Adapting my reading journal to be ‘fit for (my) purpose’

Last week I posted the first in a series of posts contributed by Master’s students in a research methodology module I taught this past semester. Their final assignment was to ‘blog’ about an aspect of the learning or engagement in the course that represented a kind of ‘aha’ moment or challenge they are working on. This second post is from Jodie Bougaard, who is researching Russia’s cyber-meddling in the 2016 US elections.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Pexels.com

As a master’s student in the process of designing my study, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time engaging with literature related to my area of interest. Throughout the preliminary stages of thinking about my study, I’ve encountered challenges in this regard. I wondered if I was doing a sufficient amount of reading; identifying key themes in the material I engaged with and if it was relevant to my proposed research. Conventional wisdom suggests that conducting a sound literature review at the outset of the research design is essential not only to formulate a hypothesis and research questions but also to broaden your knowledge base as a researcher and identify gaps in the existing discourse.  

With this in mind, I proceeded to read and scrutinise any material I could find, waiting to have a grand epiphany about what the original ‘angle’ on my research would be or what I could add to the academic conversation. I had already identified an area of interest and developed key research questions. My chosen topic relates to electoral interference in the U.S. election in 2016. I knew that I needed to identify the key themes throughout my literature, organise concepts in accordance with the key themes, and create a general structure for my inquiry.  In practice, I was still spending an inordinate amount of time reading, searching for the grand knowledge gap, which continually eluded me. I began feeling that I was using my time unproductively, and this realisation induced anxiety. If you are an inexperienced researcher like me, it is not always easy to see what’s missing and it can be discouraging to read large volumes of material and not have any ‘a-ha’ moments along the way.

As a remedy to this angst, I have realigned how I approached literature by developing insight into what kind of reading I was doing. I started by going back to the beginning, reading as an objective viewer or a passive receiver of information. Instead of frantically trying to identify gaps in existing knowledge from the outset (which puts a considerable amount of pressure on you as a researcher) I found that reading to familiarise myself with material related to my study was a far more effective use of my time in working on my proposal. I didn’t force myself to evaluate the author’s arguments or the underlying assumptions of their propositions straight away. I know that critical engagement occurs further along the process, and through critical engagement knowledge gaps would emerge. In some cases, such as mine, knowledge-gaps may not be quite so apparent. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. I understand the aim of pursuing a master’s degree not to necessarily to produce the most original and exciting or innovative study, but rather to demonstrate competency as a researcher. Through proper research of any subject you can build upon existing knowledge, which is still a valid contribution to your chosen discipline.

So, I collected literature, categorised it using a reading journal and qualified it in the context of my study. This process made reading in the preliminary stages far more pleasurable experience. I stopped stock-piling papers to read in future as doing so only fuelled my core belief that I was not reading enough. Instead, I skimmed abstracts and introductions, bookmarking papers I wanted like to read when I had sufficient time. I found that doing this daily over a three-month period provided an extensive reading catalogue, where I was building my own library or repository.

Photo by Daria Obymaha on Pexels.com

I have learned to distinguish between the types of reading I am doing. I am growing to understand that there is room for focused, critical and intentional reading; however, there is also a time for general and unconstrained reading. Much like writing, there are variations, each with their own merits. Writing should reflect academic rigour and express critical insights; however, it’s also useful to do freewriting exercises throughout the research design process. Similarly, reading can also be approached in this manner.  Designing a study isn’t a linear process. Making notes or distilling themes and concepts in the literature becomes less arduous when you allow room for exploration through reading. Understanding which kind of reading you’re doing helps lift the fog of confusion and resultant panic that emerges when you read without thinking. Reading comprehensively means casting a wide net and then making conscious choices to either consume or discard what has been collected. Reading thoroughly means engaging with material within a narrow and deep construct, and through this finite scope, expertise is developed. The latter cannot occur without the former. Thus, I am not suggesting that anyone should read indiscriminately. I am, however, stating that building a knowledge base necessitates reading extensively to develop a sound background understanding of any topic.

By the time I completed my literature review, my research had become a case study situated within a larger conversation about meddling as a foreign policy strategy. I certainly did not anticipate structuring my study in this way. Prior to engaging properly with literature, I had entirely different working questions, none of which considered meddling as a foreign policy strategy. My point is that reading is not merely a means to an end. What I included in my literature review didn’t represent the extent of the material I had spent previous weeks reviewing. Adopting a mindset which prioritises reading as a fundamental part of your responsibility as a researcher, with no apparent start and end point, alleviates some of the stress associated with what to read and how to engage with literature. And adapting your reading journal to enable different kinds of reading, note-taking and organisation can help you in this process.

Book writing: blog therapy (and some writing help)

I hope you will indulge me a little, but I am going to do some blog therapy with this post. I am in a bit of a writing rut, and need to get out and get writing, but somehow Book Writing feels almost impossible right now. The thought of opening the file I am working on is paralysing. So, I am hoping that writing about how I am struggling to write will push me a bit further towards my file and the chapter I need to finish (by next week).

Photo by Startup Stock Photos from Pexels

This is a bit like pre-writing, I think. Pre-writing is a well known writing tool, developed out of Peter Elbow’s work on free writing, and writing to think and work out your thoughts. Pre-writing is not actually supposed to be shared with anyone, really; it’s just for you and for your own thinking and motivation process. The idea is that it takes some of the pressure off you by making the exercise of writing less ‘high stakes’ – no one will read it but you, it is scribbled in your own research journal, and it’s really just you talking to yourself about what you are working on.

But it is also not a “dear diary” entry, where you just ramble on about whatever. It does need to have a focus, a point. So, for example, if you are struggling to write at all (like me), you might do a pre-free-write on what it is about this piece of writing that is troubling you. That often helps me work out why I am so stuck. Or, if you have done a lot of reading, and need to now translate that into some text for a supervisor, you might write about what themes have emerged from the reading that are interesting relative to your research project. The point is not to write formally, or worry too much about grammar and spelling and stuff like that. The point is really just to write – get those thoughts out of your head and onto the page.

Photo by Lisa Fotios from Pexels

There is a therapeutic concept behind this. I am not a psychologist, but I have done a good deal of therapy, and there is something quite powerful about getting the thoughts, fears, troubles that you are struggling with out of your head – to speak or write them ‘out loud’ renders them somehow less powerful. You can open them up to critique and analysis – you can make a different kind of sense of them, turn them over, interrogate them. In doing so, you gain mastery over them, and you start to work out how to behave or be in different, less fearful or unconscious ways. You become more and more the captain of your own ship, because you can see and manage the ways in which you ride the tides and ebbs and flows of your life.

This is not that different to becoming a more conscious writer, and thinker. If you keep your writing and thinking all to yourself, you can start to feel a bit like you are going mad. You can’t see straight anymore – is this a good idea or not? Is this a valid claim or nonsense? Is my writing any good? You can’t actually always answer these questions yourself. You need to show people – supervisors, critical friends – your ideas and writing, and ask for honest feedback. That feedback can then help you become more conscious of the aspects of your writing and thinking that are working, and those that are not. You can start to ‘see’ what you are doing more clearly, and learn to make adjustments and changes where these are needed, to improve the work you are doing.

You cannot do a PhD all alone, and stay sane. You cannot write a book all alone either. It is true that you are the one in front of the laptop, and the journal, and the books, reading, writing, thinking, writing some more, And that often this is a solitary pursuit. But it cannot stay solitary. You need to be able to get all those thoughts and ideas out of your head, so you can turn them over, make sense of them, see them differently. Pre-writing is one way of doing this. Oddly, even if you are the only person who reads this writing, the writing feels different than it does locked in your head. It’s you, but also not you. There’s something that happens when you say a thought aloud, or write it down: it becomes separate from you in a way, that enables you to make sense of it, fit it into a larger framework of thinking, and hopefully move forward.

Another way of getting out of the solitary, and often paralysing, space where you know you have to write, and even want to write, but can’t quite make yourself write, is to actually share the writing. That is a form of what I am doing here. Telling you all, in the great and lovely imaginary space created by the Internet, that I am having a really tough time right now with this writing makes me feel less alone. Less fearful that it won’t ever get written. Because it will. Maybe not today, or not very much today, but if I can just write 300 words, it will be 300 less to write tomorrow, and the next day and so on.

Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

Writing paralysis is scary, especially when you have Deadlines. And Expectations. But, I have learned – am still learning – that it is not a permanent condition. But, it is unlikely to get any better if I just stay in my head, freaking myself out, and trying to give myself half-hearted pep talks. So, I am sharing this piece of pre-writing in the hope that I will be able to now post this, open the file, and write for a bit. I hope that, if you are stuck too, that you will find a way out of the maze for a bit. Try the pre-writing. Buy a friend a coffee and talk it all through with them. And then sit down and write – even if it feels hard and painful and scary. The only way through it is through it, and we’re all in this boat together.

Reading: pointing yourself in the right direction(s)

As a supervisor now, I am tasked with helping the students who are just starting out to find a way into their field, through reading (and keeping a reading journal). As a researcher and writer, I also have to work out, when I start a new paper or new project, where and how to start reading my way into the debates, problems, questions and so on. A key question I am often asked by students, and that I have to ask myself as a reader, is: ‘How do I maximise the use of my reading limited time?

The truth is, as much as we can say that as postgraduate and postdoctoral scholars we understand the demands of research, and how much time reading, thinking and writing takes at this level, we have busy lives. Most PhD students globally at part-time scholars, even if they are registered full-time, because they have jobs, and families, and other responsibilities that pull them away from their research. So, let’s be pragmatic. If you only have maybe 4-5 hours a week to really focus on your research, you want to make the best use of them. You don’t feel like you have time to spend two of these precious hours reading papers that ultimately are going on the ‘discard’ pile.

We can argue that no reading, or knowledge-gain, is a waste, but we also have to acknowledge that a PhD, or a research project, has a beginning, middle and end, and an end is expected in the form of a completed dissertation and papers (and in my case now, a book). So we need practical plans, to maximise this reading time in relation to the research project we are doing.

Last week I wrote about choosing 10 papers, and then 10 more and so on. But how do you know which 10 to start with, and then where to go after that? A PhD or Masters by research is not like a typical coursework assignment, where you have set questions that you need to respond to, and where you often have a reading list to get you started in the right directions (and can then just add to). At PhD level especially, and afterwards, you have to generate your own reading list, and your own questions. You need to choose the research problem, and read your way into the parts of the field that will help you refine this into a viable research question that you can research, thereby extending knowledge (and maybe also practice) in your field.

Big ask, right? Yep, it is. And it is daunting when you are new to this kind of research, thinking, writing and also researcher-independence. I have a few thoughts here that may help if you are starting a project, and are stuck in this very place: reading but struggling, and wondering if you are reading the right things, or not.

The first thought goes to the issue of research problems and questions. In your research journal, set yourself a 7 minute free-write task (where you literally just scribble whatever you are thinking of for 7 minutes). Make the topic: what I really want to research and why. Then write. See what you come up with. Say, for argument’s sake, you want to research the role of emotions and emotional ‘blocks’ in doctoral study. You think this is important because we don’t know a lot about this issue, but it seems to come up in many conversations you have had about and with PhD students and their studies. You want to know what students and supervisors think ’emotions’ look like in doctoral study, and what role they play in helping or hindering student progress and success.

So, there’s a basic research problem or topic. But, this is kind of all you know right now. Lots of suppositions and anecdotal sorts of evidence. You have to move beyond this to research-informed evidence, and knowledge. You have to read – a lot – to find your way into a deeper understanding of this problem, and also where the gaps are in the field that you can research. But what should your first 10 articles or papers focus on?

To get started, generate a few ‘research questions’ from your freewriting. In this case, maybe:

  1. What research has been done with the word ’emotion’ or some variation of that in the title, abstract or keywords?
  2. Based on this existing research, what are the key issues that are raised – maybe gender, or identity, or issues of retention and throughput?

This is enough to get started on some searching and journalling. The first question should yield at least 8-10 papers you can read and make notes on. Then, the second question can help you drill down further – widen your search to include studies on gender in doctoral study, and also identity. Look at papers that speak to these issues from supervisor and student perspectives. This should yield your next 10 papers, probably more.

Then you can start asking more refined and better questions, because you will now have a decent amount of knowledge about the basics of this field. You can start expanding your reading into more focused areas, or you may find yourself needing more knowledge on the wider context – you may find yourself asking: ‘Why are there so many PhD students out there? Why is there so much research on certain aspects of supervision practice, and not on others? Why is this research mostly coming out of contexts in the global North/South and not really elsewhere?’ These questions can point you towards more, and diverse reading that can help you start to build the layers of your study, from wider context, to more focused research problem area, to specific research questions and focus of your study.

A second thought goes to how to mitigate against getting stuck, and freaked out by all the reading. When you are starting out in a new research project, especially a high-stakes one such as a PhD or Masters project that will result in loss of status, time, money etc if you don’t complete or pass, self-doubt can be a significant stumbling block to watch out for. Even if you have been a successful student or academic so far, starting especially a PhD can create huge self-doubt – around whether your research is even original or interesting, around whether you can even write 80000 words about this topic, about whether you will please or disappoint your supervisor, about whether you are doing the right kinds of things at the right time, about whether you are working fast enough. So many things can create spaces for you to stumble in your self-belief.

One way, in reading, to help you manage this, is to start somewhere familiar. If you already know a bit about curriculum research, because of a workshop you attended, or a course you have taken, and this work is relevant to your research project, start there. Read your way in from a place of existing knowledge, moving towards new areas of learning. This will boost your self-confidence, and enable you to start writing as well, because you will have a bit of a background framework for this reading. Starting here can help you begin to ask the questions that will lead you into new reading on related aspects of the project. It will also lead you into reading on theory and methodology that will be useful to framing and designing your study and analysis. My advice: never start your reading with theory. It’s too difficult, and abstract on its own. You need to know what you want the theory for before you start reading theoretical texts. So start somewhere that feels known, and slowly branch out towards the not known. Same with methodology and research design texts.

Reading is the toughest part of any research project or activity, mainly because it is the part we never seem to make enough time for. I know I often feel indulgent spending time reading, even though my brain is saying: ‘But how are you ever going to write anything unless you do this?’ Writing has a tangible output – a text. Reading doesn’t have a direct output as such – although obviously the output in the end is your writing, and your more knowledgeable and confident contributions to your research or scholarly community. If you are battling to get started, or work out where to go next, I hope these two ideas here will help. Happy reading!

Reading: hard to teach, hard to do

Reading. One of the most important, but often most invisible, activities academics and scholars have to engage in to actually be academic, and scholarly. As a postgraduate student – honours, master, PhD especially – you will know that reading is a big part of your weekly workload, especially in the first part of your study, when you have to become familiar enough with your field of research to see, and understand, gaps into which your research could fit. But reading is often not something we help students with very much, beyond pointing them in the direction of papers and books to read.

The actual act and process of learning and making knowledge through reading is not an easy thing to talk about in supervision or teaching. It is much easier to talk about the other side of reading, which is writing. We have A LOT of research and blogging and talking about writing. Writing is visible, a tangible act that results in words on pages leading to books, theses and papers. We can see, analyse, unpack, critique the act of writing. But, without reading, what would there be to write about?

The first thing to think about, with reading at this level, is time. Reading takes time – more time than we often plan and estimate for in our weekly work budget. Some of us are slower readers than others, and some things are harder to read, make sense of, and make notes about than others. For example, reading an applied paper about some aspect of your study, where the authors are reporting on their own empirical research, with light theory and a focus on findings and outcomes is usually much quicker and easier to read than a chapter of a book on theory, where the author is a theorist, writing in typically dense and complex terms about abstracted meanings, terms and examples. Theory reading, as I think of it, always takes longer – and is more difficult cognitively – than applied reading. A useful point to consider then, is budgeting time for reading differently.

At the start of a project – masters, PhD, research more generally – you are going to have to read a great deal. Hours and hours of reading. The average amount of reading time to enable to the writing of a doctoral proposal, and the early chapters of a thesis is at least 6-9 months. Yes, months. Without all the reading, and the knowledge you will gain from it, you will find yourself with thin writing. One thing students early in a research journey do well is ‘suppositions’ – ‘(I suppose) it could be that students are not voting because they think it is not cool, or (I suppose) it could be because they do not identify with political parties on the ballot’. Which is it? Neither, both, or some other reason? Researchers before you have done some work on this, and published it. You have to read that work to understand the key debates and issues that have already been researched as regards youth voting, to help you see how your field has been approaching this research, and to help you find an under-explored area of knowledge-making within which you can locate your project.

So where are you going to make this time to read, and think, and also write as you make notes and start to pull threads from the readings together into the context of your own research project? Perhaps try a reading every morning, with notes in your reading journal, just after the kids have left for school and before work starts, or as you get to your desk before the day gets busy. If you can rise really early, perhaps try an hour before the household wakes up, when you have quiet. The point is to choose a time of day, and a quiet space, that works for you, and protect that time, at least 4 days a week, if not more. Steady work, and progress, is the goal with reading, and with writing.

http://www.livetradingnews.com

Now that you are reading as regularly as you can, and starting to learn more about the relevant issues, debates, theories and so on related to your project, you need to start talking about it all. Check in weekly (or biweekly if that’s easier) with a peer, colleague or friend also working on research (in or outside of your field). Have coffee and chat about what you have been reading, and why, and what kinds of interesting or troubling knowledge you have made. Ask your supervisor if you can check in with them, perhaps monthly if you cannot do so more often – write a short email to indicate what you have been reading, and where you are in your study. This may help them to see areas where you need to be redirected, or guided, in your reading, and they can help you to plot a course more steadily through the field. As a supervisor myself, I would rather have more contact like this with my students, to minimise their feelings of overwhelm and lost-ness, and to see how their thinking is developing, so we can both keep the project on track.

Reading is such a solitary activity – more so than writing because you can receive feedback on writing but no so much directly on reading. This is why it is hard to really ‘teach’ students how to read. You just have to do it. You have to wade in, and feel a bit (or a lot) lost at first, but, as a little blue fish says, just keep swimming. The act of creating new knowledge out of a mix of what is known and what you are able to generate, learn or discover on your own, is difficult, and it takes enormous amounts of time and effort. It is thus important to find ways to make this part of your research work less solitary – through writing about your own research problem, linking in knowledge from your reading and asking for feedback and guidance; through meeting regularly to just talk out loud about your developing thinking and knowledge; through journalling and writing to yourself about your research.

Reading, the act of processing what is known in relation to what you want to find out, and creating different kinds of necessary frameworks for your own research, is a significant, and vital, part of research. And there is so much to read – how do you find it all, and when do you know you have read enough? My advice is to start small: instead of falling into a Google Scholar rabbit hole and downloading 100 papers, download 10. 10 papers that, from their titles, abstracts and keywords, are obviously relevant to your study. Make these applied papers, rather than theory, to start with. Read these 10, and make good notes. Have a coffee chat and send your supervisor an email. Then find another 10, building on the first 10. Use the reference lists for guidance. Start noting repetition – are you seeing the same ideas and names coming up? Is this part of the field pretty clear in your head, in relation to your study, or not quite yet? If it is, move on to new reading on a related area of study; if not, keep going until it is. 10 by 10 (or perhaps 5 by 5 for Masters). Build up from this base, and then start branching out. After 20-25 papers, you should be seeing the same kinds of theoretical tools popping up – you could now start reading more in these areas, to find the right theory for your project; or perhaps you need to branch into research design issues, and start reading there. The point is to tackle the reading step by step, and share the steps you are taking with others – peers, co-travellers on the research journey, supervisors.

Reading is a tough thing to do – it takes time, it can be meandering, it can confuse you and challenge your ideas about your research. But it is perhaps the most vital part of doing research. If you are a student, try to start being more proactive and strategic about making time to read, and journal about your reading. If you are a supervisor, have a conversation with your student not only about what they are reading, but about how they read, and when, and what issues they may be having. Offer guidance if you can, or resources they can use. Making reading a more visible part of research may help us to really appreciate not just its significance, but also the labour involved. Making reading more visible, and appreciated, may help students, and supervisors, to connect reading and writing more meaningfully and overtly, within the overall work of creating new, and valuable, knowledge in our respective fields.

Writing to think, or writing to discover your thoughts

I used to work in a university writing centre until quite recently, and the tutors I worked with and I read a great deal and talked a great deal about writing to learn, rather than only about learning to write. More specifically, we talked about writing to think, or writing to discover what it is that you think about a specific topic or subject. All of us were, at the time, working on articles for publication and/or postgraduate degrees, so there was a great deal of both the writing and the thinking that needed doing, all the time it seemed.

But writing and thinking have always been, for me, a sort of ‘chicken and egg’ issue: which comes first – do I read and think and then start writing, or will the thinking only really come when the writing happens? Or do I just write it all down, and then read, think and edit?

Of course, there is no right (or wrong) answer, and we all have different writing tics, tricks and processes to help us get into and stay in our own writing ‘zone’. In this post I’d like to reflect on my own writing and thinking process, which comes first, and why I think that thinking is perhaps more valuable than writing (although hopefully some of it will lead to writing, because sharing our thinking is necessary for others to learn from and engage with it).

Doing a PhD showed me, more than anything else, how much thinking actually goes into producing a lengthy, detailed piece of work that can make a genuine contribution to a field of study. Prior to writing my PhD thesis, I had completed other degrees, but quite honestly I had never thought that hard, and for that long, and in that kind of roundabout, convoluted, complex and also kind of thrilling way before. Even the papers I had published, which were few, had not demanded that level of thought, based on reading, challenging conversations with supervisor and peers, and more reading and scribbling on my own. It is much clearer to me now how important it is to make time, and space in my head, to really think about what I want to say, and why it matters, and to whom it might matter so that I can write articles that my peers will really want to read, and that will make a contribution to practice in my field.

This means that I do a great deal of informal writing before I open that Word file, give the paper a title and start plotting it out in firmer detail, committing myself to one argument. I scribble a great deal in my research and reading journals, and I play around with ideas, letting them kind of just flow until I find one that I think can support one clear and coherent argument. This, in my process, is thinking level 1: messy, informal, scribbly, and ultimately quite enjoyable because there are very few rules. Of course, as an editor as well as a writer in my professional life, I often want to jump ahead 5 steps and edit my thoughts before they have even made it onto the page, so this is a tendency I need to tamp down. Scribbling as freely as possible, at this initial level of thinking, means that many more ideas than can be contained in one paper often make it into my research journal, and although many of the scribbles remain just scribbles, all of this builds my confidence in my ideas as being valuable, and all of it serves as writing and thinking practice, strengthening my researcher muscles over time.

Moving on, once I have found my way to an idea that I like, and that feels like an argument I can actually make and support in an extended piece of writing, like a chapter or an article, I start the plotting process more formally. I think up a holding title, and I craft an abstract that contains an initial form of my ‘tiny text’ (Kamler and Thompson’s illustrative term). I then work on possible subheadings within the paper, and capture initial thoughts about what might go into these sections. I also make a note of readings I have done that would be referenced within the paper. At the end of thinking level 2, creating a skeleton for the paper, I now have a concrete base to build my paper on.

At this stage, though, the thinking behind the paper is still fairly nebulous, and needs to be pinned down, in particular the argument, which is the core of the paper. I use a thinking tool learnt about on a writing retreat earlier this year, and that has been incredibly helpful in making clearer this nebulous thinking and subsequent writing. In essence, I use sticky notes to plot out the key parts of my argument in my research journal. I write down, on no more than 3 stickies what my main claim is. Then I write down, again on no more than 3 stickies, what my reasons are for making this claim. The next step is to write down what forms of evidence I need to use to substantiate these claims. I added a step to this process for my own writing to note what I want the ‘take-home’ message for my writing to be. This process, which is thinking level 3 for me, ends up looking a little like this:

IMG_3049

Finally, once I have reached this stage, I feel ready to really write, and I set myself words per day or week targets and start typing the paper. What I love about this 4th stage in my own writing and thinking process is that the writing flows a little more easily in general because of all the pre-writing and thinking I have done to get to this point, but that I am still surprised by the kinds of thoughts and turns of phrase that emerge as I let the writing flow, and as my thinking continues to stretch, change and develop. It’s a strange and wonderful feeling to find yourself reading over a paragraph you have written, and thinking ‘Wow! I didn’t know I thought that – it sounds so smart!’ 🙂

I suppose, at the end of this reflection, I am concluding that what I tend to think of as ‘Writing’ is the formal processes that turn nebulous ideas into a formal paper that I can submit to a journal. I don’t often count the scribbles, and plottings and ongoing thinking that brings all of that to life as Writing. But, it is all writing, and even if parts of the scribbles and thinking never see the light of day in a formal piece of writing, it all counts in terms of building my confidence, and my capacity to keep thinking and keep writing in tighter, more refined and more integral ways as I grow into my scholarly self.