Dr Richard Davies, co-convenor of SRHE’s Academic Practice network, ran a network event on 26 January 2022 ‘What makes a good SRHE Conference abstract?’. A regular reviewer for the SRHE Conference, Richard also asked colleagues what they look for in a good paper for the conference and shared the findings in a well-attended event.
Writing a submission for a conference is a skill – distinct from writing for journals or public engagement. It is perhaps most like an erudite blog. In the case of the SRHE conference, you have 750 words to show the reviewer that your proposed presentation is (a) worth conference delegates’ attention, and (b) a better fit for this conference than others (we get more submissions than the conference programme can accommodate so it is a bit competitive!).
Think of it as a short paper, not an abstract
It is difficult to summarise a 5-6000 word paper in 750 words and cover literature, methodology, data and findings. As a reviewer, I often find myself unsatisfied with the result. It is better to think of this as a short paper, that you can present in 15 minutes at the conference. This means focussing on a specific element of your study which can be communicated in 750 words and following the argument of that focus through precise methodology, a portion of your data, and final conclusions. Sure, tell the reviewers this is part of a large study, but you are focusing on a specific element of it. The short paper will then, if well written, be clear and internally coherent. If I find a submission is neither clear nor coherent, then I would usually suggest rejecting because if I cannot make sense of it then I will assume delegates will not be able to as well.
Practical point: get a friend or colleague to read the short paper – do they understand what you are saying? They don’t have to be an expert in higher education or even research. As reviewers, most of us regularly read non-UK English texts, as an international society we are not expecting standard English – just clarity to understand the points the author is making. Whether UK-based or international, we are not experts in different countries’ higher education systems and so do not assume the reviewer’s prior knowledge of the higher education system you are discussing
Although we work to a set of criteria, as with most academic work, there is an element of judgement, and reviewers take a view of your submission as a whole. We want to know: will this be of interest to SRHE conference delegates? Will it raise questions and stimulate discussion? In my own area of philosophy of education, a submission might be philosophically important but not explicitly about higher education; as a result I would tend to suggest it be rejected. It might be suitable for a conference but not this conference.
Practical point: check you are explicitly talking about higher education and how your paper addresses an interesting area of research or practice. Make sure the link is clear – don’t just assume the reviewers will make the connection. Even if we can, we will be wary of suggesting acceptance.
Checking against the criteria
The ‘Call for Papers’ sets out the assessment criteria against which we review submissions. As a reviewer, I read the paper and form a broad opinion, I then review with a focus on each specific criterion. Each submission is different and will meet each criterion (or not) in a different way and to varying degrees. As a reviewer, I interpret the criterion in the light of the purpose and methodology of the submission. As well as clarity and suitability for the conference, I also think about the rigour with which it has been written. This includes engagement with relevant literature, the methodology/methods and the quality of the way the data (if any) are used. I want to know that this paper builds on previous work but adds some original perspective and contribution. I want to know that the study has been conducted methodically and that the author has deliberated about it. Where there are no data, either because it is not an empirical study or the paper reports the initial phases of what will be an empirical study, I want to know that the author’s argument is reasonable and illuminates significant issues in higher education.
Practical point: reviewers use the criteria to assess and ‘score’ submissions. It is worth going through the criteria and making sure that you are sure that it is clear how you have addressed each one. If you haven’t got data yet, then say so and say why you think the work is worth presenting at this early stage.
SRHE welcomes submissions from all areas of research and evaluation in higher education, not just those with lots of data! Each submission is reviewed by two people and then moderated, and further reviewed, if necessary, by network convenors – so you are not dependent on one reviewer’s assessment. Reviewers aim to be constructive in their feedback and to uphold the high standard of presentations we see at the conference, highlighting areas of potential improvement for both accepted and rejected submissions.
Finally, the SRHE conference does receive more submissions than can be accepted, and so some good papers don’t make it. Getting rejected is not a rejection of your study (or you); sometimes it is about clarity of the submission, and sometimes it is just lack of space at the conference.
Dr Richard Davies is an academic, educationalist and informal educator. He is primarily concerned with helping other academics develop their research on teaching and learning in higher education. His own research is primarily in philosophical approaches to higher educational policy and practice. He co-convenes SRHE’s AP (Academic Practice) Network – you can find out more about the network by clicking here.
The call for papers for the SRHE 2019 Conference slid into my inbox not so long ago, marking the point in the year when the mind must focus in the short-term, in order to benefit from all things Celtic Manor in the longer term! The conference theme: Creativity, Criticality and Conformity in Higher Education invites debate on transcending the traditional and building an innovative research culture. The theme is timely in view of my own recent experiments involving graphics and poetry in social sciences research.
One year ago, I sat with a mass of rich qualitative
data I’d collected for Gender(s) At Work,
a research project investigating gendered experiences of work and career
trajectory in higher education (HE). I’d interviewed 50 members of staff,
identifying as female, male and gender non-binary, working in academic and
professional services roles within one UK university. I set about analysing the
data using Massey’s theory of geographies of power operating within space. I
wanted to explore ways in which gender operates as a ‘geography of power’ within
HE and the extent to which participants’ diverse and complex lived experiences
trouble the prevailing career narrative of linear, upward trajectory.
Clear space soon emerged
between the rhetoric of gender equality and lived experiences in the workplace
and throughout working lives. Despite decades of equal opportunities
legislation and institutional equality policies, the glass ceiling remains a
feature of our sector. Elements of less familiar career archetypes: the glass cliff
(Ryan and Haslam, 2005; Bruckmuller et al,
2014); the glass escalator (Williams, 2013; Budig, 2002) and the glass closet (Merriam-Webster,
2018) also surfaced in the transcripts. These
metaphors, archetypal and architectural – were something of a gift to a
researcher concerned with the relationship between space and power. I found
myself experimenting – you might call it doodling – with visual representations
of the glass ceiling, escalator, cliff and closet.
Using the visual was not completely new territory
for me; as a doctoral student I had employed visual mapping as a research tool (Carruthers
Thomas, 2018a) and tentatively used abstract diagrams as aids to explaining my
theoretical framework and findings (Thomas, 2016), but I hadn’t picked up a
pencil with intent since school art lessons. Nevertheless, four cartoon characters
emerged from my doodles; embodiments of gendered dis/advantage in the HE
Throughout the Gender(s) At Work project, I had been disseminating emerging findings through conference papers and PowerPoint presentations. I had written a chapter about my research methodology (Carruthers Thomas, 2019a). As academics we anticipate and reproduce such formats; they keep the academic wheels turning and form the building blocks of academic credibility. With data collection complete however, I was unsure that the temporal and structural constraints of these conventions were going to do justice to the volume of complex personal narratives entrusted to me by research participants. I was also becoming increasingly drawn towards McLure’s argument for
immersion in and entanglement with the
minutiae of the data … an experimentation or crafting … a very different kind
of engagement with data from the distanced contemplation of the table that is
the arrested result of the process.
(McLure, 2013: 174-175).
In March 2018, the Sociological Review explicitly
invited unconventional contributions to its conference: Undisciplining: Conversations from the Edges. Still enjoying my
experimentation with cartooning, I decided to explore the possibilities of
communicating my research findings through a ‘graphic essay’ entitled My Brilliant Career? An Investigation.
This would be in the format of a large-scale, hand-drawn comic strip conforming
to the structural conventions of an essay or article. My proposal was accepted
and the work began! The learning curve was precipitous!
In June 2018, I exhibited My Brilliant Career? An Investigation at Undisciplining (Carruthers Thomas, 2018b) in the impressive
surroundings of BALTIC Gateshead. The four A2-sized panels remained on display throughout
the three days of the conference. It was strikingly different, communicating my
research this way rather than hothousing it in a 20 minute Powerpoint presentation.
Many delegates returned to the exhibit several times to look, bring colleagues,
take photographs, ask questions. I engaged in discussions not only about the
medium, but about the research process and findings too. And I myself engaged
anew with the work, as an exhibit, rather than a cherished work in progress. I later
translated the four panels into an A1-sized academic poster, displayed at the
SRHE 2018 Annual Conference.
Meanwhile, another call for unconventional conference
contributions in the form of poetic and performative work, had come from the Art
of Management and Organisation (AoMO). This triggered a second experiment in
creative criticality resulting in Glass,
a long poem also based on the Gender(s)
At Work data. Unlike graphic art, in poetry I do have a track record (Carruthers
Thomas, 2018c), but had not considered blurring the boundary between poetry and
academia until this call. Yet, as an academic my research practice involves
collecting, analysing, distilling and presenting data. My research is a form of
enquiry seeking enhanced intelligence and evidence to advocate organisational,
structural and cultural change. As a poet, I follow a similar process to create
a poem. More, or less, consciously I collect data: ideas, questions, emotions,
sense phenomena, then manipulate language and sound to distil the data into
poetic form. Glass brings these
To write it, I returned yet again to the interview
transcripts, creating a poem comprising four sections – ceiling, escalator, closet and cliff
– using participants’ words and a narrative framework featuring the
researcher’s voice, using original poetry. Glass
was deliberately written as a piece to be performed, another first, as I
had only previously written poems for the page.
Even now, even now in my meetings
I’m still faced with wall to wall suits.
And I still hear my colleagues repeating
the proposal I tried to get through weeks ago
(extract from Cliff, Glass 2018)
My Brilliant Career were created
independently of one another, in different media but they draw on the same
research data. This is not all they share. Both involved an extended process of
analysis and representation; repeated revisiting of the data and work in
painstaking detail. Both explicitly draw on and draw in, the affective,
bringing the potential for surprise, humour, anger and pain into the room
without apology. Finally, both also required me to allow myself to be
vulnerable to audience resistance, discomfort, critiques on multiple levels and
questions of academic validity.
Largely positive responses to the graphic essay and
the research poem at those conferences set me thinking about ways to signpost
the potential of creative approaches in social science research more widely and
led to another experiment in academic practice.
I designed a multi-modal dissemination programme to take the findings of
Gender(s) At Work out to UK
universities and research institutes.
The programme featured six ‘options’ from which host institutions could
select, mix and match: the exhibit My
Brilliant Career? An Investigation; the research poem Glass; a conventional Powerpoint presentation of the research
findings: The Workplace Glassed and
Gendered and another giving an illustrated account of my emerging graphic
social science practice: The Accidental
Cartoonist. Building on both the research findings and visual methods, I also
designed two participative workshops. Mapping
Career challenged participants to develop meaningful visual alternatives to
the reductive metaphors of career ladder and pipeline and On The Page explored the way simple visual and graphic methods might
be used in research and teaching. I publicised the programme via email across
the UK HE sector.
The response was extraordinary. Since November 2018
I’ve visited universities and research institutes from Edinburgh to London;
Cambridge to Bangor. Audiences have included academics in all disciplines,
professional services staff, senior management, conference delegates, Athena
SWAN teams, women’s networks and mentoring groups, postgraduate and
undergraduate students. I called the initiative the ‘gword tour’ after my blog the g word (that’s g for gender).
Six months, 30 ‘gigs’ – all that’s missing is the T-shirt!
One day I might be discussing Gender(s) At Work aims, research methods and findings to Athena SWAN
leads and women’s networks; on another I’ll be delivering the Mapping Career workshop at a staff
conference. I’ve presented The Accidental
Cartoonist to academic developers and EdD students and encouraged academics
to experiment with visual methods in their research and teaching practices in
the On The Page workshop. Glass has been performed at some
unlikely venues, including the Wellcome Sanger Genome Campus, the Stansted
Airport Novotel – and to audiences somewhat larger than those at the average
How will you crack the glass enclosing some,
exposing some, blinding others
to their privilege?
Reflect on it.
from Epilogue, Glass 2018)
Throughout the gword tour I have diligently handed
out structured feedback forms (in return for a free postcard), providing me
with a continuous feedback loop and resulting in adaptation and tweaking of
individual sessions throughout. Now the tour has concluded, a large pile of
completed forms await me and I’m looking forward to getting the bigger picture.
Meanwhile I’m already musing on two questions which have arisen throughout the
past year. Firstly, whether and how addressing familiar topics through
unfamiliar media can disrupt audience expectations and dislodge habitual
responses to tricky subjects such as gender equality; secondly, whether what I
have described in this blog constitutes being ‘differently academic’.
By ‘differently academic’ I mean taking the
opportunity to sit with our data for longer, deliberately to approach it from
different angles, to explore its creative dimensions. I mean bringing data to
diverse audiences, in diverse ways over an extended period, a process which has
only further energised and deepened my engagement in the original research questions.
Audience after audience has grilled me on my research rationale, process,
findings, limitations and implications. Each time, their questions, comments
and challenges have pushed my analyses further and opened new lines of enquiry.
I fully intend to
publish my reflections on these questions in conventional academic formats: papers,
articles and chapters.It may be that
creative, critical work in our field can only
gain academic legitimacy through this route.Meanwhile, other opportunities have arisen. Glass was published in the Sociological
Fiction Zine in May 2019 (Carruthers Thomas, 2019b). I am currently working
on a set of visuals for a new academic research centre and will be
poet-in-residence at an academic conference in November 2019. The SRHE call for
papers defines creativity as ‘transcending traditional ideas, rules, patterns,
relationships’. I hope to continue to be creative and critical in my academic
work, not for transcending’s sake, but ‘to create meaningful new ideas, forms,
methods, and interpretations’.
McLure, M (2013) ‘Classification or
Wonder? Coding as an Analytic Practice in Qualitative Research’, In Coleman, R
and Ringrose, J (eds) Deleuze and
Research Methodologies, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Chapter 9. pp.164-183.