#tatesummerschool – day two

Linda posted a quotation from Judith Butler on Instagram before the day began. This was a key to the idea we were to encounter. thumbnail_IMG_1548.jpgBilled as drag day, all of day two activities addressed the notion of gender as performance, and explored how this might be achieved.

What we did:

We began with a circle of sound activity – passing noises around, raising and lowering their intensity. This ‘brought us into the room’ and actively focused our attention. Travis explained that when they use this kind of activity with kids, it signals that what is to come will also be active and involve minds/bodies.

We watched two drag performances – one by two members of pecs and the other by Victoria Sin. We also watched film by/of Victoria. We were able to ask questions of the artists about what they did, why and how it felt.

thumbnail_IMG_1532.jpgPecs, an all women collective, use drag to explore masculinities and patriarchial structures and practices. Their aim is not to pass as men but to use hyper-masculine characters to make social and political comment about gender. Pecs often perform as cabaret with comedy and live performance. However, we watched two serious, very emotional lipsync performances in the gallery, together with members of the public.   We saw and heard how becoming drag king involves modifying body stance, movement, expression, tone – the alter ego allows for messing with gender.

thumbnail_IMG_1542.jpgVictoria Sin adds to her body to become sinforvictory, a performance of white Western femininity. Exaggerating the familiar ideal female form presented in moving and still images is not an act of misogyny, but rather exposes how gender as a performance hides, creates anxieties and is exploited by profit. We were asked to think about what we add and what we hide when we perform gender on a daily basis.

We went with sinforvictory to the gallery to choose a work which said something about gender that was meaningful to us. We then used makeup, wigs and bits of cloth to augment our usual selves. We then took pictures of our augmented selves next to the art work we had chosen.  As this was in the gallery, with audience, we had to consciously consider the experience being an object of/for public display.

At the endthumbnail_IMG_1541.jpg of the day we discussed how drag might be used in the classroom – drag allows for children and young people to play with gender, and see it as amenable to continued choice and change.

We then worked on the timeline, using polaroid snaps, emojis, questions and comments to record our responses to drag day.



Pedagogical pointers:

  • Experiencing/doing/making adds layers of meaning to a key idea (a threshold concept)
  • A ‘difficult’ idea can be understood through scaffolded wholistic engagement – watch, listen, ask questions, watch, listen, ask questions, think about it, talk about it, try it out, feel it, reflect on it.
  • Let the unfolding experience of engagement with an idea deal with some unanswered questions.
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day one #tatesummerschool

This year the Summer School is about gender. Advance material explains:

2017’s Summer School uses art and the gallery to support teachers in understanding what gender is, queer theory, feminism, trans, intersex, and non-binary genders; and asks how making and being with art can support young people to explore and express their gender identity, thinking through teaching and learning practices.

All of us attending had signed up to/for this invitation.

When we arrived at the Exchange (Tate Modern), we found the space divided into several ‘rooms’. There were clothes lines, tables of art materials, a book shelf, and various arrangements of screens and chairs. It was clear that Travis and Linda (the curating artists) had been very busy and that these various spaces were designed to host distinct activities – although the exact nature of the activities we were yet to understand.


There’s that pink wig!

The morning was spent getting to know each other, and the focus of the summer school. We began sitting in a circle and discussed our preferred gender pronouns. Linda recorded our preferences. We established some rules that would operate throughout the week – being generous, apologising when we got things wrong. One section of clothes line became a repository for questions and comments that could be asked anonymously. We practiced writing a question. We were encouraged to continue to record questions during the week.


Linda and Travis

We then moved to an enclosed space to explore the usual gender binary and variations which disrupt it – for example, queer, inter sex, gender neutral. This was necessarily a long process, and a lot of information was on offer.

In the afternoon, following a short drama-based warmup led by Travis, we moved to the gallery to work in pairs. We had to find an alien body, and think about its qualities, including its gender, movement, differences from human bodies.


alien body exercise

What can be surmised from appearances? What can we imagine for this body that is like us, not like us? We then came back to the Exchange, and discussed our experiences with others at our table, while making an alien body from clay or plasticine.


clay body

The last activity of the day was working on the Summer School timeline. We recorded our responses in post-its and emojis – we got to write on the wall at Tate 🙂  – and noted further questions for tomorrow.


timeline record

During the day, Travis and Linda made their own pedagogical moves explicit,: for example,  they introduced an idea such as writing a question and pinning it up, and then had us practise it straight away. Some of their strategies – such as waving hands to show agreement, or saying “ouch” if something was upsetting – had been developed in workshops with young people and were offered to us as something to be done not only during the week, but also as resources to take back to school. Travis and Linda continued to alert us to the necessity of the work we were engaged in – for example, they pointed to statistics which suggested the likelihood that teachers already worked with children and young people who were either uncertain about gender or who had a non-binary gender preference. They combined permission, information, encouragement and legitimation through their conversation, a blend for us to adopt too, if we choose.

Pedagogical pointers

  1. Spend time finding out what people already know
  2. Introduce vocabulary and definitions about core ideas and design activities for their use
  3. When discussing a topic around which there are variable knowledges, and the potential for hurtful comment, it is important to establish clear agreements, and processes for handling difficulties
  4. Give time for clarification of ideas and uncertainties
  5. Offer an activity which allows for an imaginative and playful engagement with the core concept (the principle of serious fun)
  6. Structure time for both individual and group reflection
  7. The group can be a resource for each other’s learning, but this potentially asks more of some people than others. Make this possibility clear – and unacceptable*.


Linda’s cartoon of me. Expect to see this again in the future. 

* I always think here of Elizabeth Ellsworth’s important paper, Why doesn’t this feel empowering? It was written at a different time, but her critiques still stand.

















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it’s that time of year…

As this post publishes I am on my way to the Tate Summer School, the gallery’s annual professional development programme for teachers. I’ve been making this journey at this time of year since 2012. This is my sixth Summer School. Why? Because I work as a partner ethnographer, “embedded’ in the Tate  Schools and Teachers team who are responsible for the event.

Our shared interest has been to understand “what’s going on here” – or put less colloquially, we want to develop systematic understandings of learning in this very particular context. Learning in Summer School always has to take account of the specifics – the high-profile gallery, the collection and exhibitions, the artists, the material spaces and stuff, the participants with their various histories, interests and experiences, and the focus of the week. This all makes up an ’offer’ which participants variously take up, at the time and afterwards.


Summer School 2014 – taking over the Turbine Hall. Alice Walton from S and T team on the right. 

In between summer schools we have conversations, meetings, email exchanges, writings. Some years we’ve made deliberate attempts to pursue the question of research more thoroughly. At other times, we just talk and ‘do stuff’ together. We spend about twelve to fifteen or so days a year, some years a bit more – by my reckoning, we are now up to eighty-one days. In terms of ethnographic practice, this really isn’t that much actual time. This is pretty slow scholarship, it’s a sporadic ethnography. On and off.

And there isn’t that much to show for it yet in university publishing terms. Early on I wrote a working paper and more recently a chapter. For the last year or so we have also been working together on a rather large document called “lexicon” – our way of focusing on the keywords that we now use to discuss the gallery pedagogies. At some point fairly soon, this text will become public. Meanwhile, it just grows, an archive of the major conversations and tentative agreements we have reached to date. Alice and I recently presented together on this writing, the ethnography and our partnership at the recent Ethnoarts conference.

BUT the partnership has developed a complementary research project, TALE, which follows teachers back to school. TALE examines, over three years, how teachers have taken their professional development experiences with Tate into their own teaching, and what their students say and do in response. So there is now research income – a direct result of our shared investment in slow thinking-talking together.


Summer School 2013 – artist Harold Offeh

I love this work. I really, really love my partners. I want to say this out loud, as naff as it sounds, because we hear a lot about research partnerships, impact and engagement and it’s all very instrumental and clinical. Yet doing research together – co-constructing it might also be called – is much more than utilitarian. Establishing a proper adult relationship with research partners involves more than ‘the cognitive’ – it’s also about our emotions, our bodies. It’s like a proper friendship, right?

But doesn’t that get in the way of being able to be suitably researcher ‘distant and critical’ you might be wondering. Well no, quite the reverse. If know each other well, and trust each other, if the conversations are always just between you until the point when you all decide that it can be made public… if the research is understood as always ‘emerging’… well, it means you actually get to talk about whatever concerns you. The researchers doesn’t simply go away and write something that partners will find shocking and offensive. You actually get to be more openly ‘critical’ together. It’s not adversarial, it’s a discussion. It’s reciprocal. It’s give and take. This is something that I‘d really like us to write about at some point.

Anyway, as part of the process, I’ve taken to blogging each day at Summer School. It is a digression from what I normally do on patter, but it’s also a bit of an insight into a working researcher’s week and some early thinking. Expect to see something a bit different and daily.

This year’s Summer School is about gender. The artists running the week are Travis Alabanza and Linda Stupart. We are promised encounters with other artists who also work on/with/through questions of gender. I’m expecting lots of interesting activities, some making and some challenging and provocative ideas. And wigs. At an early meeting I heard something about pink wigs. So bring it on. I’m ready. As is our room.


And yes, just in case you wondered, participants do get to decide if they want to be included in the research or not. All the usual ethical caveats apply.

Some reading –  if you are interested in the work of the Schools and Teachers team at Tate you might like this book. In site of conversation. On learning with art, audiences and artists. 

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#co-editing – a manuscript to publication checklist

Your book/special issue proposal is accepted. A brief party.  YAY.  Now to get the manuscript together. Now for the Really Hard Work.

Questions about who does what, when and how, escalates as the actual book or journal issue is being written and revised. Authors have to be contacted, reminded  – and the occasional straggler reminded again. Papers have to be sent out to review and returned to authors. Chapters have to be read and potential revisions suggested. Perhaps bad news has to be given. Once again authors have to be contacted, reminded and reminded, and the occasional straggler chased and cajoled.

A special journal issue has to be read through to make sure the appropriate referencing and writing styles are adhered to – potential further chasing of contributors here too. Papers also have to be sequenced  – what comes first? And last? How does an argument or narrative get constructed through the chapters?  If an edited book, the chapters have to be sequenced – and then formatted. Gah. The dreary task of attending to fonts, referencing and footnoting to make the manuscript consistent has to be done, somehow. Maybe someone has some money to pay for this task, joy. No funds = it’s one of the editors. And the editorial has to be written. The order of editor names on the cover has to be finally decided. Then the issue or collection is ready to be sent off – by someone on the team.


But it’s still not done. With books there is often a last minute scramble to get copyright permissions signed off – not to mention the inevitable copy edit queries. Then it’s on to correcting proofs. Some editors don’t send proofs back to chapter authors at all, they DIY. Others do send the proofs back but then have to blend multiple corrections from multiple copies into one ‘master’ text to send back.

Oh, and you may want to get a foreword for the edited book and/or recommendations to go on the cover or website.  Who’s going to do that? And who will publicise the book or special issue when it comes out – and how? The editing never actually stops. It just goes on. And on.

Now, you can see the problem. There are lots of places in this chain of co-editing tasks where it’s possible for things to go wrong. And things going wrong generally lead to delays in publication, as well as potential acrimony among the team. Not to mention frustration for all of those people who have submitted their chapters and are wondering what’s going on.

As in the development of the proposal, the most usual problem in getting a co-edited issue/collection done and dusted is that either one person ends up doing the lion’s share of the work without this being formally decided and agreed, or one person doesn’t pull their weight or is just very tardy. A certain amount of give and take is always needed, you have to be kind to each other. But there’s a limit. At some point, the work just needs to get done.



You can see where this is going I’m sure. Head off potential problems. Don’t leave things until they go awry. It really helps to make an agreement early on in the proposal process about who will do what. It’s useful to revisit this agreement as the chapters are being written to make sure that the same division of labour is fair and acceptable. If key issues are not already agreed, sort it before you get too far into the job. Trust me, it’s critical to sort out who will read what and when, and how the introductory editorial will be written.

My own experience is that it really helps if one person takes overall responsibility for an issue or collection. If this happens, they are automatically first in the list of editors, and the others need to be grateful that the worst of the fiddly (boring) work is going to be done by someone else. But you might want something much more collaborative. There’s no right or wrong here. Whatever you decide together is likely to be fine.

So here’s a VERY BASIC check list of tasks to help make those agreements.


  • Overall responsibility – will one person act as a Managing Editor – M.E. – taking responsibility for sticking to timeline and final submission? If so, they will go first in Editor order. If no M.E., who will do what at each stage and what will that author order be?
  • Contacting authors to confirm publication. Is this a shared responsibility or M.E.?
  • Reminding and chasing authors. Is this shared or M.E.?
  • Book – reading and responding to chapters. Who? How? Should all editors read each chapter to ensure consistency or will one do? How collaborative is this part of the process?
  • Writing the editorial (This may extend to a last chapter too in edited collections). Who, how, when?
  • Organising the manuscript. Who decides the order of chapters/papers? If a book, how is the final manuscript to be prepared and by whom?
  • Handling queries about copy and proofing. Who and how?
  • Marketing issues – endorsements, forewords and so on – who, how when?

There’s still much more to say about co-editing.  I’ll post something about troubleshooting these technical co-editing processes very soon. But there’s other questions of power and knowledge that I need to address too. All to come. If you’re already curious, I’ve written before about two big hassles in editing a book.


Photo credit: Gareth Williams.



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#co-editing – getting the proposal together

I’ve had a look. it’s true. There is actually very little written about co-editing. So it’s not surprising that I’ve been asked to write something about it. Here goes.

It might be helpful to begin with a few important basics … starting from when you first think about doing the book or special issue together.

Co-editors usually get together over the proposal. Perhaps you already know one another. Or perhaps you have engaged in a bit of scholarly speed-dating at a conference or seminar. Or perhaps one of you has invited the others to join in an edited collection. Whatever the process, it’s helpful to make sure that there is intellectual chemistry among the group, as well as broad shared interests. You’re going to be together for a while. 

A collective commitment is pretty important in any edited book. You don’t want to start of the process with one of you being half hearted about it. You need to make sure everyone is equally enthusiastic and equally able to commit to the project. If one person is time-restricted then the rest of the editors – be they one or more – really need to know about this at the outset so that they can decide whether to go ahead in present company.

And developing the proposal is a fair litmus test of how the rest of the process is going to go. The proposal –  that’s the crucial publish-me text that goes to the book publisher or the journal – is high-stakes so it’s got to be good. If you start to squabble during the proposal process then it’s a pretty bad sign –  the longer-term editing process may well go just as badly.

Let me just recap what a proposal does. I know you know this but it doesn’t hurt to put it out there again.

  • The proposal has to offer a rationale for the issue/collection and an outline of contents in the form of a list of potential contributors and abstracts. In the case of a journal there are often a few papers already lined up plus a call for participation.
  • The proposal conventionally offers a jointly written editorial. This is where you and your co-editors sketch out the field that your collection addresses, locating the material in current debates and policy/practice/research context.
  • Edited book proposals additionally have to address the question of coherence – how the contributions will hang together. This you show this through introduction and the order of chapters, but you may extend your co-editorial steerage to sections and additional commentaries on chapters. Your process may even include a way for authors to get together at a conference or writing retreat.
  •  A timetable is integral to the proposal so, together, you have to set realistic dates for acceptance, review and revision, and submission for publication.

Preparing the proposal will involve you in lots of discussions with your co-editors. You may jointly have decided – perhaps in a conversation, maybe by email – who to include and how the contacts with authors will be dealt with and who will do it. One of you will probably assume responsibility for putting the proposal document together, dealing with all of the track changes, and sending the finished proposal off to the publisher/journal editors.

If one of the co-editors feels resentful during this process, feels left out, or feels written over or out, then that ain’t going to go away. Most of us don’t bother too much about sorting these things during the proposal stage.  I suspect that we probably ought to put more weight on sorting out potential issues at this point. After all, we are all in this publication together. Same boat and all that.


But you may not have formalised roles during the proposal process. But if you don’t sort out who is going to do what now, at this point, you may find that when you move on to the book or journal issue the early pattern hangs on. Oh dear. One person ends up doing most of the work without this being acknowledged. Or there’s an activity vacuum, where everyone is waiting for someone else to do the work. 

Delays are pretty common in academic writing and publishing  as we are all busy. Co-editing works best when there is a bit of give and take in the group, a bit of leniency and understanding about academic workloads. As long as it doesn’t go on too long.

And you may not have sorted out file sharing at the proposal stage. You may have managed on emails alone. But it is pretty useful to get the files stuff sorted now. Right now. There are now lots of tech solutions for keeping in touch with drafts and revisions. It helps to adopt a common file-saving and revising protocol too, and to make sure that nothing is ever erased, but simply saved as a new file.

I’m just going to say it again. It’s probably a good idea to discuss how the co-editing will go at the outset. Who is going to do what when it comes to the actual issue or book? You can start ahead of the game. You can sort out who is going to do what right at the start. Here’s a VERY BASIC check list of tasks to guide proposal co -editing.

There’s no right answer to any of these questions. It’s up to every team to sort out what suits them. It’s the discussion and agreements that will make the difference to co-editing.


  • The idea for the issue/collection– are you all committed and have the necessary time?
  • Overall responsibility – How is the proposal to be written – one drafts then others respond? Collective text? Who initially contacts publisher? Who submits proposal and who is ccd in?
  • Abstract for editorial – who writes? Editor order?
  • Contacting authors – who, when, how?
  • Dealing with suggested revisions – who, when, how?

What’s that last point? Oh yes. Proposals are always subject to review so there will be a further stage of responding to reviews. This can involve quite substantial revision to the initial proposal or maybe just minor changes. But someone has to take responsibility for getting back to the publisher after co-editors have discussed. Someone is the key contact point with the publisher even if everyone is copied in.

And – success. You’re on. You’re in. Now for the next bit of hard work together.

Segue to the next post later this week.

Note:  I’ve done something on why editing a book is a good idea, and I won’t repeat that argument now. I’ve linked to that post, just in case you aren’t convinced that editing might be a Good Thing.


Photo credit: Stephanie Hawkins.



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another year, another post

Patter is now six years old.

This is post 694. Yep, 694. Nearly seven hundred, but not quite. Dammit, that would have been neat. 694 is an untidy number.

I’ve been wondering for a few weeks now what to say about this sheer volume of words. An average of one hundred and nine posts per year… posting mostly twice a week. And at around 1000 words per post, give or take, this is a lot of writing. A significant quantum of bloggage. About ten books worth in fact. Of course, not all of it is All My Own Work, but most of it is.


Bloggery, as continued and regular writing, is of course remarkably close to what journalists do. It is perhaps no accident that I did play with print when I was at university, and subsequently engaged with regular radio production on a much more serious basis. My first career choice was journalism, but it didn’t happen. Long story which involves being female and Murdoch newspapers. Another time. I went in a different direction. But maybe journalism will out.

For me, writing a regular blog means …

  1. you have to get used to just cranking the words out.

Even if you don’t want to, a self-imposed blog schedule means sitting down and doing it, regardless of mood, energy or inspiration. A couple of thousand words a week means that you can’t really be too precious about any of them. Once you have an idea for a post it’s just a question of bashing it out, and then revisiting and revising a few times so that it doesn’t sound too dreadful.

Now this may not the way that you write other things. Some academic writing, like a book or thesis for instance, requires levels of planning, sequencing and ordering of ‘stuff’ that are quite different from a blog.

Blogging has changed my writing practices. I very occasionally start a journal article with free writing if I am not sure where to begin, but by inclination I’m a planner. Tiny texts are my friend, as are chunks and outlines. But blogging is very different and it’s mostly just pushing out the words. There’s not much pre-planning involved in writing a regular blog post – it’s a key point which is introduced, explained, expanded and crunched at the end.

Self-imposed posting time constraints mean that I can’t afford to do the proverbial crappy first draft. I have to produce something that isn’t too dreadful straight off. I’ve found I can generally do a rough-but-OK thousand words in an hour or so. If I don’t get the words right – blogger it – I do put the draft aside and come back to it. But not often. I don’t have a lot of unfinished posts hanging around. At present, there’s three and they’ll appear in the next few weeks – they just need an hour or so more on each one.

And I have noticed a notable spin off in my other academic writing. You know the ‘real’ stuff that gets counted. I’ve always been a fast writer. But my first drafts have actually improved quite a lot. I’m managing to think, talk in my head and write at the same time much more efficiently than I did six years ago. Blogging means I’ve got my ‘fast twitch’ writing muscle working pretty efficiently.

  1. you have to grow accustomed to the very idea of readers

Bloggers do have to sort out who they are writing for. They have to imagine an audience and have a clear kind of ‘mission’. This might be people like them with whom they want to share their experiences. It might be people who are interested in the same kinds of ideas. Or, as in my case, it might be a kind of ‘teaching’ blog.

Patter began with a very clear idea of its readers – doctoral and early career researchers and those who work with them. Patter is intended to be complementary to what is already available in books and in courses; it doesn’t replace supervision, live conversation or more extended argument and examples. It is also free, and is thus available to people who can’t afford to buy the books. And because I’m an educator, it is also underpinned by disciplinary understandings that

  • readers have agency. They can decide for themselves whether to keep reading and what to take up. And…
  • readers don’t need to be told what to do. Because patter readers are all well-educated, they don’t need ‘advice’. They need grounded (read this as research-based and theoretically informed) explanation for particular strategies. Or, as in the case of this post, they need something that acknowledges its grounding in personal experience.
  • not all readers are the same. Readers who are also writers and researchers need a ‘backpack’ of writing and research strategies and resources. Not only do different readers need different ‘stuff’, but different tasks undertaken by the same person often call for different approaches.

These pedagogical understandings position the ways in which I write. They are, if you like, my bloggerly disposition.

And a sense of the reader, who they are and how they respond to ‘stuff’ is not just the prerogative of blogs, but applies more generally to any academic writing. It’s a helpful perspective for your more general way of writing – although of course, see above, not mandatory!

  1. You have to accept the idea of being read.

I sometimes suspect that many academics don’t do a lot of thinking about the people who read their stuff. It’s scary when you do, not because of who they are but how few there are. The AHRC project on the future academic book suggests that your average humanities scholarly monograph sells about 350 copies. And most of these sales are to libraries, so we can assume that there are more readers than just 350. But really that’s not a lot. And any journal editor can tell you that a lot of papers that get written don’t get a lot of downloads, let alone citations.

Blogs can be just the same. Not many readers. A lot of blogs have quite small audiences, because they are specialised, or their writers are in a crowded space and writing much the same as other people. But sometimes the lack of readers is simply because blog writers haven’t played in the social media ecology enough to let people know their work is out there. Andy why is that, I wonder?

However, blogging potentially reaches people and places you don’t imagine. I certainly didn’t think that Patter would be as well read as it is, reach as many places, or be as well known. It just kind of happened. It just grew. Bloggerism rules my life.

Now, I’m not uncomfortable with the idea of putting something out there to unknown and ultimately unknowable audiences. But some people I talk with are a bit bemused by the notion that what they write is being read at all, and read by people that they will never know or meet. It’s as if they think of their academic writing as giving a very small invitational seminar. But being read now matters a lot to me.

I keep an eye on reader hits on the blog and on what seems to be popular and what gets most comments. The most popular posts are inevitably those that are about the hidden rules of the academy – how examiners read a thesis, what trips you up in the thesis, how journals really work… I can’t write those kinds of posts all the time I’m afraid, but I do try to do them relatively regularly. I want to cater to what readers want.

Blogging is inevitably public work. It is thinking, communicating and yes, even teaching in public. It is a newish public space that makes and changes conversation conventions. Readers answer back. They ask questions. They follow or they stop following. While they are unknown in particular, some general things about them are able to be understood.

A blog is, if you like, a very big seminar room. You can’t see the back row and a few rows forward. But your friends are at the front. So just as in the more usual seminar space, you have to stand up and say your piece. Writing regular posts can help to develop the scholarly capacity to speak up, speak out, say what you think. And to come to terms with being read.

And if like me, you are a regular blogger, then you are always on the lookout for things to write about. A bloggerist outlook becomes a part of everyday life. It’s all just bloggeration nation in my head.

Well, that’s my view. Now. On my sixth blog birthday. I could change my mind of course at any time.

So that’s the other thing about long-time, long-running bloggerism. A blog is an archive of activity and of thinking. A record of material over time. And that’s both good and bad. In my case, Patter is now an unruly mass of posts which really do need serious curatorial attention! I’ve forgotten what’s there, let alone readers. Even though I tag every post,  it’s not that easy to find things.

Once again, and I see I said this last birthday too, that’s my challenge for the next twelve months. How to knock all of these Patter words into more accessible shape… meanwhile there’s always next Monday’s post to think about.

And ICYMI, here’s another post from a couple of years ago on how blogging helps academic writing. 


Posted in academic blogging, blogging, blogging about blogging, sustaining blogging, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 7 Comments

#readingforwriting: being specific in qualitative research


Every now and then patter offers a close-up of research writing. This near-sighted exercise is intended to illustrate how ‘reading for the writing’ can be helpful.

This particular ‘reading for writing’ post looks at writing qualitative methods in a journal article. It speaks to last week’s post about the need to be specific, not woolly and imprecise. As a result of this post, I was asked by several people how qualitative researchers actually avoided vagueness. Did they too resort to numbers? This example is by way of a partial answer to that question.

The paper I’m examining here is: Lynn McAlpine & Margot McKinnon (2013) Supervision – the most variable of variables: student perspectives, Studies in Continuing Education, 35:3, 265-280.

The abstract begins by establishing the warrant for the paper (it addresses the existing knowledge base and what contribution this study will make), the purpose of the paper (the question it will answer) and some information about the research design.

The supervision literature often conceptualizes the supervisor as the primary person in doctoral students’ progress. Yet, there is growing evidence that the supervisor is but one of many resources that students draw on. Our study takes up this idea in answering the question: What is students’ experience of their supervisory relationships over time? Sixteen social science participants in two UK universities, at different points in their doctoral journeys, completed logs of a week’s activities for a number of months before being interviewed.

The researchers finish off their abstract with the claim that:

This distinct longitudinal approach provides a more nuanced understanding of students’ perceptions of the supervisory relationship, specifically, varied reasons for seeking supervisory help, distinct needs related to where students were in their progress, and diverse ways in which they negotiated and characterized the supervisory relationship.

On the  basis of this claim, readers would expect to see details of the research design in the paper. So what was actually said? (For purposes of annotation I have altered the original paragraphing slightly…)

text specifics
 Participants and location

The study, from 2007 to 2009, involved 6 male and 10 female social science doctoral students, recruited through email listservs from two UK universities. Nine were international students, nine experienced co-supervision; all but one had some form of scholarship funding. Participation varied from 5 to 18 months with the average being 10 months.


Students also varied in where they were in the doctoral journey (details given in accompanying figure in which each DR was given a pseudonym):

(1) five were early in their journeys defining their projects, doing transfer, beginning fieldwork/data collection

(2) five were in the middle principally engaged in fieldwork/data collection, but also some analysis and writing

(3) six were near the end principally analyzing, writing, and submitting.

When the study was undertaken

How many people were involved

How they were recruited

Their student status – country, income support, nature of supervision, general disciplinary background.


Stages in PhD were given in a figure in which each DR was given a pseudonym, and whole group details  given in the text.




Now, none of the researchers’ decisions are ‘wrong’ – all research does some things and not others – as readers we simply have to think about what the research can and cannot do. There is sufficient detail here for readers to consider key elements of the design – what does this size group allow the researchers to see and say? What does having people at different stages of the PhD mean for what can be said and not said?  We can consider the implications of the partiality of the design and, because of the details given, think about what the researchers are able to claim on the basis of their choices.

We can also assume from their description that when we get to results, we will see both some kind of numbers – how many of the group thought in a particular way or had common experiences – and also names, where individuals are the focus. And this allows us to see we can that being specific – using numbers where appropriate and useful – troubles a simplistic binary of quant v qual methods.

We might also still have some questions arising from this description of participants and location.

  • Does the fact that we don’t know anything about the discipline and universities mean that they didn’t make any difference, or that the researchers thought the participation group was too small to say anything meaningful about these particularities?
  • What kind of invitational notice was put out onto the listservs?
  • Why is there a variation in time of participation – was this just the stage of the participants’ PhD or did some just opt out?

But don’t be too critical of the writers  – bear in mind that what can be written in a journal article is inevitably brief. This  text is already more detailed than many you will see.

text specifics

We draw on a general social science view of narrative (Elliott 2005). The underlying premise is that narrative can integrate the permanence of an individual’s perception of him/herself combined with the sense of personal change rather than stability through time.

Participants provided accounts of their experiences in three ways: through biographic questionnaires at the beginning and end of the study, weekly activity logs requested approximately once a month (though sometimes responses were less frequent), and an interview.

The initial biographic questionnaire captured previous educational and work experience, the reasons for embarking on the Ph.D. as well as the intended career.

The structured log comprised questions aimed at capturing the activities, interactions, and perceptions of a particular week. (While providing a more fine-grained perspective than interviews, the logs still only capture at best one in four weeks.) The logs asked three questions specifically about supervision: whether the student had needed help, if so, why help was needed and if they received help or not.

Near the end of the study, a semi-structured interview explored the students’ overall experiences of doctoral work with part of the interview linked to what they had reported in the logs.

The biographic questionnaire at the end asked students to describe retrospectively key feelings or experiences in their journey.

Generally, the logs provided snapshots contemporaneous to the supervisory experience whereas the interviews (and other data) retrospective more extended perspectives.

These different data types were synthesized in researcher-constructed case narratives for each participant – short descriptive texts with minimal interpretation.

These narratives were developed through successive rereading of all data for each participant in order to capture a comprehensive, but reduced, account.

Each narrative (1) made connections between events, (2) represented the passage of time, and (3) showed the intentions of individuals (Coulter and Smith 2009).

The narratives were constructed by different team members with each case verified by at least one other person.

The narratives enabled us to preserve a focus on the individual while still looking for commonalities to examine in more depth (Stake 2006). Through this process, we came to see the value of a closer look at participant’s experiences of supervision which led to this analysis.

We chose four cases at random, and the research team (two of whom are the authors of this paper) read all the logs and interviews of these four cases. Through this process, a number of subquestions were refined (the first drawing on all data, the second and third largely on log data, the fourth and fifth on log and interview data):

(1) How were the individual’s supervisory interactions situated in a particular set of intentions, relationships, experiences, and time in the doctoral journey?

(2) What kinds of supervisory interactions were sought and negotiated?

(3) To what extent did positive and negative affect emerge in these interactions?

(4) To what extent did co-supervision influence the relationship and expectations?

(5) How did students characterize their relationships with their supervisors?

Then, the second author continued analyzing the data from the remaining participants with another member of the team verifying samples of the coding.

Finally, the first author reviewed the analysis in the light of her knowledge of the data and the literature.

From this analysis, new narratives were created focused principally on supervision. These provided a form of data display that enabled the interpretations emerging in this paper.

Thus, we had two ways of examining change over time: the first, change in individual experience over time and the second, change as regards where individuals were in the doctoral journey.

The researchers specify the tradition they are working in – narrative studies and the overall position of the family of narrative approaches.




The research tools are named.

Frequency of use is given, with a caveat about some variation in actual responses.

Details of data foci are given for each research tool.

Each tool generates data about specific aspects of the DR supervision experience.




The data generated was complementary and also allowed for some cross checking.


The analytic approach is outlined  – research reproduced synthetic case narratives.


The narrative  production process is outlined (re-reading.)



A consistent structure was used for the case narratives.



Trustworthiness of interpretation was through shared analysis.


The case narratives had particular affordances for cross case analysis.

The whole research team conducted a cross case analysis of four of the participants and revisited their original data sets


This led to refined questions to refine and amplify the initial research question.



The remaining data was analysed using these subquestions using a ‘rater reliability’ approach.








New cross case narratives of the doctoral ‘journey’ were created.

These were put into conversation with the individual narratives as a form of checking.


This section provides a very clear description of the stages of the research process and the techniques the researchers used to guard against singular idiosyncratic interpretation. I can even imagine, from the details given, the meetings during which the cases were discussed and questions refined.

There is less detail about what was involved in re-reading, it seems like a grounded theory approach. It doesn’t seem to be a structured reading for narrative elements in the data – plot type and construction for instance. I’m guessing from the subsequent research questions that the reading combined looking for themes and key critical points on a time-line.

And what’s not there? Discussion of pluses and minuses of having researcher-constructed case narratives – these are in the literatures and a knowledgeable reader can bring this prior knowledge to this text. Someone new to this tradition of research might wonder. And I remained curious about the issues the researchers encountered doing longitudinal research. This is another entire paper of course, so the authors have whetted my interest about that. I was also uncertain about the size of the research team – clearly more than the two who produced this paper. That’s probably not at all important, I was just intrigued.  

I’m sure that you could see other things when you read to see how much specific information had been provided. That’s good. But my point here is not about our various readings, it s a more obvious one.

Reading for writing – in this case, looking for what specifics are provided and what are not – can really help you to think about the decisions that you have to make in your own writing.  What will you say and not say about your own research design?


Image credit: ClarkMaxwell, flickr commons

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