In search of pretty pictures

I have two new favourite websites this autumn: Flickr’s Creative Commons search page and Wikimedia Commons. They are both great sources of pictures that are free for anyone to use for pretty much any purpose. It’s the secret sauce that keeps my students from falling asleep.

My teaching responsibilities have changed a bit this time. When I was teaching in my first year as a PhD candidate, it was mostly as a seminar leader for first year students in environmental studies. I don’t teach as much now (thankfully—two early mornings in Norrköping every week was exhausting!), but I have some more variety. Since September I have been teaching in four different courses, and a combination of lectures and seminars.

Three of those courses are within the Science for Sustainable Development master’s program that I started five years ago. Life has really come full circle! I gave lectures in two first year courses and one of the second year electives, which I took when it was a brand new course. In these courses, I have given lectures on three topics. The first was about the concept of infrastructure, based on two journal articles: how the infrastructure behind biodiversity databases can affect which species are protected, and how Panama Canal’s infrastructure includes not just concrete and locks, but also watershed management plans that affect farming practices. Later in the term, I also gave a lecture about energy security and one about smart cities. It was a lot easier to prepare a lecture about my own research than a more general topic.

My other teaching assignment was quite different. I was a seminar leader and graded course papers in a course called Technological Development from a Societal Perspective. It’s a mandatory course for first year students in logistics. It’s one of the very first courses they take, so it’s a lot of new experiences for the students: first time participating in a seminar, first time reading academic papers, and first time writing an essay. It was also new for me: the first time teaching students who are not studying what I used to study. It was good experience, and I hope that my future teaching career with include more courses outside of environmental science or technology studies.

As fun as teaching is, it takes a lot of time to prepare lectures. A lot of time finding just the right picture for each slide. So I’m happy to be done for the term. Now I can focus on writing my first article (challenging but fun) and transcribing my backlog of interviews (somewhere between boring and torturous). And I can look forward to next autumn, where I hope to teach most of the same courses and give better versions of the same lectures.

Photo credit: Lecture Hall at Linköping University by John Blyberg. Admittedly a much bigger and fancier classroom than any that I used this term.

Interview season

It felt like the most important presentation in my two years as a PhD student: a meeting at the municipal Environmental Department, attended by me and six people who I want to interview for my research. How to present my research in a clear way, without too much jargon, and make it interesting enough that they want to participate in my project? It’s not something that we are taught in courses.

My presentation was well-received. And now it’s high season for interviewing so that I can get a good start to the autumn. With any luck, several of my upcoming interviews will lead me to relevant colleagues who I can also interview (which, in academic terms, is called nothing other than the snowball method). It looks like I’ll be travelling to Malmö every week for September and October. Twice this week.

This autumn I am hoping to do most of the interviews that I will need to write my thesis. In addition to the interviews, I have been invited to a monthly meeting where planners meet with the local energy company discuss their work in Hyllie, the new city district that I am studying. It’s very helpful to attend the meetings and hear how they discuss the issues they are working on—I can learn a lot more by listening than by reading meeting minutes. (That being said, I have also been building a huge collection of documents—meeting minutes, project reports, promotional material, website captures…)

As I do my interviews, I am also starting to write my first article. My idea is to study what it means to develop a ‘smart’ city district, whether it’s any different from the work to make a ‘sustainable’ city district. This article should eventually become the first of four that I write for my thesis. So far it’s a pretty short article. All I have is an 200-word abstract for presentation I will make at a course in October. I will base much of the article on what I learn through my interviews between now and then. But I also need to remember that my thesis is more than this article. My interviews need to keep the broad aims of my thesis in mind, not just narrower aims of the article I am writing.

Tomorrow I have my next interview, the fourth of the six people who I presented to at that meeting three weeks ago. He was nice enough to invite a colleague of his who is working on the same project. Before long I should have finished a first round on interviews, which—combined with comments from my course in October and a seminar in November—could be on their way to becoming an article.

Picture of Stadshuset Malmö (Malmö City Hall) by Håkan Dahlström Photography.

Field work (no safety equipment required)

For the last second half of the spring semester, I am focused my field work. It goes by other names too: data collection, empirical work, or just “doing interviews.” Still, I have been spending most of my time at the office. My colleagues might notice that I am on the phone a bit more, but beyond that it’s hard to tell the difference between this work and the writing that I did during the winter.

It turns out that doing interviews involve a lot of time at my desk. You could divide up the work into four steps:

  1. Figuring out who to interview
  2. Booking meetings and preparing
  3. Doing the interview
  4. Transcribing and next steps

Of these four, it’s only #3 that gets me out of the office.

1. Figuring out who to interview. This step varies in difficulty. Sometimes I want to learn about a specific project and I can find a contact person on a government agency’s or company’s website. Other times I am reading a newspaper article from a few years ago and that person has a different position inside the company. Or maybe I know about a company but don’t know the name of anyone there. Do I call the main office, take a guess and send an email, or should I wait until one of my upcoming interviews to get a reference to the right person?

2. Booking meetings and preparing. Once I  know who to interview, I usually follow the same steps. First, I send an email explaining who I am and what my project is about and why I want to interview them. Then I wait a few days and follow up with an phone call; that way I don’t need to explain my whole project over the phone to someone who might be running between meetings. (In rare cases, I do get a prompt reply to my email.) If all goes well, I can book a time right away. But they might not want to participate in my project, or they might not answer the phone or return messages. Recently it took my a month of trying…only to realize that the person listed on the website retired six months ago! Once I book a meeting, which is usually two or three weeks ahead, I have the time to plan my interview in more detail and book my trip.

3. Doing the interview. Most of my interviews require travel to another city, so I take the train. If I have an early interview in Malmö, for example, I have to travel the day before and spend the night in a hotel. Once in the right city, I have to get to the right place at the right time (taking into account the weather). Thank goodness for Google Maps.

An interview often starts with some small chat by the coffee machine. Normally I start by explaining my project a bit more, to give the person a better understanding of my interests. However, I don’t want to get into too much depth at the coffee machine, especially if the person starts giving useful information—I want to wait until we are seated at a table and I can turn on my voice recorder. Once I start recording, the interview usually lasts between 30 and 90 minutes.

4. Transcribing and next steps. The best way to celebrate a successful interview is to find a quiet place and start transcribing. Not because it’s fun—transcribing is painstaking—but because the pain is duller when everything is fresh and my brain is processing what was said. It’s also easier to write some notes and start doing analysis when the interview is fresh in my mind.

Transcribing is often mixed with a few other tasks. My preliminary analysis includes marking up the transcription with links to other information that I have collected, such as documents and other interview transcripts. There’s usually an expense form to fill out. And quite often, especially in the early stage of my project, I get suggestions of other companies or people to talk to. A reference is always a helpful outcome; it means I can start the process at step 2 and it’s easier to get the next person to agree to an interview.

Photo of Malmö Central Station by Håkan Dahlström Photography