Contributions to knowledge and the ‘knowledge gap’

If you have spent any time reading advice or ‘how to’ books on writing a thesis at any level, you will almost certainly have come across some version of this concept: the ‘knowledge gap’. And you will likely have been told that you have to create a research project or study that will find knowledge to fill a gap in your specific field or discipline’s knowledge base. This idea of filling a gap or hole in what your field knows or does freaks out many students, at all levels. The idea that you have to say something new when you are still learning your field and what it knows and does can be overwhelming.

But, after a conversation with colleagues who work with researcher development starting from senior undergraduate level all the way through Masters to PhD level, I have begun to wonder whether this concept of a knowledge ‘gap’ is actually not all that accurate or helpful as a starter about the purpose or goal of postgraduate research and knowledge creation, even at doctoral level. Maybe, we need to actively reframe the conversations we have with students doing research about how we can and do make different kinds of contributions to knowledge that grow and challenge knowledge in our fields.

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The most common starting point for students beginning a research process is in the field itself, reading other studies, papers, research findings and so on. This enables them to see what research is being done, what the current trends are around theory and methodology, substantive findings that support or challenge their own research problem and so on. The literature review is almost always the first thing we ask students to focus on when they are developing a research proposal, especially at doctoral level where there is a firm requirement of a ‘novel’ contribution to knowledge. So, you kind of are looking for a gap, of sorts. But you’re not looking for it in terms of a total silence on your own research problem.

The first problem with the notion of a ‘gap’ or hole in the field that your study can fill, conceptually or empirically or methodologically, is that many students seeing this as meaning exactly that: silence, as in no one has ever done this research before. They feel they must claim that there are no existing studies like theirs for their study to be ‘novel’ and to fill the identified knowledge gap legitimately. In most fields, it is almost never the case that no one has ever done your kind of study before, or asked a similar kind of research question. And you really don’t want that either, because what you are really trying to do with your research is join a field that exists, and push it a tiny bit further; you’re not trying to strike out on your own.

This leads me to the second problem with talking about knowledge gaps and the need to fill them with original or novel claims to knowledge: in essence this can prevent many students from really seeing that they are writing about their research in relation to the field, to join an ongoing conversation, rather than writing about their research as an extended proof of claims that are completely new. We need to reframe teaching about the aim of research as being focused on joining an existing conversation as a new voice that has something of value to add to the field, rather than needing to say something radically new that has not yet ever been said. I think this may help student researchers in two main ways.

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The first is with the way they read. Rather than reading every paper looking for a hole or a gap or silence and zeroing in one this, they may begin to read with a greater consciousness of how the field has already addressed similar questions, but perhaps from different angles, or with different theory, or with different methodology. They can then consider how this helps them to build and substantiate a space in which to position their own emerging claims to knowledge. Keeping a reading journal to keep track of these arguments, how they are made, and how they speak to one another or challenge one another (this bit is crucial) may then help students to begin to see the conversation emerging, and where they might be able to join in. Who is saying what, how, and why? Who is critiquing the dominant positions and why? How? Where does my work fit into all of this? What is this ongoing conversation all about?

Thinking and reading like this may then feed into a different, less defensive form of writing. Rather than trying to address every paper or article included in the literature review by showing what it doesn’t say to shore up a claim to the originality of their own research, student research writers may begin rather to craft literature reviews, and perhaps also theoretical and methodological frameworks in their thesis writing, from a different position: as one who is joining an existing field and conversation, unthreatened by all the work that is currently being or has been done. Rather, these sections will be written with the understanding that all the existing work is a resource for substantiating our own claims to knowledge, so that we can show how what we have to add builds on, extends, and perhaps may critique the current arguments dominating the conversation in the field.

Reframing the ‘knowledge gap’ as joining a conversation with a new voice and a small contribution to the field may also help researchers at other, lower, levels of study, such as Masters, Honours and senior undergraduate levels, where the knowledge gap can be particularly alarming. This is perhaps mainly because students typically do less reading, and are not required to make a novel contribution to knowledge to attain their degree. Obviously, the more you read the field, the deeper and more nuanced your sense of the conversations in your field will be, as well as how they connect and challenge one another. But students can join a conversation even at the lower levels, in a more modest form, if they are enabled to see this as what they are doing, rather than using their study to fill a gap that their reading load will not show them adequately.

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Making a contribution to knowledge and filling knowledge gaps is spoken about a great deal in postgraduate and researcher education, but I wonder how often we stop and think about how students hear this, and what impact this has on their reading and writing behaviors and choices. I hope this post will help that process along, and help us find different ways to talk to students we work with about their own research purposes and goals.

Three “scary-ologies” revisited

A good while back, I wrote two posts about what I considered, in my own PhD, to be “scary”-ologies. These posts are here and here. In essence, I tried to write about ontology, epistemology, methodology and what I termed ‘theoryology’. In this post (on Hallowe’en), with the benefit of a few years of thinking and teaching on these -ologies and a sense that students really do find them pretty scary, I’d like to revisit them and hopefully make them a bit less difficult to understand.

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I am going to focus in this post on ontology and epistemology, how they connect and work together in research studies, and then point towards methodology. These three ‘ologies’ work in tandem – or should work in tandem – to create a coherent approach to framing and designing a research study. But, to get them to work like this, we need to be able to see them clearly, and see how they connect in research.

Ontology is often where we start with research, even if we may not realise it. Ontology is essentially our position and belief about what the world is like. It also closely informs the research paradigm we choose to work within (although it is not the only influence on this). If, for example, you believe that there is an objective natural and social world that exists independently of us knowing it, you may be leaning towards some kind of positivism. If, on the other hand, you believe that “reality” is wholly constructed by human words, deeds, beliefs, structures, etc, then you may be some kind of social constructivist. You cannot ignore your position on what the world is fundamentally like, or those of others (especially those who write the theory, etc. you will cite and use) because they shape what we think ‘counts’ as legitimate research and research questions.

Ontology is kind of wide-open – you can choose an ontology that makes sense to you, because this is usually the starting point in a journey of creating knowledge and becoming a knower. Choices here, though, start narrowing choices in epistemology, and then methodology.

If you lean towards a ‘positivist’ take on what the world is like, then you will only have certain options open to you in terms of your epistemology. Epistemology is essentially how we think we can come to know the world we think exists, so it makes sense that it is closely linked to what we think that world is like. To follow this example, if you think there is only objective reality then, epistemologically, your options are to believe that we can come to know that world through finding the right tools or experiments to reveal that objective truth or reality. This is an approach associated with many of the natural sciences.

To take the other example, if you believe that humans create or construct reality, and that there are thus multiple realities or competing ‘truths’, then you will have other epistemological choices. Your knowledge of what this world is like will also have to be constructed. You wouldn’t be able to know these multiple truths without having some way of also constructing or creating them, which may be guided by some form of interpretive or critical paradigm.

[These are, quite obviously, two points on a longer and more complex continuum of ontological and epistemological choices; I am deliberately simplifying this for the length and form of this post.]

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Epistemological choices, again, narrow your methodological choices, and influence your decisions about the kinds of data you will need to generate and how you will do that. To follow this, if you believe that the natural and social world exists objectively of humans’ actions, beliefs, and so on, then you probably wouldn’t design a qualitative case study methodology, and conduct in-depth interviews. That methodology would make more sense for a critical, interpretive or constructivist study.

There are two key points here: the first is that there are three distinct, yet connected, elements that have to underpin your own research project: ontology, epistemology and methodology. All research is underpinned or guided by choices around these three elements. When you are reading the field, reading theory, and engaging with other writers’ voices, you need to think a bit about where their research comes from, in terms of ontology and epistemology, and keep a critical eye on this. You can’t just put different theorists together, or thinkers together, just because they seem like they are saying the same things (e.g. they both talk about the effects of social structures). If one is conceptualising ‘structure’ as a constructivist and the other as a critical realist, you have two very different arguments, based on different views of what the world is like. So, to be accurate and critical in your own research, you need to pay careful attention to all three aspects of research.

The second key point is that these are choices that have effects or consequences for your research. Again, I am arguing for a thoughtful approach: why are you doing this research, what assumptions about the world and knowledge underpin it, and who shares or does not share these same assumptions and approaches in your field? You will choose to align yourself with those whose ontology and epistemology resonates with your research aims and questions, and your own underpinning beliefs and values. But to critically, carefully and sensibly position your own argument and research questions within an existing field of study, and make a meaningful contribution to the ongoing conversations within it, you need to really think about your own three connected ‘scary-ologies’ – the kinds of choices you have to make and what they mean for the outcomes of your research.

I hope this post has helped you make some sense of these ‘ologies’, such that they may be less scary now, and you can step back and think a bit more critically and thoughtfully about your own (often hidden) assumptions about ontology and epistemology, and then move to make more conscious, substantiated methodological choices. In upcoming posts, I’ll think a bit more about paradigms for research, and methodological choices, but for now: Happy Hallowe’en/All Saints’ Eve/Samhain/All Hallows Eve, if you are celebrating!

All my writing epiphanies happen at 2am

Epiphany is one of those great words in the English language, meaning a moment of sudden realization. It usually feels quite profound and transformative in some way. As writers, you will all know about writing epiphanies. You will also likely know that many of them happen when you are not at your computer or journal, actually working on the writing that the epiphany is about.

I have had two such epiphany moments in the last week. One at about 2am when I was awake. Just because. And one at about 11pm as I was falling asleep, writing some of the most profound words you will never read. Why, oh why, do all my moments of insight and sudden brilliance happen when I am illplaced to do anything productive with them? I was not awake enough to get up at 2am and go and write. And I was warm and cozy. I sometime force myself up at 11pm when I am writing brilliant paragraphs in my head while I’m drifting off, but I can’t always be bothered to do that. So what to do to make something useful of all this insight into my writing?

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Some of the brilliant thoughts are not that hard to remember. For example, the 11pm moment of brilliance revealed that chapter 5 and 6 are in the wrong order, and that chapter 6 is horrible because it’s about the wrong thing. It’s not all wrong, but it needs to be refocused. I was able to remember that, run the idea by Lovely Husband as a sounding board, and it’s in my head now. So that’s alright then. But I have no idea what the 2am moment was about now. I think it might have been nonsense, but what if it wasn’t?

Some of the words I write in my head at 11pm are probably rubbish. But the ones I have made myself get up and write down, when re-read with a clearer head, have actually been words I can work with. This is really frustrating. I want the brilliance – the muse if you like – to be there when I am working, during the day, in clothes rather than pajamas (although I am often found in pajamas at midday). But I do wonder if some of those late night epiphanies and insights do eventually make their way into my daytime writing?

Is the brain like a giant filing cabinet storing everything you see, hear, do, read, etc., waiting for you to recall it at some point? Or is it structured to retain information for a certain period and then clear it out to make way for new knowledge because it has limited RAM? Kind of like clearing a cache, perhaps? My preliminary reading suggests that, while it may feel like your brain clears its cache of certain memories, especially papers you have read or important references, it actually doesn’t. But it’s not quite like a filing cabinet either.

Current research suggests that the brain can probably store unlimited amounts of information indefinitely. Memories are encoded and stored according in groups of neurons connected to the parts of the brain that generated them. So one memory can actually be stored in more than one place, in parts: one part associated with smell, one with sight, and one with the emotions associated. Like seeing and holding your newborn for the first time and smelling their skin. That memory would be reconstructed from the different constituent bits when given an appropriate cue, like looking at a photograph of you and your baby. Research suggests that if you can’t recall information, it’s likely because of a mismatch between the stored information and the cue, or a problem with the retrieval process.

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Further, research suggests that repetition consolidates memory, and makes it more likely to be stored in the brain and recalled at will. So, reading the same thing or seeing the same thing many times makes for a potentially more durable memory than something seen only once or twice. This is what interests me in relation to my epiphany moments. With my book, I am thinking about and planning and reworking the argument all the time, over and over. Many of my late night musings and brilliant paragraphs written in my head are about parts of the book – the same parts thought about in different ways. So, I am wondering if my brain isn’t actually able to treat those as repeated events, and consolidate them so that, with the right cues, some of that can come back into my conscious writing during the workday.

It’s an intriguing thought: some of the late night epiphanies do pop up during the day, right? You wake up thinking you won’t remember and then you read a paper or chat to someone and up it comes, ready to be acted on. Some of them seem to be lost in the mists of amnesia, but maybe the right cue just hasn’t been offered, or there wasn’t enough consolidation to store that memory in multiple places, making it more likely to be recalled.

What I take away from this ramble is that, far from being a problem, these late night moments of insight I cannot always write down, or act on in the moment, are all working like repeated events that my brain is storing and consolidating. If I’m constantly chipping away at the book in all this thinking and scribbling and formal writing during the day and mental writing late at night, then the epiphanies actually are a form of consolidation, where my lovely brain has put some pieces together and gone: oh right! It should look like this! That then stays with me because it’s actually a gathering of many little thoughts and moments all together.

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So, perhaps instead of being frustrated, I should just go with it. Encourage the writing in my head of the best paragraphs people may never read, and the 2am flashes of genius and the aha! moments while I’m driving or cooking. If I let them swirl around, and form memories of a sort, and these all add up through consolidation, they will find their way in one form or another into the book and into anything else I am working on. Scribbling in your research journal, chatting about them with friends, whatsapping them to your virtual writing group – these acts all further consolidate and settle those thoughts, encouraging your brain to really back them up. The more we find ways to write and talk about our research thoughts and musings, I am sure, the better our writing will be for it.

‘Commaphobes’ and ‘Commaphiles’: grammar and meaning-making

The university I am affiliated to recently undertook a Grammarly trial, to see whether it would be worth investing in a campus license for all staff and students. I reluctantly agreed to take part. Reluctantly, because one of my job hats is a copyediting and proofreading hat, and I was pretty sure my grammar was just fine, thank you. But, I like to be helpful, and taking part and giving the educational technology division feedback was helpful.

This is not a punt for Grammarly – their web advertising has that covered. This post is a punt for being conscious of grammar, and its role in meaning-making in your writing. Specifically, this post is about the humble comma.

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When I was teaching academic writing courses a long time ago at a different university, one of my colleagues in a group making meeting made a comment about student writers and commas. She suggested that some students are ‘commaphobes’, writing long, verbose sentences with no commas at all, when there should definitely be some. On the other hand, there are ‘commaphiles’, who love commas, and insert them, everywhere, even when there should be no comma there, at all. I am not sure what a writer who falls in the middle would be called (suggestions welcome in the ‘comments’), but I thought I was middle-ground here, like the third bowl of porridge in Goldilocks: just right.

Boy, was I wrong. Grammarly has gently, but firmly, pointed out to me over the last two months that on the comma-continuum, I am definitely leaning towards being a ‘commaphile’. It’s kind of amazing to be offered this insight into my writing – specifically grammatical – habits at this stage of my career. I had no idea that I over-used commas, and what they do to the coherence of my writing and the meanings I make.

What is the role of a comma in writing, and in meaning-making? A comma is a pause. According to this website, a comma performs one or more of 10 different functions in writing. The most common, perhaps, are separating an introductory word from the rest of the sentence (However, …); delineating separate but connected clauses (Most academic writing is challenging, but there are ways to develop your skills); and to create lists (Firstly, you can visit your campus writing centre, secondly, you can join a writing group with peers, …). When we see a comma as readers, we pause, and that pause helps us to make sense of what we are reading. Take the commas away from this blog post, or from a paper your are writing or reading at the moment, and see what effect that has on your sense-making.

There is a well-known book about the importance of correct punctuation in the English language. It takes its title after the often-cited example of the value of a well-placed comma: Eats, shoots and leaves. As in: A panda eats, shoots and leaves, or A Panda eats shoots and leaves. On one, you have a homicidal animal, and in the other, you have an animal eating her dinner. Here’s another one: Let’s eat Grandma, or Let’s eat, Grandma. There are many you could think of, I am sure. And some are quite funny. Probably, the over- or under-use of commas in academic or scholarly writing will cause fewer laughs, but their value is no less important for meaning making. Too many pauses breaks up the sentence you are writing, and can confuse the reader, especially, when they are put in the wrong, place. Too few and the effect is also confusion and probably re-reading because it may be the case that there is more than one clause in that sentence however even though you have no commas they may be able to work it out on their own.

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So, how do you see and hear commas in your own writing, and work to rationalise your use of them so you are ‘just right’ on the comma-continuum? Well, you could make use of free software, like Grammarly. Or you could go old school, and start reading your writing out loud to yourself, or to a critical friend. Reading aloud forces you to switch from being the writer in your own head to be the reader of your work. This can be a low-key, useful approach to hearing the pauses, and figuring out if they should be there, or not. (I could have deleted that last one and the sentence would work just fine, for example). You can also be really brave and set up a critical friendship pair or small group where you regularly reach out and share writing with peers at your university or college. Even just getting feedback on a few pages can help you to step back from your writing and see as well as hear it with fresh eyes and ears.

The humble comma, like all punctuation, plays a significant role in meaning-making in writing. Far from being a technical feature of writing that you use because you know you have to have punctuation, you need to really think about the role it is playing and the meanings you are trying to make. Do you need the pause? Yes? Insert a comma. Can the sentence work without it? Yes? Then maybe take it out, read the sentence over, and see what you make of it. Using punctuation, like other features of writing, requires us to be conscious writers. To really think as we write about what we want and need to say, and how to get that across to our target audience. I have certainly been reminded of this recently, and find myself far more aware, as I write, of my position on the comma-continuum as I keep striving to get my writing ‘just right’.

Book writing: The thin line between love and hate

The bitter truth about scholarly writing is that it is really hard work, and that no matter how much better or more confident or more experienced you become as a writer, it never stops being hard work. Every new paper or chapter or book makes a new argument, and that argument needs to be built, refined, revised, unpacked and unpicked, and reworked more than once before it is ready to be shared with readers. For me, this creates a love-hate relationship with my writing, and right now, with my book writing specifically. A key question I am grappling with right now is ‘how do I get excited about this book, and stay excited, when I kind of hate this book even though I also really want to write it’?

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I feel like I have been trying to write this book for a really long time. I first had the idea and wrote a fledgling proposal in 2015, and then it got pushed onto the backburner and it resurfaced in 2016 again, and the pattern kind of repeated itself until the proposal finally got finished and polished and reviewed and approved. Each time it resurfaced, I was really excited about the idea and the argument and what I thought I could do and say with the book. I still am. But my research focus has started to shift as my practice work has shifted in the last two years, and I’m a little conflicted about this project now, to be honest.

I have started thinking, blogging and scribbling about a new project I am really excited about, but cannot in any way properly start until the book is complete. This is part of the conflict I am experiencing: wanting to stay here and also wanting to move on. I’m trying not to shame myself for feeling like this, or talk myself out of it because I don’t think that’s likely to make me feel any better. I feel a bit like I am betraying the book by wanting to spend time and energy on the new research, but I also feel more than a little resentful that the book is demanding all my headspace when there’s other things I’d like to be getting on with. I wonder if other writers and researchers feel like this: I felt a bit like this about my PhD. It demanded so much time, but there were other projects and papers that were also worthy and interesting, and it was hard to devote equal time to them all, plus everyone and everything else in my life, without feeling like butter spread over too much bread (to paraphrase Tolkien).

Another part of the conflict is that I go in and out of feeling confident that I’m saying something with this book that really needs to be said. I believe in this project: I would never have created and proposed it if I did not. But, I’ve been immersed in thinking and writing about this work for so long that I feel a bit like it’s all been said, and I’m just going to be rehashing old ground. If I stop myself going too far down this particular path, I can actually hear the peer reviewers’ words saying that this is useful work, and potentially quite powerful for lecturers and academic developers in a range of different contexts. Parts of this argument have been made, sure, but not in the complete form of this book, written in my voice, with my scholarly perspective and data and theorisation. But it’s not easy to hold onto the confidence all the time.

At the moment, three and a half months away from submission to the publisher, the writing of this book feels a bit like wandering through a valley like the one above. It’s hilly, but there are flat bits and foresty bits and winding bits and steep bits. Some days the writing just goes, and it’s great, and other days it goes but some of the words seem superfluous and wrong and I know there’ll be loads of editing, and other days it’s just a sisyphean task I cannot get my head around. It’s the steep days when I hate the book and wish I hadn’t tried to write it at all – I just want to move on to something new. On the flat, pretty days it is easy to love the book and love the writing and feel like I’m doing something grand. It’s the middle bit, the days where I can write but it doesn’t all make sense, or sound right, or feel right, that is really hard.

Not writing is actually easy, apart from the guilt. Writing on the good days is super easy and feels amazing. But writing through the middle bits is hard work, and creates conflict within writers that has to just be felt, and worked through, hour by hour. Trying to tell yourself you shouldn’t feel conflicted because you chose to do a book or paper or PhD or Masters, and no one made you, is not the best idea. Trying to shame yourself into writing when you are stuck in a very hard day is also not a great idea. Shame just creates paralysis. My advice would be to feel your writing feelings, and if you cannot actually write the Thing, write in your research journal or reading journal, talk to a friend or peer over coffee, talk to yourself. Explain your feelings, work out where they come from, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll find a way through the middle bit a little less isolated and frustrated.

Writing is hard work, even on the easy days, and it asks a lot of us. This book is going to be great, and I am going to finish it, but I’m not going to completely love every minute of writing it, and I might not even love every word I read when it’s finished. And that’s okay. Perfection is an unattainable, and probably undesirable, writing goal. I’m trying to remember, stuck as I am between loving and hating my book writing, that I’m learning so much about myself, writing, and my field. And that’s really the goal, isn’t it? More learning, better questions, new ways to join the conversation and say something that helps and makes a dent.