summer school day one

Tuesday 21st July.

The first day of the Summer School is a little bit like the pilot of a television programme. You are introduced to the genre. You have to get to know the characters. Major themes are established. There is enough action for you to understand what the rest of the series will be like and be interested in it. Something is left hanging at the end so you want to come back to the next episode.

So here’s how it went.

We started with Barby and Teresa reading to us about art/not art and the kinds of decisions that are made in keeping records of any kinds.

Teresa on left, Barby on right.

The participants introduced themselves to each other using two objects – a personal and a professional object that they had brought with them. There are twenty six participants, twelve from overseas, three of whom are British teachers working abroad. They hail from Singapore, Argentina, Brazil, Italy, Portugal, Nederlands, Australia. Twenty of the participants work in schools. The others are primarily associated with galleries. Nearly everyone talked about having an art practice as well as teaching/educating/researching. Some found the division between the personal and professional difficult and spoke of significant blurring between the two.

Some major themes have been introduced throughout the day – the archive is social and is a living resource – it can be reenacted and re-read/relived; the personal is political; place is important in grounding memories and stories; art is a means of constructing archives of experience, particularly of those who would otherwise be invisible; there are interconnections of place, identity and culture. Barby and Teresa also talked about their own work with young people around these themes.

We did several activities after the introductions, through which these themes were discussed further.

(1) We listened to a text while making a clay object while also wearing a blindfold.


(2) We were given an archive box into which we put our clay object. We were told that we would fill it throughout the week and that it was our archival tool box.

(3) We have the option of writing responses to the five questions that we were sent in the introductory letter. There is also a video diary option that we can use to register comments or concerns.

(4) We watched a slide presentations about the practice of the two school leaders, Barby and Teresa

(5) We went into the gallery to a room with two series of photographic portraits. We split into two groups and then into pairs. We were instructed not to read any of the curatorial material. One group looked at a series of images; many of the pairs generated questions to ask of the people in the portraits. The second group found an individual image that they were drawn to and looked to see what information they could deduce from the image.


(6) We were introduced, via slide show, to thirty artists whose work was photographic portraiture.

(7) We had forty-five minutes to work with a partner to make a photographic self-portrait. These were then put into a slide show.

We were also given advance notice that we will be making gifs later in the week. There is a lot of basic kit about in the room and it is clear that we will be using it everyday.


Looking at the exhibition and taking the self portrait brought some basic ethical questions (also those that are key to archiving) into the conversation – do you need permissions, what do you want to show, how do you want to be represented.


Teresa making the slide show.

A short reflection at the end of the day included comments about how useful it is for teachers to be put into the position of learners – they/we re-experience the difficulty of being asked to do something that is hard or something that you don’t want to do because it makes you feel uncomfortable.

We were given homework – to take a selfie which we have to email to the workshop leaders before 9 am on Wednesday.

Posted in Tate Summer School | Tagged , | 2 Comments

tate summer school – expectations

This year’s Tate Summer School begins today. It is to be curated by Barby Ansante and Teresa Cisneros. Barby is an artist and Teresa a curator.

All participants have been sent a welcome letter about the programme. This year’s Summer School has a title Digging up the past: The politics of the archive. So there is something here about things being buried and needing to be unearthed – in order perhaps to intervene in the/an archive.

We have been told that Barby and Teresa have a

shared interest in interrogating the known order of art and artistic practice, and ideas of subjectivity and the archive as a site for artistic intervention,

and that the Summer School

will explore questions of how stories are told through contemporary art. The focus will be on the interventions artists make to tell stories that are not part of the cultural understanding of what is considered art.

We have been sent quite specific information about the purpose of the programme:

Five questions will underpin the activities of the workshop:

How can you rewrite a dominant narrative through art making?
How can we place ourselves and others at the centre of collective thinking / making / sharing / learning?
How does the personal and political inform the making of art?
How can the places we’re from or the places we live stimulate and inspire our making?
Can we reflect on, redefine and remix the archive?

During the week long course, the invitation will be to explore some of the galleries and collections in Tate Modern and Tate Britain through making and questioning. You will investigate the possibility of archive and collective action by exploring a variety of art practices, curatorial engagements and creating a personal archival tool box.

Now, this is not the first Summer School to explore the question of the archive. It was very much in focus during Summer School 2012, where activities were around live art – not only what it is and its history, but also the vexed question of how live art is recorded and preserved. But the archive also appeared in 2013 a couple of times:

Research Photos Summer School 2013. Larry Achiampong, making personal music archives.

I am expecting that we might consider a range of questions such as:

• What is archived? What is included and excluded? Who is included and excluded?
• Who decides? Why are decisions made in this way?
• In whose interests does this archiving work?
• How might it be otherwise?

• How is material recorded? How is it inscribed/transcribed/translated/re-written/interpreted?
• What is included and excluded through these practices?

• How is material in the archive preserved? In what media? What does this do to the material?

• What kinds of representations and narratives are produced through archiving practices?

• What steers are given to those who will use the archive? What support do they need in order to ‘read’ it?

• How is the archive stored? Where? Why?

• How can counter archives be made? Who will do this? When? Why? How? Where?

Well, these are my expectations. I haven’t got out my Derrida (Archive Fever) and re-read it, but maybe I won’t have to. Let’s see how many of these things are covered/challenged/bent out of shape and what surprises are in store.

Posted in archive, Tate Summer School | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

it’s that time of year…

Wheeeee!! It’s here again. No, not holidays. Actually it’s work. This week I get to do research. Only research and nothing else. A complete luxury for a busy academic. Nothing but research.

And it’s not just any research. For the last three years I’ve been going to Tate Summer School – a week-long professional development programme for teachers, artists, gallery educators and curators. And now it’s here again … I’m wondering what’s in store in number four. The Summer School programme brings educators, loosely defined, into conversation with contemporary art and artists. Through a series of encounters and events, participants are offered ‘stuff’ that they might draw on to design experiences for those they educate – in my field, we call this pedagogical content knowledge.

Importantly, Summer School doesn’t tell educators what to do or how to do it. It’s a worksheet-free zone, it has no ready-made lesson plans on offer. Teachers, loosely defined, are seen as professionals. That’s one of the reasons I love it. 1sLJ5Zf9oTVwPfj5-H_PGIVAgnTa7qzx_QmQ__J8mes Research photo Summer School 2013

What happens at Summer School? Well, two artists are commissioned by the Tate Schools and Teachers team to design and run a five-day learning programme. They use one or both of the London galleries, each of which has dedicated learning spaces. The programme always uses the collections and special exhibitions. The commissioned artists also select other artists to be involved in activities – workshops, lectures, performances. cdWl-fep6npdCRE6ZjVhEUbrkj9xJNgHQh5U_yuB5OQ Research photo Summer School 2012

I get to hang about and participate. I’m in a long-term research partnership with the Schools and Teachers team and this is very much our research, not mine. I guess you could think of me as an embedded ethnographer, but it’s important to know that I don’t work alone. Alice Walton, Amy McKelvie and Leanne Turvey, Tate learning curators, are equally involved in this research. One of the team participates in the Summer School alongside me and, whoever it is, isn’t responsible for any of the organisation. The team member is also a participant observer/observant participant and we share our experiences and observations every morning of the Summer School, and at the end. GS0MdsHQsgWGAnkRv81VHZWKHTfGmCAQ5iuEQ85tXfs Research photo Summer School 2014

And all four of us meet before, during and after Summer School to talk about what’s going on. We are currently writing something together to be published from this cooperative research. It’s the first of a series of publications, and this one will be a downloadable open access text about the key ideas that underpin Summer Schools in particular, but Tate Schools and Teachers programme more generally. We hope to have this first piece of writing completed in October this year. UJgTeCoN_AZ2AsKAkyOCLOfhNpDq3RGeleBnqquiImk Research photo, Summer School 2012 By the end of this coming week, we will have seen just over 100 participants, seven commissioned Summer School curators, all practicing artists, and some twenty additional artists involved for a day or part of a day. I will have four notebooks of field notes. We will have some eight hundred or so photographs, various artifacts that participants produce, some post-it note answers to questions and evaluations. We also have quite a bit of writing that we’ve done in between Summer Schools. eFM9AJDP4zC-UajpY6fXorQGwpZLhm5wQ0opH4obxZk Research photo Summer School 2014

In the light of what we have already thought and written about, we have some specific data to generate from this Summer School We are hoping to get some video data – vox pops and session recordings – and some ambient sound. We don’t want this data generation to intrude on the participants’ experience of the Summer School, so we need to be very careful and flexible about how we do this. I’ve got my kit ready and all charged up – video, audio with big microphone, mini iPad, notebook, several pens, camera, multiple plugs and cords -and my ethical sensibilities …

We are going to set aside two days later this year where we go through this and our other data and see what and how we want to do to/with our emerging text.

Exciting. I’m expecting to learn a lot. I always do.

For the next week I’m going to be posting about this ‘field work’.

Posted in Ethnographic kit, ethnography, Tate Summer School | Tagged , | 2 Comments

on getting out of a stuck place

I’ve recently completed the first draft of (what will appear to the outside world to be) my second book this year. In reality, it’s a book that has been three years in the writing. It’s about the use of a particular social theory in one field of scholarship. There is a lot of work already about the social theorist, so I really feel I need to say something a bit different. No pressure then. But I’ve been stuck in a hard place for a long time. Fortunately, my publishers know me well and have been extremely patient with my tardiness and the academic equivalent of the-dog-ate-my-homework excuses.

Don’t get me wrong, I did have a draft. But it wasn’t a messy first draft in which everything was roughly in the right place. This was a draft in which one chapter was distinctly out of sorts, and another wasn’t in rude health either. I’d got as far as understanding the problem – I wasn’t clear about what material I would use to stage the argument, and I was completely befuddled about the order in which the various chunks might be assembled. While I could see what was wrong – and this is the first step in sorting things out – I didn’t know how to fix it.

Now this is not the first time I’ve been stuck with Pierre Bourdieu in a writing cul-de-sac. I’ve written several papers which use his ‘thinking tools’ and each one of them has taken a very long time. I’ve been thinking about why this is the case and what my stuck-ness might be about. I’m not phobic about writing so I don’t need to do things that help me write anything. I didn’t have writer’s block because I kept writing other things, including other books and papers – and blogging twice a week. I was just stuck on this book. This (four letter word) book.

Well, there is the question of time. Always time. I don’t write full time. I haven’t had a big lot of days where I just sit with my writing problem. I have other work to do and, like most academics not on study leave, I write around my other obligations. For me this usually means writing early in the morning, something I achieve by trying to organise other commitments to start later in the day. But over the three book-stuck years I have had very many early mornings re-writing and re-writing the difficult chapter. It’s not that I haven’t been on it. I haven’t just been sitting on my hands. It’s just that what I’ve done wasn’t ‘it’.

As well, this is a single-authored book. Regular patter readers will know that my personal academic writing preference is co-authorship and that one of the ways in which the writing happens is through talk, lots of talk in order to sort things out. But there was/is no-one to talk and write with on this book. I could of course have found someone else to talk to. But my topic – PB in a particularly dull scholarly field – means that the people who want to hear about my problem are very small in number… So I have been on my lonesome on this text. I did however have a great critical reader lined up for my first draft. When it was done.

I can’t ignore the fact that writing this book was just hard intellectual work. It’s not simply the writing that was at issue. It wasn’t just a question of structure. It was also how to make the case. It was the tangle of writing and thinking together that was the problem. Writing can often help to sort out these kinds of problems and I did use a range of different writing tactics in order to try to unlock myself – but none of them worked in this instance.

I do remember my own supervisor putting me in a pressure cooker situation in order to get me to sort out the order of chapters in my thesis. I did my PhD by distance and only saw him very, very occasionally. On this occasion I was in town for two days and saw him on Day One. He gave me overnight to come up with a workable thesis structure. This was pretty difficult and I had to have several goes at it. I was staying with a friend at the time, she was an experienced academic and writer, and I was able to test iterative versions of structure out on her. (I’m still very grateful for this bit of free supervision Jane.) This strategy worked for me, and I was able to turn up the next day with a working and workable sequence of chapters which choreographed the big idea I had already identified.

But a self-imposed twenty-four hour deadline didn’t work with this book, and so I stayed sitting with the text, fiddling with it every now and then, and making excuses to my publisher.

So what got me out of this place in the end? Well interestingly it was a variant on the under-pressure strategy. One chapter in this book has been written by colleagues (this is the convention we are using in our book series), and they have been getting – understandably – increasingly anxious about when their work is going to see the light of day. A couple of recent polite but pressing emails made me decide that I just had to sort it out. I couldn’t dilly dally around any longer. I just had to stop faffing about and make the text work. It wasn’t fair to leave my colleagues hanging. I just needed to get on with it.

I still wasn’t sure how I was going to get going again, but I went back to the text – I hadn’t looked at it for a while – and started revising the first chapter, one I was relatively happy with. This got me back into the book properly. I then had to face the most troublesome chapter. The troubling two, double trouble. It took me a few early mornings to sort it out, and a few tiny texts, but I did finally come up with a solution to the problem. I created two chapters where there had been one, got rid of some out-of-sorts words and added more explanation and new examples. In spreading the argument out, letting it breathe, I was also able to emphasise the basic point I wanted to make about how to use Bourdieu in the field.The other ailing chapter then fell easily into place.

Now I’m hardly the only person to get stuck on a writing/arguing/theorising problem. Doctoral researchers often find themselves in a stuck place. They don’t have three years to just sit and wait around. They do have to sort their problem out. It is a case of having to get through it. (But full timers do have more available time to do this than those who are part-time.)

Alas. There is no magic solution, no one-best way to get through a stuck place. There are no easy answers, no blueprints – well, if there are I haven’t found them, or read any that are plausible. It’s a question of finding the right combination of:

(1) internalised external pressure – for me this was the moral obligation to other writers; for doctoral researchers this might be hand-in-time, or it might be something else…

(2) strategies to tackle the writing/thinking. These might include: talking the problem through with a supervisor and/or peer; writing to get unstuck; getting some help with locating the problem; analyzing the text using linguistic tools; meditating; free writing or shut up and write sessions; using reverse outlines; going to a coach; doing structured writing to prompts; attending a writing retreat or boot camp; writing tiny texts; reading; taking a break; brainstorming alternative ways to approach the issue; putting yourself in a pressure cooker time-limited situation; revising the bits that you’re happy with; writing exercises in order to improve writing even if not about the particular problem – and so on…

What works for one person might not work for another. And what works for one problem might not work for a different one. And what works once might not work the next time! The real trick in getting over stuckness is not to give up, but to accept the problem. This does very often mean a trial and error approach, trying out different things to see which of them might unravel the knot you’re trapped in.

And this also means taking on board the fact that doing a PhD – or any academic writing at all for that matter – is not only about writing the text and becoming a better writer, but is also about building your own set of diagnostic tools and a repertoire of strategies that you can call on at different times and for different problems.

Ultimately, you are the one that has to get you out of the rock and hard place. Building your writer’s repertoire is a key to academic writing and publishing. But understanding that being stuck is part of the practice of academic writing is also important. Being stuck is not something that happens to you, but to all of us. It happened to me on book 15. The crucial thing to grasp is that we can all move out and on. I have and so can you.

Posted in academic writing, being stuck | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

mentoring early career researchers – what’s possible?

I was recently emailed by an early career researcher. She wanted some advice on how to find a mentor. She was isolated in her own institution. She felt awkward about just bowling up to people at conferences, but realised she’d probably have to try this as nothing helpful or supportive was forthcoming at work.

I understood the problem and wondered just how widespread it is. While doctoral researchers can expect some support – at the very least contact with their supervisor – the newly appointed lecturer or research fellow can find themselves pretty lonely in their new posts with no-one to ask for advice. This is not a situation I’ve been in, although providing programmes for ECRs has been part of my own institutional responsibilities. I know about what universities should do, but not what an ECR might do if they don’t even try. I imagine being an isolated ECR might be a bit like being stuck on a stoney beach in stormy weather… you seem to be stranded here, where to turn, what to do…

(Gratuitous holiday snapshot. Cape Breton, Nova Scotia)

I decided that I needed a bit of help with the emailer’s question.

I put out a couple of 140 character queries to the twitter hive-mind to see what others thought. Two people echoed the concerns of the emailer, suggesting that this was not an individual problem. One said, “Its especially difficult when ECR in alien faculty” referring to her own social science disciplinary base and that of her STEM faculty. The second commented, “I only wish I knew (being that isolated ECR). People are so busy. It seems impossible to ask.”

Several people responded with concrete helpful suggestions:

@canhoto I got some great advice from someone in another faculty – some things are not discipline specific
@comprof – attend workshops/peer presentations and network. Ask for suggestions or ask those whose work you admire
@lewisgdean Learned societies, even if there is no formal scheme, there may be willing people
@MaryFChadwick I’d see if any relevant academic societies have mentoring schemes. And maybe investigate contacts in other departments too
@cath_fletcher – external examiner was very helpful. Worth thinking about when you pick
@ProDavidAndress conferences journal articles. Pick people, then ask. Most academics flattered to be thought experts
@andrewking2904 ask your friends, supervisor and PhD examiners. Also set up a project with clearly defined outputs and invite them
@daniellambach Out: Attend topical conferences and workshops. The smaller, the better. In: email people, invite for coffee + ask for advice
@mccook from my MA experience, just ask. Was flabbergasted at how friendly and enthusiastic other academics were
@DiscourseofEd: use conference opportunities to meet a couple of key people in your field and explain your challenge of isolation
And when you read a paper that you like, send the author an email and explain how their paper is useful in your work.
@MeganJMcPherson peer mentoring, collaboration/cooperation interactions to build mentoring relationships over time, expanding circles of mentors
@Clarrysmith take opportunities by attending courses/conference etc but then stay in touch with people via social media
@nomynjb Im not isolated per se. sessional. I email anyone relevant who’s ever given a speck of help and attend a SIG unit until noticed, eventually have worn down a couple ☺
@DrHelenKara Err.. .Twitter ? my answer to everything ☺ How I advise them depends on their sector and the nature of their isolation Suggestions would include affiliation (for non-acad), with PhD, looking for relevant free/low cost seminars workshops locally eg run by uni, twitter @TheSRAOrg
@EmmaHead2 I got a mentor by emailing a colleague in a different faculty at same uni, we had attended the same seminar paper. Ask for initial meeting, be clear on what wanted – advice, help with progress/target setting, and for how long- one year?

I’m hoping that at least one of these might resonate with my emailer.

But the email and the twitter responses did make me think about what I – as a ‘senior’ academic whose job description implies, if not precisely specifies, mentoring – I would do if someone I didn’t know, someone in another faculty, contacted me out of the blue. I suspect I would be polite but probably not that helpful. As the second twitter respondent noted, I’m pretty busy. I’d be much more likely to respond positively if the person contacting me was someone in my own field and/or in my school. But I’d be much more likely to agree to coffee if the person not in my school of field was someone I somehow knew. I’d chatted to them on twitter. I’d met them at a conference. They’d been supervised by someone I know.

So the twitter advice about following up on casual meetings with people makes good sense to me.

But I also thought that maybe I wouldn’t feel altogether deprived if there was no formal mentoring scheme in place in my institution/faculty/school. I reckon a lot of formal mentoring schemes aren’t worth the time that goes into them. People are lumped together through some kind of administrative process. The assumption is that all mentors are going to be helpful – they don’t need any support themselves. But it’s not easy to know what you are doing as a mentor if you haven’t had time to consider mentoring practices, to talk to other people who mentor and access some of the copious research. There’s often an institutional assumption that mentors just know how to support someone to develop their career, profile and/or publications – and that’s not necessarily the case. I’ve certainly seen the results of such assumptions – institutional mentoring schemes where people got very variable time, advice and support.

This leads me to think that an isolated, but also probably most ECRs, need to find people who are in their field and/or who are known to be knowledgeable and helpful. Just because someone is a good academic doesn’t mean they will be a good mentor. I’m leaning strongly to those twitter responses that talked about the importance of informal connections as the basis for ongoing mentoring. I’m also in harmony with those that suggest that asking people for a coffee is a good idea, and then asking for something specific, which may not be laying out an agenda for a year’s mentoring meetings at the get-go.

But even as I say this, I’m very aware how hard this is to do. It’s hard for the ECR asking for some guidance to summon up the chutzpah. I’m sure it feels a bit like a blind date where there’s a very large fear of rejection and disappointment. And I’m also acutely aware of how difficult it now is for any of we academic oldies to make this kind of giving-someone-a-bit-of-a-hand a priority in our work. It ought of course to be very high on our list of things to do.

What do you think? Do you have other suggestions for my emailer, or for the vexed question of support for isolated ECRs? Or indeed about how institutional support schemes might be improved?

Posted in early career researchers, isolation, mentoring | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

happy birthday to patter

Patter is four years old.

Time for a tally. Time for a bit of reckoning.

This is my 430th post. I have posted a trifle over twice a week in that time. Actually, I posted about once a week for the first few months and then increased the frequency to twice a week. Since then I have occasionally posted daily when I am book writing or teaching a course.

I began patter because I thought it might be helpful to write about some things which consistently bothered the doctoral researchers I worked with. I thought the posts might be of interest to a few others. I thought that some doctoral researchers in my own school and my own institution might find the archive of material useful. Now, the doctoral researchers I work directly with tell me they always read patter wondering if I am writing about them – so here’s the answer… No, no, no. I’ll tell you if that’s the case. But I can’t guarantee that I haven’t stored something away for future reference and it’s become a general ‘thing’ I think I need to say something about. This is the only time I’ll write something directly to/about/for you. ☺

I try to vary the kinds of posts that I write. After all, a blog is not a methods text or an academic writing book. I’m not simply posting about my own experiences or writing as a virtual mentor. Nor is patter a series of op-ed pieces. Mostly I want patter to cover the range of topics that I discuss with doctoral and early career researchers. Sometimes that is about the relatively hidden rules, the secret business of academic life, that some people find hard to get access to. Sometimes it’s about me, that’s the professional me not the personal me, and what I do. And quite often it’s about the “stuff’” of scholarship and the nuts and bolts of getting the “stuff’ done.

I haven’t counted the number of words that I’ve written for patter, but it must be more than 424000, since most of my posts are a bit over 1000 words. It’s probably quite close to four books worth.

I do use patter as a place to try out things that end up in my books and papers. This is not an unusual thing for blogger to do. I’m not particularly worried about the repetition, because there is always more in the books and papers than in the posts and they have a different angle/take/point. I do however feel a bit sad about not being able to fully develop a lot of ideas in patter simply because of the word length of posts. There are some things you can do in a book that you just can’t do in a post – and of course that works vice versa too.

I’ve certainly used patter to write in a more conversational way than I do in books and papers. I tend to crank out these words in half an hour or so and ideally edit over a couple of days. Patter is written fast but quite often published almost immediately (hence some days of subsequent fixing of typos!), although I do have a small backlog of drafts. I enjoy writing in a more chatty tone. I like not having to do all of the inevitable signposting and throat clearing that goes with more formal academic genres.

League tables
The most popular patter posts are those which are directly pedagogical and/or address issues that are a bit tricky. The most popular post by far addresses the difference between aims and objectives, followed closely by one which discusses the difference between methodology and methods. Then there are posts about rejection in journals, writing conclusions, reviewing literatures and the like.

I couldn’t write about these things all of the time. And I don’t want to. I do want to try to promote a view of writing that is more than simply how-to-do-the-worrying-bits. I do love writing and reading myself. It’s what I (selflishly) most enjoy about being in higher education and it’s what makes all of the nonsense about contemporary universities bearable. So I do want to try to focus at least some of the time on writing without a problem-focused lens.

Patter is read in every country in the world. While most readers are in the UK, Australia, and the Northern Americas, there are lots of people everywhere else. I’m conscious that not everyone has access to the writing books that I’ve produced with my colleague Barbara, nor to the range of books that I have in my own library. I do have a kind of open access view about what I post. I don’t see that patter is about selling my books – this is why I don’t advertise them too conspicuously. Rather, I’m very pleased that more and more patter readers now come from countries where university libraries struggle to afford English language journals and books and where the price of an average academic text represents a very large chunk of an annual income. A year or so ago now I bought my own domain name and paid to remove the ads so that patter could make it through various kinds of national web-filtering/censoring systems.

There now seem to be about ten thousand patter regulars and, on average, six or seven times more hits than this per week or three. I’m very grateful that so many of you follow patter either by subscription or simply by checking in every now and then. I’m always very pleased when readers ask me questions or add helpful comments after a post.

So, thankyou all for helping to make me a happy and productive blogger. Happy birthday to patter. And here’s to the next patter year.

Posted in blogging, patter | Tagged , , , | 12 Comments

writing to get unstuck – #phdknowhow

Sometimes, in the middle of the PhD, you feel stuck. You feel as if you’re losing focus. Perhaps your research question is slipping away. Perhaps your research question no longer feels as if it quite fits. You may be analyzing data and suddenly feel as if you don’t know where it’s going. These times can feel like a crisis.

At these points it can be very helpful to take stock through some focused, timed writing.

Take 25 minutes or so to write as fast you can, without too much pause, about any one – or more – of the following:

• Why my topic is important
• What I now know that I didn’t know when I started
• What I’ve done so far
• How my understanding of my topic has changed as I’ve gone along
• What I could write a paper about now
• What my existing research question offers and what it doesn’t

You might even choose to do more than one timed session about these topics if they seem appropriate.

Have a rest for ten minutes, get a cup of tea/coffee, go outside, pet the dog/cat and then sit back down. Now do one or more timed sessions writing about one or more of the following:

• Two things I’m still puzzled about
• The thing that has most interested me so far
• Where I might go next
• A big idea that is emerging from my work so far
• The thing I most want to find out about now

It may be that at the end of this you’ve unstuck yourself. Simply writing on these issues has given you some insight into what is troubling you at the moment and how you might approach the work differently. Sometimes simply changing focus is enough to get you re-energised and re-focused.

But maybe not. If not, leave these pieces of writing and go and do something else for the rest of the day – analysis, reading… When you come back to this writing the next day, treat it as a piece of data that has been written by someone else. As you read through the writing, ask yourself:

• What is the project the writer is doing?
• Where are they up to?
• What might they do next?
• Do they need to make a decision about anything in order to move on – if so what are the choices that they have?

Write down the insights you have gained from this reading. Write this text in the third person. The writer is…the writer now needs to

There’s no guarantee of course that working through these three writing stages will get you unstuck, but there’s a VERY good chance that switching gears to focus on your overall process will help.

These kinds of writing exercises can get you out of the mire of the immediate, and put you in the position of identifying your strengths and diagnosing problems. You can then develop strategies to address the stuck point(s).

Writing helps you move from the micro to the meta. You shift from the position of feeling out of control to being the doctoral researcher who can analyse their own processes and get themselves going again.

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