Tag Archives: PhD

Walking the tightrope of academic writings

Pulcinella’s balancing act

There is a perilous paradox in the established literatures on academic writing that suggests we have choices in the way we write academically.

By established ‘literatures’ I mean the textbooks and advice guides, including those ‘How to’ photocopied handouts you get in Student Services, aimed at university student writers. The literatures that tell you to keep your style formal, clear, precise, impersonal, logical, critical, deferential. Advice that isn’t really advice, but a precept. Joan Turner explains all of this here.

By ‘choices’, I mean other ways of writing. Writing that is more creative, more personal, more original, more multimodal, more visual, more layered. Invitations to explore and experiment, to find ‘your’ voice, contribution, originality. The idea that you can be playful, take risks, and survive. See for example, Archer and Breuer and Thesen and Cooper.

'L’altalena dei pagliacci' di Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo

L’altalena dei pagliacci (o dei Pulcinella), affresco, Ca’ Rezzonico (Palazzo del Settecento), Venezia

The two sets of advice – the literatures versus the choices – don’t sit comfortably together, in my experience. In fact, in my experience, they massively irritate each other. They encourage each other to polarise by entrenching their respective advocacies.

Those in the established ‘literatures’ camp fear those who advocate choice because choice means anarchy, the erosion of standards and heterogeneity (diversity); those in the ‘choice’ camp resist the literatures because these embody an imperialist, rationalist paradigm of exclusion, transparency and exactitude.

Parallels with the current political climate – polarised between the Right that is hard-lining and the Left that is flat-lining – are hard to resist.

And it is equally hard to communicate all of this to students because they rely on you for guidance to pass the assessments that are based on the advice of the established ‘literatures’, not the advice of the ‘choices’.

In this sense, a teacher of academic writing can feel a little like Pulcinella, the Neapolitan character in La Commedia dell’Arte, who somehow muddles through his contradictions, swinging perilously between being rueful and jocular, popular and alone, accepted and rejected, paradoxically lazy but ingeniously inventive.

 

 

Writing a PhD Chapter: incubating, owning, learning

Little chronicle of becoming un-stuck

The chapter-writing phase of the PhD is seriously challenging me. I’m in the process of writing one now, but also allowing for respite via a blogging interlude, because I’ve been at it all day, and have 30 minutes before I need to be somewhere else, and there is no more historical literature on academic writing that I can tackle in half an hour. I want to record what this moment feels like in the spirit of other reflective, research process posts such as this one, this one, this one, this one, and this one

Incubating it

The chapter I am currently writing is the 2nd of 6 that I have so far proposed to my supervisors. In retrospect, the first one was really easy – it didn’t feel like it at the time, it does now (cliched child birth analogies come to mind, but I won’t go there!). This one has been a beast. I thought I had it sorted 2 months ago. I had done all the reading, left myself a month to write it (ca. 12,000 words), and when I actually sat down to write, I had about 3-weeks to the deadline. But nothing coherent popped out, just copy-and-paste words stuck in a document hoping something would make sense. Serious writer’s block prevented access to my study, my computer, and any attempt to open a ‘new document’.

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Overwhelmed

Part of the problem, I now realise, is that this chapter is linked to the previous one and paves the way for the next one; it does not stand alone, and all of my readings don’t take any of this into account! How inconsiderate of them! It’s me who needs to make the connections, work out their relevance to what I have said and what I am going to say. So I underestimated how much incubation/gestation is required between reading the stuff of others and writing my own when ‘my own’ consists of chapters, not stand-alone assignments reporting what others have said.

Owning it

I have been so restless and disorientated in the incubation process. I tried to fight it by sitting myself at my desk. But to no avail. I eventually gave up and accepted I could not write. I ate, had family time, slept, ran, took a blank sheet of real paper, a physical sheet of A4, sat on a sofa in a different room and wrote down a stripped, penned, unreferenced memo – akin to a tweet – of what

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Back to basics

I wanted to say in this chapter. I went back to my computer feeling that I owned the readings, that they were serving me, not me serving them.

Learning it

I’ve been writing since early morning. It is flowing. I now have far too many words, but I know that is a good sign because I need to say it all before I can strip it back and edit it for my readers. What is making it flow is that I am learning from it and enjoying it, and this is keeping me keen and interested. I am not simply performing. I am actively, visibly making my contribution.

Letting it go

Clearly, these are just process thoughts. Tomorrow may be a total disaster. Inevitably, when they do eventually receive it, my supervisors will rip the chapter apart. But that’s not the point. The point is that I needed to get myself to the point of writing it. I am now at that point. I am writing, but as usual, I now have only a few days rather than a whole month left to finish, so this post ends here.

ps. Moral of the story

Don’t give up, keep pushing!

Multimodality and fairness in #acwri

Could a multimodal approach to academic writing be a harbinger of fairness in recognition of a diverse 21st century literacy landscape?

Some key quotes and reflections from recent #acwri readings

This post is linked to others on multimodality here and here. It helps me keep track of readings, but it may be of interest to both teachers and learners of academic writing including Research Writing, EAP (English for Academic Purposes), Academic Literacies, and Writing Studies. All bolds are mine (they refer to key words in my research).

Multimodality refers to a field of application rather than a theory (Bezemer and Jewitt, 2010, p. 180 cited in Archer and Breuer, 2016, p. 1).

Most research on academic discourse has been based on the analysis of written text and as a result, most classes on the teaching of academic writing have concentrated on language (p.1)

What is seen as ‘academic’ writing is contestable and always emergent (p.2)

[…] the writer does not have complete freedom to change genre characteristics – especially if the writer is not a long-standing member of the academic community (Bhatia, 2004, 2010; Hyland, 2004 in Archer and Breuer, p. 3)

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Me discussing multimodality with a group of EdD students using ‘Unflattening’ by Nick Sousanis to explore how argument can unfold in a visual mode.

When comparing academic texts emanating from different academic contexts, one can see that students from English speaking backgrounds tend to focus on creating linearity in texts that contain content that is topic relevant […]. Other academic approaches, for example, in France, Germany, Russia, Arabia, do not cohere to this rule of linearity but prefer to present a wider picture of the topic or of taking different perspectives on them. Reading these texts is more demanding , and could result in academic communities being seen as elitist, trying to ‘keep out’ readers that do not belong to the academic community. These traditions tend not to ‘sell’ ideas as does the English academic community, but rather to ‘tell’ them […] and the text is understood as working as a “stimulus for thought or even intellectual pleasure” […] (p. 3)

On the one hand, it would be in their learners’ interests if they [teachers] could help them to conform to the expectations of the institution. On the other hand, by doing so, they are reproducing the ideologies and inequities of the institution and society at large (p. 4)

The cartoon argument below sharply brings into focus the claims made in a recent  Times Higher Education article in which the writer argues that the priviliging of writing in academic assessments leads to inequalities and discrimination.

I would also argue that priviliging writing leads to missed opportunites for exploring diverse epistemological commitments and perspectives because different modes afford different things: this cartoon, for example, connects more directly, in my view, with our embodied experiences of education than a verbose academic abstract or quote might do, and if one of the purposes of academic communication is to trigger action – see Threshold Concept # 1.5: Writing Mediates Activity – then, arguably, this visual stands a far better chance of generating discussion (at least).

unfair_assessment

I also find the comments posted in response to this article indicative of profound political and ideological orientations towards education more broadly, and to academic writing (literacy), specifically. I’ve copied these comments below hoping to hear what others think:

unfair_assessment_commentinequalityInterestingly, Commentators #2 and #3 seem to be unaware of the fact that it is possible to “rethink the relationship between modes, for example, the interaction between image and writing in a text” (p. 7) and that a fairer, more just and more inclusive approach to academic writing consists in “recognising student ‘interest’ […] and agency as people who choose how to represent meaning from a range of possibilities […]” (p. 7).

These commentators also seem to assume that writing (i.e. language) is the best and only way to put forward an argument and be ‘scholarly’. This view is challenged by many in the field of literacies and writing studies such as Archer and Breuer (Eds), by Andrews (2010), and Andrews, Borg, Boyd Davis, Domingo and England (Eds) (2012). In their extensive body of research on what argumentation is and what the best way of advancing it might be given the range of modes available to us, they strongly argue that relying on language alone limits our academic expression.

Archer and Breuer’s edited collection provides many examples which extend our conception of academic writing beyond its propositional remit (i.e. language) and towards its mutlimodal affordances whereby mode is undersood as a “socially shaped and culturally given resource for making meaning” Kress cited in Archer and Breuer, p. 5).

I’m ending this post with a visual reflection on why education matters.

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On the value of Education

References:

Archer, A. and Breuer, O. (2016) ‘A Multimodal Response to Changing Communication Landscapes’ in Multimodality in Higher Education (Archer and Odilia Breuer Eds.) Brill: Leiden/Boston: 1-17

Andrews, R. (2010) Argumentation in Higher Education: Improving Practice through Theory and Research Routledge

Andrews, R., Borg, E., Boyd Davis, S., Domingo, M. and England, J. (Eds) (2012) The Sage Handbook of Digital Dissertations and Theses, Sage

Sousanis, N. (2015) Unflattening, HUP

Photo credits: I am ashamed to admit that I dowloaded these straight from the Internet and now can’t re-trace their origins. If anybody objects to me using them here, please let me know and I will either credit them (if you know their source) or take them down.

Threshold Concept #2.4

All writing is multimodal

This blog is allowing me to trace my research thoughts on #acwri (academic writing). As such, it is a multimodal affordance, affording several opportunities, including: allowing me to write more frequently and freely than my PhD is letting me; making my thinking visible to my Self and Others; forcing me to present a publicly-digestable thought (rather than an incoherent note in the margins of my books); capturing quotes from books that I have borrowed and have to give back ☹; creating links with other thoughts over the last 3 years …

This post most directly links to this one (on Threshold Concepts in Academic Writing) and to this one (on the multimodal affordances of different types of text*).

img_20160718_191627757Cheryl Ball and Colin Charlton (Threshold Concept #2.4) – in this edited book by Adler-Kassner and Wardle – argue that in order to understand what writing is, specifically ‘academic’ writing, we need to conceive of text* as being multi-modal matter, language being just one of many modes that make a text ‘academic’ (other modes include, eg. image, music, gesture).

The following quotes are linked to this threshold concept and come from my recent readings on how the PhD thesis itself is being and will be affected by the ‘epistemological commitments’ (Kress, 2012: 254-5) of multimodal forms of knowledge representation.

I have reported them here with no further comment, other than to say that they form part of my research warrant:

 

Like any other doctoral student, as my writing developed I became increasingly aware of the ill-matched relationship between the capacity of my chapters and the data I wanted to fit into those chapters (Fransman, 2012:150)

img_20160927_174114I became increasingly frustrated with the difficulties of presenting data and discussion on contemporary multimodal communication practices in traditional format (Yamada-Rice, 2012: 157-8)

There is a general assumption that language is a communicational and representational medium which is fully adequate to the expression of anything that we might want to express: that anything that we think, feel, sense can be said (or written) in language. The obverse of this assumption is that if something cannot be expressed in language … then that thing is in any case outside rational thought, outside articulate feeling, and therefore need not be said or should not be said (Kress, 2000: 193 cited in Yamada-Rice, 2012: 173, my bold)

A big issue for the PhD now is to assist in a whole set of questions which are the result of social matters as much as of the technologies of dissemination, representation and production. PhD researchers are called upon to provide tools for recognistion of that which has hitherto not been recognised, left aside. They will increasingly be asked to do the unusual, the entirely innovative, in a genre beset by still relatively tightly controlled convention. That is, PhD researchers for a while to come will face the problem of a mis-match between their university’s regulation and what the world around the discipline and the university both enables and demands (Kress, 2012: 256, my bold)

*“what counts as text includes both permanent (eg published books, written reports) and performative (eg oral story-telling, informal conversations” (Kress: 221) and “By ‘text’ I refer to Halliday’s (1978) definition of a cohesive unit of meaning used for purposes of communication rather than a paraphrase for written language” (Yamada-Rice: 166)

References:

Fransman, J. (2012) ‘Re-imaginging the Conditions of Possibility of a PhD Thesis’ in The Sage Handbook of Digital Dissertations and Theses (Eds. Andrews, R.; Borg, E.; Boyd Davis, S.; Domingo, M. and England, J.) Sage Publications: London: 138-156

Kress, G. (2012) ‘Researching in Conditions of Provisionality’in The Sage Handbook of Digital Dissertations and Theses (Eds. Andrews, R.; Borg, E.; Boyd Davis, S.; Domingo, M. and England, J.) Sage Publications: London: 245-258

Yamada-Rice, D. (2012) ‘Traditional Theses and Multimodal Communication’ in The Sage Handbook of Digital Dissertations and Theses (Eds. Andrews, R.; Borg, E.; Boyd Davis, S.; Domingo, M. and England, J.) Sage Publications: London: 157-176

Damage limitation in the #PhD


On feeling very stuck

What do you do when you can’t bring yourself to read another word of your research readings, can’t muster a single sentence for your supervisors, generally feel threatened by any new information that is clearly relevant to your PhD, yet feel under constant pressure to produce, to say intelligent things, to be innovative and knowledgeable?

imageI’m sure this has all been felt before and that there is tons of advice out there on what to do, but I don’t want to know about that either because then I will feel under more pressure to do something about this feeling, and then feel guilty for not being able to (re)act.

I am stuck. I am saturated. I am overwhelmed with information. I am paralysed by the range of possibilities. I am frozen.

So I’m writing this to acknowledge my stuckness and face up to the fact that this is where I am in my research process, at the half-way mark, and plateauing. I’m also writing this in the hope that I can get to the bottom of what is blocking me, thus limiting some of the damage that my stalling may be doing, and maybe/possibly clearing debris so that I can start striding again.

This is what it feels like.

  • Reading: I have books all over the house and in my e-devices, piling up on floors and surfaces, using memory, imagewaiting to be read, half-read, unread, none of which I can focus on and enjoy because my mind is contemplating what I haven’t read and what I ought to be reading instead, and the extent to which I can use it in my work.

 

 

  • Avoiding the abyss: I actually know exactly what I need to do to get out of this static state (i.e. look at my data and use it to build my argument), but I also know that the minute I do that, I will be in a much bigger intellectual space than the tiny one I have safely constructed for myself so far – and I can’t face stepping into this void which I have opened because I know I will need to fill it with the same energy and vigour I had when I first started.
  • A written article that I have not sent to a journal: I wrote this last year, I’ve been advised to send it off for publication, but I haven’t, and I can’t bring myself to. Why? Because that, too, has the potential to open up spaces and conversations that I don’t feel ready to engage with.
  • Tired of my ideas: when I think about my thesis, I can’t see the point of it. This is because I am avoiding looking into the abyss (above). If I were able to face the void I have created, it would generate new momentum with the likely consequence of getting myself out of this cycle in which I simply keep repeating myself, like a broken record. Again, I know what to do here, but why am I not doing it? Because I can’t face the can of worms that I have started to open, I am not ready to expose myself as this would mean answering questions, not asking them.
  • Feeling stupid: there are some things I just don’t understand, or rather, that I don’t know how to connect and apply to what I am doing. I am reading concepts that I ‘feel’ are relevant to what I want to say, but I don’t have the intelligence/language/stamina/confidence/imagination to state boldly and to apply in an interdisciplinary way – I am looking to philosophy and sociology to explain academic writing (traditionally the object/subject of applied linguistics or literacy research), but then I get cold feet, feeling that I am overcomplicating things because I simply don’t understand them or because I have started something that I now can’t stop. Pat Thomson has written about the feeling of stupidity in much more hopeful and constructive terms.
  • So much information: during an academic year (roughly from October to July) there is so much going on … there are conferences, seminars, workshops, reading groups, development sessions, training events, and deadlines; if you work, like I do, there is teaching, marking, professional development, pastoral care, and preparation; then there is social media, a rich and fruitful (re)source when you are open and eager to tap into to what research is being done, but a burden and reminder of your inadequacy when you are feeling stuck, like I am right now.
  • Other selves: I have a family, and I like to paint, travel and read politics and literature . All this is on hold, or, when I do dedicate myself to my ‘other’ life, I feel guilty and that I then need to do overtime in my professional and research life. This is fine, I chose to do a PhD, nobody forced me, I have wanted to do one for a while and I started this one when I knew I could. I am not complaining because I am very lucky for all kinds of reasons. But my PhD now dominates everyday life, even when I seem to be doing and talking about other things, I am not really. I am thinking ‘how can I use this in my research?’ or ‘when can I get back to my research?’ [even when I am stalling and stuck in my research].
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A glimpse of light beyond the tunnel

I think I have been here before. Not when I did my Master’s, but when I did my undergraduate degree. This is when I last felt so inadequate and intellectually challenged in a way that was uncomfortable and confidence-destroying. I wanted to leave after my first year and then, having been persuaded to stick with it, I wanted to drop out in my fourth year (I did an MA in Scotland, so 4 years of UG), but by my fourth year, it was too late, I was too far into it, my pride and my friends got in the way, so I ran the course and stuck with it. I am heavily relying on this past experience to make sense of what is happening to me now. It is a leap of faith and a trust in past patterns of behaviour, it is about knowing oneself, and being accountable to oneself. My pride is greater than my intelligence, and perhaps that is where I need to look in order to take off my blindfold, look at the abyss, and start inching my way into it …

 

 

The Librarian (by Umberto Eco)

The Librarian

You must overcome any shyness and have a conversation with the librarian, because he [sic] can offer you reliable advice that will save you much time. You must consider that the librarian (if not overworked or neurotic) is happy when he [sic] can demonstrate two things: the quality of his [sic] memory and erudition and the richness of his [sic] library, especially if it is small. The more isolated and disregarded the library, the more the librarian is consumed with sorrow for its underestimation. A person who asks for help makes the librarian happy.

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El Ateneo Library, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Although you must rely on the librarian’s assistance, you should not trust him [sic] blindly. Listen to his [sic] advice, but then search deeply and independently. The librarian is not an expert in every subject, and he [sic] is also unaware of the particular perspective you wish to adopt for your research. He [sic] may deem fundamental a particular book that you end up barely consulting, and may disregard another that you find very useful. Additionally, there is no such thing as a predetermined hierarchy of useful and important works. An idea contained almost by mistake on a page of an otherwise useless (and widely ignored) book may prove decisive for your research. You must discover this page on your own, with your own intuition and a little luck, and without anybody serving it to you on a silver platter.

Umberto Eco (January 5th 1932, Alessandria – February 19th 2016, Milano) How to write a thesis (1977) pp. 56-7