Scribble, scribble … toil and gain?

I am a scribbler. I have piles of notebooks and notepads and bits of paper in folders and scraps of files on my PC full of notes and scribbles and ideas (in various stages of being worked through). This is not really a super-efficient system, because I have too many ideas and notes in too many places, but they are somewhat thematised and organised – it’s a work in progress. The point I want to make in this post has to do with the value of the scribbles, not the filing of these (although we’ll get to that).

When you undertake something like a PhD, you envision from the beginning that final, formal, written meisterwerk you will toil and toil and toil over for at least three years of your life. You think a lot about producing all those words, and this produces a lot of anxiety and also a real feeling of anticipation. A LOT of different kinds of thinking, reading and writing have to go into producing that meisterwerk. It follows that you need different places to do these kinds of reading, thinking and writing. I keep reading and research journals, and I read and write at my desk, on the couch (often results in naps, though), and also in the car on the way to work (often on my phone), or in the garden on a sunny day. I try to make it less like a chore, although this is not always possible. I think you need to see value in doing small, informal, scribbly writing as well as more formal, ‘this goes into the thesis’ forms of writing. You need to see all of the small bits of thinking and ‘percolating’ (my friend Deb’s very apt term) that you do as moving you forward, but it can be hard to do this if you don’t keep track of all of this steady progress.

research journal inside

I think that PhD students put a lot of pressure on themselves to produce pages of formal writing that they can send to their supervisor, to indicate progress and on which to receive feedback and often tend to feel like unless the writing or reading they are doing is ending up in The Thesis, it’s not all that valuable. I’d like to challenge this. I did this to myself, especially in the beginning of my PhD. I made loads of notes, very formally, and kept trying to write chapters way before I was ready to. After I learnt to keep a research journal, I relaxed a little, and started to enjoy scribbling bits and pieces of ideas and thinking, connecting dots or creating new dots to think about. I still worried a lot about producing the formal words, but I could see that the scribbling was slowly but surely moving me forward, especially in weeks where an hour of scribbling the whole week was all I could manage. There were a lot of weeks like this, and if I had not been scribbling I would not have been doing much of anything except searching databases and saving new papers I was not getting around to reading (I’m not sure this counts as PhD work, really).

There has to be a balance between formal and informal academic work – I don’t think you can write a whole thesis in scribbles (sadly). You need to move between informal and formal forms of writing and thinking – the PhD dissertation is a very sophisticated form of academic writing and thinking, and requires a lot of its writer. But, I suppose I am arguing for more value to be placed on the informal kinds of thinking, reading and writing that you can do rather than seeing these as silly, or less worthy of your time. Without these initial and ongoing forays into the scribbles, drawings and informal ramblings, you may try to rush towards doing the formal, academic, this-goes-into-the-thesis writing before you are ready. If you do, this may well reflect in the feedback you receive, and this could end up being demotivating or really hurtful and difficult to deal with.

I think the bottom line, annoying and trite as this may well sound, is that writing and everything that goes into making writing possible is a process, and it unfolds in pieces over time, sometimes smoothly and sometimes in a very bumpy fashion. If we can try to hold onto the process and trust that the product in the form of the meisterwerk will come, we can probably find it easier to indulge the scribbling and drawing and less formal work that can push our thinking forward, can provide more creative outlets for us to do our academic work, and can make for very interesting reading when the process is at an end. So, scribble, scribble, scribble – the toil will be worth the trouble ;).

Iterativity in data analysis: part 1

This post is a 2-parter and follows on from last week’s post about generating data.

The one thing I did not know, at all, during my PhD was that qualitative data analysis is a lot more complex, messy and difficult than it looks. I had never done a study of this magnitude or duration before, so I had never worked with this much data before. I had written papers, and done some analysis of much smaller and less messy data sets, so I was not a c0mplete novice, but I must say I was quite taken aback by the mountain of data I found I had once the data generation was complete. What to do now? Where to start? Help!

The first thing I did, on my supervisor’s advice, was get a license for Nvivo10 and uploaded all my documents, interview and video recordings and field notes into its clever little software brain so that I could organise the data into folders, and so that I could start reading and coding it. This was invaluable. Software that enables you to store, organise and code your data is a must, I think, for a study as large and long as a PhD. This is not an advert for Nvivo so I won’t get into all its features, and I am sure that other free and paid-for qualitative data analysis packages like Atlas Tii or the Coding Analysis Toolkit from UMass would do the job just as well. However, I will say that being able to keep everything in one place, and being able to put similar chunks of text into different folders without mixing koki colours or scribbling all over paper to the point of confusion was really useful. I felt organised, and that made a big difference to my mental ability to cope with the data analysis and sense-making process.

The second thing I did was keep very detailed notes in my research journal on my process as it unfolded. This was essential as I needed to narrate my analysis process to my readers in as much detail as possible in my methodology chapter. If a researcher cannot tell you how they ended up with the insights and conclusions they did, it is much harder to trust their research or believe what they are asking you to. I wanted to be believable and convincing – I think all researchers do. Bernstein (2000) wrote about needed two ‘languages of description (LoD)’ in research: the internal (InLoD) which is essentially where you create a theoretical framework for your study that coheres and explains how you are going to understand your problem in a more abstract way; and the external (ExLoD) where you analyse and explain the data using that framework, outlining clearly the process of bringing theory to data and discovering answers to your questions. The stronger and clearer the InLod and ExLoD, the greater chance other researchers then have of using, adapting, learning from your study, and building on it in their own work. When too much of your process of organising, coding, recoding, reading, analysing, connecting the data is hidden from the reader, or tacit in your writing about it, there is a real risk that your research can become isolated. By this I mean that no one will be able to replicate your study, or adapt your tools or framework to their own study while referencing yours, and therefore your research cannot be readily be built on or incorporated into a greater understanding of the problems you are interested in solving (and the possible solutions).

This was the first reason for keeping detailed notes. The second was to trace what I was doing, and what worked and what did not so that I could learn from mistakes and refine my process for future research projects. As I had never worked with a data set this large or varied before, I really didn’t know what to do, and the couple of qualitative research ‘textbooks’ I looked at were quite mechanical or overly instrumental in their approach, which didn’t make complete sense to me. I wanted a more ‘ground-up’ process, which I felt would increase the validity and reliability of my eventual claims. I also wanted to be surprised by my data, as much as I wanted to find what I thought I was looking for. The theory I was using further required that I not just ‘apply’ theory to data (which really can limit your analysis and even lead to erroneous conclusions), but rather engage in an open, multiple and iterative reading of the data in successive stages. Detailed notes were key in keeping track of what I was doing, what confused me, what made sense and so on. Doing this consciously has made me feel more confident in taking on similarly sized research projects in future, and I feel I can keep building and learning from this foundation.

This post is a more conceptual musing about the nature of qualitative data analysis and lays the groundwork for next week’s post, where I’ll get into some of the ‘tools’ or approaches I took in actually doing my analysis. Stay tuned… 🙂

 

Conscious writing

I have been writing parts of this post in my head for a while. This has been an issue I have been thinking about a lot in relation to my writing centre work with the tutors and also with students, as well as in relation to my own ongoing writing. I mentioned a post or two ago that my MA mini-thesis did very little to prepare me for PhD research and writing – not because it was mini, but rather because I was not very conscious of what I was doing and why I was doing it. I didn’t get a great deal of guidance and formative feedback during that process. The PhD, therefore, was a BIG step up for me, and for the most part because I needed to fill so many gaps in my research capability and in my research writing. The biggest gap for me was the c0nsciousness gap.

What do I mean by this? Well, two things. The first is beginning to understand what you are actually doing in your research project and, incredibly importantly, why you are doing it. How to then go about achieving the what and why is also important, but as I had already learnt, trying to complete a research project focusing on how rather than more on what and why gets it done, but is not the most conscious or even satisfying process. Understanding what you are doing your research for and about, and also why you are taking the steps you are and where they fit into your overall study is so important because you need to be able to sustain a narrative, not just for your readers and supervisor over 80,000 or more words, but also for yourself. Most PhDs take over 3 years to complete, and are broken up until the last year or so into pieces that don’t start coming together, in the writing anyway, until you start putting your first full draft together. You have drafts of chapters and pieces of the whole and it’s so easy (and probably also par for the course) to get lost. But if you understand, in your own words, what you are doing and why, and how the pieces fit or could fit, then you can keep the narrative going and keep coming back to your path. This makes it more likely that you will finish within a decent timeframe, and also helps reduce the frustration and craziness that are part and parcel of doctoral study. Keeping a research journal and trying to write to and for yourself as often as you can really helps with developing this research narrative, and the consciousness about your own writing and research process.

The second thing is a meta-consciousness about the thinking and writing moves you make. It’s a more focused narrative than the bigger picture one where you are looking at your research project as a whole and its parts. This kind of consciousness is one I developed in a big way over the course of my PhD, and not without formative and challenging feedback from my supervisor. Here I am talking about the choices you make when you write – what words you use, or what terms, and how you actually write your research for your readers and supervisors. For example, rather than simply using modals (might, may, could, should etc) to temper statements because they seem like a useful feature of written English, really understand what the modal is doing to the meaning of your claim or argument. Hedging is a key feature of academic writing, but it needs to be done consciously rather than mechanically for the text to then be coherent and also pleasurable to read. If you use modals incorrectly you can sound too certain and strident when you need to be more cautious and curious, like in your introduction where you are posing rather than answering your questions. I had to work hard on this, and became far more conscious about the choices I was making around my writing. The move from how I was writing before my PhD to how I write now was a little like Neo’s journey in The Matrix – I went from not seeing that there was a whole world beneath the surface of my texts that I needed to understand, to seeing that it was there, to starting to write the code that could reshape and change that world and my writing in a variety of ways. Being so much more conscious of what I am writing and why has given me more control over how I write, and it’s a good feeling. It feels like a much more solid and tangible base to keep building one than the one I had before the PhD started.

Conscious writing involves being able to read your own text as an editor and a writer, asking yourself questions about the choices you have made in terms of words, terms and concepts used and well as structure, organisation and coherence. It means being able to explain not just what you have written about, but also being able to tell the story of why the choices were made and how things were included, excluded and shaped in relation to the overall aims and objectives of your research. It’s a crucial part of the PhD process, and one that, while incredibly challenging and a lot of hard work for a long time, yields such satisfying rewards during and also way beyond the PhD itself. Once you have been inside the Matrix and have learnt to write the code itself, you can’t go back. Why would you even want to?

Finding and expressing your PhD ‘voice’

I’ve been thinking about this issue of voice a great deal lately, partly because I lost my physical voice when I handed in my final final copy and got it back a week later when I woke up on the morning of my graduation. My best friend suggested that it was symbolic – leaving my pre-doctoral voice behind and gaining my new doctoral voice. I like to think she’s right, but we’ll have to wait and see what this new voice sounds like – the symbolic doctoral one, I mean. It still feels a bit croaky to me…

The issue of ‘voice’ – finding one, expressing it, having it sound to others in your field like one that is authentic, authoritative, sufficiently knowledgeable and confident – is a complicated one. It is complicated, not least, because ‘voice’ is a rather vague concept for talking about understanding knowledge, conceptualising ideas, formulating evidence-based arguments on the basis of the knowledge and ideas and expressing these, in writing, in English (often) and in the right genre, tone and register. There’s a lot that goes into this concept of ‘voice’. So, this is justifiably a concept that puzzles and also worries many PhD students and writers. ‘How do I find my voice? How do I express it? How will I know whether it sounds right?’ These are questions I asked myself over and over (and still do).

To start with the first one, finding my voice, I thought about gaining some kind of confidence in ‘owning’ the concepts and theories I was trying to understand and use in my thesis, and taking confidence here to mean ‘voice’. When I started reading I had very little confidence in myself and in my ability to claim the concepts and theories, translate them through understanding them into my own words, and then begin to put them to work in building my theoretical framework. I read some very useful posts by Pat Thomson on literature reviews and working with texts and with the other, stronger voices of the researchers and theorists I was reading. I kept a reading journal and wrote to myself about what I was reading and what I was thinking about all that reading. Slowly, I started to piece together a few paragraphs, and then a larger chunk, and then two chunks joined together, and slowly I started to find a voice. A small one at first, saying ‘I think this might be useful’ and ‘Maybe this makes sense if we think about it like this’ and (very scary) ‘Maybe this theorist is not completely right and we could think about this issue differently’. It got stronger as I went on, but this is a process, and it takes time and is a bit more circular than linear – you may find and lose your voice over and over as you encounter new ideas and research that challenges you to rethink and rethink again.

Expressing your voice – your ideas and your thoughts and your organisation and summarising of the theories in relation to your own study – is also challenging. It ties in with the third question of how to make your voice come out ‘right’ in your writing so that those reading your work – your supervisor and peers and eventually examiners – will say ‘Ah yes, this is PhD level work’. In facilitating a writing workshop for 4th year students at an early point in writing my theory chapter, I taught myself a useful way of trying to express my own voice.

The students were writing literature reviews for a research project, and were battling to get to the point where they were directing and organising the research they had done in relation to their own projects rather than simply writing down everything they thought was important in the research and doing a summarise, synthesis, compare and contrast type of exercise. I was battling too, unable to see beyond the authors’ words to my own and therefore battling to get to a point of directing and guiding the writing and thinking process rather than being guided by it.

I used a trick I learnt from a colleague, who got it from the work of Toulmin, and it is summarised as P E E or Point, Evidence, Explanation. It’s a quite a simple one to use, and it can be adapted and played with as needed, and depending on the level of sophistication required of the writing. You start with the point of the paragraph (understanding that this point stands in relation to the other points you want to be making in this section/chapter and not on its own). This is your voice coming through – it should not be referenced or a paraphrase of someone else’s ideas but rather you, summarising a key idea you have because of what you have read, and that needs to be fully discussed and developed. It may be one sentence or a couple of linked sentences. Then you go into the evidence – why do you make that point or claim? Who supports you in this claim? What have they claimed or said that you can include to strengthen your point? (Here, of course, you reference the work of others). Then you close the paragraph with explanation that connects your point and the evidence in this paragraph to your research or your study, and that also (if you are in the beginning or middle of a section) links it to the next point or idea. This explanation, for the most part, is also you – your voice – coming through to tell us what this knowledge means in relation to the whole picture you are drawing, and what you make of it (and what you’d like us as the readers to make of it too).

You will find your voice as you go on, and it may be very different from the one you started out with, or quite similar. The starting point is important, as PhD students come into this process from very different places. Many of my peers on our programme have worked for years, and have full-time jobs, families and a lot of experience under their belts. Other PhD students I know are in their late 20s, unattached and still working on getting that experience. The point is not to compare your voice (or apparent lack thereof) with others, but to look to your trusted peers and supervisor for guidance in finding, expressing and finally claiming your own doctoral voice. As my supervisor said to me: ‘Trust the process’. 🙂

Using metaphors for thinking and writing your PhD

I read a really interesting article recently by Frances Kelly on using metaphors in thesis writing, and she highlighted to kinds of metaphors: structural and conceptual. As I understand her, a structural metaphor can help you to use an image or an idea to organise and shape your thesis – to lend it an underlying narrative of sorts. A conceptual metaphor can be used as a way of thinking about what your argument and data actually mean, or the shape your methods and methodology are taking. She mentions a common PhD-related metaphor that could possibly be used both structurally and conceptually: the journey. I am sure many of you have heard this metaphor and even used it for your own thinking about your PhD process and what kind of journey is has been or is for you.

I am using a metaphor in my PhD, a structural metaphor that came to me quite early on as I was trying to work coherently with all the layers of theory and conceptualisation that are now mostly contained in chapters 2 and 3. It is the image of an archaeological dig of sorts. I have outlined 6 stages, steps or layers in the process of doing a ‘dig’ and each chapter now aligns with these. I was just using this image and idea in my theory chapter to unpack and fit the parts of theory into a whole, but a friend suggested I try using it for the whole thesis and it has worked well. This metaphor or image has, importantly, helped me to think about what I am doing and need to do at each stage in telling the story of my study, and how the parts fit together to make a whole.

Image from NBC News

Image from NBC News

In my use of this metaphor, I move from choosing the dig site and giving my reasons for the choices, to finding and setting out the right tools for the kind of dig I am doing, and to help me find the things I need to find. I then move on to do the dig with the tools, describing and reflecting on my process of digging, explaining why I did not do certain things and did do others. Then, in my two ‘analysis’ chapters, I go on to show you what I have found in the dig and what I think these artefacts mean in relation to my reasons for doing the study and my chosen framework. I conclude as I explain the significance of the findings within the area in which I chose to dig, and within the field in which I am working. I like this metaphor – I have found that it has helped me to focus and also given me a space to play and be creative while still producing a fairly normal, regulation PhD thesis. 

Like all metaphors, though, there are things it does not do and ways in which it could all fall apart and confuse people who may interpret it differently. So, if you want to try and use either a conceptual or structural metaphor in your own thesis, these would be my top tips:

1. Choose an image or idea that has resonance with your study – either with the field of study, the research questions, the methods you are using or the conceptual framework. It should not just be creative frippery, it should work on a deeper level and tie in clearly with what your study aims to achieve or say.

2. Work out very carefully how you are using the metaphor and for what end. You will need to explain its use very carefully to your reader-examiners so that they cannot misinterpret it, or tell you it makes so sense and to take it out. Try it out on your supervisor or a critical friend and see what they think.

3. Choose something that excites you or makes you feel creative – think about adding images as well as just words to describe the metaphor. A friend of mine used Alice in Wonderland’s journey down the rabbit hole as a metaphor for her thesis with beautiful illustrations and it worked really well. Take your readers on your creative journey by pulling the metaphor very clearly into the places it belongs and showing your readers why they need to take it as seriously as you do.

Happy thinking, scribbling and writing, everyone!

Reference:

Kelly, F. 2011. ‘Cooking together disparate things’: the role of metaphor in thesis writing. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 48(4): 429-438.