Hardcore Self-Help

When I was doing my undergraduate degree, my friends and I would often talk about who our favourite psychologists were. One person always loved the hilarity and strangeness of Freud, another would always say she was “Jung at heart”. A good pun often beats a coherent argument in my book. I was a long time fan of Aaron Beck. Those cognitive triads. It was a theory that made complete sense to me, seemed practical, and just seemed to speak to my way of thinking. Also I really like triangles, they’re the best of the shapes. 

Whilst I didn’t study psychology beyond undergrad, I still love cognitive theory. It’s so interesting to me and is something I make sure to try and keep up with (although it often goes beyond my understanding). Beck is someone I talk about a lot, and I have made sure my students know of his work. I teach social work, so this is still relevant, but I can’t say that I wouldn’t mention Beck even if I was teaching something wildly different. To me, Beck is one of the greats (the musician of the same name is also pretty ace, which may have been a contributing factor in my fandom). But I may have a new favourite psychologist. It’s kind of a big deal.

Recently I read “Hardcore Self-Help: Fuck Anxiety” by Robert Duff. It is amazing. I’ve looked into some self-help stuff before, and it often seems to me that it is too soft, like the author feels their readers are all so fragile they need to be cosseted with words. Hardcore Self-Help doesn’t do this. It’s sweary, funny, and honest. The tone is like talking to one of my friends, who know that I have a sarcastic and dark sense of humour, and the best way to make me feel better is to play on that. This isn’t to say that Duff’s book is harsh or sarcastic, but it’s realistic and fun, and doesn’t pussy-foot around the more unpleasant aspects of anxiety and the associated issues. It gives some practical steps to help stop or relieve anxiety (some of which are linked to my beloved cognitive triads), and tells you that it isn’t going to happen immediately, but will take work. That was nice to hear, and Duff makes the reader feel pretty excited about getting to do the work. It acknowledges that anxiety sucks, and it’s difficult to get past, but that those things are ok, and you’ll be able to deal with it anyway with some work. At one point he makes the analogy between developing coping skills and levelling up video game characters. That made me laugh lots, and imagine what my anxiety fighting character would be like (Jess the vampire slayer, who can also fly). 

Robert Duff has also recently started a podcast where he answers questions about mental health and talks about his work as a neuropsychologist. It’s great. I’m going to read his other book “Fuck Depression”, and hope that he never says anything bad about Aaron Beck. That would be a deal breaker.

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Technology for Academics

I’m pretty late to the game when it came to Apple products, tablet computers, and all that stuff. I always preferred paper for taking notes, and enjoyed writing things out longhand. These things are still true, it’s likely that when reading articles I will always take notes on paper, and writing with a fountain pen is one of the small joys that I relish each day. iThings may work really well, but I saw the trade for this as losing a large amount of privacy, and for me that was never really going to be worth it. Also, I dislike the level to which people now focus on screens instead of the world around them. Since I am most often found either wearing headphones or with my nose in a book, I realise the snobbish hypocricy that dells within this. However, I have caved, and bought an iPad. I use it only for work related things, and I put a lot of thought into what I wanted it for, and how I was going to use it before shelling out the cash. 

Much to my delight and chagrin, I actually really like the iPad, and it is immensely useful for me on a day to day basis. There are a lot of blogs out there that list various apps for academics and students and I pored over them when trying to decide if this was what I wanted. Basically, I got sick of carrying around a notepad, pen, diary, larger notepad for more detailed notes, and whatever documents I needed for each meeting I had that day, or printouts of the lectures I was going to deliver. The things I needed were getting a bit unwieldy. Also I like to use the calendar attached to my email, so often my paper diary was not up to date anyway. If you are in a similar position, here’s what I’ve been finding useful about the iPad:

1) My calendar and email can be carried around much more easily. I know a lot of people use their phones for this anyway, but I wanted something separate so that when I am finished with work for the day I can turn it off and not look at it unless I needed to know something urgently. 

2) To do apps. I am a great maker of lists. They allow me to get thoughts written down and out of the way so I can focus on what I am doing at that specific moment. There’s a massive variety of apps for this out there, and I know a lot of people really like Evernote, but I don’t seem to get on with it. I have found Wunderlist to be very good though. It’s simple, allows you to make different lists for different topics, and syncs with your calendar so you can get reminders of when to do things on time limited tasks. It’s helped me be a lot more productive as I can set times for specific tasks and not have to think about what to do next, or what else I need to be prioritising. It also means that my masses of different to do lists are in one place.

3) Blackboard and turnitin apps. Checking if I’ve added something to blackboard is a pain if I’m not already logged in. Having an app means I can find out quickly and easily without having to wait for the computer at my desk to load. The turnitin app means I can mark anywhere too, which is nice, especially as DMU is moving to online marking only within the next year. 

4) Making diagrams. I like to draw out ideas, it helps me to see things in front of me. This is particularly true as one of my research interests is organisational structures, having a diagram is helpful to see what is happening and where. Drawing on the iPad is really easy, and it means diagrams are already digitised. This is particularly nice for soft systems thinking approaches, as the diagrams having a hand drawn, imperfect quality is actually reflective of the overall approach. Drawing them on an iPad means I don’t have to try and scan them, or ask others to grapple with Photoshop for me to make the thing that’s really easy to do on paper appear on a screen. 

5) The notes function. I’ve been keeping track of my ideas in a much more legible way. Rather than having to try and find the right page in my notebook where I put a specific thought, or noted down a thing to do, I can have separate notes for each project, teaching module, or future plans. This means I can find stuff quickly, and so am more likely to follow up on it. 

Those for me have been the best things about getting some form of portable digital device for work. If you’re considering something similar I hope it helps.

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Onward into the academic sea

It’s been quite a while since I last posted. Far too many of my blogs begin in this way, which is a problem really. I’ve been somewhat busy and blogging has taken a backseat of late. In August of last year I started working at De Montfort University as a lecturer and researcher. I’ve been really enjoying this so far, and it’s giving me the opportunity to work on some more research projects, which I will eventually get around to blogging about. But it has meant that a good chunk of my time has been spent in the last few months getting to grips with things at work. However I’m aiming to start posting again more regularly, generally about twice a month is the hope. 

Being post-PhD is quite strange, especially as I’m working with the thesis still; trying to edit some sections into journal articles and such. One of the things I am doing based upon my doctoral research is presenting a paper at the Howard League conference in Oxford next month. I’ll be speaking on the Friday about reshaping youth justice based upon social justice ideals. It should be fun. Also next month I will be heading off into the wild blue yonder and and attending a workshop to develop proposals about young people’s mental health in Bangkok. So I’ll aim to post something about that too.

In the meantime I’ll be looking into apps for academics and university related stuff. So if any of you have tips for the Turnitin or Blackboard apps, please let me know!

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Thematic Analysis: Part 1

The most popular post on this blog is this one, about grounded theory and the emergence of themes. The post where I used Queen lyrics as an example of coding processes is also one of the most read. So, I thought I’d write about thematic analysis as it’s another one of the methods I use often in my research. I often find qualitative methods texts difficult to follow when they talk about the processes for these types of analysis, and find it much easier if there is an example to follow, so that’s what I’m going to do here. As writing about this whole process could get quite lengthy, I’m going to break this up into a series of posts. This is the first, which will introduce what I’m doing.  So first things first, we need some data to work with.

The reason I chose this particular video to work with is because it’s relatively short, and because it is an arranged interview. Previously when I’ve tried out analysis methods to see what they are like I’ve used film scripts as practice data, but I find using actual interviews more useful as it’s not a scripted conversation, but still retains a constructed setting which is similar to what you will get in research interviews. Having natural speech is useful; scripted speech doesn’t tend to have all the “erms”, and pauses, and tripping over words or backtracking that natural speech does, and these things can be recognised by the analysis, so it’s useful to have them in the data. I tend to use a constructionist approach to my work, and so recognising that an interview isn’t a natural setting is important. Interviewees are aware that their answers are going to be analysed and considered in some detail, and this might change what they say or how they say things. Nirvana in particular are a good example of this, in interviews it seems that they are generally uncomfortable with the situation and/or the questions being asked of them, and so don’t play along. Also, I really like Nirvana, and happen to find this particular interview interesting and funny.

The first step for a qualitative analysis is often to transcribe the data. This isn’t always necessary, but I like to have transcriptions for a number of reasons. Firstly, because you really get to know the data through the transcription process. Secondly, it means you have a paper trail of exactly what you worked with, and can show where each code came from (this is also true if you use NVivo). Thirdly, I can send participants a copy of their interview transcript which they can check, clarify any points if they wish, or ask to have certain things removed (important for data protection/retaining anonymity). Finally, I prefer to read information rather than listen to it, so a written transcript is what I like to use. You’ll be spending a lot of time with your data, so knowing what formats work for you is helpful.

Transcription can be a long process, that 15ish minute interview might take me up to an hour to transcribe, and that is just to do a verbatim transcription, not including timing of pauses, marking intonation etc. For this example I’ve transcribed from 1 minute 28 seconds in the video to 3 minutes 54. I’ll use this transcript in the second post to show how I go about the coding process. I’ll still consider the rest of the interview, but for me this takes a slightly different approach. So Part 2 will appear some time next week, and will look at how I code data.

If you want to, you could analyse the same data as me over the next few weeks, and I’ll do a post where everyone’s findings can be compared. If you’re interested in doing that, leave me a comment/message/tweet!

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Rainsbrook, G4S and private prisons

A little while ago there were a few stories in the news, and some outrage in my Twitter feed about Rainsbrook STC’s most recent Ofsted report. It’s come to light that practice in this particular institution is really poor. There have been incidents of staff using racist language towards young people, taking drugs, and generally acting inappropriately in the role of ensuring young people’s safety and rehabilitation. I was not at all surprised when I saw these reports, and I think this may not actually show the whole scale of problems at Rainsbrook. I also think that these issues are unlikely to be isolated to this one facility, and are linked to the staff culture in privately owned prisons.

This is a big claim for me to make, and requires some explanation. I briefly worked at Rainsbrook STC in 2008. I left pretty quickly into starting the job, because some of the things I saw there upset me deeply, to the point where I didn’t feel comfortable working in that environment. For me the breaking point was seeing a young person being physically restrained. I understand that sometimes this may be necessary to prevent a young person from a greater harm, but the use of restraint I saw was in my opinion, unnecessary. There are specific techniques for physical control that staff are trained in at Rainsbrook, tending to focus on restricting a young person’s ability to move. Seeing this in practice shocked me, I felt like I had seen two adults assault a 14-year-old for no reason.

There are guidelines for how and when physical control techniques should be carried out. Restraint should be a last resort, with other approaches to keep a young person calm or resolve a situation used first. Unfortunately, the staff training at the time I was there didn’t focus on these other techniques, but a lot of time was spent on restraint, at the time known as ‘physical control in care’. In addition to the techniques included in the guidelines, our trainers also showed us how to use a particular restraint technique that had been banned. They acknowledged that it should never be used, but showed us how to do it anyway. It’s essentially punching someone in the nose in a way that’s likely to cause a fracture.

I was also surprised by how guidelines and security measures were treated by members of staff. I was told not to bother with security searches by more experienced members of the team, as they were apparently pointless. The culture there wasn’t one of rehabilitating young people, or even recognising that these young people had problems that may have been strongly linked to their behaviour. I know that not everyone will agree with my pretty liberal views about criminal justice, and that other views are equally valid, but I was shocked that in a place that is supposed to be working with young people to help them desist from future offending, they were largely seen as a group of thugs who need to be contained.

Since I left that job, there have been changes in the way physical restraint is used against young people, now called MMPR, which has three levels of techniques: low medium and high. This doesn’t include pain inducing techniques which may be used in certain situations. At Rainsbrook only 3% of MMPR instances used low level techniques. High level techniques were used in 40% of instances. I would have hoped that those figures were the other way around, but I’m not surprised.

I think we need to change the way young people who are detained in custody are perceived and treated. Between April and September 2014 there were 1226 used of force against young people in STCs and YOIs. That’s too much by anyone’s standard.

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Dear Thesis: A Letter From The Other Side

I’ve seen a few Dear Thesis letters before, and they made me smile. Now I’m in the place where I can write one myself, I thought I would. It’s a bit overdramatic, but there you go.

Dear Thesis,

We’ve been together for quite some time now. The past few years have become one of the most important periods of my life; you have changed me, challenged the way I think, and taught me a lot about myself. But it is coming to an end. I was always aware that this wouldn’t last forever, although part of me didn’t really believe that. I was both eager for and terrified of the end, and now we are here. I have submitted, and you are seeing other people.

Looking back over the past three and a half years, there are a lot of things I would have done differently. Mostly about not letting myself become obsessive and withdrawn, not letting myself forget that there is more to my life than a PhD. Little things come to mind too; like making sure I had wrist supports earlier on in the process. I blamed you for my RSI, when really it was my own poor planning and desk set up. Despite all the problems we’ve had, the tears, the paper cuts, the times you just wouldn’t stay in the correct format, I’m happy. I loved writing you Thesis.

I’ve spent a lot of time lately looking back over the book that will be the only record of our time together, the official story if you will. It doesn’t mention all the stress, the hours upon hours of editing and redrafting, or the time I had a mild nervous breakdown in the library, receiving concerned looks from strangers as I failed to repress manic laughter over interview transcripts that weren’t even funny in the first place. I think it’s a good book though. Reading it makes the stress feel, not necessarily worth it, but ok. I’ve survived you Thesis. I’m here at the end of the process, and I feel happy. I’ve learned a lot of things, I’ve realised that I don’t know very much at all despite this, and I understand myself better.

In finishing the writing, and reading everything through, I’m surprised at how you have turned out Thesis. You’re full of ideas, you argue your case well! I don’t know if you will convince other people, but I’m satisfied. The thing that has scared and worried me most throughout this whole process has been uncertainty. I didn’t know if I was doing things right, if you would be good enough. That was harder than the work itself. Now I get to read your final form, in a fancy hard cover book, and yes, I think it is good enough.

Normally when things come to an end I don’t like to talk about it much, I try to move on quickly, seeing what is next. I don’t feel that way this time though, I want to talk about you to people, thinking of you is not painful, or filled with relief, I’m accepting of what has happened. I know you are not perfect, and I know that I could have done things differently, but I’m glad that I created you Thesis. For a long time I’ve thought of you as a thing that dominated my life, overbearing and out of control. I forgot that I was making you happen, I was in control the whole time. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and I know many people forget the struggles of the PhD once they’re past. Even with all the struggles though, I’ve had a great time Thesis, I’d do it all again in a heartbeat. Thank you.

Jess

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Here we go again.

I’ve had a bit of a break from this blog for a while. I finished writing up my thesis and have submitted it. Since then I’ve been taking some time to relax, and remember what it’s like to not constantly worry about if I’ve written enough that day. But I do intend to start blogging more regularly again, so this post is just to say that this blog is not completely abandoned!

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