Reading your way into your field: tips for navigation

My last post on reading your PhD field received more attention that my last few posts have received, so I feel I have touched a chord here; reading is tricky area of PhD study that doesn’t receive as much press as writing does. Actually, that’s true in academia more generally – there is a lot more research into helping students write more effectively than there is into helping students read more effectively. I think it is better understood that writing in different genres and fields is a challenge, and that novice writers and learners need help demystifying the particular genres they need to master. By contrast, reading academic texts seems to be less well covered in teaching and learning-type research. Students at all levels are expected to read critically, analytically, and proficiently, but this is often a struggle and while there seems to be a lot of help about when it comes to writing, the question still remains: what are we writing about if we are battling with what we are reading?

This post touches on the more nitty-gritty struggles of reading for a PhD: how to actually get into your field, and make sense of it, especially the ‘names’ or the big theory and ideas. To get into this post, I need to start with me, with my own PhD reading struggles. I have confessed already that I am a bookworm, and that I love reading. I do not, however, love everything that I have to read, and a lot of the reading I had to do for my PhD (and am going back to now to work on the postdoc writing) was tedious and tough and often just incomprehensible. To illustrate: I had to read Pierre Bourdieu’s work. For those who are fortunate enough to not have to do this to yourselves, Bourdieu is hard going (and I did a whole module on Foucault during my Masters). He uses about 25 words when other people use two, and much of his work is translated into English from the original French, so it tends towards being dense and challenging. I really battle to translate him into my own words and my own understanding. I don’t actually really understand him in his own words; I can only make sense of his writing when I have read other people translating him into more accessible terms.

This then brings me to the first strategy I learned when I started my PhD, at a workshop where we talked about disciplines being like ‘tribes’ and PhD students as being noviciates into the tribe, and needing to learn about who the tribespeople are and how to find a place among them. You need to know who the ‘chiefs’ are, and who the more ordinary tribespeople are, and how they relate to each other in terms of their ideas, arguments etc. Then you can locate yourself within that ‘field of inquiry’ more clearly and with greater confidence (because you know how to avoid stepping on toes, or repeating someone else’s idea and taking it as your own, inadvertently). You cannot, in my field, quote Bourdieu (a chief, for sure) in the work of another scholar, even if they are a sub-chief or working at a higher level to you. This is true of all fields: you have to cite the chiefs at their source. And to avoid including ‘cheat’ citations (although we all do this from time to time) where you include a text you know references your idea but that you have not fully read or understood, you need to make sense of what the source texts are actually saying. Ergo, I had to read Bourdieu. But (and here’s the tip), don’t start with the writings of the chiefs. It’s often too difficult, and you can quickly end up confused, lost, demotivated and feeling like you are not supposed to be a PhD student.

Start with the tribespeople who have gone before you, and have bravely read, deciphered and translated the work of the chief into more accessible terms. See how they have used his or her ideas and theory in their own work; look at the methods they have used and the kinds of arguments they have made using the work of the chief. Read a few of these papers and books, until you have a sense of what the source text and the theory-in-the-original is saying. Then, get the source texts, and read the theory, the ideas etc in the original. It is almost always easier if you do it like this, because it feels at least a little familiar, and not quite as scary and obscure. It’s still work to make sense of the source texts in relation to your argument and your PhD, but it can be less daunting a task when tackled like this. Also, reading like this gives you a greater sense of the field you are working in, and who you are working in relation to.

Connected to this is another tip I learned, but did not always practice myself. Often, part of the practice of reading our way into a field is learning to critique the other members of our tribe as part of finding our own academic feet and voice, and claiming our own space within the field of research and learning. One thing many examiners look for in a completed thesis is a sense that you know where the weaknesses of your field/theory/methods etc are, not just the strengths. Can you show them that you see and understand key claims against your chosen chiefs, and your defence against the critique in relation to your own arguments? This is hard to do though, because PhD students often want certainty and clarity: the chief must be right about this, and that’s that. It’s too difficult to also be trying to see how he or she could be only partially right, or blind to certain things, etc. But, this is an important part of becoming a member of your ‘tribe’ and it’s a necessary part of the reading and thinking work. One tip, to help you claim this critical-reader space, is to write to the authors you are reading when you write a reading journal entry.

‘Dear Pierre, I struggled to make sense of this paper, and I wonder about the veracity of claim X in particular. If you did this research in a different context, you would not be able to make this claim in the same way. For example, in my research context, ….  etc, etc, etc.’

Write to the chief as if you are able to have a conversation with them, and ask them about the things that puzzle you or seem unclear. Make suggestions as to why this might be, and suggest possible alternatives or improvements. Connect their work with your own research. If you do this kind of journal entry consistently, you may well find your confidence in your own ideas growing, and your ability to be more critical and analytical in reading developing over time.

They say that the more you read, the better you get at it, and the easier it becomes. This is true of some academic reading, I find, but not all. The tough theoretical stuff will, I think, always be a bit tough, whereas the more substantive theory may get easier, especially if you read the same kinds of research over and over and overlaps  as well as differences become clearer. However, it is certainly true that you are never going to become a more confident PhD reader by reading less. So, get stuck in and may the force be with you all!

Reading your field: how much is enough?

I like reading. I am a complete bookworm – my family used to joke when I was growing up that if I didn’t have a book, I would read cereal boxes (I did, actually). When I was studying for my final school exams I would reward myself for an hour of maths with a chapter (or 4) of my current novel. (I still do this, although now it’s academic articles rather than maths, thank goodness). This post is the first of probably a few on reading for your PhD, and also for what comes after. This post asks the tough question: have I read enough, and how much, exactly, is that?

Academic reading happens at different levels according to purpose. When your purpose is simply to read a new paper or book to find out about a new piece of research or a new study in your field, with no immediate need to reference or use it in a specific way, it can be a fairly easy and enjoyable activity. No anxiety here; just learning and thinking in an undemanding way. When your purpose is to scope your field for a literature review section that gives you a ‘map’ of the part of your field you are researching into, what research and questions have been asked, and where the gaps are that your work is hoping to fill, there is some anxiety. Are you reading the right ‘names’? Are you reading enough articles? Have you missed out on important studies? Furthermore, when you are reading to build a theoretical framework for your study, and when what you have to read is tough theoretical and conceptual texts that you need to comprehend fully and mesh together into a coherent framework, there is indeed anxiety.

Managing anxiety around reading was a challenge for me during my PhD. I have written a little about meltdowns in relation to reading, and how I climbed off those particular ledges. The anxiety, for me, was different at the different stages of my PhD. At the beginning, when I was reading for my proposal, I had been told that I needed to have done 30% of the thinking by the time my proposal was ready for submission. Wow. 30% in the first 6 months? That seemed like a lot. A lot of reading and a lot of thinking. And writing, of course. Was I reading the right things? Was I reading enough? (Can you ever read enough?) This process was a challenging one, because I really didn’t know if I had read enough, or done enough thinking when I handed in my proposal, and I am not sure it’s that easy for a supervisor – a good one – to say ‘that’s enough reading, stop now’. They can and should advise you, point you towards useful reading that will help you, and help you stop when they sense you are reading the wrong kinds of things at different stages. But you have to, ultimately, work out for yourself whether what you are reading is helping you move forwards or not. Working out your own ideas, and what helps you to answer your questions, or doesn’t, is part of becoming a researcher who can move on, postdoc, to write, publish and work on new projects.

After the proposal went through, I then had to start firming up my ‘theoryology‘ and this meant reading the complex theoretical and conceptual stuff that makes me a little dizzy from time to time. This chapter was dense, and I really felt I needed to be clear on my ‘lens’ before I went out to generate data in the field. The reading, in relation, was very dense, and not always super-interesting. I worried a lot about whether I was reading enough of the texts, or whether I was actually reading deeply enough, or comprehensively enough. How would I tell if I wasn’t? Obviously my supervisor’s feedback was an important source of direction, but she hasn’t read everything in this field, either, and both of us were finding our way through my study through my reading, writing, and thinking. This was a daunting process for me, fraught with anxiety, but also a growing experience. I did feel like I grew slowly in confidence as my knowledge and understanding of my field developed. Perhaps looking at this process of reading, writing, and thinking from the perspective of what you are gaining as a researcher can help to manage the anxiety about how difficult and often meandering this period of time during the PhD can be.

I started with substantive theory, and then moved for a long while to more conceptual/framework-type theory, and came back to substantive theory in the end to finish writing my ‘literature review’. I can’t advocate one approach over others, but it does make sense to me to scope your field, find gaps and questions and then focus on one your study can ask and answer. Then move on to read what will help you build a framework or set of lenses with which to understand your field, your question, your data and your analysis of that data. Then, at the end, go back to the substantive theory and refine your literature review according to what your study evolved into. I think having a plan, like this one or one that makes sense for your particular study or field, really helps with the reading. Using a programme like Endnote to organise your reading, or using Nvivo or similar to make notes as you read, can help with a reading strategy and keeping track of your ideas and notes as you move through different parts of your study.

The thing is (and this is why answering the question this post posed is so tough), you can read too little, and find your examiners questioning your knowledge and understanding of your field, and the basis for your claims. But you can also read too much, and end up with so many references and so much information that it becomes difficult to find your voice and your ideas amidst all the others you are citing. It can also obstruct the focus of your study and make it difficult to choose just the one PhD to work on. It’s a bit like the Goldilocks Syndrome – not enough, too much, or just right? I am not sure what counts as ‘just right’, to be honest. There always seems to be more reading to do, and there are many journals and books in every field that can be potential sources of information for you. Draw on feedback and direction from your supervisor, and from peers in your field. Do your ideas make sense? Do you have sufficient evidence for what you are claiming? Do they believe your argument, and is it coherent? If the answers from your critical friends let you know that you are indeed making coherent, substantiated sense, you’re probably closer to ‘just right’ than you might think you are.

Why (and how) I keep reading and research journals

research journal cover

My reading journal

This post is about reading (and writing), and how I try to keep track of what I read and what I think about it and why I need to include it in my writing.

I went to a Doc week workshop last year at Rhodes on how to keep reading and research journals and why these are useful. It was one of the most ‘lightbulb-going-on’-type workshops I have ever been to, largely because of the reading journal tool. I had been, up until that point, annotating all my readings and highlighting all over them, but stopping and starting as I went to do this highlighting and annotating. I found myself getting to the end of a long book chapter or paper unable to articulate, in my own words, what the author was on about. It was so frustrating because I found that my reading was stilted and my notes were full of exact quotes from the readings rather than summaries in my own words, so I was having trouble writing about it all. I could not think beyond the authors’ words and I was getting nowhere fast with my ‘theory’ chapter and literature review-type sections.

At this workshop the idea of a reading journal was introduced and explained. Essentially the goal is to read the article all the way through without annotating or highlighting or stopping. Then, on a clean MSWord page or notebook page (I like to write mine in pen and pencil in a pretty Moleskine notebook) you write a summary of the article – what stuck out for you, what the main arguments were, how you are linking it to your other reading, what questions you had, what you were not clear about and so on. You can go back and read again and add direct quotes or clarify fuzzy bits but only after you have read the article or chapter and summarised it like this first. What is brilliant about a reading journal kept like this is that you do remember what you have read (even though you think you won’t), the main points are what go into the summary rather than all the points as often happens when you are annotating, and you are writing in your own words so there is less of a writing block caused by being stuck on the author’s words.

I have learnt a few tips to make keeping a reading journal like this a bit easier. Firstly, read when your brain is fresh, otherwise it’s harder to focus and remember the main points and you find yourself having to keep going back to the reading and then you’re copying quotes instead of summarising in your own words. Second, make sure you write the FULL bibliographical reference at the top of the summary – there is nothing worse than having to chase down references later on. Thirdly, keep your journal with you – if you get a few spare minutes and want to read it’s nice to have your book with you (if you keep a hard copy) and to keep these summaries in one place. I have reading journal entries in my book and on my PC and on bits of paper stapled to printed-out articles and it’s a bit hard to keep track of it all. This reading journal has changed the way I read and make notes, and has really helped me to find my own voice as a writer in this PhD and even in papers and other things I am writing.

research journal inside

An example of a writing/drawing page in my research journal

The other journal I keep is more personal and something I also learnt about during this Doc week. It’s my research journal. This is where I scribble ideas for parts of my thesis, ideas for papers I want to write related to my PhD research, notes about my frustrations, triumphs, setbacks, writing process and inklings, and so on. I draw pictures, I write more linear entries, I draw ‘word-pictures’ – it is a creative, personal space where I record my journey, and where the ‘archaeological dig’ that has been my study has unfolded and evolved over the past almost-two years – and is still unfolding. I take it to work with me everyday, and home again. I never know when the muse will strike, and I scribble sometimes on the way to work while my husband drives, or sitting in bed on a Saturday morning, or quickly between meetings at work. This journal has been very useful as a part-confessional diary and part-intellectual work-space. A small tip: if you are going to start one, buy a pretty journal from a bookshop. It’s more inspiring and enjoyable to keep a journal that is lovely to look at than one in a plain A4 book with a brown or black cover. :-).

I highly recommend keeping one of each of these journals – the reading journal for the more ‘academic’ work you are doing, and the research journal for your own personal as well as academic processes and thoughts and ideas. These tools are useful for the PhD journey itself and beyond or outside of it.

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?