Disciple or pathmaker? Critiquing your theoretical ‘gurus’

I recently enjoyed an amazing week at the University of Sydney, where I spent time talking about my work with the researcher who developed the conceptual tools I used to frame my theoryology and methodology, as well as with PhD scholars and researchers who are also using these tools in their own research. Two of my friends asked me whether the week with my ‘guru’ was a good one, and these comments coupled with a recent seminar I attended on data and theory gave me pause for thought. I do not think of this person as my ‘guru’, although I find the tools truly brilliant, and I am so enjoying working with them in my research and practice. I think (I hope) I am capable of putting aside my admiration for both him and this conceptual toolkit to offer critique and questions, and to find ways in which I can contribute to this field of research and practice with my own work. But, when you are new to a particular theoretical or conceptual approach, or new to a significant piece of research like a PhD which requires so much deep and extended engagement with theory, it can be really difficult to do this. I certainly found it difficult to be critical of the concepts when I was working with them during the PhD. This ability I now feel I have to critique the tools and the theory is very much a post-PhD thing.

Why are we so tempted to make ‘gurus’ out of our favourite theorists? Why is it hard to be critical of the theories we have chosen to use to provide the foundation and analytical tools for our research, especially in a PhD? I think, for me, the answer was quite simple: because I needed them to be right. I really wanted to have answers to my questions, and I really needed the theory and the tools to provide me with those answers. I suppose, too, I was afraid that pointing out gaps, holes and areas where the theory was still fuzzy would ultimately weaken my stance and my arguments. I opted, without quite realising it at the time, for being a bit of a theory disciple. This was in big part due to what I have just said, but it was also due to the fact that I was so excited about the ways in which the theory opened my eyes to things in the environments I was researching that I had not been able to see otherwise, or in quite those ways, that I got a bit carried away by just how thrilling my research actually was for me when I got into the data  and started finding tentative answers to my questions.

One of my thesis examiners suggested to me in the report I received that I should exercise caution in getting too excited and too carried away. Part of the role of a good researcher is to be able to stand back a bit from the thing we are looking at, or the lenses we are looking through or with, and wonder if we are seeing the right sorts of things, or asking the right sorts of questions. We need to be able to see gaps, holes, inconsistencies, not just to avoid being accused of having a weak argument and having no defence in your viva or examination, but more importantly to show that you are clear enough on what theory you are using, as well as why and how you are using it, that you can show that although there may be questions you cannot yet answer, or things you cannot yet see, you know that the answers you have are good ones, even though they are always partial and fallible. You aren’t answering all the questions in your PhD – you are just answering one – but you need to be able to show not just all the reasons why your theoretical framework and tools are right for answering this question; you also need to be able to be critical and careful, so that you anticipate and can stand up to critique of your own work and answer back to the critics.

Rather than being theory disciples, I think we should be aiming to be research pathmakers. Theory on its own is a bit pointless. Your research will bring any of the theory you use to life in a range of ways depending on how you draw the framework, and also what data you choose to generate, analyse and interpret using the theory. You can be a pathmaker, even if the bit of path you are chipping out for others to walk on is small or short. But, this is not easy. I think you have to be well-read and brave to be critical, and you also need to know your theoryology well. It is almost impossible to offer a sound and useful (but not too damning) critique of your own theoretical framework unless you really know it well. In chipping out your piece of path, you will be following the paths of those who have gone there before you, and you’ll hopefully be either extending the paths they have created, or branching off in slightly new and unexplored directions, rather than simply smoothing out their already-trod path or pruning the bushes on either side of it :). It’s hard to be this kind of pathmaking researcher if you are not going to be brave enough to take your ‘gurus’ off the pedestals you could tend to place them on when you start your PhDs, and offer thoughtful, relevant and useful critique that shows your readers just how well you do know your own field, and that adds depth and credibility to your own researcher’s voice.

I have learned that I don’t need the theory or my answers to be ‘right’ (if they even can be); but I do need them to be credible, productive and interesting, and being able to both believe in and offer measured critique of the theoryology that serves my research well will certainly help me to find my ways to the kinds of answers I am seeking.


Getting the feedback you need

Feedback. It’s a prickly issue for writers. We both want it and fear it. It makes us nervous, fearful, tired, annoyed, cheered – sometimes all of these things in one essay/paper/chapter. One of the most helpful things I learned during my PhD was how to ask for feedback – the feedback I needed. This post addresses asking for the feedback you need, even if it isn’t always the feedback you want.

Feedback we need is not always feedback we want, in the sense that often we don’t want to do another tough round of revisions and rewriting and more thinking, because we want to move on to the next thing, or because we are tired, or because the PhD is only one of many things demanding our time and attention. But, more often than not, we need to do this work, and so we need feedback that helps us to achieve this. I am not sure it is possible to always have your needs and wants be the same when it comes to feedback, but the more you go into the scary space of asking for provocative, thoughtful and critical feedback and work with it to have it feed forward into your further writing, reading and thinking, the more you want to get that kind of feedback.

It is so important to work out what kind of feedback you really need and to look for it. PhD students cannot simply wait for the right kinds of feedback to find them, and for supervisors to know what kinds of feedback they are looking for at different points in the process. My supervisor encouraged me to be very directive about what kind of feedback I wanted. I am aware that many supervisors will not do that expressly (or otherwise) but rather than just sending writing and asking broadly what they think, why not suggest to your supervisor when you send them your writing that they focus on specific things, like the coherence of your text, or whether it addresses the research questions, or whether you have read the right kinds of sources for a particular argument you are making. As a new supervisor myself, I think it would be helpful if my student helped me navigate her thinking and writing like this. Supervisors are busy too, and you are often not their only student or task – giving them polite but clear requests for particular kinds of help could well be helpful for them as well as for you.

Asking for specific feedback requires being quite conscious of what you are writing, what you have been thinking about and also struggling with, and what you might need in order to keep moving forward. Making ‘meta-notes’ as you write, either in writing or just in your head, is quite helpful when it comes to then sending that email or having that conversation. These are some of my ‘meta-notes’ on the kinds of feedback I thought I needed on just three stages of my process. This may be helpful if you are battling to put what you need/want from your supervisor into words, and can hopefully help you generate other questions of your own:

Early stages – pre-proposal reading and chunks of writing: ‘Are my research questions valid? Am I addressing them with what I am reading and thinking about? Is this just one PhD or have I got too much here? How could I edit this down if I am trying to do three PhDs in one? What else could/should I be reading?’ 

Proposal writing process: ‘Are my research questions clear, and viable? Is the focus and rationale for this research clear to the reader? Does my proposed conceptual framework hang together and make sense? Does it ‘match’ my research questions. unit of analysis and focus? Is the literature review section where I explain the field I am contributing to well-constructed – can you see the gap my research speaks into? Do my methods seems reasonable; is there a methodology rather than just a list of data and methods of generating it? Are there any glaring errors, like missing references and typos I need to correct?’

Chapter 1 – literature review/conceptual framework: ‘Is this just a collection of things I’ve read or can you hear my voice? How can I make my own stance and voice clearer here? Have I read the field accurately – are there any gaps I need to fill in my reading? Have I explained the way I am using the theory to create a framework for the study clearly – do you see what I am doing and why I have chosen this theoretical framework? Does it connect with my research questions? Are there gaps and where? How would you suggest that I try to address the gaps and revise this chapter?

The worst thing as a writer is sending something to a reader, like a PhD student to a supervisor, and wanting them to really think about your argument and advise you on how to make it stronger or better substantiated, and then getting back a list of typos and grammatical errors you could have corrected yourself just before you are ready to submit the work. It’s frustrating and demoralising, and worse for a student, you can end up stuck and unable to keep writing and thinking as productively as you need to. To get the feedback you need is to see that what you need may be tough to hear, and to act on, but will move you forward if you can engage with it constructively. Seeing feedback in this way will help you to pose the questions to your critical friends and supervisor that ask for particular readings of your work that then result in you receiving more critical, provocative and helpful feedback that really does feed forward into your further writing, reading and thinking.

The feedback you get should be constructive and encouraging even as it critiques, questions and provokes more thinking, and it’s terrible when this is not the case. As I have said before in this blogspace, not all supervisors use their powers for good – many do not perhaps think to put themselves into their students’ shoes, and do not think about what their feedback sounds like, or how useful it is from a student’s perspective. Students getting destructive, unhelpful feedback from their supervisors may need to think about other avenues for getting supplementary help with their writing and thinking, like Chapter Swap online, a PhD writing group or a critical friend or two. There is help out there – but you may have to be brave and resourceful to find it if you are not getting enough of it closer to ‘home’. Good luck!