Alex Taylor on research at the boundaries, moving from industry to academia, the labour of academia & the power of the collective

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Alex Taylor is a sociologist and a Reader in the Centre for Human Computer Interaction Design at City, University of London. Alex moved into academia in Sept 2017, having worked at Microsoft Research Cambridge prior to this for over a decade and as a post doc researcher at Surrey University before this. Alex talks about his work at the boundaries of disciplines where he doesn’t feel like he has a clear disciplinary home, and about his experiences working at Microsoft. He explains his very conscious decision to then move into an academic position. The trigger for this conversation was a twitter post where he commented on the many different skills that he had to draw on as an academic. He reflects on the labours of academia, and the need to prioritise and make choices. He also talks about generative resistance in the face of the demands of the academy, taking principled stands, saying no and offering alternatives. And he talks about doing this as a collective endeavour and the power of small everyday actions. In all he does Alex is deeply reflective and values-driven and asks How do we create the opportunities and the spaces to do the academy differently? He shows many of the practical ways we can all be part of this.

“I never felt I had a [disciplinary] home and that took a while to come to terms with. … maybe that’s just the kind of person I am, the work I thrive in.”

“We all have to make choices within our lives about what we prioritise. And I realised for me being a parent and partner were very important.”

“[Recognising] the sheer number of skills that were required of me in one day. … It’s a very clear indication of the labours involved in being an academic. And the recognition that you can’t be good at them all.“

“How do we create the opportunities and the spaces to do the academy differently?”

“Important for me in the Centre is how do collectively say no to that? … It’s not just about saying no, what other things might we offer up as a solution?”

Overview (times approximate)

02:07 Research background and dealing with the press/impact

13:49 How he decided to work at Microsoft & sticking to his guns

34:24 Consciously deciding to move from MSR to university

43:40 The labours involved in being an academic

57:42 Collective generative resistance

In more detail, he talks about…

Research background and dealing with the press/impact

02:07 Alex talks about working at University of Surrey and Xerox Europarc and then going to Microsoft Research. A sociologist with an interest in the sociology of technology and he did his PhD on teenagers and mobile phones, a long time ago when it was still a surprise to the industry because SMS was originally something to be used a back channel for engineers. Fortuitous in a way that he realized young people might be the thing to look at.

07:55 Alex reflecting on his use of words like fortuitous and luck. “It was just about meeting the right people at the right time. I fully recognize I’m in a privileged position.” And the topic was an important one at the time, how youth were using mobile phones and SMS at that time. Talks about being on the Radio 4 today program as a PhD student and wondering what he was doing there.

11:12 We discuss more on his experience engaging with the press over the years, especially having worked at Microsoft and their PR machine. Told throughout his career about the need to make his writing more accessible. Part of him as resisted/struggled with that, making it accessible to a public audience. He has written pieces for a journalism context and been on radio and TV but doesn’t find it easy. Attuned to the demands of UK’s academic impact from his years at Microsoft.

How he decided to work at Microsoft & sticking to his guns

13:49 We discuss his decision to go to Microsoft Research. At some point he recognized he was going to be in academic life and he did do a post-doc at Surrey straight after PhD. Then Microsoft approached him to work for a couple of years as a contractor, he asked for something ludicrous thinking they wouldn’t take it up. He was uneasy working for a big institution working for a profit. But they said yes. Then Richard and Abi set up this group together and he ended up swapping 6 months in into full-time employment.

17:57 So how did he reconcile working for a big corporate profit driven company? A very particular institution when he joined it – he understood it as driven by a philanthropic attitude to research and scholarship. There was scope to do what you wanted to do as an academic. “We’re hiring you to be a good researcher.” Didn’t believe it but gave it a shot. And for 8-10 years it was like that. Prior to starting at MSR he had already turned attention to studying the home. This was a point of departure for MSR but they encouraged it. So research and papers about how the home becomes the place it is. A mutual relationship where you are also aware of working for a company with particular concerns. So was able to justify this slightly uneasy relationship as work was about scholarship.

22:23 Was there too much freedom? Still not that different to writing grant proposals etc asking what you might like to do what was the context we are working in and how to scope our conversations there. Privileged – absolutely compared to the academy. “Many of us who believe in what we do and enjoy what we do don’t have a problem finding things that interest us.”

24:39 Alex discusses how he was always testing out the boundaries and came to realise that he sees himself as inhabiting the boundaries. Now it has become a conscious thing in his research. But it takes time and looking back to recognise the red threads of interest. “Played out in sense of uneasiness in the periphery and how to reconcile this space I’ve made for myself, along with colleagues, but it is peripheral to HCI, Computer Science, Sociology. I never felt I had a home and that took a while to come to terms with. … But in recognising that I thought that maybe that’s just the kind of person I am or the work I thrive in.”

26:43 We discuss the challenges then in communicating his work across these boundaries. The obvious challenge is that it is a work of translation. Feels that he stuck to his guns, that there were things that mattered to him, that he knew would get kicked back (proposals, papers, teaching specifications). All these things are where the tensions get played out. He tries to resist the formula and tries to encourage his students that they can do this too. Discusses how the CHI research community is now letting in other forms of scholarship, a gradual change, and that’s good.

29:55 Being reflective about sitting at the boundaries. Through his academic training, reflexivity is built in. Our thinking, the lived experiences we have both within academia and outside pervade everything. He doesn’t feel dissimilar in the way he lives his live, his family life in London as a peripheral mode of living. Pervasive identities. And always asking questions and putting oneself somewhere else occasionally.

32:44 Any costs to sticking to his guns? Has been lucky, working with the right people, and working in an organisation where it was ok to try things out. The choice to be in the periphery is a privileged position. Costs in that the work has been subject to criticisms of various kinds. But probably not more than others. Important for him that the work does make a difference.

Consciously deciding to move from MSR to university

34:24 We discuss his thinking then in moving from MSR to a university position. Microsoft was changing and MSR in the Cambridge Lab became much more business focused and product driven – topics and methods shaped by something else that made him feel uncomfortable. Doesn’t begrudge Microsoft making those decisions but it made those tensions in himself out of kilter and he didn’t want to work in the spaces that were being set. They weren’t meaningful to him. A profit driven approach to research.  Two years before he left he knew he was thinking in this way and that things need to change for him. Realised it didn’t feel right to him.

37:27 Talks about having a young family, two kids. At MSR, serious scholars but demands weren’t the same as in academia (though changing now). The changes aren’t detached from one another. So spoke to a few people, advised never to go into academia (by people who were in academia)! Points to the twitter discussion that triggered me talking to him. One comment that wasn’t framed in a positive way was ‘what right do you have to comment on the academy coming from industry’. Not meant spitefully but didn’t feel like it was part of the rest of the generative discussion of others. But an important question to ask. Didn’t feel outside of the academy in MSR. All colleagues/peers were in academic positions. Cared for them. Their concerns were my concerns. And shifts in MSR and the academy not accidental. Decision to come back to academia was an intentional effort to come back to a place he knew needed more people and recognising many people get worn out and coming to it fresh might just be one more way to make a difference. So a very conscious decision despite many warnings against it.

41:52 Saw a position at City. Met with people at the centre. Immediately felt like a generative place. Experience has told him that the people and place is worth more than anything. That outweighed anything. Geography mattered as well with a young family. Felt the centre was open not just to welcoming but change. “I had in my mind, could a place be made that felt different, that made an effort to resist many of the pressures we feel subject to.” An ongoing project.

The labours involved in being an academic

43:40 We discuss his experiences now having worked at City for a year and a half. Returns to the twitter discussion. The tweet he sent out commented on the sheer number of skills that had been required of him in one day, from working on a grant to prepping for a class to preparing for an exam script etc. And required to be good at them all. So not intended as a political statement but at the shock of recognition at the skills expected of us. Felt like he had a sense of it before but coming to work at it on a daily basis, moving between tasks, and trying to be good at them all, a clear indication of the labours involved in being an academic. And the recognition that you can’t be good at them all.

45:42 “That was another realisation I had, […] that we all have to make choices within our lives about what we prioritise. And I realised for me being a parent and partner were very important. And that was going to take away from academic life. And the people I aspire to in the academy I might not ever be able to live up to in my own practice.” According to what criteria? Recognition of one’s work and position within the fields. Who are the influential people in your field of practice? Why those names? And what choices have they made? And on a daily basis we are continually making choices and it’s not a simple equation.

48:42 We discuss negotiating those choices within a group and faculty context (and family context) in light of their pressures. What are the limits of the work he was willing to invest, stretched by moral and functional demands? Not willing to put some things in jeopardy e.g., picking kids up two days a week. Choices made on routine daily basis. “There’s a value system that’s important for me in the work that I do here in the Centre and I want to stick to that. The trouble is that it takes work.” If you say no, no comes with its costs too.

52:05 Alex talks through a specific example of saying no, and sticking to his values/ethical system. As a program director for a Masters course in HCI he was up against the pressure to increase numbers without extra resources. “A neoliberal project of extracting labour for the same or less.” He stood up for that. Said no. Something has to give, either the number you are giving us or the resources. They got resources! And now pressures for the next year. He made clear to his department head he is not in this to further the neoliberal project. Laying his cards on the table.

55:07 He is in a tenured position but it still means they can’t shut the department down. Standing up is important to him though, from his position of privilege. “I’m in this for a collective project of resistance and I use resistance carefully. […] Those no’s are not just for me.” Alex talks about how the Centre has engaged with this notion of resistance. “How do we create the opportunities and the spaces to do the academy differently?”

Collective generative resistance

57:42 Alex talks about listening to Ali Black’s podcast. “I think we forget that to resist is also its own project.” The easy answer is to maintain the status quo. How would be define generative? He points to books he has on the table (see below for names and links). Inspired by feminist forms of resistance and generativity. How do we make possible other ways of becoming? Links back to Ali Black’s work. And the power of small things like a writing group to lay the seeds for a critical reading of where we are and how we might be something else. A collective source of making a difference. It’s deeply structural. If you say no it goes to someone else. It’s a divide and conquer regime. “Important for me in the Centre is how do collectively say no to that? … It’s not just about saying no, what other things might we offer up as a solution?” An unending project. Reflects on what he enjoyed about the twitter discussion and having all types of scholars involved in the discussion. For early career researchers, advises finding the right people who won’t subject you to pressures. But of course a non-trivial recommendation.

01:04:56 Other key lessons moving into academia – no easy answers but the sense of having people with you and creating an environment where everyone can be the best they can be. And it gets done in small ways. Meetings that allow thinking to flourish. Writing group and new person setting a tone. A reading group to think about content and also introducing these layers of thinking and criticality. A research group run by Simone Stumpf. These things all take time. Not everyone comes. About giving a sense of the environment we’re in. Also thinking of writing retreats. Have a once/week seminar. All start to add up and set the conditions for what we’re in business about. All very collective.

01:10:16 So has this been a good move for him? He asks himself that on a regular basis! The sheer weight and demand of the academy on all of us upsets him. But he is determined to change something and make it better in the small ways any one person or collective can. Seeds for other things.

01:11:43 Final reflections. So much of thinking inspired by many different people. So many good people.

01:13:18 End

Related Links

Alex Taylor’s blog https://ast.io/about-alex-taylor/

Richard Harper https://www.rhrharper.com

Abi Sellen https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/research/people/asellen/

Simone Stumpf https://www.city.ac.uk/people/academics/simone-stumpf

Xerox EuroPARC https://wiki.cam.ac.uk/crucible/Xerox_EuroPARC

HCID Centre https://hcid.city

The Feb 25 2019 twitter post and following discussion https://twitter.com/alxndrt/status/1100110754248908801

Ali Black podcast - http://www.changingacademiclife.com/blog/2017/3/20/ali-black 

Books:

Donna Harroway, Staying with the trouble.

Sarah Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life

Isabelle Stengers et al, Women who make a fuss: The unfaithful daughters of Virginia Wolf

Andy Ko on being reflectively self-aware, deliberately structured, & amazingly productive

Andy Ko is an Associate Professor in the Information School at University of Washington. Building on Andy’s blog post, “How I sometimes achieve academic work life balance”, we explore lots of different perspectives about how he works at being structured and productive. The conversation ranges from his experiences doing a start up, learning planning skills from his mother, putting them to work at college, and adapting priorities while working in industry. Now back in academia, he shares his very deliberate practices around things like managing his PhD supervision, co-writing papers, running efficient meetings, quantifying time and tasks, managing to-do lists and the like. A common theme is that these are ‘simply’ skills and habits that are developed through repeated practice, discipline and self-awareness, and working to your strengths.

“That paradox of being structured and flexible at the same time… never enough time to do all the things we want to do… so there has to be flexibility… The only thing you can predict is how much time we have.”

“We all have different skills…and abilities to be self-aware and disciplined …most of this is practice… For anybody thinking about how to use their time more effectively they just have to first think about what skills they already have and... how to build practices around them… slowly incrementally over time… Much more about a process of learning and being reflective…and less about borrowing a particular strategy.”

He talks about (times approximate) …

1:54 Andy’s background and research area, and taking time in sabbatical to read deeply about learning science to support current research

4:04 Sabbatical just after tenure, and its relation to taking two year’s leave to do a start-up, “a good stressor on my productivity skills”, clear trajectory from career grant to start-up

6:14 The start-up process story – wanting to apply research in practice, and different goals of co-founder, resolving conflict of interests, getting in touch with potential customers, raising venture capital, building team and product, market plan; support of faculty important

09:44 Lessons learnt? Biggest mistake, not doing enough user research, forgetting enterprise customers were also users

11:54 Coming back to academia, hiring replacement CEO, CTO, and ongoing involvement as chief scientist (patent work and strategic R&D), now 1 day a week for the company

13:14 Previously working 60 hours a week, conversations with families/kids and getting consent from them re not being so available and ok with it, becoming talented at productivity, needing to be ruthless aboutprotecting time and using it wisely

15:24 Fundamental idea of having to invest time, economic model of how much time committed to different parties, “doing the most I can within that time” and then context switching

17:05 Compromises? Being present in the company 8-6 every day, then needing to be flexible eg meeting with students in evenings or at lunch; accepting research having to go slower, with result of sometimes helping eg student having to grow, and sometimes not; becoming more reflective about how much he gave and how much was needed

19:25 For supporting students with publications: “What’s the thing that they need to me, it’s not so much about how much time they need from me but what they need from me”; explicit discussion, developing more self awareness for self and students, and other downstream effects; confounded by getting or having tenure (how critical it is to get a publication done now)

21:24 New skills for managing different projects, keeping track of people’s state – capturing information 5 mins after a meeting about to remember for next meeting, and scheduling 5 mins before next meeting to catch up – using Apple’s notes app and document for each student as log of interactions, progress, challenges etc; also helps with context switching and shorter meetings

24:22 Shortened meeting times, there’s something about a 30 min meeting, more focused, forcing function of having to reflect on the purpose of the meeting sometimes even solves issue before the meeting; scaffold meeting by defining purpose, build prep/reading into the meeting time, more efficient use of time; value of physical documents, can’t hold smart phone, nudges towards engagement

28:15 Attribute most learning to deliberate practice … being organized, impact of watching mum being organized

30:39 At college, being obsessive around to-do lists because he was bad at remembering things; still do to-do lists, tools better now, task capture easier; helps a lot with faculty life with multiple responsibilities; using Omnifocus, 4000 open to-do items spanning 3 yrs, the discipline around future planning … “because that little tiny commitment muscle is practiced enough every time I remember... I capture it too”

36:12 Story of professor and research of prospective memory, learning about memory and opportunity to reflect on practice, capturing metadata around tasks, being very deliberate about what can fit in the time, and the value of having data to support that, and requiring discipline to capture that data in the first place; hard to begin those practices, because hard to judge what the future value will be

39:34 Setting a quota for types of work, being rational about commitments, we say numbers (50% research 30% teaching, 20% service) but ignore them entirely so tries to be committed to those numbers and to reciprocity principle eg with reviewing

41:54 “That paradox of being structured and flexible at the same time, that’s just the nature of the work we do. As researchers and scholars, we have this great privilege of all of this time in which to pursue our curiosity and do things that are valuable to the world and yet there is never enough time to do all the things we want to do so we are constantly balancing what we want to do and what we have time to do and trying to fit things into the time we have so there has to be that flexibility in balancing that structure as we don’t have predictable paths that we follow in the work we do. … The only thing you can predict is how much time we have.”

42:55 Usually does an 8-5 or 6 day – knows that when he burns out, thinking isn’t as clear, forgets to do things, stares at email longer than he should; using self awareness around own cognition that is valuable, doing things that are appropriate for level of consciousness and energy at the time

44:55 Most common reaction/question since the blog post – could never do what you do or how do I get started;

“we all have different skills we have developed over our lifetimes and abilities to be self-aware and disciplined and I do believe that most of this is practice, I’m really not much of an innate talent mindset… but the reality is that I have had a lot of practice at a lot of these things ... that allowed me to develop a certain set of practices that are very structured and mature. For anybody thinking about how to use their time more effectively they just have to first think about what skills they already have and how to build upon them, how to build practices around them. … build slowly incrementally over time … Much more about a process of learning and being reflective about that process and less about borrowing a particular strategy. … Very personal processes very tied to our ability to self regulate and discipline our behavior.”

47:24 Now researching software developers and their self-regulation skills – even teaching novice students self regulation skills increase their productivity, self-efficacy and their growth mindset because of awareness

50:52 End

Related Links

Andy's blog post: “How I sometimes achieve academic work life balance” - https://medium.com/bits-and-behavior/how-i-sometimes-achieve-academic-work-life-balance-4bbfc1769820

Jacob Wobbrock - https://faculty.washington.edu/wobbrock/

Start-up: AnswerDash - https://www.answerdash.com

Tool: Omnifocus - https://www.omnigroup.com/omnifocus