Iterativity in postgraduate writing: making peace with the mess

Lovely husband and I were talking recently about a workshop we both attended on postgraduate study, and our respective conversations with our own postgraduate students about what postgraduate study involves them in, specifically the over-and-over again nature of the reading, writing and thinking. Iterativity, we concluded, is the name of the game at this level, and in post-doctoral academic research; yet, it is an aspect of working at this level that produces much frustration, self-doubt and struggle.

Ernest Hemingway famously said: ‘The first draft of anything is shit’. He was, certainly in my experience, right. If you look up writing advice on Pinterest, you will find many soundbites to inspire you; for example: ‘First drafts  don’t have to be perfect. They just have to be written’, ‘A crappy first draft is worth more than a non-existent one’, and writing first drafts as being like ‘shoveling sand into a box so that later [you] can build sandcastles’.  There is truth in all of these inspirational tips: first drafts are messy things: often incoherent in parts, full of both useful and useless information, lacking a proper focus. But, they are where we start any writing, and the key word here is ‘start’: writing is a non-linear, often chaotic, process, where we learn as we write, and our thinking develops with each round of feedback and revision.

This ‘logic of discovery’ is at odds, though, with the ‘logic of dissemination’ that we display in our finished thesis: the iterative process that produces the thesis is hidden from the view of the reader, as they are presented with our neat, polished, coherent argument. Many postgraduate students start their thesis process believing that these two logics are the same: that you start with Chapter 1, and the process unfolds neatly and logically from there. They become frustrated, then, when this turns out to be a lie:  when the truth is multiple drafts and mistakes, time spent writing paragraphs or pages of writing that have to be deleted when they are no longer relevant, and sometimes unexpected changes to your research questions, theory or methodology as the project evolves. This frustration can breed self-doubt if not carefully managed through supervision: many students believe that the more drafts you have to write, the worse you are as a writer; so many students I have met erroneously believe that the best writers don’t write that many drafts, and don’t make that many mistakes or revisions.

The opposite is the truth. The more successful writers, and postgraduate students, have learned to embrace the chaos and the frustration; they have learned to manage a balance between having a clear research plan and letting that process evolve so that they can still be surprised by what they find, or learn, as they write and work the data. This is a hard thing to do, live in a space where you know probably less than you don’t know, and where you have to be okay with the not-knowing, and move willingly between knowing and not-knowing over and over as your research moves forwards. This requires not just mental fortitude, but emotional resilience.

Researching and writing a thesis feels, at times, as if you are on a many-roaded route, trying to keep your eye on the GPS when it’s giving you more than one possible route and asking you to choose the best one to get you to your destination within minimal traffic and in good time. You may choose one route, and then find halfway you’ve made an error in judgement, and then choose to turnoff, and take a back road back to the main route you were on. There may be unexpected detours that the GPS didn’t know about and so couldn’t warn you of. You may feel like you are going around in circles at some points, and in a lovely, free-flowing straight line at others. A research degree, especially a PhD, represents a long road, with several possible routes to your destination. And it’s not a straight line. You may have to re-drive parts of the route at times, or try out different parts of the route than you expected to. But, if you try to trust the process, and make peace with taking your time and living with a bit of mess and non-linear chaos, you will hopefully get to your destination in one piece, and with a really good understanding of the area you’ve been driving around and around.

In research terms, this means getting more comfortable with the iterative nature of research, writing, and thinking. You cannot expect to write a chapter once, and be done. And you can’t expect to read something once and fully understand it, especially if it’s pivotal to your project, like theory. Writing multiple drafts, making mistakes, including knowledge and reading you don’t need along with that which you do, and making revisions that improve your writing, further your thinking and push your research forward is part and parcel of valuable, challenging postgraduate study that makes you a more capable researcher. Doing worthwhile research that pushes your field forward will require you to have a really firm understanding of that field, and the place your research can occupy within it. This means getting a bit lost sometimes, but having the means (through supervisors, peers, reading) to find your way onto your route again.

Terry Pratchett’s soundbite on first drafts is my favourite: ‘The first draft is just you telling yourself the story’. If you see your thesis as a story, evolving as the characters and plot take shape, and as the twists and turns reveal themselves through working with theory, methodology, data and analysis, it can be easier to embrace that uncertainty, and iterative rounds of writing, feedback, revision, and rewriting that push your research, and you as a researcher, forward. You start by telling yourself, and move to telling your supervisors, examiners and finally your wider audience – and you make a contribution that is valued and relevant. It won’t happen in a nice, linear way, but the depth of knowledge you gain, of your field and the research process, will be worth all the ‘driving’ in the end.

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

 

From chaos to coherence: logic, linearity and lies in thesis construction

I have written before on this blog about how a doctorate is assembled in chunks and pieces, and comes to together slowly, and (in my case) in fits and starts. It is not a linear, clean, neat process – generally the ideas and brainwaves ebb and flow, and we take two steps forward, three back and five sideways as we muddle through the complexities of managing a research project as daunting and significant as a doctorate is. It is chaos – sometimes organised and manageable, sometimes not. It’s kind of thrilling, a lot terrifying, and pretty exhausting.

Image from userexperience.co.nz

Image from userexperience.co.nz

It would be nice, wouldn’t it, if we could reflect some or much of that chaos and two-side-stepping in the final thesis? It would certainly, as a friend of mine suggested to me this week, feel more honest in terms of reflecting the process of messy discovery and diversions and muddling-through that is the PhD process (for many scholars, anyway). As you write your thesis in these chunks and pieces, you are probably writing in the present or future tense, for example. I will be doing this, and I hope I might find that… . But when you write the introduction (often right at the end, after the conclusion, when you’ve finally pinned down what your thesis is about) you write in the past tense – ‘This is what I thought, so this is what I did, and this is what my conclusions will point to… . It is, as my friend stated quite plainly, all lies.

Researching and writing a doctorate is messy, but presenting and crafting a final thesis draft for examiners cannot be; the final product of all your messy, meandering labours has to be linear, logical, coherent and all in the past tense. Your examiners and readers are coming to what you have written after the fact, not as it is happening inside your own head, and they don’t really need to see all the mess. What you have to show them is a neat, linear story that is coherent and sensible, and takes them carefully through each step of your research. Basically you are following (especially in the social sciences) a fairly standard plotline, even if the form your story takes varies across disciplines, faculties and higher education systems.

Once upon a time people thought that… But I thought that maybe… So what I did was… and what I found was… and this will change the way we think about*… .

(Fill in the … with a few sentences describing your project – very handy tool for plotting out a paper or longer writing project, and for crafting an abstract)

The way you work that story out will vary hugely depending on may factors, like the quality of the supervision you receive, your own confidence as a researcher, time and resources, what research has already been published that you can access, and so on. As you discover, for example, what the field is that you are scoping in your literature review, you may read yourself around in circles, working out who the chiefs and tribespeople are, and what they are saying to one another and how it all relates to your thesis. But, when you write this section, you need not to be thinking about this chaos; you need to be thinking about how you are helping your readers understand what they need to know in order to believe that your research questions are plausible and valid, so that they will see exactly why your research does fill a gap and is necessary and important. You write it with this logic of demonstration in mind, rather than with the logic of discovery you employed when reading, selecting, and situating all that literature in relation to your own research questions.

But, as my friend pointed out rather amusingly, this feels like lies – this linear, coherent, polished narrative you craft, create, edit and mangle into being for your readers feels very far from the messy, meandering chaos that lurks behind the scenes of many PhDs – and some take longer to find their way to that final product than others. Creating coherence out of the chaos is a kind of conceit, but it is a necessary one.

Writing and the thinking behind it can be a bit messy and mad, but reading really can’t be because we read what others have written to help us sharpen, expand, clarify and prompt our own thinking (and often writing, too). The writing we produce and send out into the world for readers to engage with must be as clear and coherent as possible, so that the contributions we are making to scholarship in our respective fields will not be lost amongst the chaos. Our ideas (and we must believe this) are valuable, and they need to be read, debated, hopefully agreed with.

PhD story

Click image to enlarge

Ultimately, a linear, coherent and clean story created out of a messy research process can feel like a kind of lie, but it is a necessary lie given the point of all of that research: to share our ideas and to make a valued contribution to the scholarship in our fields of study.

*I learned this in a writing workshop with Prof Lucia Thesen, from the University of Cape Town, in 2011.

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.

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.