Carpe Diem

Illustration of a stopwatch, calendar, phone and hands writing with the words "Carpe Diem: Seize the Day"Academic work, as many people are aware, has certain affordances (relative autonomy with time, an emphasis on self-directed tasks, lifelong learning, pretty generous annual leave) and constraints (heavy workloads that are often erratic, high preparation time to event time ratios, activities that demand switch-tasking when, in Daniel Kahneman’s words “slow thinking” is needed).

However, of all the joys and concerns, probably the most common phrase is “I don’t have enough time”. It’s a fair statement. We could all do with more time, but time-travelling devices have yet to be invented, and most of us on the planet are stuck with a linear model, in which most events run cyclically: hours, days, weeks, months. The sun rises, the sun sets, the moon has its phases.

So what to do with the time we have? I now have two rules:

First of all, focus on the important stuff. We spend time on urgent tasks a lot (or things that seem urgent), but often run out of time to do the important ones. Clear time in your schedule each day to work on that conference paper proposal, make notes on that article you’ve been meaning to read, write in your journal, exercise, you can even spend time planning your time! One way of focusing is to use the Pomodoro Method – there are plenty of apps for your PC/Mac or phone that have a 25-minute timer, followed by 5-minute breaks.

How do you avoid interruption, I hear you ask? Find the button or setting on your desk telephone or mobile that says “do not disturb”. Turn it on. Shut your door (if you can) and/or put your headphones in. Turn off e-mail on your computer. If possible, tell people this is your quiet work time, or put a polite note on the door.

Secondly, do it daily. I’m terrible for procrastinating on a range of things, but mainly in the important category. I also hate a full inbox. The simplest solution, suggested by Gretchen Rubin, is to schedule and perform daily tasks, essentially as a means of building an architecture of habits. If possible, set a specific time to get your e-mails done everyday – do not postpone replies if you can help it. I do this everyday, and if I can’t reply then and there, it goes on my task list. Going on holiday? Block out at least a day to deal with the messages when you return.

For me, the daily principle is about the only way I discipline myself and maintain momentum, not just for the things I don’t like doing, but for the things that I do! I actually quite like meditation, but it is very easy to drop it if I feel too busy or too tired.

So, there you have it: deal with the important stuff, and do it daily. Priorities and habits are key ways of getting things done. Try it out and see how much diem you can carpe!

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Documentation Practices in Field Research

Filmmaking with visual ethnography – an interview with Sarah Pink from Thomas Legald on Vimeo.

Over the last fortnight I have been working with some of our postgraduate research students on our very popular Embracing the (Un)known personal and professional development session at the University of East Anglia. This two-day event, which is student-led and runs twice a year, is an opportunity for researchers from across the arts and humanities and the social sciences to meet and share their experiences of conducting field research abroad or at “home”. Central to the event, as our students pointed out from previous feedback, is the idea of conducting research in your own country or even your own community. This often raises questions around identity when in the “field”.

As part of this spring’s event, we are developing a session on documentation practices, looking at interviewing and other ways of recording participants or phenomena as part of the research project. This has led me to return to a topic I was interested in some years ago when I worked in the Sainsbury Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas: visual ethnography. Thinking about, not only the materials collected or used to supplement the texts obtained or produced from work with participants in research projects, but also the systems by which those participants and the researcher produce, consume and integrate visual artefacts into their lives. Check out the interview at the top of this post with Professor Sarah Pink from 2015 for a good introduction to some of the practicalities and ethics of this type of film making.

I am quite keen to relate this to the work of Nick Sousanis, whose approach to research through the medium of the graphic novel prompts a question for today’s researchers: should we rely on photography and film to record, document or represent the worlds of our participants? Can a graphic response be as, if not more, effective?

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Digital Image Analysis – Part 2

Thanks to all who attended the digital images workshop at Birkbeck in London on 14 February 2017. It was great to test out the manual and batch processing functions of ImageJ, and there seemed to be a number of applications for the measurements that can be done using the software, sometimes involving the angle of lines set on the image, e.g. the direction of eyes in a painting or photograph, sometimes about the calculation of area, such as the treatment of lighter, foregrounded details against dark backgrounds.

Whereas the manual tools seemed quite intuitive, the challenge arises with the use of macros and batch processing. We worked with Lev Manovich and the Software Studies Initiative’s ImagePlot package, which contains a number of macros allowing users to extract features, such as median brightness, from a large set of image files. It also allows you to create scatterplots of those data points and overlay thumbnails of the images. At least in theory!

We encountered a few errors when trying to start the plots, but after downloading the ImageJ (64-bit) package from the National Institutes of Health website, the data seemed to work better with the macros on the Mac OS, and we managed to plot the visualisations.

Another point to remember when using ImageJ is to have Java installed: https://www.java.com/en/download/manual.jsp – this slowed us down a bit at the beginning of the day, but we got the software up and running.

We spent less time on our other software, ANVIL and Cinemetrics, but I am considering how the former might be intergrated into our workshops on language data analysis at the University of East Anglia. The coding specifications are absolutely fascinating for research into the interaction between gesture and language.

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