playing about with data


Not everything we do in our research has to have a definite end point. Sometimes it’s good to set aside all those anxieties about ‘getting through and getting done’. We might even like to take some time to simply play about with our data. Experiment. See what happens. Perhaps there are new insights to be gained from temporarily ignoring deadlines and producing drafts.

If you are prepared to take a bit of a risk, and take some time out, then here are a few suggestions to stimulate a bit of data play.

  1. Gather together a set of random household objects and place them in a bag. Close your eyes and pull out three things. Open your eyes and see what you’ve chosen. Now write about your data in the light of these three things – what data does each of these objects bring to mind? Why? How are these three objects related? How might your data be related in the same way?
  2. Move away from your usual writing place to a new public space. Listen to what the people around you are saying. Write down phrases that catch your attention. Now choose four of these fragments. Which of your data seems to fit with them? How? Why? Do they marry together? Can you write a half a page which makes these phrases and data into a meaningful story?
  3. Make a list of the emotions you feel when you are reading through your data. Ask yourself what there is in the data that led you to these feelings. Now do some free writing about your emotional responses. Read your writing back. Is there anything here that offers a new angle on future analysis?
  4. Make a list of the significant events that appear in a section of your interview data, things that you have been told happened. Write these as scenes to be filmed.
  5. Look at some of your emerging analysis and make a list of the data that you are leaving out. Write an elegy for the data you are thinking of letting go.
  6. Consider the notion of regret. What is there about your data that might cause you or your informants regret? Free write about what these regrets might tell you about what you can and can’t say from your data.
  7. Find an online photo of an art work you like. If this was a representation of some of your data, what would it be saying? Why this data and not others? What is the resonance between the data and the work? What does this say to your next move in analysis?
  8. Find a place in interview data where you remained deliberately silent. What would you have said if you could? What might have happened if you had spoken?
  9. Take a section of your data and make a list of all the relationships that appear. Now free write about one of those relationships. Imagine putting those involved in the relationships into situations different from those you have information about. What happens and why?
  10. Take two interview transcripts with two different people. Imagine they are having a conversation. Write the dialogue.

I am sure that you can think of loads of other playful things you might do with your data.

Of course, none of these exercises are the same as the formal procedures that most of us are expected to use in analysis. None.

But it is sometimes the case that doing something a little out of the ordinary can alert us to other possibilities, and to how our expectations shape see what we see in our data.

Taking a new position, expecting nothing, being open to something novel and offbeat may just produce a new line of thinking, a line we weren’t anticipating.

Equally, it may not. But then you don’t know that until you’ve tried shaking your usual approaches about, just a bit.


Photo by Kristin Brown on Unsplash


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dogs and cats and rabbits and..

This week I’m working on book proofs. And right at the start, in “prelims”, I noticed an acknowledgement I’d made. I’d written:

Charlie, our surly and eccentric elderly poodle, needed to be put outside at regular intervals; she ensured that I did not end up with completely overwhelming back and neck troubles from too much screen work. RIP Charlie.

This needed no correction. But I couldn’t help a moment of being sad all over again about the death of a much loved doggo, and even got a bit teary as I thought about her life partner who had died a year earlier. And then I realised that this was probably the last acknowledgement I would write, for a while at least, to a canine companion – we’ve decided not to get another pooch for just a bit.  But life without dogs is strange after having spent most of my life in their company.

Then I began to think about the place of animals in academic life. And their importance, particularly during writing. My little thankyou to Charlie is hardly the only place or time where the importance of a furry friend is recognised in a scholarly text.

There are often pictures on various social media of academics walking their dogs – walking/thinking companions. I’ve seen lots of cats perched on computers, paws preventing the flow of composing. And various snaps of dogs in conversation with their “owners”, often asking for food, walks, or simply that their human step away from the books and come outside. I’ve seen the occasional guinea pig and rabbit too. We have had #academicswithcats and #academicswithdogs (but maybe we need more).

Now, of course living with animals is not just important to academics. But I suspect that they may play a particular part in our lives.

We spend so much time with our noses buried in books or seated at the computer, or puzzling over data. This is often time when we are alone. Well, we are connected of course to loads of other people through the texts we read and write. And as we read through transcripts or field notes or lab records, we remember the location, the people present, the physical surroundings, perhaps even the sounds and smells. So we are not necessarily alone in our thoughts.

But we are often physically isolated in an office at home or at work.

The presence of another creature immediately breaks this pattern. As we read or write or think, we are simultaneously aware of another being, perhaps sleeping, snoring, moving about, chewing, farting, sniffing, wriggling. Often, we are required to stop what we are doing and pay attention, fetch a toy, speak, make contact. Even as I write this post, I have been interrupted by our current house guest, Archer, a large black boy who usually lives with a cousin, but who is temporarily with us at the beach.


In moments of hound-induced disruption it is clear that my needs are not the only ones that matter. My work is not all that counts.

While these interruptions may at times be marginally distracting, they are equally often amusing, comforting, reassuring, playful, touching. They take us out of our heads and the little scholarly world we are creating/living in. They bring us back to our bodies and meaningful connections.  We understand again that sociality and relationships are not just with our own kind.

So this week, it’s a metaphorical thumbs up and more public thanks to the various species that we live with, and the multiple ways in which they support our endeavours and we theirs.

And yes, yes, fill up the comments with your animal pics and stories.

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writing home and away


I’m working away from my desk, as my out of office assistant puts it. But I’m still very much working.

I’m writing out of place. I don’t have my usual working set up. And not just for a couple of days but actually for quite a lengthy period of time.

I’m writing on a netbook and not my big computer with the giant screen. So I’ve done all of the obvious things you do when you’re planning to work somewhere else. I have everything stored on cloud and backed up on a USB. I have the most likely books I need to use, in digital versions of course. I can access the library journal collection via Browzine. My marking is sitting on Moodle and I don’t even have to download the assignments.

So this all ought to be fine right? Well no. I’m grumpily realising that there are some compromises that I actually don’t like making.

For a start.  My netbook mirrors my desktop screen. Good eh? Well no.  I have a very particular way of naming and positioning folders on my screen so that all of my current work is bang in the centre – I can’t help but see the do-it-now folders when I first turn on the machine. These are the reminder list you have without having to make the reminder list. All the regular tasks are  placed on either side. The middle says THIS IS WHAT YOU ARE DOING NOW. The three columns with space in between looks OK on the big screen and this arrangement works for me.

Organising your screen display can be useful.  Knowing where things are really helps your work mood.  It’s like having your kitchen benches organised so that everything is in its place and you don’t have to waste time trying to find the kitchen towel.

So just imagine taking a tidy big screen – and then shrinking it. Shriek. Gasp.

This is not tidy writ small. It’s actually really hard to find things as they are now in new places on the screen. What’s more, there’s too many folders and they overlap. It’s hard to read the file names.

This visual disorder puts me in a slightly agitated state whenever I sit down to write – that is, every morning. I now begin my day by hunting out where I am in the crowded file display in front of me. Yes, yes, I hear you say, just combine some. Of course I could just sort things further, but then I’ll have to do the same in reverse when I get back. But I might have to do this if I continue being jarred by the very look of my workspace.

And next. The screen itself is small. Working on a big screen means that you can get a lot in front of your eyes at once. Working on a tiny netbook means the reverse. As I am writing this, I now can’t even see where this post began. While this lack of overview doesn’t matter so much for blog posts, I find it is pretty irritating for more sustained writing where reading back over what you’ve written to check for flow is an important part of composing – well it is for me anyway.

So do I lash out and buy an additional screen? Well probably. Eventually. Maybe sooner if I keep getting bothered by this limited see-scope.

And just don’t start me on the space I’m working in. I’m on a table shared with other people, eating, reading, listening to music I don’t like, there’s even television on some occasions. I’m sitting on an ordinary chair. I’m absolutely used to a posh Aero chair which keep my back sorted, and a proper solitary office. I really don’t do this new arrangement well.

Of course it’s manageable. It’s just not what I usually do. I realise that, like a tennis player- yes that’s been on while I’ve been trying to write –  I have a set of routines and rituals associated with writing. I notice when they are missing. I can’t help but feel out of sorts  when my accustomed ways of writing, thinking and reading change. I’m very much a writing creature of habit.

I’m just not sure how people who write in coffee shops actually do it, but I guess this is its own kind of ritual where change rather than same-old-same-old is the norm.

As is often the case, a change of scene has been a bit of a disruption. I’m thinking about the embodied practices of writing. I’m remembering that how we write, where we write, the kit that we have and how we organise it, underpins how we feel about the writing that we do. And perhaps how we actually do it.

And I’m thinking that some of the writing advice about developing a daily writing practice focuses rather too much on time, rather than space, stuff and body.

But that’s enough of that. I clearly can write, albeit a little out of sorts. And there is of course one compensation. On good days I can work outside on the balcony. There is still a table and a crappy chair.

But there is The View. And bird song. And once a day, sunrise.



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I’m writing a journal article – what literatures do I choose?


I’m often asked about the literatures sections of journal articles. Not your literatures based paper of course but your standard empirical paper.

They only want a short section! I can’t cram everything I’ve read into a few paragraphs – how do I know what to put in and leave out? What criteria do I use to select?

This is a good question. It certainly isn’t possible to jam an entire thesis literature review into a journal article.

When reviewers read a paper that tries to cram the literatures octopus into the jar* they wonder if the writer is simply afraid to let go of the lengthy survey they’ve already done. They just can’t face starting over. Or they haven’t yet understood that something different is needed for the journal article And for these reviewers, nothing says “newbie” louder than a really long and un-selective essay about all of the literatures.

So what to do?

Well here’s some pithy advice from Tom Boellstorff, writing when he was Editor of the journal American Anthropologist.

Boellstorff points out that a journal article must make a novel – that is a new  and original – contribution. Just like the doctorate. And the argument for novelty can only be made through reference to the literatures. Just like the doctorate.

But with less words.

Like many others, Boellstorff thinks of the journal as a conversation. You need to show that you are pushing the journal conversation forward, he argues, and you can’t do that without being aware of what’s already been said. This is not simply referring to the existing scholarship, he points out, but engaging with it.

Boellstorff says that there is no set formula for working with literatures. So that’s good and bad news. It does mean that all writers have to work out for themselves what to include and exclude. And you get to do it your way.

But, Boellstorff says,  the most successful authors in his journal generally do these things:

  1. They show that they are aware of classic literatures germane to their topic
  2. They engage with recent scholarship germane to their topic
  3. They emphasise scholarship that they find useful and/or inspirational, showing how they build on this work
  4. They don’t spend time tearing down the work of others in order to show the value of their own contribution
  5. They avoid “namedropping” disconnected authors simply for the sake of showing they know them
  6. They show the existence of a community of scholars working on an issue and they demonstrate how their work fits into that community and carries the conversation forward.

I think these are a pretty helpful six  points – they do provide some serious clues about what literatures to include and exclude, as well as the appreciative stance to take.

I hope you find them useful thinking points too.



* This is a great metaphor and comes from a participant in a Kamler-Thomson workshop, reporting in our doctoral writing supervision book.


Boellstorff, Tom (2010) How to get an article accepted at American Anthropologist ( or anywhere) Part 2. American Anthropologist 112 (3)  353-356.

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academic writing is visual


Writing is a visual medium

It may seem odd to say that writing is visual. Writing – and academic writing in particular –  is about words and what they say isn’t it? Well of course it is. But the way in which we engage with words can be pretty seriously affected by the ways in which they are presented to us.

You see, a page is an arrangement of two elements – there’s the text, made up of words, and then there’s the place where the words aren’t – white space. And the more solid the block of words are, the less white space there is, the more the reader is likely to see the page as difficult to get into.

Of course, academic writers often don’t get a say in all of the decisions made about how their writing will look. Somebody else – the publisher of the book or journal, university regulations – may well have already made some decisions about font size, margins and galleys, and perhaps even the required use of numbers for paragraphs. The number and hierarchy of headings may also be a given. Using proprietary web platforms such as this (WordPress), also limits the design features that can  be used.

But even if there are limits, it’s still helpful to think about the visual elements of your writing.

Say a writer is working to page limits and keen to jam in as much in as possible. They decide to reduce the size of the top, bottom and side margins. They squash more words in, but at a cost. Their page might seem pretty inaccessible to a reader. Then, they use the smallest possible font, or one which is quite cramped. And this only adds to a reader’ s fear that they are about to enter a dense grey fog of verbiage.

Thinking about your writing as visual means that you begin to think about how the information is presented on the page, in particular considering what makes the writing feel inviting, what makes it feel accessible and comprehensible. When you do this, you begin to think a little like a designer.

So here are a few things to consider – my basic LTG of the visualities of academic writing:

L is for Layout

Step back from the page – squint. Look at how the page appears to you. Is it one solid mass or is it broken up into digestable bites/blocks? What do your eyes tell you? Is this a verbal crowd that the reader has to battle their way through?

How have you used white space – do you have generous margins around the text? Is it broken up into sections and paragraphs? Have you crammed images into the available space so that they appear to be one with the words, instead of another and separate medium for conveying information?

Does the page appear balanced? Is your eye drawn to one part of the page and not the rest  – is this actually what you intend? (The optimum page designs are often said to be the F pattern or the  Z pattern.)

T is for Text 

If you are writing in English then your readers’ eyes travel from left to right. Then it is generally easier to read text that is justified on the left and is evenly spread out – text that is justified on both sides often has uneven spacing so it takes a little more effort for eyes to track – and understand what’s being said.

Font matters. Apart from choosing a font that is relatively familiar and easy to read and not too small, the key issue is not to use too many fonts at once. Frequency in font use makes text hard to read as it’s a bit confusing. What does each font mean? Commercial publishers sometimes use different fonts for headings and the main body of text but they keep the number to a manageable number. It’s worth looking to see how these publishing graphics work.

It’s also really important to look at each page and ask yourself whether readers can easily find the most important information on that page.

Writers can point readers to key information through using multi-media in which words may be one element. Images, figures and diagrams can provide evidence and detail. They might also provide complementary information. Bullet-pointed lists indicate key points. Numbered lists show steps, priorities or chronologies  – this then that, then this then that. Flow charts show processes. Maps show relationships, territories and borders, flows and positions. Hyperlinks show connections. Footnotes and endnotes show evidence and also connections.

Using easily located media to provide information is important. Which brings us to..

G is for Guidance

Headings are the reader’s guide-ropes.

Headings help the reader to find their way through a text. Writers can give readers navigation tools which assist them to understand what is coming up – key ideas, major points and themes.

Headings are usually organised in a hierarchy of importance – chapter title, section heads and sub headings for smaller points and themes. Hierarchies of importance are signalled through the size, style and alignment of heading fonts that you choose. You can set heading formats ahead of time in standard word-processing software or use those that are already pre-set.

So there you are. LTGs. There’s much more to the visuals of writing, but that’s a start. I hope I’ve said enough to make the point – that the appearance of text is significant as it goes to how well we communicate our thinking and research results.

Poets think a lot about visuality. They consider line lengths and breaks and what these do to the way readers encounter their text.  Web designers also have to think a lot about how people read a screen. And as academics become more digital we also need to become design savvy.

But the visual matters even in ordinary old academic writing – like that grant bid where it is tempting to cram as much as possible into a limited space. So perhaps, just perhaps, there is too little discussion of the visual in discussions of academic writing… ??


Photo by Jenny Smith on Unsplash

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getting to grips with new literatures


Over time all researchers build a knowledge base about their key interests. A large part of this knowledge is a core set of literatures. They/we do need to keep up to date, but they/we can rely on – and use – our incrementally expanding personal library of literatures. However, every so often, researchers have to deal with a completely new topic and brand new literatures.

My colleague Lexi Earl and I are currently writing a book about school gardens. Learning gardens are pretty popular at the moment. They are promoted by celebrity chefs and by environmental scientists alike – and many schools believe gardens are a great place to learn about the processes and practices of cultivation and/or to appreciate the natural world.

Lexi and I have done some research, school garden case studies, and we now have plenty to say. But we thought that we needed to start our book, contracted to Routledge,  with some historical discussion about school gardens, because now is not the only time when they have been popular. We had a hunch that there might well be something to learn from what had happened before.

So this meant that we had to find a load of new books and new articles – well, I mean new to us. And that meant …. reading. And lots of it.

We were pretty keen to find primary source material as well as literatures from contemporary educational historians. And so there’s been a fair bit of archival searching as well as the journal and book based searches we are used to doing.

We are immensely grateful to the generations of librarians who have catalogued, conserved, digitised and weblogged the books and reports that we are using. The British historian Raphael Samuel often argued that doing history was a collective endeavour – the introductory thanks to the army of librarians that make writing histories possible are just too little recognition.  That’s certainly our experience too.

We have had to come to terms with this historical material fairly quickly. But this history chapter is mine to draft first of all so I have done most of  the primary source reading. Lexi is focussed on other reading about current school garden issues and so she is adding additional points into my draft.

But I haven’t just done any old kind of reading. I have been reading with a purpose – we already knew the key areas we were interested in from our case studies. Because we are taking a genealogical approach (Foucault), we are interested primarily in how gardening in schools is and has been understood and categorised, as well as practiced.

I approached the historical texts with five key questions:

  • What’s the purpose of a school garden? What’s the problem for which school gardening is the answer?
  • What is the garden – what is important about it (size, plants location etc)
  • What school subjects is the garden connected with? What is the disciplinary basis of teaching?
  • How is the garden organised?
  • What successes and problems are encountered in establishing and sustaining the garden?

I then recorded details of each text in bibliographic software.

Then I wrote the answers to our questions into a landscape table. Below, an example of the record of one key book  – designated key because we saw that other historical texts referred to it, and it was also referred to a lot in contemporary accounts. You can see here that I’ve bolded the major point that this book talks to, and I’ve highlighted bits I think I might use in the draft chapter


After I’d read all of the texts and recorded details on the table, I then wrote some very short notes on the answers to our questions. These were more in the form of a synthesising memo than an outline.


I then

  1. decided on the argument for the chapter, (a Tiny Text), you might use mind mapping to get to the argument
  2. decided on a structure – I divided the material into three big sections (in this case, philosophy, historical accounts, contemporary accounts) and then I
  3. wrote an outline.

Finally I started to generate text. A first draft. This drafting process did involve shifting some things around in my initial outline. But mainly I had to keep going back to the table to ensure that I brought all of the material about any single point together.  I also frequently went back to the digital books.

So the drafting was actually working with at least three and sometimes four documents on the desktop – table, memo and original text as well as the developing first draft. If you are a Scrivener user then this all happens within the software. I’m not, largely because I like to insert the references as I go, so my Endnote is always open too.

You can see what a small section of this first draft looks like.


You will see that I have presented some historical “evidence” which I go on to read critically to see: what is presented and how, what is put together, what assumptions are made, where there are tensions or differences, what is missing, what the consequences of thinking in this way might be and why this might matter.

And of course this first draft might be completely changed as I start to revise. Who knows how much the final version will look like this? 🙂

But please don’t think this is how you must work.

A concluding caveat. I am often asked how I work with literatures and will I show and tell. So I’ve done some. But I do try not to do a lot of display of my own processes, as my methods are bespoke to me.

And a confession. I’ve been doing this a long time. In this kind of overview work, I tend towards pretty minimalist noting  – I actually spend much more time thinking about the questions I want to ask of a text than writing notes. When I am teaching people how to work with literatures I generally use more notes and write more memos. When I do my own work, I’m a bit lazy, I rely on my short term memory probably too much, and I tend to shortcut some written processing.

And most important – this is not the only way to do literatures work. I am pretty sure that Lexi does this differently  – I have seen her taking a print-it-out-and-highlight, notes-on-the-printout-and-then-themes- in-a-memo approach.  That works just as well.

No matter the techniques used, both our approaches will mean that our final text is firmly connected with the literatures through our critical reading  – and our work will read seamlessly as if we are one person writing!!!

But that’s another post.


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