With a plan in mind

I spent my first work week of 2016 in Toronto. Each day I went to the University of Toronto’s Graham Library (my favourite—it even has fireplaces) with one task in mind: planning my thesis work for 2016. It’s actually the first time that I’ve felt able to look a year ahead in my PhD work.

In my first two years, my project always seemed so open-ended that it was difficult to set milestones and plan timelines. I often said that my interviews were exploratory, because I knew the general topic of my thesis but not what research questions I would ask. I still can’t come up with a well-formulated list of questions, but I at least have written a description of six “article ideas” that I use to plan my research. (In the end, I only need four articles for my thesis.)

Here’s the short version of what 2016 looks like:

  1. Finish most of my interviews this spring.
  2. Write my first article during the spring, so that I can present it at some conferences before and after the summer.
  3. Write a first draft of my second article and the manuscript for my 60%-seminar. That seminar will take place sometime this fall.

My first article is about how smart city visions are created, how they change over time, and how they affect urban development. I have already started writing this article and I know that I have lots of interesting material to write about from my interviews in 2015. But there is still lots of work left. It takes a lot of reading papers, re-reading my interviews, and re-re-re-re-writing to come up with a strong argument for an academic article.

I have just starting booking a new round of interviews too. Now I am most interested to speak with property developers, to hear their experiences about planning and building in a ‘smart city’. These interviews help me with the article I am writing now, but I need to keep the rest of my thesis in mind too. When I plan my interviews, I have to consider all six of my article ideas.

I have a lot to look forward to in 2016. It’s fun to get back doing interviews—though I will get sick of the train travel soon enough. I am also looking forward to presenting my work at a few conferences (hopefully in Helsingborg, Copenhagen, Barcelona and maybe Manchester too). And it is exciting, though scary, to think that I will have an article finished and ready for submission by sometime this fall.

Picture of the Munk Centre for International Studies (where the Graham Library is located) by SimonP [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.

Future making

My commute to class, one Wednesday in late October, went like this: first, a short walk to the bus stop from my friend’s apartment. A 15-minute bus ride to the Amsterdam Zuid train station. An hour on the train to ‘s-Hertogenbosch (also called Den Bosch); twenty minutes more to the village of Ravenstein. Finally: find the ‘fietspad’ (bicycle path), walk 5 minutes through the fields (past the donkeys), and then turn right to the monastery-turned-university-conference centre.

This trip brought me a three-day course about “Future-making”, put on but the Netherlands Graduate School for Science, Technology and Modern Culture. It was a three day course that brought me to the Dutch countryside to study with 20 other PhD students—mostly from Dutch universities.

The course was focused on two questions, as explained in the course guide: “First, how are futures predicted, envisioned, and created? And second, how can we study such processes of future-making, and maybe help improve and govern them?” These questions are both relevant for my research about smart and sustainable urban planning.

It was an exciting course for me, not just because of the interesting readings and lecturers. It was also the first time that I presented some preliminary results of my research. I have been doing interviews, observing meetings, and collecting documents quite intensively since the spring. In preparation for the course, I tried to analyze some interesting parts of my material using some of the concepts from the course. It is quite the challenge to explain all that to students with many different research interests who have never heard of the project I am studying in Malmö.

My presentation went well. It was understandable at least, even if my early analysis needs some work. And the course was interesting and well-organized. There were lots of coffee breaks and time to meet the other students.  I even got to explore the countryside during a morning run—which, as it turns out, looks a lot like the flat farmland where I grew up in Canada.

Thanks a lot to one of the teachers, Govert Valkenburg, for taking pictures of the course and allowing us to share them.

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.