Being part of a research mosaic: finding purpose at the end of the world*

I have not written a full blog post in ages. I had to take a sabbatical from the blog at the start of this year: 2021 was Hard and starting this year, I needed to trim down the number of things to focus on in a sort-of work-life triage. Having taken some time away, though, I have started writing bits of new posts in my head and find that I would quite like to finish them, and share them. So, here I am.

I have 5 blog posts in various stages of being written and completed, and 2 research papers in similar states of disrepair. They’re not finished partly because I feel like I need more time to think (more on this in the next post), and partly because there’s a voice in my head that tells me there’s no point right now because the world is on fire. School and other mass shootings, natural disasters, warming oceans and species extinctions, asshat politicians that want to turn back the clock on reproductive, sexual, and civil rights, a war that doesn’t seem to have an end, alarming rises in the costs of living and more people struggling to feed their families… I mean, seriously? If you watch the news at all, it’s just an endless stream of stress and misery, and it really does feel sometimes like we are at the end of the world. So, really, what’s the point of writing anything? Of researching what I research?

I want to pick up on the part about there being a point – particularly feeling like there is no point – to the writing and research work. I know that there are probably (more than) a few of us feeling like this right now: if you are researching something that is not directly contributing to saving the planet, averting war, aiding refugees, curing a serious illness, saving a species or ending poverty you may wonder from time to time – perhaps more lately – what the point of your research even is. I wonder this from time to time, and have found myself thinking more often lately ‘Who cares? What difference is another paper on doctoral education or writing development really going to make?’ And if you are struggling to see a point to your work, it is that much harder to carve out time for it, feel excited about it, and want to share it. The more time you spend away from it because you doubt that it even matters, the harder it is to ever get it finished. And that would be a real shame because, underneath all this present pessimism and worry, I do believe that my work matters, that the work all of us are doing on our different problems and questions matters. The world needs all of it, and all of us.

I saw a post recently on Instagram by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that made me stop and think about the work I am doing, the research I am doing, and my role less pessimistically. In the post, she uses the analogy of a mosaic to counter the idea that, by ourselves, we are too small or powerless to really make anything different, so why should we bother – isn’t it all futile in the face of so much awfulness and when others (like those politicians) have so much power? She says:

“When you have your eye pressed all the way up to the single tile of a mosaic, it can look quite meaningless. A single piece of shattered glass could look worthless. Or perhaps a piece of small painted porcelain could seem beautiful, but too small to “be” anything. Or maybe a stunning rare slab of stone may think itself as the biggest piece when it is really a corner tile. The secret is, it’s all significant.

The two secrets of mosaics are: 1. Each piece (us + our small actions) is far more powerful and meaningful than we know, and 2. Each piece (we) need each other far more than we realize”.

Image by LoggaWiggler from Pixabay

What I take from this is that I am, in my more pessimistic moments, too focused on my small tile, my small contribution to the bigger picture, so much so that I lose sight of the fact that there is a bigger picture and I am not called upon to draw the whole thing. I am only called upon to add my small tile. While it may feel pretty small and not that important, if I take it away there will be a gap in the mosaic that will mar the overall effect. If more and more researchers start removing their tiles too, how many more gaps will there be? And what effect will that have on our knowledge of ourselves, our present, past, and future; on our ability to create a different future for ourselves, our societies, the environment, and the planet?

It is sometimes easier, for me certainly, to see what I can’t do rather than what I can do, especially when I have talked myself into believing that my work is too small to make a real difference. But, what counts as a ‘difference’, and to whom does that need to be significant? Does all research need to be world-leading or internationally recognised to count as meaningful, as making a difference? Surely not. That is neither possible nor desirable, and thinking on such grand levels probably makes it harder for some researchers, especially those starting out or starting something new to see what their piece of the mosaic is and why it matters – that it *does* matter regardless of how far the reach of its influence or impact. Creating something that is locally impactful, or that makes a difference to or adds to our knowledge about ourselves and the world we live in is meaningful; it is a piece of the mosaic that helps to create the bigger picture, and that picture needs to be – must be – diverse, vibrant, multicoloured. Some pieces are bigger and some are smaller, perhaps, but they all add up to a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.

This may sound a bit overly optimistic in the face of academia that is less and less supportive, overall, to researchers, where funding is increasingly competitive and scarce, where the ‘high impact’ journal and journal article (or book) is the pinnacle of achievement in scholarship in many disciplines. This environment – especially as regards precarity and time/funding for research being squeezed or even eliminated from workload/paid time – can make research feel even less possible, especially research that wants to make a difference or have an impact in ‘non-conventional’ ways, ways that are outside of narrower definitions of ‘impact’ and ‘success’ in most universities. But, and I do truly believe this, there are ways to work within this system to use the research/practice you are engaged in to say something, and mean something to you and to your audiences. My current work is not ‘mainstream’, and I’m exploring new and very different ways of both doing and sharing this research. I know I am going to get push-back and ‘encouragement’ to ‘tick the boxes’. But I am going to try really hard to stay the course; to show the naysayers and discouragers that what I am doing might actually mean more and have greater impact if I do take a few risks, if I don’t just ‘tick the boxes’.

I’m not arguing that we all have to do this; you need to work out who you are speaking to with your research, where those audiences are, and how best to reach them. Each field has different ways of doing this – some more overtly creative than others. But I am arguing – and I acknowledge as I say this that I am no longer an early career researcher and have a bit of a track record, which does help my case – that systems are built by humans, and that humans can rebuild, remake and reimagine them. But to do this, we need to keep working on our own small tiles, but with an eye on the bigger picture we are adding to via our different, valuable contributions, looking for ways to encourage, celebrate, support, and boost one another. While we are doing this, we can also look for chinks in the system’s armour where we can argue for different understandings and realisations of impact, of ‘outputs’, of worthy questions to ask and answer. All the questions, all the research, all the collaboration, all the writing (and drawing, making, speaking, doing) adds up. And if we focus on what we are contributing to the bigger picture and remember we are not alone in either our struggles or the work we are doing, maybe we can find a way to keep going.

Image by FelixMittermeier from Pixabay

*I was inspired by the title of Denise Cuthbert and Robyn Barnacle’s edited book: The PhD at the End of the World: Provocations for the Doctorate and a Future Contested (Springer, 2021).

Book writing: The thin line between love and hate

The bitter truth about scholarly writing is that it is really hard work, and that no matter how much better or more confident or more experienced you become as a writer, it never stops being hard work. Every new paper or chapter or book makes a new argument, and that argument needs to be built, refined, revised, unpacked and unpicked, and reworked more than once before it is ready to be shared with readers. For me, this creates a love-hate relationship with my writing, and right now, with my book writing specifically. A key question I am grappling with right now is ‘how do I get excited about this book, and stay excited, when I kind of hate this book even though I also really want to write it’?

Image by Steve Johnson from Pixabay

I feel like I have been trying to write this book for a really long time. I first had the idea and wrote a fledgling proposal in 2015, and then it got pushed onto the backburner and it resurfaced in 2016 again, and the pattern kind of repeated itself until the proposal finally got finished and polished and reviewed and approved. Each time it resurfaced, I was really excited about the idea and the argument and what I thought I could do and say with the book. I still am. But my research focus has started to shift as my practice work has shifted in the last two years, and I’m a little conflicted about this project now, to be honest.

I have started thinking, blogging and scribbling about a new project I am really excited about, but cannot in any way properly start until the book is complete. This is part of the conflict I am experiencing: wanting to stay here and also wanting to move on. I’m trying not to shame myself for feeling like this, or talk myself out of it because I don’t think that’s likely to make me feel any better. I feel a bit like I am betraying the book by wanting to spend time and energy on the new research, but I also feel more than a little resentful that the book is demanding all my headspace when there’s other things I’d like to be getting on with. I wonder if other writers and researchers feel like this: I felt a bit like this about my PhD. It demanded so much time, but there were other projects and papers that were also worthy and interesting, and it was hard to devote equal time to them all, plus everyone and everything else in my life, without feeling like butter spread over too much bread (to paraphrase Tolkien).

Another part of the conflict is that I go in and out of feeling confident that I’m saying something with this book that really needs to be said. I believe in this project: I would never have created and proposed it if I did not. But, I’ve been immersed in thinking and writing about this work for so long that I feel a bit like it’s all been said, and I’m just going to be rehashing old ground. If I stop myself going too far down this particular path, I can actually hear the peer reviewers’ words saying that this is useful work, and potentially quite powerful for lecturers and academic developers in a range of different contexts. Parts of this argument have been made, sure, but not in the complete form of this book, written in my voice, with my scholarly perspective and data and theorisation. But it’s not easy to hold onto the confidence all the time.

At the moment, three and a half months away from submission to the publisher, the writing of this book feels a bit like wandering through a valley like the one above. It’s hilly, but there are flat bits and foresty bits and winding bits and steep bits. Some days the writing just goes, and it’s great, and other days it goes but some of the words seem superfluous and wrong and I know there’ll be loads of editing, and other days it’s just a sisyphean task I cannot get my head around. It’s the steep days when I hate the book and wish I hadn’t tried to write it at all – I just want to move on to something new. On the flat, pretty days it is easy to love the book and love the writing and feel like I’m doing something grand. It’s the middle bit, the days where I can write but it doesn’t all make sense, or sound right, or feel right, that is really hard.

Not writing is actually easy, apart from the guilt. Writing on the good days is super easy and feels amazing. But writing through the middle bits is hard work, and creates conflict within writers that has to just be felt, and worked through, hour by hour. Trying to tell yourself you shouldn’t feel conflicted because you chose to do a book or paper or PhD or Masters, and no one made you, is not the best idea. Trying to shame yourself into writing when you are stuck in a very hard day is also not a great idea. Shame just creates paralysis. My advice would be to feel your writing feelings, and if you cannot actually write the Thing, write in your research journal or reading journal, talk to a friend or peer over coffee, talk to yourself. Explain your feelings, work out where they come from, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll find a way through the middle bit a little less isolated and frustrated.

Writing is hard work, even on the easy days, and it asks a lot of us. This book is going to be great, and I am going to finish it, but I’m not going to completely love every minute of writing it, and I might not even love every word I read when it’s finished. And that’s okay. Perfection is an unattainable, and probably undesirable, writing goal. I’m trying to remember, stuck as I am between loving and hating my book writing, that I’m learning so much about myself, writing, and my field. And that’s really the goal, isn’t it? More learning, better questions, new ways to join the conversation and say something that helps and makes a dent.

Not ‘that’ kind of doctor

On a flight home from a teaching block last week, there was a medical emergency on the plane. The crew, as they do in these situations, asked for a doctor to make himself or herself known (and then asked for any medical professional to come forward). A Swedish doctor sitting next to me stood up, and spent the rest of the flight with the passenger, until we landed and she was handed into the care of paramedics. This was my first such experience, and I fly often. I found myself, for a brief moment, thinking: ‘I wish right now I was ‘that’ kind of doctor – that I could help out here’.

But, I am not that kind of doctor. I call myself Dr. I have a right to that title. But, as a friend of mine said of his own similar title, after a similar experience on a flight last year, ‘It’s not the useful kind of Dr.’ I was talking to my son about this yesterday, and he asked: ‘well, what is the use then?’

This, of course, got me wondering: what kind of ‘doctor’ am I, and what can I help you with, in that role?

pixabay.com on Pexels

Maybe a good place to start is thinking about what having a doctorate means. What can you do, or be, that you could not without one? The main aspect of the qualification, and the work involved in gaining this, is research capacity. Whether by ‘big book’ or publication, or art installation, the average PhD project is a research project. You are creating an argument in response to a research question, and that research question is asked because there is a knowledge gap in your field that needs to be filled. The main requirement of any PhD, at its core, is a contribution to knowledge in your (and perhaps even an allied) field of study and/or practice.

It follows then, that doing a doctorate enables you to expand your knowledge of a slice of the world – that related to your area of study, and your research problem and questions. But, to expand your own knowledge, and build on what is known to say something new, and valid, you need to do an awful lot of critical reading, writing, speaking and thinking. A doctorate, then, also enables you to gain, and develop, scholarly skills and practices. You learn to become a more efficient reader, and writer; you learn to make deeper connections between allied ideas and arguments, and critique those which seem incorrect or incomplete; you learn to articulate, in writing and speech, what you think and why you think it, and what it could mean in relation to other meanings. You learn to create a whole, and build that whole through creating and connecting parts – theory, literature, methods, data, and so on.

All of this work, then, over the 3 or 4 or 5 years it can take to research and write a doctoral thesis – in whichever mode you are writing yours in – offers you a sustained opportunity not just to actually do research and write about it, but also to reflect on the meta-level work involved. What forms of writing are more effective and persuasive than others? What kinds of verbs signal your intent in argumentation best? What kinds of structure work most effectively for different parts of the argument, to weave it all together? What does not work at all, and why? In other words, you have opportunities to work out not just what to write about or research, but also how and why to research it and write about it, following certain rules, or bending certain rules about doing and writing research in your field.

As a qualified ‘doctor’, then, you have the insight, learning and ability to offer other researchers, and postgraduate student writers, help with their own writing and research processes.

Photo by Startup Stock Photos from Pexels

You can do this as a formal supervisor, taking on the role of guide to your own postgraduate students, as your supervisor was a guide to you. You can do this as a writing coach or peer writing consultant, either in a writing centre, or in a more informal or private capacity. You can blog, as I and many others do, about research and writing, sharing what you have learned. There are different roles you can play, with a doctorate, to step up alongside a student who is struggling – experiencing some equivalent form of the medical emergency in my flight – and offer advice, an empathetic ear, guidance, and even direction where this is needed.

There is, then, quite a lot of usefulness in doing, and having, a doctorate. I may not be able to help you if you are having a heart attack, but I can help you create and carry through an argument in a paper; I can help you work out what you want to say in your paper or thesis, and follow a structured process that will enable you to say it more clearly and persuasively. I can offer broad-level advice, and fine-grained feedback. I can draw on my own learning, to walk alongside you as you work through similar learning, and hopefully help you learn from some of the missteps and mistakes I have learned from (even though I may have to let you make these too).

Photo by lalesh aldarwish from Pexels

In a higher education sector that, globally, seems to be marked increasingly by academics and scholars feeling isolated, overwhelmed, alone in their struggles, those who have the ability, and capacity to put their hand up and move forward when called on are increasingly needed, and valued. The more we are able to step alongside one another, as peers and as mentors, the less lonely and isolating the PhD journey will be – or any other research, writing and learning journey for that matter. I am not ‘that’ kind of doctor, then. But I can put my hand up, and I can help.

PhD workout: warming up your writing muscles

So, I am writing a book. I have been sort-of-kind-of writing a book for a long time now. We have an on and off relationship, my book and I. But, a proposal is being reviewed, and the hope is that the feedback will be a green light, so I have to get writing. And soon. But, I am a bit out of practice. I wrote a fair bit last year – 3 book chapters (a few drafts each) as well as part of a paper with colleagues. But this is a different beast altogether – as long and as complex as a PhD thesis. I am finding I am out of shape here.

This is not an unfamiliar feeling. I wrote here and here about moving from one year of PhD or post-doc into the next, after having a break and getting a bit flabby around the writing middle, so to speak. I know, therefore, that I have felt unfit before, and have made myself fitter and gotten the writing work done. But, this is – like actual fitness – hard work and requires a level of emotional and psychic energy that can be hard to find sometimes. I have decided, therefore, that I am going to start with gentle warm-ups, rather than jumping straight into the whole thing (Thank you, Roger Federer :-)).

rfed warm up

The first thing I am doing is starting with something manageable, that I could want to do every day – or at least 4-5 times a week. If I want to do it, and it feels manageable, it is very likely I will actually do it (and enjoy the experience). Instead of doing what I too often do, and writing ‘Chapter 1 draft’ on one day of my calendar, I am writing ‘one pomodoro’ every other day. I can do this. It’s 30 minutes of writing. I can then tick this off, and actually add days as a I go, or keep it every other day and work up to 2 pomodoros at least. If I can do it, I won’t fail, and if I don’t fail, I can keep enjoying this writing time and make it productive. Too often I set myself overly lofty goals, in life and writing, and set myself up to fail rather than succeed. Last week I wrote my first blog post in over 4 months, scheduled this post, and also managed about 1000 words on my book. HUGE success I say. All in these little manageable chunks.

The second thing I am going to do is keep it steady. Rather than having a good week, and thinking I can now escalate to high levels of writing productivity, I am going to keep going at this pace for now. Probably, realistically, this will be the pace for the year, with bursts of higher productivity around deadlines and when I have excess time and energy. As one of my writing students said to me last year: ‘Eat the elephant one bite at a time’. Apologies to elephant lovers – I am one too – but this is a good metaphor for taking it steady with life and writing. One task, one pomodoro, one idea at a time. This way, things actually do get done as opposed to being menacing, un-ticked-off tasks on your to-do list.

Finally, for now anyway, I am going to get me some writing buddies. Face-to-face if I can, but virtually if not. I am always thinking I should join a Twitter shut-up-and-write group, or create my own writing group. And then work, and kids, and life, and my writing gets pushed down (with me attached) to the bottom of my list. My writing time is also time for me – it’s personal as well as professional. So, I have to actually value it, and myself. As a working mother I am too often too far down my list. And so is my writing. I am hopeful, that with positive peer encouragement, we can collectively make our writing more present each week in the to-do lists, and make appreciable progress on our projects.

group yoga

Warming up these tired writing muscles to fuller strength will take some time – what do people say?If it’s too easy you’re not doing it right? Maybe so. I don’t think writing should always be hard, but good writing should take effort and time. Maybe you are in this spot too, coming back to work and PhD and research writing, and working out how to begin your “elephant meal”. Hopefully some of these steps to warming up your writing muscles will help you, too.

If you have other ideas, please share in the comments. All the best for 2019!

What does it mean to ‘sound academic’ in your writing?

I have been reading a lot of other people’s writing lately, which has kind of sapped my own creative energies. However, it really has got me thinking about a few issues related to helping other people to improve their writing, which I’ll share over a few posts. This one is about ‘sounding academic’, and what that may mean in academic writing.

The first thing I have noticed in the academic writing I have read, as an editor and a critical friend, is that writers often use overly complex sentences and (under-explained) terms to convey their ideas. Here is one example:

Despite the popularity of constructivist explanations, this perspective oversimplifies the otherwise complex ontology and epistemology of reality by suggesting that representations of physical and biological reality, including race, sexuality, and gender, as well as tables, chairs and atoms are social constructions. Constructivists do not necessarily focus on an ontological reality they regard as unintelligible and unverifiable, but instead on constructed reality. Rather, constructivists discount claims to universalism, realism or objective truth, and admit that their position is merely a view, a more or less coherent way of understanding things that has thus far worked for them as a model of the world.

There is a lot going on in this sentence – it tries to establish that constructivism is popular, but flawed, and then also tries to show why it is flawed. But, for me, the sentence doesn’t quite pull this off. A few simpler, connected sentences may clarify and expand a little on what the author is trying to put across here.

Constructivism is a popular paradigm for explaining reality. Yet, its ontological and epistemological stance is overly relativist, as it conflates different categories of social construction in problematic ways. For example, a constructivist may argue that like tables, chairs and atoms, race, sexuality and gender are social constructions. A chair, and race, are clearly very different kinds of ‘social’ construction. We therefore need a different way of understanding ‘social constructions’ that allows for differences, and takes us beyond getting stuck in a battle between competing views of reality. 

This is one way of rewriting the passage above, of course; there may be others. But what I am trying to do is distill the essence of the point being made into simpler, shorter, clearer sentences. While the first example may, on the surface, look and sound ‘academic’ because of the large words, and complex phrasing, dig deeper and it becomes hard to understand what the author is really trying to say. The meaning gets a bit lost in the big words, and complicated ideas. To sound ‘academic’, therefore, we should rather focus on creating clear and accessible meanings, through shorter, more focused sentences connected together through relevant explanations and evidence.

pexels-photo-340981

This is another example:

The languages that make up horizontal knowledge structures can be transmitted explicitly through “a pedagogy which makes explicit (or attempts to make explicit) the principles, procedures and texts to be acquired” (Bernstein, 1999:168), usually the natural and physical sciences, and tacitly where “showing or modelling precedes ‘doing’” (Bernstein, 1999:168), typified by the social sciences and the humanities. Horizontal knowledge structures can be subdivided into strong and weak grammars. In this context, ‘grammar’ refers to “their capacity to generate unambiguous empirical referents” (Maton, 2010:155); these grammars may be ‘strong’ or ‘weak’ relative to one another within horizontal knowledge structures (Bernstein, 1999:164).

Here, I want to focus on the amount of quoting going on. In this short passage there are three direct quotations, and a further reference to an external text in the second to last line. Many of the authors I work with, especially those who are new to academic writing in the form of a thesis or article for publication, overquote, believing that their inclusion of several quotes shows their reading, and their knowledge of the field. While using relevant, current sources to provide a foundation for your own research is important, the emphasis in any writing at doctoral and postdoctoral level must be on your own research.  This means paraphrasing more often than quoting directly, and using the work of others to inform and shape, rather than overshadow your own.

The languages that make up horizontal knowledge structures can be transmitted explicitly through pedagogical approaches or processes that focus on making the principles or procedural learning accessible and clear to students, as well as the means by which to acquire it (Bernstein, 1999). This kind of learning is usually typified by the natural and physical sciences. These languages can also be modelled tacitly, as in the social sciences and humanities, where students are immersed in texts, language and learning over a longer period of time (Bernstein, 1999). Horizontal knowledge structures can further be subdivided into strong and weak grammars. In this context, ‘grammar’ refers to “their capacity to generate unambiguous empirical referents” (Maton, 2010:155), and as such  may be stronger or weaker relative to one another within horizontal knowledge structures (Bernstein, 1999).

This is a minor edit, but transforming the direct quotations into paraphrased passages, and changing the sentence structure goes some way to making the author more visible, and more ‘in charge’ of the text’s construction. Thus, to sound academic, it is important to claim an authorial voice, and make your own research and its contribution to the field very clear through your paper  – in other words, as you weave your golden thread, make sure it doesn’t get crowded out or lost in long, complex sentences and over-quoting from the work of others.

pexels-photo-144633These are just two observations I have made in working with a range of writers across several disciplines in the last few years. Other things writers do, seemingly to sound more ‘academic’ is introduce and use smart-sounding transition words, often in the wring place, or extraneously; include 15 references in a bracketed space where only the 5 top references are needed); and over-use formatting tools, such as adding tabs, heading levels and so on. It’s like writers are trying to create a staircase to take their readers from one ‘place’ of knowledge to another; the question is whether you create a staircase that makes your readers dizzy on the way up, and wanting to stop halfway, or one that has a bit of interest and colour, but gets them to the new knowledge via an accessible and manageable route.

The general ‘rule’ to observe with writing, as I hope this post has shown, is to be as clear, direct, and detailed as possible in setting out, establishing and substantiating your argument. Shorter, simple sentences that convey your meaning clearly; the right references for the piece you are working on (not all the references); limited use of direct quotations and only where you really need these (quotations from literature used as data are a different kind of quotation to the one I refer to here); and all claims supported, and explained in context, so that your golden thread is clearly woven through the piece of writing. Verbose, under-explained, ‘fancy’ papers are alienating to readers, who have to work too hard to figure out what you mean. Simple, direct, clear prose that conveys your meaning and gets the point across well is so much more enjoyable to read, and is far more likely to be useful to other researchers too.