a metaphor for the thesis

I like a good metaphor. I like thinking about the metaphors that we use to describe academic work too. I particularly like thinking about how changing metaphors can help re-orient the actual doing of academic work.

We all know, I’m sure, that a metaphor is where we talk about one thing as if it is something else. Not as if it is like something else, but as if it is that something else. Metaphors get used everyday … we hear regularly about pathways to success, the war on poverty, feeling under a cloud, floods of immigrants and so on. Each of these metaphors positions the speaker and potentially the listener in particular ways towards a material phenomena/event/practice. None of these metaphors are neutral – all have in-built ‘interests’ and potential effects beyond speech.

There is a difference between metaphors which are short-term and might be used once, and those which are used as long term schema. Our world view, and the way we routinely position ourselves and our actions, is often underpinned by a set of metaphors which we don’t think about. (Underpinning, a building metaphor.)

Metaphors are everywhere. It’s almost impossible for we academics not to position ourselves, one way or another, in relation to the dominant metaphor of the university as an ivory tower. Most of us are troubled by the implications that we are somehow cut off from everyone else but at the same time, in the social sciences, it’s pretty routine to talk about inside and outside research – a container metaphor which also signals some degree of separation and isolation.

The doing and writing of research is often a place where making and using metaphors becomes more conscious. This is particularly the case for doctoral researchers for whom the PhD is an intense experience. Making metaphors about this experience is one of the ways to make sense of it.

One of the most common metaphors that people use for the PhD is that of the journey. They start out somewhere and end up somewhere else. They feel that they’ve travelled a long way. It hasn’t always been easy. There’s been unexpected pitfalls, and surprising new places to find. Because of this, they also often experience the PhD as a-becoming-someone-else.

Right at the moment I’m interested in metaphors used for a part of the PhD, those that apply to the dissertation. How do we think to ourselves about the actual text and its production? What are the implications of thinking in this way? Does it affect what we do, and if so how?

When I was just beginning to write my own thesis I thought about it as a jigsaw. I just had to put all the little pieces together. At some point I had one of those aha moments when I realized that a jigsaw was a very unhelpful metaphor – a jigsaw has an original somewhere, it is about producing a predetermined image, and it already has set of relationships and a defined set of edges. My thesis and its authoring was actually nothing like this.

I decided I needed to rethink what I was doing. To help me do this I needed a new metaphor. I came to think that a more helpful approach to my thesis was thinking of it as making a patchwork quilt.

I had lots of pieces of stuff that I’d made up, hacked out, into some kind of shape. Some of the pieces were new material and others were made from second hand bits I’d found lying around (in books). I had to decide how big the quilt would be. Even though there was a recommended size, there was still the possibility of approaching the shape somewhat creatively. There was certainly plenty of opportunity for putting the separate pieces together in different ways. It all depended on the effect I was trying to achieve. As long as I had a good backing, and the stitching firmly anchored the result of my more creative handiwork to the backing, then there were quite a few possible variations in patterning available.

This was a metaphor which worked for me at the time. It put me in control of the process. It meant I spent time thinking about the structure of the text, and where the various pieces might go. There were many possible quilts to be made. I played with various options – what if this chapter was about this and that one about that – how did it compare to all the other possible theses that I could write?

You’ll recognize of course that the idea of patchwork has a close relationship with the notion of bricolage, the postie notion that there is no canon, but rather we make sense, text and objects, for example, by piecing disparate things together – we assemble (art), we mix and remix (music).

For the thesis, I preferred the somewhat more artisan connotations of the notion of patchwork. I’m rather fond of Amish quilts and I thought the notion of patterning was helpful when thinking about a thesis. There is regularity in the motifs that appear and re-appear and an overall design. I also liked its domestic nature. Quilting is a craft that was once widespread, it is time-consuming, but well within the reach of any careful and patient person.

To some extent, patchwork is still the metaphor I have in my mind when I begin a new book. I still spend quite a bit of time thinking about the overall effect that is produced by stitching together the materials in different combinations and juxtapositions. So it’s a metaphor that has stuck with me, and presumably has been helpful.

I’m interested to know whether other people have explicit metaphors for the thesis text and the process of writing it, and if so, what they are….

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, bricolage, metaphor, text, thesis and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to a metaphor for the thesis

  1. fred6368 says:

    Pat, love the post, but then I am big on metaphors. I think that when we do anything new we need new metaphors to help in the birth. I gave a keynote to CROS in Romania about this called Everything is a Metaphor, which people might find useful, although it works better as a stimulus to a conversation / discussion; http://www.slideshare.net/fredgarnett/everything-is-a-metaphor


  2. I wonder if the metaphors we use relate to our other experiences?
    The metaphor I have had in mind throughout my writing has been that of lacemaking – an activity I intend to return to now thesis has been submitted. A lace pillow can appear complex to the uninitiated, but essentially it is a piece of weaving. Although there may be many, many threads in play, the lacemaker only handles 4 bobbins at a time. Sometimes, the focus in on creating a specific element, which may be some kind of object or may be the ground that the objects grow out of. Some objects repeat, others appear only once or twice, but the actual movements that create the lace – the crossing and twisting of threads – are repeated, many, many times. Sometimes an error will be made and work has to be undone and repeated. Sometimes a thread breaks and a repair has to be made. Sometimes two pieces of work are joined together. The whole follows a pattern, which, although predetermined, has to be interpreted by the lacemaker.
    The end result is an object of beauty and craftsmanship that becomes an heirloom.


  3. Because my PhD has been a pretty traumatic affair involving several new beginnings but never in a neutral – “fairly framed” – context, I think that the metaphor that most frequently enters my mind is that of standing on trial as the falsely accused instead of my status as a victim being recognized. It is trial after trial, argument after argument… losses after losses particularly in ways affecting my health. But as there is more to be lost in not winning this trial and not clearing my name, I carry on.. trial after trial, argument after argument…


  4. I’m just in my second semester in a doctoral program. But I hope to see it from a sport general manager’s position’s (i.e., football). I’m attempting to build a super bowl contender. So, I’m trying to figure out what best players fits the team’s needs.


  5. At the time of designing my thesis I blogged that it was like
    • in spring I had skeins of wool and didn’t know what I was going to knit,
    • by summer I’d started on a pullover,
    • but in autumn, I realise it should be a cardigan, and the sleeves are too short, so I have the right colours and know what who has to fit, but need to unpick, redesign and knit more.

    My PhD thesis had to be knitted, threads had to go through from its start to its finish, and the dissertation included many strands. In my case, strands included consultants, public sector and IT. But I missed a thread and the examiners drew my attention to it. Three years earlier I’d meant to investigate another and different thread – accountability, but that proved difficult to access because some people don’t feel comfortable explaining their accountability. So I removed all reference to that thread (concept or idea) from any and everything I was doing, particularly when I was interviewing research participants. But as I drew my data together, I realised that I had some information on accountability anyhow, somehow collected through these accidentally subversive approaches.

    Having discovered that I’d missed this important thread, I had to weave it into the existing thesis from introduction, providing the back-story, through its effect on the methodology all the way through to justifying why in conclusion I could make any comment on accountability. So the metaphor changed from a knitted thesis, to a woven piece of tapestry.


  6. I think of my PhD as a sculpture emerging from an enormous rock. I’ve just kept chipping away at all the books and articles to read, crafting my own words as I go, and it’s now taking shape. My mantra is “Chip, chip, chip,” and it seems to work for me.


    • Brigitte says:

      Yep everything I write I see through that metaphor. Chip chip chip, and sometimes you find the rock crumbles under your fingers and you have to find a new one and start again. For some reason I always think of Michelangelo’s David. Don’t ask me why! I think because even he had to start with a piece of rock, and see where that got him! It’s hard work though!


    • yes – that metaphor speaks to me, not just for a thesis, but for the papers you develop from the thesis. I submitted in 2011 and have spent the last few days attempting to find the other sculptures in my thesis, another way to present my research for a different academic journal. I have to work out which bits to chip at, and how much to leave in and how much to leave out.


  7. Katherine Firth (@AcadSkillsMelb) says:

    My thesis was a mountain, a Romantic conceptualised version of Mont Blanc. There was some meandering around the foothills as I found the path up. There was a straight line ascent, with frequent breaks when I hit a difficult bit of terrain, or to catch my breath after a particularly energetic scramble. After a while, I got above the treeline and when I turned around to see how far I’d come, there was a sense of amazement at how far away everything else is. Towards the end I got into the snow line, it was cold and the oxygen was thin. I was exhausted, so each step is an effort, and my pack weighed a ton. It was pretty solitary too. But there was a charge, or a zen, or something in being so high up. And then I hit the top (the first full draft), and the endorphins and the sense of achievement kicked in. When I was younger and had stronger knees, I used to run down mountains, and the editing process was like that, the wind rushing past my ears, the landscape a blur, all my focus on the path and, in a fraction of the time it took me to get up, I was back at sea level, to rejoin the world.


  8. ailsahaxell says:

    Ive had a few. Ive seen my work as slices of practice, as if a segmented orange could be displayed, and put back together again (it could not). I recognized instead that I had parts of something; shattered. My piecing would not make it whole or return it to an earlier state. I moved into having a kalaedoscopic appreciation for what was being studied and where my task was to present changes as they occurred and to ensure an appreciation remained for the continual movement of what was being studied.
    In writing I have fantasized of the book (thesis) as a snowglobe where what comes first or last, and the order in between might not matter.
    A tangled ball of wool gave way to Greek myths with weaving webs, unravelling a tangle, following threads, and reweaving.
    And at other times of opening Pandoras box, and really really hoping, hope would be found and that it would be enough and that it would be precious.
    The imagery of writing a lit review as a recalcitrant octopus impervious to my herding eventually gave way to my having a turangawaewae moment = finding a place where i belong, and of having a place to stand and to speak from.
    My journeying has at times flown, other times plummeted; my wings get tired as did Icarus flying too close to the sun… but it is an heroic journey, and for my journey i am conscious of it being a supported one rather than one undertaken solo.


  9. I like the idea of thinking about metaphors for writing. In using metaphor – I have not been particularly self-conscious, just allowing myself to think in a way that explains why the metaphor made sense to me.

    Writing and combing.

    I often used to think about the process of writing as similar to combing and plaiting my hair. I now have dread-locks and so thankfully don’t have to endure the experience apart from the occasional treat of going to a hairdressers to get my locks re-twisted. Each visit to the hair dresser takes about 3 – 4 hours. Before dread-lock, the daily comb, cream and plaiting – depending on the length of my hair at the time would take about 45 minutes. As a girl child, I really had better things to do. Combing my hair was always an event – that thankfully only happened twice a day (morning and night-time), taking what seemed like a lifetime.

    The process of writing feels similar to the daily ritual of combing and plaiting my hair – in part because of the sheer agony involved. That is – natural afro hair – my natural afro hair is tightly curled and hard to get a comb through. The start of the process was always painful. There is a moment of terror when it feels like I simply won’t be able to do this. But of course I realise that I have no choice. It is not an enjoyable experience. Not at the start at least. This is not entirely fair, because I love writing. I love the idea of myself as an academic. And of course – after the initial struggle – once my hair is combed through and oiled – it begins to soften. After the initial struggle, it is softer and smoother than anything.

    With the initial hair smoothed (the first complete draft if I’m writing) I can begin to section it off, to make partings and work on plaiting. The longer the hair, the quicker the process – the squares sectioned off can be bigger and fewer plaits are required. Short hair – as mine always was – takes more time.

    As a child, sitting between my mother’s knees on the floor – with her combing, oiling, parting and plaiting my hair – I would continually put my hand up to get an idea of how it was all progressing. This is a quarter done. Then half. And now it is nearly finished. The plaiting is painful (less painful then the initial comb); you have to pull the hair to make sure there are no nappy edges. That everything is neat and tucked in and that it will last a until the next time morning – or evening.

    The point is that writing always felt similar to me – something that was entirely absorbing, that seemed to demand my complete attention. That had to be done. Once I had started my EdD – nothing and no-one was going to stop me from competing it. What initially felt like a complete mess, soon begins to soften and feel gentle, pleasant to stroke. The oils: coconut, jasmine or cocoa – smells sweet. And once the parting and plaiting starts – I know I can do this.

    From this point, it’s enjoyable. The process of writing, involving as it does going over and over and over the same few points to make sure they are expressed, shaped how you want them – feels very close to combing each parting, and then plaiting the section of hair. A painful but necessary process that soon becomes enjoyable, that ends with something I am pleased about – but with the acceptance that I will need to do it all again.

    I have dread locks now. So – much easier to manage on a daily basis, and a regular treat to the hairdressers to be made more beautiful.

    Reading and swimming.

    Another metaphor I often use is connected to swimming. I’m sure that many people make this comparison. That is – the most terrifying moment is just getting into the water. Getting started on something. I completed my EdD a few years ago and now work for a University. I studied while working full time in FE. And was never completely sure that I’d be able to complete the Doctorate – all the very familiar self-doubts about capability and so on. I was always of the view that it was ‘other people’ who taught in universities. Other people who published there work – that sort of thing. I never felt completely sure of my thoughts until I wrote them down. So that moment of beginning – was always exciting and terrifying.

    There is always the risk of getting completely lost at sea with no sense of where you are, how you got there and how to get back on dry land. Usually, once I am in the water – I quickly adapt (I love swimming at times used to swim 20 lengths every day before work). Once I get going – it’s fine, as long as I have done the preparation. Then it is entirely pleasurable. It allows me to be another creature, able to survive four hours underwater. There is silence, exclusion and complete absorption. The entire world could be erupting around me – but – I’m writing so please: do not disturb.


  10. Boring and over-used, but a journey for me. Arduous an gruelling in places, and the blisters reinforce the pain! My main problem is that my journey takes me over several beaches with no clear path, and lots of shiny stones. And I keep stopping to pick them up and have a look, get mesmerised, and temporarily lose direction. I appreciate the person I am now over who I was an awful lot, so feel it has been worth the blisters!


  11. margaret hilditch says:

    Mine is definitely a pilgrimage, operating on a practical and a metaphysical level. Perhaps this is because I began, P/T, at 69 and am now nearly 71 with several years to go, but am only now finding out what my very specific niche in the world is and what I am capable of – and what I should have done decades ago; but how lucky I am to have the chance now. Like all pilgrimages, it has lots of difficulties, unknowns and apparently insuperable obstacles and fears, but also its mountain top moments. I’m not even sure of the final destination, but live in hopes of finding it! It is changing the person I am.


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