18 March, 2015

Findings and Interpretations - Meeting at the ETH Zürich to discuss the Glatt

Last week, 12th March, we travelled to the ETH Zürich to present and discuss the findings of our SUSTAIN_GOV-study on spatial planning, land use and governance in the Glatt region of the Canton of Zurich, Switzerland. Present were some of the project partners Dirk Lohaus (IBA Basel), Prof. Dr. Christian Schmid (ETH), and Dr. Reto Nebel, ETH, who helped us in the initial phases of getting the project started, and getting us connected. Engin Imrak and Dr. Ileana Apostol, and Dr. Marco Pütz (WSL Birmensdorf), were also present, who in the past have kindly let us pick their brains about general issues concerning spatial planning in Zürich and in the Glatt. Special thanks to Dr. Nebel for helping make the event on March 12, 2015, happen.

After a few words of welcome, thanks, and context, Carr presented “Befunde und Interpretationen“ based on our study. This was followed by some comments and questions from Nebel, who kindly volunteered as our discussant, who sparked a great discussion afterwards. As in our previous project, SUSTAINLUX, this workshop fulfilled the purpose of discussing our interpretations of the research findings together with local experts. As it is generally useful to take an independent and unbiased look at a certain local or regional setting, the local experts’ perspective is helpful in providing an appropriate analytical framework. Methodologically, this is important for achieving or ensuring “Richtungssicherheit” – a certain sense that our interpretations are basically shared by the local partners and thus be considered relevant or in the right direction.

Carr presented primarily empirical research with some preliminary conclusions for consideration. The lively debates that transpired showed that the results can be interpreted in a variety of directions. It is clear now that our research speaks to wider discussions on urbanization in conditions of growth pressure, suburban development, planning practice and institutional fragmentation and mismatch, the orthodoxy of density planning, democratic practices and political theory, (im)possibilities of sustainability or social justice, inter-municipal development/co-operation/conflict. We look forward to exploring these and other conceptual angles in the coming months.

In closing the evening, Hesse presented some thoughts on the comparative dimension of urban research, “Zürich/Glatt aus der Sicht von Luxemburg.” There is not only a stunning range of similar developments going on in both countries, and related attitudes to be found among planning institutions. Switzerland and Luxembourg have also experienced a rather comparable trajectory of socio-economic and spatial development for which two issues seem to be particularly important:

- first, the fact that this unfolded against the background of small states within a certain niche of capability and sovereignty to act,

- second, the clash between the old and the new as a consequence of modernity and the - neither deliberate nor accidental - internationalisation of the two countries and, particularly, of their economies.

The workshop was thoroughly productive, and we went away with renewed inspiration, concerning the various themes, dilemmas, and implications that were discussed. We’ll keep you posted on findings and results soon.

17 March, 2015

A few notes on abstract writing*

by Markus Hesse and Gerald Taylor Aiken.
* This note benefited greatly from a recent discussion of our thoughts on academic writing in general, and abstract writing in particular, on a Geography-seminar in the context of IPSE’s doctoral school at the UL.

Conference presentations (aka ‘papers’) are something that researchers are used to prepare not only because this is the standard occasion for letting others know about what you are doing, but also because conferences and workshops offer a setting for developing new ways for your research. Presenting your thoughts against an informed audience gives you important inspiration for your own work, which can be strategically relevant.

The value of conference participation is that, first, most audiences will respond to your work by making remarks, comments and critique. This is a great opportunity: regardless of whether the feedback is positive or critical, it always brings you forward. Don’t worry about criticism; just learn to accept the argument. Second, responding to calls-for-papers and wisely planned conference participation offers particular opportunities for strategically developing your research portfolio. Thus new topics can be ‘tested’ by presenting and discussing them at conferences or workshops, in advance of preparing a proposal or writing a paper based on these thoughts. Third, getting in touch with other people who do similar or comparable things is always enriching yourself; the same can be the case with those people who may do completely different things -- listening and talking to them can be equally inspiring.

In many cases, the hurdle that needs to be taken before planning for a conference is submitting an abstract that will be accepted by the organisers, based on a more or less strict selection process. In only in few cases, such as the AAG-conference in the U.S., is everything that is submitted accepted into the conference programme. So it is worth spending some time  creating this short piece of work that often marks the starting point of what is becoming an interesting conference topic or a full academic paper afterwards.

Based on our discussion in the Geography and Spatial Planning Institute’s PhD Seminar, and in addition to the general sources on academic writing which we refer to (see a couple of sources below), we are presenting here a few practical points that may help everybody who is preparing for a conference or workshop. In this context, we particularly distinguish two different steps: first, the reflection of the subject matter and the preparation of a topic, and, second, the abstract-writing process as such. In many instances, it will also be useful to make notes on the remarks that were made in response to your input.

1) Reflection
- Does my topic fit with the organisers’ aims, the conference themes, or the call for paper/session contributions?
- Does the topic fit with my own research/publication strategy?
- What do I have to offer: existing material that reports on projects, research or reflections I did so far, or will new material be presented that challenges my own creativity or productivity?
- In any case, particularly when opting for presenting new thoughts, do I have sufficient capacity to get it done before the conference/deadline?

2) Writing
The abstract is an important part of your envisaged or existing work and functions as a sort of business card. Hence it is highly important and should not be underestimated. There are a few common rules available for successful abstract writing, and authors such as Dunlevey (2003, 203ff.) or Kitchin & Fuller (2005, 128ff.) emphasise these explicitly. Based on these suggestions and also on our own experience, convincing abstracts may consist of the following elements:
- an appealing title that should be both as telling and as short as possible,
- a clear structure, ideally consisting of 5-6 sentences that conform to the word limit for conference abstracts (e.g. 250 words at AAG- or IBG-conferences),
- the first sentence, most importantly, is the readers’ eye-catcher, making a statement on the subject matter or on your particular hypothesis,
- the second sentence refers to the given state of knowledge in this area,
- the third sentence claims for missing links or blind spots in this area – this is your justification to deal with it,
- the fourth sentence makes the way you are planning to deal with the topic more explicit
- the fifth sentence denotes the character of your work (conceptual, theoretical, empirical), indicating the underlying research, if applicable,
- the sixth sentence closes the abstract with a statement on your argument, a particular critique of the given state of knowledge or the direction in which future research & debate should be going.

Abstracts that are being prepared for research proposals are often placed prominently in the related application schemes, so they deserve particular attention as well. While they are expected to make reference to current problems or existing knowledge (and related blind spots) as the main justification for new research, they may then turn to provide two particular sorts of information: information on the knowledge generation that can be expected by the proposed research, and most notably on the methods that are foreseen to be applied (quoting J. R. K.: ‘proposals live and die with methods’).

Would you like to read more about abstract writing? Many conference programmes are now accessible on the web (e.g. www.aag.org; www.rgs.org; www.dkg2015.hu-berlin.de). Check out how conference presentations are announced, framed and synthesised, with the help of abstracts.

3) Post-conference wrap-up
This does not necessarily belong to abstract writing but conference preps and wrap-up, but remember to make your note on any comment that was made concerning your input, and take these suggestions into account once developing the materials further.

Blunt, A., Hatfield, M. & Souch, C. (eds.) (2013): Publishing and getting read. A Guide for New Researchers in Geography, 2nd ed. London: Royal Geographical Society (RGS) with The Institute of British Geographers (IBG).
Dunlevey, P. (2003): Authoring a PhD. How to Plan, Draft, Write and Finish a Doctoral Thesis or Dissertation. London: Palgrave Macmillan
Johnson, W. B. & Mullen, C. A. (2007): Write to the top! How to become a prolific academic. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Kitchin, R. & Fuller, D. (2005): The academic's guide to publishing. London: Sage.
Northey, M. E. & Knight, D. B. (2001): Making sense: a student's guide to research and writing: geography & environmental sciences, 2nd Edition. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.