Reading: pointing yourself in the right direction(s)

As a supervisor now, I am tasked with helping the students who are just starting out to find a way into their field, through reading (and keeping a reading journal). As a researcher and writer, I also have to work out, when I start a new paper or new project, where and how to start reading my way into the debates, problems, questions and so on. A key question I am often asked by students, and that I have to ask myself as a reader, is: ‘How do I maximise the use of my reading limited time?

The truth is, as much as we can say that as postgraduate and postdoctoral scholars we understand the demands of research, and how much time reading, thinking and writing takes at this level, we have busy lives. Most PhD students globally at part-time scholars, even if they are registered full-time, because they have jobs, and families, and other responsibilities that pull them away from their research. So, let’s be pragmatic. If you only have maybe 4-5 hours a week to really focus on your research, you want to make the best use of them. You don’t feel like you have time to spend two of these precious hours reading papers that ultimately are going on the ‘discard’ pile.

We can argue that no reading, or knowledge-gain, is a waste, but we also have to acknowledge that a PhD, or a research project, has a beginning, middle and end, and an end is expected in the form of a completed dissertation and papers (and in my case now, a book). So we need practical plans, to maximise this reading time in relation to the research project we are doing.

Last week I wrote about choosing 10 papers, and then 10 more and so on. But how do you know which 10 to start with, and then where to go after that? A PhD or Masters by research is not like a typical coursework assignment, where you have set questions that you need to respond to, and where you often have a reading list to get you started in the right directions (and can then just add to). At PhD level especially, and afterwards, you have to generate your own reading list, and your own questions. You need to choose the research problem, and read your way into the parts of the field that will help you refine this into a viable research question that you can research, thereby extending knowledge (and maybe also practice) in your field.

Big ask, right? Yep, it is. And it is daunting when you are new to this kind of research, thinking, writing and also researcher-independence. I have a few thoughts here that may help if you are starting a project, and are stuck in this very place: reading but struggling, and wondering if you are reading the right things, or not.

The first thought goes to the issue of research problems and questions. In your research journal, set yourself a 7 minute free-write task (where you literally just scribble whatever you are thinking of for 7 minutes). Make the topic: what I really want to research and why. Then write. See what you come up with. Say, for argument’s sake, you want to research the role of emotions and emotional ‘blocks’ in doctoral study. You think this is important because we don’t know a lot about this issue, but it seems to come up in many conversations you have had about and with PhD students and their studies. You want to know what students and supervisors think ’emotions’ look like in doctoral study, and what role they play in helping or hindering student progress and success.

So, there’s a basic research problem or topic. But, this is kind of all you know right now. Lots of suppositions and anecdotal sorts of evidence. You have to move beyond this to research-informed evidence, and knowledge. You have to read – a lot – to find your way into a deeper understanding of this problem, and also where the gaps are in the field that you can research. But what should your first 10 articles or papers focus on?

To get started, generate a few ‘research questions’ from your freewriting. In this case, maybe:

  1. What research has been done with the word ’emotion’ or some variation of that in the title, abstract or keywords?
  2. Based on this existing research, what are the key issues that are raised – maybe gender, or identity, or issues of retention and throughput?

This is enough to get started on some searching and journalling. The first question should yield at least 8-10 papers you can read and make notes on. Then, the second question can help you drill down further – widen your search to include studies on gender in doctoral study, and also identity. Look at papers that speak to these issues from supervisor and student perspectives. This should yield your next 10 papers, probably more.

Then you can start asking more refined and better questions, because you will now have a decent amount of knowledge about the basics of this field. You can start expanding your reading into more focused areas, or you may find yourself needing more knowledge on the wider context – you may find yourself asking: ‘Why are there so many PhD students out there? Why is there so much research on certain aspects of supervision practice, and not on others? Why is this research mostly coming out of contexts in the global North/South and not really elsewhere?’ These questions can point you towards more, and diverse reading that can help you start to build the layers of your study, from wider context, to more focused research problem area, to specific research questions and focus of your study.

A second thought goes to how to mitigate against getting stuck, and freaked out by all the reading. When you are starting out in a new research project, especially a high-stakes one such as a PhD or Masters project that will result in loss of status, time, money etc if you don’t complete or pass, self-doubt can be a significant stumbling block to watch out for. Even if you have been a successful student or academic so far, starting especially a PhD can create huge self-doubt – around whether your research is even original or interesting, around whether you can even write 80000 words about this topic, about whether you will please or disappoint your supervisor, about whether you are doing the right kinds of things at the right time, about whether you are working fast enough. So many things can create spaces for you to stumble in your self-belief.

One way, in reading, to help you manage this, is to start somewhere familiar. If you already know a bit about curriculum research, because of a workshop you attended, or a course you have taken, and this work is relevant to your research project, start there. Read your way in from a place of existing knowledge, moving towards new areas of learning. This will boost your self-confidence, and enable you to start writing as well, because you will have a bit of a background framework for this reading. Starting here can help you begin to ask the questions that will lead you into new reading on related aspects of the project. It will also lead you into reading on theory and methodology that will be useful to framing and designing your study and analysis. My advice: never start your reading with theory. It’s too difficult, and abstract on its own. You need to know what you want the theory for before you start reading theoretical texts. So start somewhere that feels known, and slowly branch out towards the not known. Same with methodology and research design texts.

Reading is the toughest part of any research project or activity, mainly because it is the part we never seem to make enough time for. I know I often feel indulgent spending time reading, even though my brain is saying: ‘But how are you ever going to write anything unless you do this?’ Writing has a tangible output – a text. Reading doesn’t have a direct output as such – although obviously the output in the end is your writing, and your more knowledgeable and confident contributions to your research or scholarly community. If you are battling to get started, or work out where to go next, I hope these two ideas here will help. Happy reading!

Reading: hard to teach, hard to do

Reading. One of the most important, but often most invisible, activities academics and scholars have to engage in to actually be academic, and scholarly. As a postgraduate student – honours, master, PhD especially – you will know that reading is a big part of your weekly workload, especially in the first part of your study, when you have to become familiar enough with your field of research to see, and understand, gaps into which your research could fit. But reading is often not something we help students with very much, beyond pointing them in the direction of papers and books to read.

The actual act and process of learning and making knowledge through reading is not an easy thing to talk about in supervision or teaching. It is much easier to talk about the other side of reading, which is writing. We have A LOT of research and blogging and talking about writing. Writing is visible, a tangible act that results in words on pages leading to books, theses and papers. We can see, analyse, unpack, critique the act of writing. But, without reading, what would there be to write about?

The first thing to think about, with reading at this level, is time. Reading takes time – more time than we often plan and estimate for in our weekly work budget. Some of us are slower readers than others, and some things are harder to read, make sense of, and make notes about than others. For example, reading an applied paper about some aspect of your study, where the authors are reporting on their own empirical research, with light theory and a focus on findings and outcomes is usually much quicker and easier to read than a chapter of a book on theory, where the author is a theorist, writing in typically dense and complex terms about abstracted meanings, terms and examples. Theory reading, as I think of it, always takes longer – and is more difficult cognitively – than applied reading. A useful point to consider then, is budgeting time for reading differently.

At the start of a project – masters, PhD, research more generally – you are going to have to read a great deal. Hours and hours of reading. The average amount of reading time to enable to the writing of a doctoral proposal, and the early chapters of a thesis is at least 6-9 months. Yes, months. Without all the reading, and the knowledge you will gain from it, you will find yourself with thin writing. One thing students early in a research journey do well is ‘suppositions’ – ‘(I suppose) it could be that students are not voting because they think it is not cool, or (I suppose) it could be because they do not identify with political parties on the ballot’. Which is it? Neither, both, or some other reason? Researchers before you have done some work on this, and published it. You have to read that work to understand the key debates and issues that have already been researched as regards youth voting, to help you see how your field has been approaching this research, and to help you find an under-explored area of knowledge-making within which you can locate your project.

So where are you going to make this time to read, and think, and also write as you make notes and start to pull threads from the readings together into the context of your own research project? Perhaps try a reading every morning, with notes in your reading journal, just after the kids have left for school and before work starts, or as you get to your desk before the day gets busy. If you can rise really early, perhaps try an hour before the household wakes up, when you have quiet. The point is to choose a time of day, and a quiet space, that works for you, and protect that time, at least 4 days a week, if not more. Steady work, and progress, is the goal with reading, and with writing.

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Now that you are reading as regularly as you can, and starting to learn more about the relevant issues, debates, theories and so on related to your project, you need to start talking about it all. Check in weekly (or biweekly if that’s easier) with a peer, colleague or friend also working on research (in or outside of your field). Have coffee and chat about what you have been reading, and why, and what kinds of interesting or troubling knowledge you have made. Ask your supervisor if you can check in with them, perhaps monthly if you cannot do so more often – write a short email to indicate what you have been reading, and where you are in your study. This may help them to see areas where you need to be redirected, or guided, in your reading, and they can help you to plot a course more steadily through the field. As a supervisor myself, I would rather have more contact like this with my students, to minimise their feelings of overwhelm and lost-ness, and to see how their thinking is developing, so we can both keep the project on track.

Reading is such a solitary activity – more so than writing because you can receive feedback on writing but no so much directly on reading. This is why it is hard to really ‘teach’ students how to read. You just have to do it. You have to wade in, and feel a bit (or a lot) lost at first, but, as a little blue fish says, just keep swimming. The act of creating new knowledge out of a mix of what is known and what you are able to generate, learn or discover on your own, is difficult, and it takes enormous amounts of time and effort. It is thus important to find ways to make this part of your research work less solitary – through writing about your own research problem, linking in knowledge from your reading and asking for feedback and guidance; through meeting regularly to just talk out loud about your developing thinking and knowledge; through journalling and writing to yourself about your research.

Reading, the act of processing what is known in relation to what you want to find out, and creating different kinds of necessary frameworks for your own research, is a significant, and vital, part of research. And there is so much to read – how do you find it all, and when do you know you have read enough? My advice is to start small: instead of falling into a Google Scholar rabbit hole and downloading 100 papers, download 10. 10 papers that, from their titles, abstracts and keywords, are obviously relevant to your study. Make these applied papers, rather than theory, to start with. Read these 10, and make good notes. Have a coffee chat and send your supervisor an email. Then find another 10, building on the first 10. Use the reference lists for guidance. Start noting repetition – are you seeing the same ideas and names coming up? Is this part of the field pretty clear in your head, in relation to your study, or not quite yet? If it is, move on to new reading on a related area of study; if not, keep going until it is. 10 by 10 (or perhaps 5 by 5 for Masters). Build up from this base, and then start branching out. After 20-25 papers, you should be seeing the same kinds of theoretical tools popping up – you could now start reading more in these areas, to find the right theory for your project; or perhaps you need to branch into research design issues, and start reading there. The point is to tackle the reading step by step, and share the steps you are taking with others – peers, co-travellers on the research journey, supervisors.

Reading is a tough thing to do – it takes time, it can be meandering, it can confuse you and challenge your ideas about your research. But it is perhaps the most vital part of doing research. If you are a student, try to start being more proactive and strategic about making time to read, and journal about your reading. If you are a supervisor, have a conversation with your student not only about what they are reading, but about how they read, and when, and what issues they may be having. Offer guidance if you can, or resources they can use. Making reading a more visible part of research may help us to really appreciate not just its significance, but also the labour involved. Making reading more visible, and appreciated, may help students, and supervisors, to connect reading and writing more meaningfully and overtly, within the overall work of creating new, and valuable, knowledge in our respective fields.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.