To keep, to break or to make the ‘rules’… that is a question

What are the ‘rules’ of dissertation writing? They almost certainly differ between fields. In the visual arts, for example, a dissertation would almost certainly include text as well as images, textiles, design elements of a certain shape and form. In Mathematics, a dissertation would have to include mathematical ‘language’ and forms as well as more conventional text, as arguments are made in equations as well as in other forms of writing. In the social sciences in general the ‘rules’ seem to be fairly general. But it seems broadly agreed that there should be around 80-100,000 words or text, and that there must be an introduction, a literature review, a methodology and methods chapter, findings and discussion of these, and a conclusion that could include recommendations. These were certainly the ‘rules’ as I understood them when I started out with my own PhD process. By rules, I mean ‘the agreed upon (usually quite tacit) format, style and content of a dissertation within a particular field or discipline’.

A big question for me, throughout my own doctoral journey, was about these rules, and whether I was breaking them, keeping them or making new ones as I went. There are risks associated with breaking rules – you could be misunderstood, or make your argument more convoluted and confusing through trying to create a new way of producing a dissertation, or find yourself having to do many corrections. But, I think there are also risks associated with keeping a set of rules, especially if you don’t have a clear understanding of what the rules are and why they are there. In this case you could end up producing a thesis that conforms but underneath the surface may be ‘thin’ or unsatisfying, and this lack of understanding of what you are writing and why could make it harder for you to move successfully into a research and writing career post-PhD. Further, making new rules is tough, and doesn’t often happen (not for scholars just starting out anyway). You may make small little dents in a structure you disagree with or think could be improved, but it’ll take a number of you to really start making people question whether a specific rule, process or outcome perhaps needs to be changed or updated.

I feel like I bent, rather than broke, some of the rules of dissertation writing, and the experience was mostly an anxious one, even though the creativity it allowed me to bring to my writing was exciting, and satisfying. I think visually, and my research journal is full of pictures and scribbles as well as more conventional forms of text. I like metaphors, and I use these a lot in my writing and my teaching. I had a metaphor for the argument I was making, and I was using this to think through my ‘theory chapter’, until a friend, Carol, listened to my idea and suggested that it might be a useful metaphor for the whole dissertation. The metaphor was that of an archaeological dig, and it structured the way I organised my chapters, the headings I gave to them, and what I included in them. I really loved it, but I worried that it was too creative for a PhD in Education, and that it would somehow detract from the seriousness of my argument, or be seen as flippant by my examiners. I think this is one of the more common fears, perhaps, about using a visual and creative tool like metaphor in a field that is not conventionally visual, like the fine or creative arts. In the end, none of my examiners commented on it (which was disappointing) so I needn’t have worried so much. But I still think what I did was important, for me, even if it was not noted by the people who were ultimately responsible for passing or failing my work.

We write, when we do, for others – for our readers and colleagues – but more importantly, we write for ourselves, for our own personal, emotional and intellectual growth and edification. I think when you’re doing a PhD and you’re focused so much on what your supervisor/s think and what your examiners will think and what parts you’ll be able to publish in journals and what the wider academic community in your field will think, we forget to ask ourselves what we think about what we are writing. The questions about making, breaking (bending) or keeping within the rules becomes a question then about balance – to what extent do we consider our own desires and aims as creators of our own work, and how to we balance these with what we are asked to produce for our external audience? What kinds of risks do we accept and grapple with when we choose to bend and break generally accepted rules of thesis or article writing? What if what we are doing feeds our own souls, but falls on deaf ears in terms of examiners and peer reviewers? Is that too much of a risk, and do we then tone down our creativity in order to create something more conventional and less risky? For me, this is a risk: I’ll be able to get my article published (please editors) but I may not be really happy with what I have put out these connected with my name.

Perhaps we need to make these kinds of conversations a more recognised and conscious part of PhD supervision, and academic writing for publication. Why do the ‘rules’ as we tend to know them exist and who do they serve? Can they be bent, broken and remade? Who carries the risks here, and what indeed are these risks? I don’t yet have any clear answers**, but I think these are important questions to be asking, talking about, and finding answers to as scholarly communities of practice and as PhD students and supervisors.

 

**A new edited collection takes on the notion of risk in doctoral writing from a range of perspectives: Thesen, L. and Cooper, L. 2013. Risk in Academic Writing: Postgraduate Students, Their Teachers and the Making of Knowledge. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

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