Tag Archives: Thesis

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’.



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


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!

Writing about writing

In search of completion: preparing to write the thesis and the genres it requires

thesisSince October, I have been thinking about my own thesis. What’ll be in it and in what order; what forms it will take and modes it will include; how it will compare to other theses and in what sense that matters; how long it will take to write; how I remain ‘in the zone’ for another two years without becoming even more anti-social, mono-thematic, scruffy, fat, and self-absorbed …


Only a graphic novel can convey what doing a PhD does to your appearance

I have spent the last 4 years part-time reading about the history of academia and of ideas, and then writing what I can only describe as ‘epistolaries’ to my supervisors, bits of process writing that have no clearly defined genre: they weren’t essays or chapters or annotated bibliographies or reports or summaries or book reviews, or anything that I had ever written before or seen in the research writing guide books. They were sort of responses or reactions to our meetings and emails, prompts and props to break the ice at the start of a supervisory meeting; they were more like reflective pieces or bulletted slides to show where I was intending to go with things. In Italian, I would collectively call them pro-memoria: things that serve to jog your memory. I think, at one point, I called one piece of writing a ‘Clarification’. Another time, I just had images on a loop to exemplify some point or other. Oh, and then there is this blog … So, I have actually written thousands of words in the last 4 years. I haven’t actually counted them, but a lot of this blog is going into the thesis, and every ‘epistolary’ was about 10,000 words, and there were probably around 5 or 6 of those, plus the email exchanges, the conference and seminar presentations, and the draft papers I have written which I have not yet submitted to a journal.

But now I am on a ‘proper’ writing rota. I have to write chapters, about 6 or 7 in all, and all those pieces of writing, conversations and annotations have to coalesce into recognisable and acceptable’academic writing’, the very topic of my thesis, the very phenomenon I am deconstructing and reformulating. And I have just submitted a draft chapter (which took me over 2 months to write) that self-consciously follows all the conventions that I am questioning: in fact, as I was writing it, I was conscious of how its very form was progressively, word-for-word, being undermined by its very content, i.e. my argument!

How supine am I?!

As I was writing, I was also desperate to close my Word .doc and write a blog post instead, and I think the reason is that blogging is so liberating, it’s a little box where you can store all the thinking, evidence and annotations that can be retrieved at a later date, when they become relevant to other contexts and projects, and, crucially, to delivering some poignant rebuttal! I submitted my chapter late last night, have been at work all day, and now I can write this post! Liberation!

A blog post also affords a sense of completion in the same way that going into the kitchen and making dinner has a clear beginning, middle and end. That’s why I prefer washing up to ironing (which I actually never do): I don’t have a dishwasher, and I don’t want one. Washing up is cathartic.  Doing a PhD for so many years makes you crave completion because after a while, however much you are devoted to your subject, you do get bored with it.



I may refer back to this post and the ones I wrote here and here as part of my reflections on the actual process. And, NTM, start to link and group these posts better.


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)


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

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.


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