From chaos to coherence: logic, linearity and lies in thesis construction

I have written before on this blog about how a doctorate is assembled in chunks and pieces, and comes to together slowly, and (in my case) in fits and starts. It is not a linear, clean, neat process – generally the ideas and brainwaves ebb and flow, and we take two steps forward, three back and five sideways as we muddle through the complexities of managing a research project as daunting and significant as a doctorate is. It is chaos – sometimes organised and manageable, sometimes not. It’s kind of thrilling, a lot terrifying, and pretty exhausting.

Image from userexperience.co.nz

Image from userexperience.co.nz

It would be nice, wouldn’t it, if we could reflect some or much of that chaos and two-side-stepping in the final thesis? It would certainly, as a friend of mine suggested to me this week, feel more honest in terms of reflecting the process of messy discovery and diversions and muddling-through that is the PhD process (for many scholars, anyway). As you write your thesis in these chunks and pieces, you are probably writing in the present or future tense, for example. I will be doing this, and I hope I might find that… . But when you write the introduction (often right at the end, after the conclusion, when you’ve finally pinned down what your thesis is about) you write in the past tense – ‘This is what I thought, so this is what I did, and this is what my conclusions will point to… . It is, as my friend stated quite plainly, all lies.

Researching and writing a doctorate is messy, but presenting and crafting a final thesis draft for examiners cannot be; the final product of all your messy, meandering labours has to be linear, logical, coherent and all in the past tense. Your examiners and readers are coming to what you have written after the fact, not as it is happening inside your own head, and they don’t really need to see all the mess. What you have to show them is a neat, linear story that is coherent and sensible, and takes them carefully through each step of your research. Basically you are following (especially in the social sciences) a fairly standard plotline, even if the form your story takes varies across disciplines, faculties and higher education systems.

Once upon a time people thought that… But I thought that maybe… So what I did was… and what I found was… and this will change the way we think about*… .

(Fill in the … with a few sentences describing your project – very handy tool for plotting out a paper or longer writing project, and for crafting an abstract)

The way you work that story out will vary hugely depending on may factors, like the quality of the supervision you receive, your own confidence as a researcher, time and resources, what research has already been published that you can access, and so on. As you discover, for example, what the field is that you are scoping in your literature review, you may read yourself around in circles, working out who the chiefs and tribespeople are, and what they are saying to one another and how it all relates to your thesis. But, when you write this section, you need not to be thinking about this chaos; you need to be thinking about how you are helping your readers understand what they need to know in order to believe that your research questions are plausible and valid, so that they will see exactly why your research does fill a gap and is necessary and important. You write it with this logic of demonstration in mind, rather than with the logic of discovery you employed when reading, selecting, and situating all that literature in relation to your own research questions.

But, as my friend pointed out rather amusingly, this feels like lies – this linear, coherent, polished narrative you craft, create, edit and mangle into being for your readers feels very far from the messy, meandering chaos that lurks behind the scenes of many PhDs – and some take longer to find their way to that final product than others. Creating coherence out of the chaos is a kind of conceit, but it is a necessary one.

Writing and the thinking behind it can be a bit messy and mad, but reading really can’t be because we read what others have written to help us sharpen, expand, clarify and prompt our own thinking (and often writing, too). The writing we produce and send out into the world for readers to engage with must be as clear and coherent as possible, so that the contributions we are making to scholarship in our respective fields will not be lost amongst the chaos. Our ideas (and we must believe this) are valuable, and they need to be read, debated, hopefully agreed with.

PhD story

Click image to enlarge

Ultimately, a linear, coherent and clean story created out of a messy research process can feel like a kind of lie, but it is a necessary lie given the point of all of that research: to share our ideas and to make a valued contribution to the scholarship in our fields of study.

*I learned this in a writing workshop with Prof Lucia Thesen, from the University of Cape Town, in 2011.

Crossing the PhD ‘ocean’: ideas for smoother sailing

I had the opportunity to speak to a group of doctoral researchers recently about some of the challenges I faced doing my PhD. I called my presentation: The Wide PhD Sea: navigating the research journey and tools for smoother sailing’. I used the metaphor of the PhD as an ocean we, as scholars, have to cross. It is sometimes rough and wild and we feel like Robert Redford’s character in ‘All is Lost‘ – alone on a terrifyingly vast expanse of water with no shore in sight and no radio to call for help (or at least no one answering our mayday calls with any urgency). It is sometimes calm and lovely, with sunlight bouncing off the water and it’s like a picture postcard from the Mediterranean. Parts of the journey can be awful and lonely, and parts can be more serene, and much less lonely. What we need, though, is a good boat to carry us from one side of this PhD ocean to the other in one piece. We also need a funny, friendly, helpful crew to help us sail this boat.

I have, in my head, two boat images borrowed from Cressida Cowell’s ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ series which I am currently reading to my boys. These two boat images resonate with me because at the beginning and middle of the PhD I felt like I was sailing the one kind, and towards the end it felt a little more like I was in the other boat.
Image credit to Cressida Cowell: The Hopeful Puffin (How to Speak Dragonese)

Image credit to Cressida Cowell: The Hopeful Puffin (How to Speak Dragonese)

 

The first image is that of ‘The Hopeful Puffin’, a small, oddly constructed wooden rowing boat poorly built by Hiccup during Viking Boat-Building Class. It mostly goes around in circles, and has to be coaxed very gently to go in a straight line. It has a few leaks, and all the other vikings are not convinced it can sail very far or well at all. I sailed across the early section and also middle sections of my own PhD ocean in a version of ‘The Hopeful Puffin’, going around in circles from time to time, and coaxing my thinking into straighter lines, even though I wasn’t always sure where the land I was aiming for lay. This was a bumpy time, my boat was often patched up and leaky, and I did  not feel at all confident of my own ability to get across the ocean, or of my little boat’s ability to get me to my destination in one piece.

 

Image credit to Cressida Cowell: 'The Peregrine Falcon' (How to Twist a Dragon's Tale)

Image credit to Cressida Cowell: ‘The Peregrine Falcon’ (How to Twist a Dragon’s Tale)

The other boat, one I felt I was sailing in towards the end of my journey across the PhD ocean, was ‘The Peregrine Falcon’, a large Viking racing boat, powerful and sleek and guaranteed to get me over or through any unexpected storms or big waves. This is the boat of the Viking chief, and the one all vikings aspire to be sailing in.

At the beginning of the PhD, we are often in the same boat as Fishlegs and Hiccup there – a small, wobbly, patched up but ultimately determined little dinghy, desperately trying to get going with our journey. We are often in danger of wandering into deeper waters we are not ready for yet, because our navigation systems are a bit dodgy (should I be reading this, or should I actually be reading all of that?) We tend to go round in circles a bit trying to work out our arguments and ideas, because our rudder is small and doesn’t always work (is this the theoretical framework? Is that what this means? No, that is what this means. No this. I have it! Oh, no I don’t…).

But, (and here is the first tool I shared with the researchers I spoke to), Hiccup was not alone. He had Fishlegs and they both actually had some skill and ability, even though they didn’t really believe in themselves as much as they could have. The early and middle parts of your PhD journey are tough because often you are plagued by self-doubt, and because you are still acquiring and honing the skills and knowledge you will need to get to your destination. You can’t do this all alone. Create or join a circle of writing friends (find a Fishlegs or two or more): share your writing and thinking, as well as some of your concerns and struggles. You are not going to be alone, and these fellow sailors will have useful advice, encouragement and ideas for you. Sharing your work can be scary, but it is far more scary to keep going all on your own believing the doubts in your head.

The second idea for smoother sailing I found helpful was to kit the boat out with the right equipment (which I worked out as I went along): you need a compass (in many cases, this is a good supervisor and your own research notes and journals, to keep track of your thinking); you also need strong sail, and a rudder and a tall mast (these, in my case, were blogs I read that gave me great advice and ideas; forcing myself to share my work even when I didn’t want to to get a sense of whether I was heading in the right direction or going in circles; and writing kind and encouraging things to myself in my research journal to combat the self-doubt).

The Hopeful Puffin eventually sank in the book, and was fished out of the sea and remade by a more experienced Viking boat builder. Unfortunately, not every PhD student makes it across the ocean in one piece. Not all PhD students move from The Hopeful Puffin into The Peregrine Falcon, a stronger, sleeker and more capable Viking ship, to carry them through the late-middle to end part of their journeys. For me, moving from a sense of sailing the one kind of boat to sailing the other was about using tools and resources at my disposal, and being brave and persistent. I was not always able to make myself share my work with anyone other than my supervisor or close PhD colleagues, but I used their feedback carefully; I often went in circles, especially early on, but my research journal helped me to keep track of my thinking and showed me some direction and sense. It was work, constantly, even when I was just thinking about it all, but all the work does pay off when The Peregrine Falcon docks and all the other Vikings are cheering you on and celebrating your persistence and fortitude.

Look around you at the tools, resources and people you can adapt, use and reach out to; think about which part of the journey you are in, and which kind of boat you are sailing – Who is in your crew? What are the things you are struggling with? Making these things clear to yourself, and taking stock of where you are and where you want to go to next can often help you to find your way to the next stage of your own journey.

To keep, to break or to make the ‘rules’… that is a question

What are the ‘rules’ of dissertation writing? They almost certainly differ between fields. In the visual arts, for example, a dissertation would almost certainly include text as well as images, textiles, design elements of a certain shape and form. In Mathematics, a dissertation would have to include mathematical ‘language’ and forms as well as more conventional text, as arguments are made in equations as well as in other forms of writing. In the social sciences in general the ‘rules’ seem to be fairly general. But it seems broadly agreed that there should be around 80-100,000 words or text, and that there must be an introduction, a literature review, a methodology and methods chapter, findings and discussion of these, and a conclusion that could include recommendations. These were certainly the ‘rules’ as I understood them when I started out with my own PhD process. By rules, I mean ‘the agreed upon (usually quite tacit) format, style and content of a dissertation within a particular field or discipline’.

A big question for me, throughout my own doctoral journey, was about these rules, and whether I was breaking them, keeping them or making new ones as I went. There are risks associated with breaking rules – you could be misunderstood, or make your argument more convoluted and confusing through trying to create a new way of producing a dissertation, or find yourself having to do many corrections. But, I think there are also risks associated with keeping a set of rules, especially if you don’t have a clear understanding of what the rules are and why they are there. In this case you could end up producing a thesis that conforms but underneath the surface may be ‘thin’ or unsatisfying, and this lack of understanding of what you are writing and why could make it harder for you to move successfully into a research and writing career post-PhD. Further, making new rules is tough, and doesn’t often happen (not for scholars just starting out anyway). You may make small little dents in a structure you disagree with or think could be improved, but it’ll take a number of you to really start making people question whether a specific rule, process or outcome perhaps needs to be changed or updated.

I feel like I bent, rather than broke, some of the rules of dissertation writing, and the experience was mostly an anxious one, even though the creativity it allowed me to bring to my writing was exciting, and satisfying. I think visually, and my research journal is full of pictures and scribbles as well as more conventional forms of text. I like metaphors, and I use these a lot in my writing and my teaching. I had a metaphor for the argument I was making, and I was using this to think through my ‘theory chapter’, until a friend, Carol, listened to my idea and suggested that it might be a useful metaphor for the whole dissertation. The metaphor was that of an archaeological dig, and it structured the way I organised my chapters, the headings I gave to them, and what I included in them. I really loved it, but I worried that it was too creative for a PhD in Education, and that it would somehow detract from the seriousness of my argument, or be seen as flippant by my examiners. I think this is one of the more common fears, perhaps, about using a visual and creative tool like metaphor in a field that is not conventionally visual, like the fine or creative arts. In the end, none of my examiners commented on it (which was disappointing) so I needn’t have worried so much. But I still think what I did was important, for me, even if it was not noted by the people who were ultimately responsible for passing or failing my work.

We write, when we do, for others – for our readers and colleagues – but more importantly, we write for ourselves, for our own personal, emotional and intellectual growth and edification. I think when you’re doing a PhD and you’re focused so much on what your supervisor/s think and what your examiners will think and what parts you’ll be able to publish in journals and what the wider academic community in your field will think, we forget to ask ourselves what we think about what we are writing. The questions about making, breaking (bending) or keeping within the rules becomes a question then about balance – to what extent do we consider our own desires and aims as creators of our own work, and how to we balance these with what we are asked to produce for our external audience? What kinds of risks do we accept and grapple with when we choose to bend and break generally accepted rules of thesis or article writing? What if what we are doing feeds our own souls, but falls on deaf ears in terms of examiners and peer reviewers? Is that too much of a risk, and do we then tone down our creativity in order to create something more conventional and less risky? For me, this is a risk: I’ll be able to get my article published (please editors) but I may not be really happy with what I have put out these connected with my name.

Perhaps we need to make these kinds of conversations a more recognised and conscious part of PhD supervision, and academic writing for publication. Why do the ‘rules’ as we tend to know them exist and who do they serve? Can they be bent, broken and remade? Who carries the risks here, and what indeed are these risks? I don’t yet have any clear answers**, but I think these are important questions to be asking, talking about, and finding answers to as scholarly communities of practice and as PhD students and supervisors.

 

**A new edited collection takes on the notion of risk in doctoral writing from a range of perspectives: Thesen, L. and Cooper, L. 2013. Risk in Academic Writing: Postgraduate Students, Their Teachers and the Making of Knowledge. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Google maps can’t find ‘My PhD question/argument/plan…’

Some of you may have noticed that I missed a post last week. I was fortunate enough to be in Lancaster last week (not writing a blog post), at the Higher Education Close-Up 7 conference. One of the keynote speakers was Ray Land, one of the authors of the now well-known ‘threshold concepts’ papers (with Jan Meyer). His (and Meyer’s) research on threshold concepts also considers ‘liminality’ and the transformative potential of higher education. The concept of liminality in particular has inspired this post.

Liminal spaces are defined by Land (referencing earlier work by Turner) as precarious spaces, or spaces of uncertainty. You are moving away from one thing and towards another, and the journey is not necessarily always clear. He uses images of tunnels or portals – the former quite an anxious image and the latter a little more hopeful – but both indicating the movement towards the new, be it a new way of thinking, a new horizon, new possibilities.

Meanclochog Tunnel (from www.geograph.org.uk)

Meanclochog Tunnel (from http://www.geograph.org.uk)

Inner Fort at Krak des Chevaliers (from www.travelblog.org)

Inner Fort at Krak des Chevaliers (from http://www.travelblog.org)

The key thing, connected to work on threshold concepts, is that once you have undertaken the journey and gone down the tunnel or through the portal, you cannot really go back and see what you left behind in the same way again. Once you know something, it is almost impossible to not know again. You are changed – the liminal space and the journeys you take within it changes, transforms you.

The thing about the journey, when one is talking about higher education and in the case of this post, the doctorate, is that it is often a difficult one to make. The liminal space of the PhD, moving in circles and lines and all kinds of directions it seems at times, from not being a doctor to being one, and from not knowing to knowing and so on, demands both ontological and epistemological shifts and these are often challenging, uncomfortable, tricky. But, I think we have to see, even in our most uncomfortable moments, that the very purpose of a doctorate is transformation. You don’t do a PhD to stay the same and just gain a title (well, at least I hope you don’t). You undertake this rigorous, demanding, challenging process to be transformed into a different kind of thinker, writer, academic researcher and/or teacher-practitioner. Change is desirable, but it’s not easy.

The other image Land used in his keynote as a metaphor for a liminal space was a labyrinth or a maze.

The maze at Longleat in the UK - from mirror.co.uk

The maze at Longleat in the UK (from mirror.co.uk)

I was struck by this in particular, as oftentimes this is what my own PhD journey felt like, especially starting out. There was no clear map, and I so wanted one. My supervisor clearly held herself up as a guide and someone who would help me think and write and read, but who would not tell me what to do. This was often great, but sometimes really frustrating as all I wanted was for her to just tell me what to write so I could write it and know it was right! The thing is, though, certainly when you are doing a full research doctorate, that the struggles to get to the ‘right’ kinds of thinking, reading and writing that will be most productive and generative for your study is where the learning happens. That is the liminal space and that holds the potential for the transformation, growth and change you seek. To be lost in the maze (within reasonable limits, I think) is to be doing the work of transformation.

The thing about mazes or labyrinths is that there is a way out. Often you find it by trial and error, sometimes you have a map of sorts. Most often you find your way out by paying attention to the missteps and the steps in the right directions, so that you can more consciously track your journey and your way out to the other side – to the doctorate being written and awarded, in the case of a PhD student. The thing about liminal spaces, though, is that academia, but its nature, requires you to exchange one maze (for me the PhD) for a new maze (postdoc research and publishing) and then another and another as your career grows. It requires us to stay in liminal spaces where we are never fully settled on an idea or a theory or a problem, but where we are constantly questioning and challenging ourselves, our colleagues, our students, to keep thinking, reading, writing, talking and in the process to to keep harnessing and using the transformative power and potential of what counts for us as powerful knowledge and knowing.

So, even though you may long for a Google Maps kind of supervision/doctoral process where you can plug in your title and get a clear route or two or three to your final destination, that kind of PhD is less likely to bring about the kinds of transformation in your scholarship and in your self that will count not just in academia, but in other parts of your life as well.

Google map (from stackoverflow.com)

Google map (from stackoverflow.com)

Embrace the journey, embrace the liminal spaces – they can often offer far more than they demand from you if you are willing to go there.

Revisions part two: ‘panel-beating’ and polishing

I am working on revisions, again, and I have stumbled upon a useful metaphor for thinking about what I am doing and what is needed in this final round of revisions prior to submitting my thesis. I am an amateur potter, and I go to lessons every week to learn how to throw and build and decorate beautiful pots, jugs and other kinds of ceramics. I find this physical, tactile kind of labour very therapeutic and also challenging and it has occurred to me that making a pot is not unlike creating something like my thesis. Allow me to elaborate.

The thesis, like the pot, starts off like this:

From astonegatherer.blogspot.com

This is your basic lump of clay – therein lies the idea, the development of that idea and its final product, but at this stage it is just potential. This is both a lovely and frustrating stage – you can quite enjoy just letting the ideas and potential swirl around inside of your head, because it’s much more pleasant than actually doing the work of shaping and building them into something. But when you have decided what it is going to look like and be, you want the pot to just emerge, fully formed, without all the hard work required to make thus actually happen. But you have to do the work, so you wedge and knead the clay – you start your reading and thinking and scribbling – and you start rolling out your coils or the strands of your argument and begin joining them together.

The thesis starts to take shape:

From pottery.about.com

From pottery.about.com

It starts to look like something recognisable as a thesis, or parts of one. If you hand-build pots, like I tend to do, you will know that this process can take a fair amount of time. The smaller the pot the less time, but a thesis, in this metaphor, is a very large and detailed pot, and this takes a long time to build and decorate and polish and perfect before it is strong enough to withstand the heat of the kiln (or examination). You can’t add too many coils in one session or the pot will start to collapse. You need to go carefully, you need to make sure there are no air bubbles in the clay, and ensure your joins between the coils and strong and well-made. In the thesis, you write and read in stages, with thinking and supervisor meetings and feedback in between. This can, therefore, be a long and sometimes frustrating process. It takes a while for your pot to take its shape, and for a long time it can just look like an arbitrary moulding of clay – not unique, not special, not noteworthy. In terms of the thesis, this is the long middle stage after the proposal and before the first full draft where you just have drafts of chapters and these can be well-written, but they’re not really taking the shape of a whole yet – they are just coils in the pot, some more carefully and robustly joined together than others.

But you move on, as you must, to the next stage:

commons.wikimedia.org

From commons.wikimedia.org

This is the stage where you can start putting the parts together more seamlessly to make a whole – the joins are smoothed over. You use tools, like a wooden paddle and a grater and an old credit card, to beat the pot into the shape you want it to take, grate off the extra clay where the pot is thick and the clay uneven – too much here, perhaps not enough there. You add and smooth in pieces of clay where the walls are not thick enough. You smooth the sides with a credit card, making sure there are no obvious lumps and bumps. It’s almost there. In the thesis, you are joining the chapters into the whole, writing the introduction and conclusion. You are deleting repetitive parts you no longer need – these made sense when the chapters were all separate but not now that they are together. You see gaps now that you didn’t see before and add into these the required information and explanation. It’s not quite there yet, but it’s definitely looking like a pot, and not just any pot, but your pot. This is, in my case, your first full draft.

Then your pot gets checked over by your teacher – your thesis goes to your supervisor – and although they have been helping you along the way, this is the first time they (and you) can see the pot or thesis as a whole and also see what it is that you are trying to actually make it into. They can offer a different kind of help – help aimed at perfecting the pot or thesis. Further panelbeating and grating may be needed. Further additions may be necessary too. You may be advised to add decoration or detail you had not thought to add yet. You are being assisted with polishing the pot or thesis – making it strong enough for the fires of the kiln or judgement of the examiners.

From ceramicsartdaily.org

From ceramicsartdaily.org

This is the stage I feel I am working through now. I am polishing my thesis. I am taking out extraneous words and sentences, clarifying points that are vague, adding small qualifying explanations or additional points I feel are necessary. I am editing my references and making sure my tables and figures all find themselves on the right pages and not separated from their captions, and so on. I am getting, slowly but surely, to the point where I will feel confident enough to put this pot into the kiln, to brave the process of examination and find out what further corrections or changes I must make. In pottery, there are two firings, just as in PhD examination there are two stages. The first is a bisque firing, at a high temperature. This sets the pot, but it is not often finished at this stage (although if you and your teacher are happy with it, and it survives the firing intact, you can take it home just like that – the mythical ‘award with no corrections’). Often a potter has to opt to glaze or paint their pot – one final round of revision to make it absolutely perfect. It is fired again, often at a lower temperature, and when it emerges, one hopes it looks like this, whole, perfect and beautiful to behold:

From ceramicsartdaily.org

From ceramicsartdaily.org

I quite like this metaphor. It resonates with me, and with the process I have worked through, and am still working through, in writing my doctoral thesis. This pot, by Ian Garrett, is something I am trying to reproduce in clay at the moment, and I am hoping I will be able to fire it around the same time as I finish the thesis revisions, which seems a fitting way to bring this process to it’s close (well, until the glazing/corrections, of course!).