Memory Monday: How are you today?

In the spirit of blogging culture, this morning, as Time to Talk Day 2015 approaches, I’d like to look back on a post I wrote this time last year, and ask what, if anything, has changed.

The original post may be found here.


Well, I still have an open-door policy, and I still see a lot of students in my office with mental health related concerns. And students are still very welcome to come and raise concerns with me; nothing has changed there. Indeed, from where I am sitting, mental health concerns at university are still normative.

But the plural of anecdote….

….is not evidence. So what’s changed, evidence-wise in the past year? Time to check the oracle (read: internet) .

First thing I realize is that since February last year, there has been a huge upsurge of student voices talking about mental health at university. There are many pieces on the taboo that surrounds it, noting, as I did last year that according to the latest NUS survey (2013) that one in five students say that they have a mental health problem, but most stay silent about it. I can’t find evidence (but am happy to stand corrected) of more recent large-scale surveys of UK student mental health. But this year, there are  more stories about mental health at university out there, with The Guardian having an overwhelming response to a request for them – gathering over 200 pieces. True, that the plural of anecdote is not evidence….but maybe the time is ripe for a qualitative study of student experiences…..

It was also interesting to note, on two counts for me, that the conversation has expanded. It’s not just about student mental health anymore, but also about mental health in academia. There is evidence that academics, from PhD students to professors are struggling in high-stressage environments. Alongside this, is the hypothesis that there is a culture of acceptance around mental health problems in the academy: in other words, social psychology is at work – stressage is part of the job.

And recently published research by Ken Mavor and his colleagues (2014) supports this contention. That is, a strong social identity as a medical student is associated with high levels of social support and improved well-being  (strong social identity = good) , but this comes with a set of unhealthy group norms (for overwork et al.) that may have a greater influence on students with a strong social identity, encouraging them to do things that put their well-being at risk (strong social identity = risk for poor mental health). Maybe the same is true of PhD students, top professors, early career researchers…If we cast the latter as peripheral group members  to use Jolanda Jetten’s term (that is, those who are on the edge, and want to be in the group of “established academics”) there would be even more reason to suppose that ECRs would be at risk….there are another two hypotheses to test.

So, what has changed? It seems that people are more vocal these days – and that there are a lot of stories out there about mental health in academia. But, beyond small-scale experimental work, there is not much hard-core evidence on the nature of the problem. Now it has been driven out from underground, and now that the hypotheses are being put forward, the time for up-to-date full-scale research seems to have arrived.

How are you today? The Department of Psychology, Social Work and Public Health will be marking Time to Talk Day at 11am, this Thursday, 5th February. If you would like to join us, drop me an email.

Remember my open door policy, if you have been affected by any of the issues mentioned in this piece – and the variety of support offered by Brookes Well-Being. And you can always contact Samaritans or Nightline for help and support, too.





The Theory of “Cripping Up”

I went to see The Theory of Everything  last weekend.  I have to say, it wasn’t as engaging  as I hoped it might be, or as the trailers and reviews seemed to promise. But this post isn’t to add to the litany of reviews of this film that are already out there. I want to write about The Theory of Everything  in the context of a piece I read in The Guardian Online  last week, linked to below.


Frances Ryan, makes the argument therein, that as we would be outraged nowadays at the prospect of an actor ‘blacking up’, as Laurence Olivier once did to play Othello, we should feel similarly outraged at non-disabled actors playing those with disabilities on stage and on-screen. Yet, Eddie Redmayne received a Golden Globe. Ryan cites several potential reasons why we might feel differently about what she terms “cripping up”, including the business-like nature of theatre and television where celebrities sell, and the notion of “disability-as-metaphor” – that it is a symbol of human triumph; pain wasn’t real. Ryan argues that these reasons might account for audiences seeing disability as an “add-on” extra, rather than integral to a person, and therefore not to see “cripping up” similarly to the identity theft of “blacking up”. Following the recent rejoicing over the casting of a black Annie,  and, as the possibility of a black Bond, or female Dr. Who are mooted as desirable, I decided to look to the research literature, to see what it can tell us about disability-as-identity, and  media representation of disability. Is “cripping up” really bad news…?

The research shows that more representation of disabilities is needed.  For example, Bond (2013) looked at the representation of disability in children’s television. He found that characters with a physical disability were rarely portrayed, and when they were, were not of central importance to the plot.   Research  (e.g., Schwartz et al., 2010) also points to the continued unhelpful stereotyping of those with disabilities in mainstream media. And, according to Haller (2010), negative stereotypes can also have a negative impact on those living with disabilities, while positive representations can promote a self-esteem boost. In their comprehensive report, following interviews with producers, as well as consumers of mass media, both with and without disabilities, Wardle and Boyce (2009)  conclude that there needs to be more representation of those with visible loss of function; that story lines might focus on this, as well, as on incidental loss of function, that script-writers should seek to address the real issues faced by those with disabilities, and that they should look to dispel myths and stereotypes  (think Captain Hook, Long John Silver…), rather than perpetuate them.

But the need for positive representation isn’t in itself reason not to “crip up”. Couldn’t anyone represent disability? To answer this question, it is important to note that another finding has come from Wardle and Byce’s report, and from other papers (e.g., Fraser, 2014). That is, that those with disabilities would like to see less “cripping-up” and more “real-representation” in the mass media. And according to O’Reily (2009)  playwrights with a disability have begun to offer alternative narratives for characters with a disability– different stories, with different endings, with different protagonists. Writing, in other words, that takes full account of the disability.

Further to this, when it comes to disability-as-identity, Weinberg, & Sterritt, (1986) showed that encouraging teenagers with hearing impairments to identify solely as “able-bodied” led to lower social acceptance and poorer academic outcomes, than when they incorporated a disabled identity into their sense of self. More recent research by Rich et al. (2013) showing that when children are given cochlear implants, the inclusion of disability into one’s identity is still valuable. Yet, other research has shown that having this identity can hinder workplace opportunities, with Roulstone and Williams (2012) showing that, at management level, being open about this identity places limits on what others perceive you can do. Thus, it may be argued that disability forms an important part of  self-identity,  but that barriers to full inclusion sometimes result from it.

It is worth noting that all the research above covers physical disability, rather than intellectual disability, or mental health problems. Nevertheless, it shows that disability is a very real, and valued part of self-identity that can lead to exclusion.  And  research shows that more representation of people with disabilities would be welcome, by those with and without impairments. But it is also apparent that not just any representation will do. Rather, such representation needs to promote positive images, and should address the specific issues faced by those with disabilities, rather than painting  a rose-tinted, triumphant, or metaphorical picture of it. Representing this reality will surely be more difficult if the actor does not have the impairment. And maybe this is the real issue, when it comes to “cripping up”. If an actor has a disability, adjustments may need to be made, issues of accessibility surmounted, on set. The writing – everyone – would need to fully account for that disability. Maybe it is media itself that isn’t yet accessible enough to be able to avoid the use of actors willing to “crip up”. Given the importance of disability for self-identity, and continued barriers to inclusion in the real-world,  this would be an issue worth surmounting.

Conference Review: GRASP 2014

Last week, I  visited Linköping University, in Sweden, to give a keynote address at the  ninth  Nordic conference in group- and social psychology -GRASP). My talk is available online here. I count travelling abroad as among the best things about my job, and visiting the research group who held this conference was a real treat.

The day before the conference opened, I gave a workshop for students, looking critically at some of the measures we use in social psychology with children, vis-a-vis the original definitions of the concepts we research, often coined in the 1970s. The irony of this, of course, is that while these measures were originally developed for use with teenagers (think Tajfel et al., 1972), it was not long  before they were applied wholesale to the world of post-war adult social psychology, and now, our challenge is to differentiate them for children again,  erstwhile remaining faithful to their purpose.

That same day, this piece appeared in British media. The upshot of it is, that students, reviewing their university experience in light of their tuition fees want more contact hours and online resources for their money, but won’t bother attending lectures or seminars if such content is made available on the web.

Thinking about this, in light of the workshop, and then during the conference presentations, beyond the paradox of wanting more contact hours, and yet not wanting to turn up for them, my sense that students who don’t attend classes really do miss out was affirmed. My workshop involved group-work, where students could look at the measures, talk to each other, and sit outside in the glorious Swedish sunshine.

Sunshine aside, the conference talks could not have been engaged with in the same way via ‘lecture capture’ (class-recording software). The entire, relatively small, conference had a supportive and friendly atmosphere throughout. Researchers asked questions as the talks progressed, spoke with each other at lunchtimes ( I developed a new collaboration with a lovely research group, that I am very excited about) networked, and enjoyed each others’ company, as well as the change and inspiration of different surroundings. The talks spanned social psychology, from problem-based learning, to benevolent sexism, and from childhood peer victimization to workplace team-building, ending with Ken Mavor’s keynote address on capturing social identities to explore these phenomena, and more.

As an Early Career Fellow, I see my job as training students in their discipline. Granted, not all students aspire to be academics – but face-to-face meetings and discussions, and getting along with people is a paramount skill outside academia, too. As a final meta-point, research on student social identity and problem-based learning presented at GRASP shows us that students who can develop a strong identification with their discipline experience better outcomes, earlier on.

So – more contact hours are likely to lead to better results – if students attend and benefit from the opportunities they provide, which are not, so far as I  can see, available to download online. Conferences remain for me one of the most rewarding and fruitful aspects of academia – a good one, such as this was, can set me up with a research program for the entire year. My wish would be for all students to recognise the benefits of learning in this way, both with and without their lecturers, but face-to-face, rather than simply online. Consumers or not, social psychological evidence supports that this would be good value for money for them.









Review: Incognito

This review has now been published in The Psychologist (July, 2014, p. 552)

Do you know what confabulation means?

asks Martha, clinical neuropsychologist, working with patients with amnesia,

It’s telling stories to ourselves to make sense of the world. There’s no single part of the brain that is ‘us’.

So begins Nick’s Payne’s stunning piece, Incognito. From this scene, between Martha, and new friend Patricia, we’re introduced to Henry, M. who, following brain surgery, lives continually in the present. Then there is Dr. Harvey, pathologist, who is building his life’s work around detailed study of Einstein’s brain.  And then there are those who surround these characters, trying to make sense of them, as they make sense of the memories.


Four actors and 23 characters. Characters whose stories are  introduced in fragmented scenes, that shift backwards and forwards in time, and across time. The effect is an incredible and engaging meta-journey, as we try to piece the characters lives back together, to recreate their stories in our own minds.

There is real Psychology in this. Any self-respecting Psychology graduate, myself included, will know the case of H.M. who lost his memory following surgery to correct epilepsy. They will dutifully have studied the role of the medial temporal lobes and hippocampus in memory. But that is textbook. Nick Payne moves expertly away from this towards a human story of memory. As the play is performed almost in the round, the audience is frighteningly close to the devastating emotional consequences – both of having memories one no longer wants – and of not having memories anymore –  portrayed movingly (without sentimentality) by a cast that click together beautifully, even as their characters are in constant flux.

This is a brilliant study of the fragility of the human mind,  – of how memories shape our relationships and our selves. It is also philosophy: what is it after all, that is being studied?

Incognito written by Nick Payne, directed by Joe Murphy, and performed by Nabokov, is showing at the North Wall Arts Centre until Saturday 10th May 2014. There are two performances left, and I’d heartily recommend that you see it. If there are any tickets left that is – it deserves to be sold out.

Science (Careers) and Serendipity

One might be forgiven for thinking that science is a strange context in which to talk positively about serendipity. As Haslam and McGarty point out in their paper, ‘A 100 years of certitude’ (research) scientists spend a lot of time and effort explicitly trying to reduce the effect of chance on their results. The greater the role of chance in the result, the less significant it is. The less likely it then is to get published. And if a scientist doesn’t publish….they perish.

In spite of this, and as Haslam and McGarty argue, science is littered with examples of serendipitous findings. Ryan’s research into the glass cliff (now a major research program) started when a colleague put a newspaper article in her pigeon hole.  And research on the narrative of scientific discovery (e.g., Atkinson, Bachelor & Parsons, 1998) has shown that serendipity has a big part to play.

At the Research Careers Pathways Event earlier this week, run by Oxford Brookes University, serendipty was brought to the fore. Not so much in terms of research findings, but in the routes that the speakers had taken to get to their current job. The advice that seemed to come time and again was to say yes to opportunities: it might lead to being in the right place at the right time.

PFD1573Alice-Down-the-Rabbit-Hole-PostersReflecting on this, I was stunned at how reliant on chance my career thus far has been. By chance, an external examiner read my third year research project, and had  PhD funding he thought I could use to extend that work, into a novel area (that chanced to map into his research area). I was aiming for a career in teaching  the time. By the examiners’ of my project, I got to do that, too, albeit in a different context to the one I imagined….. Like Alice down the rabbit hole, I tumbled into two research areas that complemented each other, and findings that got curiouser and curiouser…..

By chance, I landed my previous post-doc position, when another candidate turned it down for a better offer. By chance, I had the most amazing Erasmus student to supervise during her PhD and have set up international research collaborations through collecting data with her.

My research focus, and research career certainly seem to have an element of serendipity about them, without which, I probably wouldn’t be writing this post, at this time, or at this desk. Maybe I just see my career as serendipity because that’s the attitude I take (see Wiseman, 2004) while so-called “unlucky researchers” don’t expect things to go well, or grasp at opportunities…. Or is to say that my research career has been serendipitous just a tautology? Is it true for all researchers? The event, at least,  suggests it’s not just me….

Twelve Days of (an Academic) Christmas

After the popular carol, and the passing of twelfth night this morning, I thought readers might like to see what an academic gets up to over the twelve days of Christmas…so here’s a peek at my Christmas break.

First Day of Christmas


Nativity at St. Columba’s URC

This year, I hosted Christmas for some of my family for the first time. My father joined me, and my brother (who was working in Durham over the holidays) drove himself down to Oxfordshire for the 24 hours’ or so leave he had. Nothing out of the ordinary happened: church, Christmas lunch, crackers, Queen’s speech…and I’m glad to report that my cooking didn’t poison anyone (although that might be largely down to my brother’s catering skills, rather than mine….) .

Second Day of Christmas

Waved good bye to my brother at doesn’t exist o’ clock this morning, for his drive back up to panto-land. The essays and exam scripts I have to mark are sitting menacingly in a corner of my living room….but my father’s still here, and it’s Christmas….spent the day crocheting, and watching DVDs.

Third Day of Christmas

Off to see some relatives in deepest Oxfordshire today. Had very lovely time by blissful log fire, playing games with three boys under twelve, and re-discovering my finger skateboarding capabilities. Essays and exam scripts are still in the corner, and still beckoning, but I’m resisting them for now. Besides, the Christmas decorations I borrowed need to come down, to go back home with my father.

Fourth Day of Christmas

teaAfter waving good bye to my father, and tidying the flat, and doing the laundry, to try and deafen the sound of the scripts, I finally give in to their wailing, and lug some to the nearest coffee shop. Mark some stunning third year essays. Maybe marking isn’t so bad after all.

Fifth Day of Christmas



Church today. Then off to a coffee shop to mark the remaining third year essays. Not bad at all. Go for a swim, get home, and write up the mark sheets for them, ready for printing, and settle down to crochet and hot chocolate. The exam scripts (due in four days’ time) can wait.

Sixth Day of Christmas

Realize that New Year’s eve is tomorrow, and I don’t have a dress to wear for a 1920’s themed party I’ll be going to. Make a dash for the charity shops, and find an ideal dress for  under £10. Try it on, and realize it is see-through. Invest in slip. Together with accessories from a previous 1920’s party, am sorted.

Seventh Day of Christmas

Scripts due minus two days. Go for a swim. Do laundry. How long is it going to take me to mark them anyway? The longer I leave for them, the longer they’ll take right…? Maybe. Get them out, and start to go through them. Get about a third of the way through. Enough for today – time to go out and party.

Eighth Day of Christmas

Party was good stuff, so am too tired to mark anything this morning. Ring my mother to wish her a Happy New Year, and get into a conversation about how to use Google Drive. Explain to her that we use it at work to share protected spreadsheets with essay grades. In doing so, I realize I haven’t uploaded any of my grades. D’oh. On with that then.  And some more script marking. I see the end of the tunnel: all done :-).

Ninth Day of Christmas

Return to work today, to deliver exam and essay scripts (and get in some weight training into the bargain: they’re stupidly heavy), and do lots of itty-bitty tasks that need to be done before the start of term. It’s quiet in the Department, but office-mate has returned, and it’s good to see people again after the break.

Tenth Day of Christmas


Stole my brother’s (Robin Hood) sword backstage

A few months ago, I thought it would be a good idea to go to Durham for the day, to see my brother in panto’, as Robin Hood. So, at 4am this morning, I was on a train to Durham, writing a piece  for Developmental Forum  and having an email conversation with colleagues about where to send a rejected paper to next, as I travelled up the East coast. Fortunately, the journey was smooth, and I got to see the panto’, and my brother, and it was fab, and well worth the trip.

Eleventh Day of Christmas


Meal in George and Dragon, Long Hanborough

Pretty tired today, having gotten in at midnight. Remember at 3pm that I haven’t got a secret Santa gift four our District Guiders’ Christmas meal tonight (good to have something to look forward to after Christmas), so off to  the shops for that, and then get ready for meal. Given taxi will get us there and back, I wear shoes I can *just about* walk (read: stand up) in, and pray that I won’t turn my ankle in so doing…. I didn’t, despite (modest) alcohol consumption, and meal was great.

Twelfth Day of Christmas

Quiet day today,sorting through ethics forms, and thinking about what needs to be done in the coming weeks before the students return.

Happy New Year !

School’s Out For Summer?

Leaving aside the very British question of whether summer is actually something of a misnomer for the upcoming season, I’d like to use this post to discuss a tweet I saw from a colleague earlier this week:

What do university teaching staff actually *do* all summer, with no students around to be taught? Now that I’ve finished my marking, I wanted to write this post, to reveal what academics do get up to, and to set out my own plans, which should help me stick to them (in theory…).

So – firstly – lecturers aren’t just employed to teach. They’re also employed to write grant proposals, get grant funding, do research, and write up the research that they then pass on to their students to read. University departments do very little in the way of research without this grant income, and the research that is outputted is assessed in an exercise called the Research Excellence Framework, which determines how much central funding is allocated to the department. The next REF submission is due this December. So lecturers are all pretty busy now with research.

But, I’m not a lecturer, I’m a Teaching Fellow. So what do I do without students (bar the odd research student)? Why isn’t School out for me? It turns out that I need to do research, too. I would anyway, because I research a topic I’m passionate about, but without research, I wouldn’t get very far in my career. Employers in academia (remembering I’m on a temporary contract) are looking for my research to be REF-able. And I’ve made it this time – my research will be submitted in the Department’s REF to help it get as much income as possible – but I have to think ahead to the next REF, in 2018. To be REF-able then, I have to do research now. It can take up to two years between submitting a paper and having it published.

"Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham

“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham

Thus, my summer will be spent analysing data and writing. I aim to write several things. Firstly some papers that I’m working on collaboratively, on the ESRC Humour and Bullying Project. Secondly, my PhD papers that have yet to be submitted, need to be trimmed down and submitted to journals. And thirdly, I will be writing a small research grant proposal with a colleague in the Department.

That said, it won’t all be hard work. Not only because I am taking a few days’ leave to go away to Taize (yay!), but because summer is conference season for academics. Since the wheels of publishing in academia turn slowly, conferences help researchers keep up-to-date with current developments, and generate ideas for new research. This year, I’m heading to Reading for CogDev2013 to present research findings on defenders and peer victimisation.

That’s the plan. The kind of thing that lecturers do all summer.

The Crocheted Brain

Crocheti ergo sum. 

Or that’s how it feels, when I’m not at work. Ever since I gingerly picked up a crochet hook last September, I’ve been smitten with it. It’s easy (read: easier than knitting), so versatile, so quick, so engaging….


What I mean to say is, when I’m not doing teaching or research, this is what I love doing – and since it’s the Easter holidays I thought this a good time to post about it. I’ve had great fun with a number of projects, from toys to blankets, and have just found the Oxford Drunken Knitwits whom I am planning to meet with soon.

Not that Psychology and crochet don’t mix, of course. I’ve recently crocheted a brain. Yes, a brain –


– at a colleague’s behest. That was good fun – especially as I couldn’t find any patterns in front of pay walls (spot another link to academia) and eventually devised my own (which I will freely share at your request).

And, a 2012 review article by Rosemary Kingston  in PsyPAG Quarterly extols the benefits of knitting via research evidence. Specifically, while some research has suggested that knitting and crochet attenuate symptoms of anxiety, Kingston points out that benefits might also be derived from knitting as it is a “mindful” and creative activity, with research suggesting that both mindfulness and creative pursuits have a positive impact on mental well-being. What’s more, the Knitwit’s blog, which is fantastic, even has some posts under the topic of mental health, on knitting and “unraveling mental health perceptions”.

So crochet is good for you, too 🙂 What hobbies do other PhD students and post-docs or lecturers pursue in their spare time? Anyone want to join me for some crochet?