AI and all that jazz

So AI is producing academic writing that is pretty believable. The new byline is “written by Chat GBT et al”. What are we to make of this development? Here’s a bit of what I’m fretting about…

Some people think that because AI is detectable and terribly klutzy it isn’t dreadfully worrying. But others argue that while klutzy is the case now, AI (and AI writing) is inevitably going to get better. And much less easy to detect. The implications for assessment, peer review etc are obvious. The solutions not so much. So it’s not so surprising that there’s a lot of conversation about to how to use AI in academic work/writing in ways that are ethical as well as time-saving.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not automatically hostile to AI. I’m not averse to time saving tools. But just because a tool exists doesn’t mean that it needs to be used, or used for everything. So, for me, what AI can write is not the same as what writing AI should be used for.

Perhaps bread is my analogy here. My partner makes the bread in our house. We prefer the taste and texture of his sourdough to machine made bread. And we know what goes into his bread. He makes his bread by hand and not in a bread machine – he uses only a mixer and oven. If we buy bread, and we do occasionally, we buy bread that is made the same way – by hand with only some help from a mixer and oven. I’m inclined to think about AI and academic writing in the same way.

I’m thinking about academic writing as an artisan practice. As craft. As something made by hand, with care. As something that takes time to develop. That doesn’t rise up in a couple of hours. How does AI sit with this view of academic writing?

Well, there are three AI related conversations I’d like to see much more of in my social media feed:

  • Is academic writing is simply a way of getting stuff down and out into the world? (This is the productivity conversation we’ve been having for quite some time.) Is academic writing all, or even mainly, about churning out papers and getting the citations up? Is it all about the product? How complicit are we being with performative institutions and individualised academic work practices if we focus our AI attention largely on speed and output? Or is there something important about the process of thinking and writing that is at stake? What happens if we lose sight of the scholarship in academic writing?
  • Is an academic text simply a mechanical and technical process, following a template, phrase bank or predetermined formula? (This is the conversation about the standardisation of academic writing and the sameness of a lot of academic texts). Is academic writing all about following convention? Is there a place for changing and breaking unwritten rules? How will invention happen in the new writing-plus-AI environment?
  • Where are the places for recognition and valuing of academic writing which bears the marks of human imagination, illogicalities, leaps of association, play and inventiveness? While there has been a loosening up of academic writing genres, these alt forms are still at the margins. And there is arguably a consolidation of dominant forms of academic writing through the proliferation of audit mechanisms. Do we want academic writing to show the heads and hands of its makers? What would that look like?

Oh, there’s such a big lesson in the AI moment for people like me who write a lot about academic writing and research.

It’s always tempting for those who write and teach about writing to focus largely on the standard genres and approaches. That’s partly because that’s what people say they want and need. And dealing with the standard forms is mostly what I do, although not exclusively. And as much as I try to avoid “tips”, “formula” and “templates”, and emphasise instead the interpretation and invention involved in academic writing, and the possible diversity of texts, there’s always the risk that my advice will be read as advocating a one-best-way.

My current dilemma is whether, in proposing strategies for an academic writing and researching repertoire, I still end up going in the same direction as the AI – more of the same in academic writing, rather than heterogeneous ways to communicate and converse. I hope that’s not the case.

But I need to think a lot more about how to respond in the current AI context.

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thinking about collaborations

A lot of academic work is collaborative. It’s a fine irony then that academics are generally managed, promoted and audited as individuals. Citation measures like google scholar are a prime example – publications are seen as solo affairs, even when most of the work that is represented in an H index is the result of team work.

But teams are often organised hierarchically. Pyramid team structures can lead to a load of issues, not least of which is who takes credit for ideas, who gets acknowledged in publications, and how authorship is managed. Yes, there are principles and guides for how to manage collaboration, but you only have to read social media for a few days to know that those at the top of team trees don’t always abide by the authoring/recognition rules.

I’ve been wondering what would happen if we regularly thought out loud about team work and collaboration. If we had some shared concepts and terms for collaborative work, would it help us to discuss difficult team issues? Perhaps not. But maybe talking out loud about teams and collaboration would at least suggest it isn’t something that we all just know how to do.

To that end I’ve been revisiting some research into collaborative work. So this post is just a bit of me thinking aloud. No tips and tricks here. Just some musings. 

I’ve just re-read a text about creative collaboration written by the late Vera John-Steiner. Among a load of interesting material, she proposed four patterns of creative collaboration:

  • Distributed collaboration. John-Steiner describes distributed collaboration as the result of conversation between people – conversation that is unplanned and informal. Distributed collaboration happens when people pool ideas, when they spark off each other, to the point that no single person can take credit for the idea. The idea was developed from exchange. From dialogue. I’m sure you will recognise and may well have experienced DC – it’s how a lot of projects and papers actually start off. And ideas can be generated in just this way in team meetings. It’s one of the best things about collaborative work. Perhaps it would be good to recognise at the time when something is not any one person’s idea, but has been collectively developed.
  • Complementary collaboration. CC is actually, according to John-Steiner, how most teams operate. Everyone has their role in the team. They do what they are expected to do and do not stray into areas that belong to someone else. CC teams need to be coordinated and managed well to maximise the synergy between the various parts of the whole. But it’s CC’s role-divided model which gets into most trouble with allocating and taking credit for work done and with ensuring that everyone has a fair chance at authoring. And if there are occasions when team meetings generated an idea via distributed collaboration, the idea often gets subsumed into the hierarchical structure. Attributed to the top dog. When collaboration is complementary it might be helpful to take note of ideas and approaches that are developed via other modes. And for there to be regular discussions about how equitable the role structure is.
  • Family collaboration. John-Steiner discusses teams where people swap roles, with different members taking the lead at different moments and for different tasks. Family collaborations most often occur in teams that have been together for a long time, and where there are shared values, high levels of trust and people care about and are committed to working with each other. Family collaborations don’t magically happen. They are, as the name suggests, often places where people can grow from being “new” to “expert” – there is an expectation and processes in place to support change. Teams that begin as complementary can evolve to become family. But this doesn’t happen automatically, but the result complementary collaboration team members efforts. People need to want and work for a more family mode of operation. It usually takes designated CC team leaders to set up opportunities for different forms of collaboration, including co-construction; they are able to step aside to allow others to take responsibility.
  • Integrative collaboration. John-Steiner claims that some teams go beyond family to become a one. Integrative teams occur when and where the goal is to transform existing ways of thinking, knowing and doing things. The IC collectively stands for an alternative view and approach. Of course, a lot of family and complementary teams also want change. However their processes often get in the way. It is only when the team is able to operate openly, recognising and respecting each other’s differences as well as strengths, that integrative collaboration occurs.

I suspect that many people expect complementary teams to operate more like families. They’d love to get to integrative. But they generally don’t. The crunch comes when some team members expect the team to operate as a family, but it actually works as a complementary, perhaps badly. Then there could well be a lot of frustration and resentment about lack of opportunities, about lack of initiative, about decisions made from the top.

What if the nature of the team and its organisation is on the teams agenda, and what if there is regular thinking how career advancing and authoring opportunities are be shared out among the team, rather than leaving things to chance and convention? Would John-Steiner’s categories help?

John-Steiner says that many collaborations may exist in one dominant mode, but there can also be times when they operate in other ways. This perspective seems helpful to me, as it recognises the potential for movement from one mode to another, the possibilities for becoming more equal, for opening up avenues for different people at different times. The moveable team notion might be a positive.

More on all this to come.

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a note on acronyms

So have you seen that paper they mentioned in the meeting today?


TL? More like TMA;dr


Exactly LOL.

So there you have the issue with acronyms in a nutshell. As long as both parties understand the acronym and recognise it when they see it, the acronym does its job. The collection of letters is a shorthand, an insider speak which helps communication. But when only one person knows that the acronym is, it raises questions – am I supposed to know what this is, why don’t I know what this is? – and that lack of understanding potentially shuts down conversation and can cause confusion, resentment.

Acronyms are a particular problem for academic writers.

We make up acronyms for particular phenomena we are studying. This is an ABCD or an ZXY. We then organise the text around this new acronym. We just hope the reader gets it. And doesn’t forget it. And isn’t irritated by our alphabet choice. They don’t snigger or get turned off by our humorous or clever decisions.

There’s more. Acronyms often appear in research results when the writer is reporting data categories. Oh what was this group of data again? Just let me go back to find it….A lot to wade through, oh I’m spending a lot of time trying to make sense of this.

And some fields of study – my field of education is one – love an acronym and each country has its own set. Writing about education policy can create an impenetrable acronym forest. And then, contrary to the acronyms being a kind of economical abbreviation, they end up being a complete pain for the reader.

While the academic writing advice about acronyms is always to explain the acronym the first time you use it, this often isn’t enough. Readers can forget what the letters stand for if there is a gap between the first explanation and the next time the acronym appears. Queue the reader stumbling backwards to a glossary, if they’re lucky, or doing a word search if they are reading a PDF, or probably just giving up if they are working with hard copy.

While writing in acronyms might be good for the writer, it can be not so good for the reader. Yes, do you often have to use some acronyms, but as in all things academic writing it’s about exercising some judgment about what the capital combos do. Always worth asking what the acronyms might accomplish for the reader.

And what was TMA btw? You got it right? Too Many Acronyms. So TMA; dr is simply Too Many acronyms: didn’t read.

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using jargon

Technical terminology is often called jargon. The dictionary definition of jargon is “special words or expressions used by a profession or group that are difficult for others to understand”. Sounds OK eh. Nothing to worry about.

But the word jargon is often used very negatively. It either means that someone is talking a load of nonsense, or they are deliberately using technical language in order to appear important, or they don’t know how to speak in plain English, or they are attempting to make themselves appear more knowledgeable than others. Here the negative use of the term jargon is about – another dictionary definition – confused unintelligible language, a strange outlandish or barbarous dialect or obscure and pretentious language marked by circumlocutions and long words.

The problem in academic communication is that people often assume that the first definition – “special words used by a profession or group” is the latter – “unintelligible and pretentious language”.

But it’s also obvious that people outside a profession or group would find it hard to understand conversation or writing conducted entirely in insider language. And that they could feel resentful that the speaker or writer hasn’t allowed them to participate, but has condemned them to sit on the outside, grasping a bit of what is being said, now and then. And then they turn off or get grumpy about what is being said, and mutter rude things about the speaker/writer.

So what do we academic writers and speakers do to avoid being classified as pretentious know-it-alls? The answer is not to abandon the use of technical terminology altogether. The answer lies in thinking about your readers. If your goal is to engage your readers or listeners, and communicate your message to them, or strike up a conversation, then you want to make what you have to say accessible to your listeners. You want them to understand you without making enormous efforts.

Your use of insider terms depends on your audience. if you are speaking with your disciplinary community, they will expect you to be familiar with the specific lexicon used within it. And not only be familiar with it, but use it. That disciplinary lexicon has grown up over a long time and its terms are generally a shorthand for complex ideas. Some of the terms are quite specific but, if there are differences in meaning and usage, you will have to explain your particular interpretation.

Of course even within disciplines, you can over use technical terms. Too many multi-syllabled abstract nouns in one sentence or one breath is hard for anyone to unpack, even insiders.

But if you are speaking with people outside your discipline then you have to think carefully about what bits of your disciplinary lexicon you absolutely can’t do without. You may be able to say what you want without resorting to any discipline specific language. This means that when you read back what you have written, or look at your slides, you can ask yourself if you can say what you need to say without the term(s) in question. And as the old saying goes, if in doubt leave it out, rather than put it in.

But chances are, there will be a few terms that you think are crucially important and /or helpful for people to know. And you don’t want people opening their dictionaries in order to work out what you are saying, or turn off. So what do you do?

Once you have selected your must-have-terms, then you can use one of the four most common term-unpacking strategies:

  • Explain the term the first time you use it. 
  • Don’t use the term, but explain in plain language and then say, in brackets, that within the discipline this goes by the term x.
  • Make a glossary of all of the technical terms you are using. You may be able to italicise or bold the word the first time it is used to show that it is in the glossary.
  • Give an example to show how the concept works or is applied. This can be in the text or added as a footnote. 

You see, it’s not impossible to introduce people to insider terms. If they can understand them, then the vast majority of people won’t see you as trying to show how clever you are, but rather they’ll appreciate you opening up your disciplinary world to them.

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line editing – learning from editors

If you are writing a book, it is highly likely that the publisher will send your manuscript to an editor. Most academic publishers these days do not engage editors who do a lot of developmental and structural work. So it won’t be one of those editors. OK then, what does the editor that academic publishers generally use actually do?

Academic publishers generally employ editors who make sure a manuscript is fit for publication. And these editors don’t just proof read the text, they line edit. (Well sometimes these days they do copy editing rather than line editing but I don’t want to get into that here, and I apologise for the commercial link – I was in a hurry. )

Fit for publication? Well that applies to a thesis or paper too. You may be able to employ an editor to go over your thesis text – some universities have funds that PhDers can access for professional editing. You are generally expected to say at the front of the thesis if your thesis has had a professional editor work on it. And what the thesis editor also largely does is to line edit. Papers? Sorry, you’re generally on your own. DIY editing.

The editor who looks at your book manuscript wants to make sure that the text is readable, internally consistent and is free of grammatical and factual errors. The thesis editor does the same, although they have to be even more careful about not letting a look at internal consistency stray into something substantive. That’s your job to sort out, not theirs.

So what do editors look for when they line edit? Editors don’t approach your text with an open mind, looking to see what jumps out at them. No, editors take a systematic approach, which involves having a set of criteria in mind. It’s pretty helpful to understand their systemised approach, and to add this perspective to your own revising strategies.

I have a cousin who is a professional editor, so I frequently browse her editing books. I was recently looking at material about line editing. I stopped at one book, The Editor’s Companion, where the author, Janet Mackenzie, offered a set of questions that she asked of every sentence. Yes, she asked questions of every single sentence in any text she was working on, regardless of text type. Here are her questions:

  • Is this sentence needed?
  • Does it belong in this paragraph, under this heading, in this chapter?
  • Does it follow logically from the one before?
  • Is it precise and succinct? Is it well-written and grammatically correct? 
  • Is its content probably accurate?
  • Does its content need to be supported by referencing?
  • Does the sentence contain any specialist terms that need to be explained, either in the text or a footnote, or a glossary?
  • Does it contradict statements made elsewhere in the book?
  • Is it consistent in terminology and style (spelling, capitals, hyphens) with the rest of the book?
  • Does it contain any cross-referencing (to another chapter, a table, an illustration) that needs to be checked? Or should a cross-reference be added? 

Now I am sure that you can see from these questions that line editing takes time. And it’s much more than proof-reading. Line editing is what it says on the tin – you have to take each sentence one by one. Line editing is slow work.

If you are writing a book you can assume that the professional editor will do this slow work, but you still need to have a good stab at it yourself. The editor should follow in your line edit steps.  If you are writing a paper or a thesis and not using a professional editor, then there is no-one to fall back on but yourself. Or a friend you might persuade to do it for you.

I know it’s very tempting to rush through the line edit stage. Particularly after a really big or tough bit of writing work. You may be exhausted and over it. You just want to press the button and send it off. But poorly edited text is really off putting to the reader. And you really don’t want a reviewer or examiner to see you as a sloppy scholar. So it is pretty important to summon up your last reserves of patience and, armed with the questions above, or something similar, take the time to make your text the best it can be.

Line by line it will get better.

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five focusing questions to kick off some writing

So you’re about to write a paper. Or a chapter. You’ve gathered together all of the stuff you think you need – analysed data, a short list of references to cite, some early jottings. Now you begin to think about doing some free writing to get into the swing of it. Or perhaps you might get straight to an outline or a Tiny Text

Hang on a bit. Before you put the timer on, or start writing about context (the first move in an outline or Tiny Text) it might be quite helpful to consider a bit more structured writing-thinking work. It often helps to focus on what you want to say, why, how and to whom, right at the outset. So to that end, here are some relevant questions to ask yourself. I’ve adapted these from David Labaree, and added to them.

These five sets of questions could form the basis of five timed writing sessions (pomodoros of, say, no more than 20 minutes each, and I’d probably opt for even shorter). Or they could be the subject of some more jottings before you get to that outline or Tiny Text. Just ask yourself –

  1. What’s the point you want to make? What’s your angle? Labaree calls this the analysis/interpretation issue you need to get sorted out in order to write a coherent draft. So you know what you are aiming at. So you know how your argument ends. It’s what I often call your take home message.
  • Who is your reader? Who would be interested in this? Why? What do they already know about the topic? What would they expect you to mention or discuss in some detail? Is there anything about your topic that you need to be clear about , something you need to explain so your reader knows where you stand – definitions, debates in the field?
  • Can you say this, and on what basis? Labaree calls this the validity issue  because it refers to your use of “evidence” – that is literatures, possibly also theory and probably analysed data. In other words, you need to be able to make your point by providing persuasive and trustworthy “stuff”.
  • What’s new? Labaree calls this the value-added issue. I’d call it the contribution, but I’m sure there are all kinds of terms which could be used here. Basically it means – What does your paper contribute that is new and/or offers a different perspective and/or adds to a discussion or controversy that is in your field? Perhaps it is confirmative and that is important. Perhaps it raises questions that need to be taken seriously. Whatever it is, identify it.
  • Who cares? Labaree calls this the significance issue. He says that this is the most important question to consider because it’s about whether the work is worth writing about and worth someone reading. So the question to ask yourself is whether the work contributes something important – and spelling out what that is. So you also probably anticipate some follow on, either in the form of further research, changes in policy or practice. Now that we know this, what might happen? 

It can also help to take your answers to these questions and try them out on someone else. Talk them through. Make them into a sales pitch for your paper. Talking aloud about your answers to these five questions will also help you to see where there might be red herrings, false starts, missing pieces and/or dodgy claims. Or how well it hangs together 🙂

The caveat: As always, this is a suggested strategy to add to your writing repertoire. It’s not a one best solution. (Beware the one best, you know the I know the trick to writing a perfect paper, I can make it simple.) This strategy may not work for you, or work for the kind of writing you are doing. It isn’t a skeleton for a paper and could equally apply to a standard IMRaD format as a much more creative piece. There is always the subsequent question of how the answers to these points translate into a written genre!

But the five questions are really worth a serious try.

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revising – mark up your text to achieve focus

There’s so much to say about revising. Even though I’ve just published a book on revising – shameless plug – I still have things I want to say about it.  

The key message in the book is that revising effectively requires you to need to read through your text with purpose, have something in mind. A focus. Rather than just pick up the text and read, waiting to see what jumps out at you, it’s very helpful to approach your draft with a question in mind. In fact, I suggest that it can be pretty useful to read your text through several times, looking for different things each time. Looking for one thing at a time means you caconcentrate on that thing alone and not get distracted by other issues. 

One of the very first things to look for – and you’ll see I have written a little chapter about it in the book – is to check for the relevance of the content. You’ve written a lot of stuff and you need to see if it all counts. And if it’s all there. This means you need to know what your main point is, and your argument. I’ve got some strategies for that in the book so I’m not going to repeat them here. 

Oh alright, I’ll sum up. You have to ask yourself what you are writing about – what’s the topic. Then you have to ask what you want the reader to know at the end – what’s the point you are trying to make.  And you want to make sure that the steps you take to get from the topic – generally a problem or puzzle- to the point, are relevant and sufficiently clear.

So the first reading task is simply to see what you’ve written about, and how much it is focused on your topic, your point and your argument moves. Have you got in all of the stuff that you need to? IS there stuff that shouldn’t be there?

Now you can do this in several ways. One of the less efficient strategies is to have the doc open on your screen and start correcting as you go. The alternative? Most people find it easier to either print out a copy, or have the text in a digital form you can annotate by hand. As you read, you can then decide what material in the text is OK, what is superfluous and what really needs to go because its off point. You’ll also find some stuff that needs more work or stuff that you need to think about more.

And the trick. You might like to annotate the text using the kind of symbols that editors use. These are made at the level of the paragraph. So you read though your text, looking at each paragraph asking yourself about the topic, point and moves. And you mark each paragraph with one of the following:

  • A tick for things you want to keep. These are paragraphs where the material seems relevant and focused on your topic.
  • A cross for things that are clearly off piste. Irrelevant. Who knows what you were thinking about when you wrote them, but you can see now that they don’t fit here. 
  • A descending arrow for paragraphs where there is content to be removed. If it is clear to you what sentences have to go, underline them. 
  • An ascending arrow for paragraphs where there is material left out. If you can see where the material is to go, put an insertion mark ^ – yes, one of those, the ^ – in the next to show where. But don’t worry too much, the arrow will alert you to the fact that you need to read this paragraph through again to work out what’s missing and where it goes.
  • A question mark against paragraphs you just aren’t sure about. You can leave these in while you are working on the exclusions, expansions and reductions and then come back to them to reconsider.

Of course you may find as you’re reading through that you want to go back and change some of your marks. That’s fine. And it’s also OK once you have finished the text to go back and just recheck your markings. But of course you will revisit them all again when you rewrite.

Once you have your text marked up, go back and open up a new version of your draft and start to rewrite. Use your mark up as a guide.

And. Before I go. My book is available in online bookshops but often has a discount on the publisher’s website, as it does this week.

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cutting and pasting early text into the thesis – part 2.

So you are writing your thesis about the research that you have done. And what you write now is is likely to be a little different from the expanded proposal you wrote to confirm your candidature. And a little different from draft chapters you wrote a while ago. As I suggested in my last post, this difference is not as daunting as it sounds, although of course there is always the small matter of having to produce more words.

However, you have one big advantage. You are writing about research that you have done, not the research you want to do.

And this means that while you will still have some thinking to do through the thesis writing process, you do already know the general shape of your results, and you have some idea of what these might say to the existing body of work on the topic. As well, you may have a pretty good idea about any implications your research has for policy and practice. And you may well have a good idea about what research could follow on from it. And finally, you can look back to where you started and see what you now know that you didn’t know before.

You just need to make this into a thesis text. Simple 😉

But here’s the thing. The thesis is not usually a chronological story of how your research took place (unless you are doing action research or some forms of experimental research or some versions of ethnography where you have decided to tell it how it happened in the order in which it happened). The thesis is not a blow by blow account. It is about where you are now – you are telling the reader/examiner about what you now know. 

Understanding that you are writing from the point of knowing is good. It means that you can write your introduction in the light of what you know you are going to be able to say in answer to your research questions. You can highlight the need for the answer knowing that this need will feature again in the conclusion where you talk about the implications of your work, the what-comes next. And you can write about your methodology and methods for real, talking about the actual approaches, choices and decisions that you made. These is not hypothetical writing, you did what you are writing about.

The area where it seems hardest to decide what to write in the thesis seems to be the literatures. But the approach is the same – you just stay focused on the fact that you now know the general shape of your results. So you know that you need to include the literatures that your results speak to. Let me elaborate a bit so you know what I mean.

Example 1: You’re researching doctoral supervision. If you’ve concluded that some doctoral researchers don’t have difficulties with their supervisors and you have some clues about why, then you’ll need to write about the supervision literatures and point out where and how relationships are talked about as poor and as good and why – because that’s the discussion you’re contributing to. 

Example 2:You’r e researching the doctoral experience. If you’ve concluded that the vast majority of doctoral researchers struggle financially, then you’ll need to talk about the themes in the literatures about the experiences of doctoral researchers, pointing out where finances do and don’t appear. That’s the literatures that your work speaks with.

The literatures you’re contributing to are not the only literatures you need to include. Of course you also need to discuss the literatures that led you to your conclusions. Your building blocks. These may include a theoretical or conceptual framing, as well as literatures which informed your research design (survey or interview questions or observation schedules for example) as well as the literatures that were most useful in analysis. It is customary to put a discussion of building block literatures early in the thesis, although there are some exceptions to this – it’s not a rule. It is customary to tell the reader/examiner most of the key literatures in an early chapter so they know what’s coming up. You may of course decide to vary from custom, but it’s always good to talk through convention-bucking with your supervisor.

You also need to be aware of what to omit. As thesis writer you are telling and showing the examiner a completed piece of work. It’ll be well and truly done by the time they get the bound text. To get to this point, you may well have abandoned some initial ideas and literatures. It’s important to consider how much of this you still need to talk about in the thesis text, and how much you should confine to the cutting room floor. It might be helpful to justify your design for instance by talking about how you modified your initial ideas as you got into close contact with your participants or as circumstances changed. But there might be no need at all to tell anyone that you read a whole lot of stuff about what you thought might be important but turned out wasn’t at all relevant. That was learning. It wasn’t a waste, but it doesn’t have to be in the thesis text.

But there is another thing that’s important besides what you do and don’t include. All of this post-field work thesis writing needs a different kind of meta-commentary than went in your proposal. You are not now proposing something that you hope will get approval. You are confidently putting a case for your completed research to be seen as worthy of the doctorate – you want to show that it has been designed well, carried out ethically and thoroughly, and it makes claims for a contribution based on the results. So you need to look at how you stage this argument, making sure you both guide and persuade the reader.

In sum your thesis text has to include what is relevant and exclude anything that isn’t on point. And you need to create a strong argument top line to carry the reader/examiner through to your claims.

And a caveat. As always, this post is general. Your circumstances are specific and I don’t know them. You always need to think further about any advice you read and consider how much it applies to your work, and if so how – or whether it just doesn’t fit. And, as always, your supervisor is there to help you sort that question out. 

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Posted in literature review, revision, thesis, thesis revision | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

can you cut and paste early text into your thesis?

Well of course you can. The question is, should you?

You wrote large chunks of text when you first started your doctorate. These writings were most likely to do with literatures, methodologies and research design, and the warrant for your research. Now, as you begin the process of writing the thesis text its very tempting to think you can make a huge gain by simply transferring that big heap of beginning text into the thesis. Highlight, copy, and you’re quids in.

But my answer to the question about whether you should do this not a yes. It’s a maybe, but leaning towards no. That’s disappointing for you if you were counting on the bank of words you’d prepared earlier.if you thought these pages were ready to go, if you reasoned you’d got a bit of the thesis already written. And you may be right. Equally, you may be terribly wrong.

Let me explain by talking about the literatures and then come back to other textual chunks at the end.

Why is it that your initial literature work may need quite a bit of rewriting? Well, here’s five reasons.

  • When you wrote your initial literatures text, you situated your study in the field to create your warrant and potential contribution, and established the work that you thought you would use during the research. Your argument was about what you were going to do and why. But now that you have finished the research your argument is now about what literatures helped you to construct the study, what literatures you used in analysis and theorisation and what literatures your work actually contributes to. And this argument and the associated literatures may well not be the same as when you started because:
  • You’ve subsequently found additional literatures that became important in the study, perhaps they were helpful in analysing and theorising your data. These literatures may have been around when you started but you just hadn’t found them. Or you didn’t know you’d need them. You may have landed on a new theoretical resource for example, or discovered a whole new and exciting line of scholarship and thinking. So all that now needs to get put into your existing literatures writing. And this may not, indeed is highly likely not to be, a simple matter of finding a spot in the original text and inserting the new. It is more likely that the new literatures change the way that you structure and argue throughout the relevant text (chapter or pieces of chapters).
  • There’s been new stuff published. And while it’s tempting to think that all you have to do is to add this in, what has been recently published may knock your initial framing out of shape. There may be work that you’ve come across that offers a more useful framing. There may be contradictory material that makes you rethink how you have understood relevant literatures. There may be more work like yours, but not identical, that means you have to rethink how you make your case. So any recent material may mean you have to reframe and restructure some or all of what you wrote. (Of course it may not, but you need to check)
  • You didn’t use all of the literatures you initially included and wrote about. What needs to be in the thesis literatures writing is the material that matters – the stuff that helped you design your study, make sense of your material and situate your contribution. If it turned out that some literatures weren’t important and you got by without them then leaving them in doesn’t make a lot of sense. Except you may need to note, if you are doing a field mapping, that they exist. So you have to get rid of what is superfluous, even if it hurts to remove text.

And very importantly,

  • The researcher who wrote the initial proposal is not the same researcher who is writing the final thesis text. The thesis writer has learnt a lot about their topic in the last two, three years. By the time you get to writing the thesis you are pretty close to being The Expert in your particular topic. And you need to write as an expert even if you don’t feel it. This is a very different authoring position than the more tentative and diffident beginner-researcher who started out. In the thesis you need to be evaluative, appreciative but critical, take an authoritative “hands on hips” stance – stand back to talk with confidence about your own and other’s work. So the entire “voice” of your early literatures writing may need to change, a lot.

Many of these five points apply to other sections of text that were written early. While your initial rationale for the study may well still hold, there may be additional contextual reasons why it is important. New statistical information, new policy agendas, new advances in the field. Your work contributes not only to knowledge (may have changed) but also social challenges (may be more urgent or reordered in priority), policy (may have changed) or professional concerns ( may be different). These have to be taken account of, and picked up again in the conclusion where you specify the implications of your work.

And your research design may also have shifted. What you initially thought about doing ( pandemic gah) changed. What you initially imagined to be a good design turned out not to be a great idea when you started actually getting into it – so you redesigned. What you thought was a good method wasn’t practical. What you thought was a good analytic approach turned about to be too orthodox and you came up with something much more interesting. Therefore you might well have to explain changes in your initial design. And thus means the literatures you draw on to talk about the research you actually did have to be included – and any old unused bits excised. That’s because your methodology and methods writing needs to be about the research that you actually did – that’s what the examiners are going to be presented with – not the research that you intended to do.

And ditto in both of the warrant and methods instances to the writer being a different researcher that the one who started out. Present you is much more knowledgeable than past you. So you see there are good reasons to pause before simply cutting and pasting in what you wrote some time ago. It may not be as relevant as it was. It is also unlikely to be the text of the same researcher/writer as you are now.

Tempting as it is to simply dump all of those early words in, do take some time to consider whether this really is the best move. While you may want to put your old text into a document as a kind of holding place, you do this knowing that those beginning words are something that you need to come back to with fresh eyes. And more of that next post.

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Posted in academic writing, old text, rewriting, thesis | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

developing a research agenda

So you’re thinking about how to develop a research agenda after your doctorate. This is often difficult to do. You’ve been down and dirty with the same question (and with all of the material you generated) for quite some time. And now you not only have to work on publishing from doctoral work, but also develop new work.

It’s often easy to see a next step from the doctorate. However you probably need to do more than this. Why? Well… You might be applying for postdoctoral funding – this almost always involves developing a longer term agenda and imagining a larger contribution. Or you might be applying for a permanent position. In either case, you have to put yourself in the position of a future senior scholar you, a you who is looking back at the significant work that you’ve done on topic x or topic y to get where you are now. Not easy when you’ve only just started to feel like someone with authority and expertise.

So the trick involved in developing a research agenda is to see how the stuff of the doctorate and the next step are the beginnings of a bigger and long term set of projects – all of which add up to you doing something quite substantial, about something important. And something you care about.

Developing your research agenda always involves making choices. For a start there’s usually several options flowing from the doctorate and the next step. Deciding between them may not be easy. So you might want to hang on to a couple of possible pathways and agendas for a bit to see how jobs, funding and collaborations pan out.

There’s no need to panic though. Developing an agenda is usually not an overnight process. But you can get help. You can get a lot from some sustained conversations with other people.

Fortunately a lot of universities do have good mentoring schemes where you can have just such agenda developing conversations. But talking with someone else is not dependent on institutions. If your institution doesn’t have a mentoring process, or you are between institutions as much as in them, then you can still have “what is my agenda” conversations with your mates. Your agenda has to make sense to you, but it does also help if you can explain it. And talking really helps.

Of course whatever agenda you decide on isn’t fixed in stone. Plans change as the world changes and new opportunities or difficulties arise. And as you learn. What you think is your agenda at the end of the doctorate might change, and change a lot. But it is helpful to have something in your head, and preferably on paper, that you can use now to steer your decision making.

But I want to surface something research agenda related that gets discussed less frequently. It’s something that affects my research agenda that I don’t talk about much. I know other people also find it important. And it’s time to fess up.

I always have at least two research projects on the go. Both of them are about school education. But one of them is always about something that I am in a rage about. The other is always something that is a counter balance, something positive and pleasurable. 

I came to my yin yang agenda in part because I found just doing either/or unsatisfactory. If I only focused on the joyful, than I was ignoring all of the unjust and awful things that really needed attention. If I was just focused on the terrible and rage-inducing then I was ignoring all of the things that showed that there were people doing great things and that there are alternatives. I needed/wanted to work with, and show both.

But there was/is also a personal side to my yin yang research agenda. Just focusing on injustices leaves me with a mix of anger, sadness, frustration and powerlessness. I need the balance of more positive projects so that I don’t get emotionally overwhelmed by the enormity of the issues I research. Having a balance is my way of creating a sustainable research career – one which I know is purposeful, but one where I’m not left feeling like a wrung-out rag at the end of a visit or some data analysis.

Now I know that you won’t feel the same as me, and I’m not writing this because I think that you too have to have a yin yang agenda. My point is that it is important to not only think about the stuff you want to research but also you. Research agendas are also about you, the researcher. They are always personal, human. Research is not just about career. Research is not just about contribution. It is also about what is do-able and what is sustainable. What is doable and sustainable for you, given who you are and what you need to do for you.

So when you are considering how you will move on from the doctorate, do give some thought to what you need to not only start your research agenda, but also keep it going. What kind of agenda will allow you to feel emotionally/mentally in good space? What do you need from the work itself to sustain energy, interest and intellectual risk-taking? Is anything likely to be draining rather than sustaining? If so, what can you build in to guard against this? Does your agenda need to be tweaked so that it doesn’t exhaust you, bore you to tears or make you so sad and/or angry it spills out into other parts of your life?

But perhaps this is not yet clear to you. That’s fine. Or it may not even, or ever, be an issue for you. But do just bear this post in mind in case it is.

It’s great to develop a challenging and exciting research agenda. Just make sure that there is an escape from research topic induced blues if you need it.

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Posted in research, research agenda, research decisions | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments