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Andrea R. OlingerUniversity of Louisville, USA

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Alexander WilliamsUniversity of Louisville, USA

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Davydd J. GreenwoodCornell University, USA

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Barbara Bassot (2020), The Research Journal: A Reflective Tool for Your First Independent Research Project. Bristol: Policy Press, 188 pp., ISBN: 978-1-4473-5278-5

David J. Staley (2019), Alternative Universities: Speculative Design for Innovation in Higher Education. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 268pp., ISBN: 978-1-4214-2741-6

Keyan G. Tomaselli (2021), Contemporary Campus Life: Transformation, Manic Managerialism and Academentia. Cape Town: Best Red, 245pp., ISBN: 978-1-928246-26-8

Barbara Bassot (2020), The Research Journal: A Reflective Tool for Your First Independent Research Project. Bristol: Policy Press, 188 pp., ISBN: 978-1-4473-5278-5

Look at an academic's bookshelf, and you will find texts that provide instruction on designing and conducting studies or that impart guidance on the writing process (e.g. Badenhorst 2010; Carter et al. 2020; Ely et al. 1997; Thomson and Kamler 2016; any SAGE research methods book). The primary intended audience of these texts, however, is early-career researchers and graduate students. Rare is the book devoted to the particular needs of undergraduates, many of whom undertake extended research projects in their final year.

Barbara Bassot's book The Research Journal, part of Policy Press's Research Methods list, amends this absence. The Research Journal is written specifically for undergraduates in the social sciences beginning their first independent research projects, although Bassot suggests that master's students in similar positions might also benefit from the book. Bassot's research interests lie in career guidance and reflective pedagogy, and The Research Journal is her second book on reflective practice after The Reflective Journal (Bassot 2020), now in its third edition. Bassot argues that reflective writing is essential to high-quality and meaningful research; by seeding short instructional chapters with ‘try this’ prompts, she demonstrates how to do this work.

In her introduction to The Research Journal, Bassot discusses the value of writing for learning – namely, that writing helps us ‘gain new insights and develop our understanding’, ‘slow down’ and think more deeply, examine our positionality, practise transparency and record important decisions and details that we might forget later (4). She also emphasises that the research process is recursive and that students should use the book in whatever way makes sense – for instance, by skimming it first and then ‘dip[ping] in and out of it as you see fit’ (3).

Not only does The Research Journal provide reflective prompts for students as they plan, conduct and write about their research, it also serves as a handbook on the research process, with ‘bite-sized content’ (3) on ten themes: ‘journal writing’, ‘making a good start’, ‘time management’, ‘reading for research’, ‘key research terminology’ (presenting concepts related to both quantitative and qualitative research), ‘research ethics’, ‘support and feedback’, ‘research management’, ‘motivation’ and ‘submission and review’. Discussions of those ten themes, along with many short ‘try this’ prompts, compose Part 1 (‘Engaging in the Research Process’) and, at 155 pages, make up the bulk of the book. Part 2 (‘My Research Project’) is significantly shorter (twenty pages) and uses more-extensive reflective prompts to guide students through producing an IMRaD-style (Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion) project: writing the introduction, writing the literature review and methodology sections, analysing data and writing the discussion and conclusion sections. Each chapter closes with ‘top tips’ (e.g. the value of annotated bibliographies, ways to reward oneself for accomplishing goals) or brief case studies. Lined sections for note-taking appear on most pages – indeed, to serve as the journal that students could use for their projects. The book is ideally purchased in hard copy, so that students can take advantage of this feature.

In Part 1, the reflective questions are short and simply have the reader apply the content. For instance, in the theme ‘key research terminology’, the first sub-theme introduces the concepts of methodology, positivism and interpretivism, and its ‘try this’ section recommends: ‘Think about your own research; is its methodology positivist or interpretivist, and why? Now write some notes’ (69).

In Part 2, the balance between instruction and reflection is flipped. The chapter about writing discussion sections consists of a brief introduction and then the following questions:

Go back to the five key texts that you identified in Table 3 on page 57. Now think about how far your research confirms what is discussed there.

Where are the contradictions (things you didn't find)?

Are there any gaps?

Were you surprised by anything you discovered? (170)

This is fine guidance for drafting ideas for the discussion, and I could imagine assigning these questions to students as they attempt a draft of that section.

The undergraduate orientation of Bassot's text is apparent throughout. For example, Bassot references multiple times the reader's concern with getting a good mark. Elsewhere, she advises on keeping the research project manageable, as when she writes that mixed-methods research might be more time-consuming and thus less desirable. She also remarks that, in some cases, a student might do better to write a literature review instead of conducting original research.

Guidance on the writing process is primarily limited to Part 2 of the book. This is understandable given the book's focus on research, but since Bassot is interested in how writing can produce knowledge, not merely communicate it, more emphasis on writing would be a valuable addition. Supervisors could consider supplementing Bassot's book with discussions of writing-related issues that pertain to particular stages of the research project, such as approaches to note-taking (e.g. Single 2010), ‘shitty first drafts’ (Lamott 1995), or revision strategies (e.g. Cayley 2011; Thomson 2017).

Supervisors might also want to engage students in conversations about the discipline-specific nature of writing. In the ‘Submission and Review’ chapter, Bassot reminds readers to ‘make sure your arguments are strong’ by ‘always present[ing] both sides’ (144); in advising students to ‘mind your language’, she directs them to be ‘tentative, not dogmatic’ (144). Research has shown, however, that notions of ‘strong’ argument (Giltrow 2000) and how and when to hedge and boost knowledge claims vary by discipline and sub-discipline (e.g. Hyland 2005; Lancaster 2016). Attending to disciplinary variation is inherently a challenge for a text designed for the social sciences broadly, but given the common misconception that good writing is good writing regardless of context (e.g. Wardle 2017), reflective questions about how students’ own writing experiences and practices are shaped by a mix of contexts – disciplinary, sub-disciplinary, institutional, general academic, as well as personal/idiosyncratic (Thaiss and Zawacki 2006) – would enrich the book's treatment of writing. Supervisors who want to emphasise disciplinarity could assign model journal articles in the sub-discipline to analyse with students; John Swales and Chris Feak's (2012) Academic Writing for Graduate Students offers examples of such tasks of analysis.

Lastly, a feature that could be enhanced in the next edition is the eight journal entries by Alex, a student who, we are told, is studying single-use plastics. The purpose is to give readers an example of a research journal, especially of ‘how the student's understanding develops through the use of journal writing’ (7), but the entries are relatively bland. For example, the chapter on time management has four ‘try this’ prompts: making an initial weekly plan; setting goals that are short- and medium-term; listing tasks that one procrastinates doing, reasons for procrastinating, and ways to overcome it; and mapping out the sections of one's study with estimated word counts. In the journal entry for this chapter, however, Alex devotes two paragraphs to describing how they are ‘terrible at time management’ and declaring that they are feeling stressed and ought to make a plan. Although this is appropriate for a journal entry, it fails to model responses to any of the prompts. The educational value of seeing a model is therefore diluted, and the vicarious pleasure gained from reading someone else's journal, in all its specificity, is lost.

All told, The Research Journal is a handy guide that provides instruction on the research process and scaffolds students’ learning through continual reflective writing. It would make a worthy addition to the library of any undergraduate student who is completing a final-year research project. I would recommend it for students’ independent use as well as for capstone courses that support students through the dissertation research and writing process.

Andrea R. Olinger

Associate Professor of English, University of Louisville

References

  • Badenhorst, C. (2010), Productive Writing: Becoming a Prolific Academic Writer (Pretoria: Van Schaik Publishers).

  • Carter, S., C. Guerin and C. Aitchison (2020), Doctoral Writing: Practices, Processes, Pleasures (Singapore: Springer).

  • Cayley, R. (2011), ‘Committing to extensive revision’, Explorations of Style, 19 January, https://explorationsofstyle.com/2011/01/19/committing-to-extensive-revision/.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ely, M., R. Vinz, M. Downing and M. Anzul (1997), On Writing Qualitative Research: Living by Words (London: Falmer Press).

  • Giltrow, J. (2000), ‘“Argument” as a term in talk about student writing’, in S. Mitchell and R. Andrews (eds), Learning to Argue in Higher Education (Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Heinemann), 129145.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hyland, K. (2005), ‘Stance and engagement: A model of interaction in academic discourse’, Discourse Studies 7, no. 2: 173192. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461445605050365.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lamott, A. (1995), Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (New York: Anchor Books).

  • Lancaster, Z. (2016), ‘Using corpus results to guide the discourse-based interview: A study of one student's awareness of stance in academic writing in philosophy’, Journal of Writing Research 8, no. 1: 119148. https://doi.org/10.17239/jowr-2016.08.01.04.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Single, P. B. (2010), Demystifying Dissertation Writing: A Streamlined Process from Choice of Topic to Final Text (Sterling, VA: Stylus).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Swales, J. M. and C. B. Feak (2012), Academic Writing for Graduate Students: Essential Tasks and Skills, 3rd ed. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Thaiss, C. and T. M. Zawacki (2006), Engaged Writers, Dynamic Disciplines: Research on the Academic Writing Life (Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Heinemann).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Thomson, P. (2017), ‘Avoiding the laundry list literature review’, Patter, 11 September, https://patthomson.net/2017/09/11/avoiding-the-laundry-list-literature-review/.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Thomson, P. and B. Kamler (2016), Detox Your Writing: Strategies for Doctoral Researchers (New York: Routledge).

  • Wardle, E. (2017), ‘There is no such thing as writing in general’, in C. E. Ball and D. M. Loewe (eds), Bad Ideas about Writing (Morgantown: West Virginia University Libraries Digital Publishing Institute), 3033.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

David J. Staley (2019), Alternative Universities: Speculative Design for Innovation in Higher Education. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 268pp., ISBN: 978-1-4214-2741-6

Universities suffer from a lack of imagination when it comes to their transformation. ‘The problem’, as Richard Staley argues in Alternative Universities: Speculative Design for Innovation in Higher Education, ‘is not that universities are lacking in innovation, but rather that they suffer from a poverty of imagination of what that innovation might be’ (12). He offers ten such ideas, organised into four categories of innovation for the university: its organisation, such as splitting up a typical institution into a multitude of self-operating micro-colleges; the student–teacher relationship, such as a Nomad University that exists wherever students work and travel; interaction with technology, such as an Interface University that leverages AI and machine learning to deliver a curriculum; and the institution's attributes, such as a Polymath University where interdisciplinarity is the rule, not the exception. Staley distinguishes these ten concepts of true innovation from ephemeral innovation. Ephemeral innovation is a change in the university's transactions, the short-term and surface-level improvements in which universities engage to better appeal to their markets. Examples of this include a website redesign, a building renovation or a new marketing slogan. He juxtaposes this with true innovation as a change in the university's purpose, a deeper and more lasting innovation. Each of the ten concepts represents such a deeper, more intrinsic change.

In presenting his analysis of the problem and proposing remedies, Staley seeks to disrupt our usual way of thinking, to short-circuit our traditional approaches by presenting radical concepts. Underlying this purpose is an appeal to generate ideas, rather than just constantly evaluating them. He challenges readers to imagine what universities might look like, outlining for us concepts that radically redefine, redesign and rethink the traditional university. Staley accompanies each idea with a historical precedent, normalising the radical concepts he shares so that we, the readers, might treat them as being familiar rather than foreign.

In laying out his arguments, Staley presents certain ideas that might be familiar to the research community but that are still worth highlighting. First is the notion of a ‘feasible utopia’, a concept Staley borrows from higher education philosopher Ronald Barnett (2017) and which he uses as a framework for constructing his concepts. Referencing Barnett's work, Staley outlines how a ‘feasible utopia’ contains four features: first, they are utopias and therefore not likely to be fully established; second, they are feasible, as evidenced by existing establishments; third, they are at once optimistic in their possibility and pessimistic in their probability; and fourth, they are not necessarily good or beneficial, but rather neutral concepts. Barnett completes his outline of the four criteria for a feasible utopia by observing that ‘dystopias lurk within utopias’ (2017: 27), reminding us that we must constantly seek to perfect utopias in order to avoid them devolving into dystopias. Each of Staley's concepts espouses these four features, including the pervasive threat of the lurking dystopia.

A second big idea for Staley is ‘speculative design’, an application of which is the use of the word ‘concept’. He uses the metaphor of a model car to make his point: sometimes a designer creates a concept for a car that is too radical to be efficient or marketable; yet the point of presenting that model is not to argue that it should be duly adopted and built, but rather to spur the thinking of the design team. So it is with universities: the speculative design approach that Staley adopts is not necessarily to argue that each of these ten concepts should be built exactly as he outlines (although he does maintain that they should germinate into realistic offerings), but rather to stretch and challenge the imagination. The disruption to thinking comes from the act of presenting and considering the speculative designs, not just in the actual building of them.

About halfway through the book, I began to imagine three types of audiences for whom it might be particularly valuable. I first saw a professor assigning this book to a higher education administration graduate course, in order to put a fuse to their students’ imagination. I next envisioned a higher education leader – say, a vice-president of student affairs – reading this book with their team at an annual retreat and discussing how they, in turn, might generate new ideas for their division. Finally, with a rise in the friction between new boards and new presidents, I saw reading the book as a way for a new board member to better empathise with an innovative president – or, for a president wanting to better understand a newly appointed board pining for innovation.

Staley surfaces ideas that are strange, uncomfortable and compelling. He presents them in a way that is clear enough to follow and simple enough to envision. As I finished Alternative Universities, I was left wondering: What comes next, both for these concepts individually and as a collective? What value does each create, and who determines this value? Who benefits from each concept, and how? What does a minimally viable version of each concept look like, and what do we need to begin to build them? The work of building feasible utopias and transforming higher education does not end with this book, but for the open-minded sceptic, it is a good place to start.

Alexander Williams

Doctoral Candidate, Department of Educational Leadership, Evaluation and Organizational Development, University of Louisville

Reference

Barnett, R. (2017), The Ecological University: A Feasible Utopia (London: Routledge).

Keyan G. Tomaselli (2021), Contemporary Campus Life: Transformation, Manic Managerialism and Academentia. Cape Town: Best Red, 245pp., ISBN: 978-1-928246-26-8

This book consists of eleven chapters combining ethnography, diverse higher education institutions, administrative behaviours, the audit culture and the role of universities all set in the historical processes affecting both South Africa and higher education globally.

Tomaselli is a highly accomplished scholar with thirteen authored, co-authored or co-edited books and scores of articles with a focus on cultural and media studies, critical Indigenous research methodology and development communication, along with numerous presentations and research projects. In a way, this book is an epitome of one academic life, a review and sewing together of an enormous range of academic and political experiences that become a synthesis of the pathologies of contemporary higher education and some hopes for the future.

The book is remarkably ethnographic in orientation, in that that much of the critique and analysis of higher education is based on structural and process elements that he puts into behaviourally observable scenarios, Tomaselli calls the current scene ‘academentia’: ‘These new conditions have created the ailment of “academentia” that describes a state of manic managerialism that turns creative and intellectual labour into stressed factory workers who have lost their once entrenched institutional policymaking rights’ (8). At the same time, it is written in a voice of irony and anger tempered by a kind of humour that humanises the failings of the system and its denizens. The resulting critique, which is unstinting and edgy, is not cruel or demoralising. There is a ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ feeling to the text, but this time written from inside the belly of the beast rather than from the position of a spectator. This positioning gives the text a startlingly clear, empirical voice that is missing in many critiques.

The book is built almost entirely around South African examples and experiences, and keeping track of who is who and where different institutions are is necessary. Yet what is most striking is that despite the social, historical and political differences the core problems of the denaturing of higher education seem identical to what we see in North America, Europe and Australia. If anything demonstrates that neoliberal neo-Taylorism in higher education is a product of global capitalism, it is this book that shows how the same dynamics play out in a context whose initial conditions are very different.

The positionality of the author is a key to the engaging dynamics of the book. When I was a child, my parents were very fond of a book series called ‘The Watchbirds’ by Munro Leaf. The basic premise was that there were two birds watching what I, the child, was doing. One was watching the child in the drawing doing something wrong and the other was watching ‘me’, the reader, to see if I got the lesson. Tomaselli's text brought this long-forgotten series of children's books to mind because he occupies the two positions, showing himself engaged in the very messes he portrays and then turning the lens back on the reader to both make sense of this and to take a position in favour of greater human flourishing.

Analytically, the book covers neoliberal educational policy and practice in the context of global capitalism and the legacies of colonialism both between and within countries. The ethnographic vignettes are wonderful, and the reader gets the feeling that Tomaselli has lived five or six academic lives of frenetic activity in many locations. This gives the narratives both texture and a sense of generalisability. Indeed, once the reader has a sort of handle on the locations, acronyms and policies, the unfamiliar becomes all too familiar.

If this sounds too serious to bear, I want to provide some examples of Tomaselli's writing to persuade the reader that while it may be medicine, the medicine tastes very good indeed:

My storytelling style is best characterised as that of a griot. The word ‘griot’ comes from the French for a West African poet, praise singer and wandering musician, who is considered a repository of oral tradition. Griots are sometimes called bards and in South Africa, izimbongi. Though the griot memorises many traditional songs, s/he must also extemporise on current events, chance incidents and the passing scene. (10)

In taking this position, Tomaselli both changes from the voice of a spectator to that of a combined analyst, parodist and stakeholder all in one:

One cannot just check out of Hotel Academentia, whether one is in the United States or South Africa. The catharsis of storytelling is the only respite offered. (48)

Tomaselli's acid prose is a pleasure to read. For example, ‘one of the corollaries of Murphy's First Law is that “it is impossible to make anything fool proof because fools are so ingenious”’. It is hard to convey the pleasure of reading his biting analyses in a short review. But beyond satire and irony, there is much more to the analysis that leads us in the direction of substantive hope. He asserts that ‘while academentia exists, the condition can be navigated, reined in and critically examined. And making sense of it, appropriating it constructively and sometimes taming it can even be fun’ (223).

His analysis of organisation, authoritarianism and true leadership is as good as I have seen anywhere. For example:

The media are quick to label brutal dictators as ‘strong men’. In fact, they are weak men who cannot rule without violence, as they are unable to earn respect, govern through consent or lead by example. The real strong men and women are those who stand up to corruption and brutality; they take on its perpetrators, no matter what the cost is to them personally. (100)

His views on real leadership are extraordinarily clear, if routinely violated in academic and political practice. For Tomaselli, leaders:

  1. put institutions first, not last;
  2. represent their constituencies through hard gritty work, they do not ignore them, repress them or exploit them;
  3. lead by example, do not expect freebies, hand-outs and entitlement;
  4. encourage the social dialectic, consider alternatives, debate syntheses and consult to find the best solutions;
  5. have integrity; they cannot be bought, bullied or broken;
  6. have vision; they can see the consequences of a decision before the rest of us can even see the problems on the horizon;
  7. take long-term views and resist short-term expediency;
  8. give respect and they earn respect. They do not ‘command’ respect;
  9. surround themselves with better leaders; they ensure smooth succession and stability;
  10. are not narcissistic, not self-absorbed, not selfish or lusting after sycophancy, but have integrity, vision and presence;
  11. facilitate discussion, consensus and outcomes that serve the greater good; and
  12. do not expect to get rich, but to rather enrich the practices. (100–101)

Tomaselli is not just an organisational analyst but also a teacher with a well-developed practice orientation that routinely puts him at odds with academic administrators:

Though many departments take their students off campus for practical exercises, I was once threatened with disciplinary action because I had dared to vacate the concrete neon-lit, airless classroom that resembled a prison and head into the bush to work with the !Xoo in Botswana, as we had been doing for eight years. My so-called line manager, of a much lower rank, harangued me, telling me that the university offers a ‘service’ to students that requires that we remain in the classroom at all times, teach out of a book that someone else has written and treat students as ‘clients’. This from a self-proclaimed postmodernist. Well, the students told him off. He whimpered back to his swimming pool. (142)

This is a small sample of what is an engrossing analysis. It will make you laugh and weep, and above all it will make you think.

Davydd J. Greenwood

Goldwin Smith Professor of Anthropology Emeritus, Cornell University

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Learning and Teaching

The International Journal of Higher Education in the Social Sciences

  • Badenhorst, C. (2010), Productive Writing: Becoming a Prolific Academic Writer (Pretoria: Van Schaik Publishers).

  • Carter, S., C. Guerin and C. Aitchison (2020), Doctoral Writing: Practices, Processes, Pleasures (Singapore: Springer).

  • Cayley, R. (2011), ‘Committing to extensive revision’, Explorations of Style, 19 January, https://explorationsofstyle.com/2011/01/19/committing-to-extensive-revision/.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ely, M., R. Vinz, M. Downing and M. Anzul (1997), On Writing Qualitative Research: Living by Words (London: Falmer Press).

  • Giltrow, J. (2000), ‘“Argument” as a term in talk about student writing’, in S. Mitchell and R. Andrews (eds), Learning to Argue in Higher Education (Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Heinemann), 129145.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hyland, K. (2005), ‘Stance and engagement: A model of interaction in academic discourse’, Discourse Studies 7, no. 2: 173192. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461445605050365.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lamott, A. (1995), Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (New York: Anchor Books).

  • Lancaster, Z. (2016), ‘Using corpus results to guide the discourse-based interview: A study of one student's awareness of stance in academic writing in philosophy’, Journal of Writing Research 8, no. 1: 119148. https://doi.org/10.17239/jowr-2016.08.01.04.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Single, P. B. (2010), Demystifying Dissertation Writing: A Streamlined Process from Choice of Topic to Final Text (Sterling, VA: Stylus).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Swales, J. M. and C. B. Feak (2012), Academic Writing for Graduate Students: Essential Tasks and Skills, 3rd ed. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Thaiss, C. and T. M. Zawacki (2006), Engaged Writers, Dynamic Disciplines: Research on the Academic Writing Life (Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Heinemann).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Thomson, P. (2017), ‘Avoiding the laundry list literature review’, Patter, 11 September, https://patthomson.net/2017/09/11/avoiding-the-laundry-list-literature-review/.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Thomson, P. and B. Kamler (2016), Detox Your Writing: Strategies for Doctoral Researchers (New York: Routledge).

  • Wardle, E. (2017), ‘There is no such thing as writing in general’, in C. E. Ball and D. M. Loewe (eds), Bad Ideas about Writing (Morgantown: West Virginia University Libraries Digital Publishing Institute), 3033.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Barnett, R. (2017), The Ecological University: A Feasible Utopia (London: Routledge).

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