Weaving smaller arguments into a larger thesis: the parts and the whole

Making your thesis into an argument that is both persuasive and coherent is probably the biggest challenge in doing a doctorate. Argumentation is a craft, and crafting a well-honed, carefully substantiated argument is difficult work. I have written before in this blog about the ‘golden thread’ that weaves the parts of your thesis together, and creates the argument that is, at the end, what your research is all about. Here I want to write a bit more about this tricky beast that is your argument, and how you create smaller and larger, connected, arguments within a thesis.

From pinterest.com

From pinterest.com

A thesis, as we know, is written in pieces and chunks over quite a lengthy period of time – anywhere from 3 to 8 years on average across South Africa, the UK, Australia, and the US and Canada. Some PhDs are research-only, where all you work on for your candidacy is The Thesis (the UK, Australia and South Africa, generally), and some PhDs include compulsory examinations and coursework before students embark on researching a thesis (the US and Canada). There are other forms of thesis writing too, like the PhD with or by publication, fairly popular in Scandinavian universities alongside the more traditional ‘big book’ theses. There may be other forms as well that I am unaware of, but these seem to generally be the primary ways, at the moment, of producing PhD-level research in higher education. The challenge, in all these forms – some more than others – is creating coherence across chapters, and pulling these chapters together around the central thread that is your overall argument. You could think, in terms of a metaphor, about this overall argument as a kind of pattern, guiding and shaping the weaving and knitting and selecting that goes into crafting a well-designed and written thesis.

From waldorfmama.typepad.com

From waldorfmama.typepad.com

Each chapter, though, has to contain a part of that argument – smaller or sub-arguments: taking my own thesis as one example, you may well need an argument for your research aims and questions, and the gaps in your field that your research is located within (chapter 1); an argument for the concepts you have chosen to create and craft the theoretical framework that will be the lens (theoryology) with which you will view your research problems, methodology and data (chapter 2); an argument for the analytical and methodological framework and tools you will use to generate, organise and analyse your data (chapter 3);an argument defending your selections of only parts of your full data set, and how these have been organised and analysed to answer the research questions (chapters 4 and 5); and finally, an argument for the significance of your research to your audience and your field, and what it all means (chapter 6). These arguments all need to keep in mind the Big Argument that your thesis is making, which should be the answers to your research questions. Carrying on with the weaving/knitting metaphor, you could think of all of these chapters as balls of yarn in different colours – each one necessary to follow the pattern you have created.

One way to keep track of this Big Argument as you are toiling away at individual chapters, pieces and chunks of the thesis over time is to keep it visible. Write it on a piece of card and stick it above your workspace. Type it into the header of each page as your write parts of your thesis, as a running header, so that it is always in front of you). Check in regularly, in a research journal or similar space, so that you can track smaller or larger shifts and refinements of the Big Argument as your writing and thinking evolves and grows over time. It is so important to keep reminding yourself of what you are actually wanting to claim in your thesis, and why you think this argument matters, especially, for example, once you get into your data swamps and immerse yourself in everything your data want to tell you. It is easy, at that point, to get lost in all the interesting, rich data and lose sight of your argument, which will ask to you select only some of that data to substantiate your claims within the word limits you have been given.

Another way to keep track of the argument you are making is to find one or more critical friends with whom you can create a writing group, circle or support space, whether in person or virtually. You can undertake to read one another’s work at intervals, and give one another feedback on whether the arguments you are making in each chapter connect to one another and to the bigger argument; whether the parts are creating a coherent, sensible and persuasive whole (and where they are missing the mark). You can, of course, also ask your supervisor very specifically for this kind of feedback, as it is also their job to ensure that you stay on track and make the most persuasive, coherent, substantiated argument you are capable of making within the time and space allowed to you.

In the end, you want to complete a thesis, in whichever form or system you are working within, that represents what Trafford and Leshem term ‘doctorateness’: it is more than a collection of chapters, or ticks against boxes (theory, check; literature review, check; etc). It is a well-crafted, sensibly structured, persuasive piece of work that shows your capability to do research at this level well, and to make a contribution to the development of knowledge (and perhaps also practice) within your field. It is, in terms of the metaphor, a carefully woven, complete and accurate representation of the pattern you created, in all its brightly coloured glory.

From torontoknitcafe.wordpress.com

From pinterest.com


torontoknitcafe.wordpress.com

From torontoknitcafe.wordpress.com

 

Crossing the PhD ‘ocean’: ideas for smoother sailing

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Using metaphors for thinking and writing your PhD

I read a really interesting article recently by Frances Kelly on using metaphors in thesis writing, and she highlighted to kinds of metaphors: structural and conceptual. As I understand her, a structural metaphor can help you to use an image or an idea to organise and shape your thesis – to lend it an underlying narrative of sorts. A conceptual metaphor can be used as a way of thinking about what your argument and data actually mean, or the shape your methods and methodology are taking. She mentions a common PhD-related metaphor that could possibly be used both structurally and conceptually: the journey. I am sure many of you have heard this metaphor and even used it for your own thinking about your PhD process and what kind of journey is has been or is for you.

I am using a metaphor in my PhD, a structural metaphor that came to me quite early on as I was trying to work coherently with all the layers of theory and conceptualisation that are now mostly contained in chapters 2 and 3. It is the image of an archaeological dig of sorts. I have outlined 6 stages, steps or layers in the process of doing a ‘dig’ and each chapter now aligns with these. I was just using this image and idea in my theory chapter to unpack and fit the parts of theory into a whole, but a friend suggested I try using it for the whole thesis and it has worked well. This metaphor or image has, importantly, helped me to think about what I am doing and need to do at each stage in telling the story of my study, and how the parts fit together to make a whole.

Image from NBC News

Image from NBC News

In my use of this metaphor, I move from choosing the dig site and giving my reasons for the choices, to finding and setting out the right tools for the kind of dig I am doing, and to help me find the things I need to find. I then move on to do the dig with the tools, describing and reflecting on my process of digging, explaining why I did not do certain things and did do others. Then, in my two ‘analysis’ chapters, I go on to show you what I have found in the dig and what I think these artefacts mean in relation to my reasons for doing the study and my chosen framework. I conclude as I explain the significance of the findings within the area in which I chose to dig, and within the field in which I am working. I like this metaphor – I have found that it has helped me to focus and also given me a space to play and be creative while still producing a fairly normal, regulation PhD thesis. 

Like all metaphors, though, there are things it does not do and ways in which it could all fall apart and confuse people who may interpret it differently. So, if you want to try and use either a conceptual or structural metaphor in your own thesis, these would be my top tips:

1. Choose an image or idea that has resonance with your study – either with the field of study, the research questions, the methods you are using or the conceptual framework. It should not just be creative frippery, it should work on a deeper level and tie in clearly with what your study aims to achieve or say.

2. Work out very carefully how you are using the metaphor and for what end. You will need to explain its use very carefully to your reader-examiners so that they cannot misinterpret it, or tell you it makes so sense and to take it out. Try it out on your supervisor or a critical friend and see what they think.

3. Choose something that excites you or makes you feel creative – think about adding images as well as just words to describe the metaphor. A friend of mine used Alice in Wonderland’s journey down the rabbit hole as a metaphor for her thesis with beautiful illustrations and it worked really well. Take your readers on your creative journey by pulling the metaphor very clearly into the places it belongs and showing your readers why they need to take it as seriously as you do.

Happy thinking, scribbling and writing, everyone!

Reference:

Kelly, F. 2011. ‘Cooking together disparate things’: the role of metaphor in thesis writing. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 48(4): 429-438.

Revisions part two: ‘panel-beating’ and polishing

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

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

From astonegatherer.blogspot.com

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

The thesis starts to take shape:

From pottery.about.com

From pottery.about.com

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

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

commons.wikimedia.org

From commons.wikimedia.org

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

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

From ceramicsartdaily.org

From ceramicsartdaily.org

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

From ceramicsartdaily.org

From ceramicsartdaily.org

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