Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The PhD: Grow Your Own Writing Practice

by Pat Thomson, Patter:

You often hear writing described as a skill. And a skill is the capacity to do something well, to use expertise built up through practice. Skills are often seen as merely technical, but a skill requires specialist knowledge and often years of training. However, it’s the capacity/ability to apply and use that knowledge that matters.
We often think that skills are only needed for working with things – but the term skill equally applies to areas such as the cognitive and interpersonal. However, I am not convinced that it is particularly helpful to think of writing as a skill. Yes, writing needs know-how and technique. But skills-talk about academic writing usually lapses into discussions of secretarial matters – the correct use of grammar and syntax for instance, or the ability to edit your own work. Reductive skills-talk in turn easily leads on to conversations about remedial support and better supervision.
When I start to talk with new PhDers about writing I usually avoid focusing on skills and talk instead about three important characteristics of academic writing…
1. Academic writing is a social practice
When writing researchers talk about writing as a social practice they/we mean that all forms of academic writing are produced in, and framed by, disciplinary, institutional and cultural relations, norms and rules. This is a bit of a mouthful. But essentially, for PhDers this means that what you write isn’t a matter of free choice. The university, where you are located and your discipline all shape the writing you do.
So part of the work of the PhD is to learn what these norms, rules and expectations are. Understanding the genres and codes that shape how academic texts are produced is part and parcel of the doctorate.
During the doctorate you will probably get to work on a range of academic texts – thesis, journal articles, conference papers, academic posters, blog posts, reports – as well as accompanying texts like bio-notes. You will also develop and build your own noting and recording system. And these all have their own conventions you’ll need to follow.
You do have some choice in how to write of course. You may decide to bend some academic writing conventions – for example you might engage with a range of narrative forms including fiction, performance, poetry and still and moving image. These are all now used as a means of presenting academic discussion and empirical research, so it’s not completely outlandish to stray into these text types.
2. Deep understandings about academic writing support you to write well
I think about writing as a craft that works from and with imagination and realised through connoisseur knowledges and artisan practices.The dictionary defines a connoisseur is someone who knows a lot about a particular topic – the arts, food, wine – and who can judge quality and skill in that particular area.
To be a connoisseur of academic writing means having a deep, and always growing, critical understanding of writing – genres, tools and techniques, histories, debates and traditions. A connoisseur builds a working knowledge of what they consider to be good/bad writing. They can explain to themselves and to others the criteria they use to make such judgements. A connoisseur of writing is able to use their understandings to evaluate their own work, to diagnose problems and to develop strategies that will help them to write ‘better’.
Becoming a connoisseur of any form of writing relies on lots of systematic reading, and on deliberate analysis of that reading. For PhDers, building depth of connoisseur knowledge means not simply reading for content, but also analysing what you are reading. Just as in other areas of your research, like methods, it’s helpful to read about writing. Writing research offers a language and theorised categories through which you can conduct your own analysis. You grow the habit of asking yourself why you think what you are reading is good or bad – what is it about the text that impresses or disappoints?
3. Writing muscles benefit from regular exercise
But why an artisan? The dictionary defines an artisan as someone who is highly skilled in a particular trade – they make by hand and with specialist tools. The artisan produces unique or a limited run of items, unlike a craftsperson who is generally engaged in a form of mass production. These days the artisan/craft distinction has been corrupted by advertising; it’s common to see signs about artisan bread, for example, when strictly speaking bread is produced by craftspeople – yeasty replicas made by hand every day. So if you prefer to think about writing as a craft, then focus on the commonality between the artisan and the craftsperson, that is, the development of highly refined and skilful processes.
Becoming a writing artisan takes continued practice. A writing artisan develops a rich repertoire of strategies for producing and refining writing. They build their writing muscles, and their flexibility, adaptability, dexterity and stamina. They equip themselves for the long research and writing journey ahead.
For the PhDer, learning to write means establishing routines for writing notes, summaries, journals and chunks for supervisors. It means taking time to try out writing in various styles, voices and forms. Working with description, quotations, with dialogue for instance benefit from experimentation. Testing out different approaches to anecdote, or writing with theory, means that you can choose which of your efforts seems to work best and why.
Sometimes you might get some help in building a writing practice. Perhaps the university might offer classes, writing workshops based around particular text types – journal articles and conference papers for instance. But more is required to build a sustainable routine and expertise. Generally, growing a writing practice is left to the individual PhDer. You have to design your own programme for acquiring expertise.
So what does this mean for you?
Well, if you take on board my three points – writing as a social practice, building connoisseur knowledge and an artisan repertoire of strategies – at the very start of the PhD, then you know you have to set aside regular time to work on your writing, as well as on your substantive topic. And given that the test of the PhD is the production of a persuasive, trustworthy well written and structured text, you also know this will be time well spent.
Photo by Clique Images on Unsplash

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

The PhD Plan and the Eventual Reality

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Today our guest blogger is Katrien, a family studies researcher, picture book author and swimming teacher. She was raised on the Big Island of Hawai’i and now lives in Wagga Wagga, Australia. Katrien’s doctoral research is on family wellbeing and public playgrounds. Here she reflects on how to plan for the unexpected in research and writing.
When I began my PhD, I read a lot about being organised: how to set up an EndNote library; how to save the impossible amount of articles you will end up downloading; how to securely store your data; and, most importantly, how to manage your time. I created a Gantt chart, included clearly delineated writing time, and felt like a super-hero. Truly, you have no idea how big a deal that is. My husband was confused because the person he married had a deep hatred of Excel. I even colour-coded the months and tasks!
Throughout my experience in doing the PhD, two seemingly opposing themes have emerged: the planned ideal and the eventual reality. You can start out with high hopes, rooted in your ideal version of the research. Indeed, I feel you need to be optimistic – as optimistic as possible! But the stumbling ground is when you’re faced with the inevitable reality of doing the real work.
My first year was spent reviewing literature, designing the methodology, choosing the methods and drafting three chapters. The ideal plan was that I would engage with one stakeholder group at a time and write that data chapter before moving on to the next stakeholder group. I’d given myself about 3 months to conduct each research method, analyse the data and write a chapter draft. My supervisors would then give me feedback on these drafts and the final year would be spent polishing these drafts into a final thesis.
However, planning ahead gave me a false certainty. I spent hours upon hours in a theoretically ideal universe, applying for ethics and tidying up the four corners of my Excel world; yet I was still confronted with the mess of reality. Despite the ethics approvals and my prior relevant field experience, my chosen methods were not attracting the participant numbers I’d expected. The months I’d planned to be conducting research were spent chasing principals and teachers, then eventually chasing adult caregivers who needed to provide consent for their child/ren to participate. The writing sat on hold.
My impressively colour-coded Gantt chart had no answers to help me solve these problems that arose. It did, however, leave room to shimmy around my timeline, and those 3-month blocks were a breath of fresh air, where I submitted an ethics variation and hoped for the best. The summer school holidays of my second year, ideally dedicated to re-writing, were instead filled up with a research method I had to pursue when my original plans fell through.  The following summer holidays, also ideally dedicated to writing, was spent recovering from emergency surgery. You adapt, because you have to, but I could adapt only because I’d left myself chunks of unplanned time: time where I could be creative, rethink my approach, rest, and process. Without these chunks of unscheduled time and a clear destination in mind, I do not think I could be at this stage of a final draft.
In a book about how to write a thesis (which, I am slowly coming to learn, is a lot like how to live a creative life), Umberto Eco writes that a student should create a road map of their thesis. A way forward for when moving seems impossible. He writes that a student could think of this road map in the very practical terms of planning for an actual road trip:
Imagine that you have a week to take a 600-mile car trip. Even if you are on vacation, you will not leave your house and indiscriminately begin driving in a random direction. You will make a rough plan. You may decide to take the Milan-Naples highway, with slight detours through Florence, Siena, Arezzo, possibly a longer stop in Rome, and also a visit to Montecassino. If you realize along the way that Siena takes you longer than anticipated, or that it is also worth visiting San Gimignano, you may decide to eliminate Montecassino. Once you arrive in Arezzo, you may have the sudden, irrational, last-minute idea to turn east and visit Urbino, Perugia, Assisi, and Gubbio. This means that – for substantial reasons – you may change your itinerary in the middle of the voyage. But you will modify that itinerary, and not no itinerary.
                                                -How to write a thesis, Umberto Eco, p. 107
One of my supervisors would remind me that writing was about ‘rolling up the carpet’: you begin with a sentence, which eventually turns into a paragraph and grows into a chapter. In practical terms, I found the Pomodoro technique to be immensely useful to convince myself to pick up the carpet and keep rolling. I have found that you can set yourself writing deadlines, which are helpful in keeping up the momentum and avoiding falling into the trap of reading as procrastination, but your insights and creative processing cannot be scheduled. You can only make time for these moments by removing other tasks.
If I can offer some advice from where I sit in this journey, I would strongly urge you to give yourself the gift of time by leaving space for moments of messiness because this is where the deep thought and joy is found. A road map, or methodology, can help to scaffold your curiosity, and to adjust to the inevitable issues that will arise. But if you don’t leave time to get lost, you may not ever arrive at your destination.
Most of my best writing insights and ideas for how to bridge together paragraphs or chapters have been away from the desk. They’ve been in the shower, while walking my dog, while driving to work or while making dinner. They’ve been in the moments in-between – the moments that can easily feel harried because you feel you have ‘no time’. But they are really the golden moments, where your brain can string ideas together and connect the dots. Where you can playfully engage with your topic and imagine possibilities.
In planning your PhD, I highly recommend that you set yourself up to live affordably for at least three years, so there are pockets of time in between the Excel cells where you can daydream, where you can read (and even write) for pleasure, where you can rest and recover from the things life will inevitably throw your way. My advice then, is that if you can live on less, and you can afford the time to be curious and follow that curiosity, then you have just given yourself a truly valuable gift.