PhD workout: getting ‘reading fit’

I have been silent for far too long in this space, my creativity stifled by fatigue and channeled into other writing – book chapters, course outlines, lecture notes and far too many emails. I have been thinking a lot about ‘fitness’ for research, as I have been feeling terribly out of shape, and I am starting to wonder if I have it in me to finish the current project I have been working on, and start and see through a new project, as I plan to in the new year. What makes us ‘fit’ for research, and how do we get into shape, as it were? In a series of posts, starting here, I will think this through, with some suggestions for working on your research fitness.

One of the most challenging issue for any researcher, or student, you speak to who is working on a research project – especially one that is PhD or MA length – is reading. Knowing what to read, and when; knowing how to read effectively; knowing what to do with all the reading when you start writing; and finding or making time for reading.

loads of reading

The reality, with a PhD or significant research project, is that you need to spend way more time reading than you probably think. To make a clear, useful and novel contribution to knowledge in your field, you have to know your field well. To get to know your field this well, you must be immersed in the debates, conversations, cutting edge and also established, landmark work. This immersion, and deep understanding of the shape, form and evolution of your field will enable you to position your own research, and your own voice, in the most relevant space in this field, and these conversations and debates. This kind of immersion takes time, and a great deal of reading – most sources suggest at least 6 months for a doctoral proposal – before you can really start speaking with emerging authority about your own study in relation to other established or existing research.

Shortcuts here will lead to difficulties later on, as gaps in your knowledge and contribution may mean going back several steps to the beginning. Shortcuts may also lead to misunderstandings of key concepts and debates, and you may then misrepresent existing research in relation to your own, and falter in positioning your study effectively in the field. This can be dangerous if you become attached to your early ways of thinking about your study, as it becomes harder to receive critique and feedback, and make changes down time, with more reading and guidance from your supervisor(s). It will also, quite certainly, add time to an already lengthy process. So, the first step to getting reading fit is to accept that you need to read MANY papers and books, and you need to make notes, and talk about the reading with your supervisor and peers. You will need a few drafts of all this thinking before you have a steady enough grasp of a research problem, and questions, that will be your focus as your project evolves.

Another challenge, directly linked to reading, is how to find your own study and ‘voice’ in amongst all the voices and studies you are immersing yourself in. It is vital to be deeply immersed in your field, such that become a part of it, but it can be difficult for a novice researcher or postgraduate student to work out where and how their study fits into all of the published research, and how to make that contribution in a clear, resonant ‘voice’. A second step, then, to becoming reading fit is to learn to write about what you read in a way that enables that contribution to take shape, incrementally, over time. Research and reading journals can help here, as can setting up a reading group with peers, where you need to write and speak critically about what you are reading, and make an effort to connect the reading to your own study. All of the literature you include in your thesis, or proposal, or papers, must have a relation to the argument you are making. This means, then, having an argument to make – this is your voice, and through consistent critical engagement with the reading, you will slowly find and strengthen this.

A final challenge, for this post, is actually making time for all this reading in amongst all the other busy work and life stuff we have to manage and make time for. We talk a great deal about all the writing work that goes into a PhD or MA thesis, or published paper – this work is more visible, because it has a tangible outcome in the form of text. But, we cannot write, and think, in the ways required of us at this level of research unless we are reading, immersing ourselves in the arguments, debates and conversations we need to contribute to with our research. Reading work is less visible, though – it is a quiet task; just you and a chair, and maybe a pen and a journal nearby, silently reading a paper or a book chapter. It can look, and feel, indulgent to spend quiet time reading when everyone else around seems so busy. But it is essential that, as we strive to make time to write, we also strive to value our reading time, and make space for this. It is part of the work of research, and cannot be relegated to a rushed activity. That way trouble lies. Using something like a pomodoro technique can help you carve out this time in your days and weeks, and contribute to your reading fitness. Or perhaps a ‘shut-up-and-read’ group, when, instead of writing together, you meet with peers in a conducive space and read for an hour once a week.

This part of any research project or process is time-consuming, and tough. And you will become less fit as you stop or slow down your reading, and will have to work at getting in shape again. But reading can also be a pleasurable academic task, and focusing on all you are learning and on your developing voice and authority can make the tough work of getting reading fit feel less arduous.

New academic wikipedias? On finding cool, accessible reading and resources

I facilitated a writing retreat last week, and in the course of a one-on-one consultation I mentioned how useful The Conversation would be as a resource for a writer’s developing paper. He had no idea what I was talking about. So, we looked it up and he was really excited at having shorter, but well-regarded and current, articles he could cite in his paper. It got me thinking: how many cool, academically acceptable resources are out there that writers and researchers don’t know about, that provide accessible ways in to more complex research contained in books, papers and reports?

The Conversation is my new academic Wikipedia. Before I get further into this, let me say that I love Wikipedia. It is accessible, generally well written and researched, and provides researchers and students especially with a way in to more difficult reading and research. What are stem cells? Ask Wikipedia. What is critical realism? Wikipedia has a basic, and generally correct answer.

Screenshot 2017-11-14 09.55.10

You have to use a resource like this carefully, though. You cannot start and end your research into critical realism, for example, with Wikipedia. Why? Because it isn’t a peer-reviewed resource; it contains factual errors, and many pages note the need for verification, additional citations and checking of information. Thus, while Wikipedia is a way in to a complex subject like critical realism that can scope the basic premise of the theory, it’s origins and key authors, and even key terms, way more academic (read, peer reviewed and verified) research and reading will be needed before you can use critical realism in your research. You certainly cannot cite Wikipedia in a journal article or postgraduate thesis as your source of theoretical or conceptual framework!

One of the things I do love about Wikipedia, and this is bringing me round to the topic of this post, is that it is collaboratively written and developed. If you read a page and find an error, or an addition you can make, or citation you can add, you can do this. Research is a funny thing – we collaborate so much, and yet when we write (especially in the social sciences and humanities) single-authored publications are generally considered more prestigious than multiple-authored papers. Perhaps this is changing – I hope so – but here in South Africa I am criticised by our national research agency if I publish too many collaborative papers. Collaborative writing is more enjoyable (although it can be stressful relying on other people and meshing voices and writing styles), and it feels less lonely. It is also a good way to check your own bias, and make sure you are reading widely, and thinking critically – co-writers can also act as critical friends.

The Conversation, and other new, online academic resources, share many similarities with Wikipedia. They are often collaboratively written, with two or more researchers cited as authors; they are free to read and download; and they provide accessible ways in to more complex, and multi-layered research findings and writing. Like Wikipedia, you generally cannot start and end your research on, for example, multilingualism, or decolonial discourses in higher education with articles from The Conversation, but unlike Wikipedia, you can cite these articles as part of your learning about the topic you are researching and writing about.

The articles provide useful hyperlinks to journal articles, other web resources and places you can connect to with one click to find more academically acceptable resources to further read and consult as you research your topic. They are also peer-reviewed, although in a different manner to journal articles – they are checked before they are published, and authors can be asked to make corrections and revisions. So, they are a more reliable source of research-related information and learning.

Screenshot 2017-11-14 10.22.46

The pieces in the Conversation are often distilled from larger pieces of research or projects that the authors are working on, and you can follow them onto Google Scholar or EBSCOHost etc, and find their academic papers and read these to get deeper into their research and thinking, using it to inform your own.

There are other cool Wikipedia-like resources that are more academically acceptable, and present verified and reliable information more consistently, such as Scholarpedia, Encyclopedia Britannica Online, and Infoplease. Use them wisely, as with all information in academia, but do use them, and tell others if they work for you – helpful academic resources are made to be used and shared!

Annotated bibliography to literature review: a way in?

This post reflects on the affordances and challenges of creating an annotated bibliography as a way in to scoping your field, and drafting your literature review, whether for a paper or a postgraduate thesis.

I am working on a project with 3 colleagues at the moment, the first part of which is writing a literature review scoping the relevant parts of the field addressed in this study. It’s a significant amount of reading, and this literature is new to me, so the work was daunting at first. I felt a bit overwhelmed at the scale of the reading, note-making and writing I would have to do to actually create a relatively short, concise literature review. One of the co-investigators helpfully suggested that one of the outputs be an annotated bibliography, out of which we could craft the literature review. I must add here that I then had to google what this was, because I have never written one before, although the term is not new.

books-colorful-book-5711

In essence, to create an annotated bibliography, you compile a list of relevant readings on the topic you are writing about, read these, and then create concise, focused summaries that evaluate the quality and accuracy of the source, and its relevance to the research you are doing (a useful example here). Some guides say you should keep these to 150 words, others indicate that you can go up to about 300 or so words. The main point seems to be to go beyond a simple, descriptive summary of the article, to be critical of the source, and its relevance to your proposed research. It’s useful here to remember that critique is not criticism; it is rather about inserting your researcher voice and position in relation to the text, and commenting from that position.

This all sounds rather simple, in theory. I am finding it a little harder in practice. This is partly because the summaries I tend to write in my reading journals tend towards the descriptive, and only become critical when I evaluate their relevance and connection to my research. I don’t actually think all that critically about the quality or accuracy of the source, or the authority of the authors, unless this is obviously suspect (for example, a low-impact study that tries to be more, or data that is not clearly described or is atheoretically analysed). These papers, unless that really say something helpful, are usually left out of my eventual literature review.

In the annotated bibliography, you are creating sharp, focused annotations or commentaries (rather than summaries) that point to the type of study (qualitative/quantitative; larger/smaller scale; single/multi-context and so on); the theory or methodology perhaps (as this influences relevance and also accuracy or quality); how (and how clearly or effectively) the argument is made; and how/why the article is relevant to the research you are doing. As you start to grow your bibliography, you can add a comment about how the study connects with, extends or contradicts other studies you have included thus far.

open-book-library-education-read-159621

My research is at play here, of course, as it is guiding the selection of sources, and what I am looking for in the reading I am doing. However, I am finding that my argument is rather fuzzier than it could be at this stage; the reading is guided by a general sense of what I am trying to find out about, but my actual argument is not yet formed. I am finding this tricky, as I am working with literature that is new to me. I don’t necessarily know who the ‘names’ are, or what the influential studies are. I’m starting to work this out as the same studies and names are cited over and over in the papers I am reading, but I’m still getting the ‘lie of the land’. But, while I may not yet have my firm argument, I am able to see it emerging from the mists because I know the basic problem or question I am trying to answer.

Holding onto a basic, albeit fuzzy, sense of why I am doing all of this and what I am looking for enables me to manage the annotation process more effectively.  I can trim out readings that are irrelevant, too old, or otherwise unfit for this purpose, and add in new readings that are useful and on point. I can keep the annotations clear, concise and focused on the research problem. I can start to make connections between studies, seeing how the authors are talking to one another, and creating a conversation in which there are both agreements and disagreements. This all takes me closer to my literature review, which is where I will make and defend an argument of sorts in response to my research question.

In the literature review I will be doing far more than copying and pasting from my summaries: I will be drawing out key themes in relation to my research problem/question, and elaborating on these using the annotations I have created, but rewriting and connecting these into a framework that illuminates: what the research problem is; why this problem needs to be addressed in our context; how it has been addressed in other contexts; and where the gap is that this project seeks to fill, i.e. the contribution or argument advanced in this research. This will then set us up for creating a suitable methodological plan for going about evidencing or supporting our argument.

puzzle

I have, as I said, never done an exercise like this before. But, I am really enjoying the intellectual challenge of creating the annotations – it has taken me a while to work this out and the word limit is tough! I am excited at how ‘organically’ the debates, conversations and connections between the different contexts and studies within the readings are emerging, like a puzzle slowly forming out of a mess of pieces. Putting it all into one document – one long bibliography – may seem unwieldy, but this enables me to search for key terms, and to pull threads together in the literature review that is not starting to take shape. It’s making my literature review work less overwhelming, because the annotations are written in my own words, contain my research position, and are critical rather than descriptive, so I am well on my way to creating a literature review that comments on, rather than summarises, the relevant body of literature, and does so in relation to my research problem.

Given how stressful literature reviews are for so many postgraduate writers, and how many are critiqued for being too descriptive and not critical enough, this ‘tool’ could be a useful, practical and manageable way in to your field, and to finding your researcher voice and position.

Strategic reading: filling gaps in your writing

Reading: it’s a tough subject for postgraduate students. I have written here, here, and here about reading – how much to read, what to read, how to find reading you need to do. In this post I want to think a bit about strategic reading: reading to fill certain gaps in your writing, or to add additional or necessary authority to claims you are making.

This kind of reading is, I think, a little bit controversial. This is mainly because it doesn’t always require you to read the whole of every paper you are planning to include on your paper or chapter. This kind of reading could be considered a cheat code of sorts. In gaming, cheat codes (as my sons have led me to understand) enable you to take certain shortcuts through the game, circumventing tough sections that may wipe you out otherwise. The kind of strategic reading I am talking about here is a writing cheat code. It enables you to add to your writing without necessarily spending hours doing additional reading.

cheat codes

*There is an important caveat here though: this kind of reading can only be used effectively under particular conditions. It cannot be used to replace deep, sustained and considered reading that gets you into your field, introduces you to theory, empirical research, the thinkers you will be ‘conversing’ and ‘debating’ with in your own research and writing.*

Now that I have added that caveat, let me explain how I think this tool works, and how and when it could help you. There are two common scenarios in which I use strategic reading:

1. I am writing a paper with two colleagues on the ways in which tutors use different forms of questions to structure conversations with student writers in a university writing centre. They have actually written the first draft, and I have come in to edit, add to and reshape it, before they have another go. Several of the cited sources are older, and if I was the paper’s reviewer I would certainly be suggesting that we bring the reading material up to date, as there is more recent research that we could cite, that would add to our paper. But, I don’t actually have time to re-read 10 papers right now, all of which I have actually read at some point over the past few years. I have a basic sense of where I could add particular points or authority in the form of sources cited. I am thus using this cheat code: selective strategic reading.

reading 1

Basically, I am finding papers in my archive that speak about some of the issues we are touching on in the paper. I am them skimming these until I see key words or phrases, and I am reading around these, to see if a) what the author is writing about is useful, and b) if I can add it to the paper as a useful reference that adds authority to our argument, and also extends it in productive ways. I am only reading parts of these papers, some of which I recall well, and others which are a little more vague. I am using my judgement here to see how much re-reading I need to do, and I have to be careful not to take what the author is saying out of context just to suit my purposes.

This is a potential catch of this cheat code: by not reading the whole paper, I may inadvertently claim that the author has written something that supports my argument, when they actually meant something else. But, because I am only selecting papers I have already read, and that do actually connect with the argument I am making, this risk is largely mitigated.

2. I used a different kind of strategic reading tool in writing a paper I published last year, for which I was on a very tight deadline (hence less time for long periods of deep and thoughtful reading for every part of the literature review): gap filling. Here, what I did was work put very carefully exactly what the gap in my contextual framework was, and what I needed by way of literature to fill it. I needed a few tight, clear paragraphs on academic staff development, in particular how new staff members are mentored in higher education. I then ran a focused Google Scholar search for people I know have written about this, and found 6 or 7 authoritative studies/papers. I read the whole of each of these papers, but with my eye on my argument so that I was really pulling out pieces of what they were writing about that would help me fill my gap effectively. I made limited and focused summaries in my reading journal, rather than my usual general summaries, with a focus on my paper at the end thereof.

reading 2

This gap filling strategy works best when you know what you need to write about and you have a basic structure worked out, because then you can see the gaps, and choose only what you have to read to fill them. If you have a good sense of what the gaps are, you can focus better on a few key readings, or writers/theorists, and not worry overly much about not having read everything on that topic. Usually within a few papers, with reading notes, you can start to see the gap filling up, and you can learn to judge when you have read enough or need to keep going. It does require a measure of confidence, and knowledge of your field, but usually when you get to writing papers you are on your way to this.

If you are using these kinds of strategic reading cheat codes in an MA or PhD, they would probably work best towards the end of the thesis, when you are going back, connecting chapters, creating overall coherence, and ensuring that the argument you have ended up making by the conclusion is well supported by the earlier contextual and conceptual literature you have cited. Using these tools early on in a research project is not advisable: cheat codes are usually only useful, in gaming and in writing, when you know where you are going, but just need a little extra help in getting there a bit more efficiently than otherwise.

 

Literature review or ‘contextual framework’?

Literature reviews are the one section of a PhD thesis, article or undergraduate assignment that strike fear into the hearts of even the most confident of students. Why are we so terrified of them? Reams of writing, many blogs and online advice pages, and hours of anxiety are devoted to literature reviews – the writing, reading, summarising, connecting, re-writing and re-reading that seem overwhelming at times. I am supervising a PhD student who is currently writing her literature review, and reading her 4th draft this week, a thought occurred to me: she isn’t writing a ‘review’ of the relevant literature; she is building, using the selected literature she has read as bricks and mortar, a contextual framework for her study. It seems to me that dropping the whole notion of a literature review and replacing it with a notion of creating a contextual framework, or rationale and foundation, for your study would offer you a few helpful insights into what you are actually trying to achieve with this part of your writing.

Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

The first is organisation: to write a PhD thesis, a book, or even a very well researched journal article, you need to do a large amount of reading. You will read many books and papers that are useful and clearly connected to your research, and you will read others that are less useful and may need to be left out of the writing. If you are writing a literature review, the temptation is often to use this part of the thesis or paper almost as proof of how much work you have done, and therefore how credible you are as a scholar. It is tempting to find a way to bring in every study you have read, and every paper and book, laboriously summarising for the reader every argument, valid point and connection with other similar or different texts. What may well happen then is a sense, for your reader, of a lack of organisation. Rather than selecting and situating relevant texts you have read in relation to one another and your study, you are simply showing them how much reading you have done and what all of the reading says about all the topics that may be relevant to your research. So it is a kind of literature review, but not one that will help your reader find their way into the specific context for your study.

The second thing thinking about a contextual framework, rather than a literature review, could offer you is focus. Start with your specific study, and your research questions: what is this study about, in a couple of sentences? What main research question are you trying to answer? The research question will be refined as your study progresses, but you need to have a good sense of it earlier on to ensure that you keep your reading on track and relevant. What is the context you need to create for your readers, so that they understand a) what this research is about, b) why this research is so necessary or significant, and c) where or how what you propose to research will make a contribution to scholarship in your field of study (the gap you aim to fill)? By focusing on, and adapting for your study, these questions, you can better choose firstly to do the relevant or useful reading, and secondly choose the most relevant reading you have done to include in the framework, organising it to tell a more logical story about the research you are doing, how the questions emerged for you, and how what you are writing about will tie into or contribute to your field.

commons.wikimedia.org

commons.wikimedia.org

By thinking of this section of your study rather as a contextual framework, a structure that will provide a foundation for what will come next in terms of the conceptual/theoretical and methodological frameworks or sections, and the data analysis, findings and conclusions later on, you could avoid this literature review pitfall. This section of any thesis or paper will never be easy, I don’t think. For PhD students especially, working out what you actually think in relation to so many published voices who seem to have so much more authority and right to speak that you do can be scary, and overwhelming.

Often, I think, literature reviews that read as turgid lists of everything the student has read come from that place of being scared that they haven’t done enough, or read enough, and they so badly want to appear and be credible and authoritative. Part of becoming a doctor is learning to manage that fear, and find a way to focus your writing and research on what will make the clearest, most sensible and accessible argument for your readers. Thinking of creating a contextual framework – a holding structure for your thesis that will connect into your conceptual/theoretical and methodological frameworks to create a very clear foundation, set of tools and action plan for your thesis or paper, might be a way of doing just that. I’d love to hear from you if you feel this helps, or if you have found other ways to make literature review writing less scary and challenging.