academics behaving badly – calling out the Cleverclogs

Continuing the occasional series on bad academic behaviour. 

The Drs Cleverclog are well known in academic circles. A very large extended family of know-it-alls.

At least one of them makes their presence known at every conference, meeting and large academic gathering you go to. Even if you don’t recognise them by sight, you know them by their behaviour.


That’s not Dr Cleverclog is it? Tell me he’s not coming over to our table.

The Cleverclogs have an opinion about everything. While you hesitate to proffer a view on things you don’t know about, the good Drs Cleverclog have, it seems, never found a topic they can’t speak about with great confidence. There is no field of inquiry that they don’t know something about, no matter of great social significance where they haven’t read the definitive text, no emerging area of interest that they haven’t already surveyed, no book that they haven’t read a critique of, no issue where they haven’t already done a significant piece of pilot work which paves the way for we lesser beings with our lesser research.

The Cleverclog family want to let you know what they know. What they know matters more than anything or anyone else. But they are not united in their approach to displaying their expertise. Some Cleverclogs aren’t particularly worried about whether other people learn what they know only too well. These Cleverclogs speak in arcane terms, acronyms and abbreviations, they litter their proclamations with obscure references and dates. No-one but them can actually understand what they are on about.  But other Cleverclogs want you to learn from them, so they become the very worst kind of teacher. They explain in painstaking detail –  spelling out principles that are routinely taken for granted, ideas that are in common use, and terminology that is self-evident. They go on and on and on, barely pausing for breath, leaving little opportunity for you to do anything but nod.

Cleverclogs don’t modify their behaviour for you, or anyone else. At a conference, regardless of whether they are talking to a doctoral researcher giving their first paper or to a more senior peer, they are first on their feet with a question which allows a lengthy display of their own superior knowledge. They then often get into conversation with the speaker, contesting interpretations and apparent ‘facts’ and preventing anyone else from getting a word in.

The venerable Drs Cleverclog specialise in monopolising available time and space. They often speak v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y, repeating words and phrases in order to demonstrate the great portent of their contribution, and their singular authority. They take offence if it is suggested that they might speed up and get to the point. They brush off interruptions with “let me finish” making it clear that it is the impatient and ignorant that are at fault, rather than their behaviour.

Cleverclogs pride themselves on being in the know and knowing the right people. They regularly drop crony references into conversations – they were having dinner with this highly cited scholar, a school reunion with that Nobel prize winner, regular email exchanges with the latest academic book best seller. You can only gasp at someone so singularly well-connected.

Despite being a family, the Cleverclogs aren’t actually related. They share behaviour but not genes. And they  weren’t born like this. So where did these Cleverclogs come from? Perhaps they were all once simply clever children. Over time they were over-rewarded for their expertise, promoted for their willingness to speak up when no one else would, offered time and space because, well, someone has to do it.  It must be something like this, something systematic, something systemic, because the Cleverclogs show no sign of dying out. As soon as one Cleverclog retires, another is there in their place. They seem to not only survive but also thrive in the contemporary performative academy.

It’s way past time that the most grating and obnoxious Cleverclogs  left the building.  Their unabashed hubris is rarely well-intentioned. Members of the Cleverclog family who don’t quite understand the consequences of their behaviour might learn something if they see the senior members of their clan under pressure to sit down, be quiet, listen and give a bit of respect and time to their colleagues.

I’m minded to do this calling out more often. The danger is of course that in calling out, you become an inadvertent mirror of Cleverclog behaviour. You – shudder- join the family.

But there must be a way, surely. There just must.

Collect the other badly behaved academics:


Dr Oozing Confidence

Professors of the Academic Dark Arts

 Professors of the Poison Pen

Image credit: dacian dorca – street photography.  Flickr Commons.

Posted in academic dark arts, academic writing, badly behaved academic writers, conference, conference questions, Dr Cleverdick | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

bad writing advice


There’s some very bad writing advice out there. Most of it is well-intentioned. Most doesn’t aim to make profit from anxious writers. But unfortunately readily available writing advice is not uniformly good.

Does this matter? Caveat emptor perhaps? Well, there’s a lot of research on writing, and on academic writing in particular. A lot. So every now and then I find myself wondering why people offering writing advice don’t consult the available evidence.

Academic writing is a multi-disciplinary research field. Let me give you a bit of a sketch – by no means complete, but enough to show some key components.

English, Writing, and Rhetoric and Communications Faculties host Language and Linguistics scholarship, and research on writers and on writing practices. Each of the three has distinctive traditions and its own corpus of publications. And each of the three is a field with its own sub-fields. Language and Linguistics for example includes what we might call Genre Studies, Discourse Studies, Corpus Linguistics, Systemic Functional Linguistics and New Literacy Studies. And then there are applied fields like Composition Studies, English as a Second/Foreign Language and English for Academic Purposes  – these not only draw on research from other language related fields, they also produce their own research.

Psychologists are interested in academic writing behaviours. Most of the advice that you see about writing habits – speed writing, daily writing, motivation  – originates in psychology research, although the connection sometimes gets lost in translation.

Anthropologists have long been concerned with writing, and related social science disciplines have taken an interest in writing too; this scholarship focuses in part on the ways in which writing produces particular, culturally/materially/socially situated knowledges.

And did I mention Education? There’s more writing researchers here, and we are most often interested in the teaching of writing. Some of us are located in special units devoted to researcher development while others, like me, are in education faculties. Education researchers interested in academic writing draw from a range of research conducted in other disciplines, as well as developing our own. For example, it is largely educators in graduate support services who have been researching writing groups, writing courses and boot camps. Educators often use “Creative Writing” (back to English) pedagogies too.

And this is by no means a definitive list of where research and scholarship on academic writing can be found. But it is perhaps enough to suggest that there is writing advice, and then there is research-informed writing advice. No surprises in what I prefer.

And I so completely understand the motivations of  Cheryl Ball and Drew Loewe who recently edited a book called – yes – Bad Ideas About Writing. (open access)

Bad Ideas About Writing  takes issue with some of the common tips and tricks routinely provided for undergraduate students. Some of what is said in the book also applies to doctoral writing, and to academic writing more generally.

 Bad Ideas About Writing is divided into six sections. These are: Bad ideas about what good writing is, Bad ideas about who good writers are, Bad ideas about style, usage and grammar, Bad ideas about writing techniques, Bad ideas about genres, Bad ideas about assessing writing, Bad ideas about writing and digital technology and Bad ideas about writing teachers. These titles give a flavour of what is in each section and this is made even more obvious in the titles of the various section contributions.

The section entitled “Bad Ideas about style use and grammar” contains nine pieces of about three to five pages each. And these writers have set their sights on: Strunk and White set the standard; Good writers always follow my rules; Writers must develop a strong original voice; Leave yourself out of your writing; Never use “I”; The passive voice should be avoided; Teaching grammar improves writing; Good writers must know grammatical terminology; and Grammar should be taught separately as rules to learn.

Each of these separate contributions draws on specific research. For example, Laura Lisabeth argues in the piece entitled “Strunk and White set the standard” that this most popular of texts has its roots in nineteenth century handbooks of conversation etiquette. This is an important connection, Lisabeth argues, as the

…kind of writing Strunk and White put forth as good writing is in fact a discourse that limits and excludes, not reflecting the valuable ways English is practiced in local and digital contexts and by a variety of writers from different language traditions. Insistence on the kind of English constructed by The Elements of Style is uninformed at best and … unethical and racist at worst. (p. 118)

Lisabeth shows that the language ‘standards’ espoused by Strunk and White have been contested ever since the first edition was published. She suggests that

One way to begin dismantling Strunk and White’s bad idea about writing is by understanding Standard Academic English as a historically formed, culturally specific language among many other languages. Reframe the notion of academic writing as a fixed, unchanging, and neutral discourse; think of it instead as a flexible toolkit of language practices that change with the user and the context. (p. 119)

Lisabeth sees writing as a socially situated practice not a neutral tool. Her argument accords with views widely held across the humanities and social sciences that texts are cultural constructions. This view doesn’t mean of course that Lisabeth is advocating that ‘anything goes’ in relation to writing. Like all of the contributors in the book she recognises that conventions exist and that they generally need to be followed. But she wants readers to resist using texts like Strunk and White as infallible laws, and instead to be open to cultural nuances and digital, popular and (what linguists call) World Englishes.

In the same section, Monique Dufours and Jennifer Ahern-Dodson tackle process advice rules. They argue that rule-driven approaches – always start writing with an outline, always use a sequence of steps to produce a paper, only write in short bursts, only work on one project at a time – can create problems if they are held as unwavering truths.

Rule-driven writing instruction, the pair suggest, actually undermines the very skills it is designed to foster (p. 123). Writers  hold onto rules even when they are clearly not working. Dufours and Ahern-Dodson propose that readers: (1) translate rules into suggestions and (2) ask questions about the use of rules. They illustrate these propositions with an example that is familiar to most of us:

Take, for example, the common advice to always begin … with a catchy hook. Catchy hooks such as apt, vivid anecdotes can be used to excellent effect, if they meet the needs of the text and the circumstances. A writer can try it (this tactic) out and see what happens. What effect does it have on the text? Does it meet the audience’s and context’s needs (i.e., the rhetorical situation)? Does it contribute to expressing what the writer is trying to say? How do real readers respond? In this way, writers can experiment with techniques, deliberate about their implications, and make judgments about the best course of action among their options. And, most importantly, writers focus their goals and purposes, rather than on the rote adherence to rules, which is more meaningful… (p. 124).

Dufours and Hern-Dodson’s stance – which focuses on the writer’s capacity to diagnose and choose for themselves – is  taken by all of the book contributors. Advice is just that, they say, advice. If we understand writing problems to be the norm rather than the exception, then we also understand that to become a better writer means building a repertoire of process tools and techniques. We writers don’t need prescriptions, they urge. Rather, we can approach each writing task thinking about that problems we might, and are facing, in the particular piece. We then think about what resources we might draw on to address them. We try them out. We see what works better for us in that specific situation.

All of the chapters in Bad Ideas About Writing offer further reading.  Most of the authors refer to key texts and research; some also point to the advice books and blogs that use research.

Regardless of your/my experience with academic writing, most of us would benefit from reading bits of this book. Those of us who research and teach academic writing are likely to find some new reading matter. Those relatively new to academic writing will not only find a wealth of texts to explore, but also some useful insights. We mightn’t agree with all of it, but we can debate it… and as in any scholarly debate it helps if we are well informed.

And the material in the book will help readers to develop writing advice crap detectors, useful to discriminate between the proliferation of writing advice – some bad, some not so bad, some good.

Image by Frame Harirak on Unsplash.

Posted in academic writing, advice, poor advice, research, writing research | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

for the reader – citations, reference lists, tables of contents and indexes

2017-07-04 17.02.46.jpgMost of us understand that citation is about locating our work in the field.

We cite to show that we understand the field, that we know who counts and we understand what previous studies are important.

We cite to show the “borrowed stuff” we have used to build our own project and what has informed our interpretation and argument.

We cite to show what aspects of the scholarly conversation we contribute to.

But there are other ways to think about citation.

One approach is to see citation as performative. It is not unusual for people to cite simply to indicate that they’ve have done their homework. This is thinking of citation as a kind of peacock display – look how much I’ve read and isn’t it impressive. Another kind of performative thinking is when people assume that they have to cite from the journal that they are submitting to because it’s required. If I don’t quote from the journal they reject me. This performative citation is really a covert form of flattery – if I don’t suck up to the Editors I’m in trouble. And citation is sometimes talked about very instrumentally – mainly by publishers – as a way to get the journal impact factors up.

Another, and more principled, way to approach citations is to see them as academic politics – to understand that who cites who is not a neutral game. There’s no doubt that if you take the time to examine who gets cited and who doesn’t, you can get very depressed. Citation isn’t equitable. Some people hardly get cited at all despite doing really interesting but unfashionable work – they take particular critical, raced, classed, gendered, abled perspectives for instance. The inequitable politics of citation have led to some women in academia forming ‘cite club’; this is a collective tactic to address the invisibility of women’s scholarship in particular fields and reference lists.

A third way to approach citations is to see them as a service to the reader. Here citations sit alongside footnotes, reference lists, tables of content, and indexes – these are all avenues for writers to help their readers enter new scholarly worlds. Sounds silly? Well, just think about how most of us actually read an academic text.

I’m a pretty typical academic reader. When I read a paper, I choose to do so because I have an interest in the topic. And I generally don’t want to just stop with the paper that I’m currently in/on. I’ll want to read some related papers. So, where better to get some clues about where to go next than from the texts the writer has referred to?

I almost always find a few new things to read when I follow up in-text citations. Sometimes this is the citation, or it might be an informative footnote. A footnote gives me one or more references and some additional information. At the time, rather than being distracted from the gist of the reading, I’ll generally make a note of the reference or point. Or – ideally – if the note or reference is hyperlinked, I’ll follow it up straight away and either book mark it, clip the reference or even download it so I can engage with it later.

I much do the same hunting around with books. If I’m reading a book for a particular purpose I almost always, early on, turn to the index to see where a particular topic or perhaps a writer is discussed. I sometimes even check the index for the particular topic or person I’m interested in before I do a lot of reading in the book. The index is my guide to what interests me. The table of contents acts in much the same way – it steers me to the bits I’m interested in.

Citations, footnotes, reference lists, lists of content and indexes are good avenues for getting deep into a topic. By using these handy little adjunct texts you can amass a set of relevant reading relatively quickly. These lead you to various complexities, permutations, and debates. And if you like reading out of your field, or reading texts written in other locations, these side texts can be very helpful indeed; the references that writers use are often culturally and geographically as well as discipline specific.

Supervisors often tell doctoral researchers that one way to build an understanding of the field is to pay attention to the citations in their reading. Reading a few papers and seeing who always gets cited is an important signpost to the key players and texts in a field. When you see the same people referred to over and over again, you get the message that you’d better read these too as they seem to be part of the ‘lingua franca’ of the particular scholarly conversation. (And of course, if you then find out that these people are from a particular elite, then you might want to address and/or challenge their dominance.)

So, given how readers use these aspects of a text, it is worth thinking beyond what they do for you. Switch the perspective. What can you do for your readers?

Taking care with citations, references, foot notes, lists of content and indexes can be of considerable service. Careful little listicles can make the reading that you have done available to other people. These textual adjuncts can become, if you like, part of the gift that your writing can make. Your writing can include an entree into your particular scholarly library.

Citations, references, foot notes and indexes are a window on your academic world.

If that’s the case, it’s well worth taking a little time and care about what citations, references, footnotes, lists of content and indexes that we offer to other colleagues. They are part of the contribution that we make – not a tiresome necessity or an unnecessary imposition.

Posted in academic writing, citation, footnote, index, reference, reference list | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

live blogging academic writing – an un-conference

rucksack-magazine-192573-unsplash.jpgThis week I am running an academic writing course at The University of Iceland. Ive been running academic writing courses here for some years but usually I just do a week long programme about writing a journal article. This time however I’ve returned to the first part of the course which is about writing a conference paper. This week is intended to provide the basis for the second half of the course – revising, polishing and submitting the paper to a journal.

I decided to switch the course up a little this time – well you know I think about how to do things differently a lot – and run it as an un-conference, using a blog to publish the various texts that we will produce during the week. We will be publishing everyday so there will be continued updates. You might like to follow along with us – the site is called hiunconference.

This is the description of the course as it appears in the university handbook:

Academic Writing I

Course Description:

The overall aim of the course is to improve doctoral students’ skills in preparing academic conference presentations and other academic writing in English. The emphasis will be on such practical considerations as: choosing a conference; understanding the call; writing the abstract; designing a symposium; writing a symposium abstract; writing the proposal for conference funding; pre-conference networking; and pre-planning the publication of a paper. Practical issues will be emphasized related to academic writing, keeping in mind the needs of the audience, academic readers. In addition, writing a synopsis will be covered.

The course is based on peer review in which students acquire skills in reviewing each other’s’ texts.

Learning Outcomes:

At the end of the course, students will have improved their skills in

  • choosing a conference and understand the call
  • writing a conference abstract
  • designing a symposium and writing an abstract
  • writing a proposal for conference funding
  • pre-planning the publication of a paper
  • preparing a synopsis
  • reviewing the texts of others.

Im working with an  Icelandic colleague Randi Stebbins who works in the university Writing Centre. You’ll meet her tomorrow if you visit the hiunconference site.

Posted in academic writing, conference, conference abstract, Conference blog, unconference | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

thesis knowhow – “the contribution” can create coherence

My Nordic colleagues often say that the thesis has to have a red thread, a line of argument that holds things together.

So what’s this red thread? Think of the red thread as a sturdy rope that guides the reader up the rocky mountain that is the thesis, making sure that they don’t fall down a crevasse or take a side track that leads nowhere.

258111591_574065f447_b.jpgThe thesis red thread creates coherence in and through the text.

One way to approach the red thread is to think about it through the prism of the contribution. So, to the next question. What’s “the contribution”?

Well, think about the contribution as the answer to the awkward question, “What did your research find out?”

Most of us have had the experience of being asked to sum up a complex and lengthy research project in a couple of sentences – and it’s – well – awkward to give a pithy and precise answer.  I like to call it the supermarket queue question. It’s the moment when you have to reluctantly give a short and easily comprehensible answer about your research results and why they matter.

Your answer to the awkward question is “the contribution”. We have produced a something worth knowing from our research, and it speaks with, and to, what is already known about our particular topic. The contribution is our offering to the scholarly conversation.

While the contribution can wait for a Grand Reveal at the end of the thesis, it’s often better if it doesn’t.  Let me explain.

Keeping an eye on the contribution can be really helpful when thinking about the thesis red thread. It can really help, when you are writing, to think about each of the various sections in relation to the contribution. And then, don’t keep it to yourself, make that connection clear to the reader.

I’ll illustrate this by pointing to some of the moves that most theses have to make, and the ways in which they relate to contribution. This is not an exhaustive elaboration – but I hope it’s enough to indicate how a focus on the contribution adds up to a red thread.

  • The beginning of the thesis usually establishes what the research is going to be about and why it is needed. The potential significance of the contribution is explained. The explanation about why the contribution is needed creates the warrant for the research.
  • The knowledge basis on which the contribution is to be made is outlined for the reader. The writer discusses the literatures that the research uses – theories/concepts and a priori definitions and assumptions, arguing why this literatures selection is important for this particular research. This literatures work locates the contribution in its field(s) and indicates what existing research might be extended or challenged.
  • When the thesis addresses methodology and methods, the writer explains the production of ‘evidence’ through which the contribution is to be made, how the contribution relies on an accepted research tradition, why the research is thorough, ethical and trustworthy.
  • The research results are reported in order to show key chunks of ‘stuff’, that when put together, are the foundation, or ‘evidence’, for the contribution.
  • What is often called ‘discussion’ moves beyond description and analysis to provide an explanation of the results. Separate pieces of analysis are brought together and connected to the relevant literatures to show what the research offers that is additional, what is the same, what challenges what. The contribution is now at the point where it can be expressed as the first part of the answer to the supermarket queue question – What have you found? This is what my research says and means.
  • The conclusion to the thesis goes back to the original question and the reasons for doing the research. At the top of the guide rope, you look back down to see the origin of the climb. The contribution is now summarised as a kind of I-said-we-needed-to-know-this-and-now-we-do; this is often called the claims. The contribution is usually expressed as one or more points – these economically name the bodies of work which are extended/challenged by your inquiry. Depending on the discipline and research, the key contribution points may also be connected to policy and/or practice. Then the so-what and now-what of the contribution are laid out for the reader. The implications that arise from this contribution – policy, practice, further research – are spelled out. This is why the contribution matters.

So if you follow this line of argument through the thesis, the contribution becomes the organiser. It becomes the red thread.

And knowing the red thread stands you in good stead. The viva and written examination are all about the contribution. Every aspect of the viva is directed to assessing the significance of the contribution and how it was produced. And it doesn’t stop there. Very often, the contribution made in the doctorate forms the  basis for further research work. It becomes a red thread through your cv and ongoing research agenda.

It’s worth finding the answer to that awkward supermarket queue question then.

Image credit: Alex Schulz. Flickr Commons


Posted in academic writing, argument, coherence, contribution, thesis, thesis warrant | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

your MC for this paper is…

Academic writing often needs an MC. Yes MC, a Mistress/Master of Ceremonies.


The MC, or emcee, is an official host. A compere. At a public event, say a festival, their job is to introduce the acts – speakers or singers or DJs or bands. The emcee has to know enough about the performers to say something about them by way of introduction. The MC has to make sure that the audience is in the best possible mood to listen/hear what’s coming up.

But the emcee also has to keep the audience interested and engaged in between acts. They have to make sure people don’t drift away. So they talk about what is coming up,and they provide information that the audience might need – the toilets are that way and the bar will have a happy hour at 5pm.

The MC is sometimes known as the mic controller. The mic(rophone) controller makes sure that acts don’t come on too soon. That they wait their turn. That they come in the right order. The emcee controls and regulates the audience experiences.

Some emcees joke and rabbit on between acts; this is not always successful with all of the audience. An emcee has to know their audience and be able to predict what they want to hear and what they will find tedious and boring. The emcee can’t get above themselves and try to compete with the acts. The emcee needs to be present but not overpowering, confident but not arrogant, authoritative but not prone to too much waffling on.

Conventional forms of academic writing in English also require an MC. In the case of academic writing, this MC is the Meta Commentary. Just like any other emcee, the Meta Commentary has to let the reader know what is coming up, tell them what they need to know and will be interested in, and keep them interested. They steer the reader’s understanding. Just like any other emcee, the #acwri equivalent also has to perform a finely judged balancing act of being present without being too obvious and tiresome.

So what is this academic writing emcee?

We are probably all familiar with the outlining that happens at the start of most academic journal articles. The example below is from a journal article in the education field (Smyth and Robinson, 2015, sorry it’s paywalled) and it’s about young people who are unsuccessful at school. It is a very clear example of setting out “the programme and the acts” that the reader is about to encounter. The text is partly introductions and partly mic controlling.

I’ve put the MC talk in bold so it’s easy to see.  The details aren’t important – it’s the way that the reader’s expectations are managed through the writing and the provision of information that matters.

the paper has five inter-related moves. First, we scope out the policy problem of student disengagement from mainstream schooling, and the attempt to re-engage them with learning. Second, we discuss our research approach from the vantage point of what students have to say about these policy trajectories. Third, we examine the context of an Australian student re-engagement policy initiative we are calling Beyond School and introduce the lives of some young people who experienced the policy. Fourth, returning to the policy initiative, critical social theory is invoked as a way of examining (a) how neoliberal policy is ‘traveling’ from the global to the local in the context of the study and (b) what this means when viewed through some critical tales from Beyond School. Fifth, and finally, the paper concludes by drawing together a small number of policy implications necessary to engage young people.

You could substitute any content here, you could alter the number of moves, change the wording to suit. But the basic shape of introducing and informing the reader what is to come would remain the same.

the paper has five inter-related moves. First, we scope out…

Second, we discuss our research approach from the vantage point of…

Third, we examine the context…

Fourth, returning to …, …is invoked as a way of examining (a) … and (b)

Fifth, and finally, the paper concludes by drawing together…

It can be helpful to practice putting your own content into these kinds of sentence skeletons to ‘feel’ what it is like to write as an emcee.

It’s also helpful to examine different emceeing in academic writing. Not all #acwri emcees are the same, any more than they are in a club or festival.

The paper – the one the introduction comes from – goes on to look at literatures. And rather than simply report what literatures there are, the writers use a very forthright #acwri emcee to conduct the discussion.

The emcee speaks about the literatures by summing the field of study, evaluating it, listing its major themes and, in this case its deficiencies, and naming its implicit assumptions. The intent of this emceeing and paragraph is to create the space for the contribution their paper will make; it takes a different stance to the work dominant in the field. The case being made is not ‘gap- spotting’ but rather that what is known in the field is difficult/inadequate/wrong.

The international policy and practice literature pertaining to student disengagement/ re-engagement is complex, controversial, confusing and with little clarity about how to produce any long-term benefits. In a brief paper like this, the best we can say is that most of the evidence, generally of a meta-analysis kind, tends to focus around a list of ‘factors’ said to lead to disengagement – as Davies, Lamb, and Doecke (2011) put it in their synthesis of the literature: (i) achievement – poor prior learning experiences, absences from school and poor language and literacy skills; (ii) aspiration – an absence of career plans, poor knowledge of the labour market opportunities and how to educationally access them, and limited networks; (iii) application – poverty, disability, health problems, family commitments, living circumstances, NESB or refugee status; and (iv) access – poor understanding of options, low aspirations and confidence, constraints relating to finance, geography or time (iv).Invariably, these ‘factors’ collapse down to deficits, individual or familial, that amount to some version of blaming individuals, their backgrounds or a lack of desire. Rarely do such lists of factors explain how those who are so labelled understand or experience the process of becoming educationally disengaged. On the other hand, even well-intentioned interventions tend to mirror these deficits with a heavy emphasis on strategies designed to overcome individual shortcomings. To paraphrase Davies et al. (2011), re-engagement interventions tend to be around(i) well-being – overcoming personal and family obstacles; (ii) pathways – clearing the way for better connections to the labour market; (iii) outreach – reaching out to the marginalised and better informing them; and (iv) pedagogy – a sharper focus on curriculum and forms of teaching that provide more hands-on approaches and flexible options (iv–v).

This emcee doesn’t mince their words! Even though the writers only quote two sources, both of which are synthesis of literatures, the reader is given the impression that the writers have a comprehensive grasp of the material.  The use of listing is an important emceeing move which allows the writers to provide the highly succinct summaries which suggest depth of understanding.

The international … literature pertaining tois …  and with

In a brief paper like this, the best we can say is that most of the evidence, generally of a kind, tends to focus around …. – as …  put it intheir: (i) (ii) (iii) and (iv) (iv).

Invariably, thesethat amount to some version of ….

Rarely, do suchexplain how….

On the other hand, even tend to …..

To paraphrase … , …tend to be around(i); (ii); (iii) (iv) (iv–v).

In a paragraph, the MC has allowed the writers to present their version of the field. And this paved the way for their contribution, which they then go on to explain. The Meta Commentary has been used to direct the reader’s attention to the need for the paper, and in this case, to clarify and justify its purpose and positioning.

If the academic MC is accomplished and is neither boring – going on and on – or too intrusive – then the reader will take the writer to be authoritative, knowledgeable and competent. As in this case.

It is always helpful to take a bit of time out to look at the Meta Commentary moves in journal articles and theses and books. It’s really helpful to do this with a number of writers that you admire, not just one, so that you can see the different ways in which people accomplish their emceeing.

The purpose of this kind of ’shadowing’ is not to find a template. To appropriate a metaphor from my colleague Jane Kenway, this is not about going for a run in someone else’s joggers. You practice working with rhetorical  patterns to understand how Meta Commentary works, and the various writing options that you have. And this is a very helpful bit of long term learning, because getting the #acwri MC under control is an important part of developing your own brand of scholarly writing.

There is a caveat to all of this of course. Not all academic writing has a strong MC. Some genres and some disciplines and some cultural traditions have a lot less meta-commentary than others. Some have particular emcee types. It’s worth checking out these out. These emceeing patterns are what your readers expect. It’s very good to sort out before you write if your readers are anticipating a managed set of acts, or if they are happy to have what comes along as a surprising unfolding.

See also:

Writing skeletons

Explaining the use of theory through a sentences skeleton

Use meta commentary to delineate the contribution

image credit: Sid Williams, Flickr Commons

Posted in academic writing, meta-commentary, meta-text, sentence skeleton | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

bad research questions

Writing a research question is hard. And it takes time. Often much more time that you might think.

The research question is really important as it underpins your research design. And your  design allows you to find an answer or answers to the question (s) you have posed. And that of course is what matters. You’ve been enrolled on a PhD and/or funded to find the answer(s).


There are different views on what makes a good research question. Alas, there is no universal view about how a question is best worded and how many questions there should be. I’m of the not-too-many-and-keep-it-simple school of thought so you need to read this post with that in mind. But I do have a pretty good idea of what examiners and what research funders look for in a research question – and what they don’t want to see.

It’s often as helpful to find out what not to do in research as what you should do. It never hurts to know what really, really doesn’t work for your examiner or assessor or reviewer. So, here’s four things to do if you want to produce a Very Bad Research Question, one that will raise doubt in, and questions from, your very particular and fussy reader.

  • a bad research question anticipates a simple answer, a yes or no

If you were going do an experiment you very may well word a hypothesis as a yes/no because it’s something you’re testing out. But a research question is different. A research question that can be answered with a yes or no can be very problematic because it focuses on only one option.

Let ‘s take an example.

Does writing advice have any effect?

Well that’s clearly a one word answer – it does or it doesn’t – although of course you would also need to show how you reached the positive/negative outcome. But is that enough? Maybe some writing advice has an influence on some people some of the time. And don’t you need to know why you’ve got a yes/no? So perhaps you could say:

 Does writing advice have any effect? If so what?

But there’s still a problem. If your answer to the first question is no, then you’re a bit stuck. So how about:

What effects does writing advice have?

But hang on, what are we actually looking for?

  • a bad research question uses loaded and /or vague and/or contentious terms

Sad and bad research questions often use loaded terms that then require a truckload of justification and explanation when maybe less tricky terminology might do.

To go back to the example. In the question What effects does writing advice have? There are two terms that are tricky:

Writing advice – What is meant by writing advice? Is it all the same?

We could get more specific here and say What effects does online writing advice have? The question is more defined than before, suggesting that it’s possible to put some boundaries around the research without too much difficulty. In this version you’re only looking at what’s online. However, the question still assumes that all writing advice is the same.

But there’s a second problem – what is meant by the term effects? Does this mean something like the writing advice has to be effective? On what basis would you judge something to be effective? And if it simply means what happens, then… Oh dear. To whom, how often, and what…

So there’s a further problem…

  • a bad research question is fuzzy and unfocused

An unfocused question fails to delineate what, who, when, or how, or a combination of these.

So back to the example What effects does online writing advice have?

Just who do we think ought to be experiencing the effects if we know what they are? Do we actually mean what the readers take from writing advice? How they use it? What they think of it? How they access it? Do we have any particular readers in mind? And do we have any particular writing advice in mind?

Well here’s another go which goes some way to addressing this set of problems. How do beginning doctoral researchers find, understand and use online writing advice?

A group is defined. The vague term effects is unpacked. The question doesn’t anticipate an answer. The question now draws on a conceptual framing – the ways in which writers have agency and interpret and decide what to do – in this case advice, just as they do with any text.

And it’s researchable. Its not hard to imagine the kind of research design that might accompany such a question.

The question is open enough to anticipate no use of online writing advice, as well as different kinds of use. It has anticipated participants and can justify that focus through the literatures – yes there are a lot of literatures out there to suggest that doctoral researchers struggle with academic writing.

But the question still has flaws. It doesn’t talk about people other than doctoral researchers like early career researchers, or supervisors. Should it? Or would that be a different research project?

Maybe we want to add a supplementary question which will help determine what kinds of writing advice is used and when.

But we could make the question much, much more specific.

  • a bad research question ties things down to the nth degree

It’s tempting in the process of getting things in focus to get very specific. The danger here is that you just rule out too many possibilities that might be interesting.

If we said How do first year doctoral researchers in Humanities in one English university find, understand and use online writing advice about their thesis? then perhaps this cuts out too many options.

We’d have to think carefully about the advantages/disadvantages of specifying a discipline, a year and a university. And we’d also have to consider how this research question is located in the literatures about doctoral online thesis writing advice. What does this narrow study add to what is already out there? What is the contribution that such a tightly focused study might offer? Is this enough? Is this a significant contribution? Is it sufficiently ambitious? Is this actually a question worth asking?

Tricky. It’ll take a while and many goes to get the question just so. Not too vague. Not too narrow. Just right.

The jury is probably out about how much detail you need for a research question. But there is less debate among examiners, reviewers and assessors about the problems with lack of focus, vagueness, ambiguity, and closed questions. These are all guaranteed to cause trouble for research design and for the final results that you can offer.

Let me repeat, it’s important to get a research question that is workable – and defensible. A thorough research process and a well written thesis cannot compensate for a bad research question – and the subsequent bad design.

Of course, there’s much more to say about research questions and a lot of books address them. But the four problems listed above give you a bit of a start in thinking not only how you might formulate, but also interrogate your own research question, to see if it is fit for purpose.

And further reading – a book that I like a lot and recommend, is Alvesson, M., & Sandberg, J. (2013). Constructing research questions: Doing interesting research. Thousand Oaks: SAGE.

Image credit: Ken Teegardin. Flickr Commons.

Posted in academic writing, research design, research question | Tagged , , | 3 Comments