Getting tense about tense

I am finding the issue of tense in my thesis a tricky one. At least two of the six chapters were written last year and very early this year before I gathered the data and analysed it. So they were written in the present or future tense – ‘This study will use this framework…’ or ‘This study is using this methodology…’. When I sat down to bring these chapters into a more updated form in the full draft, I was a bit stuck, wondering whether and how to change the present and future tense to past tense across the board, or to do so more carefully. It was easy with the two ‘analysis’ chapters where I present my case studies because they are more obviously in the past tense. The research is done. But in the Introduction? What tense must I use there?

I am reporting on a completed research project, but as a reader it’s not all over for you. You are coming in at the start and want to know what am I am going to be writing about and what my argument is, not what it was.The Conclusion is another minefield, because part of it is past tense – ‘This study argued that and found that etc’ but I also point to future research, so has the study pointed to this (more past tense) or is it more that it points to this and that (in the present/future). I am not sure, to be honest. So, I have played around with this, with some trepidation and confusion. The Introduction is in some form of the present tense: ‘This study argues’; The chapters are organised thus…’ and so on. Chapters 2-6 are all in the past tense-ish, but this has not been as easy as changing all the instances of ‘is’ to ‘was’ in the earlier drafts of chapters 2 and 3. There are also different forms of the past tense – ‘this study has used’ versus ‘this study used’ – the latter seems more definite and harder in tone and the former a little softer. What is the right tone to strike using tense? Is there one?

I have spent more time thinking about my reader-examiners in recent weeks, and how they will approach this thesis and work their way through it. Tense is an important part of striking the right tone, and also getting things in the right sequence so as to tell a full, logical and coherent story of the study and what it aimed to do, what it did, how it did it and what it found that contributes to knowledge in the field. I think this issue of tense also related to the question of how one writes a PhD thesis – it is not a linear writing process although it is a linear reading process. Bits and pieces get written in bits and pieces over 3 or more years, and thinking that the draft is an exercise in cutting and pasting various pieces together and doing some aligning of tense will almost certainly lead you down the wrong path.

The issue of tense is not just a grammatical one; it also points to a bigger question of how a writer helps the reader navigate the thesis in terms of the theory, the methods, the data and the argument. You may have written an amazing draft of the theoretical framework early on, but you will have to think carefully about the revisions once you have done the data gathering and analysis and applied that theory. Shifts in your thinking will happen and careful revisions need to be made, not just changes all the ‘is’s to ‘was’s, but also making clearer and more sophisticated connections between the chapters and aligning the different roles they play in making your thesis coherent, logical and a good read for your examiners.

Which font says ‘Serious PhD Research Herein’?

Questions about fonts may seem frivolous, but I don’t think they are. We had a small discussion about this last year in the online chat space allocated to the PhD programme I am part of, and my supervisor posted this great link, explaining, at least in part, why decisions about font styles are not actually trivial.

I am writing my thesis, like just about everything I write these days, in MSWord 2010, which means that everything gets written in Calibri unless otherwise stated. It’s quite a bland font, but it is easy enough to read, and readability is key for me; I don’t want my examiners getting annoyed or put off because they can’t read my text easily. But it doesn’t seem to say ‘PhD’ to me, or ‘serious research that is also a good read’. It just says ‘blah’. ‘Blah’ is not what I want my thesis to say. I suppose I want it to say ‘Ah!’ or something more engaging for the readers. So I have spent the last couple of weeks writing my draft playing with fonts as well. I don’t like Times New Roman as a general rule. I don’t like reading it. Arial also does not look right. So I discarded, quite quickly, the three ‘main’ fonts in which most university students I work with are advised to type. I love Cambria – it makes me happy, and it’s stylish and sophisticated. So currently my thesis is in Cambria. I don’t know if this font says ‘PhD’ either although I feel I am getting closer. I read an article online that says ‘serif’ fonts like Garamond, Times New Roman, Courier and Bookman are easier to read than sans-serif fonts, like Helvetica, Arial, Calibri, Century Gothic and Verdana (see here for more details).  So this supports my feeling that I need a serif font, and these are the ones I generally like. Still, I am biased, and I am waiting for my supervisor to tell me what she thinks, as a reader.

I know this can seem like a frivolous thing to worry about, but as I always tell students in my writing workshops, presentation is very important. This essay or thesis or article is speaking for you when you are not physically there to defend or explain it. What impression do you want people to have when they open it up and start reading? I want to be taken seriously but I also want a font that reflects a bit of ‘me’ on the pages and that my readers find easy on the eyes. I think, for now, Cambria is it, but I am open to suggestions :-).

Some thoughts on a literature review in progress

I spent the last weekend before handing in my draft (yipppee!) writing my ‘literature review’. I am using the ‘bunny ears’ because I am not sure that what I am calling a literature review in my thesis would be considered by many as a review of the literature in the more traditional sense in which this writing convention is used. Allow me to explain.

When I started my PhD in 2010, the Vice-Chancellor of the university gave a talk to the group of PhD scholars I was part of, and he said something along the lines of ‘I hope you’re not all going to write “literature reviews” in your dissertations’ in the context of a talk about what PhD research is or could be about and how we could write about it. What I think he meant by this was what Pat Thomson meant when she wrote a recent blogpost on literature reviews and being wary of writing ‘lists’. These literature reviews tend to be boring to write and boring to read, and also don’t really show the writer/researcher/scholar taking a position in relation to the chosen literature, using it to support that position. These ‘list-like’ literature reviews are more like summary and synthesis exercises, where you say what this author said and then what that one said to agree with him, and what these authors add to that, and then what these other authors say that builds on the conversation etc etc. They do show how much you have read, and probably that you have comprehended what you have read, but that tends to be all they can show your reader or examiner. You are not there – and you need to be.

My understanding of my own literature review has been different. My literature review, such as it is, is contained within the introductory chapter and framed as the rationale for the study. It locates my research within the wider field of related research. It’s not a whole chapter on its own, it’s not 25 pages long, and it’s not really called a literature review. I have built a case for my own study by showing my readers what research is already out there, where the gaps are and how my study fits into one of these gaps in particular. This is, I think, what literature reviews in dissertations are supposed to do. I am there – my voice is the one the reader can hear because although this section of the thesis is full of references and citations, I am using the ideas and words and research of others to build my own case. It’s a work in progress because I may have a lot I still need to unpack or make clear, but the ultimate aims of this section will not change very much from this draft to the last one.

I realise that there are many ways to write a ‘literature review’ but whether you have a fairly short one like my 12 or so pages, or a couple of chapters’ worth because that is what your study calls for. I don’t think the length is the thing that you need to worry about. I think the thing to aim for is to make your own voice and your own argument/study clear and front and centre, and use the literature you have read to show the reader where the work you are doing fits into the field, and why it is important, and how it speaks to the literature. You need to show that you not only understand the literature, but that you understand what all the other research means in relation to your own research. This is often why the list, if you have one, can be a starting point, but never an end point. You also need to be selective, and select the right literature to tell your reader about – who are the big names in your field? What is the cutting edge or most relevant research out there? Don’t leave these authors or this research out. But don’t just lump it all in indiscriminately – show that you understand that some research and authors are more important than others, and tell your readers why this is so in relation to the project you have undertaken. And in all this you must keep in mind your own voice, the voice of the researcher in charge of the whole research project.

There is a thinking tool that helped me through this part of my thesis; a metaphor my supervisor shared during a writing retreat earlier this year that helped me to visualise my way through the reading and writing of my own literature review sections. The literature review is like a dinner party. You are the host, and you have selected the guests to attend. You have a plan for the party, and good reasons for inviting these guests and not others. If you write the review like a list without any sense of positioning these guests in relation to yourself as the host and your reasons for having the party in the first place, you will be drowned out, largely silent or fighting to get a word in here or there. If you can direct and channel the conversation, inviting your guests to speak with one another and with you on certain topics and themes that are of interest, you will be the one hosting the party and your voice will be clear. Aim to be the host, the centre of your party, rather than sulking at the table or in the kitchen making the next course while the party goes on without you. It’s not necessarily a metaphor that can capture the complexity of the whole process of writing this part of the thesis, but I found it a useful starting point. What are your metaphors for writing?

PhD fatigue

So, I have written and submitted the first draft. It is a huge achievement because I can see that this really will get done now; I will finish this year. But reaching this milestone has meant working every day, seven days a week (for at least part of each day) for the last month or so at least. Which means I have not really had weekends or evenings to just chill out, and even when I have been chilling I have been unable to get my mind to stop running over  arguments and data and possible conclusions and changes I need to make and clever turns of phrase to add here or there and on and on. And even though the draft is in, it is far from done – the conclusion is not finished because I literally ran out of steam, my brain unable to continue to create coherent sentences or thoughts any more, and there is still a lot of ‘panelbeating’ to do on the thesis before I will feel okay enough about it to sign it away to my examiners. And that makes me feel tired too; the anticipation of more work and more thinking to come.

And I am tired. More tired than I feel I have ever been, particularly in mental terms. I have kids, so I know fatigue well. But that kind of physical and emotional fatigue feels different to this. My brain feels like it has been replaced with woolly stuffing, and I feel kind of fuzzy around the edges, not sharp, not clear. I forget words and I can’t type straight. I think words that come out differently when I type them or write them down, and there are so many typos in everything I am trying to write this week that I need a lot more spellchecker help than usual. My brain feels untrustworthy right now because it forgets even the simplest things, like calling the plumber or why I wrote ‘notes’ on my TO DO list (what notes?) or why I went into the kitchen. This is an odd feeling for me. I’ve always been a writer and a reader and someone who thinks a lot about things (probably too much, some would say) so my brain and I have always been close; I have always trusted it far more than any other part of me, like my heart or my gut. But now, at this point in this PhD journey I find it has gone all fluffy and marshmallowy and I cannot really count on it to remember things or to get things right. It doesn’t feel good.

I am sure this will not be a permanent condition – once the final draft is handed in and I have had a long holiday over Christmas and New Year doing little more stressful than laundry or baking or reading in the hammock, I am sure my brain and body will rest and recover and I will start 2014 with a sharper, clearer brain. But now, in the middle of this, I feel like I will never really completely get rid of this tiredness, this feeling of fuzziness. I was totally unprepared for this. I thought I would feel tired and strung out at the very end, not now when I still need to keep going and thinking and writing. I worry that I don’t have enough in me to finish the revisions really well, and that I will make silly changes and not be able to see these errors before it’s too late and the thing is out of my hands. I hope I will find it in me – I must – but boy, this is one part of the PhD process people are awfully quiet about. Maybe, like pregnancy and childbirth, people can tell you how it was for them, and it could be like that for you or it could be very different. I am putting this out there anyway, because it may be like this for you, or it may be different. Either way, it would have been nice to be a little more prepared. Onwards I go, but maybe a nap first -_- .

The ups and downs of study leave

At the beginning of this year I spent a frantic week applying for a doctoral sabbatical grant from the National Research Foundation here in South Africa. These grants are designed to buy you out of your teaching/academic work for a period of time so that you can focus on and finish your PhD. I heard nothing for months, but I pinned a lot of my hopes and plans on the answer being ‘yes’. Finally, at the end of May the answer came and it was, thank ye gods, a ‘yes’. I started my long-awaited break from work in June, and had 3 months to savour and use wisely. For the first week I just revelled in not having to put ‘work’ clothes on, and the pleasure of ‘commuting’ around the corner and through the kitchen to my desk instead of halfway across Cape Town. It was, in a word, bliss to work at home in slippers and tracksuit pants and be able to get up to make tea in my own kitchen. To have silence all around me all day. To be able to think, and write and do so at a less frantic pace, not having to snatch bits and pieces of time where I could. But, while it started off well, sadly it did not continue in this vein. And it was largely my fault.

Three weeks into my leave my boys went on mid-year school holidays for 3 weeks. I worked, but at half-pace and my quiet was gone. It was frustrating and difficult. Grannies came to visit, which was lovely as they live far away and the timing of visits has to be carefully orchestrated. I kept working, but still only at half-pace, getting increasingly more worried about how little progress I was making in relation to my work-plan. Eventually the kids went back to school and the grannies went home and quiet reigned again and I picked up the pace. But then, for another set of reasons I won’t go into here, the bathroom needed to be renovated, having been left for far too long and gotten into a state it could not remain in. So four weeks of polite but noisy and messy building work ensued, as renovations almost never go according to plan and ours were no exception. The renovations ended a week before my study leave ended. Just like that, 3 months had passed and I was a month behind my schedule for finishing the first full draft. I had a few undignified tantrums, and whined, I am sorry to say, like a small thwarted child. I didn’t want to come back to work. I wanted to rewind and do it all again. I wanted to make different choices about how I let other people use my precious time, about how I used it. I cannot blame my kids or husband or leaky shower or the grannies for my lack of progress. I let all the interruptions happen. I told everyone I was fine, I was coping, not to worry, it’ll all get done. I took on big and small tasks I could probably have let someone else do, or just left for later. I didn’t protect my time. I didn’t feel like I had the right to do that.

In truth I felt guilty about my leave. Colleagues who have been in a similar position to me – working, parents, struggling to keep all the balls in the air – did not get time off to work on their theses. I was not even eligible for this leave because of the way my role is structured and I only got it because I had the funding to pay for a replacement. I felt like I was getting something I did not deserve, or at least I felt guilty that I got it when deserving others had not. So, there was that. I also truly believed that I could be and do everything and still get the work done – I didn’t protect my time because most of it never really feels like mine and because I often do cope, sometimes just barely, but still. I just feel like I have to get on and do the best I can, you know? I wonder how many women in particular struggle with part-time PhD studies because of precisely this: they don’t protect their time and ask for time off – demand time off – from other things because they don’t feel like they can or should or could. Perhaps I didn’t even want to. There is something quite seductive about being a superwoman type who does it all, but maybe that’s another post…

The thing is, though, that this ‘doing it all’ is an illusion, and you can only do bits of it well. Other things have to and will slide. And that’s okay. There are things that can wait. You do deserve time to think and work and write, and you can and should protect that time, even from kids and partners. It really is okay to have this one thing in your life (at least) be about putting you and your work first. If you are fortunate enough to get your own slice of blissful leave, do not do what I did. Make a plan, tell all the people who need you about the plan and ask them to support you. Tell your mum you love her and ask if she can visit later in the year, and say NO to the builders. The shower leaking is the worst of your worries, as is the washing up.