It’s all about the coffee

coffee cup

When I first attended university in the early seventies, my university celebrated the fact that it added a coffee shop into the union building. This was admittedly after they had negotiated to have a bar on site. At my current university there are so many coffee shops it appears like the central business district. The range and choice is important, as having lived in Melbourne, Australia I had grown to love the taste and social value of coffee. It did not take me long at my new university to fall into a routine of visiting the same coffee shop at around about the same time each day. That is also about routines but that is another story!

Recently I changed coffee shops! I was thinking about this shift in my very routine practice while swimming laps of the pool to start off my day. This may have also been a conscious effort to think about something other than my PhD or my swimming!… and without consciously making the segway I realised I was starting to think of something that was quite foundational to undertaking a research degree. The reality is that whatever you do when you are doing a PhD, the PhD is not far you’re your mind. What started out as a swim, then musing about a changed coffee shop allegiance eventually ended up as thinking about research.

If you are a regular reader of this blog you may well ask yourself what has coffee got to do with research or for that matter a contribution to knowledge?

As I thought about my shift in coffee taking practices I realised it that underneath this innocuous change of practice was a set of criteria on which I was basing and making my choices. In terms of reflective practice (Schön, 1983) it was part of the way I framed my practice, albeit my coffee drinking practice. As I thought about why I had changed outlets I became aware of several criteria on which I was judging ‘goodness’ in coffee taking:

  1. The new coffee shop was a little further but I justified the extra walk as working off whatever calories might come from the muffin I had with my coffee.
  2. The new coffee shop was slightly less expensive. We are only talking cents but these add up when you are taking coffee every day. The change I got at the new coffee shop was exactly the change I needed for the next day’s parking metre.
  3. The queues were not as long at the new coffee shop.

Looking deeper at these factors they involved fiscal and time indicators!
You may still be asking how is this relevant to a research student?.

The parallel I see is that everything that you do in a research degree has connection to performance indicators about good research. When you begin to realise the role of performance indicators in something as ritualistic as taking coffee, it may make it easier to recognise the performance indicators in other aspects of your research degree.
Rarely are students helped to understand what the ‘good’ in ‘good research’ is based on. Until you understand about this goodness, whatever you do is like playing a goal kicking game but not being clear where the goals are located. A good curriculum for research students involves early illumination of what a particular discipline or school considers to be ‘good’ research so that the student knows how to aim for ‘good’.

Given that this is a blog predominantly for research supervisors, it is important for me to go the next step and look at how does this matter for the research supervisor.
Conversations about ‘goodness’ are the core of research discussions. They are not always easy to initiate and if you can ground them in something practical, such as where and why a student may change their coffee outlet, then you can also emphasise how these notions of ‘goodness’ are both variable and at the very heart of research practice.

Recently I attended a PhD colloquium designed to provide a platform for research students to voice their various research projects and obtain feedback from fellow students and academic staff. The key note speaker was an editor from one of the A star journals and he was talking about ‘good’ academic writing. He was advocating a position about ‘good research’ that it was what gets published in A star journals. This really clashed with my own views on good research which were about rigorous and accessible research. I started to wonder whether the ‘good’ research agenda had been hijacked by the related publication agenda. It further incensed me that as the speaker talked about publication, again he defined this as publication in the A* journals. I thought how far we had moved from the notion of double blind review by your peers which resonated with the long held (Medieval and monastic) tradition of a scholar sharing their ideas publicly and answering the challenges of all comers.

It comes back to coffee. How easy it is to shift allegiance from one outlet to another. Once the real performance indicators and potential values are revealed, if not leading to a shift in paradigm, it may help a student recognise where there is dissonance for them through a conflict of core beliefs!

Schön, D. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner: How professionals think in action. U.S.A., Basic Books.

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About the (research) supervisor's friend

I work at a university helping university academics who are supervising research students. I am a research supervisor myself and also work as a research coach for people undertaking their research I was originally in a Management Faculty and when I completed my doctoral studies on 'doing a doctorate' I started working with research supervisors to help them improve their practice.
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