It’s September and the Autumn equinox. To mark the occasion, I took my new pair of lace-up boots out of their box and gave them their first wearing/airing.
Now anyone who knows me knows that I always have a pair of boots that look pretty much like these. Elderly academic notwithstanding – these are my standard footwear in winter. No heels, so I don’t irritate my dodgy spine. Big treaded rubber soles, so I don’t fall over on ice. Waterproof so – well that’s obvious. Sensible flat boots designed for a cold-ish wet climate. The previous pair of almost identical boots were German, not Danish, and lasted for four winters of pretty consistent wearing. So I look forward to a few more winters in the company of this new pair.
There’s something reassuring about old new shoes, and in marking the change of season. Winter is a return – it’s not only familiar but also comforting. So it’s probably no surprise that I’m not only celebrating the start of a new season, but also the start of a new cohort of doctoral researchers. And I have an old new post with a familiar refrain to mark the occasion – it’s one about reading and literatures work.
Reading is the research equivalent of sturdy long-lasting shoes. The reading you do at the start of the doctorate sets you up for the cycle of work to come – and also for work you do afterwards. The sustantive content of your reading provides a stable foundation on which you can stride out into your research. But the process of doing the literatures work also, and at the same time, builds up a habit of reading and writing that the foundation of all scholarly work.
Working with literatures requires you to develop solid, sensible and slip-avoiding practices of:
Reading and noting
Critical reading involves evaluating the evidence and argument presented in texts. Critical reading is combined with economical ways to record the information salient to your research – using key words, brief summaries and/or focused questions. Closer reading of particularly pertinent papers may mean you also write memos.
Once you have read some material, you can then group texts together in tables, excel spread sheets and/or using key words in your bibliographic software. Your groupings are usually directed to beginning to locate what is most relevant to your project.
Scoping a field of literatures means that – over time – you build an understanding of the history and chronology of the field in which your research is located. You understand the key debates, trends, and influences from and connections with other fields. You become familiar with the ways in which knowledge is generated in the field. Scoping begins at the same time as reading. Scoping allows you to draw some boundaries about what is in and out of your literatures field. It often helps to work visually to develop your sense of the field.
Mapping often happens at the same time as you are scoping the field. Mapping is the time and place for you to construct your particular route through the literatures. Your map positions your particular question/focus/area of interest at the centre. You then organise other groups of literatures as they ‘speak’ to your work. This helps you make explicit relevant conceptual insights, evidence and/or methods.
Mapping situates your work in a particular place in the field you have scoped/are scoping, and allows you to group texts in ways that locate and support your project. The mapping exercise also positions you to specify the contribution your work will make.
You can map in various ways – through grids, outlines and visualisations.
After scoping and mapping, you will be able to identify any particular texts that you need to read more of, and of course what you don’t. You can also read very closely – perhaps re-read – anything that you have identified as being the most helpful for/germane to your work and/or on the topic you most want to say more about, or answer back to.
At this point you can articulate the contribution you want to make, why and how it matters in the field.
Writing the moves
You now need to think about how you will write your literatures work. This is not about summarising – you did that when you were reading. Writing literatures means turning the work you did during the mapping phase into written form – referring to your scoping exercise, and discussing in some detail the texts you read during focusing in.
You are now transforming the literatures into your own account of the field, naming the contribution the literatures make to your research and naming your potential contribution to the literatures. You now own your interpretation of the literatures and how all the texts you’ve read relate to your research.
Your literatures writing moves are always particular to your research project – and will be organised around your substantive questions, the trends and evidence you’ve established.
Remember… There are various ways to organise a literatures discussion and it is helpful to consider the differences between for example a chronological approach, one which begins by locating your topic in the concerns of the field and one which unpacks your research question. Writing two or three potential outlines, storyboarding, and mind-mapping can be helpful in generating the particular choreography of your literatures work.
And of course, literatures don’t have to be presented in a single chapter. Literatures work may in fact underpin several chapters in the thesis or proposal – and a good way to see what else is possible apart from a literatures chapter is through the mapping process.
It’s worth noting at the outset of the reading season that literatures work – like a pair of shoes – does need to be maintained. Shoes don’t last for years if you don’t look after them. Regular polishing is required and the occasional replacement laces. Just so with literatures. Your literatures work also needs to be continually polished and refreshed at regular intervals. During the doctorate, you need to keep reading and re-evaluating your initial scoping, mapping and focusing.
And it is also important to say that the literatures work that you present in a final thesis text may well be different from your proposal. This is because the final literatures work will be subtly – or perhaps even radically – tweaked to fit the research you have actually done rather than support the research you intend to do. A well worn pair of shoes does look and feel different from the shiny new originals.
So off into the wilds … Walk on into winter …
wakelet collection on literatures work