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.

http://www.livetradingnews.com

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.

Finding a problem to solve: searching for your doctoral thesis

I am working with a new PhD student, as a co-supervisor. He is just starting out, and recently emailed us with a slightly panicked email about what title he should have for his PhD? He sent a few ideas, wondering if they were too broad or too narrow or off-topic. My first response was to think: never mind about the title yet – we’re still trying to work out what the study is about! But he was genuinely concerned, leading me to wonder where this panic about his title stemmed from. It became apparent that he had to write down a title on a form in order to register, and he was worried that this would commit him to sticking with that title from now on. We could reassure him that this was just a form, and had no bearing on his PhD proposal or final topic. But it also pointed us to a bigger conversation: how to search for, and find, your PhD.

Bureaucracy and forms aside, do we fixate on finding a title before we have located a problem we can solve? I remember (and have proof in my research journal) scribbling down several possible titles early on in year 1 of my own doctorate, long before I knew precisely what the parameters of my study would be. Unsurprisingly, they were largely discarded along the way and I ended up somewhere quite different. I still do this in writing papers. I think it is, quite simply, because playing with words and titles is more fun, and immediate, that spending months reading, writing and speaking about my research in the effort to find a problem that is small and focused enough for me to research and write usefully about.

I do think that having some notion of a title might be helpful – it gives you a basic search area to focus on, and a way in to your reading, writing and speaking journey. But it should be seen, at this early stage, as a movable placeholder, rather than a limitation. In other words, you know you want to say something about, for example, teaching in Physics and how students learn effectively, but you remain open to further refining and reading around that issue, as opposed to discounting any reading that is not strictly about what you think you are researching.

map

I have written here about research problems, and return to the notion of a corridor of doors: at the early stage of a research project, like a PhD, you don’t want to have too many of those doors already closed. If you know the answer or solution already, why do the research? You want to remain open, read widely, and as you keep your reading journal and start to piece the field together, you then start closing doors to refine and focus your study on one problem you can viably research and respond to, making a useful and original contribution to knowledge in this field.

The reality is that you have to spend about a year reading, writing reading journal or annotated bibliography entries, making connections, taking a few wrong turns and doubling back, and talking a lot with your supervisors and peers about your study, working out where it needs to go, why and how. A great deal of the writing you do in this first year will not go into the thesis (although hopefully much of it will end up in your formal proposal*); it will be writing in your journals, writing for yourself, writing for your supervisors to guide you and offer feedback.

All this reading and informal writing can feel, at times, frustrating: you’ll read papers and even books that will be profoundly helpful, and others than you will never cite or include. You will write many words that will never progress beyond drafting/thinking/scribbling stage. I often felt as if my time was not being well-spent, especially as a part-time student with so many other things to do, if the reading was not exactly relevant, or the words were not all for The Thesis. At times, I felt I was paddling around in a circle, rather than slowly crawling forwards towards a complete thesis.

But, with hindsight, I can see just how much I gained from all that reading, scribbling and talking, even if none of it is now visible in the final thesis I wrote. In writing for myself, and giving myself permission, if you like, to just read and not panic too much about my topic or title, I slowly read and wrote myself into my research problem, locating, refining and focusing it until I was doing just one PhD (instead of the apparent four I initially proposed to my supervisor!). I found my voice through becoming immersed in the research in my field, both directly connected to my PhD and indirectly as well. I gained confidence that I was making a useful contribution as I wrote, and spoke with more knowledgeable peers, about what this contribution could be.

one way signWhile the original spark of an idea, and impetus for doing a postgraduate degree by research may find you and light you up, driving you forwards into a PhD (or MA) journey, the searching for and refining of a specific, clear and viably solvable research question or problem is a long process. Before you fixate too much on a topic, or sexy title, take the time to open yourself up to reading in and around your idea, write for yourself and your supervisors, find your researcher voice, and try your ideas out on peers and colleagues. You won’t, of course, be reading indiscriminately, but try not to hem yourself in too much with a title or topic that limits you before you have searched your field and found your PhD within it.

*In most South African PhD programmes, most of the first year of a doctorate is spent developing a formal PhD proposal, which then has to be approved by a ‘higher degrees’ committee before ethical clearance is granted and a student has permission to begin the study proper.

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.

 

Why (and how) I keep reading and research journals

research journal cover

My reading journal

This post is about reading (and writing), and how I try to keep track of what I read and what I think about it and why I need to include it in my writing.

I went to a Doc week workshop last year at Rhodes on how to keep reading and research journals and why these are useful. It was one of the most ‘lightbulb-going-on’-type workshops I have ever been to, largely because of the reading journal tool. I had been, up until that point, annotating all my readings and highlighting all over them, but stopping and starting as I went to do this highlighting and annotating. I found myself getting to the end of a long book chapter or paper unable to articulate, in my own words, what the author was on about. It was so frustrating because I found that my reading was stilted and my notes were full of exact quotes from the readings rather than summaries in my own words, so I was having trouble writing about it all. I could not think beyond the authors’ words and I was getting nowhere fast with my ‘theory’ chapter and literature review-type sections.

At this workshop the idea of a reading journal was introduced and explained. Essentially the goal is to read the article all the way through without annotating or highlighting or stopping. Then, on a clean MSWord page or notebook page (I like to write mine in pen and pencil in a pretty Moleskine notebook) you write a summary of the article – what stuck out for you, what the main arguments were, how you are linking it to your other reading, what questions you had, what you were not clear about and so on. You can go back and read again and add direct quotes or clarify fuzzy bits but only after you have read the article or chapter and summarised it like this first. What is brilliant about a reading journal kept like this is that you do remember what you have read (even though you think you won’t), the main points are what go into the summary rather than all the points as often happens when you are annotating, and you are writing in your own words so there is less of a writing block caused by being stuck on the author’s words.

I have learnt a few tips to make keeping a reading journal like this a bit easier. Firstly, read when your brain is fresh, otherwise it’s harder to focus and remember the main points and you find yourself having to keep going back to the reading and then you’re copying quotes instead of summarising in your own words. Second, make sure you write the FULL bibliographical reference at the top of the summary – there is nothing worse than having to chase down references later on. Thirdly, keep your journal with you – if you get a few spare minutes and want to read it’s nice to have your book with you (if you keep a hard copy) and to keep these summaries in one place. I have reading journal entries in my book and on my PC and on bits of paper stapled to printed-out articles and it’s a bit hard to keep track of it all. This reading journal has changed the way I read and make notes, and has really helped me to find my own voice as a writer in this PhD and even in papers and other things I am writing.

research journal inside

An example of a writing/drawing page in my research journal

The other journal I keep is more personal and something I also learnt about during this Doc week. It’s my research journal. This is where I scribble ideas for parts of my thesis, ideas for papers I want to write related to my PhD research, notes about my frustrations, triumphs, setbacks, writing process and inklings, and so on. I draw pictures, I write more linear entries, I draw ‘word-pictures’ – it is a creative, personal space where I record my journey, and where the ‘archaeological dig’ that has been my study has unfolded and evolved over the past almost-two years – and is still unfolding. I take it to work with me everyday, and home again. I never know when the muse will strike, and I scribble sometimes on the way to work while my husband drives, or sitting in bed on a Saturday morning, or quickly between meetings at work. This journal has been very useful as a part-confessional diary and part-intellectual work-space. A small tip: if you are going to start one, buy a pretty journal from a bookshop. It’s more inspiring and enjoyable to keep a journal that is lovely to look at than one in a plain A4 book with a brown or black cover. :-).

I highly recommend keeping one of each of these journals – the reading journal for the more ‘academic’ work you are doing, and the research journal for your own personal as well as academic processes and thoughts and ideas. These tools are useful for the PhD journey itself and beyond or outside of it.