Saturday, January 30, 2021

The PhD: Theory as a lens, tool, or musical instrument?

by Nick Hopwood

How to work with theory in research is something I am often asked about. It is still one of the things I find hardest.

Intro to literary theory
Theory as a lens from Leonie Krieger

We often here people talking about theory as a lens – kind of like a microscope or telescope that enables you to ‘see’ things you couldn’t otherwise see.

We look ‘through’ the theory at data or the world.

We also hear of theory as a tool – something you use, or put to work.

These are both metaphors of theory use. I find them both helpful in some ways, but increasingly I am troubled by them. Recently a colleague of mine David Kellogg mentioned an alternative – theory as musical instrument – which I found fascinating.

David has kindly written this post in which he explains this idea a bit more, giving extra background on metaphors and language. After David’s post I will offer a few of my own thoughts as to why I think theory as musical instrument is such an exciting and useful metaphor.

David Kellogg | Sangmyung University -
David is Assistant Professor of English Education, Sangmyung University.

David’s thoughts on metaphors for working with theory

At a recent Summer School, Nick presented us with the following bit of data, written by a child who feeds using a tube (rather than orally). Nick shared it to show how amazing things can happen despite challenges in life – in this case, challenges associated with tube-feeding.

Everybody, with the possible exception of the child, realized that this sentence means a great deal more than it intends; it was a long moment before the presenter could continue [Nick: I get rather emotional]. I too am somewhat susceptible to tears, and to distract myself, I found myself looking rather carefully at the spelling of ‘favrote’. I decided that it was not a deliberate pun—on the past tense of “eat”. It was only a misspelling based on the typical pronunciation, in Australian English, of the word “ate” when it is not being stressed. It sounds a lot like “it”.

So there is a sense in which all language use is really metaphor, because you are asking something (some sounding or some spelling) to stand for something else (the wording of a meaning, or the meaning of a wording, depending on whether you are doing the speaking or the listening). But after a few years, a child has done so much of this that it loses its novelty, and it will only regain it when the child learns foreign languages. This loss of novelty occurs at the lexical level as well; very few of us, listening to someone speaking of how to run a business, imagine that this is a metaphor of a footrace and few of us would be surprised to learn that “run a business” is much more common than “run a race”. [Nick: this makes me realise how saturated our everyday communication is with metaphors!]

When the child begins to learn school language, one of the hardest nuts to crack (so to speak) is to recognize that there are grammatical metaphors—that teachers often take meanings which by rights ought to be worded as verb phrases, like “to grow”, and manufacture abstract pseudo-entities, like “growth”. They do this in order to measure them, construe them as subjects, and discuss them as if they were objects you could hold at arms-length in the palm of your hand and examine through a magnifying glass. In high school, these grammatical metaphors become marked with Latin and Greek: “speed” is replaced by “velocity”. Anytime you have some less canonical wording replacing a more typical one, we can rightfully speak of a metaphor.

Now imagine a conference… we are likely to hear phrases like “In this paper, I will use Vygotsky’s theory as a lens to excavate the layers of formation of moral imagining in First Nations adolescents” or “The cultural historical tool kit allows us a wide range of instruments for examining emergent agency in toddlers.” 

If we have the temerity to propose that metaphors like this would actually sound better the other way around, with the lens used to examine and the tool kit used for excavation, we are rightly accused of pedantry and faux naïvete. We are not naïve: the metaphors have long since lost their novelty, the meaning of “lens” no longer has much to do with seeing, and “tool” is just as likely to be used on an idea as on a material situational setting. The metaphor has been naturalized (like running a business).

But what do we do when lenses grow too foggy to function heuristically, and tools are too blunt to cut our way through the withered vines that block new theoretical modeling? We make up new metaphors, at once weirder and more apt. 

And how does this happen? A personal example. While I was complaining about the overuse of “lens” and “tool” at the summer school, it suddenly occurred to me to consider a class in jazz music I have been asked to teach as a lens or a tool for fresh thinking about my own subject, linguistics. Riffing, I suggested that we could sharpen our metaphorical tools by thinking of theory as a musical instrument: a traditional tool with indefinite creative potential that is sometimes, and in this instance, better served by improvisation than composition.

Nick has asked me to write about the background of this metaphor. As far as I can tell, there isn’t any: it’s another instance of improvisation, although like most improvisations that stick it has doubtless been done before. Moreover, I suppose that strictly speaking musical instruments are not really metaphors for theory, because they form an integral part of music theory itself. They are synecdoches: a part that is a metonym for the whole. 

There is another way to make metaphors dangerous again, should we wish to. Un-do them: rise to the concrete, and de-metaphorize them. Even small children know that that grammatical metaphor can go different ways: “because” can be reconstrued concretely as a process “to cause” or more abstractly as an entity, “causation.” 

This child whose favrote [sic] room is the kitchen is acquiring the potential to say “my favor-ate place” and collapse in a dessert of sweet giggling and knowing laughter.

Nick’s reflections on David’s idea: theory as a musical instrument

Jacqueline du Pré interview: 'You must have spontaneity and too much study  destroys that' | Gramophone
Jacqueline du Pré playing the cello

The thing that bothers me about theory as a lens, is that it can be a bit passive, and a bit pre-determined. By passive, I mean (thinking literally about the metaphor!), that if I switch from one pair of goggles to another, what I see changes, but I don’t have to do the looking any differently. The lens does the work for me. That doesn’t feel right to me when thinking about how theory works in analysis.

I also am wary of the risk that using theory as a lens closes off on possibilities, and sort of pre-determines the answer. Imagine, say, Foucault’s theory of power was like a pair of green goggles. I put them on: whoa! everything is green! Yes, but that was always going to be the case if you look through green lens.

Looking Through The Green Sunglasses On The Liberty Bridge In.. Stock  Photo, Picture And Royalty Free Image. Image 105233815.
Will the wearer see anything other than green?

What about theory as a tool? Better, maybe, because at least this implies some active effort on behalf of the tool user. I also like the idea that tools are designed and most valuable for particular purposes: a hammer is great for banging in nails, less good if you want to saw through a log. Same with theory – the match between theory and purpose is really important. But I also think of the power tools – the electric screwdriver. They are there to save us effort. That is not how I understand working with theory. Theory doesn’t make analysis easier. Doesn’t save us effort.

So why do I like the theory as musical instrument metaphor better?

I like David’s improvised metaphor because:

  1. It points to both effort but also creativity in the act of working with theory. Just like the musician performs a piece that does not ‘live’ in the instrument, so the researcher offers something beyond the theory itself.
  2. It points to the need to practice – musicians learn their scales, breathing techniques, bowing techniques, etc. You don’t just pick up an instrument and produce glorious tone and melody. Same with theory: it takes effort, practice, work. Working with theory is something you (can) get better at.
  3. It retains the idea of ‘match’: if you want to create a sustained, low-pitched melody, a snare drum might be less useful than a cello. Same with theory: what do you want to be able to do? That may, in part, govern the relevance of one theory or another
  4. Finally, it suggests that the quality of the outcome is not built-in. Yes, some musical instruments are ‘better’ than others. But, you could give me the world’s best viola and I’d still make only a mediocre sound with it at best. It is not the instrument itself, or the player alone, but the combination of both that creates a good sound. Same with theory: any value theory brings to research lies not fixed in the theory itself, nor in the researcher alone, but in how the two come together – metaphorically how the researcher plays the theory.

What do you think?

What metaphors have you come across for using theory?

Which ones work best for you, why?

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

The Five Characteristics of Creativity

by Dr Robert Muller, Medium:

Creativity — a necessary prerequisite for success, or an over-rated concept that cannot be learnt? The debate rages on. However, in my work as an academic and in community-building, I have been fortunate enough to work with students and community activists who are truly gifted in terms of creativity.

So, what characteristics do they have that make them stand out from the rest of the population? From my observations (although I have not tested these assertions), there are five key characteristics of creative people that they use to plan, construct, implement, and maintain whatever it is that they have chosen to do. These characteristics are outlined below.


This is a key characteristic because it involves a mindset that suggests that there may be more than a single answer or solution to any particular issue or problem. Flexible thinkers are not hemmed in by being overly-focused on one way of doing things and tend to be open to innovation. They also have the capacity to understand when something is not working and then to change to an alternative solution/approach.

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A sense of intense curiosity

Creative thinkers are fascinated with the world around them. They ask lots of questions, and tend to develop a very intense focus that takes them into almost a reverie as they try to discover how something works, or the detail of a beautiful structure, or anything else they set their mind on.

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Positive attitude

A positive attitude is essential for thinking creatively as it is this positivity that spurs the mind on to seek detail, wonder, and, indeed, solutions. This is linked strongly to my previous point about intense curiosity. A person who thinks negatively tends to block out possibilities, and not look at the world around them with such detailed wonder.

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Strong motivation and determination

This is where the hard work of the creative comes in. So, we can all have creative thoughts — but what use is creativity if it doesn’t actually show itself to the world in an act of construction or creation? From creating software solutions for major problems, through to creating social capital through community building, or painting a work of art, creativity requires the follow-through that can only come from strong motivation and determination. Without this, creative ideas will only reside within the mind of the individual without having the opportunity to influence society and/or the community.

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This is an interesting characteristic because highly creative people tend to believe in the VALUE of the ideas they come up with. Remember, they are also flexible, so they are willing to change; however, they do not seem to be worried about whether their idea is right or wrong because they believe that their idea brings value to the field in which it resides, even if it may later be debunked.

Whether you work in the realm of the arts, or in business, or in community capacity building, it is important to recognise the creative people in your team, but also to cultivate these characteristics, because creativity can be learned.

Monday, January 25, 2021

What is the purpose of universities?

by Nicole Yeatman, Big Think:

Left: Professor Jonathan Haidt. Right: Artistotle. Credit: Institute for Humane Studies, and Adobe Stock

For centuries, universities have advanced humanity toward truth. Professor Jonathan Haidt speaks to why college campuses are suddenly heading in the opposite direction.

  • In a lecture at UCCS, NYU professor Jonathan Haidt considers the 'telos' or purpose of universities: To discover truth.
  • Universities that prioritize the emotional comfort of students over the pursuit of truth fail to deliver on that purpose, at a great societal cost.
  • To make that point, Haidt quotes CNN contributor Van Jones: "I don't want you to be safe ideologically. I don't want you to be safe emotionally. I want you to be strong—that's different."

Imagine someone had a knife and told you, "This is a great knife. The only problem is it can't cut anything."

You'd think, Then it's not a great knife.

"Telos is the Greek word that Aristotle and others use to define the end or purpose of something," Jonathan Haidt, professor at New York University Stern School of Business and bestselling coauthor of The Coddling of the American Mind, says in a recorded lecture at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. The telos of a knife is to cut. What, Haidt asks, is the telos of a university?

​Truth—that's the purpose of higher education, Haidt says. The academy aims to be an arena where truth is sought, discovered, and explored. When the university is functioning at its best, students learn to present arguments and receive counter-arguments in pursuit of truth.

The question is then: Are today's universities achieving their purpose?

In his lecture, Haidt suggests that changes in campus culture over the past decade have rerouted university resources away from the pursuit of truth and towards creating an emotionally and intellectually comfortable environment for students.

"From out of nowhere, students in 2014 began asking for trigger warnings," Haidt says. A growing contingent among student bodies and administrators seemed to believe students were fragile and needed to be aggressively protected from "bad" ideas, offensive imagery, and provocative arguments. Students began reporting faculty, protesting speakers, and publicly shaming peers whose words made them uncomfortable.

CNN contributor Van Jones speaks onstage at the EMA IMPACT Summit in 2018. Credit: Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Environmental Media Association

There are many places and institutions whose purpose, or  telos, is comfort. But a university is not one of those places. To make that point, Haidt quotes CNN contributor Van Jones:

I don't want you to be safe ideologically. I don't want you to be safe emotionally. I want you to be strong—that's different. I'm not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots and learn how to deal with adversity. I'm not going to take all the weights out of the gym. That's the whole point of the gym. This is the gym.

By prioritizing comfort over the pursuit of truth, universities are ignoring their purpose. Higher education should be an arena of open inquiry and free expression, where ideas are exchanged, tested, and scrutinized. A liberal education should be "an invitation to be concerned not with the employment of what is familiar but with understanding what is not yet understood,"  according to philosopher Michael Oakeshott.

What are the social repercussions if universities fail to achieve their purpose? New generations could lose more than academic muscle; they could lose the ability and inclination to pursue and prioritize truth. They could become so dependent on emotional comfort that they refuse to contemplate "what is not yet understood" in good faith, instead catastrophizing everything that doesn't fit into comfortable frameworks.

This is already happening, Haidt points out in his lecture. "We isolate young people from the adult skills that they will one day have to master," he says. This manifests in growing anxiety, depression, and other disorders among college students.

With college enrollment on the decline, and the global economy under tremendous strain, universities need to realize their telos—or they'll risk losing their essential role in society.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

The PhD: Help your inner ‘Creator’ and ‘Editor’ get along

by Pat Thomson, Patter:

You’re writing? And feeling a bit pulled in two directions at once? Perhaps that’s not surprising. Writers have two inter-related personae – the Creator and the Editor. Well, that’s according to Joni B Cole, and indeed a lot of other people who offer writing advice.

Don’t scoff just yet. Thinking about this inner duo can be very helpful for academic writers. According to Cole, who teaches creative writing, the Creator is an “artistic genius prone to bouts of agonising self-doubt” as well as feelings of exhilarating over-confidence. On the one hand, the Creator’s job is to allow “rich unfiltered material … to flow onto the page”. The Editor, on the other hand, “cleans up the Creator’s mess” and is “capable of achieving miracles in the revision process”.

Cole notes that these two writer personae are temperamentally opposed to each other and can easily sabotage each other if they are both in play at once. The Editor can stop the Creator from writing, and the Creator can be so attached to their words and so fearful of change that they stop the Editor from doing their job.

Now Cole’s conjoined writer twins can be read as a split between writing and reading – with the Creator writing and the Editor reading. However the Creator reads their text as they go along, but their reading focus is on generating and developing their ideas (narrative, characters, theme etc. - for more on reading while writing, see for example Brandt 1990). And the Editor doesn’t just read. They write too. They might make notes, and restructure and rewrite sections of text (or cut some things altogether). So both Creators and Editors read and write. But differently.

Now, equating writing only with the Editor can cause problems. If the writer in Creator mode automatically switches into Editor mode when reading their draft, then this can seriously disrupt the writing-reading-writing practice of generating text. Creators need to read like Creators when they are first-drafting, not like Editors. Or they may need to switch into Editor mode for a little while, and then reboot their Creator.

Getting the right writing-reading functions happening at the right time is important. But there are further implications of this dual writing heuristic too, particularly for the giving and receiving of feedback.

Cole suggests that writers often approach any public feedback, perhaps given during workshops (read supervision here), as Creators. They want reassurance and affirmation, sometimes adulation. Writers can forget to switch off their Creator when the conversation shifts – and then they don’t hear the constructive criticism they are given – rather, they experience it as a rejection of their work.

Cole advises that those giving feedback need to deal with both the Creator and the Editor. They need to give some reassurance to the Creator first of all, and engage with the positive aspects of the work that has been presented. This is the academic equivalent of the supervisor discussing what’s already strong. Then the person giving feedback needs to signal that they are about to address the writer’s Editor. And their task becomes one of helping the Editor focus.

Even when writers are in Editor mode they can easily get overwhelmed by feedback which gives too many points for revision. Editors need to tackle problems strategically, dealing with the most serious to start with. As Cole helpfully puts it, “the rougher the draft, the fewer the variables you need to throw at the writer at once.” The feedback goal is to energise the writer. Feedback to creative writers, Cole says, often starts with characterisation as this generally drives plot. But when dealing with a thesis, supervisors often begin with the structure of the argument rather than the substantive detail of particular sections.

Cole suggests that giving feedback strategically often ends up with the writer in Editor mode doing more than what was suggested. This is because the big and early strategic changes often lead naturally to other readjustments.

When the Creator feels secure, and the Editor has made major changes, the feedback can become more detailed, more focused on finer details. Line edits are usually left to near the end of the rewriting process.

Cole also notes that not all Creators and Editors are the same. “Some writers” she says, “can choke on a crumb; others are able to handle more feedback at a sitting” – although all writers, she suggests, need help setting priorities.

So maybe not a problem to feel a little Yin and Yang about your writing. Just got to get the balance happening. And perhaps Cole's version of Creator and Editor can be of help to you.

Joni B Cole (2006) Toxic feedback. Helping writers survive and think. University Press of New England

Photo by Amir-abbas Abdolali on Unsplash

Monday, January 11, 2021

Unis want research shared widely. So why don’t they properly back academics to do it?

by Margaret Kristin Merga and Shannon Mason, The Conversation:

Image: The Conversation

Academics are increasingly expected to share their research widely beyond academia. However, our recent study of academics in Australia and Japan suggests Australian universities are still very much focused on supporting the production of scholarly outputs. They offer relatively limited support for researchers’ efforts to engage with the many non-academics who can benefit from our research.

One reason engagement is expected is that government, industry and philanthropic sources fund research. And when academics share their research with the public, industry and policymakers, this engagement is good for the university’s reputation. It can also lead to other benefits such as research funding.

But the work involved in sharing our ideas beyond academia can be diverse and substantial. For example, when we write for The Conversation, it takes time to find credible sources, adopt an appropriate tone, communicate often complex ideas simply and clearly, and respond to editor feedback. We also need to be able to speak to the media about our findings, and respond to public comments when the piece comes out.

Unis don’t allow for the time it takes

However, as one respondent said in explaining why they were  not sharing research with end users beyond academia:

It’s not recognised by uni. So, when it is not recognised, it means that I don’t have any workload for that, and obviously I’m work-loaded for other stuff, and that means that I don’t actually have enough time to do this.

Sharing our findings beyond academia isn’t typically seen as part of our academic workload. This is problematic for academics who are already struggling to find time to do all the things their complex workload requires of them.

woman concentrates as she types on a laptop
It takes to write an article or engage with non-academics in other ways, but universities typically don’t treat this work as an integral part of academic duties. Mangostar/Shutterstock

In our research, time and workload constraints were the most often-cited barriers to sharing research beyond academia. One respondent said they saw lots of opportunities to build partnerships with practitioners in their field, but added:

[I] just cannot do that, because I’m doing other things that, in my work, are a priority.

When we spend our time sharing our research with academic readers through journal articles, conference papers and academic books, our employers clearly value and expect these scholarly publications. These works, and how the scholarly community receives them, have more weight in evaluation of our performance. Last year an Australian academic nearly lost her job for failing to meet a target for scholarly publications.

Our research found Japan-based academics feel a greater weight of expectations than their Australian counterparts to engage with diverse audiences beyond academia. Universities clearly expect this engagement. Yet they often don’t back it up with support such as workload recognition, resourcing and training.

Universities need to offer better support if they wish to increase academics’ engagement with diverse audiences. They should also consider both the benefits and risks of this engagement.

Academics see the benefits of sharing research

The academics we spoke with valued the benefits of engaging with diverse audiences. They were pleased to see others putting their research to use. Sharing research often helped to secure funding.

They also saw engagement as an opportunity to learn from end users. This helped ensure their research was responding to real-world needs.

Even very early in their careers, many researchers look to engage with audiences beyond academia. In previous research, we found doctoral candidates may opt for a thesis by publication rather than a traditional thesis approach due to their desire to share findings.

Doctor and researcher chat about findings
Engaging with the end users of their research provides valuable feedback for academics. Halfpoint/Shutterstock

What other problems do researchers face?

The early-career researchers we interviewed noted other barriers and risks in sharing their work with diverse audiences. Universities often did not help with these issues.

They described communication skill gaps when seeking to tailor research content for diverse audiences. For example, the way research is communicated to industry experts needs to be different to how it is shared with governments or the general public.

Researchers may need to learn to communicate their ideas in  many different forms. They may have to be skilled in producing industry reports, doing television or radio interviews or presenting their findings in professional forums.

Some encountered frustrations when sharing research via the  bureaucratic processes of government. For example, a respondent explained:

There’s still that much back and forth because there’s three or four different government departments that are involved in the process and it goes to different people. Some people don’t want it to be changed because they’re vested in the old way of doing things, and then they’ve got to bring ministers up to speed, and then all of a sudden you’re got a new state government that comes in, so that all changes.

Many felt unprepared to deal with the media.

One respondent described being cautious about overstating the impact of their research. In their field, they saw messages claiming: “This is the be all and end all. This will cure cancer.” They were “wary of accidentally going down that path and making a claim bigger than is true”.

Respondents also described risks in sharing controversial and sensitive research beyond academia.

What can universities do?

For respondents in both Australia and Japan, demanding and diverse workloads crowded out opportunities to share findings. Universities cannot just expect engagement responsibilities to be absorbed into an already swollen workload.

If universities are serious about supporting the sharing of research beyond academia, they need to recognise these contributions in meaningful ways. For example, Australian academics usually must meet teaching, research and service requirements in their workloads. If sharing research with audiences beyond academia were counted toward service, academics could have this work properly taken into account in performance management and when seeking promotion.

Universities can do better at supporting academics to share their research with the public, industry and government. Improving access to training and mentoring to communicate research findings both in academia and beyond would be an important step forward.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

The PhD: Research Methods - Triangulation

by ShortCutsTV

Over the past few years the concept of triangulation has become increasingly central to an understanding of both research methodology and methods – their strengths, weaknesses and limitations in particular – at High School and A level and it’s a topic I’ve already addressed a few times in one form or another.

Download the Abridged version…

If you want to check out these resources, you’ll find both textbook chapters (Of Methods and Methodology: 5. TriangulationThe Research Process: Part 4) and Factsheets dealing with different aspects of the general concept – and if these aren’t enough to satisfy your hunger for “Quality Triangulation Resources” (it says here, admittedly because I wrote it) it’s your lucky day because I’ve chanced across an interesting document from the UNAIDS Monitoring and Evaluation Unit you might find useful.

The pdf document – An Introduction to Triangulation – broadly follows Denzin’s (1970) triangulation typography as it looks at four general questions:

  • What is triangulation?
  • What are the different types of triangulation?
  • What are the strengths and weakness of the four types of triangulation?
  • Why do triangulation?
  • As an added bonus there are short sections on different types of data you might find helpful, either in the context of triangulation or research methods generally:

  • The differences between quantitative and qualitative data
  • Quantitative and qualitative data sources
  • Determining the usefulness of data
  • As you’ll notice if you decide to download the document, this is an abridged version that just focuses on the topics listed above.

    The full document is available as an online flipbook if you want it but unless you’re after a very short quiz and a quick glossary of key terms there’s not a lot extra to be had.