Course coordinator

My planning for the autumn started early this year—around the beginning of April. It started with an introduction to ‘my’ course. In September  I’ll be the course coordinator for the first time, for a course called Technological Development from a Societal Perspective. Last year I was the seminar leader for this course; this year I’m also doing some of the lectures, workshops about essay writing, and the administrative side too.

The first step was to meet our department’s study director to talk about some basic course information, such as last year’s course evaluation and the budget. The budget? That’s to cover the ‘cost’ of my time, other teachers, and classrooms. Some of it that is understandable; for example, it costs more if a professor teaches a course than if a PhD student teaches it. The classroom cost makes a bit of sense, because programs with more class time have to pay more for rent and maintenance. But it’s silly too, because I make the schedule before the rooms are booked so no one can tell me what they actually cost until afterwards.

My biggest surprise about being on this side of the classroom is how little time there is for preparation. I have to interpret the course outline, which doesn’t change from year to year, and prepare lectures and seminars. There is only so much time for each part of the course. For example, I get 6 hours of prep time for each two hour lecture. If I spend more time on it, it comes out of my time for research—or my evenings or weekends.

When I went to university, my classes were taught by professors who had done the same course for years. But they were professors with stable jobs, with contracts for at least for 5 years and often tenure for life. That’s certainly not how it is for a PhD student here! And not even after, because a career my field in Sweden often starts with a PhD, then a post doc, then some junior contract positions…and even then a full professorship isn’t a given.

That’s all to say that it’s a challenge to teach if you don’t have a stable employment status. It doesn’t mean that I can’t prepare for my lectures, but it does mean that I have to see some of it as an investment in my teaching resume. I will have some long days in September. But on the other hand, it is usually inspiring to meet students and teach and it’s nice to get away from my computer monitor for a while.

Photo of the campus in Norrköping, where I will be teaching, by Peter Modin. (C) Linköpings universitet.

What am I writing about?

Sometimes I don’t have a lot to show for a full day of ‘writing,’ as I usually call it. I have been spending a lot of time writing for the past couple months, now that I am almost done all my interviews. What I’ve learned so far is that writing is easiest when I’m well-rested and have several hours uninterrupted—a full day or two is best. But no matter what, I still find myself wondering “what am I writing about?”

When talking about my research,  I usually explain that I’m working on smart cities. Hyllie, the part of Malmö that I’m studying, is advertised as ‘climate-smart’. And there are lots of academic journal articles about smart cities that raise interesting questions for Hyllie. What is the role of international privately-owned companies? Is there a focus on technology even when other solutions to environmental problems might be better?

I might try to answer those kinds of questions, which have an empirical focus, or I could write with a theoretical focus instead. Working with social science theory is about coming up with new ways to look at problems. In my research, there are different theories about how infrastructural change happens in cities. Are macro-economic change and environmental issues the most important factors? Would greenhouse gas emissions sort themselves out if we just had a carbon tax? Can city governments encourage change even if they don’t have regulatory power over the energy system?

One of the starting points for my research was to study the role of visions in urban change. For example, when the city government and an energy company create a 10-year vision for a city district—do they create a detailed plan? Do they get criticized for being vague? Or does being vague help to attract the support of other companies and other levels of government, each with their own intentions? When I write an article with a theoretical focus, I try to come up with concepts that help to explain how visions affect urban change in Malmö.

I’m only now deciding what to write about because those decisions were hard to make earlier in my project. As with most of my colleagues, my research project has been inductive. I started out with a general focus and found a case to study in Malmö. The more I learn about what is happening there, the easier it is to focus my research. This type of social science research isn’t based on hypothesis testing. Before getting started with my interviews, choosing a hypothesis would be a shot in the dark. It wouldn’t make for very interesting research.

Writing isn’t just about typing words into my computer. It’s about re-reading my interviews, analysing them, coding them, comparing interesting things with previous research, and trying to formulate a purpose for my article that makes it all fit together. It’s a very iterative process and there are lots of ideas that get scratched. Sometimes, after a frustrating day, ideas come to be while making dinner. Despite all my efforts to plan my work and stay organized, this stage of my research also depends a lot on having some flow.

‘keyboard’ photo by Timothy Vollmer on Flickr


Someone asked me this morning how much time I have left in my PhD studies. That’s way people seem to ask me these days, instead of “when did you start?” On paper I will defend my thesis in spring 2018, but that date gets pushed back for every day I spend teaching. I did the math in my head and realized that I’m pretty much at the halfway point.

That’s halfway in terms of time, anyhow. In terms of tasks, it’s hard to compare the first year (taking courses, trying to figure out a starting point for my research) with the last year (writing articles, responding to review comments…eventually planning my thesis defence party). I can tell though that I’ve come to a new phase in my project. Now that I’ve done a big chunk of my interviews, my work feels much more focused.

My main task for March is to write a draft of my first journal article. While it feels like I’ve been writing first drafts for over a year, the pieces are starting to fall into place: interviews (all transcribed even!), theory, previous research. The analysing/writing/re-writing process is a new challenge for me; it’s not easy but it is gratifying to work with my own material instead of only reading what others have done.

It’s also satisfying to read announcements for conference and decide which ones I want to apply to. I found it a bit frustrating to attend conferences without presenting anything because the first thing anyone asks is “what sessions are you presenting in?” (That being said, I love to travel so it really wasn’t so bad.) In February I submitted abstracts to two conferences that I would like to attend this year. The first is the Swedish STS Conference in May, for researchers in Sweden in the field of Science and Technology Studies. It’s a rather general conference, more of a meeting with a chance to present research. Then in August it’s a large international conference for researchers in the same field: the 4S/EASST Conference in Barcelona. I submitted an abstract to a track called Smart eco-cities: experimenting with new urban futures. Hopefully I get accepted!

Photo “Halfway” by Andrew Gustar on Flickr.