blogging in the growlery

Like Shakespeare, Charles Dickens liked to invent new words. Along with flummox, abuzz, and whiz-bang, he is also often credited with ‘the growlery’, which he mentioned in passing in Bleak House. There is some debate about whether this word is his creation, and most dictionaries suggest it is an archaic term he adopted but that it’s no longer in use.

Now, like more than a few others, I’m a bit put out by the idea that the term growlery isn’t useful any more. I happen to think it’s a very helpful word. 

So what does it mean, this growlery, I hear you ask. (She writes this as if you can’t guess…)  Just as an observatory is a place you go to observe, a growlery is a place you go to, well yes, to growl. It’s officially dictionary-defined as a place you retreat to, alone and ill-humoured.

It’s an evocative word and I usually associate it with a Dickens-type figure clad in Victorian best harrumphing while pacing up and down in a dimly lit, book lined, leather furniture filled study. I’m sure you can summon up your own image of the growlery and its grumpy inhabitant.

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I realised recently however, that my blog is my growlery. It’s where I go when I feel exasperated, when I have the irrits. I’ve learnt to turn at least some of that annoyance into writing.

I write some blog posts when I am ticked off, when I want to ‘get something off my chest’ to summon up a cliche. A growlery post pretty well always results from something which has set me off in a tiny academic pique. It’s usually something I’ve just heard or read. The recent post I wrote on bibliographies and reference lists  was written in the growlery. As was the one on methodology and methods. And the one on Profzilla. Actually, when I think about it, there’s quite a lot of posts that begin in the sanctum of the scholarly growlery.

Of course, there are some things that are growlery material that I don’t blog about. One of those is when the target of my curmudgeonly prose would be too obvious and recognisable. I do try to avoid naming and shaming and ritual public humiliation. Blog ethics are much the same as any other kind of writing ethics – no slander, no unnecessary and obvious finger-pointing.

But the blog as growlery can be a pretty productive place. The growlery doesn’t have to be somewhere that you just go to stew or feel annoyed. You might start off feeling prickly and waspish, tetchy and touchy, disagreeable and surly. But then there is the possibility of turning that peeve into something more constructive, humorous, an answering back or the posing of a tricky question… Having a growlery blog makes this possible. Writing a post provides a route through the grouchiness. A retreat to privately rant just morphs into a writing retreat.

Publishing the growlery post is the equivalent of closing the door on that dimly lit, book lined, leather furniture filled room. You’ve had your disgruntled moment. And, at least on some occasions you’ve managed, via blogging, to turn the ill temper to good use.

So… Not yet a regular blogger and more than a bit churlish about an event, a policy,  a taken for granted assumption, the latest trend in scholarship? In that case, get thee to the growlery and let the steam emanating from your ears slowly consolidate into a blog post.

Image credit: smerikal

Posted in blogging, blogging about blogging, blogging in the growlery | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

when peer review is scent marking

Continuing random posts on peer reviewer behaviour…

So we all know what scent marking is. It’s when animals set out the boundaries of their territory by leaving their scent in strategic places. Scentmarked territories are often used for sleeping and/or mating and rearing young. The marked area may also contain a food supply.  Scent marking animals will fight others of their kind and other species who try to encroach their territory, or try to take it over.

The scent is a warning to any potential intruders. Watch out this is my space! Come in at your peril!

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Now, there is an equivalent behaviour in the academy too. Some subfields within disciplines are particularly prone to highly territorialist activities – they engage in scholarly scent marking.

Some academic communities are often highly focused. This is of course a Good Thing as it allows for effective knowledge building. Tight knowledge building communities share a common base of literatures and long-standing conversations about particular topics.  They expect newcomers to the field to know and understand its history and be suitably deferential to key figures. But sometimes they aren’t all that welcoming of difference. They are territorial.

How can you tell if an academic territory is of this kind? Well, they do have some qualities you can see. Academic territoriality is often apparent in the journals that serve seriously boundaried communities. Their journals have a clear and explicit statement of what they are trying to achieve. They will probably state particular themes that they are interested in exploring. They are clear about their ongoing conversations and they invite in only those people who are interested in participating in their existing subfield.

But disciplinary boundaries are often not explicit. The edges of what’s acceptable appear by omission –  you have to look for what isn’t said in their journal mission statements as much as what is.  Boundaried academic community journals may just not say anything about welcoming debate, or encouraging innovation, or inviting diverse approaches. genres and methods – nor will they mention other, perhaps rivalrous, groups in the same discipline. The unwanted are only present by their absence.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong in either loose or tight disciplinary boundaries. And it’s not a conservative versus progressive behaviour question either. A hard disciplinary border can serve multiple ends. But the existence of the invisible wall has implications that potential new members have to think about.

Journal communities often police their boundaries very strongly. And one of the ways they do this is through peer review. Researcher-writers who stray into a tightly defined territory without knowing the core texts, knowledge building interests, methods, important scholars and seminal papers may well get desk rejected for these omissions – you have picked the wrong journal (subtext you are writing about something we are not interested in). If sent to review, peer reviewers may well say much the same. They may be helpful and outline the texts and themes the new writer needs to address if they want their paper in the journal. Or they  may suggest the genre that they expect writers to conform to. This is a helpful response as it helps the new contributor work out whether they want to proceed or not.

So here is a trap lying in waiting for early career writers. How do you know if the journal you have targeted is one which is highly territorial in its behaviour? The answer to this is to (1) ask around, particularly a mentor or supervisor, about the boundaries of the journal, and (2) check to see if there is any work broadly like yours in the journal. If there isn’t then it’s probably a good idea to look for another journal which is more inclusive. And (3), if you are still in doubt, email the editor to ask whether they would be interested in your paper. But beware, sometimes journal editors are more open than their reviewers!

And there is another trap here too. Some early career researchers want to critique closed fields. They want to question the boundaries that have been established. They want to bring new ideas. The want to insert different literatures and novel perspectives into the subfield. The critique + new angle is often part of the contribution of a PhD for instance. But when it comes to turning this critique into a publication, reviewer territoriality can be profoundly in unreceptive. Peer review becomes a matter of teeth and claws.

Some territorial subfields are highly resistant to critical alternative views, approaches or even writing genres. When they receive a paper which problematises their territory, they don’t simply become defensive – we already do this – they also go on the attack – this is a foolish and unwarranted critique, this is unsubstantiated if you knew our stuff you’d never say this, this is unscholarly.

 Unknowingly sending in a paper to a journal and getting this kind of response can be off-putting to experienced researchers particularly if you aren’t expecting it. But when you are an early career researcher an aggro scent marking response can be really demoralising. It’s as well to understand that what is being said may not be about the scholarship at all but be about the incursion into unwelcoming territory.

And this negative response works both ways.  Paradoxically many journals that attempt to push interdisciplinary boundaries, or experiment with different genres, won’t be terribly interested in conventional papers. They too actually operate in ways not dissimilar to a narrowly focused sub-disciplinary journal suspicious of something from way beyond its borders. Its the general journals where there may be more open-to-all-comers approach. The tightness or otherwise of the journal area and its subsequent scent marking behaviour depends on its knowledge building intentions.

So what do you do about this if you are an early career researcher-writer?

My usual advice in writing workshops for early career and doctoral researchers is to publish first of all in the journals which will welcome your work and will see it as a contribution to their conversation. Then have a go at putting something into the bordered territory.

Save the article that is highly critical of the subfield until you have a bit of publishing under your belt and can withstand the possible scent marking response. But do try to construct a white flag in your paper. Full-on attacks  of a subfield are pretty well guaranteed to bring out an aggressive counter move – you’ve invaded my territory –  so framing a new view as a respectful, constructively critical and positive contribution is often a helpful claw-retracting move.

 

Photo credit: Gary Owens

 

 

Posted in disciplines, journal article, peer review, subfield, territoriality, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

finding your people online – PhD and ECR parents

This guest post is written by Chantel Carr and Leah Williams Veazey. Chantel is a PhD candidate in the School of Geography and Sustainable Communities at the University of Wollongong. Her research explores industrial work, postcapitalist economies and sustainability. Leah is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney. Her research explores migration, motherhood and online communities. 

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The solitary aspects of a PhD can certainly be amongst the most challenging to manage. Whether you work on campus amongst an active community of fellow researchers or as a distance student, the process of researching and writing a PhD inevitably involves lots of time alone in your head. It’s no surprise that many of us turn to social media as a way of connecting with the world ‘out there’.

But the relationship between social media and writing a thesis is a fraught one. On the one hand, it’s the perfect storm of diversion – you don’t have to get up, you don’t even have to look out the window. Just one click and you can be instantly transported to a world without word counts or deadlines, where everyone is either having fun or being outraged. On the other hand, Facebook and Twitter are so ubiquitous that many research centres use these platforms to point to new work, and so it becomes counter-productive to avoid them completely.

Many would recognize the old adage ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. So too a thesis. A ‘village’ of supportive supervisors, colleagues, mentors, friends both inside and outside academia, partners and family makes for a happier, more balanced candidate. But our PhD journeys have been immeasurably improved by another kind of village. The PhD and ECR Parents Facebook group is an online space for people who are going through or recently finished a PhD while – rather obviously – parenting children.

If the work of doing a PhD (and by this we mean both the emotional work as well as the actual work) is testing, doing it while parenting brings an additional set of challenges. Whether it is a ‘solid’ work day squeezed into school hours, an important paragraph stopped in its tracks by the needs of a small person, or carefully laid fieldwork or lab plans scuppered by an unexpected dash to the doctor with a sick child, interruptions to schedules are the norm, not the exception. The flexibility of PhD time can be both a blessing as well a curse. Most parents would do anything to avoid having to drag a small child along to a medical appointment or grocery shopping. For a PhD parent fitting these things into your day becomes a breeze. A breeze that is, until you realize that school pick-up is only 45 minutes away and you haven’t written a sentence since 10am.

Many PhD parents have turned to academia after professional careers, so are already experienced at juggling competing (and often clashing) demands on their time. But when it all becomes too much, being able to share the overwhelm and absurdity of everyday life with others who are juggling similar issues is comforting. With just over 900 members located all over the world, and often working at strange hours of the day and night, there is always an empathetic ear available, whether you’re keeping vigil over a sick child’s bed, hopelessly crafting a last-minute Easter bonnet for tomorrow’s parade, or wrangling with your epistemology (or indeed, attempting all three simultaneously).

Alongside these quotidian challenges, are the crises that seem to arrive more frequently as lives become more complex. Finances and relationships are often tested by the double whammy of a PhD and children. The group is a safe space where bereavements, mental and physical illness are all shared openly. Entering academia a bit later in life means many members of the group hold down full or part-time professional jobs while doing a PhD. Some are already working as established lecturers, both with and without PhDs, depending on the discipline. The diversity of experience is important and somewhat unique. It brings together a range of different perspectives on problems that arise with both PhD and parenting. ECRs offer advice on negotiating supervisory issues as they begin to supervise students of their own. Experienced educators help with unusual issues in teaching and assessments. Psychologists and early childhood experts allay fears around child development. Health professionals offer alternative perspectives that prompt more fruitful conversations with practitioners at the next appointment. It’s like having a pocketful of very clever friends on call, day and night.

As the group has grown rapidly over the last year, it has led to the establishment of a number of other niche ‘villages’ including a very active virtual SUAW group, a ‘keeping healthy’ group, a motivational “Mission Possible” group for those hoping to finish this year and the ‘Full Draft Club’ for those pushing towards the first full draft. Local groups in Sydney, London, North-East England, North-West England and elsewhere enable people to meet for a casual coffee, advocate for better support for parents at their local university and, on occasion, provide a real life shoulder to cry on. There’s a group for people parenting children with additional needs during their PhD and one for those who have left, or are thinking of leaving, academia.

From a PhD perspective, exposure to other disciplines, epistemologies and methods is another benefit of an online discussion group organized around interests outside of your own subject area. Those with quantitative skills help with questions on statistics or modeling that the rest of us mere mortals sometimes struggle with. Rather than wondering what an anthropologist or a linguist would make of our findings – we ask them. This is exactly the kind of interdisciplinary networking that many universities are becoming very interested in. Sometimes different ontological perspectives can lead to vigorous debate, but those finely honed parenting skills – patience, tolerance, calmness – come in handy here, and debates are largely conducted with respect and an open mind for what other disciplines and perspectives bring to the table.

And this is a key part of what makes this particular group so successful, and so well loved by its members. An environment of respect and tolerance has been carefully crafted by the committed moderators, who work hard to ensure that new members fit the criteria as both PhD students and parents. This work is largely invisible, and done for free. It is important to recognize the work that moderating such a large group involves, and acknowledge that the group moderators do this work on top of their already hefty workloads as employees, PhD candidates and parents. The result is a safe and supportive space for members to share concerns, vent frustrations, ask for advice and celebrate key milestones. And those celebrations are particularly sweet! Every event – a publication, a presentation, a thesis submission – is a cause for celebration, not least because we all know that it has been achieved amidst the unfolding of a complex life.

Many people, not just parents, are managing complex lives alongside their PhD. Yet university policies, faculty schedules, expected milestones and departmental cultures often seem to be modelled on a young, unencumbered person with no responsibility to anyone but themselves and their research. Before they find the PhD/ECR Parents group, many members have never spoken to anyone who shares the same concerns, who is trying to keep all the plates spinning and excel at them all. Finding out you’re not alone, that people before you have managed it, can provide the inspiration to keep going.  Alternatively, a group of empathetic ‘strangers’ who understand the struggles, can be the people who persuade you to seek the extra support you need, or to take a break.

There are a whole bunch of reasons why we stop talking to people in our everyday lives, particularly in the crucial phases of writing up. But if you can find your community online, and manage the way you engage with social media, it can become an invaluable part of the PhD journey.

Note: The PhD and ECR Parents Group warmly welcome anyone interested in joining the group to get in touch, but please ensure you are able to give some details of your academic and family situation before lodging a request to join.

Image: Leah Tautkute, Flickr Commons.

Posted in Facebook, PhD, PhD parent, social media, support | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

have a good research ride

Patter is now back from two weeks annual leave. Going on leave doesn’t mean leaving your research and teaching interests behind. As often happens, I had a thought or two during my ‘downtime’.

In fact, we had hardly begun our drive through the Highlands when we came across a large group of motor cyclists outside a café. And when I say large group, I do mean large – about forty bikes, many of which carried two people. Of course, it’s not uncommon to see such large biker groups gathered together on routes where it’s possible to ride very long distances without getting bogged down in traffic or villages. The Highlands are certainly one such place.

It was pretty clear to anyone ‘outside’ the group that this was a community. My experience of such communities is drawn from the camaraderie of dog walkers and the ease with which we can strike up a conversation about breeds, names and various canine doings. And I imagine something similar goes on with motor cyclists. Bikers have a mode of transport in common – and I’m guessing here – share the pleasure of the sensations of a physically exposed way of getting from A to B as well as the unwelcome experiences of suspicious glances and dangerous moments.

So it’s not surprising that groups of motorcyclists, whether they actually know one another or not, readily strike up conversations about the road and weather conditions, good places to stop, various kinds of bikes and accoutrements. That’s what we saw as we drew into the cafe car park.

On this particular occasion, I overheard the same phrase several times in as many minutes. As people got on their bikes to leave the café car park the ritual good bye seemed to be “Have a good ride.” Nothing about getting where you wanted to go. Nothing about arriving in one piece. Nothing about staying safe on the road. And nothing about seeing you at the next stop. It was simply “Have a good ride”.

Having a good ride seemed to be as much, or perhaps even more, the point of the ride than reaching your destination. Having a good ride was about the process, the getting there. You could get from A to B through either a good or bad ride, and not surprisingly, it was most desirable for it to be good.

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So why did this strike me so forcibly?

Well, it’s probably obvious. But it goes to something that I often worry about.

When we teach people about research we generally focus on the end point. The point of doing research is to find something out. The point of reading literatures is to design the research that will help you answer the research question. The point of generating data is that it’s the stuff that gives you an answer the research question. The point of analysing data is so that you get to something that noone’s thought about in quite in this way. It’s all about the outcome.

But, and yes I know you can see my argument here, but let me say it anyway…  you can get the answer to your research question in different ways.  Research can be a process that you rush through – you read the literatures as quickly as possible, you generate the data as efficiently as you can and chaff at the bit all through the analysis. Writing the text at the end is just another time-consuming task that comes before you actually get to say proudly “Here is my research, here is my answer to this question, here is the contribution”.

This is the scholarly equivalent of riding a motorcycle without taking time to enjoy the experience of getting there. It’s as if the process of research itself is unimportant, is strictly utilitarian, has no particularly notable value of and in itself.

OK. Before you say it, yes, the bikers sometimes have bad weather, crappy roads and unfortunate encounters with other vehicles. But this is not what other bikers wish for each other. Their ritual goodbye was/is in fact that none of these things happen – that the ride  to come was/is an optimum experience, one the rider enjoys, where they just simply focus on the experience of near-naked travel at speed with the wind in their face …

So, I thought, while paused at the road side café in the Highlands, maybe there’s an equivalent wish for researchers, something that we could say to each other as we embark on our inquiries. Like.. Have a good research ride. Is that so impossible a community saying? It’s naff, but it does make the point. The process of research can be great fun and enormous pleasure.

Take time to enjoy. It’s not all about producing the answer to your question.

Relax into the project rhythm – it takes as long as it takes.

Find the moments to listen to the words of others in your ears.

Relish unexpected responses.

Delight in bringing order to an unruly mass of numbers and words.

Experience intense satisfaction in small steps completed.

Feel the joy in fleeting moments of clarity.

Thrill in the risk of following a hunch.

Play without inhibition on a theoretical road less well-travelled.

Understand the blessing of time available to play with the right words to express what the analysis might mean.

Indulge in the luxury of a space to think and write.

Yes, why not?  Have a good research ride. I’ll soon be trying this as a good wish to colleagues and students.

 

Image: Sandeepatchetan, taken in Ladakh. Flickr Commons.

Posted in pleasure, research as process | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

bibliography v. reference list … just semantics?

So here’s the thing. What’s the difference between a bibliography and a reference list?

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I was always taught there was an important difference between a bibliography and a reference list. The reference list is the stuff you actually cite in the paper. The bibliography is all of the books you read, some/a lot of which actually aren’t cited. There are also bibliographies, annotated or not, which are a list of books somebody thinks are the definitive guide to a topic.

I notice that a lot of university guides for students – you know those online how-to-do-academic-work compendia that all undergrads are meant to look at – maintain that distinction. A bibliographic list tells your tutor all the stuff you read, while your references are confined to the things you used. My own university for example says

The term bibliography is the term used for a list of sources (e.g. books, articles, websites) used to write an assignment (e.g. an essay). It usually includes all the sources consulted even if they not directly cited (referred to) in the assignment.

Indeed, as an undergrad history student, many many moons ago, I had to submit both bibliographic and reference lists for assessment purposes. No wonder the difference is cemented into my memory! And as a supervisor I often ask PhDders to send me their bibliographies so I can see what they are reading, and planning to read.

Harvard and APA style guides make the same distinction. A bibliography is the total, the lot, the whole shebang and the reference list the selected, the particular.

However, the definitions that are offered for bibliography and references in dictionaries often conflate the two. References are given as a synonym for a bibliography. A bibliography is defined as the list of actual citations in a text. What’s more, I often see academic writing advice in print and online which also equates the two. Even more important perhaps is the fact that I very often see theses where the reference list is called the bibliography. Does this suggest that supervisors too don’t share views on what the two terms actually mean?

But I realised recently as I blanched at yet another piece of writing advice which referred to a reference list as a bibliography that the question of nomenclature is one of my correctional lexical moments, an instance where I have a kind of visceral red pen compulsion. Right or wrong, convention bound as it probably is, I want to see a reference list called references.

And as something of a justification for that view… a semantic differentiation between the two – the citations versus the total of texts read – does recognise that we usually read a great deal more than we actually cite. Both broad and deep bibliographic reading is essential to get our heads around a field, its debates and its idiosyncrasies. We can’t possibly hope to refer to all of these readings at once – particularly in a word-restricted journal article – but even in the more generous word limits of a thesis.We’ve all generally got much bigger bibliographies than reference lists.  (And, can I just whisper, if we cite everything we have read on a topic it is either a paper which is weighed down with brackets and is just about unreadable, or we just haven’t read enough. )

But perhaps this distinction is just a personal foible. A throwback to wanting correct and absolute writing practice. Or perhaps not. Reference list, bibliography – what’s in a name.

 

Image: Peta Hopkins, Flickr Commons

Posted in bibliography, citations, reference list | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

writing a paper? what’s the angle?

Researchers are often heavily entangled in their research.  They’ve lived with it for a long time. And they can do that because the research is interesting to them. Really interesting. It’s not really surprising that a long-term-involved researcher might forget that other people may not immediately share their passion. Why would anyone not want to know about the stuff they’ve been working on for ages? And when they write about this work, they sometimes forget to tell their readers what about their research is worth spending time on.

Sad news but true… Often readers aren’t interested in your topic. Perhaps its because they’ve already read about it, or perhaps it’s because the topic just isn’t on their radar. But of course it could be. So what’s stopping them? Well, frequently it’s simply because the writer hasn’t convinced the reader that they should read the research that’s taken so much time and effort.

One of the very common problems I encounter in journal writing article workshops is that writers can’t work out what they need to do to encourage readers to engage. They just can’t find an angle that will do the trick. But what do I mean by angle? Well perhaps a metaphor might help.

Imagine the topic you are going to write about is an object – it’s one that you can’t entirely see. But you can see quite a bit of it as a result of the research you’ve done. Now, you can stand right in front of this (hypothetical) object and describe what you see in front of you. Equally, you might lie on your back, stand to one side, climb up a ladder, look through a piece of gauze, or peer through a tube at it. Perhaps the object seems to be telling you which of these standing points is more appropriate. But whatever position you take up, each standing point gives a different angle on your object. You see and can say different things.

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Now think about the research that you want to write about in exactly the same way. There’s more than one position to take on it. More than one angle.

Next, think about the readers of your target journal. They  may well be familiar with this object/topic, or one a lot like it. There may have been quite a bit already written about it. These readers don’t want to read something written from the most obvious or usual position, standing straight in front or standing a little to one side. They’ve had a lot of that already. So, giving them more of this same-old view is kind of hohum boring. But they’d be interested in something looking at the same object/topic from another angle, perhaps from the ladder or the view you get from lying underneath. OK, enough of the metaphor. You get the point I’m sure.

The point is that it’s generally not enough to have something to write about in a journal article, you also have to find an angle on it that is both interesting and unfamiliar/novel to the reader. This might for example be through:

  • a novel data corpus
  • putting several data sets together in an innovative way
  • bringing new methods to the topic
  • using a different theoretical approach
  • bringing disciplinary perspectives together in a new way

Or the new angle could be something like:

  • a new problematisation or
  • a different interpretation, or
  • a new argument.

Any of these things – and of course more besides, you get to be creative here – offer the reader a different way to look at a topic from the one or two they may be quite familiar with, or may know slightly.

The angle you take is established by setting up the paper from a particular standing point. Your introduction and conclusion are then written from your chosen angle. (We’ve all seen a lot of pictures of the Eiffel Tower but not so many from below…  knowing an object only from one perspective means… etc). But it’s not always easy to find your angle.

In my writing workshops, I always spend time getting people to ‘pitch’ their paper. This helps them find an angle that works. I offer a few headings to work to:

  • What’s the paper about? (the field and the paper focus)
  • Who is the reader? (What’s the journal)
  • What does the reader already know about the topic? What’s the usual way that the topic is discussed?  (What’s already in the scholarly conversation in the journal in particular and the field)
  • What’s the new approach that your paper will offer? Why will the reader find this angle of interest?

Participants often find the pitch exercise useful. Yes, having to present thoughts in a very short period of time – no more than three or four minutes – can be tricky, but it’s also often pretty helpful. However, it’s VERY often the conversation that happens around the pitch that’s most important and significant. It’s the bouncing-ideas-around and being-asked-to-think-about-why-the-topic-is-important, and why-this-angle that seems to make the most difference to Worksop participants.

Dealing with these questions – why this topic, why now, is this something that readers would like to know about, is it something that they are already quite familiar with – is incredibly useful preparation for writing, for thinking about the ways in which your material and argument can be presented. And dealing with the ‘angle’ questions through dialogue, in a supportive environment, with either peers, or a mentor, can be highly productive.

So why not try it out? Have a go, as we Australians say,  at finding your angle, and focusing and refining it, before you start on that next paper you’ve been musing on.

Image: Nithi Anand.

Posted in academic writing, journal article, reader, the angle, the pitch, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

PhD narratives

Patter is on annual leave and reprinting bits and pieces from other writing about writing or doctoral education. This is the (second) foreword I’ve written for an edited collection of PhD stories. This one is called Postgraduate study in the UK: surviving and succeeding edited by Sue Cronshaw, Christopher McMaster, Caterina Murphy, and Natasha Codiroli McMaster

This book is a collection of stories and it is about storied lives – and it is perhaps useful to consider what this means, even before you begin reading.

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It is now an academic truism to say that we live storied lives, and that we are storytellers and characters in our own and other people’s stories (e.g. Berger, 1997; Clandinin & Connelly, 2000). The eminent psychologist Jerome Bruner claimed that our stories are not static and stable. We continually remake our stories over and over throughout our lives. This ongoing narrativisation helps us make sense of our lives, and in so doing, we also make our lives as they unfold (Bruner, 1986). If we follow this line of thinking, it is hardly surprising that the PhD is a fertile site for storying.

Bruner, a psychologist, wanted to understand how people make sense of themselves and their worlds. He argued that narratives are inevitably concerned with:

  • the duration of time (drawing on Ricoeur, 1984-1988);
  • particularity – each narrative is different and specific to its teller, but operates within particular narrative ‘types’;
  • intention and agency – these are located in the characters in the story, be they human or non-human;
  • interpretation – stories are hermeneutic, open to our own retelling, and thus they are understood differently by different people (a point important in literary theory, see for example Bal, 1997);
  • ‘truth’ – the narrative contains something recognisable, it ‘rings true’, it has ‘verisimilitude’, rather than being factually evidenced;
  • explicit or hidden norms – these are addressed, breached or illustrated through story;
  • cumulative cultural understandings – when narratives accrue, they constitute something beyond the single story (Bruner, 1991).

Bruner was also keen to point out that underneath the most apparently straightforward and tidy narrative, double meanings, ambiguities and doubts often lurk (Bruner, 2003).

It is not hard to see the narrative features Bruner outlines in the PhD stories in this book. For instance… The writers offer perspectives from various stages of the doctorate and locate their experience within its often time-pressured frame. One of the odd things about the PhD is that it simultaneously seems to be endless and at the same time, often has too little time.  And while each story is highly individual, the writers address common challenges and there are sometimes obvious references to ‘types’ of doctoral experience – the journey, the battles uphill, success against the odds, the gradual enlightenment. Furthermore, the stories address/interrogate/disrupt the institutional and disciplinary structures within which the doctorate is undertaken and each narrative also conveys something of the energy and efficacy of the writer. And of course, as readers, we will undoubtedly interpret these stories for ourselves, bringing our own experiences into conversation with the text in order to make sense, and use, of it for ourselves.

However, Bruner’s line of thinking about narrative and storied lives is not without its critics. For instance, reviewing Bruner’s 2003 book Making Stories, Law, Literature, Life in The Guardian, Philosophy professor Galen Strawson says

Bruner never raises the question of whether there is any sense in which one’s self-narrative should be accurate or realistic. Those who favour the extreme fictionalist or post-modernist version of the narrative self-creation view don’t care about this, both because they don’t care about truth and because a fiction isn’t open to criticism by comparison with reality (it doesn’t matter that there is no Middle Earth). But honesty and realism about self and past must matter. There are innumerable facts about one’s character and history that don’t depend on one’s inventions. One can’t found a good life on falsehood. 

Strawson is concerned that a narrative can stray too far away from lived reality. It becomes a kind of fantasy, a false world in which the protagonist storyteller constructs an amoral rationale for their actions. Is this true of these stories?

It seems to me that Bruner’s argument about ‘ringing true’ goes part of the way towards addressing Strawson’s concern, although a philosopher might want to warn about the possibilities of collective self-delusion. However, in the academy, we are strongly committed to notions of collective scholarly agreement, and peer judgment. If, therefore, readers (collective) of the book agree that these stories resonate with them, then this potentially puts paid to Strawson’s worry. As readers who find resemblances between our experiences and those recounted here, we can assume that contributors have responded truthfully to the requests for contribution, and that the stories interpolate the ‘real’ of the doctorate. Certainly, while not all of these stories were my experiences, or those of doctoral researchers that I supervise, they all seem to me to be not only plausible and reasonable, but also convincing.

But is there anything beyond a straightforward reading of the book possible? Are these just small anecdotes to read at night to reassure us that we are not alone, or suggest that there are other ways to live and do the PhD? Of course. One of the ways in which we might make more of these stories is to subject them to narrative analysis (Riessman, 2008). This would be to put Bruner’s final point – about the ways in which narratives make culture(s) – to the test. We might read this collection looking for shared plots, common themes, patterns of emotional responses, common characters (human and non human) with similar intentions. We might use this kind of interpretive reading to build a critical view of the doctorate and the doctoral experience, asking ‘What does this overall narrative analysis mean? Is this the only story in town, the only way the PhD could be? Who is in this collective story and who isn’t – what kind of inclusions and exclusions are made visible through this analysis?’ And on that basis, ‘How might the doctorate be different?’

But of course, dear Reader, the text doesn’t have to be studied. It doesn’t have to be more work. These stories can simply be read to be enjoyed.  And they can be read to provoke your own stories which you might then add to the growing global anthology of PhD experiences.

 

References

Bal, M. (1997). Narratology. Introduction to the theory of the narrative (2nd ed.). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Berger, A. A. (1997). Narratives in popular culture, media and everyday life. London: Sage.

Bruner, J. (1986). Life as narrative. Social Research, 54(1), 11-32.

Bruner, J. (1991). The narrative construction of reality. Critical Inquiry, 18(1), 1-21.

Bruner, J. (2003). Making stories. Law, literature, life. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.

Clandinin, D. J., & Connelly, F. M. (2000). Narrative inquiry. Experience and story in qualitative research. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Ricoeur, P. (1984-1988). Time and narrative. Volumes 1-3 (K. M. a. P. Pellauer, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Riessman, C. K. (2008). Narrative methods for the human sciences. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

 

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