I like a good metaphor. I like thinking about the metaphors that we use to describe academic work too. I particularly like thinking about how changing metaphors can help re-orient the actual doing of academic work.
We all know, I’m sure, that a metaphor is where we talk about one thing as if it is something else. Not as if it is like something else, but as if it is that something else. Metaphors get used everyday … we hear regularly about pathways to success, the war on poverty, feeling under a cloud, floods of immigrants and so on. Each of these metaphors positions the speaker and potentially the listener in particular ways towards a material phenomena/event/practice. None of these metaphors are neutral – all have in-built ‘interests’ and potential effects beyond speech.
There is a difference between metaphors which are short-term and might be used once, and those which are used as long term schema. Our world view, and the way we routinely position ourselves and our actions, is often underpinned by a set of metaphors which we don’t think about. (Underpinning, a building metaphor.)
Metaphors are everywhere. It’s almost impossible for we academics not to position ourselves, one way or another, in relation to the dominant metaphor of the university as an ivory tower. Most of us are troubled by the implications that we are somehow cut off from everyone else but at the same time, in the social sciences, it’s pretty routine to talk about inside and outside research – a container metaphor which also signals some degree of separation and isolation.
The doing and writing of research is often a place where making and using metaphors becomes more conscious. This is particularly the case for doctoral researchers for whom the PhD is an intense experience. Making metaphors about this experience is one of the ways to make sense of it.
One of the most common metaphors that people use for the PhD is that of the journey. They start out somewhere and end up somewhere else. They feel that they’ve travelled a long way. It hasn’t always been easy. There’s been unexpected pitfalls, and surprising new places to find. Because of this, they also often experience the PhD as a-becoming-someone-else.
Right at the moment I’m interested in metaphors used for a part of the PhD, those that apply to the dissertation. How do we think to ourselves about the actual text and its production? What are the implications of thinking in this way? Does it affect what we do, and if so how?
When I was just beginning to write my own thesis I thought about it as a jigsaw. I just had to put all the little pieces together. At some point I had one of those aha moments when I realized that a jigsaw was a very unhelpful metaphor – a jigsaw has an original somewhere, it is about producing a predetermined image, and it already has set of relationships and a defined set of edges. My thesis and its authoring was actually nothing like this.
I decided I needed to rethink what I was doing. To help me do this I needed a new metaphor. I came to think that a more helpful approach to my thesis was thinking of it as making a patchwork quilt.
I had lots of pieces of stuff that I’d made up, hacked out, into some kind of shape. Some of the pieces were new material and others were made from second hand bits I’d found lying around (in books). I had to decide how big the quilt would be. Even though there was a recommended size, there was still the possibility of approaching the shape somewhat creatively. There was certainly plenty of opportunity for putting the separate pieces together in different ways. It all depended on the effect I was trying to achieve. As long as I had a good backing, and the stitching firmly anchored the result of my more creative handiwork to the backing, then there were quite a few possible variations in patterning available.
This was a metaphor which worked for me at the time. It put me in control of the process. It meant I spent time thinking about the structure of the text, and where the various pieces might go. There were many possible quilts to be made. I played with various options – what if this chapter was about this and that one about that – how did it compare to all the other possible theses that I could write?
You’ll recognize of course that the idea of patchwork has a close relationship with the notion of bricolage, the postie notion that there is no canon, but rather we make sense, text and objects, for example, by piecing disparate things together – we assemble (art), we mix and remix (music).
For the thesis, I preferred the somewhat more artisan connotations of the notion of patchwork. I’m rather fond of Amish quilts and I thought the notion of patterning was helpful when thinking about a thesis. There is regularity in the motifs that appear and re-appear and an overall design. I also liked its domestic nature. Quilting is a craft that was once widespread, it is time-consuming, but well within the reach of any careful and patient person.
To some extent, patchwork is still the metaphor I have in my mind when I begin a new book. I still spend quite a bit of time thinking about the overall effect that is produced by stitching together the materials in different combinations and juxtapositions. So it’s a metaphor that has stuck with me, and presumably has been helpful.
I’m interested to know whether other people have explicit metaphors for the thesis text and the process of writing it, and if so, what they are….