Adapting my reading journal to be ‘fit for (my) purpose’

Last week I posted the first in a series of posts contributed by Master’s students in a research methodology module I taught this past semester. Their final assignment was to ‘blog’ about an aspect of the learning or engagement in the course that represented a kind of ‘aha’ moment or challenge they are working on. This second post is from Jodie Bougaard, who is researching Russia’s cyber-meddling in the 2016 US elections.

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As a master’s student in the process of designing my study, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time engaging with literature related to my area of interest. Throughout the preliminary stages of thinking about my study, I’ve encountered challenges in this regard. I wondered if I was doing a sufficient amount of reading; identifying key themes in the material I engaged with and if it was relevant to my proposed research. Conventional wisdom suggests that conducting a sound literature review at the outset of the research design is essential not only to formulate a hypothesis and research questions but also to broaden your knowledge base as a researcher and identify gaps in the existing discourse.  

With this in mind, I proceeded to read and scrutinise any material I could find, waiting to have a grand epiphany about what the original ‘angle’ on my research would be or what I could add to the academic conversation. I had already identified an area of interest and developed key research questions. My chosen topic relates to electoral interference in the U.S. election in 2016. I knew that I needed to identify the key themes throughout my literature, organise concepts in accordance with the key themes, and create a general structure for my inquiry.  In practice, I was still spending an inordinate amount of time reading, searching for the grand knowledge gap, which continually eluded me. I began feeling that I was using my time unproductively, and this realisation induced anxiety. If you are an inexperienced researcher like me, it is not always easy to see what’s missing and it can be discouraging to read large volumes of material and not have any ‘a-ha’ moments along the way.

As a remedy to this angst, I have realigned how I approached literature by developing insight into what kind of reading I was doing. I started by going back to the beginning, reading as an objective viewer or a passive receiver of information. Instead of frantically trying to identify gaps in existing knowledge from the outset (which puts a considerable amount of pressure on you as a researcher) I found that reading to familiarise myself with material related to my study was a far more effective use of my time in working on my proposal. I didn’t force myself to evaluate the author’s arguments or the underlying assumptions of their propositions straight away. I know that critical engagement occurs further along the process, and through critical engagement knowledge gaps would emerge. In some cases, such as mine, knowledge-gaps may not be quite so apparent. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. I understand the aim of pursuing a master’s degree not to necessarily to produce the most original and exciting or innovative study, but rather to demonstrate competency as a researcher. Through proper research of any subject you can build upon existing knowledge, which is still a valid contribution to your chosen discipline.

So, I collected literature, categorised it using a reading journal and qualified it in the context of my study. This process made reading in the preliminary stages far more pleasurable experience. I stopped stock-piling papers to read in future as doing so only fuelled my core belief that I was not reading enough. Instead, I skimmed abstracts and introductions, bookmarking papers I wanted like to read when I had sufficient time. I found that doing this daily over a three-month period provided an extensive reading catalogue, where I was building my own library or repository.

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I have learned to distinguish between the types of reading I am doing. I am growing to understand that there is room for focused, critical and intentional reading; however, there is also a time for general and unconstrained reading. Much like writing, there are variations, each with their own merits. Writing should reflect academic rigour and express critical insights; however, it’s also useful to do freewriting exercises throughout the research design process. Similarly, reading can also be approached in this manner.  Designing a study isn’t a linear process. Making notes or distilling themes and concepts in the literature becomes less arduous when you allow room for exploration through reading. Understanding which kind of reading you’re doing helps lift the fog of confusion and resultant panic that emerges when you read without thinking. Reading comprehensively means casting a wide net and then making conscious choices to either consume or discard what has been collected. Reading thoroughly means engaging with material within a narrow and deep construct, and through this finite scope, expertise is developed. The latter cannot occur without the former. Thus, I am not suggesting that anyone should read indiscriminately. I am, however, stating that building a knowledge base necessitates reading extensively to develop a sound background understanding of any topic.

By the time I completed my literature review, my research had become a case study situated within a larger conversation about meddling as a foreign policy strategy. I certainly did not anticipate structuring my study in this way. Prior to engaging properly with literature, I had entirely different working questions, none of which considered meddling as a foreign policy strategy. My point is that reading is not merely a means to an end. What I included in my literature review didn’t represent the extent of the material I had spent previous weeks reviewing. Adopting a mindset which prioritises reading as a fundamental part of your responsibility as a researcher, with no apparent start and end point, alleviates some of the stress associated with what to read and how to engage with literature. And adapting your reading journal to enable different kinds of reading, note-taking and organisation can help you in this process.

Contributions to knowledge and the ‘knowledge gap’

If you have spent any time reading advice or ‘how to’ books on writing a thesis at any level, you will almost certainly have come across some version of this concept: the ‘knowledge gap’. And you will likely have been told that you have to create a research project or study that will find knowledge to fill a gap in your specific field or discipline’s knowledge base. This idea of filling a gap or hole in what your field knows or does freaks out many students, at all levels. The idea that you have to say something new when you are still learning your field and what it knows and does can be overwhelming.

But, after a conversation with colleagues who work with researcher development starting from senior undergraduate level all the way through Masters to PhD level, I have begun to wonder whether this concept of a knowledge ‘gap’ is actually not all that accurate or helpful as a starter about the purpose or goal of postgraduate research and knowledge creation, even at doctoral level. Maybe, we need to actively reframe the conversations we have with students doing research about how we can and do make different kinds of contributions to knowledge that grow and challenge knowledge in our fields.

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The most common starting point for students beginning a research process is in the field itself, reading other studies, papers, research findings and so on. This enables them to see what research is being done, what the current trends are around theory and methodology, substantive findings that support or challenge their own research problem and so on. The literature review is almost always the first thing we ask students to focus on when they are developing a research proposal, especially at doctoral level where there is a firm requirement of a ‘novel’ contribution to knowledge. So, you kind of are looking for a gap, of sorts. But you’re not looking for it in terms of a total silence on your own research problem.

The first problem with the notion of a ‘gap’ or hole in the field that your study can fill, conceptually or empirically or methodologically, is that many students seeing this as meaning exactly that: silence, as in no one has ever done this research before. They feel they must claim that there are no existing studies like theirs for their study to be ‘novel’ and to fill the identified knowledge gap legitimately. In most fields, it is almost never the case that no one has ever done your kind of study before, or asked a similar kind of research question. And you really don’t want that either, because what you are really trying to do with your research is join a field that exists, and push it a tiny bit further; you’re not trying to strike out on your own.

This leads me to the second problem with talking about knowledge gaps and the need to fill them with original or novel claims to knowledge: in essence this can prevent many students from really seeing that they are writing about their research in relation to the field, to join an ongoing conversation, rather than writing about their research as an extended proof of claims that are completely new. We need to reframe teaching about the aim of research as being focused on joining an existing conversation as a new voice that has something of value to add to the field, rather than needing to say something radically new that has not yet ever been said. I think this may help student researchers in two main ways.

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The first is with the way they read. Rather than reading every paper looking for a hole or a gap or silence and zeroing in on this, they may begin to read with a greater consciousness of how the field has already addressed similar questions, but perhaps from different angles, or with different theory, or with different methodology. They can then consider how this helps them to build and substantiate a space in which to position their own emerging claims to knowledge. Keeping a reading journal to keep track of these arguments, how they are made, and how they speak to one another or challenge one another (this bit is crucial) may then help students to begin to see the conversation emerging, and where they might be able to join in. Who is saying what, how, and why? Who is critiquing the dominant positions and why? How? Where does my work fit into all of this? What is this ongoing conversation all about?

Thinking and reading like this may then feed into a different, less defensive form of writing. Rather than trying to address every paper or article included in the literature review by showing what it doesn’t say to shore up a claim to the originality of their own research, student research writers may begin rather to craft literature reviews, and perhaps also theoretical and methodological frameworks in their thesis writing, from a different position: as one who is joining an existing field and conversation, unthreatened by all the work that is currently being or has been done. Rather, these sections will be written with the understanding that all the existing work is a resource for substantiating our own claims to knowledge, so that we can show how what we have to add builds on, extends, and may perhaps critique the current arguments dominating the conversation in the field.

Reframing the ‘knowledge gap’ as joining a conversation with a new voice and a small contribution to the field may also help researchers at other, lower, levels of study, such as Masters, Honours and senior undergraduate levels, where the knowledge gap can be particularly alarming. This is perhaps mainly because these students typically do less reading, and are not required to make a novel contribution to knowledge to attain their degree. Obviously, the more you read the field, the deeper and more nuanced your sense of the conversations in your field will be, as well as how they connect to and challenge one another. But students can join a conversation even at the lower levels, in a more modest form, if they are enabled to see this as what they are doing, rather than using their study to fill a gap that their reading load will not show them adequately.

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Making a contribution to knowledge and filling knowledge gaps is spoken about a great deal in postgraduate and researcher education, but I wonder how often we stop and think about how students hear this, and what impact this has on their reading and writing behaviours and choices. I hope this post will help that process along, and help us find different ways to talk to students we work with about their own research purposes and goals.

Paper writing: the reference list

I was teaching a writing for publication course again last week, in which I work mainly with writers who are publishing a paper that comes out of a thesis, either Master’s or doctoral. Thus, they are all trying to create a small, focused argument from a larger argument. This is a significant challenge, and one aspect to think about, and focus on, is the reference list. Specifically, how many references you include, and the link between the references you need and the credibility and currency of your argument, and claims to knowledge.

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When you construct, research and write about a project in a Masters or doctoral thesis, you have to start with reading – a lot of reading. You need to spend time immersed in the debates, arguments, history and developments of your part of the field, so you can understand where and how your study fits into the field. And, particularly at doctoral level, the contribution to knowledge your study can make.

All this reading leads to quite an impressive reference list in the thesis – pages of proof that you know your field, and who the ‘names’ are, and what arguments they have made, and so on. This idea of ‘proof’ of expertise is an interesting one at this level of study. I have worked with many students who want a number: “How many readings do I have to have in my reference list? How many papers and how many books?” I have wondered if what they are asking is less about a guideline to know how much work lies ahead, and more for a sense of what counts as a credible amount of reading, or a reference list that an examiner will see as “right” or “valid” as a basis for the claims to knowledge within the study.

There are two aspects around reading and the reference list that you need to establish in the thesis: credibility and currency.

Credibility is about connecting your study to the most pertinent, and relevant, author(itie)s in your field – the papers, arguments, voices speaking about the issues that your study is connected with. You work to position your study within the conversations in your field in a way that shows that you understand who the ‘main’ speakers are – those who are doing, or have done, influential, field-setting work – and who the other contributors are – writers and researchers making smaller, but notable, contributions to the field. And, crucially, where your study is in all of this. By indicating, usually in your Introductory and ‘Literature Review’ sections or chapters, the nature of the part of the field you are studying, and thus the knowledge gap(s) into which your study’s claim(s) will fit, you establish credibility for your study, and your claims to knowledge.

This brings us to currency, though, as a caveat to credibility. If you are citing older research, you need to be clear on why you are doing this. Is it because this is theoretical work, or foundational research that set up the current state of the field – like Durkheim in Sociology, or Bernstein in Education, or Foucault in Political Science? This is acceptable – these are field-setters, theorists and researchers whose work others draw on to make their own, smaller contributions to knowledge through applied or theoretical work of their own. But, if you are citing studies that make claims about ‘applied knowledge’ (like the ways in which government works, or the ways in which a writing centre functions in a university, or the ways in which civil society organisations engage with poorer communities), these should not be older, unless you are using the older studies with newer ones to track shifts in the field. If you are citing a study from 1992, or even 2002, and claiming on the basis of that study’s findings that government is X, or civil society works in these ways, you will erode your credibility. Examiners will wonder why you are not reading the most recent research in your field.

Current can mean different things in different fields: in History, you would obviously be citing archival texts and older work, but there would also be Historians in your field writing papers about the issues you are focused on, debating and discussing aspects of these. You need to be reading both the foundational, seminal papers and texts in your field – whatever these are – and also the most current debates and discussions as well. Otherwise, you risk making an argument, especially at doctoral level, that does not make a new contribution to the field. Your supervisor should be able to help you work out what to read that is both current and credible in your field.

Thus, in a reference list for a paper, which is a small slice of the M or D thesis, you need to select your references carefully. Start with the most recent or current research, and the most pertinent research related to the argument of the paper. This will establish both currency (where do the claims to knowledge fit into the current debates/conversations in the field?), and credibility (who is having these conversations, and how does your work speak to theirs?). There is no magic number, but unless you are doing a scoping review, a useful guideline is about 10% of your total word count. Some papers may go up to 15% and others may be less than 10%, depending on the field and nature of the argument being constructed. The point, really, is that you need to be focused on including and citing current, credible research that indicates the state of the field, the gaps, and thus where your argument makes its contribution to knowledge.

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.