Mostly bollocks (Current Research)

By and large I don’t believe in passion,not in the workplace at least. At the individual level its problematic but at the organisational level its a disaster for collective action by workers and a key way in which our rights are destroyed and pay and conditions are eroding. 

However I’m not completely immune and although I try to keep work and my passions entirely separate, recently there has been some overlap. I love watches, I just love them – be it an iconic Omega Seamaster Pro, a more little known but amazing Casio Oceanus S100 or a G-Shock MTG.  I am obsessed with watches. I like reading about them, I like handling them and I like trading them with other watch collectors.  

One of my favourites - the Casio Oceanus s100 - solar, atomic time-keeping - my day to day work watch
One of my favourites – the Casio Oceanus s100 – solar, atomic time-keeping – my day to day work watch

A little while ago a student came to be and said that they wanted to do their thesis on counterfeit goods. I said OK and we had a look at some papers together. As we were talking I saw this table:

Summary of Anti-counterfeiting measures from Cesareo and Stottinger (2015)* 
Summary of Anti-counterfeiting measures from Cesareo and Stottinger (2015)* 

We talked about it and the student left. Then A little while later I realised that while we had been talking I’d scribed “mostly bollocks” on the table. Why had I scribed this and in what context has I meant this? 

I then realised that it was related to watches. If you get into watches and you build up a collection at some stage you run up against counterfeits and therefore you have to develop a working knowledge of them and where they come from. So why did I think it was bollocks? 

What if I told you that Seiko watches run into the many thousands of pounds - Here's a Grand Seiko SGBH001
What if I told you that Seiko watches run into the many thousands of pounds – Here’s a Grand Seiko SGBH001

Because like a lot of responses to a problem, the underlying message is one of education – if we inform people about X, they will stop doing Y. Except I already suspected from my hobby this wasn’t actually true and the opposite was occurring. So how do to turn that into a piece of your actual peer reviewed literature? 

So I went away and spend a few months collecting data on the buyers of counterfeit watches, the sellers and also in some ways most interestingly the producers. I ended up with about 10,000 data points which I analysed via Nvivo and this seems to confirm my thinking and also add some other surprisingly things around supply chain and customer service I’d never considered. For example, would you be surprised to know that many watch counterfeiters offer QC pictures to buyers? 

Here comes the dull bit

So my upcoming work in this area critiques current thinking about Counterfeiting Avoidance Measures (CAMS) via the case of the conspicuous counterfeiting of luxury Swiss watches. It uses this case to produce an analysis of consumers not as passive purchasers or subject to deceptive practices, but co-producers of knowledge who are involved in complex interactions with each other and actively engage with counterfeiters. This in turn leads to improvements in the quality of counterfeit goods and simultaneously increase the expertise of others in their community of interest  about how to obtain ‘high quality’ counterfeit goods. It further argues that this interaction and dialogue assists economic intermediaries (‘Trusted Dealers’) in ensuring that their customers receive watches of the standard that they expect and reduce the need to provide after-sales service. Each stage in this process provides its own challenge to CAMS.

It also challenges this underpinning idea that education of consumers or their exposure to expert views in a reference group (information susceptibility) will make them less likely to buy counterfeit goods but rather may helps them to be more selective in obtaining counterfeit goods of higher quality.

* I should point out that the table represents Cesareo and Stottinger’s summary of the extant literature not their actual position which in many ways in similar to mine – especially around what they call Hybrid consumers. 


On working for free (academic labour – Part 2)

I wasn’t going to return to the topic of academic labour so soon but a couple of things prompted me to do so – first was this twitter conversation about training and if people should attend for free (no, it’s immoral to ask people to attend work training for free) and then this article today in the Guardian about choice.

What’s the relationship between the two? In my first blog about this I discussed the economic reasons for not doing this but I’ll tackle it from a slightly different angle. As the guardian article makes clear:

That wasn’t how endless choice was supposed to work, argues American psychologist and professor of social theory Barry Schwartz in his book The Paradox of Choice. “If we’re rational, [social scientists] tell us, added options can only make us better off as a society. This view is logically compelling, but empirically it isn’t true.”

Academics are faced with endless choices but limited resources in terms of times, energy, existing commitments. There are  internal pressures to do research, teaching, service and there are the external pressures of actually having a life. Many academics react to the first by not having the second. We know that female academics feel pressured to put off or carefully time when they have children to fit around things such as their REF submission.  

My choice was slightly different in that having come from industry and doing a PhD part-time I never got the graduate school indoctrination because I rarely mixed with other students. I therefore saw my job as something I do from 9am-5pm Monday to Friday (and actually that is what I am contracted to) and nothing happened during my PhD to change that view.

The problem therefore came up – how do I match the fact that I’m not willing to work all hours with the fact that there are endless potential decisions to make as an academic? I needed a rule or heuristic that I could use to aid me in my decisions and “you have to pay me for this” principle seemed the most straight forward heuristic to apply. Moreover it fit in with my world-view having grown up on a council estate and there being a strong principle that work is something you get paid for. 

 I quickly found that the decision making process was actually quite straight-forward. You want a freebie? that’s a no. You will pay? Good so now I can pay someone else to take care of x (generally teaching). Decisions are easier because I have limited the number of possible outcomes at the start.

Have I missed out on some opportunities? More than likely but so what? there are always more opportunities than hours in the day. 

This does however lead to some uncomfortable conversations – I don’t do peer review for journals because I cannot see why I should prop up some multi-nationals with fat margins in my own time. Now the response to that is – ‘But you expect others to review your stuff?’ If academics undervalue their own labour, how can I stop them? Why should they? Who am I to force my radical position on them (and that’s the nonsense -asking to get paid is the radical position in the academy). 

Operating profits - taken from
Operating profits – taken from

Oddly academics who campaign for restaurants to pay the minimum wage and make sure staff keep their tips see nothing incommensurable between that position and providing their intellectual labour for free to an equally profitable large multinational. 

Have a nice weekend. 

I got bored of lecturing so the students quit me (and my take on the active learning debate)

This is a follow-up to an earlier post where I discuss running a project management module with no lectures and no traditional seminars – so go read that first.

We have reached week 4 of my project management class and I have hit upon a problem that I did not anticipate. To recap, the two students groups have 300 hours each to allocate to complete their project. I thought that the students might have issues getting their projects started and I also worried that the projects selected (an enterprise app and updating an open source strategy text book) would prove to be too complex. 

Besides the students using Zoho projects to manage tasks, we have a more low-tech way of updating status.
Besides the students using Zoho projects to manage tasks, we have a more low-tech way of updating status.

No the issue we have hit is… the students don’t seem to need me… at all. I thought that I would have to intervene to get them to pick projects, I didn’t. I anticipated I would have to intervene to get them to separate into two project  groups, I didn’t.  I was convinced that I would have to very directive at the start to get them to work out the starting tasks, it never happened. 

I have had a couple of short conversations about the number of manhours that the book group should allocate to find new examples for the book and another conversation with the App group of estimating the number of hours given they have never attempted this task before. Other than that, I have largely been reduced to making cups and coffee. This might change as the weeks progress and we run short of man-hours but I wouldn’t bet on it. I have therefore found it pretty hard just to get out of the way. I think so far I’ve managed to keep this in check but it’s a very different experience from the traditional lecture and seminar. 

Students are making really extensive use of their phones to track, manage and complete tasks - so much so we made signs for the door. 
Students are making really extensive use of their phones to track, manage and complete tasks – so much so we made signs for the door. 

So, you might conclude from this that I’ll be switching all of my classes to this active learning approach – well.. no. There has been a lot of discussion of the merits of active learning vs the traditional lecture but frankly most of it is rubbish. In a UK HUM/SS context that gap doesn’t exist in the same way it seems to in the US to start with. However the real reason it is an impoverished debate is because the discourse is centred around the perspective of the individual lecturer or how it would change individual modules which is a myopic approach.

When I decided to run this project management class this way, I carefully considered how it fit within the overall diet of the students – that is to say – how would it contrast with their other modules this year. So the debate for me wasn’t really about my individual choice but how it fit the development of the student body in the context of their course of study. Students should be engaged in a range of ways and to do that properly, programme teams need to think carefully about how everything stitches together not simply “what do I want to do?”

Tips for being a good ally (part 1)

These were sent to me by a UK Female academic, I present them unedited:

I’ve been thinking about the practical steps white male allies can take to support women and ethnic minority colleagues. I suspect many of these could also apply to white women academics who consider themselves allies. Much of these relate to ‘speaking out’ which is probably easier for some than others. Some ideas, in no order.

1. Draw attention to all male/all white panels, meetings or committees. Are you in a position to step aside so someone equally experienced or qualified can take your place?If there is a social event, e.g. lunch with a big academic cheese – who has been invited. In my experience senior men invite senior men to give talks, and invite other men to the lunch or dinner.

2. Don’t just send your distressed students to your women colleagues. We have enough to do with our own students, never mind your work too.

3. Don’t send your work on to women to do e.g. you can’t work the VLE – please don’t send your material on to a woman who does know how to work it. Learn how to do it.

4. Please don’t come into my office and spend 40 minutes showing off your feminist credentials to me. Lets see a little less conversation and a little more (feminist) action please!

5. You’re at a meeting – are the appropriate people there? More than once I’ve seen all male academic meetings about a degree programme run by a woman. She’s not there to inform the discussion.

6. Please don’t laugh at sexist jokes in meetings. Please.

7. Notice who is and who isn’t speaking in meetings. Notice who is being heard and who is not being heard.

8. Look at the admin roles in your department – who has the high workload, low prestige roles, and vice versa. (often a teaching, research split).

9. If you’re a manager think about who you are allocating roles to. More than once I’ve seen (strategic?) incompetence rewarded, with roles taken away from those not doing them well and passed to those who will do them. This is not always a male to female transfer, but can be. Consider the implications here for career development and advancement.

10. This applies to us all but do respect people’s non working time. No weekend/evening emails – or at least don’t expect a response.

On this blog as a safe-space

Yowza – my previous blog post within 10 minutes of going up  resulted in me receiving virtually instantly a number of DMs on twitter from three female academics who were interested in writing an response. 

I’ll make anyone reading the blog the same offer I made them – I’ll publish anything you like on the topic with no-name and at no point will I reveal your name to anyone else or keep any records of your name. 

I did also receive an offer of a blog post talking about the struggles of white males like us via a throwaway email account – I’ll keep your name a secret as well but rather than offering you the opportunity of a blog post, I’ll leave you with this. 


On how White male academics fail as allies

A couple of recent things have made me think  how I conduct myself as an academic. My thought here are rough and might veer into #mansplaining. If they do, call me on it.

I’ve done UCU casework for a number of years at a number of different places – I’ve tried to help people confront bullying, sexism, homophobia, transphobia etc and hopefully make a little difference and along the way I get to pat myself on the back as a progressive chap who has done his bit. However the more I think about it the more I think as an ally I fail in two important ways. 

The first is that no matter how many times I deal with cases, no matter how many people I assist, I still have a lived experience where none of this stuff ever happens to me. I am absolutely the default which the academy is constructed for. 

I am the living embodiment of the default in the academy
I am the living embodiment of the default in the academy

Nobody doubts my credentials as a professional, students don’t engage in micro-aggressions, my contributions are listened to at meetings, no senior profs tried to feel up at a conference etc etc etc. Moreover when people talk about the stresses of the academy, I actually have a great time on a daily basis, many of the frictions that occur on a day to day basis just don’t exist.  

So here is the first way I fall down as an ally – even though I know on an intellectual level that all these things occur all day, everyday there is a little voice in my head that I have to constantly fight down which is saying “well it cannot be that bad” because emotionally this is all invisible to me. Every single experience I have as an individual gives me a set of mental heuristics that say “everything is A-ok!” 

So I wonder if I don’t push as hard as I could do as an ally because there is that dualism going on. This leads me to the second reason I think I fail as an ally, given the academy plays overdue attention to people like me – are we (people like me) really doing as much as we can to win structural meaningful change or am I happy to win tactical battles for individual people and then pat myself on the back? 

White male academic to the rescue! Look he's got a blazer with brass buttons he must know what to do. 
White male academic to the rescue! Look he’s got a blazer with brass buttons he must know what to do. 

So what should I do? Well I guess I get to Listen more and speak less and think a bit more. 

On working with industry – show me the money

So you find yourself as an academic having the opportunity to do some research work with industry and even better they are willing to fund all or some of your work. So you take that bag of cash and run and… 


If you are going to be working with industry you need to be exceptionally carefully about what you need to do and why you are doing it. If the project goes well everyone will appear to claim ownership, if the project goes badly then everyone will disappear and you will find yourself in a big puddle of shit without the right shoes for it. 

The following is not an exclusive list but should act as a guide to getting started – also be mindful that academic cultures vary so much that what makes sense in HUM/SS makes no sense to the hard sciences so seek specific discipline specific advice.

Project sponsor

  • You have clearly defined and agreed the scope of the project – If the Project is about X, then you put in sentences to make clear it is about X and specifically excludes Y
  • You have clearly defined the work packages and associated costs – for example if you are doing field research you have clearly defined how many sites you will visited and how much time you will spend on each visit (you also need to budget for travel costs, transcripts)
  • You have clearly indicated to the sponsors the risks involved and quantified the risks and the ways in which you will mitigate these risks
  • You have written into the contract a right to publish (often after they have looked over something) – I’ve lost track of the academics who sign contracts without reading them properly
  • You are clear about who own which bits of IPR
  • You have checked what the liabilities and penalties are – if they think your agreed deliverable is crap – is the University expected to pay for someone else to complete the work?
  • You are aware of the penalties are if you exceed the deadlines – this isn’t like working with other academics who will shrug if you blow your deadlines, if you agree a deadline either hit it or start communicating early that you will miss it
  • You have agreed how many revisions a client can expect – if you don’t put this in, clients can and will try for endless revisions to a product or service and that leads to function creep where they try and get more and more for no more money
  • you have indicated the indicative length of any reports  – don’t say you will “write a report” because that could mean anything


  • You have checked with the University that they classify this as either contract research OR ‘pure’ research – if you have no idea what I’m talking about, STOP and go and talk to your research office. 
  • Before you agree a price with the client, you have a clear understanding of what your on-costs are (effectively the base charge that occurs everyday regards of what you do). I have see academics agree contracts without doing this and then realise that they are at least £10,000 out on the budget
  • You have run the costs past an internal figure (research office) to check them
  • You have run the contract (often the client’s standard contract) past your legal team
  • You have worked out how must it is costing to buy you out of other duties (teaching) and that is built into the bid
  • You have it agreed in writing that this money will be used for the purposes indicated. Academics find that they bring in money that buys them out of 10 hours of teaching a week and yet mysteriously their teaching load is the same as before.
  • If you are doing contract research, what is your margin (the difference between the cost of doing the research and what you are charging the client)?
  • What is happening to your margin? The centre will want a cut but if you don’t get to retain any of it for your own (legitimate) purposes what is the point? 

Two final tips: 

1) don’t be tempted to under cost the research to get the contract – you will end up working every evening and weekend to complete the project because you have blown past the contract hours and still don’t have a deliverable that the client will accept. you will also then crash all your other research projects because most journals will not threaten to sue you if you don’t submit revisions on time.

2) at the start, it is common for the client to say ‘The Budget is £50,000’ and then just before you sign the contracts either they (or often) someone else will ring you and play hardball and try and get you to reduce the price claiming the price is over the top for the work – its just part of the game. I once spent four hours on the phone and in the end they got £500 off the work. So it’s worthwhile having both the quoted price and an actual price which is the minimum you would do the work for. 

I’m sure there are hundreds of things that I have missed but this will get you started…


On working for free (Academic labour – part 1)

I seem to be having the same conversation over and over on twitter and am in danger of being a one trick on a particular issue – that of academic labour and working for free. 

I never do it*, something will have gone seriously wrong if I ever have to do it. I’ll point out that my current employer Edge Hill University has never asked me to work for free so none of the examples I’ll discuss applies to them.

Let’s get the caveats out of the way first:

  • If you are happy and comfortable to work for free, more power to you, we need to change the underlying systemic issues not snipe at each other
  • I’m a white heterosexual man with no disabilities and have all of the advantages that occur in a system where people’s default idea of the academy is a white hetrosexual man with no disabilities. In general I never suffer from the micro-aggressions that many people have to deal with multiple times a day. I’ve never detected any problems with coming from a working class background. I know this stuff goes on because people tell me (and if you want to debate that it goes on – this is the wrong blog for you) but its invisible to me. 
  • You really think that your career would suffer – then go for it, I’m not you and thus why this makes sense to me might make no sense to you
  • You have a passion project that will not happen without free labour

With that in mind, why don’t I work for free? 

  • There is the opportunity cost – every time you work for free you commit time that can used for something that actually pays.
  • By working for free, you send the signal that either your time isn’t valuable or your expertise is worthless. 
  • If you are already working for free, why pay you? 
  • If you are working for free, why not ask you to do more – because the marginal cost of asking you to do more to the person asking is… zero
  • There is the multipller effect – I once was asked to attended a conference and was expected to pay for it myself, it came to about £800. This was ten years ago, I stuck the money into my investments and got a average return on that £800 (even during the financial crisis) of about 12% – I cannot even remember what the conference was. Working for free is stealing from your future.
  • Every time we agree to work for free, we make it harder for all of us to be paid.
  • I’ve been poor, I didn’t like it – it was the most stressful experience you can think of and is even more stressful now given the language of ‘scroungers’ – “oh my god, what if they invite me to join them for coffee, I’ll have to do without dinner” (if you’ve never been poor that might make no sense to you, if you have been it makes perfect sense to you).

Now at this point some of you are disgusted:

what sort of academic is this guy who is concerned about money? aren’t we all suppose to be doing it for love?

Doing it for love is fine if that floats your boat but I don’t plan to be eating dog food on retirement or if I get ill or if my job disappears and I don’t want my family to have to do that either. I also don’t trust in Govt. to provide. To me sound financial planning is the same as regularly exercising and not eating kebabs every evening – it just makes sense.

There is a secret about the academy, there is money, they just don’t want to give it to you, I’ll return to this but some examples to finish with on that theme:

  • Along with some other graduate students, I was invited to mark some dissertations for free that needed to be done quickly – I promised to turn them around fast but needed to be paid, the others did it for free. There were some uncomfortable conversations later… 
  • I did a post-doc where I asked the salary and we talked about what they were going to pay me. I found out later that rather than spilt the money between me and two other Post-docs, they paid me at the top and then at the bottom of the grade, simply because they hadn’t asked. 

We’ll return to this again.

* OK I likely do it in ways that I’ve hadn’t thought of – but before someone suggest working at weekends and evening – I do neither – if it doesn’t get done in the day it doesn’t get done. 

Getting students to improve the quality of your assessments

One of the challenges of a new semester is ensuring that we produce high quality rigorous assessments. Here’s a quick and easy way of improving the quality of your assessments.

I teach a third year strategy module.  Two weeks before I officially handed out the assessment, I uploaded a copy of the previous year’s assignment to Google docs with students having viewing rights a week before. Briefly the assignment asks students to assess the market performance of a chosen organisation and make recommendations for changes. Students were asked to consider the following:

  • ·         Does the assignment make sense?
  • ·         Which elements need clarification or changing?
  • ·         What organisation shall the case be based around? Should it be more than one?

I then asked them in their seminar slots (there are six running in parallel) to edit the document or make comments on it.  

On the left is the assessment, on the right are the comments. 
On the left is the assessment, on the right are the comments. 

During a period of around four hours, the students made around 5000 edits to the assignment and I believe this act of co-creation had the following positive benefits:

  • It alerted me to problems with my own writing where I thought I had been clear but had not;
  • Most of the conversations on the day were student to student and therefore the knowledge creation about what should be in the assignment or what elements were unclear was self-directed;
  • The students had a much deeper understanding of what the assignment required because they had to consider carefully which organisations would best meet the learning outcomes and assessment criteria;
  • JISC talks about developing digital capabilities that will make someone fit to live, learn and work in a digital society. One of the key attributes is the ability to collaboration and co-ordinate activity in a digital environment. This works perfectly for that type of development. 

One of the interesting side-effects was that although I stated to students that they only had to edit it during their normal seminar time, many continued to edit all day or for many days afterwards. 

The end result was that many things that I thought were clear were obviously not and together we produced a much clearer and stronger assessment. I now do this for all my modules. 

I got bored of lecturing so I quit.

Well not entirely. One of the issues that I don’t see much discussion of in the academy is boredom, like refusing to work for free, it seems to be a topic that is taboo. The simple truth is I’m bored of lecturing, very very bored.

The problem is that my student teaching reviews go up every year (they can actually only go down now), I get nominated for a student led teaching award every year and have won twice in the last three years, so clearly this boredom isn’t impacting my actual classroom performance. 

Stagnation will surely occur if I don’t make my teaching fresh to myself let alone my students and then my performance will decline unless I shake things up and try something new rather than sleep-walking through the academic year. 

An opportunity for that shake-up arrived this academic year when I was tasked with teaching a new project management class to 2nd year undergraduates. The class has never run before and therefore has no predetermined format. 

So I started to plan out the course in the normal one hour lecture and two hour seminar pattern and… I just could not face it – and then it struck me, I just wouldn’t bother lecturing and we’d scrap the seminars as well

There is another important aspect to this – the need for students to develop the sorts of digital capabilities that the graduates of 2020 and beyond will need. There is a lot of discussion about the best way to embed this type of skills development into University teaching but to me what is obvious is that teaching students how to use specific technologies is not as important as giving them the space to develop adaptable skill-sets. 

So this is what is happening – I am actually doing a lecture (couldn’t quite get away from them) but it’s pre-recorded and the students watch it every week before attending – the first hour will therefore be us discussing what they saw and me clarifying and providing additional material. Ah but what about the other two hours a week? I’m glad you asked…

There are 30 students in two seminar groups – which is 30 X 2 X 10 = 600 man-hours or 300 hours per group. We lost week one to set-up and week twelve will be project shut-down and a party – yes you heard me, if the projects are successful, we’ll invite the sponsors and have a party – just like the real thing.  

Group 1 is the business school skunkworks:

The Skunkworks will be undertaking a project for an internal University sponsor with the aim of making a meaningful real impact to the University, its students and the people who work in it. Although some projects will be proposed, the members of the Skunkworks will decide themselves which project they wish to take on. You are our applied research wing.

Group 2 is the student led research hub:

The student led research hub will be undertaking a research project with the aim of producing new knowledge. The topic will be discussed and decided by the members of the research hub. You are our pure research wing.


The reason that there are two different projects is because if one of the projects appears to be ‘failing’ then members of the other seminar group will be asked to work as consultants to help the other group. 

To facilitate this, we are using real project management software – in this case  Zoho projects. The students will use zoho to monitor the projects and rack up billable hours. 

To get the students use to Zoho projects, we have a 'resources' project where we are discussing what biscuits we want every week. I've never seen a real project team work without drinks, so I'm providing tea and coffee every week. 
To get the students use to Zoho projects, we have a ‘resources’ project where we are discussing what biscuits we want every week. I’ve never seen a real project team work without drinks, so I’m providing tea and coffee every week. 

The use of the software has another function – In theory it is impossible for a student not to contribute because if they not allocated and do not complete tasks to rack up billable hours then they will be unable to complete their assignment because they will have no evidence to support their assessment. 

Every aspect of the projects is controlled by the students – how they allocate the billable hours, how they agree a project scope with project sponsors (if there is a project sponsor) – everything, if they picked a project I actually don’t like – well that’s tough – I only have one rule in my classes, we don’t lie to each other. I told the students they pick the projects and I’d be a liar if I changed that. 

If both projects completely fail, the students can still submit a final assessment because they will talk about the reasons why and compare to more successful projects and underpin that with theoretical and professional perspectives in this area. 

Some issues that have already emerged in the first two weeks:

  • I have had to make signs to indicate that this class makes heavy use of mobile devices. The students are controlling the projects via their mobile phones and we are writing project docs in google docs (on our wifi network, no charges occurred). To anyone walking past the classroom it looks like everyone is messing around on their mobiles, me included.
  • I had to buy a multi-charging station because students devices go flat. 
  • Students are already asking questions like “who owns the IPR?” which is a really good question we will deal with (them) and also is one of the critical questions that underpins the digital economy.

I’ll get into the projects themselves and how its actually going in a couple of weeks. If it all falls to pieces – well we’ll deal with that as well but I have faith in my students, otherwise what the hell are we all doing here?