Mock mock viva

It hasn’t proven possible to arrange a mock viva prior to my actual viva next week. However, several members of staff were kind enough to spare (more than) a few minutes to chat about my preparations. Some were already familiar with my research and could ask pertinent questions, but the programme leader on my last Master’s degree asked to see my thesis, and kindly offered to give feedback. I thought this would be another informal chat, but he suggested we conduct it in a similar way to a viva … albeit without the strict formality. That proved to be so important.

I have to confess I struggled somewhat. Although as previous posts show, I’ve been thinking about some of the generic areas on which I might be questioned, it’s just not the same thing as someone sitting across a desk in front of you asking a direct question. I haven’t yet begun to practise the oral versions of my responses and their delivery (not verbatim responses obviously, but the marshalling of bullet points into more flowing replies), so more direct questioning at this stage was quite demanding.

There were a number of issues which arose and which I’m now better placed to address. For example, I need to think more carefully about the important aspects of flânography, how it supported and delivered the approach I’d chosen and in particular how it aligned with a sociomaterial sensibility. There are other aspects I also need to work on and to which I might return after the viva, but my priority this morning was to craft a response to the opening question which floored me yesterday “What is your thesis?” which I misunderstood and launched into the extended overview I’d prepared. After some while, it was pointed out to me that this question is asking for a thesis statement, short, crips and to the point. Something that quickly sets the scene and an opportunity to create a good impression. Oh dear! Now I know why many of the viva advice sites suggest one of the opening viva questions is likely to be along the lines of “In one minute, can tell us about your thesis.”

After a couple of hours work (!?), I assembled the following response which does indeed take about a minute to state:

My thesis explores the assertion by some teachers on Twitter that it supports or provides their PD.
I conducted a sociomaterial analysis of their practices through an approach I called flânography involving multiple methods, including novel ones I developed.
Those practices are enacted by both human and nonhuman participants within richly complex activities, characterised by personalisation, autonomy and reciprocity.
I conceptualised these practices by proposing two interlocking dimensions of ‘compound learning’ and ‘scales,’ which enable claims about professional learning through Twitter – and online more generally – to be accessed and scrutinised.
In helping to legitimise these practices, my analysis and theorisation provide tools with which organisations and individuals can assess alignment and value of these practices alongside institutional and other goals.

My interviewer said that in knowing the importance of the opener, he prepared for his viva by having his family keep asking him the ‘What is your thesis’ questions at random moments. I’ll have to devise an alternative, but rehearse I must.


Can you summarise your ‘findings’ in *three* sentences?

In a comment on earlier post in this series discussing potential viva questions, Martina asked me the above question, prompting to me to go a step further than the original post. As you can see in my response and in that post, should the examiners ask me some variant of this, I’ll be as uncomfortable as I was when writing summary sections in my thesis. I can see why it’s necessary; there are a variety of audiences that need to be satisfied and it’s unlikely the space afforded by a thesis will always be available. Other than in a monograph, it’s inevitable that I’ll need to be more economical , whether for a journal article, conference presentation or poster session. So despite my reservations about reducing my findings to mere soundbites, I do need to take a stab at this.

Having considered different ways to set about this, one way forward might be to think what would I most want people to take away from my research? And here I’m thinking more about my ‘findings’ than other contributions to knowledge.

  • Twitter PD  is characterised by personalisation, autonomy and choice, where participants can decide and are in control of what they undertake, when they are involved (and for how long), where they participate and with whom.
  • The nonhuman actors contribute significantly to the above by: enabling portability and ease of access; forging connections; filtering, concentrating and amplifying activity and content.
  • Twitter acts as a platform and a hub with activity spreading out through (and drawing in from) blogs, wikis, Storify, Dropbox, offline meetups and classrooms
  • Activity is characterised by exchange and reciprocity, sometimes between two individuals, but more often by contributing to the common good.
  • Participation is enabled at different levels of intensity, from a click, to founding and sustaining a community/movement.
  • Twitter PD involves activity which might not have been otherwise possible, thereby extending the repertoire of activities which contribute towards professional development – ResearchEd etc etc.
  • There is a noticeable affective strand to TPD, where the personal and professional blur as friendships form within a relaxed, safe, supportive and trusting atmosphere.

That’s clearly more than ‘three,’ but here’s my thinking. I’ve placed them in a notional (and distinctly subjective) order of importance based on that earlier question ‘what would I most want people to take away?’ If asked for one sentence it would the first in the list, and so on depending on how many sentences I was asked for. I should also add that the first three in the list quite rightly respond to each of my three research questions.

One might also reasonably ask, why these particular takeaways and not others? The answer is a combination of factors. Firstly, in each of the (first three) responses I’ve tried to squeeze in an accumulation of several factors, rather than just the one – is that cheating? Secondly, I’ve tried to emphasise those characteristics of TPD which haven’t appeared in previous research. Finally, these are the characteristics which emerged across different data sources, although I should of course stress I’m not attempting some form of triangulatory argument here, simply that different people in different fora have made similar claims.

What do you think? Are they surprising? Expected? Mundane?

Which theoretical framings did you consider and why did you settle on ANT?

Continuing my series of posts discussing potential viva questions, I want to take a look at the theoretical underpinnings for my study. I know there’s a bunch of questions which could delve into how actor-network theory (ANT) informs or sits alongside my study, but I think this is probably a better place to start. Asking me why I chose ANT and which other theories or conceptualisations I’d considered but rejected seems like a perfectly reasonable question.

I was introduced to ANT a little while before even thinking about PhD study. As a long time listener (and sometime contributor) to Radio Edutalk, I was fascinated by an episode in which PhD student Anna Beck was discussing her research tracing the implementation of the Donaldson Report. She briefly talked about using actor-network theory to help understand how change is brought about in education more generally, and specifically though the Report. Given the attention it drew on ‘things,’ I wondered whether ANT might be useful in helping me to better understand and/or explain the issues of integrating educational technologies within education; my job at the time involved such matters. As I searched around for more information on ANT, it soon became clear how fuzzy a concept it was for someone like me who at the time had a very different worldview.Read More »

In your flânography, how should we conceive the ‘field?’

Whilst discussing online ethnography in my thesis, I made reference to ‘the field’ on a number of occasions, and devoted a couple of paragraphs to outlining how it might be conceived. In this post from the series discussing potential viva questions, I want to return to that notion.

Ethnography offers the means through which to explore an interesting phenomenon or issue. For me, flânography was the approach which allowed me to explore teachers’ professional practices on Twitter. In classical anthropology, the field was the location you went to in order to learn about the ‘Other,’ by becoming immersed in their culture and practices. There was a sense of difference, of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ of ‘the field’ and home. Notionally the field was a tightly bounded geographic space, but more recently this has been called into question (Gupta and Ferguson, 1997). Researchers such as Marcus (2012) noted how studying aspects of life often involved being mobile and making connections across multiple sites as people and things move around. This multi-sited field did not precede the study, but emerged through ethnographic exploration; it is the outcome of ethnographic engagement, not some predetermined construct which preceded the research.Read More »

“Flânography? Isn’t it just an ethnography?”

For this post on potential viva questions, I want to pick up a question one of my supervisors rather provocatively posed during one of our meetings. Although I might not be asked this in such a direct manner, I do have to have a defence prepared which is able to articulate how flânography is different from ethnography. I began to thrash this out in an earlier post, but I now need to prepare a more succinct response.

Firstly I need to acknowledge their similarity: both can be process and product; both involve immersion within a culture; both involve careful observation and chronicling; both might involve following actors and action; and both will attend to materiality. As a consequence, I don’t offer flânography as a completely different methodology, but instead as a form of ethnography. I suggest that there are subtle differences which allow me to do that:

  • Immersion for the flânographer is different from that for ethnographer. It’s less about prolonged and intense experience and more about accumulated encounters over a period of time and through a range of activities.
  • Mobility and movement are different for the flânographer. It’s conducted at a casual leisurely pace involving strolling or wandering, though not aimlessly in the way of flâneurs of old, but with purpose. Careful scrolling through a timeline and following leads which arise, similar to the way a flâneur might turn down a side-street or into an arcade.
  • The flânographer has the capacity to move not only through space, but also through time. Scrolling through the timeline is just that, as is viewing retweets, reading older blog posts or conducting an asynchronous exchange over several days.
  • Flânography for me was very much about mapping my activity and tracing out pathways of experience through the use of visualisations. Sometimes this was manually and sometimes using applications. Although producing visualisations could be used to re-present those pathways, it was more as a thinking tool to help understand and appreciate the nature of that activity.
  • Visibility, or rather invisibility, is somewhat different for the flânographer. Whilst an ethnographer might be present amongst a group of people, but be notionally invisible if she has not declared her status as a researcher, the flânographer as a lurker could remain completely hidden from participants.
  • Finally, the principles of flânography – of purposeful strolling, noticing and chronicling – are applied consistently throughout the study during data gathering, analysis and in the summative text.

Although I’ve briefly mentioned my proposal of flânography during a couple of conference presentations, my thesis will be the first time it’s been opened to robust scrutiny. My slight concern is that my lack of experience with ethnography might mean I’m making false assumptions about how flânography is different.

Where did you make ‘the cut?’

Although it’s unlikely to be phrased in precisely this way, in this third post on potential viva questions, I’m going to pick up the baton offered in my last post and discuss ‘making the cut.’  This references the work of Karen Barad amongst others, and the need to make choices about what should and shouldn’t be included in our research studies. That might be during field work when deciding which actors to follow and which to leave behind. It could be during data analysis where some data are attended to more closely than others, or in presenting some findings whilst discarding others. In ‘After Method,’ Law (2004)  describes method assemblage as

the process of crafting and enacting the necessary boundaries between presence, manifest absence and Otherness.

Within my study then there will be that which is present (whether through the choices I made during observation, analysis or in the thesis), that which is manifestly absent (which I was aware of, chose not to include, but didn’t hide), and that which I Othered by being unaware of the part it played.Read More »

Can you summarise your findings in a few sentences?

In this second in the series of responses to potential viva questions, I’m going to take a look at the findings. It’s quite possible the examiners might want to delve more deeply into particular aspects, but it’s also likely that at some stage, whether in the viva or not, I’ll need to concisely summarise my findings. At the end of each of the three ‘findings’ chapters I called ‘Gatherings,’ I offered a summary. I suspect at around 1500 words, they’re going to need distilling in order to answer this question. On the other hand, the couple of sentences in the abstract is hardly likely to be enough, so here I’m looking for some middle ground.

I need to start, as I did in my thesis, by first stating how unsettling it was providing a summary at all. There is an understandable wish to filter, concentrate and distill data when presenting findings; you can’t after all present them all. Obviously I had been selective in which data I drew on to include in my flânographic narrative, but it felt important that I didn’t summarise to the point where the richly complex and messy nature of Twitter PD was lost. That was one of the reasons for the somewhat extensive Gatherings summaries and also for providing two different versions of a summary in the ‘Retracing my steps’ chapter. Perhaps the most efficient and sensible way to respond to this question, should it be asked, is to refer back to my research questions, so taking each in turn …Read More »

Why did you undertake this study?

In the preceding posts I provided summaries of the chapters in my thesis. The next task I set myself when I started thinking about viva prep was to think about answers to some of the possible questions examiners might ask. In the next few posts I’ll attempt to map out some of the points I think might go into my responses. Like many job interviews, from the advice available across the web, the first question is often intended to settle the candidate and ease them into the discussion. It is common to ask how the study came about or what inspired it, so that’s where I’ll start.

What inspired you to undertake this study?

That’s a story of curiosity and three nudges. I can pick out the key moments which resulted in me being able to discuss this thesis. The first was at 18:33 on the 19th February 2009 when a fellow student on the TELIC Masters programme here at Sheffield Hallam suggested I ought to give Twitter a try and that I might find it interesting. Since I trusted Geoff’s opinion, despite the fact that I had no experience with social media, other than social bookmarking using ‘Delicious.’ So I signed up, then found and followed a few educators I ‘knew’ through Delicious that I thought might also be on Twitter. Right from the start, Twitter was only ever about supporting me in my professional work and it soon became plain the difference it was making in that regard.Read More »

Chapter 9: Concluding


Chapter 9 introductory graphic

The professional development that teachers undertake on and through Twitter resists easy, simple description. Despite my efforts, it cannot easily be condensed into a single list of characteristics, set of features or tight-knit package of outcomes. Where one teacher finds no more than a place to keep abreast of current educational developments, another might be seeking a virtual staffroom to unwind and either celebrate or pick apart the challenges they are facing in the classroom. Someone else might relish an opportunity to debate received wisdom within a broader educational arena, whilst another wishes to become part of a committed group of fellow practitioners seeking to extend and enhance their classroom practice and capabilities. People don’t appear to set out on Twitter with the above as objectives they’re keen to achieve, but instead develop a range of practices which address their needs and provide the benefits appropriate to them.Read More »

Ethics revisited

Throughout this study I aimed to maintain an ethical sensibility which responded to issues as they arose. Within the thesis, I highlighted those areas which triggered <#ethics> concerns and now return to summarise them. Here I’ll set out some of those observations and the way I responded.

One complex arena which tested my ethical sensibility was in the degrees of subtlety required when conducting online interactions. Simply asking a question, whether on Twitter or through a blog, obliged me to communicate my status as a researcher. Taking a cue from the norms of Twitter, I chose to include the hashtag #4MyResearch in each encounter, as described in an earlier post. It was later that I realised this could be a double-edged sword. Hashtags are of course searchable, so #4MyResearch could be one mechanism – albeit somewhat blunt – through which to bring one strand of my research together. Anyone could then check through the hashtag and view the way I had previously interacted with other people. That of course then makes each encounter more public than it otherwise might be, something of which a respondent might not initially be aware if they lose sight of potential audience in what Marwick and boyd (2010) term ‘context collapse.’Read More »