ve said.

In the end if we’re going to invest properly in the Sandpit style of training, it is worth the effort to get things as right as possible, even if that involves some of us sinking, once again, into the period sofas, or forcing ourselves into yet another lunch in the conservatory. Get the venue right - then the creative juices will flow. The incisive ideas for responding to real problems out there in public health will come, and, everyone will be guaranteed a fun experience that truly beats your average university seminar room and is memorable for years to come!

Ahh… I think it’s time for afternoon tea. Earl Grey, Professor?

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Reaching for the blue rubber chicken

Posted by Peter Tennant

UK Prime Minister David Cameron once quipped, 'too many tweets… make a twit'. OK, so he didn't actually say twit, he said something far ruder. But you get the idea: man says rude things about Twitter, outcry follows. Trouble is, he was only repeating something that many people already think about the world's most famous 'micro-blogging' service; that it's full of the self-absorbed wittering on about what they'd had for breakfast. So a bit like Facebook, only more celebs and less baby photos.

Which is why it was so surprising when David Cameron suddenly joined Twitter last month. No doubt, he had expected the ensuing torrent of abuse. His opening tweet promising not to make 'too many tweets' was almost certainly an attempt to placate the predictable cries of 'U-turn'. But I guess he felt that the benefits of joining now outweighed the risks of looking like a twit.

Twitter evangelists: Ever feel like slapping them with a blue rubber chicken?
For a politician, the argument seems pretty clear. Over 10 million UK residents now use Twitter. Worldwide that figure has been estimated as high as half a billion. If, by sending out a few brief messages, a politician can communicate with just a fraction of that number, then the proceeds are palpable. Twitter provides a person, or an organisation, with a direct line to the public. Why waste your time being misquoted by journalists when you can mis-tweet all by yourself?

I (@Peter_Tennant) joined Twitter back in Summer 2011 to explore how it could be used for 'work'. And when I say work, remember I'm not something useful like a public health practitioner wanting to find new ways to get people to take their flu jab; I'm an Epidemiologist who spends most of his day staring blankly at a computer screen. So my interests were purely in Twitter as a networking tool, information feed, and broadcasting service.

I started out pretty cynical, spending the first few weeks mumbling about how rubbish it was. But as my followers increased, and I got myself involved in more and more conversations, my view began to change. Until, without noticing, I'd converted into one of those boring Twitter evangelists. The sort of person who I'd ordinarily want to slap across the face with an oversized rubber chicken (painted blue, of course, to resemble the twitter logo).

But the annoying truth is, Twitter can be useful. Almost everyone I follow is interested in some aspect of my professional interests. Which means my 'feed' is full of news about higher education, life as a PhD student, or articles about obesity, diabetes and/or pregnancy. I've lost count of the number of relevant articles I've discovered purely through Twitter, and there's not a tweet from Steven Fry in sight. On the flip side, this means that my followers will hopefully be interested when I tweet the results from my latest publication. At least, that's what I like to believe…

But neither of these benefits really compare to Twitter's strength as a networking tool. Not only have I made some new friends in my own building, but I've had several conversations with people at conferences purely on the back of Twitter. In fact, it was probably only when I went to my first academic conference as a Twitter user that I was truly sold.

But it's not all positive. First, there's the spam, which consists either of messages from friendly users who've clicked on a phishing link or, worse, from 'spam-bots' (the giveaway being the scantily clad profile picture). They're easy to deal with, but they’re also rather boring.

My main challenge, however, has been the scope for misinterpretation. Like when I tweeted about a colleague having a giant red nose and for some reason they were offended* It can be difficult getting the balance right on Twitter. If you don't have a personality, no-one will follow you, but if that personality is too open or opinionated, get ready for trouble. After one memorable incident, I had the words 'libel' and 'defamation' thrown in my direction. And that was despite my strict adherence to Peter's Rule:

"Never say anything on Twitter that you wouldn't be willing to say in person, out loud, to a room of your colleagues."

I have since realised that the perceived prominence and permanence of Twitter make even this rule a bit weak. Even when I say things completely consistent with my character, people have still accused me of overstepping the mark. Until I can work out a solution, I've decided to retreat to making bland statements and asking obscure statistical questions. So if you're on Twitter, I really wouldn't bother following me…

And I haven't even touched on the really big issues about power and privacy. Twitter has been simultaneously praised and damned for its roles in the Egyptian Revolution and the London riots respectively. Several people have been arrested following ill-conceived or distasteful tweets. And what about Twitter's unchallenged authority to block someone's account at will (a power that took on a darker twist when one journalist was blocked for attacking one of Twitter Inc's commercial partners)? Does any of this effect Twitter as a research tool? I don't think so. But I'm willing to change my mind if I ever get arrested for tweeting something libellous about Bayes.

*May not have happened. Thank goodness.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Some memorable participants

Posted by Rachel Stocker

During the last year (which comprised the second year of my PhD) I have embarked upon a roller-coaster of emotions. Not only as a consequence of the usual trials of a PhD journey, but through data collection. I’m primarily a qualitative researcher, and my study involves interviewing people with heart failure, and their carers, to discuss their prognosis.

OK, I thought, no problem. The only issue I would need to consider would be if they found the topic upsetting, and I prepared myself for that possibility and the resources I would need to access. What I wasn’t prepared for was the sheer diversity of participants, and the depth which I would see their lives.

I have been welcomed into all my participant’s homes and shown, with open arms, how they live. One particular interview which remains firmly in my memory was with a gentleman who I had been advised had severe (physical) difficulties with verbal communication and whose wife could not participate due to similar, cognitive communication, difficulties. 

A nice cup of tea and a biscuit
Oh dear – this is going to be challenging, I thought. I wasn’t really looking forward to the interview. I knew there would be issues with communication, and I wondered how best to sensitively conduct the interview. Upon arrival, I was welcomed as an old friend and given endless cups of tea and home-made scones (fruit AND cheese!). I was taken by the hand and shown round the couple’s quaint bungalow, containing endless self-made paintings and artwork. I was told about their families and their service in WWII. The interview went well and I left feeling happy, with a twinge of sadness at the parts of their lives they had lost. 

Another memorable participant told me about her life, her late husband, and her parents (mother French, father English – she spoke in a perfect French accent despite living in England all her life). She lived with her son, a very personable, jolly fella who joked about her stubbornness. She visited the local hospice regularly to socialise with “other people my own age”, play dominos, and enjoy lunch. (Her son interjected at this point to say that she comes back three sheets to the wind as they all have an ‘aperitif’ beforehand). She did not offer any other reason for attending the hospice and did not think it was related to her health at all. She died three months later, peacefully in her sleep.

I’m conducting six-month follow-up interviews with participants (where possible, however heart failure is a cruel disease), so I get to return to their homes and speak to them again. I noticed one lady was looking much better than when I saw her six months ago, and told her. Her husband said that she had been looking forward to my visit for the past few days and seeing me perked her up. I re-interviewed them like old friends, with their dog sat on my knee – turning my black trousers white with his fur but I didn’t mind at all - whilst I supped my tea and ate two of the five assorted biscuits arranged on the plate.

Interviewing my participants has illustrated to me that there’s much more to life than research (and indeed, living with heart failure) and reminded me of the fine line between living and dying.