PhD workout: getting ‘reading fit’

I have been silent for far too long in this space, my creativity stifled by fatigue and channeled into other writing – book chapters, course outlines, lecture notes and far too many emails. I have been thinking a lot about ‘fitness’ for research, as I have been feeling terribly out of shape, and I am starting to wonder if I have it in me to finish the current project I have been working on, and start and see through a new project, as I plan to in the new year. What makes us ‘fit’ for research, and how do we get into shape, as it were? In a series of posts, starting here, I will think this through, with some suggestions for working on your research fitness.

One of the most challenging issue for any researcher, or student, you speak to who is working on a research project – especially one that is PhD or MA length – is reading. Knowing what to read, and when; knowing how to read effectively; knowing what to do with all the reading when you start writing; and finding or making time for reading.

loads of reading

The reality, with a PhD or significant research project, is that you need to spend way more time reading than you probably think. To make a clear, useful and novel contribution to knowledge in your field, you have to know your field well. To get to know your field this well, you must be immersed in the debates, conversations, cutting edge and also established, landmark work. This immersion, and deep understanding of the shape, form and evolution of your field will enable you to position your own research, and your own voice, in the most relevant space in this field, and these conversations and debates. This kind of immersion takes time, and a great deal of reading – most sources suggest at least 6 months for a doctoral proposal – before you can really start speaking with emerging authority about your own study in relation to other established or existing research.

Shortcuts here will lead to difficulties later on, as gaps in your knowledge and contribution may mean going back several steps to the beginning. Shortcuts may also lead to misunderstandings of key concepts and debates, and you may then misrepresent existing research in relation to your own, and falter in positioning your study effectively in the field. This can be dangerous if you become attached to your early ways of thinking about your study, as it becomes harder to receive critique and feedback, and make changes down time, with more reading and guidance from your supervisor(s). It will also, quite certainly, add time to an already lengthy process. So, the first step to getting reading fit is to accept that you need to read MANY papers and books, and you need to make notes, and talk about the reading with your supervisor and peers. You will need a few drafts of all this thinking before you have a steady enough grasp of a research problem, and questions, that will be your focus as your project evolves.

Another challenge, directly linked to reading, is how to find your own study and ‘voice’ in amongst all the voices and studies you are immersing yourself in. It is vital to be deeply immersed in your field, such that become a part of it, but it can be difficult for a novice researcher or postgraduate student to work out where and how their study fits into all of the published research, and how to make that contribution in a clear, resonant ‘voice’. A second step, then, to becoming reading fit is to learn to write about what you read in a way that enables that contribution to take shape, incrementally, over time. Research and reading journals can help here, as can setting up a reading group with peers, where you need to write and speak critically about what you are reading, and make an effort to connect the reading to your own study. All of the literature you include in your thesis, or proposal, or papers, must have a relation to the argument you are making. This means, then, having an argument to make – this is your voice, and through consistent critical engagement with the reading, you will slowly find and strengthen this.

A final challenge, for this post, is actually making time for all this reading in amongst all the other busy work and life stuff we have to manage and make time for. We talk a great deal about all the writing work that goes into a PhD or MA thesis, or published paper – this work is more visible, because it has a tangible outcome in the form of text. But, we cannot write, and think, in the ways required of us at this level of research unless we are reading, immersing ourselves in the arguments, debates and conversations we need to contribute to with our research. Reading work is less visible, though – it is a quiet task; just you and a chair, and maybe a pen and a journal nearby, silently reading a paper or a book chapter. It can look, and feel, indulgent to spend quiet time reading when everyone else around seems so busy. But it is essential that, as we strive to make time to write, we also strive to value our reading time, and make space for this. It is part of the work of research, and cannot be relegated to a rushed activity. That way trouble lies. Using something like a pomodoro technique can help you carve out this time in your days and weeks, and contribute to your reading fitness. Or perhaps a ‘shut-up-and-read’ group, when, instead of writing together, you meet with peers in a conducive space and read for an hour once a week.

This part of any research project or process is time-consuming, and tough. And you will become less fit as you stop or slow down your reading, and will have to work at getting in shape again. But reading can also be a pleasurable academic task, and focusing on all you are learning and on your developing voice and authority can make the tough work of getting reading fit feel less arduous.

Publishing and thesis-ing: finding the courage of your convictions

Lovely husband and I have been talking lately about a group of new research students he is working with. He observed yesterday that part of their struggle with writing up their research projects is that they lack confidence in their claims. This got me thinking about making arguments in academic writing, and putting ideas out into the world. A great deal of the advice out there has to do with how to do this, and why we do this – craft persuasive, well-written, well-substantiated arguments. But, in this little post, I want to reflect a bit on a less written-about aspect of publishing writing, whether in paper or thesis form: finding the ‘courage of your convictions’, and being confident enough to stand by these. 

A friend and colleague who works with postgraduate students has a lovely saying: she says that a big part of writing at postgraduate level and beyond is being brave enough to ‘put your hands on your hips’ and make your claims with that level of conviction. This is a lot easier than it sounds. With a group of writers I worked with late last year – postgraduate and postdoctoral scholars writing journal articles for the first time – the issue of confidence came up in one of our sessions on argumentation. One of the scholars commented that it’s hard to know if you are saying the right kinds of things, and if people will agree with you. He added that writing at this level feels risky, and scary. I am sure this feeling of fear, and trepidation, is familiar to any of you who have had to write for a supervisor, or peer reviewer, or lecturer who will judge your work. You know that, pretty much always, some aspect of your work will need revision, further work. You(r writing) will be found wanting, to a greater or lesser degree.

I try to see this as just my writing that needs work, but the truth is, my writing is always personal. And critique of my writing is personal, and it feels like it is me who has not measured up. After all, those papers contain my thoughts, my convictions, my take on what is interesting and important to my field. And when a reviewer says ‘nope, not quite there yet’ – even nicely with constructive suggestions for improvement – it hits my confidence. I lose some of the courage of my convictions, my hands slide off my hips and I wonder: ‘how did I get this wrong’?

My initial reaction, because I am me, is always to go to the extreme: they hated it, it was a terrible paper, no one likes my ideas, I should not be an academic. Then after a day or two I calm down. I moderate this mean voice in my head, and see that, actually, the reviewers did not hate the paper, and they don’t think my ideas are rubbish. Mainly, the reviews I have received thus far, even the most negative ones, have pointed out positive aspects of my work, and have given me food for thought and revision.

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But getting back up again takes a while, especially when the reviews seem mean, and ask for a lot of extra work in getting the paper on track. It’s hard to keep those hands on my hips, and believe that my argument is valid, and interesting to others, and necessary to have in print. It’s too easy to just give up, shelve the paper, and wallow in the sense that my ideas are boring (and, of course, that I am too).

I think, therefore, that a significant part of writing for publication, or writing a thesis at postgraduate level, has to include confidence-building. Supervisors and reviewers need to be aware of this in their feedback, and focus on phrasing feedback in ways that indicates clearly the need for revision and further work without breaking the writer’s confidence so much that any further work feels impossible. Writing courses need to include discussions that recognise, openly, how difficult writing at this level can be: not just technically, but emotionally and psychologically.

Putting yourself on paper – which is what every argument is – and putting that part of yourself out into the world for others to read, critique and argue with takes courage. If you are new to publishing, or have a shaky supervision situation where you don’t get useful or encouraging feedback very often, it is even harder to be brave. And more than that, to believe that you have something worthwhile to say, that other researchers and readers in your field will want to know about.

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BUT: you do have something worthwhile to say. You(r efforts) are valuable. Finding, and holding, the courage of your convictions is not always easy. But, it is worth the effort.

Why is theory such a big deal in postgraduate research?

I am working with a new student. Long story short, I am not his first supervisor, and this his not his first attempt at his PG research project. He’s had a tough time thus far: significantly with theory as his first supervisor did not seem to feel he needed any. Quite understandably, then, one of his first questions to me was ‘why are we making such a big deal about theory [when my research is narrative]?’ In answering this question, I have been pondering a bit more about why theory is such a big deal in research, especially at PG level.

The best way to begin is with an overview of what postgraduate research (any academic research perhaps) is for: to make a novel, valuable and needed contribution to knowledge in your field or study and/or practice. Often, particularly in the social sciences, we are taking a known problem and trying to solve it with a new approach, or we are critiquing the work of others from a particular perspective to extend knowledge further, or we are introducing a new problem, solvable with established approaches in ways that extend or consolidate knowledge and practice. To achieve this contribution to knowledge, we focus on small slice of the known world – our data – and we analyse this in ways that connect our findings to broader understandings/knowledge/phenomena so that what we are contributing clearly fits within the bigger picture in our field. 

If this, then, is basically why we do research, then how do we actually achieve this goal of saying something new and fitting the new into the established knowledge in our field? This is, in many instances, where theory really does its best work.

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When we do academic research, any research, we are trying to find an answer to a question that needs one. We start with a research problem, and we read around that, becoming increasingly focused until we have read enough to locate a gap in the field that we can contribute to filling with our research. We then narrow down a research question, the answers to which will fill (part of) this gap. At this point, we have a sense of what data we are going to generate and how (research design and method) and we may even (from reading) have a basic sense of what we may find. But, what we need is a framework within with to understand what we may find, and tools to use to make meaning from this data. We need to ensure that we move beyond purely descriptive meanings, even in descriptive studies. If all we are doing is describing or narrating our small slice of the world, it may be interesting, but perhaps only to a tiny group of potential readers who understand the specifics well enough to extract meanings of their own. This falls short of the kinds of contribution to knowledge expected of postgraduate scholars and publishing academics.

The potentially frustrating and difficult issue of finding the right framework for your research is that you can’t really ‘find’ one and just put it into your project, where it will do its own thing. Doing this would be akin to writing a ‘theory’ chapter or section, and then doing nothing with that theory in the analysis to connect your study to the field. Rather, you have to build and use your theoretical framework to make sense of your study, and its contribution to the field. This means you need to find theory that fits with your research problem and questions, that can help you understand this problem in helpful ways. Then, you need to select the relevant parts of the whole theory (you don’t necessarily, for example, need to include everything Pierre Bourdieu ever wrote in your thesis if all you really need to focus on is the interplay between capital and habitus in the structuring of a field). This selected theory then needs to be explained, exemplified in relation to your study, and connected into a coherent structure, or framework. 

 

scrabble mess

Once you have what Bernstein called the ‘internal language of description’ for your study – your study’s own account of the theory it will be using and why this theory is the most appropriate choice for this study – you can generate, or analyse generated, data. This is where theory becomes the big deal that it is. Theory is transformed when it is brought into contact with data. It stops being quite so abstract, and becomes more alive and real. It actually helps you to say something about why you see what you do in your data, and what the things you see actually could mean, connected to the larger picture. It helps you create an ‘external’ language of description – a translation device as Maton puts it – which transforms theory in the abstract into an analytical language that can describe and make meaning of data. Other researchers can draw on, adapt, and add to this in their own studies, further amplifying the value of your research.

For example, several students have told you that no one will assist them with supervisor issues. rather than saying that this is just an unsupportive environment, you can use theory that gives you insight into power and university cultures around autonomy. With this insight, you could postulate that the environment is structured so as to give administrators and supervisors way more power than students, and with that power they can maintain an unsupportive status quo. Perhaps this unsupportive environment is created and maintained with the (misguided) notion that students need to be autonomous and independent, but you can now critique this with your data and theory to show why this doesn’t actually work. And you could back up this postulation with reference to other studies that have made similar or related arguments.

Instead of just a small story about your data, and why you think it is interesting, you now have a potentially powerful analysis of the data that says what is means, why this meaning is important to pay attention to, and how this meaning connects with other meanings, thus making a contribution to research in your field.

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Theory isn’t just an odd requirement that has to be met in postgraduate research. It also is not some sort of relic of an ‘elitist’ version of higher education (one criticism I have heard a few times now). It’s a tool: it helps us really say something important and valuable about the world around us. We need to be doing research that connects us to other people, other research, other meanings, so that all of these meanings and arguments can build on one another cumulatively, amplifying our findings and voices. If what we want is better understanding of problems, new solutions to old problems and powerful change, then we need to harness the power theory offers us as researchers and use it to help us achieve these goals.

Academic writing: making (some) sense of a complex ‘practice of mystery’

This is a second post linked to my own insights about academic writing at postgraduate and postdoctoral level, gleaned from working with a range of student and early career writers over the last few years. This one tackles a tricky topic: the aspects of writing that can be knowable and teachable, and those that are more tacit and mysterious, and how we grapple with this as writers (and writing teachers).

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Have you ever had the experience of reading a really well-written, tightly argued paper without one word out of place, and wondered: ‘how did the author do that?’ Writing like that seems like a fabulous piece of magic – a card trick that should be easy to do, but is actually much harder than it looks to replicate yourself. Why is academic writing so complex, and hard to do in sparkly, elegant, memorable papers and theses?

Theresa Lillis refers to academic essay writing in particular, which is sort of a base unit for all other forms of prose-style academic writing, as an institutional practice of mystery. It is difficult to decode the rules, and then re-enact them in your own writing, across different subjects, different disciplines, and different levels of study and career-practice. Each time you write, you have to learn something new – develop and hone your skills. If you are starting from a position of not being a mother-tongue speaker of the language you are writing in, or having had a relatively poor home and school literacy background, then this writing work is all the more challenging. This is why writing needs to be de-mystified through being made a visible, learnable-and-teachable part of the curriculum.

As a writing teacher, this is where the challenge starts: how do I facilitate the process of creating ‘magic’ through helping writers develop and hone their skills so that a paper can be written or a thesis constructed? What parts of this process can I really make overtly knowable and teachable, and what parts will remain somewhat ‘mysterious’? This is perhaps a small part of a bigger question about whether every aspect of higher education learning and teaching can indeed be made visible, overt, step-by-step and therefore more easily learnable by as many students as possible.

pulling ideas together

Some of the writing process is knowable and teachable in relatively overt ways: there are clear guidelines for creating a research design and outlining methodology and methods, and you can follow a process that can be broken down into steps. There is a basic process to follow that will take you from a broader research problem, through increasingly focused reading to a gap, and then to a research question you can answer. There are useful ‘rules’ to follow to create clear, coherent paragraphs that are written in your own authorial voice, using basic structures, guides and tools that have been tried and tested, and researched. Thus, as a writing teacher and coach, I can (and do) draw on all of the advice, tools, experience and insight at my disposal to make as much of the process of creating a paper or a research project visible, knowable and teachable. But…

You can follow all the advice, and play by all the ‘rules’ that can be made visible and be broken into steps or parts, and still end up with a paper or thesis that is missing something. It’s all there, but it’s not. Technically, it’s a paper or a thesis: it has all the required sections, it says something relatively novel, and it has been edited and polished. But examiners and reviewers are lukewarm – it meets all the visible standards, but it seems to miss some invisible mark that no one told you about or showed you.

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What went wrong?

Trafford and Leshem, in this paper on doctoral writing, argue that the missing ‘x-factor’ is something they call ‘doctorateness’. This is more than displaying skill at writing or doing research, and it is more than having a good idea for a paper or a thesis. It is something slightly mysterious, and has aspects in common, I think, with Bourdieu’s concept of habitus. This can be defined as ‘the physical embodiment of cultural capital, to the deeply ingrained habits, skills, and dispositions that we possess due to our life experiences’ (Social Theory Re-Wired). Habitus, doctorateness, the writing x-factor – these are difficult and somewhat ambiguous concepts. The point of writing at this level is to persuade people of your arguments – to win them over to thinking about your subject in a novel, or challenging, or critical way. We write to make and convey meaning, and we need to structure, style and present our papers in the ways that best enables this.

The style of the writing needs to reflect the nature of the knowledge. If you are writing in the natural sciences, you would likely be writing in a starker, more pared down prose so that the ‘science’ shines and conveys the meaning you (and your readers) are interested in, whereas in English Literature, you would probably choose more creative phrasing, ‘flowery’ prose and imagery to construct and convey your meanings. We write within and in response to stylistic and meaning-oriented ‘structures’ that shape our writing, and are shifted and shaped by the writing that we do over time. So, there are two aspects here that writers need to be aware of, and work on continuously.

The first is the ‘rules’ or guidelines that I have already mentioned a little: how are meanings predominantly created and conveyed within your subject/discipline/field? What will your readers likely expect, and what will journal editors/examiners be looking for to mark your writing out as ‘belonging’ to this field, and making a contribution? This is important. If you break or bend too many of the rules, your readers may completely miss your meaning, and the paper will fall short of making your voice heard in relation to those you want to ‘converse’ with in your field. This aspect can be knowable and teachable: the genres, conventions, structures, forms and small and big ‘rules for writing’ can be elicited, make visible, and broken down into manageable advice, steps and so on.

The second aspect is where the ambiguity comes in – where part of the writer’s habitus/’doctorateness’ resides. This aspect involves making and conveying meanings within and perhaps slightly beyond the ‘rules for writing’ that shape your field, but with a certain flair, style and ‘je ne sais quois’ that makes your writing more engaging, interesting and readable than papers that may make similar kinds of arguments. This is harder to teach, and harder to enact in your own writing in ways that you can put into words or steps for others to follow. The truth may well be that some writers have more of a flair for writing than others. This flair may come from being an avid reader (and living in a home and going to a school that surrounded them with books and time to read). It may come from having had a wonderful English teacher at school who provided advice and encouragement. It may be something less easy to pin down – it may be a bit of a mystery in the end.

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As a writing teacher and coach, I work hard to unpack, break down and make teachable as much of the writing-reading-thinking process as I can, using images, metaphors, examples and so on. For the most part, it enables people to make a start on a paper or chapter, and make progress over time. It is harder to tell writers what exactly it is about parts of their paper or thesis that don’t ‘work’ for me as a reader, but I think it is important to try. Why am I not convinced or persuaded here? Why is this point not making an impact? Why does this meaning come across as vague, or confusing? If more writers could be pointed – by critical friends/examiners/peer reviewers/editors – towards  a need to re-read, re-think and revise their meanings from the perspective of readers, perhaps more writers would be able to unravel the more mysterious parts of academic writing. It would certainly be an encouraging start to making the writing of publishable academic work less complex, and thus more achievable for more writers.

What does it mean to ‘sound academic’ in your writing?

I have been reading a lot of other people’s writing lately, which has kind of sapped my own creative energies. However, it really has got me thinking about a few issues related to helping other people to improve their writing, which I’ll share over a few posts. This one is about ‘sounding academic’, and what that may mean in academic writing.

The first thing I have noticed in the academic writing I have read, as an editor and a critical friend, is that writers often use overly complex sentences and (under-explained) terms to convey their ideas. Here is one example:

Despite the popularity of constructivist explanations, this perspective oversimplifies the otherwise complex ontology and epistemology of reality by suggesting that representations of physical and biological reality, including race, sexuality, and gender, as well as tables, chairs and atoms are social constructions. Constructivists do not necessarily focus on an ontological reality they regard as unintelligible and unverifiable, but instead on constructed reality. Rather, constructivists discount claims to universalism, realism or objective truth, and admit that their position is merely a view, a more or less coherent way of understanding things that has thus far worked for them as a model of the world.

There is a lot going on in this sentence – it tries to establish that constructivism is popular, but flawed, and then also tries to show why it is flawed. But, for me, the sentence doesn’t quite pull this off. A few simpler, connected sentences may clarify and expand a little on what the author is trying to put across here.

Constructivism is a popular paradigm or explaining reality. Yet, its ontological and epistemological stance is overly relativist, as it conflates different categories of social construction in problematic ways. For example, a constructivist may argue that like tables, chairs and atoms, race, sexuality and gender and social constructions. A chair, and race, are clearly very different kinds of ‘social’ construction. We therefore need a different way of understanding ‘social constructions’ that allows for differences, and takes us beyond getting stuck in a battle between competing views of reality. 

This is one way of rewriting the passage above, of course; there may be others. But what I am trying to do is distill the essence of the point being made into simpler, shorter, clearer sentences. While the first example may, on the surface, look and sound ‘academic’ because of the large words, and complex phrasing, dig deeper and it becomes hard to understand what the author is really trying to say. The meaning gets a bit lost in the big words, and complicated ideas. To sound ‘academic’, therefore, we should rather focus on creating clear and accessible meanings, through shorter, more focused sentences connected together through relevant explanations and evidence.

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This is another example:

The languages that make up horizontal knowledge structures can be transmitted explicitly through “a pedagogy which makes explicit (or attempts to make explicit) the principles, procedures and texts to be acquired” (Bernstein, 1999:168), usually the natural and physical sciences, and tacitly where “showing or modelling precedes ‘doing’” (Bernstein, 1999:168), typified by the social sciences and the humanities. Horizontal knowledge structures can be subdivided into strong and weak grammars. In this context, ‘grammar’ refers to “their capacity to generate unambiguous empirical referents” (Maton, 2010:155); these grammars may be ‘strong’ or ‘weak’ relative to one another within horizontal knowledge structures (Bernstein, 1999:164).

Here, I want to focus on the amount of quoting going on. In this short passage there are three direct quotations, and a further reference to an external text in the second to last line. Many of the authors I work with, especially those who are new to academic writing in the form of a thesis or article for publication, overquote, believing that their inclusion of several quotes shows their reading, and their knowledge of the field. While using relevant, current sources to provide a foundation for your own research is important, the emphasis in any writing at doctoral and postdoctoral level must be on your own research.  This means paraphrasing more often than quoting directly, and using the work of others to inform and shape, rather than overshadow your own.

The languages that make up horizontal knowledge structures can be transmitted explicitly through pedagogical approaches or processes that focus on making the principles or procedural learning accessible and clear to students, as well as the means by which to acquire it (Bernstein, 1999). This kind of learning is usually typified by the natural and physical sciences. These languages can also be modelled tacitly, as in the social sciences and humanities, where students are immersed in texts, language and learning over a longer period of time (Bernstein, 1999). Horizontal knowledge structures can further be subdivided into strong and weak grammars. In this context, ‘grammar’ refers to “their capacity to generate unambiguous empirical referents” (Maton, 2010:155), and as such  may be stronger or weaker relative to one another within horizontal knowledge structures (Bernstein, 1999).

This is a minor edit, but transforming the direct quotations into paraphrased passages, and changing the sentence structure goes some way to making the author more visible, and more ‘in charge’ of the text’s construction. Thus, to sound academic, it is important to claim an authorial voice, and make your own research and its contribution to the field very clear through your paper  – in other words, as you weave your golden thread, make sure it doesn’t get crowded out or lost in long, complex sentences and over-quoting from the work of others.

pexels-photo-144633These are just two observations I have made in working with a range of writers across several disciplines in the last few years. Other things writers do, seemingly to sound more ‘academic’ is introduce and use smart-sounding transition words, often in the wring place, or extraneously; include 15 references in a bracketed space where only the 5 top references are needed); and over-use formatting tools, such as adding tabs, heading levels and so on. It’s like writers are trying to create a staircase to take their readers from one ‘place’ of knowledge to another; the question is whether you create a staircase that makes your readers dizzy on the way up, and wanting to stop halfway, or one that has a bit of interest and colour, but gets them to the new knowledge via an accessible and manageable route.

The general ‘rule’ to observe with writing, as I hope this post has shown, is to be as clear, direct, and detailed as possible in setting out, establishing and substantiating your argument. Shorter, simple sentences that convey your meaning clearly; the right references for the piece you are working on (not all the references); limited use of direct quotations and only where you really need these (quotations from literature used as data are a different kind of quotation to the one I refer to here); and all claims supported, and explained in context, so that your golden thread is clearly woven through the piece of writing. Verbose, under-explained, ‘fancy’ papers are alienating to readers, who have to work too hard to figure out what you mean. Simple, direct, clear prose that conveys your meaning and gets the point across well is so much more enjoyable to read, and is far more likely to be useful to other researchers too.