writing centred supervision

I’ve been thinking recently about my own supervision practices, as well as the literatures on supervision. You’d think I’d have this sorted eh, given how much I write about writing. But there’s always lots of room for reflection, learning and change no matter how much you do something. 

I’m wondering what year one PhD tutorials would look like if I focused as much on academic writing as I do on the particular topic that is being researched. What if I balanced process and content right at the get go? Academic writing at the very start.

When doctoral researchers start their course of study most supervisors, including me, concentrate on literature work. This is so the doctoral researcher can hone their research question and then produce a workable research design – and all in a timely fashion. Most of us of course ask that this starting-off work be produced in and through writing.

However, at the outset, we tend to assume that the doctoral researcher knows how to write, and it’s not until they show that they don’t that we intervene. But what if we didn’t hide academic writing away as a secondary conversation topic? What if we supervisors assumed at the start that we were as much responsible for supporting academic writing as supporting the development of the topic? What if we started from the view that, rather than providing remedial support to those who cant ‘do it’ properly, our job was actually to provide structured support for the learning of academic writing?  What if our job was/is to help people move from writing essays and assignments to becoming and being academic writers capable of being published in a range of outlets, including good journals? What if we also includedwriting for readers outside the academy? What would we do differently? 

If supervisors and grad schools started from a highly writing-focused position, they certainly wouldn’t assume that doctoral writers already know the conventions and genres that are open to them. Noone would assume that they need to start writing draft chapters right at the start. They wouldn’t assume that all doctoral researchers can write in isolation, shut away from one another, alone in the quiet of their own little cubicles.  They wouldn’t assume that all doctoral researchers already have a workable set of strategies that they can use to start writing and keep writing. They’d not assume that all we have to do is to point out errors in texts and all that the doctoral researcher has to do is fix it … in other words assume that people new to this kind of academic writing will automatically not only understand why what they’ve done is a problem,  but also know what they need to do instead, and why.

So what might we do differently?  Well, what might I do differently? Well we/I might, right at the very first supervision begin to discuss the conventions of writing in the discipline, and the genres of writing that are available to the doctoral researcher. We/I might ask doctoral researchers to read for academic writing, as well as for substantive content. We/I might focus discussion on the ways in which research problems/topics are introduced, how arguments are staged and supported, how debates are presented and evaluated, how researchers appear in the text. We/I could look for the ways in which different kinds of structures are used within genres, the kinds of meta-commentary that is used, the ways in which writers create a sense of their own persona within a text. We might discuss alternative writing formats well before it becomes clear that these might be helpful for their particular research project, rather than wait for the doctoral researcher to introduce the subject.

Now I do do quite a lot of this already, and I often do it around actual pieces of writing for conferences and the like, but I’m sure I could address academic writing in a more systematic way in supervision, and I could probably do it earlier. So I’m building myself a little syllabus right now, and I think I might try this start-early approach out this year.

Posted in academic writing, supervision, supervisor | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

a good notebook

It’s not just new pens that I covet. I really like a good notebook too.

Like a lot of people I use notebooks in meetings. And I make to-do lists, always lots of to-dos. But I sometimes make meeting notes and lists digitally, especially if I want to circulate them to other people. However, I haven’t given up the meeting notebook.

But it’s the research project notebook that I like most. For me, the notebook signifies research. No matter how many other gadgets I drag around – cameras, digital voice recorders, ipads, phones, laptops – the trusted notebook is still the research wardrobe essential. Have notebook, am dressed for any research occasion. You see, the notebook is the tool de jour of the ethnographer; most of us wouldn’t seen in public without one. The notebook is the LBD of the observant participant world (s).

There’s nothing quite like starting off a new research project in a new notebook. I love it. It always makes the project feel ‘real’. In front of my eyes the blank pages just waiting to be filled up with – well – things I don’t yet know about, things yet to occur, things I imagine might happen, and things that I couldn’t dream of. The notebook is a kind of material representation of all of these things yet to come.

Everybody has their own notebook type. I used to be quite fond of Moleskines with their super smooth paper and their super smooth ersatz leather covers. But they all looked the same. After completing a few years’ worth of projects and a few years’ worth of notebooks it took a lot of ineffectual searching and swearing and flicking through book after black-covered book to dig out the particular one that contained the field notes I was after. I did buy a red-covered one at one stage (and there are now other colours) – but when I was really seriously using them, the Moleskine options were largely black, black and black.

precarious pile of some (not all) used and new notebooks in my home office

precarious pile of used and new notebooks in my home office

I’ve switched my notebook allegiance now to a brand that has many different kinds of covers. Decomposition Books – they have idiosyncratic drawings inside and outside and they come in a range of colours. The paper is not so smooth. But it’s recycled, so there is a small, virtuous glow about not using up a new tree each time a new project starts. (Yes I know it takes a lot of energy to recycle paper, but I’ll be onto the first low-energy recycled notebook I can find, as long as I can differentiate the projects by different coloured or designed front covers.)

Occasionally people give me notebooks as presents. I do feel obliged to use them. I’ve had four different gifted notebooks for the four different summer schools that I’ve recently attended/been researching and I now find the mismatched set of them less than aesthetically pleasing. Different sizes. Odd shapes. I much prefer some regularity. I can however find which one I want straight away.

I don’t like to be caught a notebook short either. So I have a little stack of Decomposition Notebooks in reserve. I won’t ever be found wanting something to write on.

I suspect that I got this habit of stockpiling notebooks from my father who used to bring home stationery from work. Very naughty of him. But still, he’s not going to get done for it now if I tell the world. He used to bring home pencils and biros too, but they were never quite as desirable in my eyes as the blue-covered government-issue memo book.(And while I’m confessing his sins there was also loo paper – for a long time I thought everyone had loo paper with South Australian Government printed on it because my primary school had this too.)

I’m well and truly over the memo book now. A memo book isn’t really good for writing anything but shopping lists. While I like a good list, I generally have more to write than is easily accommodated by a memo-sized book. I prefer a good A4 myself. And that’s the other thing that Decomposition Books have over Moleskines – they’re bigger. They take longer to fill up. And they really aren’t any more difficult to carry around.

I’m just about to start three new research projects and I’ve already got the notebooks out and labeled. There are however a couple more speculative projects in the pipeline, and this presents a problem – do I start a new notebook for the preliminary meetings and risk it not ever being filled up if the project falls through? Or do I write early notes on paper knowing that I’ll then have to stick them in a new notebook if the project happens…

Decisions, decisions. Always with the notebook some little decision still to be made.

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on the perils of self-citation

The other day I got a book in the mail. Not that unusual. This was one that I’d written a chapter in and it was my complimentary copy. Before I stuck it on the shelf I thought I’d take a bit of a look at the contents. What had other people written? I flicked through and, as happens when you’re just scanning bits and pieces, one end-of-chapter set of references leapt out at me.

I’m not going to name the book, its editors or indeed its publisher – although I really would like to name and shame the author of the particular end-of-chapter references that struck me. Why? Well, every single text cited was by the chapter author. All of them. Not one other person was cited. Not one. Just the author.

What can we conclude from this? That the author is the only person that has addressed this particular issue? Not the case. So it must be that either:
(1) the author doesn’t know what anyone else has written on the topic or
(2) they don’t rate what anyone else has done or
(3) they are trying to up their own citations.

Any of these three options look like pretty miserable scholarly practice.

I, me, myself… no-one else has anything worth saying about this topic but me. The scholarly circle of me. Standing on the shoulders of giants? I am the giant, O tiny ones. The rest of you are so insignificant I cannot even see you, let alone read you… Cogito ego sum.

Now, I’m not saying that an academic writer shouldn’t cite their own stuff. We all do, and it’s usually sensible to do so. In the case in point, all of the contributors had been asked to write for the book on the basis of having an international track record in the field. So all of us, bar this one person – I then checked all the other ends of chapters – had cited something of our own. But we hadn’t made out we were solo players, disconnected from everyone else, soliloquising on the scholarly stage. No, the rest of us had put our work in conversation with the field.

Many, but identical. Dollies alive and well at U Nottingham.

Many, but identical. Dolly the Sheeps alive – and thankfully well – in Nottinghamshire.

You do often need to show that what you’re writing about now is part of your ongoing agenda – self-citation demonstrates that you’ve built up, over several texts and projects, a set of understandings, arguments and results. No matter who you are, you don’t have to pretend that you’re a complete novice in an area, unless you actually are. Some self-citation is generally expected.

But there’s a line between this and simply blowing your own trumpet rather immodestly. And it’s not that fine a line between modesty and excess.

It’s not uncommon to see people get the balance a bit wrong. For instance, a relatively new researcher might offer themselves as a solo citation in relation to rather well-trodden territory, rather than co-locating themselves with key texts and contributions. That’s not fatal and a referee will usually pick this up.

There always is a ‘just right’ balance between inappropriate self-centred-ness and situating yourself and your work in the field. The trouble is that the line-not-to-cross is often not explicit. And it varies between disciplines – so you do need to suss it out. And see this recent THE article, on someone alleged to have overstepped the self-citation bounds, suggesting that more people are now looking to see what the balance actually is. Then check out Ken Hyland’s paper on the difficulties of judging perfectly reasonable self-citing practices by conventional metric means. You might also want to keep track of the debates about whether self-citations should ‘count’.

In the case of the particular chapter that offended me, it wasn’t too hard to see that the writer just got it really wrong. So wrong. Off over on the far-side of the me-us continuum. Almost beyond comprehension.

I notice that the urban dictionary describes this kind of me, me, me behaviour as pathological – an ego-maniac, it suggests, is someone whose ego exceeds both their intelligence and their capacity to see beyond their own personal interests. The dictionary kindly suggests some related terms – jackass, loser and douchebag. It’s worth remembering those when considering how much to self-cite.

I’ll certainly have the words jackass, loser and douchebag in my mind when I next bump into the self-referencer at a conference. And I’m sure I won’t be the only writer in the book who noticed the bibliographic display of vanity and conceit.

Road sign: Ahead. Academic narcissus about to topple into deep pool of peer scorn.

Note: The idea for writing on this topic came from a twitter conversation with @msfloraposte. Coincidentally, the book with the offending chapter arrived the next day.

And a further coincidence – the day after this post comes a report about research suggesting men self-cite more than women.

Posted in academic writing, conversation, self-citation | Tagged , | 4 Comments

working with literatures #phdknowhow

It’s the time of year when many doctoral researchers are either just starting their PhDs, or starting to write their texts. Here are some things to remember when approaching the task of working with literatures.

Rather than literature work being a technical matter – simply reading a lot, summarizing and grouping books and articles and then writing a chapter as a series of thematised lists –it is more helpful to think that:

(1) The literature is not a monolith, it is diverse/plural.
Many researchers find that, in order to position, legitimate and connect their work to that of others, they need to use a range of texts – policy documents, professional reading, blogs, websites and articles from the popular press as well as books and journal articles that are ‘scholarly’. In some instances, the range may even include novels, films and cartoons. And the texts may well straddle a number of different fields. It is thus often appropriate to talk about the literatures – plural – rather than imply that there is a single homogenous corpus.

(2) The literatures comprise a field or fields of knowledge production.
The purpose of reading the literatures is to ascertain what is known about a
particular topic. We read to see the categories that are used by others to sort, sift, foreground and background the field. We look to see what previous work has been mobilized and what has been ignored. We evaluate the methods used to generate the data and the argument; we might ask, for example, who are the research participants – how many, when, where and how were they involved? We also look to see what view of knowledge underpins each text. Taken together, these and similar questions allow us to compare and contrast, and to develop a view of the ‘clumps’ of literatures which share common characteristics or approaches.

(3) The task is not to review.
While it is necessary to summarize texts and to make lists of results and arguments, this is only a first step in constructing what is commonly called ‘the literature review’ . The notion of review can be unhelpful because it implies that what is required is to produce a list of summarized texts. This summarizing often results in the ‘ he said, she said’ laundry list formula, where each sentence begins with the name of the researcher(s). Laundry list writing generally lacks a point of view and a clear evaluative stance. The listing technique may be inclusive, but it can – and usually does – obscure the ideas being discussed because they remain so disconnected.

(4) The task is to map the field.
The job of engaging with the literatures is to locate the place for the research and for the researcher to make clear which conversation(s) their research is to join. The task is to clarify and make explicit the contribution that the research will make and its relationships with prior scholarship.
This sentence skeleton – a paragraph for the introduction to a literature chapter – signposts a mapping approach.

This chapter examines what is already known about …..
I look first at why…… …… according to the literatures, and I detail the ……… that has resulted from this work. I note the minimal focus on …… relative to other research on…… and also the limited work which foregrounds the ……… It is this gap to which I aim to contribute.

Filling these gaps potentially identifies the topic of the research and announces its intention to address patterns and types of knowledge and their sources. In doing so, a space is created to situate the research.

See also these posts:
Making a summary

Recount, summary and argument

Too much naming not enough framing

A questions approach to the literature

Beware the list

Love the uncertainty

The collective and inner library

Scan reading, Taking notes, Patterns and groups

Posted in laundry, list, literature mapping, literature review, literature themes, PhD | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

writing and routine

This week I’m feeling particularly impressed by the Nottingham novelist, the late Stanley Middleton. When I mention his name outside of the city, people generally say” Who?”

A quick google of “Stanley Middleton” produces his obituary as well as several pieces which confirm that he is now one of those British writers who seems to have sunk into relative obscurity, despite a re-release of several of his books. Yet he was jointly awarded the Booker Prize in 1974, with Nadine Gordimer, for the novel  “Holiday”. He was prolific too. Middleton wrote 44 books his lifetime, the last published only a year before his death in 2009; he was 90.


But it’s not his output that impresses me today. No, it’s his routine. For most of his life, Middleton was a full-time teacher at a local Nottingham high school. Apparently he would teach all day, go for a walk, do his preparation and marking – and then write.

This was his day. Every day. Well, every week day. Teach, walk, mark, write. Teach, walk, mark, write.


I can remember coming home from a day’s work at school. I was generally shattered. Worn out. I couldn’t think about anything. I was only up to eating, a bit of television, a bit of reading and then bed. I got up in the morning to do whatever I had to do for the day ahead. I just can’t imagine switching from teaching all day to writing at night – both things demand full concentration.

But then, we do all have our own routines. Celia Blue Johnson has written an entire book about writers’ routines (it’s called Odd Typewriters), and she’s certainly collected some odd ones.

According to Johnson, James Joyce often wrote in crayon on pieces of cardboard. Schiller wrote at night and dipped his feet in a tub of cold water to stay awake. Collette de-flea-ed her dog each morning before starting to write. Jack London wrote a thousand words a day, every day, all of his writing life. Voltaire drank up to 40 cups of coffee a day. When living on Guernsey, Victor Hugo used to write from early in the morning, eat lunch and then run and swim naked in the sea. Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road on a long scroll, rather than on separate pages.

By contrast with these eccentricities, Middleton’s routine of post-teaching novel-writing looks eminently sensible.

Yet the key point of course is that these are routines. The writers in Odd Typewriters, all of them productive and published, found a way to write that suited them. They were habituated to writing at particular times, using particular writing equipment, with particular accompaniments. They had worked out their own idiosyncratic self-managing processes.

it is this irregular regularity that academic writers need to achieve too. Sometimes I think that our community is too fond of telling each other the best way to write – do this, do that – and I wonder if there is a tendency sometimes to read people’s sharing of their academic writing practices as if they were prescriptions. It’s clearly helpful to know what other people do, and to hear about different #acwri strategies – you can then try them out for yourself to see if they work for you. However, you ought not to feel bad if they don’t.  And just because it doesn’t work for you doesn’t make it wrong.

What I think we can say with some certainty is that it’s the regularity of writing which seems to count. It’s the routines that you set up which will make you productive.

So I’m certainly not about to start copying Stanley Middleton’s routine. I admire it, sure. But I like my own habituated early morning writing, and it works for me. I am, however, steadily reading my way through Middleton’s novels.

Posted in academic writing, Stanley Middleton, writing routine | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

it’s writing time

If you are a student of English literature then you will be very familiar with the paratext and the hypotext. A hypotext is an early text that serves as a source for a later one. Homer’s Odyssey was the hypotext for the film “O Brother where art thou?” A paratext by contrast includes book blurbs, dedications, endnotes and footnotes, prefaces and forewords – the paratext is something that frames and thus shapes the way in which the reader encounters the main text.

Barbara and I have just had to write a paratext, the blurb that goes on the back cover of our book. We’ve done it, but not without a lot of groaning and sighing on my part.

gah. a paratext.

ugh. a paratext.of our book, now in press. the same blurb often goes in catalogues and on the website. so it’s an important few paragraphs which will probably help to sell the book. well that’s the theory.

Writing this kind of thing brings out the reluctant writer in me. While I’m happy to state plainly what’s in the book, I really don’t want to have to sell it by saying how “new, novel outstanding, exemplary, exciting indispensable” and so on it is. But I know it has to be done.

The only way I can do this kind of writing is by doing it fast and not thinking too much about it. Writing something vaguely distasteful requires rapid response. Speed works as a kind of embarrassment bypass. If I think about the text too much, then I won’t write anything at all. I’ll just stall.

This “icky” writing is such a contrast to the other writing I’m doing at the moment. I’ve managed to carve out an entire month over summer in order to put together a methods book. I’m writing this one with my colleague Chris Hall and I’ve taken on the job of doing a first draft.

the books are out

the books are out. i arrange and rearrange them depending what chapter Im working on

As with my other books, I’m not approaching this one cold. I’ve been preparing for it for some time and I have quite a few bits and pieces written. The chunks and pieces aren’t yet put together in any coherent way. So my job over this month is to start at the beginning and write through chapter by chapter at the rate of about two a week, about three thousand or so words a day, incorporating the existing material. I do have to keep reminding myself it is actually less than that, because some of the writing does already exist. Just not in the right order or shape.

So I’m writing each morning starting somewhere between 7 and 8 and then going till somewhere between 12 30 and 2, depending on how it’s going. This was exactly the routine I had when I wrote my PhD and I’m surprised how easy it is to get back into the rhythm. Despite the obvious time pressure, it feels surprisingly leisurely. I think that this is because I have also largely got the afternoons set aside as well.

Apart from the occasional meeting or tutorial that is. But generally, formost of the month I’m able to spend a bit of time in the afternoon digging out what’s needed for the next day.

but the desk is tidy

but the desk is tidy. everything is just where i need it.

Better still, my brain benefits from the additional time away from the keyboard. Things that I ought to have put into the chapter, things that might need to be hedged or reworded, these all just seem to float into my mind during the afternoons. It doesn’t seem to matter if I’m reading a novel, washing, weeding or just catching up on some naughty television, thoughts just turn up in my conscious mind, without a formal invitation.

your'e making that noise again, #academicswithdogs

you’re making that loud noise again, #academicswithdogs

The sudden exclamations that accompany these unexpected, but welcome thoughts, often worry my dogs.

I’m clearly deeply immersed in this book, so much so that I’m even finding it a bit of an unnecessary distraction to write blog posts. However I do feel a bit like a real writer.

Every day I write. That must make me a writer, of sorts anyway.

The feeling and the time won’t last of course, as there’ll soon be conferences, a lot more meetings and some teaching. But really I am enjoying it a lot right now.

It’s not a binge folks, it’s a complete luxurious treat!

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research “site”, “sample” and/or “relationship”

In the northern hemisphere it’s the time of year when many doctoral researchers are thinking about the places where they are hoping to do their research. As I’m writing about this very topic at the moment, I’ve decided to post some of the things I’m writing. The book is about methods and is intended for people who are doing relatively small-scale studies.

There is a lot of talk in research methods books about “access” to a research “site”. I have some concerns about these terms.

My concerns are not about semantics. The words we use reflect deep, and often implicit and unexamined positions – they are both ontological and epistemological, that is, as they relate to the ways in which we understand the world and the ways in which we think about research and ourselves as researchers. The words we use, in our research proposals and methods thinking and writing, position us in particular ways. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that these words are incorrect and that you ought never to use them. I’m simply suggesting that it is useful that we subject our taken-for-granted terms to some scrutiny.

Let’s start with “site”. The notion of the “site” is somewhat ambiguous. Dictionary definitions of the word site usually highlight its material nature – it is a plot of ground, a location, a material address. Think of other words that are commonly attached to “site” – burial site, a building site, the site of the action, a website – and see the meaning. The site is where the action – burial, building, web – takes place.

A site being developed

A site being developed

The problem with simply saying “site” as a stand-alone word, is that it positions the school/hospital/museum/office/mall as an abstract object. “Site,” as a stand-alone term, dehumanizes what the researcher hopes to study. It is merely the ground on which the researcher will act, because they are the one who has declared the school/hospital/museum/office/mall a “site”. The people in the actual place still see it as a school/hospital/museum/office/mall, as they did before the researcher came, and as they will after they leave. The term “site” by itself, or when coupled with “research” can fail to acknowledge that the school/hospital/museum/office/mall is not simply the ground on which the researcher walks, but is also a place already occupied by people, social relations, history/ies and stories.

Furthermore, a “site” suggests something boundaried and discrete. But any school/hospital/museum/office/mall is not an island. It is engaged in multiple ‘stretched out relations’ in time/space. Where it is cut off from ‘an outside’ that is something for us to investigate, not replicate.

A sample

A sample

Depending on its usage, the term “sample” may well continue to objectify the school/hospital/museum/office/mall. The dictionary definition is helpful here too. A sample is defined as a small part of something intended to illuminate the whole; it is a piece, of something larger, which is to be analysed. The passive sentence construction here is revealing. If we make the above phrases active – a sample is a small part of something that the researcher has selected and worked on in order to illuminate the whole, it is a piece of something larger which the researcher will analyse – then the agency of the researcher, and the inert and passive nature of that which is sampled, are clear. But a school/hospital/museum/office/mall is not inert. It is not the same as a sample of tissue or soil or handwriting. There are people in the school/hospital/museum/office/mall who have their own analyses of what is going on there, and why – and they have the power to choose whether we can be part of their world, and if so, what about themselves and their organisation that we can see and interact with.

The terms “site” and “sample” are drawn from particular traditions of research. Archeologists work on sites. Laboratories work on samples. It is worth thinking about how much these terms really are applicable to work in a school/hospital/museum/office/mall and in libraries and archives. Of course, it is often necessary to use these terms, say for instance when talking with funders who expect us to use this kind of language. However, we can also – and at the same time – use alternative words that do not objectify and de-humanise and which instead acknowledge the agency and rights of those we want to participate in our research project.

I prefer to think about building a research relationship. To continue with definitions, a dictionary version of relationship has it as both a connection between two or more people or things, and also the ways in which people or groups and/or things behave with, feel about, deal with, interact with, and regard each other. Let’s take that a bit further. What else is there about relationships that might be instructive? Relationships change, they are not fixed. Relationships can be good or bad, exciting or dull, productive or unproductive, sad or happy, long lasting or short-lived, faulty or perfect. The way that relationships work out depends on the ways in which the initial encounter occurs, the expectations and agreements that are made about conduct (or not), ongoing interactions, the amount of effort put in… If this is a capital R Relationship, then it is also worth remembering the old truism that it takes two to make one work, and that keeping the Relationship going requires continuous attention. A relationship is not a one-off event.

These qualities of a relationship (and Relationship) – mutuality and reciprocity, contingency, requiring ongoing attention in order to be sustained, indeed a kind of fragility – are extremely helpful in orienting a researcher and their research project. If you approach a school/hospital/museum/office/mall thinking of it, not just as a site, a material location, but also as a relationship, then you will be mindful of the other party/ies and their wishes, interests, feelings, knowledge, beliefs, needs and their ongoing programme of activities.

So now, choose your research relationship…

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