Fairy castles, ramshackle cottages and writing in the real world

I have this problem: I am not always a huge fan of reality. It’s often far less interesting and well-ordered than the world I can create in my head. For example, it can take 2 years to publish a paper – writing, revising, reviews, more (crushing at times) feedback, more revising, and this goes on and on, paper after paper. It’s tiring, and hard. But, in my head, I write a paper that is erudite and important, and journal editors and reviewers like it a lot, and it gets published within a year, and cited a lot. This sounds silly, right? It is, kind of.

I wrote ages ago about PhD fantasies, and why you should have them. In that post I argue that, while they can be distracting and even perhaps paralysing if you indulge in them too often, and for too long, fantasies can be useful motivation tools. Imagining the eventual future, as a place where we are successful, and have achieved something we are currently struggling with can push us towards that goal.  I think we need fantasy – what I call my ‘fairy castles’ – because fantasies are, at their core, creative acts. I could imagine a fairy castle of writing that goes well, is invigorating and stimulating, and that makes me feel clever, accomplished and productive. In reality, right now, I’m more like in a ramshackle cottage in the woods just trying to get the fire going with damp wood. (I have also been watching too much Once Upon a Time). The reality and the fantasy in my writing life do not align often enough.

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But, they do align. And I believe that my fairy castle papers -and Book Manuscript, and the New Project I Will Start Planning – are a vital part of creating a reality that will actually be productive, and result in written work that will eventually be published.

The fairy castle and the ramshackle cottage can be part of the same ‘writing realm’ that all writers inhabit. There are always good writing days, where you can concentrate, and make sense, and feel like progress is really being made with the piece you are working on. And there are bad days, where none of the words see  to come out right, or at all. I am starting to really get that these two kinds of days go together – they have to. It can’t all be fairy castles and magical days of erudite brilliance, but by the same token, it can’t all be days of smoky damp fires and frustration. You have to learn from the bad days, to make the good days more frequent, and useful.

The work, to follow the metaphor, is to bring the cottage closer to the castle; to bring it into the walls of the city, like one of those small houses in the shadow of the queen’s castle in medieval time.

fairy castle

I have a plan I am going to try to follow to start inching my writing fantasies and writing reality closer to one another. Firstly, I am going to write down the fantasy in my research journal: finished book chapter by February, and a book proposal and draft chapter by March. Let’s start small, so we don’t crush the whole enterprise at the outset. I am going to outline the steps I need to take to actually get there – how many words, what do I have, what do I need to read, write, do. Then, I am going to stop thinking about it all, and spend an hour a day – two pomodoros – writing. It will be awful at first. I will feel stuck, and frustrated, and cross with myself. The ramshackle cottage will feel like it is falling apart. But, if I keep slogging away at this, the cottage walls will get a bit stronger, maybe the fire will get going at last, and the fantasy of the finished work will start to become more attainable. (And I will probably feel much better about indulging in my binges of Once Upon A Time if I use them as rewards for actually writing, rather than as ways to escape writing!)

The cottage will always be a cottage – it will never turn into the fairy castle up on the hill. I am not sure it should. I think we need the struggles and frustrations to push us across important thresholds in our learning and thinking – about theory, methodology, the nature of our research, the process of actually writing, and so on. The struggles do make the victories that much sweeter, I must say, and they help me to appreciate that this is a real job. Being an active writer and researcher is work, hard work most days, and it is valuable work. To me, and hopefully to others in my field too.

So, my plan for this year is both simple, and really hard: to strive to create a writing realm for myself where the cottage I really live in is closer to the castle I admire, and often wish I lived in, so that they co-exist in a mutually beneficial space, where the fantasy feeds the reality, rather than keeping me from it. Or, where the words become sentences, the sentences become paragraphs, and the paragraphs become my published work.

 

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New year, new writing plans, new chances to ‘fail better’

Samuel  Beckett famously wrote: Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better. Maybe he said it out loud. Nevertheless, he made a valuable, and often underestimated, observation here that applies really well to writing and research. I find, and I know many others do too, that writing and research are not really about trying, failing and then succeeding, but about trying, failing, learning, and then failing better (and on and on).

If I could rewrite my PhD thesis now, there are a few things I would do differently, better, having learned so much from the one I did write, which was better than the MA thesis that came before that, which improved on the Honours mini-thesis. You see where I am going here, I think.

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Every paper I write is hopefully better than the paper before. But to improve – to try again and fail better – you need to become a more conscious and reflexive writer. You need to learn about yourself as a writer, take on advice, feedback and critique, and work to make changes and improvements where these are warranted. Otherwise you may just feel like you are trying and failing, without the bit about getting better at it.

This takes some work. I like, in my writing courses, to think about the possible learning in two areas: personal habits and needs, and writing habits and needs.

Area one, for me, involves things like: where and when I write most productively, the kind of atmosphere I need to write, how I react to and take in critique and feedback, and the time it takes me to read, think, write, revise and so on. I do best in the mornings, but I have a friend who is writing fiend between 11pm and 5am. I like to write in bed, but my back prefers that I sit properly at a desk – and actually, I am more focused and disciplined if I am at a desk and my back is not aching. I like quiet – not dead quiet – but loud noises are distracting and annoying. I also have ‘writing mixes’ on my iPod, and I plug these in and listen while I type when I really need to block out the ambient noise around me. I write fairly quickly, but only after a fairly long period of reading, thinking and scribbling in my research journal, and plotting outlines, so paper writing schedules need to take this all into account. These are the kinds of things it is useful to become very aware of, and work with, rather than against. So, trying to work in a noisy cafe, at lunchtime, and get a paper done in 2 weeks would be madness for me, and I would fail worse. But, if I recognise my personal (writing) needs and limitations, and work with those, I could (and do) more often than not fail better – in other words, get my writing done.

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In terms of writing needs, here I include actual nut and bolts stuff. For example: have you been critiqued (as I have many times) for writing overly long sentences? Do you use too conversational and colloquial a tone, so that your writing sounds flippant at times? Do you under, or over-explain theoretical or technical terminology? Do you overuse certain words and phrases? Do you over, or under-punctuate your writing? If you have received feedback on your writing on these, or similar issues related to style, tone, referencing, and so on that can reveal tendencies or patterns – such as my overly long sentences and occasionally overly chatty or strident tone – you can start to moderate your writing, trimming the longer sentences, making the tone more formal, less strident, more engaging without being chatty, and so on. You can begin to be aware of your writing from your readers’ perspective, and anticipate how they may take in your text, and what needs to be there, or not there, to make it more readerly, and enjoyable to engage with.

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The main thing I want to learn this year, as a writer, is not how to succeed: it is how to keep learning from my failures (and the things I get right), so that I can keep working, keep trying, and fail better, and better each time I write a paper, or a book chapter, or a proposal, or a blogpost even. I think, perhaps, if we change our writing mindset from success versus failure, to failing better each time, versus learning little to nothing about our writerly selves and writing, we could all probably be kinder to ourselves, and become happier, less anxious writers. Am I right on this one? I hope so.

Happy 2018 everyone!

Writing a literature review in your own ‘voice’

Literature review sections of a paper or thesis are a tricky beast, to be sure. In my writing workshops, and face-to-face work with writers and their texts, this section, next to ‘theory and analysis’ presents the greatest challenge. This stems, in large part, from a struggle to marry what other authors are saying with what the writers want to say: to let your own ‘voice’ come through as you base and inform your argument on and with relevant reading and research.

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Firstly, to be clear, when I say ‘voice’ in academic writing, I mean argument. In a piece of academic text, such as a thesis, paper or book chapter, your ‘voice’ is the argument you are making, and that is driving the text forward. It is your contribution to knowledge in your field.

I have written here and here and here about literature reviews, and Pat Thomson and Inger Mewburn have some useful posts that you should check out too. In this post, I want to look at less conceptual and more ‘nuts and bolts’ issues in actually writing a literature review that makes your ‘voice’ audible, and builds one part of the argument of your paper or thesis. Essentially, this section must make an argument for what the GAP is that your research is addressing, and discuss the ways in which the gap HAS been addressed in other studies, yet point out clearly the shortcomings/blindspots/remaining questions that this research leaves open, which is where YOUR STUDY comes in.

I trialled an approach to thinking about this, and revising drafts of literature reviews in a recent writing workshop, and their feedback gave me the courage to try it here. I call it ‘concepts and claims over author names’. Other have written about literature review sections that are a citation dump, or a laundry list –  essentially as long list of which authors made which claims, and who contradicts who and how, and so on. This shows that you have read, but not that you necessarily understand how to use what you have read to build your own argument (in support of the need for your research or study). Thus, you need to move from the ‘who said what’ approach (author names) to which concepts, claims, findings etc are useful to tell the reader about so that they can position and understand the argument you want to make.

Look at this example, kindly lent from a student’s early draft of a proposal:

The goal of ODL is to widen participation and to overcome geographical, social and economic barriers (Kelly & Mills: 2007, p.149) to education. Learners experience isolation due to separation from their institution, lecturers and fellow students (Rumble: 2000, p.1). Although according to Daniel et al. (2009, p.24), ODL has been identified as an effective way of reaching out to large student numbers, Perraton (2000) observes that ODL institutions have high dropout and low pass rates. While there are many factors that contribute to attrition in distance education programmes, at the top of the list according to Stacy, Ludwig, Hardman and Dunlap (2003) is level of interaction and support. Successful distance learners are driven by intrinsic motivation, and quality personalised and affective learning support (Holmberg, 2003). However McKenna (2004) disagrees with this assertion by saying that student success in higher education environment is not a function of motivation but rather of student investment in his/her studies which agrees with Tinto’s (1975, 1993, 1997) assertion that student success is a function of stunt’s commitment to his/her personal goals and that of the institution.   He further says that this investment is both material and psychological. The greater the input to the provision of student support services, the greater the success rate (Sewart, 1993).

There are three main observations I make that I’d like to highlight here:

The first is the positioning of the references (in green) – throughout, they placed after claims (as indeed they should be) but in such a way as to make the effect of the whole paragraph more a list of these claims, than using the ideas advanced by these authors in support of the student’s own claim. So, this is a little ‘laundry list’-like right now. The second, then, is the student’s own claim: what is it? It could be about the goal of ODL institutions, or challenges they face, or student attrition. It is not yet clear. Each paragraph you write needs to have a claim YOU advance, and that selected claims and evidence from reading can be organised around, before you connect this back to the golden thread you are spinning – what is this information helping the reader to understand about YOUR STUDY? The final observation is this, precisely: the connection between this selected information from the readings with the student’s own project. I have attempted a re-write:

Online and Distance Learning (ODL) faces several key, student-related challenges in addressing its central goal. The goal of ODL is to widen participation and to overcome geographical, social and economic barriers to education (Kelly & Mills, 2007). Yet, many learners experience isolation due to separation from their institution, lecturers and fellow students (Rumble, 2000). This sense of isolation may then result in lower levels of persistence, resulting in ODL institutions having high dropout and low pass rates (Daniel et al., 2009; Perraton, 2000). While there are many factors that contribute to attrition in distance education programmes, at the top of the list is students’ level of interaction and support (Stacy, Ludwig, Hardman and Dunlap, 2003). Holmberg (2003), for example, argues that successful distance learners are driven by intrinsic motivation, and personalized, affective learning support. However McKenna (2004) disagrees, saying that student success in a higher education environment is not primarily a function of motivation per se, but rather of a student’s investment in her studies, both material and psychological and the systems created to enable this. Tinto (1975, 1993, 1997) echoes a call for a more systemic, rather than individualised approach to student support, which should be applied in ODL contexts. What all of this means for ODL institutions, is that increasing student retention and success is a complex challenge with numerous variables. These authors, however, seem to be pointing to a need to begin with addressing student support, to decrease alienation and increase students’ ability and willingness to invest in their education more meaningfully.

What I have tried to do here is address my three concerns. In orange, a point, and an explanation of how this information is all pointing back towards the larger study, which is about creating relevant ODL student support structures to increase student success. It may sound mechanical, but try to be conscious of beginning paragraphs with a claim of your creation – based on your reading, but in your own words, and that advances or builds your argument or voice. Not every paragraph will end with an explanatory note, but you should be conscious of drawing the connections between the research you have done and your own argument: as Pat Thomson points out, all reading you include in your thesis must have relevance to, or be positioned in relation to, your argument.

In pink, I have highlighted connecting phrases that position the authors’ claims in relation to one another, yet enable the voice of the writer to come through more clearly, as you get a sense of the writer choosing where to place the claims and what claims to use in making this small part of the argument. Yet, however, while, although – these kinds of ‘transitional’ words are incredible useful in writing, not just to create more readable text, but chiefly to indicate the position of claims made by other writers in relation to one another, and in relation to the argument you want to make.

loads of reading.jpegPerhaps approaching any ‘review’ of the literature from this kind of starting point – concepts and claims over author names (and lists of their points) – will re-orientate you away from ‘reviewing’ the literature, towards using selected literature to make an argument. The point is not to show your readers everything you have read, and what everyone else thinks about your research; the point is to tell us what you think is relevant, and why, using established research to shore up and solidify the credibility and significance of your claims.

 

 

Putting your theory to work in analysis

You now have generated data – in some form, whether primary or secondary – and now you need to code and make sense of it; you need to put it to the task of answering your research question(s). In other words: analysis. This was the toughest part of my own PhD: I had a mountain of data – how to choose the right pieces? What to say about them? How to make sense of them in relation to my research questions?

This is where theory and concepts come into their own in a PhD or MA. You will have some form of theoretical or conceptual framework (for clarity on theory and concepts, how they differ and work together, please watch this short video). Where students often go off track, though, is not using these concepts or theory to do the work in analysis. The theoretical or conceptual framework ends up standing alone, and some form of thematic description of the data is made, with a rather thin version of analysis. In this situation, it may be difficult to offer a credible answer to your research question.

Analysis is, in essence, an act of sense-making. It requires you to move beyond a common sense, everyday understanding of the world, and your data – the level of the descriptive – to a theorised, non-common sense understanding – the level of the analytical (and critical). Analysis means connecting the specific (your study and its data) with the general (a phenomenon, theory, concept, way of looking at the world) that can help to explain how the specific fits in with, or challenges, or exemplifies the general. If you do not make this move, all you may end up with is a set of data that describe a tiny piece of the world, but with little or no relevance to anyone else’s research except perhaps the few other people researching the same thing you are.

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So, how might you ‘do’ analysis?

Imagine you are doing a study on the role of reflective learning in building students’ capacity to critique and create professional knowledge that encourages ongoing learning and problem-solving. ‘Reflection’, or ‘reflective practice’ would be a key concept, as would ‘professional knowledge’, ‘problem-solving’, and ‘learning’. These have generalised, or conceptual meanings that could apply in a range of ways, depending of the parameters and questions of a specific study. Thus, they can do analytical work, helping you to theorise as you answer your research questions.

Then imagine your data set is assessment tasks completed by students in social work and accounting, as two professional disciplines which require adaptive, ongoing learning and problem-solving. You now need a way of employing your key concepts in analysis. You could look at the intentions of the task questions – how they do, or do not, explicitly or actively enable or encourage problem-solving and reflective thinking and learning, and then look at students’ responses and see the extent to which the desired forms of learning are visible or not. This would yield useful findings to feed back to these disciplines in using assessment more effectively.

To reach theorised findings that go beyond describing what the tasks and the student writing said, and conjecture about what the tasks and written responses mean in relation to your study’s understanding of professional knowledge, learning, problem-solving and reflection, you need to start with questions.

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For example: these tasks seem to be using direction words such as ‘name’, ‘list’, ‘describe’, ‘mention’, which require mainly memorising, or learning the notes in a rote manner. What kind of learning would this encourage? What impact would this have on students’ ability to move on to more analytical tasks? Is there a progression from ‘memorisation’ towards ‘problem-solving’ or using knowledge to reflect on and learn from case studies etc? What kind of progression is there? Is it sensible, or not, and how could this affect students learning? And so on.

You could then present the data: e.g., this is the task, and this is when students work on this task in the semester or progression of the course, and this is the task that follows (show us what these look like by copying them out, or including photographs). This part of the analysis is quite descriptive. But then you pose and answer relevant questions guided by your overall research objectives: if these two disciplines – social work and accounting – require professional learning and knowledge that is built through reflection, and the capacity to USE rather than just KNOW the knowledge in the field so that professional can adapt, continue learning, and solve complex problems, what kinds of assessment tasks are needed in higher education? Do the tasks students are doing in the courses I am studying here do these kinds of tasks? If yes, how are they working to build the rights kinds of knowledge, skills and aptitudes? If no, what might be the outcome for these students when they graduate and move into the professions? You then have to use the concepts you have pulled together to create a theorised understanding of professional reflective learning to pose credible answers, that are substantiated with your data (as evidence). This is the act of analysis.

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In both qualitative and quantitative studies, the theory or concepts you choose, and the data you generate, are informed by your research aims and objectives. And in both kinds of studies, analysis requires moving beyond description to say something useful about what your data means in relation to the general phenomenon you are connecting with, and that informs your theorisation (student learning, climate change, democratic governance, etc). Thus, you need to work – iteratively and in incremental stages – to bring your theory to your data, to make sense of the data in relation to the theory so that your study can make a contribution that speaks both to those within your research space, and those beyond it who can draw useful conclusions and lessons even if their data come from somewhere else.

 

On sexism in academia

When I started this blog in 2013, my primary audience was working women in academia, balancing work, PhD study and the demands of family life. I am so honoured to have a  wider readership now, and in so many different countries and academic spaces, but as a woman in academia, a mum and wife, a researcher, and a feminist, one of my chief concerns is still helping women, like me broadly speaking, to navigate at least some aspects of their personal, professional and PhD lives as they traverse these spaces.

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I have been thinking a great deal lately about sexism in academia, and all the big and small ways it makes itself felt. I had an encounter, recently, where a senior colleague who works at the university at which my husband still works (and where I used to work) asked me to apply for a post advertised in his faculty. But, rather than approach me (and he does know me well enough to do that), he sent me a message via my husband to tell me about it. My husband replied that it would be better to approach me directly, but did come home and tell me about it. Not only was this, for me, unprofessional; it was sexist. I was pretty angry about it.

I would not, I am very sure, have been given a message to pass on to my husband, unless it was to ‘say hello’ or ‘give regards’. Before you think I’m being overly sensitive, this is underscored by several other messages male colleagues have asked my husband to pass on to me over the years, including when I still worked at the university. And a former line manager meeting me for the first time, in a job interview, with the greeting ‘So you’re the other half of [my husband’s name]’. No, dude. I’m the whole me. And that same line manager dressing me down in front of peers and colleagues in a high level meeting for not being at my desk when he stopped by the day before, because I was on family leave taking care of a sick child and trying to work from home. And then proceeding to tell us all about a male professor who works 7am to 11pm, 6 days a week, and publishes prolifically, and is the epitome of academic success and worth (and has no children, partner, ageing parents, pets … or life, it seems). Ho hum. Taken together, all of these events can have the effect of making you feel smaller, less self-confident and less able to take up the same amount of space as your male colleagues can.

So, sexism is alive and well in my lived experiences of academia, and in those of many other women around the world. A recent piece in The Conversation reported on research that shows that women get less funding than men in the biomedical sciences, and tend to apply for smaller grants; a further piece in University World News reports that women are under-represented in senior academic positions across European universities, and elsewhere, such as in South Africa, the same is certainly true. Most of the research I have read speaks a great deal about how to change all of this; far fewer stories celebrate significant changes happening, although we are taking steps forward, particularly in the social sciences.

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What interests me, personally, is what role I can play in celebrating my own and other women’s achievements in academic spaces, and in amplifying women’s voices, and research. What can any of us do? Here are a few of my initial thoughts:

  1. Amplify one another’s voices: Have you ever been in a meeting where 3 women will make the same basic point and the male chairperson will only really hear the point when a male colleague echoes it? I have. A lot of women I know have. So, one thing we can do practically is to amplify one another’s voices, using a fantastic tool women staffers working in the White House during Obama’s presidency put into practice: amplification. Essentially, how it works is that if one woman makes a point that is not heard or noted, another woman in the meeting will repeat it, giving her colleague the credit for suggesting it. If it is still not heard, a third woman will speak up, crediting the first two, and so on until the people in the meeting have no choice but to hear the point, and credit the woman who made it.
  2. Stop being so bloody modest: The male researchers and academics I know have no problem talking up their research, and promoting their achievements: grants won, books published, papers cited many times for being amazing, etc. No problem. But, and I am pretty sure this is not just me, I am less comfortable doing this. Women are taught to be modest, and not to be too brash, or self-congratulatory or in-your-face – it’s unladylike and makes other people [men, mainly] uncomfortable. The trouble with this learned behaviour, though, is that many women can also become squirmy when other women ‘brag’ on social media, or in person, about their papers published, or grants won or laudable achievements. We have to stop this, and start not only being less modest about our own achievements, but also add this to the amplification. ‘Did you hear about J’s grant – her stem cell research is really groundbreaking!’ Have you read C’s paper on a critical history of women resistance fighters in Africa? It’s really fantastic! Your students should read it too.’ And so on. We need to be our own, and each other’s, cheerleaders.
  3. Create and sustain supportive spaces: I am always encouraged, inspired and energised by meeting with other women colleagues and peers, spending time talking about our research, our lives, our writing and so on. I feel surrounded by people like me in the sense that they get where I am coming from, and what I struggle with, often without me even needing to put it all into words. We so often, in academia, feel alone. We feel we are the only ones not coping with PhD and home and work, or not writing papers, or not doing Impressive Research, or not winning grants, or not being Good Enough. We are SO not alone, and reminding ourselves of this, and learning from one another as we support and cheer on one another, is a really good idea. We need to be creating and sustaining supportive spaces and cultures in academia – formal and informal – so that we can give ourselves and one another this emotional and intellectual sustenance and support.

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It is  galling that we still have to read so many stories of women in academia struggling to reach the seniority of their male counterparts, struggling to balance the demands of childcare with those of research, teaching and administration – often without sufficient support from their university – and struggling to make their voices heard above the still-male-dominated din. But, we do, because sexism in academia (and in society) is alive and well. But, it can be fought – it is being fought, and gains are being made. To keep the momentum moving forward we  can all be doing our part where possible, amplifying, listening to, supporting, and learning from one another. We’re worth it.