Tag Archives: writing

Working from home in France

My wife and I are lucky enough to own a second home in France, in the Pays D’Oc. Hopefully, when we fully retire, it will be our main, if not only home.  At the moment, I get to spend much less time there than I would like, but since I semi-retired this academic year, the frequency of my visits has increased.

I have just finished a two-week spell there, not on holiday, but working from home, five days of which were spent working on a field skills handbook with two former colleagues of mine from Imperial College who used to help me run our two-week long final year Biodiversity & Conservation Field Course.  We have been working on this book for more than six years but to say that progress had been snail-like would be an exaggeration, glacial would be a better description.

Being away from our respective campuses, and the day-to-day academic trivia, meant that we were able to concentrate fully on the task at hand. We made incredible progress, and that was despite being connected to the internet and having access to Skype and email.  We now, in just five days and with very relaxed lunch-times, have a pretty good skeleton to show our prospective publisher.   A proper retreat works wonders; I can thoroughly recommend it.  It would be great if I could persuade my Head of Department to fund an official retreat for me and some of my colleagues to get together to write papers and grant proposals. It would definitely repay itself in increased grant income 🙂

The authors, looking relaxed but thinking hard.

The location certainly helps, with an office window view like this, who can help but be inspired 😊

The view from my office

 

In fact, I was so inspired I turned to verse.

 

Mountainous thunder

Sends ants scuttling to their nest.

Seeds await the wind

#haiku

 

Ants, sensing distant thunder,

Scuttle to their nest,

While seeds pods wait for the wind

#reversehaiku

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Challenges and rewards – Why I started, and continue blogging

If you are reading this article this afternoon (13th September 2017) it is quite possible that I am at this very moment giving my talk about the challenges and rewards of blogging to a live audience at ENTO’17 in Newcastle 🙂  In my talk, I began by explaining how it was that I became a fan of social media, first Twitter and then as a blogger.  I have already written about my conversion in an earlier post and how much I feel that social media adds to academic life, so I will not bore you with the whole story again.

  Suffice it to say pre-Twitter and pre-blogging I was writing a lot, but mainly to the wrong audience.

The second part of my talk attempted to answer the following questions. As an academic why should you blog?  What are the benefits?  What are the risks?  What are the challenges? Is it part of your day job?  More importantly, how can you convince your university or research institute that you should spend office time blogging?  What follows is the ‘script’ of my talk.

I started blogging because I felt that the way I was trying to get the importance and wonder of entomology across to non-entomologists was too limited.  I was not interacting with enough people outside the field, I needed to widen the scope of my activities.  Yes I was going into schools and talking to natural history societies, gardening clubs and on occasions youth groups and organisations like the Women’s Institute or the U3A, but I was only talking to tens of people. I wanted (needed) to talk to hundreds, even thousands of people to feel that I had a chance of getting my message across that the future of the natural world lay in an understanding of the invertebrate world and not of the “large charismatic mega-fauna”.  Hence my leap into the world of Twitter, and certainly with a following of over 5000, I am now potentially talking to thousands of people, according to my analytics my Tweets earn nearly 5 000 impressions a day.   The trouble with Tweets is that by their very nature they are transient and flow down the Twitter timeline to obscurity at a tremendous rate.  They are also not easily reference-able.  A blog on the other hand, if hosted on a reputable site, is as permanent as anything is these days, and as each post has a unique address, also has the advantage of being able to be linked to and found by search engines.  It was thus a logical step to launch a blog which is what I did, and Don’t Forget the Roundabouts was born.

A blog is born

I did not take this step lightly.  As the point of starting a blog was to make an impact, it could not be anonymous.  The content of the blog needed the backing of my professional reputation to hopefully give it the stamp of reliability and authority.  I was, and still am, putting my reputation on the line every time I post a blog article. It was thus with some sense of trepidation that I went public.  Writing a blog is a whole different thing to submitting a paper to a journal where you are subjected to peer review and your readership is pretty much limited to people who are very similar to yourself and whom have access to scientific journals.  Anyone with access to the internet can find, read and comment on a blog. A scary thought.  I felt it was worth it and still do. There were two other reasons besides my wish to increase the range of my outreach and to increase the level of interactions, that made the idea of starting a blog seem logical.

Reasons to start a blog

As a teenager I loved English, both language and literature (I still do, I have a personal library of over 10 000 books) and even had aspirations of becoming a novelist.  As those of us who have been around for a longish time will know, as you become more successful at getting grants and increasing the size of your research group, you get further and further away from the bench and/or field and do more and more ‘editing’ and commenting on other people’s writing.  In my case this had resulted in me finding it more and more daunting when faced with a blank sheet of paper or an empty word processing document. I saw the prospect of producing blog articles as a way of getting back into the habit of starting from scratch and also of learning a more relaxed and accessible style ready for my retirement plans of writing “popular”* entomology books. Finally, I thought it might be fun, my late father often voiced the opinion (especially when I was a teenager) that I “loved the sound of my own voice”.  Writing a blog does indeed give me the opportunity to sound off now and then and I make all sorts of fantastic discoveries when I am doing the background research for an article.  I freely confess, I enjoy writing my blog immensely.  It really is great fun.

Is it all positive?  Of course there are challenges, it would be foolish to deny it.  Finding the time to manage a blog can be a problem.  I am not retired, I have a full-time academic position, running a research group, editing journals, reviewing papers and grant proposals, writing and co-writing scientific papers, sitting on committees, and of course teaching students, both undergraduates and postgraduates.   Writing a blog is yet another call on my time, but one I am happy to heed.   I do blog writing and research at work

Enough to put you off?

and at home.  My contract does actually have a paragraph that mentions outreach so I feel justified in doing this.  Another challenge that might seem daunting is that of coming up with topics to write about.  Before I went public, I wrote five articles and filled an A4 piece of paper with potential topics that I thought would be fun to write about and of interest to others.  In reality I found that just living life provides topics enough to allow me to produce an article every couple of weeks.  There is always something that sparks an idea for a potential blog article, be it a scientific paper I read, something in the news or even as has happened twice now, a piece of fiction.

A challenge to some bloggers is that of motivation.   Unless you happen to be paid to be a blogger or make a living from it, then it can be hard to make the time and take the effort to write something regularly.  Luckily for me, I am somewhat competitive, even when the only other entrant in the race is myself.  I set a target of two articles a month but regularly find myself doing three, just to make sure that I am ahead of schedule and also I get quite a buzz on ‘publication’ day when the daily view total shows a spike in response to your activity 🙂

The publication day spike

 I have to admit that the fact that WordPress generates a number of statistics that you can track and compare, gives me plenty of motivation 🙂

The other challenge which I alluded to is the slightly anxious feeling that you get every time you publish an article.  Firstly as I mentioned earlier, because I am blogging as me, I really, really want what I say to be correct.  I find that I do as much, if not more background reading for a blog article as I do for a scientific paper.  I definitely do a lot more historical reading for the blog articles because it is very interesting and I also find it fun to delve back to the origins of a topic.  If I had not written an article about aphid symbionts I would never have discovered that Thomas Henry Huxley had worked on aphids which made me even impressed with him than before. The other times that I feel anxious are when I publish something that Is not strictly within my field but moe of an opinion piece.  When I got upset about he British Ecological Society (BES) and their conference catering policy I wrote rather an angry, although, at least in my opinion, a well-argued article.  I was somewhat hesitant in pressing the publish button, but went ahead and did so, and then sat back waiting for the angry responses from vegetarians and vegans.  To my surprise the expected lambasting did not materialise and I received several complimentary comments and emails.

Having a go at the British Ecological Society https://simonleather.wordpress.com/2015/12/17/meeating-issues-with-the-british-ecological-society-why-i-boycotted-the-2015-annual-meeting/

The BES were even kind enough to publish a slightly edited version in their Bulletin.  In some ways I have been slightly disappointed that this, and other articles dealing with ‘controversial’ viewpoints have not generated more critical responses, although I guess I should count my blessings and not angle for brickbats.

Enough about the challenges, what about the benefits?  Have I made an impact?  As far as I am concerned the answer is a resounding YES.  I am read all around the world and I am pretty certain that my 175 blog posts have been read more than my 230 scientific papers.

A worldwide reach – I have been read by someone in almost every country in the world

I am particularly proud of having one of my blog posts referenced in a book about preparing for PhD vivas (Smith, 2013).

This post made an impact – https://simonleather.wordpress.com/2013/05/07/are-phd-examiners-really-ogres/

I have also been invited by magazines and societies to convert some of my blog posts into articles for publications aimed at reaching more general audiences in an accessible and informative way.

Making an impact and bringing entomology to a wider audience

More conventionally, some of my blog posts have gone mainstream and appeared in scientific journals, a bit of reverse outreach 😊

Some of my blog posts that have made it into the scientific literature

Something that may put people off blogging is the possibility that their employer may not see a benefit in their activity and only not encourage but perhaps even discourage, their staff from becoming bloggers.   It was to counter this perception that a group of like-minded bloggers and I got together to present an analysis of the value and impact of blogging in ecology.  It was an interesting and rewarding exercise** and last week we were rewarded by having our paper accepted for publication in a prestigious journal.

Squaring the circle – a mainstream paper about the benefits of blogging for scientists

Proof that this was a fun project to collaborate on and write about

I think that there is a very strong case for more scientists to become bloggers, but if you do decide to take up the challenge and become a blogger you should first ask yourself exactly what it is you hope to get from it.  Is it just for pleasure, is it for outreach, to practice writing or to draw attention to yourself to increase interactions with others in your disciplines?

Three simple rules to ease you into the blogosphere

Whatever your reasons there are things that you can do to make your blog a success and help you overcome the challenges I have outlined above.  First, be well prepared have some articles in reserve, especially when you launch your blog. It is also a good idea to post at regular intervals, not necessarily often.  Having a ‘deadline’ will help you with your writing and time management and people will start to expect to hear from and may even become subscribers to your blog.  It is also important not to get downhearted or impatient.  It takes time to build an audience.  Blogs grow at different rates depending on a number of factors including blogging frequency and audience interaction (Saunders et al., 2017).

A frequent poster

My blog, regular but not as frequent as Jeff Ollerton’s Biodiversity Blog

Finally, it is important to do as much as possible to publicise your blog, use the tag function to help search engines direct people to your blog and I would urge you to join Twitter and do remember to use all the publicise buttons that your blog host provides.

I look forward to seeing a plethora of new entomology and ecology blogs. Happy Blogging.

 

References

Saunders, M.E., Duffy, M.A., Heard, S.B., Kosmala, M., Leather, S.R., McGlynn, T.P., Ollerton, J. & Parachnowitsch, A.L. (2017) Bringing ecology blogging into the scientific fold: measuring the reach and impact of science community blogs. Royal Society Open Science,

Smith, P.H. (2013) The PhD Viva, MacMillan Education, UK.

*assuming anyone wants to read them of course 🙂

**there will of course be a blog about this in the near future.

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Creating space

Don’t worry,this is not an article about home improvement 🙂 I am one of those people, probably like many of you, that needs the right ambiance to be able to sit at my computer and produce deathless prose. Despite owning a laptop I am not able to write anywhere and any-when, the creative juices only seem to flow when I am surrounded by a suitable amount of office clutter.

Desk

So when at work but travelling, and even if equipped with my lap top, I find myself unable to write on the train or ferry, be it papers, books or blog posts. Although I can read papers or theses, or mark essays, I am unable to write the reviews or comments; I apparently need to be sat at an ‘office’ table/desk, with plenty of paperwork to hand.

As I write this, I am on holiday in our future retirement house in Vinca in the Languedoc-Roussillon, France.  At the moment, our French house is somewhat devoid of furniture, although the previous owner left behind several rooms full of clutter, including unopened DVDs of Jean Paul II and an armoire full of French versions of Agatha Christie, Ian Rankin et alia.

Armoire

As you can see, my office to be is nowhere near to being a suitable working environment yet,

future office

although as I have mentioned earlier, the view is fantastic.

View

My current working space is in what we are jokingly calling the “Versailles Salon”

Workspace Vinca

and means that I am working standing up, great for emails and checking Twitter, but not ideal for someone with a bad knee and somewhat footsore from all the walking we have done on holiday so far 🙂

Although I am on holiday I feel a certain amount of self-inflicted pressure (guilt) about my blog schedule, a new post about every twelve days and so I stupidly promised myself that I would stick to this schedule despite being away from my desk. I even half-prepared a post on insects in horror films, hoping that I would be able to polish it off in between beers, walks in the hills, glasses of wine and dips in the swimming pool. As you may have guessed this did not work, hence the post that you are reading now. Big Bugs in Horror Movies will have to wait a few more weeks for its release 🙂

The sun is shining and the pool is a shimmering blue, and although we are temporarily cut off from the rest of France by a rather large scrub fire, I feel somewhat more relaxed having at least written something, albeit rather lacking in entomological content.

Fires near Vinca

I am on holiday after all 🙂

 

A bientot a

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Professor, Dr, Mr Leather; Simon – How formal should you be?

Call me old-fashioned but when I receive an email like the one below, my first reaction is to shrug resignedly and then to press the delete button.

Website enquiry from XXX@gmail.com

 hi ,

i wana know about scholar ships criteria in field of entomology kindly help me i am from pakistan n did masters in entomology

though to be fair, that is somewhat better than this one:

Website enquiry from YYY@gmail.com

giv me scholarship  to study with u

 This enquiry was sent from a contact form on www.harper-adams.ac.uk

The begging emails I receive are not however, all like the two above;  and some apart from a slight error in gender assignation, I consider deserving of a reply, albeit mostly in the negative.

Website enquiry from ZZZ@gmail.com

 Dear Sir,

   I am a Research Officer of Department of Agriculture, XXX. My Research field is Entomology. I am very much interested in following a Msc. in IPM.Please be kind enough to give me a scholarship for studying in your University.

              ZZZ

 Dear Madam,

I am MKE from Ethiopia, I am Graduated from XXXUniversity on July 15th , 2010 in BSc Degree of Plant science with a CGPA of 3.40, since then I am serving for about 9 months as expert of Biodiversity in BBB Agricultural and Rural Development Office and now I am working at CCC Agricultural Research Institution DDD Agricultural Research Center as a Crop Entomology Junior researcher-II and now I am looking for scholarship to continue my study for Master (MSc) program in field Entomology. So could you please consider me for the scholarship?

And every now and then you get an enquiry that is pretty much perfect, even to using their university email address instead of, as you often find, hotmail and gmail addresses that were set up when the inquirer was a teenager.  Do you really want a prospective employer or PhD supervisor to know that you are hotlips@VVV.com or sexybunny@FFmail.co.uk or biggerthanaverage@mail.com?

Website enquiry from SD (XXX@cccuniv.ac.uk):

 Dear Professor Simon Leather,

 I am currently a second year student of Biological Sciences (BSc) at CCC University, and my interests lie in ecology and entomology. I have worked in LASI (Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects) for a placement previously and would like to explore my interest in entomology further.

 I was wondering if there are any current summer studentship schemes for undergraduates set up in the field of entomology at Harper Adams University? If not, would you possibly be interested in applying for a undergraduate research bursary with me for the coming summer?(https://www.societyofbiology.org/get-involved/grants/undergraduate-studentships).

 Kind regards,

SD

These, and the many other emails I receive daily, got me thinking about the ways in which students interact with their lecturers.  Terry McGlynn over at Small Pond Science has written about this subject http://smallpondscience.com/2013/05/21/what-do-students-call-you-professor-ms-mrs-mr-dr-sir/ but I thought that I would add my two pennyworth.

Back in the early 1970s when I was an undergraduate we, despite our long hair and flared jeans (tucked into my wellies in this picture of me doing field-work), lived in a much more formal age.

Simon 1976

We called our lecturers (at least to their faces) Dr or Professor and they in turn called us Mr or Miss even if we looked less than formal ourselves.

Simon a long time ago   Simon 1975

 When I became a PhD student in the late 1970s things were different and we addressed most non-professorial members of staff by their first names.  My PhD supervisor was very keen for us to call him Tony but to his great disappointment, the least informal we could ever force ourselves to get was Prof.  In fact it took me about seven or eight years after getting my PhD before I felt comfortable enough to finally call him Tony to his face!

Now that I am an academic I am very happy for my students, both undergraduate and postgraduate to call me Simon, although I do prefer them to wait until I have invited them to do so.  It always strikes me as a little too informal if they address me as Simon on our first meeting.  I also now know how my PhD supervisor felt when trying to get us to call him Tony.  I occasionally get students who despite frequent prompting still persist in calling me Professor Leather.   There are of course sometimes cultural barriers and in those cases I am very happy if the student addresses me as Professor Simon as that keeps us both happy.

For written communications, even if by email I feel that on first approach, anyone, student or otherwise, including me, should adopt a formal tone and address the recipient  as Dear Dr or Professor Bloggs and sign off as yours sincerely.  In an academic situation, if you are uncertain whether the person you are addressing has a PhD or not, err on the safe side and address them as Doctor; if they are a Mr, Mrs, Miss or Ms they are unlikely to be offended and very few full professors of my acquaintance are old-fashioned or insecure enough to get upset by being addressed by the title of their higher degree!

Interestingly I have noticed recently that a much more informal approach to titles is now commonplace on conferences name badges.  When I first began attending conferences the only badges without titles belonged to students.  It was a real rite of passage when you attended your first conference with the magic Dr in front of your name.  Nowadays, even the most senior professors are badged as first and second names only.   Note that I am by no means suggesting that I consider myself in this category 😉

Badge RES back

How times have changed!  I sometimes feel that all this informality must make the newly en-doctored feel a little hard done by.  After all that hard work and the trauma of submitting a thesis and being grilled in the viva voce examination and then they are given so few opportunities to display their hard-won title.  And now that most people use on-line banking they don’t even get the satisfaction of having their title on their cheques 😉

Post script

Coincidentally, just as I had finished drafting this post I was reading the Times Higher Education magazine  (31 Oct – 6 Nov number 2,125) and came across an article (page 21) on the conference badge issue; That’s Dr, if you please, by Dr Becky Lee Meadows.  Well worth a read if you can get hold of a copy http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/comment/opinion/thats-dr-if-you-please/2008552.article

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