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!).