taste the #acwri difference – recount, summary, argument

There are three major genres of academic writing that we use most of the time. It’s good to understand the differences between them and where they are used, and how.

Recount

A recount is a text which talks about what happened, and what we/I/others did. Two types of recounts occur regularly in scholarly texts: (1) a personal recount in which the writer retells events/activities in which she has been involved; (2) a factual recount which recalls the details of a particular event or sequence of events.
Academic writers often mobilize personal recounts. They write about events in which they have been involved as a form of evidence or to trace an intellectual history. While some disciplines frown upon the use of personal experience, in others, such as those in which practitioners/professionals are now actively engaged, the use of personal recounts is more accepted: ‘My experience of this policy is important and it informs the way I have developed the research design’. Personal recounts are also used to establish the mandate for research or for a particular methodological approach: ‘I am using this approach because the following happened to me and because I don’t want to do that to others, I’m going to do this instead’. However, a reflexive and critical approach is more desirable than a simple recount, and ‘relocating the personal’ often shifts the writing into a different genre – an argument (argument coming up).

Many academic journal articles use a factual recount when they detail the process of constructing the research: ‘We used this kind of method and sample and generated this kind of data. We wanted to do this but something got in the way and we couldn’t. Therefore our research findings can only address this aspect of the issue’, or, ‘We consulted these particular books in the library and spoke to the following people for the following reasons’. In research papers and dissertation texts, factual recounts can be more extended and some go as far as providing an ‘audit trail’ of steps taken in the research – from conception to implementation through to analysis. This kind of recount certainly makes it easy for examiners to follow what doctoral researchers have done, although the risk can be that too much detail is provided.

Summary

A summary is an economical and accurate representation of events, actions, ideas, texts or speech. To produce a summary, the writer needs to make decisions about what to include and exclude, what to highlight and background and how to frame the text.
Summaries form the basis of much academic work, but they are less often a published genre. Scholarly summaries, for example, underpin engagement with literatures. Doctoral researchers may be asked by their supervisor to summarize sets of texts in order to advance their understanding and/or to begin the process of identifying their position within the field.

Janet Giltrow (2002) suggests that a good summary shows a knowledgeable reader that the writer understands something important. This knowing is not accomplished by cutting and pasting together the words of others taken out of context, but through doing new work. This new work entails identifying important ideas and evidence and providing abstract terms to capture major themes and enough detail to provide ‘proof’. Such text work requires careful reading and/or highlighting of key ideas, grouping these ideas together to produce commonalities and differences, and then developing evaluative categories to describe them. The writer can then use these summary blocks to build a cogent introductory framing or a coherently structured narrative.

But doctoral researchers are generally required to do much more than simply produce economical summaries: they are expected to take a critical, evaluative stance. This positions them within the field of knowledge production and allows them to demonstrate the intertextuality of their research and its dependence on, and position in relation to, the work of others.

Argument

Writing an argument involves taking a position on a particular issue, event or question, and justifying that position. An argument attempts to persuade the reader to a particular point of view and to the veracity and worth of that point of view. In its simplest form an argument consists of:

• a statement of position (a thesis),
• a series of points arranged in logical order, supported by evidence and examples, linked together by connections that emphasize their cumulative nature, and
• a summary in which the thesis is reaffirmed and restated. There may also be recommendations at this stage.

A scholarly argument generally follows this structure. It may also entertain counter points of view, in order to strengthen the case being made. Scholarly arguments can be concise, as in the form of an abstract, or in their most extended form they become a dissertation or book. Because scholarly argument does not take evidence and examples as givens, it also incorporates analysis, interpretation and evaluation. There are generally sub-arguments contained within the larger overarching case being made.

Most academic writing takes the form of argument.

Posted in argument | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

thesis know-how – let participants ‘speak for themselves’?

I was watching a long interview with Kazuo Ishiguro the other night – as you do if you live in the UK and still have some good (high) cultural television – and something he said leapt out at me. I can’t vouch for these being the exact words he uttered but they were something like …

We are all unreliable narrators of our lives, particularly to ourselves. Whether it is in conversation, Facebook or a letter, we all need interpretation.

Yes! Yes! I thought to myself. If only some thesis writers understood this. So I rushed to write Ishiguro’s words down before I lost them. But even if I don’t have the words down entirely accurately, I do think I’ve got the point he was making. And getting at what you think is the meaning, although not necessarily with 100% accuracy is not unrelated to the reason why thesis writers need to think carefully before they claim to have written a text in which ‘participants speak for themselves’.

So why did I think Ishiguro’s words were so pertinent to researchers?

Well, one of the big problems examiners often see in the thesis is the over-use of participants’ words. This usually takes the form of selections from interview transcripts presented in huge indented blocks on the page. Or worse still, over several pages. Sometimes it’s a personal narrative the researcher has constructed from a summary of what someone has said. The story stands alone. like a tree on a hill. There is little by way of introduction or commentary. Or it is someone’s life story, a précis of what the researcher was told by a project participant. The story is presented as if it were ‘truth’.

When a researcher does this kind of data dumping it’s usually because they either want to provide ‘evidence’ of the veracity of their claims, or more commonly that ‘they want to let the person tell their own story’. The first of these ambitions is laudable, and the second somewhat problematic.

Let’s start with the first goal – producing ‘evidence’. Producing ‘evidence’ through the use of people’s words is important if you are doing qualitative research. Let’s say a researcher wants to establish that there is something common and important in what her respondents have said. This can be achieved in a number of ways. The researcher needs to establish that there is a typical view – this requires her to do something more than reproducing a single quotation. A single quotation does nothing to signify commonality. What is needed is a way of communicating all of the particular observations/comments. One option is to present a representative quotation that is backed up… Appendices are useful places to present summaries of themes together with a sample transcript that shows how the themes were developed. Another option might be to put summaries of themes into the actual text, explain and show why a particular piece of data has been selected as being ‘typical’ or ‘atypical’. These are not the only ways to achieve the goal of using data to evidence a claim – the trick is to do more than simply dump the data.

The second aspiration – to let people tell stories in their own words – is pretty problematic. Let’s take the example of a researcher working with an interview or an oral history. The transcribed interview is something produced in a particular location, in response to particular questions posed by the researcher, at a particular time. These then are already ‘produced’ words, they haven’t emerged from everyday life, but a research context. But then these words are converted from an embodied conversation into text, via further selecting and editing. Changing spoken words to text loses gestural and visual information, just for starters. A transcript is subject to a lot of manipulation before the researcher even starts to think about analysis, let alone choosing quotations for their text. There is nothing pure about this at all.

But this doesn’t mean that there aren’t very good reasons for including research participants’ words, despite all of the processing. The researcher might want to show something of the person’s mode of explanation, their choice of words and examples, the representation they made at the time of an event or of an opinion. Indeed the research itself might be about these very things. That’s good and fine – just let’s not imagine that this use is somehow unfiltered and unadulterated – an ‘authentic voice’.

So how to reconcile these two goals – show some ‘evidence’ of what people said, and at the same time deal with the ways in which the sayings were ‘produced’?

Well, some research traditions do require that researchers make explicit how their data was produced, selected and then presented in a text. Ethnographers, narrative researchers, researchers working with portraiture who aim to offer more literary forms of research texts usually address their ‘authoring’ process in methodology sections. However, this is not always the case with some other qualitative research – interview based work for instance. The question of how the material was selected and presented in the text is often glossed over as if it is self evident – and this presents a difficulty. The data is dealt with as if it is ‘authentic’, a clear window on participants’ reality.

However, dealing with the manufactured nature of data requires even more than acknowledging the role of the researcher in participants’ texts. It needs more than a discussion in the methodology section. Something also has to happen with the way in which the data itself is presented in the actual thesis text.

Let’s go back to Ishiguro and his remark that everyone is an unreliable narrator of their own lives.

Researchers too need to be concerned with the unreliability of research participants. But the way of researchers is not that of fiction writers. In a novel, a character’s speech is presented as if it is being heard by the reader. This is the fiction writer’s maxim of ‘showing not telling’. However, as Ishiguro’s comment makes clear, the fiction writer’s intention is that the reader will respond to the test. The reader will interpret the words that are spoken. This is what the novel writer wants to happen. The act of imaginative interpretation is the way in which a reader makes sense of fiction – they are invited by the writer to imagine the words being said, to not only hear them but also to respond to them perhaps empathetically, perhaps critically.

However, the researcher’s job is not only to show but also to tell. The researcher is the first interpreter of the material they have generated. That very unreliability is what makes it imperative for researchers to take what they are told as something other than a ‘fact’. The researcher must interpret. Why did this person say this? How is this framed by their life circumstances, being who they are, where they are, and when they are? What might the person not see about their situation? What might they not want to say to the researcher? And they have to present that interpretation to the thesis reader. They can’t just dump the data there for the thesis reader to interpret for themselves.

Qualitative researchers need to do more than simply put other people’s words on a page verbatim.(It’s the same principle as working with literatures and avoiding the quote dump – the researcher needs to tell the reader what use they have made of quotations.) Researchers have to say how they have understood the unreliable narratives, the ones they have manufactured with their participants. Researchers can’t rely on thesis readers to do their interpretive work for them. With the exception of some forms of arts-based research, in which artistic forms of interpretation are offered, researchers working with qualitative material do well to offer their thesis reader the interpretation they have made of their material together with the material itself. They thus make their interpretation available for scrutiny and interrogation. The reader can see the selected data, and they can see how it has been analysed and to what end.

Making the analysis explicit, and avoiding the claim to authenticity with the associated data dump, is particularly important in doctoral research, where the examiner is looking to see whether the researcher is capable of critical interrogation of data. The examiner wants to see that the researcher can conduct a piece of research thoroughly and with integrity. Researcher integrity includes the way in which data has been handled from production to its final form in the text.

And this is much, much more than snipping out bits of transcripts and stringing the words of unreliable narrators together.

Posted in authentic voice, Kazuo Ishiguro, quotations | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

what is my brand? huh? my what?

The Prisoner is now called a cult classic. I’m ancient enough to have watched the original when it showed in Australia in the late 60s. I’m talking of course about the television series in which the hero, played by Patrick McGoohan, is held captive in a fortress-like seaside village. Stripped of his identity, he is given only a number, Number Six. Each week Number Six tries to escape, and each week he fails. And each week he makes an impassioned speech against the de-humanising micro-society in which he is forced to live.

The programme was clearly to be read as commentary on a growing surveillance society. The Prisoner drew on popular dystopian literatures – 1984 and Brave New World being the most obvious. Kafka was also present in the obfuscatory, self-serving, circuitous and ultimately downright evil bureaucratic procedures that were employed by Number Two, deputising for an unseen Number One. And Foucault is up to some tricks too – Number Six must discipline himself or be punished. There are also shades of Marcuse and Adorno and … Well I could go on, but I’m sure you can see why, with all this cultural intertextuality, the programme was so popular at the time, and why it’s now got the reputation of cult classic.

But why is The Prisoner on my mind at the moment?

Well, last week I talked with a group of early career researchers about building an academic profile. I began with a little definitional move; I tried to use the difference between a profile and a brand as my starting point. I wanted to suggest that, given the way that higher education was going, it seemed less difficult for me to think of an academic self as a profile, rather than a brand.

The definitions that I found were these:
A profile was “a short article giving a description of a person or organization. “a profile of a Texas tycoon”
synonyms:
Description, account, study, portrait, portrayal, depiction, rundown, sketch, outline.
In other words profile is a kind of narrative which offers some key points about a person.

On the other hand a brand was “a type of product manufactured by a particular company under a particular name., as in “a new brand of soap powder” or “you can still invent your own career, be your own brand”

synonyms:
Make, line, label, marque, moretype, kind, sort, variety, trade name, trademark, proprietary name, logo.
In other words a brand is attached to a product.

Now clearly the narrative/brand binary I offered has all kinds of difficulties. It’s in trouble because, these days, a brand often is a narrative – companies want customers to associate a story with a brand rather than simply see a logo or a slogan – a narrative provides something that the customer can hang onto. And regardless of what you call it – brand or narrative – your cv, webpage and bio notes still have to do the same thing – get you a job, convince a funder to hand over some cash, establish your reputation in the academic world. In the higher education marketplace, this about promoting yourself – it doesn’t matter whether you call it a brand or not, the task is the same. Maybe the problem I actually have is not about the name per se, but about the kind of job and funding market where self-promotion is inevitable and necessary. It’s about the action that the narrative or brand has to perform. Besides, we all know that words can mean anything, can’t they.

Yes, I can see all of that. All true. Brand, narrative, what’s the difference really? Yet it still feels that the idea of a narrative is not the same as the idea of a brand. The terms come from somewhere different, and that matters. A narrative doesn’t emanate from a market even if it’s been put to work in one. And a narrative is perhaps not simply a one-thing, but is able to hold together in some tension different aspects of an academic life. It’s not homogenous. It doesn’t represent a singular product or self, if you like. And maybe the idea of narrative opens up more room for the interpreter too – the listener or reader who makes their own mind up about what a narrative means. Maybe a reader is a bit different from being a customer who buys something – or not. Maybe the interpreter is a role description which encompasses broader social and institutional politics and personal idiosyncracies.

I can probably, maybe, possibly rationalise why I think that a narrative profile is a better term for the ways in which all of us, but particularly those who are marginalized by higher education job and bidding regimes, people at the start of their careers and not at the end like me, have to put ourselves out there now. Yes, I think I can argue that.

But you know there’s a tiny piece of me that wants to do a Patrick McGoohan. The piece that gives up on the terminology and has to put themselves out and about. A piece of me that in the middle of the night imagines being trapped in a disciplinary university ‘village’, unable to escape the nasty business of hawking my academic wares to the highest bidder – or none.

There I am on the beach, in the lecture theatre, in the cloisters. Clutching a cv, I stare into the camera.

I shout.

“I am not a product who has to satisfy a customer. I am not a REF score and a funding success rate. I am a teacher and a scholar. I have my own opinions and the right to write …

Wake up. So yes, it was all a little fanciful… But still that nagging question. What am I, a profile – or brand? What do you think?

Posted in brand, narrative, profile, The Prisoner | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

thesis know-how – reporting on ‘ethics’

I’ve read a number of theses which take a pretty cursory approach to ethical matters. The most worrying are those that simply make a short statement which reports that the research was approved by the relevant university ethics committee and/or meets the ethical guidelines issued by such and such a learned society.

Now I find this kind of token nodding pretty problematic and I know other thesis examiners do too. As an examiner, I assume that if I have a thesis in front of me then it has already been through the relevant approval processes. I don’t actually need to be told that it has been given the green light. And simply telling me it’s approved really doesn’t do anything – am I expected to know what is in each institutional and learned society ethics approval requirements? Or is this a statement which basically says “It’s none of your business, trust me, it’s all OK because my university has given me the go ahead”… Just saying the thesis has met an unknown set of criteria doesn’t tell an examiner what the researcher has thought about, done and why. I actually know much more about underpinning institutional ethical requirements if the thesis appendix contains the information given to participants and any relevant consent form(s).

Now, I don’t want you to get the idea that I want a general discussion about ethics in every thesis. No. No. Not that at all. Never. As an examiner, I’m absolutely NOT looking for a thesis which does the same work as the institutional Ethics application. I don’t want a tedious plod through the basics of consent, information, considerations of benefits and harm, confidentiality and anonymity and data access/storage requirements. The thesis is not the place for an essay about ethics. Save that for the forms. I’m looking for something else.

I do want to know however what the researcher actually DID and why – and I want it told to me economically and clearly. And then I’m looking for any specific ethical issues that the researcher had to think about at the start of, during and at the end of their research. I’m looking for discussion about any challenging issues that might have arisen. These are likely to be the things that are not as well-captured in those tick-box institutional forms.

Here’s a few entirely random and arbitrary issues I’ve come across recently in theses I’ve examined or looked at. In all cases I would have liked more acknowledgement of, and discussion about them:

(1) What is consent? Is consent simply a form-signing event? There is of course always the right to withdraw, but should people be seen as always in a state of giving consent – in other words, does the researcher have to continue to think about informing participants about what is going on in the research so they continue to agree to participate.

And how does consent apply to the use of data-mining large anonymous tranches of personal digital data? Should people know that twitter data is being used for research purposes and if so, do they have the right to say no to particular people and projects? How would they know? How would they consent?

(2) What is harm? Who should be the arbiter of what constitutes harm? And is it always straightforward? Questions of harm are often very difficult to determine – for example, does NOT asking a question of an interviewee on the grounds that the researcher considers it might be upsetting constitute a denial of the opportunity for the interviewee to make their own mind up whether to answer or not? This is an autonomy versus protection dilemma which often appears in research with children.

(3) Payment. Should people be paid for their participation in research? How much payment would constitute coercion – and how would we know? How can the ‘gift’ of research participants’ time be recognized? Should it?

(4) How to deal with a potentially negative analysis? How does the researcher approach the question of dealing with negative interpretations of the site or participants? How to balance the obligation to truth with that of potential harm? What about the right to be informed? Must the participants always be informed about critical elements of an analysis, and should they have the right to veto elements of the resulting thesis text?

Now, I wasn’t looking in the theses I saw for a standardised conversation about a predetermined set of answers in response to any of these issues. I was looking first of all for a recognition that these WERE ethical issues arising in the particular research. As an examiner, I wanted to know how the researcher understood and then resolved them for their project. I was looking for a bespoke explanation about the very particular ethical issues that had to be taken into account in the specific research project.

it’s about going beyond the forms you see. And the people on institutional Research Ethics committees generally want there to be more than the forms too.

Because questions of power, rights and moral principles underpin research, ‘ethics’ is never a matter of simply meeting institutional requirements. Yes, the form filling has to be done and it’s important, but there is more than this to questions of ethics. Ethics seems to me to be to be about a sensibility, a way of being in the world as a researcher. Ethics is also a way of doing research, it’s about the never-ending development of a research practice, underpinned by commitments to working with and through normative principles held in tension.

So I want to know, in a thesis, whether the researcher has/is this. Ultimately, as a thesis examiner – a gatekeeper of disciplinary and research practices – I want to see that researchers emerge from doctoral education understanding that the conduct of ethical research is often a matter of finding ways to reconcile apparently conflicting principles. I want to see somewhere that they understand that this means they must always watch themselves, their interactions and decisions with an ethical eye. I want to see that the researcher thinks about ethics AFTER their form was approved.

Posted in consent, ethics, harm, thesis | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

on Attention Surplus Disorder

Writing requires huge amounts of solitude. What I’ve done to soften the harshness of that choice is that I don’t write all the time.  I like to go out- which includes traveling; I can’t write when I travel. I like to talk. I like to listen. I like to look and to watch. Maybe I have an Attention Surplus Disorder. The easiest thing in the world for me is to pay attention.

Susan Sontag. p 17 in Krementz, Jill (1996) The writer’s desk. New York: Random House.

I love this from Susan Sontag. It so seems to fit my life too. I retreat to write. But then I also pay much too much attention to too many things at once.

I’m thinking of that attention-al aspect of me today as I work on and work up a set of workshop activities around building an academic profile. I re-looked at my own bio and publications, and saw how hard it might be to see them – from outside – as a coherent set of activities. On the inside it all seems perfectly sensible! I’m interested in several overlapping things and I keep them all on the go. I pay attention to multiple things at once.

And I was reminded about my own version of attention surplus disorder yesterday when someone asked me in a workshop what to do with a doctoral researcher who was always finding that the latest thing they’d read was just the very thing that they most wanted to do, one after another, on and on. The doctoral researcher couldn’t develop a consistent approach and this was jeopardizing their research as they kept chopping and changing what they wanted to do and never settling. I said, among other things, that I liked finding new things too. And I do. I really relish finding a new bit of text or hearing someone talk about a something that sparks off a new line of thinking, a new perspective, a new possibility. However I do think it’s important that this doesn’t get in the way of an agenda (or three). It must be possible to both pay attention and also be focused – although, as Sontag points out, not at the same time.

And just last week someone asked me why I was working with a particular research partner – a big name art museum – and why I didn’t partner with art schools in higher education. I had no answer to this question other than that this was what I’d fallen into. I had an opportunity and I took it. I hadn’t imagined I might do this particular kind of research, but when it turned up, I was interested, no I was excited by the possibility, and by the challenge of having to learn a lot of new things. I wanted to be out of my comfort zone and this was just the chance. I wanted to pay attention to even more than I already was.

And I thought about my attention economy and the question of planning a while ago when I read Athene Donald’s post on improvisation. She wrote that she understood her career as having strong elements of improvisation. She hadn’t worked her career in a pre-conceived straight line but via diversions. I feel much the same way. I didn’t plan my career in any long-term sense. I’ve always followed my interests, but also been aware of the possibilities and opportunities that might be around. I guess some people would call this entrepreneurial or opportunistic or flexible or fluid, or even disordered. I prefer Sontag’s notion of paying attention to what might be possible.

It does seem to me that all of these things – an academic profile, a new research topic, a research agenda, a career – could be connected to the ways in which we attend to things around us. While Attention Surplus Disorder might sound like a problem, a way of being distracted, it might also be highly (re)generative of the self and life. It might be a way of being able to be particularly focused at times, but not all the time. Too tiring, as Sontag notes in the lead up to the piece I’ve quoted.

Finding it easy to pay attention might indeed be a very positive life practice, as might dis-ordering things that are taken for granted. Im wondering now if this is especially so for academics? artists? writers? others whose life work is to interact with and understand the world?

What do you think? Do you have Attention Surplus Disorder too?

Posted in Athene Donald, Attention Surplus Disorder, Susan Sontag | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

thesis know-how – beware the quote dump

I very often see first drafts of theses – and sometimes completed ones – which suffer from quote dumping. A quote dump is when the writer inserts a very large extract of someone else’s words into a text and then does nothing with it. The quote sits there, highly visible in its indented and italicised state, inert, unyielding, impenetrable.

The quote dump often occurs in literature chapters and/or when the thesis writer is discussing theoretical literatures. It’s sometimes used when people are explaining their methodology. It can happen when people genuinely attempt to engage with other people’s words and ideas and either challenge them, evaluate them or make them into foundations for their own research.

While quote dumping might have been the way to get good marks in essays in undergraduate and Masters work, it is a learned strategy that doesn’t fly so well in a doctoral thesis. Yes, the thesis reader wants to know what the thesis writer understands about what they have read, but they want to know as well how the writer interprets and evaluates this material, not merely whether they are capable of finding and selecting a quotation. Thesis readers also want to know what the thesis writer intended them to think about a quotation – is it a key point and if so how? What is so important about these words that they must be separated out from the rest of the text and given a prominent position? How does this sentence or five advance the argument being made?

Using quotations is of course perfectly OK thing to do – I’m not suggesting a ban on quotations, rather a more thoughtful use of them. And one or two quotations without any commentary from the thesis writer can be overlooked. But when a thesis reader finds serial quote dumping – a kind of textual fly-tipping on page after page – then they really do start to worry. Is the writer dumping quotations one after the other because they can’t actually understand the ideas properly, and the quotes stand in for a lack of real comprehension? Or are they afraid to speak out, and are hiding behind the words of important others because they just don’t think that their interpretation will stand up to scrutiny? Is this quote dumping a kind of ventriloquizing act where the thesis writer has their hand metaphorically up the back of the people that they think need to be included? Can the thesis writer not write the ideas in their own words?

Quotations, no more than data, do not speak for themselves. The thesis writer needs to provide some clues to the reader about what they are to make of the quotation they are encountering. Sparely used quotations must be introduced in some way, and the reader given some guidance about what they are to make of them. The quotation needs to flow into the following sentences which in turn amplify and carry forward the idea that the quotation represents. Incorporating quotations into the flow of argument, through appropriate commentary, means that the thesis reader does not feel they have fallen over an obstacle every time they encounter an indented or “…” quotation. They don’t feel that the thesis writer has just dumped the quote because they can’t, or perhaps can’t be bothered, to make clear what the point is, while also making a smooth reading experience.

It is thus very important for thesis writers to think very carefully about when, where and why they use big slabs of quotation. The solution to quote dumping is for thesis writers to be judicious in the number of quotations that are used – and then use the lesser number to effect. A quotation may well be appropriate when the thesis writer wants to show how an idea was elegantly and eloquently put, how a particular idea can be delineated, or how or term is defined, or when a surprising metaphor, an apt analogy or a creative association is made. Quote sparely and to effect!

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

writing course – yes, but was it any good?

Now that the intensive eight days writing course are over, it’s interesting to reflect on what happened. What might count as success? What went right/wrong? How do we know what to do differently next time? These are not abstract questions. They’ve been occupying the course leaders for the last day or so.

Success? Well, we could look at whether people lasted the distance. What was our drop-out rate? Well that’s easy to answer. None, zip, zilch. Noone dropped out. Everyone hung in till the end. But maybe that’s because there were five credits on offer and to get them you had to hang in. Mmm. So what else?

Well, maybe success is whether people actually had a first draft by the end of the period. Well no, they didn’t. Not all of them anyway. Eleven people did. Is that good enough? How good does it have to be? But, hang on… the other six had good excuses though. They were either hanging off waiting for a co-writer’s involvement, they needed some new data, or it had taken them a while to sort out what they were doing. Partial success perhaps? Generally OK enough to get by?

On the other hand, maybe we shouldn’t pass any judgment on the course until the actual end. The eight days might be over, but that’s not all, folks. From now on there are groups of four and five meeting each week to revise and finish off their papers to get them ready to send in. So should sending the papers off to a journal be sufficient criteria for success, or should we wait even longer to see whether they really get published? What does being published mean? Is revise and resubmit enough? What level of referee judgments would we deem as not OK?

Or perhaps we should ask the participants what they learned about academic writing, or ask them what they will do next time they write a paper that they wouldn’t have done before… and surely we should ask them what bits of the course worked best for them and what didn’t? But when would we ask this? Is it too soon to ask now, or should we ask now and then again later?

Should we actually look at the writing and see what changed over the course of the course, and what continued to change afterwards? We do have folders with a lot of the pieces of writing lodged in them, we have writings able to be examined by dates on which they were produced.

And what about the participants’ supervisors? They weren’t actually in the course, but they will be able to see what the doctoral researchers do as a result. Something. Nothing… They will certainly have views on whether the course was useful or not and whether it made a difference.

So what really would count as success and how would we know? Who should we ask? What should we look at? All of the above, perhaps?

We’re thinking about these questions because we’re going to apply for a little bit of internal funding to examine not only this course, but also the one from last year. And we think that because this course was designed to support PhDs by publication it might be of more interest than to just us. But of course it is really important to us, because we do want to know if it’s worth doing again, and if so, how it might be improved and how to make it sustainable.

Watch this space as the saying goes. Bid writing in progress….

Posted in criteria for success, writing course | Tagged , , | 1 Comment