co-writing strategies – or – what could possibly go wrong?

Writing collaboratively can be a joy. But it can also be challenging.  It is important when writing with others to choose a strategy which is not only manageable but also has more likelihood of joy than challenge.

The talk-write together approach

Barbara and I have written together for the last fifteen or so years. We wanted to find a way to write which was at once both of us, and neither of us. We achieved this through talk-write together – lots of conversation, then writing sitting side by side, always talking the text into being as we took turns at the keyboard.

We have interviewed other pairs of long-term writing collaborators. We know that some other people write like this too – but it’s not very common. Some writers prefer to write separately and apart. Some don’t have the time for the talk-write. Some try it and find they spend all their time talking and none writing. Or, at worst, there is a fight over words which jeopardises the partnership. So talk-write together is not for everyone.

And of course it’s much harder to do as a threesome or a bigger team. Then there are other strategies that come into play.

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The first-draft approach

Perhaps the most common way for people to write together is for one person to do the first draft. This is a strategy that works whether there are two writers or fifteen. And first-draft usually happens after joint planning.

First drafting is not without its problems.

Writers must negotiate about who takes the lead. Sometimes one person might just assume it is them and this can create resentments. Ideally, the first drafter become first author. However, quite often, the first-drafter is the most junior member of a team; they can end up being relegated to somewhere near the end of the author order. This is ethically difficult… but there are disciplinary differences here and differences of view. And there are countless stories of unethical exploitation of junior first-drafters. Supervisor-doctoral writing can also suffer from first-draft difficulties: assumptions are made about who should be first author and who actually knows most about the topic and the literatures.

Of course, there is potential in the first-draft arrangement for second, third and fourth authors to do very little work, or to act in other irritating ways – for instance, writing questions on the text as if they were marking the first-drafter’s work, rather than offering alternatives as co-authors. ( My personal hate.) Occasionally first-drafters don’t produce, leaving others in the team wondering how to address the problem.

But in both the talk-write and first-draft approach it is possible for a particular writing style – or ‘voice’ to be developed and maintained throughout drafting and revision. My research partner Chris and I have just written two books using the first-draft approach. Our aim was to ensure that readers were not aware of two authors. Each text would read, we hoped, as if it were written by one person. I wrote the first draft of one book and she the other. In each case, the second writer wrote into the text, deleting, inserting sections into our overall agreed plan. The final revision was undertaken by one of us who paid attention to the consistency of writing across the whole text – and we initially agreed that the first-drafter would have the last say on how the text was written. But if you were to read the two books side by side, as we have, you would see two different writers at work. Each book has one of our writing voices.

The write-in-sections approach

Another very common way to approach co-writing is for the text to be carved up so that each team member writes sections. As in the first-draft strategy, one of the writers, usually first author, has to take responsibility for the last version of the paper.

This approach is also not without its problems. The write-in-sections strategy is completely dependent on each writer doing their job within agreed time limits. While first-drafters can deal with tardy co-writers by doing the revisions themselves and then negotiating about whether the non-participants stay on the author list, section writers can’t. People who don’t pull their weight on section writing create huge problems for the other writer(s). There isn’t a full first draft to work with. Who should tell the lazy one, and who should step in, thus taking on a bigger responsibility?

And there are two other potential issues that can also cause trouble in the write-in-sections strategy. First of all, recognition of the need for consistency across sections of writing can lead to all of the writers adopting a generic style, one that has less colour, that leans to facticity, that is a dull read. This is not ideal.

Secondly, and more negatively, the lead author’s writing over and writing out in the last revision can lead to some of the section writers feeling that their contributions have been altered, downplayed, ignored, twisted out of shape. Individual writing idiosyncrasies – choice of words, sentence length and structure, use of narrative, imagery and metaphor for instance – have been ironed out by the lead writer. (This can also happen in first-draft, but less often.)  Section writers who have been heavily revised may feel that not only their ideas and knowledge have been marginalised, but also their writing ‘voice. Feelings of loss can cause  unhappiness within the writing team. This is not just a problem in new writing teams – it can happen to very experienced writers. It is always best in a writing team to try to surface these kinds of potential concerns at the outset, rather than leave them to fester.

The multi-voiced approach

Now you may have read papers where people have chosen to write, at least for some of the time, in multiple–voices. In this kind of paper, there is some writing where there is a unitary writer, but sections where different writers are identified. These personalised sections often offer different points of view, but can also have very different styles, textually representing the individuals involved in a project or discussion.  Multi-voiced texts can make for a very interesting, stimulating read, as they invite the reader to consider differing experiences and modes of expression.

It is clearly not always helpful or appropriate to use a multi-voiced approach; it may not suit the material, a proposed journal, or the philosophical position of the writers. However, it is one which is increasingly common in the arts, humanities and social sciences as a way of representing non-unitary perspectives – of the writing team or even of a single author.

And some of the same things that dog writing-in-sections can happen in multi-voiced work  too. People don’t pull their weight, the last author pulls a power play at the last minute, the text just doesn’t hang together sufficiently.

But one of the benefits of adopting a multi-voiced strategy is that it acknowledges difference. It is thus a strategy that long term writing teams take up, not all the time, but as part of the process of ensuring that everyone involved in writing feels fairly represented and knows they are an equal partner.

Oh – and one more thing

Getting your co-written paper out is important. It is as important to work ethically. This means  discussing which is the right approach for you and the task before any writing begins – be clear about who is to do what, and make an explicit agreement about how potential problems are to be addressed. Ideally, author order should be negotiated at the start – and those with seniority and power need to initiate this, and be generous to more junior colleagues.

It also important to maintain good relationships with colleagues during co-writing. Any form of working together always creates vulnerabilities. There are innumerable possibilities for emotional damage in any co-writing venture. Writing together is an activity which requires trust. It is helpful to put the question of trust on the table  – make it acceptable for people to discuss their concerns about feeling uncertain, their fears about being silenced, or feeling belittled or inadequate.

Text work/identity work is not just about the cerebral but also the relational. And the relational is central to co-writing. We need to talk more about this in general IMHO, but co-writing is a good place to begin those conversations.

Posted in co - witing, coconstruction, collaboration, collaborative work, text work/identity work, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

an ethics of analysis and writing

How do you work ethically with material generated in an interview? I’ve been pondering this question recently as part of a more general think about ethical research practice*.

Research ethics are covered in institutional forms – yes? Well no. The forms only cover specific aspects of ethical practice… the basics of consent, confidentiality and anonymity, safety, harm and benefit. The permission-oriented paperwork doesn’t go near all that is involved in an ethical research practice. Any experienced researcher will tell you that ethical decisions need to be made regularly and throughout any research project. And the ethical decisions do not stop when the field work finishes. They continue right through the analysis and writing.

But, to give them their due, institutional processes usually do require that you pay attention to ethics after field work. They ask to to consider what happens to the data after it’s generated. For instance, researchers are expected to decide at the outset whether interviewees will have transcripts returned to them for checking, and sometimes whether participants have a chance to comment on the analysis or see potential publications before they are sent off.

But even this is not all that is involved in the ethics of working with other people’s words and lives. There is a very large question of the politics of representation. This is something that doesn’t make it on to most ethics forms, but often does get discussed in methods courses – although I suspect more in some disciplines than others. (Yes anthropology, I’m bigging you up again.)

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However, the ways in which we ‘make people’ in our writing is not just about big questions – it’s also about the detail. The small stuff. Back to my pondering about interviews.

Decisions about how to work with interview transcripts are not straightforward, and I worry that key issues are not discussed often enough. To illustrate this point, here’s a few ethical questions that might arise about data generation and analysis:

  • How do we record and then analyse the important sensory elements of interviews? What does it mean to leave them out?
  • Does our desire to find patterns (themes) lead us to skip over important tensions and individual idiosyncrasies? What does it mean to leave them out?
  • Does the use of particular forms of software accentuate our gaze on broad themes rather than emergent narratives and subtle underpinning metaphors? What does it mean to leave them out?
  • Do the ways in which we transcribe recordings pay sufficient attention to silences, stumbles, awkwardness, intonations, irony, sarcasm and so on? What does it mean to leave them out?

And then there’s the ethical questions surrounding the writing that results from analysis.  Here’s just a few things that matter:

  • How can you best make the reader interested in the participant and see the value and logic of their responses? The decision goes to the question of doing no harm.
  • How do you cut through all of the verbiage to distil the essence of an interview so that it rings true to the event – and so it is ‘fair’ to the interviewee?
  • How much can you cut, splice and juggle the words of participants without actually veering into ‘making it up’?
  • What safeguards do you put in place to avoid cherry-picking particular words that conveniently fit a pattern?
  • How do you deal with accents? What are the ethical pluses and minuses of converting people’s words into standard English? (See John Field’s helpful post on this.)
  • How do you deal with disorderly thoughts, broken arguments, half-finished sentences? What is the potential for harm in the choice that you make about cleaning up/not cleaning up?
  • Are there ethical pitfalls in trying to stick too closely to a participant’s words?
  • How do you actually craft paragraphs and sentences so that the rhythm and meaning-making of the participant is best communicated?
  • Where is the ‘researcher you’ in the writing – hiding behind a carefully selected long slab of writing that masquerades as ‘authentic voice’?

On what basis do you make decisions about these questions?

These two beginning lists suggest that it is pretty hard to separate out questions of analytic technique and writing craft from ethics. The decisions you make about how to analyse and how to write are not simply about the best process, the most robust, the most transparent, something transferable. They are also profoundly about the ways in which we think about what we are doing with people who have given us their time, thoughts and words. And that’s a worry.

I guess I am working up to writing a paper about all of this…

*My latest book, with Chris Hall, on place-based methods for researching schools works with the notion of relational research ethics – with the researcher being a ‘guest’ offered ‘hospitality’.

Posted in analysis, data analysis, ethics, Uncategorized, writing research | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

letter to an unknown doctoral researcher

Dear becoming-doctor,

I know that you are about to enrol in a PhD. That’s fab, no really, it’s great – but there’s something I want you to think about as you fill out that form.

By the time you reach the PhD you are well-schooled in the art of comparison. Throughout your long education – school, undergraduate and masters courses – you’ve been ranked and graded against criteria, standards, targets and goals. You’ve also been compared to other people. And this comparison doesn’t stop when you start the doctorate – no, it actually gets more intense. When you enrol in the PhD, you also sign up for endless comparison. Before you even begin to do an introductory course or seminar you are compared to others – and you implicitly or explicitly compare yourself as well.  How? Well here’s two examples:

(1) getting into the PhD

Getting an offer to do the PhD is a competitive game, and part of the process of application is getting the proposal into its most competitive form. You will probably ask yourself – does this project look more appealing to this supervisory team and this university than others? Does my track record look good compared to other people’s? And whoever is assessing your application will ask the same kind of questions.

(2)  getting support to do the PhD

Applying for funding is very competitive and you are inevitably in the game of positioning your proposed work and your history of academic and professional experiences against criteria and (imagined) others. The funders do draw up ranked lists of applicants which address just this question – how does this person and project stack up against the others who’ve applied.

By the time you start actually doing your doctoral research it’s not simply other people who compare you to peers. You also do it yourself because the process demands it. In fact the processes accentuate and embed the practices of comparing yourself to set standards – and implicitly other doctoral researchers. The PhD is full of institutional points which you are expected to understand and meet – can you produce a full proposal within a short space of time? Is your work proceeding at the expected pace or are you behind or ahead? Does your thesis stand a chance of making an original contribution? And so on. Comparison all the way along.

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Now, comparison is problematic for two reasons.

Firstly, comparison is always normative. Scholarly comparison works with and to the norms of an academic game – and the norms are clearly problematic. Norms exclude. Norms discriminate. Norms oppress. Norms produce ways of becoming and being that are specifically cultured, gendered, sexualized, raced, abled and embodied. But of course, norms can be challenged – and indeed  in the contemporary university they often are. But academic norms do need my – and your – continued attention.

However, struggling politically and collectively against discriminatory institutional/social norms isn’t all that matters. You also have to deal with the potentially damaging personal effects of being schooled in comparison while also needing to pass your doctoral examination(s).  The second big problem with comparison is that it can be mentally, physically and emotionally harmful if it gets out of control.

Like…

  • No-one I know has difficulty getting started on their writing.
  • I am still trying to sort out my research design and everyone else has started.
  • I seem to get reams of feedback from my supervisor on my writing and no-one else does.
  • I’ve read some theses in my field, and they seem so good/important compared to what I am doing.
  • Other doctoral researchers are writing huge amounts every day and I don’t write as much, maybe there is something wrong with me.
  • My friend is already writing chapters and I am still doing analysis.
  • I will never write as well as my friend/supervisor/academic hero.

And so on.

Now, you know what I’m going to say here I’m sure. This kind of comparison is not helpful or healthy if it goes on and on. The occasional side glance at others is almost impossible to avoid. But continued comparison with others, negative or positive, can be really counter-productive. Too much negative comparison really is really de-powering. And too much positive comparison can lead to over-confidence, hubris even.

I’ve heard that you’re a parent. And parents know the comparison trap well. “My child is slow at talking/walking etc compared to my friends child” ignores the reality that children develop at different rates and in different ways. Some children hardly speak at all for a long time and then suddenly produce sentences and conversation all at once. Some children take a long time to walk, others seem to almost skip crawling. It’s good to keep this child development analogy in mind – because the PhD is not entirely unlike a baby – your baby. Just like children, research and theses develop in different ways, and at different paces. This doesn’t mean that you don’t have to work at the research and writing, you certainly do. But it does mean that looking for direct comparisons with others isn’t always that useful.

Sometimes people who seem to be racing ahead actually aren’t at all. To mix the metaphor, while you might proceed tortoise-like through your PhD, struggling with generating the data, doing the analysis and getting the text sorted out, the hare has handed their dissertation in. But often, hares end up with loads of corrections while tortoises have much less to do. And if they don’t, well let’s be happy for the hare and also happy for the tortoise, because both have got there in the end.

The real problem is that constantly comparing yourself to others can actually impede your work. Yes, I know we can all think of someone who seems to have been spurred on by a drive for normative perfection. And there’s no doubt that knowing what’s expected is crucial to getting to the Dr. But for every one of those competition-loving people there are lots of others who are made very miserable – and often immobilised – by comparing themselves negatively with their peers and against institutional requirements. Sadly, in  my experience, these people often have a much more depressing and pessimistic view of where they are and what they can do than is actually the case.

Being in a state of comparison deficit – that continued feeling of not being good enough compared to others – stops all kinds of important thesis-related activities.  At its worst, feeling crap in comparison to others means you can’t be creative because you don’t feel able to let go. You can’t rely on your imagination because you already know that your ideas wont be as good as other people’s. You can’t just get on with getting on with things, as there seems to be no point. You fret about every word of supervisor feedback as you see all comments as being about the hopeless you, rather than being pointers for what to do next. You can’t critically interrogate the normative nature of expectations because you are so overwhelmed with a sense of not being good enough. Comparison deficit can make you hypercritical of early drafts of writing – or stop you ever getting past the first paragraph.

Comparison deficit is unhealthy, not good for you in any way at all. Comparison can be crippling and painful. A little goes a long way, as the saying goes. Don’t let it stymie your doctoral dreams.

Dear becoming -doctor, it’s important to get to grips with the ways in which comparison has become and keeps on being deeply embodied and embedded and integral to the process of doctoral – and academic – success. Being in the academic game, as it is at present, is highly comparative and competitive. We academics are constantly being ranked in our teaching, research and publication. Our publications and our research funding are generally acquired through competition. So if you do aspire to work in the academy, and you don’t have to sign up for it, you need to be able to manage this side of the work.

I don’t want to put you off the doctorate at all. Research and teaching can be immensely satisfying and pleasurable. I just want you to think about comparison and competition as you start, not later when you’re in the throes of self doubt. It’s so important as you start the doctorate to work on finding your own Goldilocks comparison position – not too self critical, but critical enough to make sure you can play the game where and when you choose to. Critical enough to take on the norms when and where you choose to, preferably in the collective company of others.

Apologies for the lecture. I’m sure you know all of this. It’s just that it’s often hard to put a comparison-lite position into practice.

All the every best.

Your friend, Patter

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in comparison, competition, doctoral experience, doctoral researcher, norms, PhD | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

good academic writing – what’s your list?

I asked people in one of my Australian writing workshops to tell me what they thought was essential in good academic writing. The purpose of the activity was to generate criteria that participants could use to steer their own writing. The list was not meant to be an evaluative rubric, something that could be used to assess distance from the ideal. No, the list was an expression of aspirations.

So here is the list that the workshop participants produced – with just a bit of editing from me.

The text is written clearly – complex ideas are explained and difficult terms are defined – the content is accessible to the reader. Even when concepts and theories are obscure, complex or difficult, they are not overcomplicated, but made comprehensible.

The text is well organized – it is clearly structured so that you know where you are in the argument.

The text is credible because the writer does what they say they are going to do. The writer explains and justifies their interpretation.

The author makes their position known but also recognizes and deals fairly with other people’s ideas, interpretations and views.

The text is generous – it offers readers different meaning making possibilities.

The text is stimulating – there is an invitation to get into dialogue – you have an argument going on in your head when you read it.

The writing is uncluttered, elegant and clean. The words are enjoyable, beautiful, powerful, not parsimonious. There is humour and playfulness. The writing affects you, the text does more than transmit knowledge. The text may be metaphorical, allegorical or it may ground you in everyday practice. Either can be a rewarding read.

The effort you make in reading the text is worthwhile – there is something to be learnt.

The text takes you to other writing – it leads you to other texts and writers

You forget you are reading.

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How does this list differ from the usual academic writing that you read? What would you add to this list? Are there any things here that you don’t want from academic writing?

And would your list help you to think about how to revise your drafts? Would it give you something to aim for?

 

 

 

 

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ask not how but why – musings on ‘the interview’

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I was reading some interview transcripts the other day. They were fairly unstructured conversations; the interviewer had some set topics to cover, but not necessarily any set wording. I happened to be looking for the connections between the type of question asked and the response. 

I saw that the longest answers, and the ones with the most helpful information, came from questions that started something like this:

  • Can you tell me about…
  • Can you tell me how…
  • How much do you…
  • What can you remember about…
  • What do you think has been most important in…
  • How did this happen …
  • What kind of…
  • What about…

These probing queries came after the conversation had got going. They seemed to work like interested, approving nudges which encouraged the person being interviewed to keep talking.

And there were also some invitational questions like:

  •  We’re really interested in….
  • We’d like to know about….

In these transcripts both kinds of questions produced useful information. The answers were interesting too, and lent themselves to a number of analytic approaches, from narrative to discourse analysis.

As I read further through the transcripts, I thought about other angles that could have been taken by the interviewer, perhaps something like

  • Can you trace …. back to the start….
  • Can you walk me through the process you used to…
  • Can you take me through what happened …

These questions share the same characteristics as the others – they ask ‘the interviewee’ to talk about concrete events, in ways that don’t put them on the spot.

Howard Becker wrote once that it is better to ask someone a how question than a why. Why questions tend to make people defensive, he says. They either tell us what they think is right, or something that will fob us off, or what they think we expect to hear. How questions on the other hand, invite people to talk about process. Becker argues that most social scientists want to know the answer to the how question rather than to the why. He says that it’s useful to know how people come to do something and to get a narrative account of a sequence of events. Knowing process, he says, allows researchers to see patterns in people’s behaviour. And how answers also do often provide a rationale, or at least clues to it.

Of course, sometimes you do want to get people to respond to a why question. I did see some of this in the transcripts I was looking at. The questions there were of this ilk…

  • What do you think about the idea of…
  • How would you respond to the view that…
  • Some people might argue … what do you think?

So these weren’t questions that asked people to justify their actions so much as respond to a hypothetical situation, to give their opinion in relation to something distanced from them.

I was also struck by the way in which asking process and open-opinion-giving questions was a kind of interviewer mind-set. Well, that’s how it seemed from the transcripts. And that’s important. It seems to me that getting good information from people takes a kind of embodied understanding about what kinds of question starters are helpful. It’s what Becker calls a “polite but disinterested curiosity” which gives people leeway to tell you about things that you may not have thought of. The transcripts I looked at had been conducted by an interviewer ( not me) who obviously had this kind of internal ‘process compass’.

In an unstructured interview, the interviewer doesn’t have time to think about the kind of question that they will ask, they simply begin a conversation and then offer prompts. Making sure that you ask questions that will get information, and keep the flow of the conversation going, is quite an art. I was looking at transcripts produced by someone who had this kind of internalised research craft. 

I hope that all of you who are writing interview schedules have lots of time to practice questions that are invitational and open. Doing so means that you will be able to focus on listening and responding, rather than worrying about coverage and phrasing.

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writing an academic ransom note

I’m in Australia at present. Inevitably I’m running some writing workshops. Inevitably I’m playing with some new strategies. I really do like to try out new things to see how they work, what they might do. And one of the new things on this trip was the ransom note.

Now I’m sure that you all know what a ransom note is. It’s a short letter of demand. I have your cat. If you want it back you need to pay me a lot of money. Don’t tell anyone or I’ll send your cat to Antarctica. Or words to that effect.

Ransom notes are stereotypically manufactured from letters cut randomly from newspapers. Pre computer, the cut and paste method avoided a typewriter or printer ‘signature’ being identified. That’s outdated tech now – but we still generally associate a ransom note with something made from mismatching, miscellaneous letters. But no need for the newspapers if you can’t be bothered… there are now free software programmes – see here and here – which randomize letters to produce fake ransom notes.  And that’s what I’ve been using in my workshops.

I’ve used ransom notes in two different ways:

(1) in a boot camp dedicated to writing part of a thesis.

The instruction I gave to participants was Sum up what you’ve found in your research in one sentence. Don’t make it too long. Just think about the most important thing you have to say. 

Now, writing just one sentence summing up the point to be made in the thesis, or in a chapter, can be very hard. People did find it difficult to move away from I’m trying to, I want to write about, I am exploring… and actually produce a definitive statement. But of course, that was the point of the exercise.

Moving away from the tentative and/or the detail to the big take-home message is crucial. It’s a shift which makes the thesis work. Once you have the overall point you want to make, you can organize your material into a coherent argument. The ransom note with the definite point to be made can act as a signpost for the writing to come. Once you know where you are heading, you can plot your journey.

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before you fall for the next Instagram food fad read about the health benefit of sorghum

I was very interested to see that it was the scientists in my first workshop who seemed to find this exercise easy. Perhaps because they’d had a thesis/hypothesis to start with, something they wanted to prove/disprove, something they wanted to test out, they found it easier to say where they stood at the end of their research.

The people who found it hard were those who wanted to sit on the fence, thinking that this kind of exercise removed the nuance that is important. It doesn’t of course. There is a difference between a nuanced argument which still goes somewhere and writing which just waffles all over the place. Pulling out the basic message is actually a great anchor for a highly nuanced piece of writing. Knowing the overall direction ensures that you don’t leave the reader wandering around and around, wading through point after point and getting nowhere.

(2) As a way to find authorial ‘voice’.

In a workshop for people writing a journal article from their thesis, the instruction was Write one sentence which sums up the major message of the thesis. Write it as directly as you can to the person or people that you most wish would read your research results. You can even use four letter words if you feel so inclined. 

People in the ‘voice’ workshop seemed to find this exercise easier to do than those writing about their major thesis point. Most people in the workshop could imagine themselves talking to a policymaker, practitioner or perhaps even another researcher. They could hear the kind of thing that they would say, if only they could.

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The point of this exercise was to find the energy and the passion about the research and its results. Once that’s in play, it’s easier to write with that energy and commitment.

Writing the talking-back-to ransom note positions you at the start to think about communicating your message. It supports writing something other than anaesthetised prose. You see, writing with authority – with voice – are as much about how you act as how you actually feel. Even if you feel a bit shy about your research results, you can still write from a position of authority – you act textually to signify confidence in what you want to say. The ransom note is one strategy to support that identity move.

But I have to be honest.

These two short exercises haven’t worked equally well for everyone. They did however seem to have been helpful for some people. They appeared to me to be particularly confronting for participants who were feeling tentative about their research results. Perhaps the exercises helped them to see that at least some of the writing problems that they were experiencing were to do either with lack of clarity or feeling tentative. Well, that’s my hope.

Perhaps you might want to try the ransom note sometime to see what it does for you and whether it can help crunch the point and/or position the writing.

Posted in argument, authentic voice, authority in writing | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

pack ratting – a common or garden field work practice

Pack rats are nest builders. They use plant material such as branches, twigs, sticks, and other available debris. Getting into everything from attics to car engines, stealing their ‘treasures’, damaging electrical wiring, and creating general noisy havoc can easily cause them to become a nuisance. A peculiar characteristic is that if they find something they want, they will drop what they are currently carrying, for example a piece of cactus, and “trade” it for the new item. They are particularly fond of shiny objects. (Wikipedia)

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Lots of researchers turn into pack rats when they are doing their field work. They collect everything they can lay their hands on, just in case in comes in handy. Even if the “stuff” doesn’t have an apparent connection to their immediate research interests, it might do at some point in the future. You never know. You could be very sorry when you get down to analysis and find out you don’t have the very thing you are looking for.

Trust me, I know about pack ratting. I have been a field work pack rat and the huge stack of archive boxes in my office are testament to my practices of accumulation.

Some years ago some colleagues and I did a project on change in schools. We went into our forty carefully selected institutions, and picked up everything we could lay our hands on. We took hundreds of photos. We made copies of every school document available. We printed out webpages, and we persuaded people to give us material about every single thing they had done for the last few years. We gathered unto us brochures, media clippings, prospectus, publications, reports.  We amassed a mass of stuff. On top of our collections,  we also had field notes and interviews.

At the end of the project we sorted through the materials, got rid of duplicates and packed a very large archive box for each of the forty schools. That was just the hard copy stuff – we also had extensive digital materials.

I am still not sure how much of this material we actually used. Certainly we used some of it and we worked with it, in depth. But not all of it. How could we in the time we had?

I went back to one of the boxes recently just to see what we had. A lot of it was surplus to requirements, even at the time. A couple of items that we hadn’t particularly worked with, but had kept because they were interesting, were still interesting. They were indeed worthy of the side analysis we had imagined at the time. A lot of the stuff however, wasn’t of much value and I couldn’t see that it would ever be so.

But we had collected it. Just in case. We had pack ratted.

I’ve come to understand that during field work you often accumulate an archive of materials. However, this is always an excess. And whats more, it is not even yet data. Even if we call it data, it isn’t yet data.

Data is created when you actually sit down, back in the office, away from the everyday busyness of field work, to work out what you have that will actually help you answer your research question(s). The research data you use is absolutely not the same as that archive of potential data. In a very real sense, the researcher creates the data from the archive of stuff they put together.

As you sort and sift through the field work archive asking – of every item – what it might contribute to your particular research question, you are actually deciding what is the data for your particular study. This is a helpful exercise in itself, because it forces you to focus not only on the question, but also on what you need in order to construct some kind of answer.

Of course, when you come across something that looks like it might make a good side project, then it is worth putting away for safe-keeping. But the rest? Well you could keep it in boxes for ten years or so, as I have, or you could make a cull at the time, keeping your archive of material only until the project is finished.

But then you never know what might come in handy…

If you think that way, you may be a latent or actual pack rat, in which case you will just accumulate and accumulate, seeking new shiny things on each and every field work trip.

And then you will end up with an office that looks just like mine!

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