Blog roundup – some recent favourites on argument and voice

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By Cally Guerin

One of the pleasures of writing a blog is that it has encouraged me to keep an eye on the wonderful work on research writing that other bloggers also publish. Some of my favourites are Patter, ThesisWhisperer and Explorations of Style. I use these informative sites on a regular basis to refresh my own approach to writing workshops and supervision. Here I want to reflect on some blogs I’ve read in recent weeks that remind us of the important links between argument and voice, particularly in relation to signposting the direction of the argument.

Pat Thomson warns doctoral candidates about the dangers of boring writing in ‘Don’t send your thesis examiner to sleep’. She advises doctoral writers to be wary of over-signposting: Don’t become too repetitive in announcing what will be done and what has just been done. I agree that this can be utterly off-putting. I once proofread a thesis that told me so many times what I had just read before it allowed me to find out what was coming next that I completely lost track of the actual content.

Patter also encourages doctoral writers to get some life into the writing, rather than being ‘Kind of impersonal and distanced. Professional. Stuffy. Lacking in personality.’ In other words, think about creating a lively voice in the writing. I really like this. As a supervisor and as an academic editor, I prefer not to intervene too much: I think it’s important to preserve the individual style of a writer. But remember – one person’s charmingly quirky can be another’s irritatingly obscure or self-conscious. It’s about striking the right balance and it can be very useful to get a few different people to read sections of your work to see if they find the voice appropriate.

Also in relation to voice, Inger Mewburn in the ThesisWhisper posted ‘The zombie thesis’, referring to those theses that ‘can walk and talk, but aren’t really alive’. That is, theses can meet all the rules and regulations, can include all the elements that check the boxes, but still fail to engage the reader and communicate the excitement of the research. This lack of life is sometimes caused by the overall argument being lost in amongst a whole lot of detail. The post recommends the very effective practice of going back to basics and revisiting the outline of individual chapters and sections. From my perspective, it’s even better practice to encourage students to focus closely on the planning of outlines right from the beginning, so that the central argument is kept alive throughout the writing process. This in turn can free up the author to present opinions confidently, and thus bring the whole thesis to life.

The issue of signposting sufficiently without overdoing it was also canvassed by Rachael Cayley in Explorations of Style in a recent reblogging of a post from her archives. This post reminds us about how to create useful transitions while avoiding the boring repetition mentioned in Patter. There are some really good ideas here for linking between sentences, but I was particularly interested in the advice regarding transitions between sections—this seems to be the hardest part for novice writers to get right.

Achieving the right the balance between showing how the sections relate to each other without overstating the obvious is not easy. It helps enormously if the argument is clearly structured, so that each step seems inevitable as it moves in a straight direction towards the concluding statement. Headings derived from the original outline of the chapter/section are helpful, but I also like the suggestion from Explorations of Style to read through a piece of writing without referring to the headings in order to ensure that the sense is not too dependent on the headings to guide the argument—we need both headings and textual signposts to find our way through the text.

Do you have any further suggestions about how to find the right balance in presenting the argument clearly in one’s own voice? How can we keep the writing interesting, but make sure that there is enough signposting to let the reader know what’s going on?

Take home messages, or ‘What was that all about?’

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By Cally Guerin

It’s old and well-worn advice, but worth repeating at regular intervals: make sure you know what the key message is for any given piece of writing. The necessity of being absolutely clear about the ‘take home message’ holds true for a short conference presentation, a journal article, and for an entire thesis. Yet surprisingly often, particularly at conferences, it is easy to find at the end of hearing a presentation that you are left wondering what the main point was meant to be. The same is true of an early draft of a chapter or article. Of course, I’m not immune from this myself, and admit to having left audiences somewhat confused more than once in the past.

I think that this confusion about the central meaning of research comes largely from being bogged down in the complexities of data analysis, where vast amounts of information need to be processed and organized. Doctoral writers in particular have often collected piles of data and can sometimes be overwhelmed by the sheer mass of information they are confronted by, and perhaps don’t want to leave anything out – every detail seems precious. But, as I’ve said before, what is deleted from the final version of writing can be just as important as what is left in (Leave it in or delete it? Dilemmas in writing the research story 27 March 2013).

As Mullins and Kiley (2002) demonstrate, and Carter (2008) later confirms, one of the most damaging responses a thesis can evoke in examiners is confusion about the main message that the research has established. If someone has read the entire thesis and remains unsure about the key argument, you’re in trouble. Holbrook et al. (2007) make a similar point in relation to literature reviews, highlighting that doctoral examiners are looking for the synthesis of lots ideas into a coherent argument. At various levels of the thesis, then, it is crucial to be absolutely clear about the central point the writer wants to convey. Luckily, there are a couple of tried and tested ways to focus thinking about the key argument or central idea.

One useful technique is to make sure that the introduction to the paper matches the conclusion (which is, of course, why it’s best to write the introduction last, when the conclusions or meanings of the data analysis have become clear). Although this seems pretty obvious, the trick is not to be too repetitive, but at the same time make it easy for the reader to see that the task the writer set out to do has been accomplished, and that he/she knows exactly what the point of the whole exercise has been. For long-term projects, the main message can shift in emphasis over time as the data is analysed in more detail, hence the value in revisiting this at the end of the writing process when preparing the introduction.

Another effective strategy I use in workshops and writing groups is to ask participants to write down in one sentence the main idea they want to get across for the particular piece of writing they are currently engaged in. Many find it quite difficult to explicitly articulate what this piece is trying to argue, and there can be lots of scribbling and crossing out and starting again, but most usually get there in the end. It sounds simple, but is often overlooked as part of the writing process when the focus tends to be on elaborating the discussion rather than being clear about the starting and end points. However, when the work has been fully digested, it is possible to state the take home message very clearly.

Is this lack of clarity about the take home message something you’ve observed? Have you got some other strategies for clarifying this in your own mind or when working with doctoral writers? (And I hope I’ve made it clear here that my take home message is: ‘Make sure you know what your take home message is!’)

References

Susan Carter (2008) Examining the doctoral thesis: a discussion. Innovations in Education and Teaching International 45(4): 365-374.

Allyson Holbrook, Sid Bourke, Hedy Fairbairn and Terry Lovat (2007) Examiner comment on the literature review in PhD theses. Studies in Higher Education 32(3): 337-356.

Gerry Mullins and Margaret Kiley (2002) ‘It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize’: how experienced examiners assess research theses. Studies in Higher Education 27(4): 369-386.

What’s it worth to you? Awarding authorship percentages

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By Cally Guerin

In the process of writing a paper with a group of colleagues recently, I was reminded of the complexities of assigning authorship. In particular, the question came up regarding who had done the most important and/or the most difficult work.

Some felt that the original concept for the research was most important; others claimed that research design was the challenging part; another felt that organizing the data collection and actually collecting some results was key; yet others believed the analysis of that data mattered most; and for others, framing all that empirical data in the relevant literature and locating it in the current debates in the field was what took creative imagination and lots of background reading and preparation.

These issues are pertinent to doctoral candidates writing joint-authored papers in theses by publication. At my university, a statement detailing who did what must be signed by all authors for any co-authored chapters written as journal articles (whether or not those chapters have actually been published yet). This is sometimes fairly straight forward if there are only the supervisor and candidate to be named. In other situations, where to draw the line on who contributed what gets considerably murkier.

There are some guides to working this out. The Australian Code of Conduct for Responsible Research states that:

Attribution of authorship depends to some extent on the discipline, but in all cases, authorship must be based on substantial contributions in a combination of:

  • conception and design of the project
  • analysis and interpretation of research data
  • drafting significant parts of the work or critically revising it so as to contribute to the interpretation.

It is possible to think that this means the three elements listed are of approximately equal importance, though there are plenty who wouldn’t agree.

The Vancouver Protocol makes it clear that legitimate authors must participate in all stages of

  • conception and design, or analysis and interpretation of data

AND

  • drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content

AND

  • final approval of the version to be published.

But these codes and protocols tell us more about who should be included, rather than how big their contribution might be (‘substantial’ is not all that helpful when it comes to disputes over percentages of contribution – everyone might think their work counts as ‘substantial’). It seems that some researchers still place greater value on some elements of the project than others do.

Suzanne Morris has made a very valuable contribution to this discussion. Her tool, Authorder, goes a long way towards working through these more complex questions – although it does require that all authors cooperate in finding agreement on what percentages they are willing to assign to the full range of tasks undertaken in writing a paper. While it is not prescriptive in terms of what tasks to include in the list, nor the percentages that ought to be assigned to each task in the process, Authorder is a wonderful instrument for guiding what can sometimes become a rather difficult discussion.

I love co-authoring papers, and have learnt a huge amount about writing from everyone I’ve written with – how they approach their research, tips on everything from ethics applications to database searches, and the writing processes that they find useful. Part of this learning includes discovering where other authors place the value and importance in their writing.

What are your experiences of co-authoring? When it comes to getting credit for your work, what should you be rewarded for? What takes the most time? What is valued most? Are all parts of the project and writing equally important for getting a paper ready for publication? It would be really helpful to hear more from others about the complexities of this area of doctoral writing.

Writing pleasure: Space and people

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By Susan Carter

Nine people faced a small task as part of postgraduate course work: to try to find pleasure in academic writing. They could write somewhere stylish, glitzy or interesting that they had never tried writing in before, or write in the same space as others, i.e., do a write-on-site aka pomodo aka shut up and write. But the mission was to be writing pleasure seekers.

They gave their feedback as to how it worked for them. Sally pointed out that pleasure is an attitude, as well as an adjective that she hadn’t readily linked with academic writing. The thought of sullying the café space, a place that for her is firmly social, went against all logic. But she recognised that she liked to write on campus because the desk space there was her own, unlike the writing places at home in a space shared with partner and teenage daughters. She used a timer to set a rhythm of regular stops, and found that the breaks meant being able to go on for longer.

Kat worked on a couch in a public place, and was interested to notice that a zone of silence descended. She realised that she could block off distraction around her if necessary. Iris went to a deliberately glamorous location, a café in a hotel. She said she regularly looks for somewhere unusual to write as a stimulus, and had never written there before. When she arrived mid-afternoon, the café was pretty quiet. She set a stop watch, and did nothing in the break except people-watch. And Brenda chose an intimate café with little break-out booths, finding a comfortable one that put her in the winter sun.

Tui was travelling to a conference at the time, so her new environment was on the 29th floor of a hotel with views out over the city. She had expected to find it hard to write there, saying she is easily distracted and the magnificent view over the city was alluring, but found the pattern of writing solidly for a chunk of time, then taking a stretch by the window seemed to work: she did get more writing done than she usually does when away from home.

Firmly anchored at home, Lana wrote till midnight beside a son who was having troubling getting to sleep, sitting on the bed next to him with her laptop on her knees. Often the responsibilities of parenting along with a full-time job has restricted her time to write, and she was used to working late into the night. Yet she found that sitting on the bed in the calm of her own research writing somehow made her academic writing more comfortable, homely.

Home was good for Barry, too, who has a magnificent view over the harbour and found being away from work (and having access to coffee, cheese and crackers) was calming—he could settle down and write. Coffee is assumed to be crucial in Inger Mewburn’s ‘shut up and write‘ way of working, along with food for the added sense of comfort.

Kevin established a new routine for the week: writing for an hour each morning straight after going to the gym. He found linking the physicality of the gym with thinking stimulating: his brain seemed to respond to motion, and then he was also glad to sit down at the computer.

Caroline had found that routinely fencing off time to write at the same time each week (Wednesday morning) meant that she made the most of that time. She also had a breakthrough in that, because she teaches mainly in digital media, she found that working at the computer made her edgily aware of teaching demands. So her most productive research writing medium was pen and paper, with her thoughts later transcribed into Word. She was aware of the need for what Rowena Murray calls ‘disengagement.’

Usually disengagement is a bit of a pejorative in teaching and learning terms: the rhetoic at universities is all about student engagement. But Murray’s disengagement is empowering when it comes to writing—for many research writers, this is exactly what is needed in order to do the thinking that research writing demands. There was general agreement that shifting place of writing allowed disengagement from the distractions (often other chores to be done) that familiar space offers. This more readily allows reengagement with writing, and intense focus on it.

There are two benefits to making writing a special occasion, then. It lets you detach from all the other demands, and it makes the habit of research writing something special. Do you know of other rituals around doctoral writing that might lead to pleasure?

Murray, R. (2013). “It’s not a hobby”: Reconceptualizing the place of writing in academic work. Higher Education, 66(1), 79-91.

http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10734-012-9591-7#page-1

 

 

 

Saying ‘says’ in research writing

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By Susan Carter

Academics tend to agree that, all else being equal, a simple word is better than a pedantic one. There’s one curious exception: we all know to avoid saying ‘says’ in academic writing.

Words that say ‘says’ without saying the actual four-letter word convey a complex signaling system. Careful choice of ‘says’ words shows critical evaluation of the literature—it is the literature that usually does the saying in research writing.

I once heard a doctoral student say that their supervisor told them to always use ‘suggests.’ The student believed it was a discipline preference relating to an objective voice–I think it was simply bad advice.

For all disciplines need to show critical analysis: ‘suggests’ is simply the wrong word in some cases. Maybe the supervisor didn’t trust this person to signal correctly in their choice of options and thought ‘suggests’ was a pretty safe default position. Yet, encouraging students to think about the degrees of difference in what those ‘says’ words convey is one way to explicitly show them how to achieve more accurate and nuanced academic writing.

‘Suggests,’ is neutral, a tad on the tentative side. A suggestion doesn’t stridently take a stance. So although ‘suggests’ seems harmless, it won’t be the most accurate word if the author actually was really emphatic. If an examiner wants sound evidence of critical interpretation, ‘suggests’ often won’t give that.

Gathering ‘says’ words into a list shows more clearly the nuances of meaning between them. ‘Says’ words can be collected up by individuals or as a group exercise. Then they can be put together for ones that might be used in similar situations. This includes, for example, when an author

  • really is tentative or explorative;
  • endorses someone else;
  • disagrees with someone else;
  • picks something apart to show better how it works;
  • pulls things together in new ways; or
  • takes things further.

I’ve drawn up a list of some of these words, and put them into clusters. At the shallow end of the pool: ‘explores,’ ‘speculates,’ ‘suggests,’ ‘proposes,’ ‘finds,’ and ‘shows.’

There are also ‘describes,’ ‘clarifies,’ explains’ or ‘unpacks’ for the times when authors make things clearer.

They may ‘theorise,’ ‘refine,’ or calibrate.’ With just a little more force, it might become ‘asserts,’ ‘endorses,’ ‘demonstrates,’ ‘affirms.

An author may ‘emphasise’ or they may actually ‘argue.’

When an author wants to say that those they are citing came across something really very new, the cited author can be said to ‘discover’ or ‘find’. And there are two uses of ‘finds:’ the literal one when something is actually found that was missing before; and the metaphorical one to mean when a position about previously know things has been found and taken by this individual thinker.

When an author makes headway by clearing aside misconceptions, they may ‘doubt,’ ‘refute,’ ‘rebuff,’ ‘challenge,’ ‘dispute,’ ‘disprove,’ or, more graphically, ‘explode the myth/misconception/belief.’

Or they may follow someone else’s lead but continue the vector further, as when they ‘add,’ ‘expand,’ ‘develop,’ or ‘take further.’ Sometimes they ‘synthesise’ by pulling different discourses together.

When a research writer says an author ‘reveals,’ ‘illuminates,’ ‘dissects,’ ‘explicates,’ ‘develops,’ or ‘anatomises,’ they are also saying that they found that work helpful, and learned from it. They are endorsing the author they are citing, and aligning their own work with it. My own favourite, my highest praise for a cited author, is ‘anatomise,’ because it conjures up the cutting open to show how things work inside. Rembrandt’s Dr Tulp with his solemn anatomy lesson springs to mind.

Any other ‘says’ words, or comments on this curious social phenomena?

 

 

Rash promises: Three lessons learned applicable to doctoral writing

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By Susan Carter

Rash promises are made in good faith, but are often followed by regret when the time comes to deliver. I was reminded of this recently. I had offered ten postgraduate writers who were principally working on improving their writing that I would give each of them two hours feedback. My intention was to show them the benefit of another set of eyes to see how they might carry on their own revision. What was I thinking of?!

These people came from across campus, so spanned several epistemologies, those frames that quite drastically affect writing styles. It confirmed for me a few things I have written and taught about, driven home by long hours trying to give feedback that explained the meta-levels of establishing clarity.

What fulfilling my rash promise confirmed for me:

One: For hard science writing in particular you need a simple story behind the formula. Here are two simple stories:

  1. W is a problem, especially in situation A, when B and C, the things that cause W, are exacerbated by Z.
  2. To date, research has aimed at eliminating Z, but this is not possible in situations M and N.
  3. So we are trying to defuse the effects of Z by making use of enzymes in the body that could reduce the B and C effects through function F.

Or

  1. These systems produce trees that are captured in sequence to show drift in X. The ratio of drift can be factored into plans for modifying the systems.
  2. However, in real life, the drift in X is dependent on how the individuals making decisions at level Q estimate how those working at levels R and S will interpret the system’s efficiency. The drift is influenced by individual expectation.
  3. That means that the drift captured by the trees may be unreliable should those individuals change. Here I factor into the equation possible variants of Q estimates that allow a more precise understanding of what the drift implies into a sustainable future.

I could understand the writing—well, almost‑-if the big words were fed into a simple story—I couldn’t if the author focused only on the big words and left out the story.

The hard science authors were a little sceptical that this level of clarity amounted to much. They felt that someone in their discipline would be able to join the dots when facts were listed without the story explaining their relationship to each other as causality, or effect, or sequence. Yet I argue that even discipline-savvy readers will understand much more easily if they don’t have to do the cognitive work of dot-joining. The writer should do this for them to ensure they themselves have in fact got the story right. It is not uncommon for an aothor to become confused in the clusters of jargon, the big words.

Two: The need for a framework of argumentation applied equally in all disciplines. In my own writing, this is something I will often insert at the end. If I realise that I have become engrossed in detail (that often happens), I will insert (usually as topic sentences) how this detail supports the main argument. The framework ought not be boringly heavy-handed, but without it readers can lose energy in ploughing through pages of information that seems to have become detached from what is important about this chapter or article. About half of the group I was working with recognised that adding topic sentences to provide linkage greatly improved their writing.

Three: Readers other than the author notice writing tics. That is the main value of peer review of writing: you learn about your own habits as an author. The outside reader will grow irritated, or let’s just say they will spot overused abstract nouns like ‘complex issues.’ The author can then do a find search and replace some of them with more accurate words, noting that the term is a broad one that ripples with different nuances. Changing the big general term for the most accurate crispens the writing. When ‘we’ is used to mean both ‘we the research team conducting this research’ and ‘we, all researchers working in this field,’ and is also used too often, this also discombobulates readers.

And I learned something else—think twice before making rash promises. This time, though, I have enjoyed fulfilling one because, as usual, engaging with other academic’s writing taught me more about how it works.

“Convince me!”: Escaping the descriptive impasse into sound argumentation

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By Toni Bruce and Susan Carter

This post was sparked when Toni described how she has begun a project with a group of doctoral students learning through doing: they are challenged to convince an audience of peers of something—anything­­—relating to their thesis, in three minutes. Doing this gave them the chance to test-drive theory as part of argumentation.

Toni has written about the way that “theory” isn’t a noun concept but a verb: it’s about doing. Novice researchers need to grow comfortable with the fact that they use theory so that they can stop walking round it in awe. Often when we newly encounter theory, using it seems formidable; how can someone else say, “hop in, give it a whirl, take it for a spin round the block?” In Using Theory (2010), Toni spells out clearly how the right theoretical lens let her scramble out of an impasse where she couldn’t really make much sense of data during her own work. And she decided to find a way to help doctoral students in her faculty find that theory offered a practical usefulness for those sitting on a heap of data.

Toni proposed the Convince Me project for doctoral students in her School within the Education faculty, an idea that was supported by the School’s Postgraduate Research Committee. The first meeting in May 2014 featured six initially nervous volunteers trying to build persuasive argumentation for the value of their project, methods or theoretical approach, or the meaning or implications of their findings. Ten other interested doctoral students listened and asked questions. “You convinced me” was the sentence each presenter wanted to hear.

It sounds to me like Convince Me does more than just make theory seem worth a whirl–it gives a friendly audience for trialling arguing defensively for any part of the thesis design. I’ve invited Toni to describe more precisely the Convince Me set up:

I proposed Convince Me as a way to help our doctoral students refine their ability to make a succinct, clear and well-supported argument, which is a vital element of a successful thesis. This is demonstrated repeatedly in the comments of thesis reviewers and examiners. The activity is intended to be an informal, fun and useful way for students to learn from each other what a convincing argument sounds like. Presenters are provided with the McWilliam (2006) argumentation article. The instructions are simple: “In three minutes and no more than five hundred words, without slides or visual tools, you must try to convince the group of something.  The ‘something’ will depend on where you are in the research process. In all cases, you must provide the argument and the evidence that supports it. You will get immediate feedback from your peers in the form of questions, a format that replicates conference presentations.” After each presentation, the group discusses the individual argument focusing on the strategies and elements that they find convincing (although invariably they also want to know more about the research itself).

The success of the first Convince Me means that it will continue, most likely on a monthly basis. Several presenters are already keen to do it again, saying that preparing for the presentation helped them refine their ideas. Currently I am the only academic who attends, as part of creating a collaborative, safe space in which doctoral students can practice and learn. Ancilliary aims are to enhance the doctoral culture within the School and to build confidence in public speaking so that more of our students will enter University competitions such as the Spark Ideas Challenge, Exposure and Thesis in 3.

And importantly, learning how to make arguments work to meet examiners’ expectations.

References

Bruce, T. (2010). Using theory to escape the descriptive impasse. Waikato Journal of Education, 15(2), 7-19. Availability” http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=3&sid=785d8760-e636-4640-9845-31d6ebce80dc%40sessionmgr114&hid=103

McWilliam, E. (2006). Argumentation [online]. In C. Denholm & T. Evans (Eds.), Doctorates Downunder: Keys to Successful Doctoral Study in Australia and New Zealand (pp. 166-174). Camberwell, Vic: ACER Press. Availability: <http://search.informit.com.au.ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/documentSummary;dn=628116868327087;res=IELHSS> ISBN: 0864314299. [cited 08 May 14]

 

 

 

 

Is your baby’s head ‘non-standard’? Tailoring writing groups for off-campus PhD students

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This wonderful contribution comes from Dr Juliet Lum who is a Lecturer in Higher Degree Research Learning Skills at Macquarie University in Sydney, where she runs and organises courses, seminars and resources for research candidates across campus, and manages MQ’s new team of fabulous HDR Learning Advisors.     ???????????????????????????????

Recently when shopping for a baby’s beanie I chose one that had on its tag ‘OSFM’. After a while I figured out the acronym: One Size Fits Most. I like that: a clothing line that produces an item in only one size, but acknowledges that some bodies are ‘non-standard’. We know you’re out there, but tough luck: no beanie for you!

I have to admit, though, that a lot of the training our uni has been offering PhD students belongs in the OSFM category. Take doctoral writing groups, for instance.

No doubt you’ve heard of doctoral writing groups: you may run them at your uni, have read about them (e.g. Ferguson 2009 and Aitchison 2010), or be a member of one as a doctoral student yourself. Basically it’s a small group of PhD students who get together regularly to give feedback on each other’s drafts. Writing groups have lots of benefits: not only do students get advice on how they can improve their writing, but they gain skills and confidence as reviewers, and become members of an academic community working with other researchers.

But what if you’re enrolled in an Australian university and you live in Germany? Or you’re holding down a full-time job, or onto a full-time baby, and you do your PhD in the wee hours? What if you prefer to work at home in your pyjamas? Then the OSFM doctoral writing group probably won’t fit you because it’s run on campus during business hours (and requires a ‘public’ dress code). Do you just have to remain a big-headed hatless baby all winter?

My research partner, Olga Kozar, empathises with off-campus students having been a distance student herself. Olga suggested we try running writing groups for off-campus PhD students using online tools like Skype. Great idea, Olga! But how would these groups work? Olga and I pondered these things, and then got our hands dirty trying out some options.

We set up three different types of groups: an ‘autonomous’ group, which ran itself using our toolkit as a guide; a ‘hand-held’ group, which Olga ran; and a ‘weaned’ group, which I ran for a few sessions before letting it run itself. We grouped the students roughly by discipline.

So, what happened?

Well, the autonomous group had to deal with three incompatible time-zones because two of the students lived overseas. We feared they might give up because they wouldn’t be able to find a mutually convenient time to meet, or perhaps they’d resort to asynchronous communication like email. But no! The group decided to meet online in real time at 8am on Saturday Sydney time, which is dawn in China and almost midnight on Friday in the UK: this level of dedication bowls me over!

On the other hand, our hand-held group – which we assumed would be the easiest to keep going – almost conked out after a few weeks. First of all, there wasn’t a time to meet via Skype that suited everyone. So the group met only via email and the interaction was sluggish. Membership waned because of different levels of commitment, seemingly different needs and a reluctance to share drafts. Why didn’t the group run as smoothly as the other two? Certainly, the rapport was lower than that of the other groups. The members also happened to be science researchers who spend much of their day working in the lab or seeing patients. Perhaps certain types of scientists need a certain type of writing group that our model didn’t cater well for? Even our tailored-to-fit writing groups couldn’t quite clothe them snugly.

My weaned group met by Skype in full technicolour video every second Thursday, and, I must say, there was little difference between this group and face-to-face groups I’ve run; in fact, I noticed more engagement and investment by these geographically dispersed members than I’ve seen in many on-campus groups. Yes, these students loved receiving a range of honest feedback on their drafts and finding themselves able to say something valuable about another’s writing. But, importantly, they also relished the opportunity just to chat with a bunch of PhD colleagues on a regular basis.

So, what sort of writing group would I recommend for off-campus PhD students?

Well, it seems to me that writing groups that meet online in real time are more fun, deliver more benefits and are more likely to keep going than those that just communicate asynchronously.

But don’t be fooled: groups may need to try on a few different sizes from the online writing group clothes rack, as the real-time online writing group is itself only an OSFM, not an OSFA. Local and distance-based PhD candidates study off-campus for a variety of reasons, and synchronising schedules for real time meetings may turn out to be impossible.

What about you? Have you ever run or been in a writing group with people you may never meet in person? How did you make it work? And if you’re a PhD student who’s rarely on campus: how have you overcome the tyranny of distance or incompatible schedules in order to access training and connect meaningfully with others?

References

Aitchison, C. (2010). Learning together to publish: Writing group pedagogies for doctoral publishing. In C. Aitchison, B. Kamler & A. Lee (Eds.). Publishing pedagogies for the doctorate and beyond (pp. 83-100). London: Routledge

Aitchison, C. & Guerin, C. (eds) (2014) Writing Groups for Doctoral Education and Beyond: Innovations in Practice and Theory, Abingdon: Routledge.

Ferguson, T. (2009). The ‘Write’ Skills and More: A Thesis Writing Group for Doctoral Students. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 33(2), 285-297. doi: 10.1080/03098260902734968

Kozar, O. & Lum, J. (2013), Factors likely to impact the effectiveness of research writing groups for off-campus doctoral students, Journal of Academic Language and Learning, 7(2) 132-149

Writing a thesis abstract that will impress a potential examiner

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By Claire Aitchison

When the research is complete and the thesis is available to the public, apart from the title, the abstract is the part of the document most likely to be read. But way before then, the abstract needs to win over the target examiner.

Perhaps because the doctoral abstract is so often written in a hurry when candidates and supervisors are immersed in the final stages, exhausted and in a rush to progress things towards examination, inadequate attention is paid to this small but crucial piece of writing.

Imagine receiving an invitation to examine a doctoral thesis. The email, probably a standard template sent by a grad school, is likely to begin by buttering you up with some generic comments about your reputation or expertise, it might include official forms with examination criteria, instructions and procedures. It’s likely to remind you of the requirement to work to a timeframe – and of the (very) small financial reward for undertaking the task. It will be accompanied by the thesis abstract.

So, if you were that potential examiner, what would you like from the abstract that might help you decide if you wanted to take on the task of examining?

I’ll wager that you want pretty immediate clarity concerning what the thesis is about: what the research was aiming to do, what literature, methods and theories were employed, and what were the outcomes or the findings arising from the research. Having said that, if you are an expert in the field, you’ll also be wanting to know what is special or unique about this research that would encourage you to read yet more on a topic that you are already so familiar with.

Most of the advice books indicate that the content of the abstract should consist of those components I’ve outlined above. Some disciplines and/or kinds of studies may require different levels of detail or additional information, such as outlining the central argument (common in cultural studies, for example) or the theoretical framework. Doing a little bit of homework to investigate disciplinary norms is always a good starting point.

Some abstracts provide an overview of the research itself, while others focus on summarising the thesis or dissertation. This distinction will likely impact the choice of verb tense. For example, descriptions of the research may use the simple past tense (The research showed that …), whereas commentary on the thesis is likely to use present simple tense (This thesis explores…).

Some suggest the abstract should mirror the structure of the thesis. I don’t think this is important. But I do think the abstract should speak to the key components that make up the research. For example, the thesis may have a non-traditional structure – an exegesis or a series of papers – but the abstract should provide a holistic overview. In most cases the study will be explained by giving a clear (and early) statement of the issue or problem under investigation, then indicate what literature was brought to the investigation, how the research was undertaken and what was found out.

Some disciplines favour longer abstracts up to 2 pages in length; however, in my opinion, a short abstract is preferable. The judicious use of key words, such as disciplinary or ideological ‘markers’, will help provide short-cut clues to the kind of research it is. But at the same time it’s important to be as accessible as possible. It seems obvious to say, but well-structured paragraphs that break the text into clear segments of information is advantageous – especially when so much of the text is dense with weighty material.

As with any abstract, focussed and precise writing is the way to go. Ideally, sentences will be dense with detail and relatively sparse in ‘padding’ (ie adjectives and adverbs).

Time markers and location-specific indicators are worthy of special care. For example, it is preferable to state that the study took place ‘during 2014’ than ‘recently’. A PhD is an international qualification, so local identifiers rarely work: it is preferable to replace ‘Western suburbs’ with ‘fringe suburbs with lower socio-economic status’.

Writing the abstract can help a candidate and supervisor identify the strengths and ‘sales points’ of the study. An abstract should play to these. For example, if the researcher has developed a new way of doing something, or modified an existing method or approach, then indicate this along with other significant ‘findings’.

Irrespective of the discipline or kind of study, the abstract should give ample attention to a discussion of the findings, up to 60% of the abstract can be devoted to presenting findings and their significance. This segment can be especially difficult to write because it requires a particular kind of authorial voice and confidence that sometimes is only just developing in the very final stages of candidature.

It’s the old adage that first impressions stick. A well-written, well-structured abstract provides a sense of the researcher and the research. If the abstract is neat and crisp, comprehensive and well written, if it provides the essential elements that enable one to make a judgement about the thesis, then hopefully, a potential examiner is already starting to engage with the task.

References:

Cooley, Linda, & Lewkowicz, Jo. (2006). Dissertation writing and practice: Turning ideas into text. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Paltridge, Brian, & Starfield, Sue. (2007). Thesis and dissertation writing in a second language: A handbook for supervisors. Oxon: Routledge.

Choosing the right theory is like op-shopping

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By Claire Aitchison

The analogy that choosing theory is like op-shopping came up years ago in a writing circle and it has stayed with me ever since. I shall elaborate. OPSHOP2

In Australia, ‘op shops’ or ‘opportunity shops’ are charity shops that sell second-hand clothes. Not everyone likes op shopping. Some people prefer wholly new outfits, others make their own gear. In general, however, op shops are a great place to get affordable stuff. But you do have to choose carefully. Not everything there is good value … in fact, some op shops carry a lot of junk. Nevertheless, for the discerning shopper, they represent a good way to go: there is a wide range of pre-loved, pre-tested outfits ready for you to try on. There are all sorts and sizes and shapes and designs. Op shops don’t subscribe to particular brands or labels. You can discover well-known, familiar labels, even exclusive labels, but also obscure and un-branded items. Also, because op shops are generally quite affordable, if you make an error or change your mind, it doesn’t matter too much – you simply give it back and it gets recycled again.

Occasionally you do come across something that’s almost new; that seems hardly to have been taken out of the cupboard before finding itself in the op shop seeking a new owner. One wonders why it has been rejected. Surely, originally, someone thought it was just the right thing, before realising it simply wasn’t suitable. Perhaps it didn’t match anything else in their wardrobe. Or perhaps, on closer inspection, it wasn’t quite what they thought it was. Sometimes the product is faulty; but most likely, when they brought it home from the shop and in the privacy of their own home when they had time to look and think carefully, they found it just wasn’t right for them after all. Luckily op shops give you the opportunity for guilt-free rejection. The item has value, but not to you.

Some items are so well used that they might look a bit tired and tatty, old-fashioned and past their use-by date. However, if you look closely, they may still have some value – perhaps, for example, when mixed with something new so as to contrast the styles or maybe it’s a matter of choosing the right accessories? For the right occasion, despite being old-fashioned, this item might be just the ticket.

An op shop allows you to try on endless numbers of outfits – to mix and match across styles and eras, to experiment and test out unusual combinations, to dig out long-forgotten trends, styles and fashions. To compare the latest and the oldest, the brightest and the lacklustre. What looks shocking on one person or in one era, looks great on and in another. Mostly, one doesn’t really know until one tries it on and gives it a test run. It can be useful to get an opinion from someone else to see if they think the outfit suits you, if it goes well with the stuff you’ve already selected.

I spoke with my doctoral student today and she was having trouble with theory. Although she started off browsing freely, she’d narrowed the field to choosing between a small group of theorists. She’d been toying around with the usual suspects – Bourdieu and Foucault. There was some pressure for her to settle on Foucault since others thought that suited the story she should tell. And there is an argument that Bourdieu and Foucault go well together. But she was resisting, saying that everybody uses Bourdieu and she just didn’t think it was the right match. And anyhow she was sick of Bourdieu, she was looking for something new.

I thought of the op shop and suggested she think about how these two might work together – that she try choosing one for the main outfit and see how the second theorist could complement that. We talked about her purpose – what did she want from these theories/theorists; where could she go with them? How did she imagine they could work together to achieve her objectives? But mostly we agreed the answer would come from trying on the theories, by actually writing the story of the data and then seeing where, if, and how, those theories would apply. Perhaps she might be surprised to find they fit well – or perhaps she’ll return them to the rack and keep looking a while longer.

Would anyone like to share their experience of trying on theories/theorists?

PS In keeping with the idea that everything new is old, Cally Guerin drew my attention to this co-authored article and its reference to the idea of ‘trying on’ different voices as a strategy used by student writers in the process of becoming authorial.

Reference

Guerin, C. & M. Picard (2012)  Try it on: Voice, concordancing and test-matching in doctoral writing International Journal of Educational Integrity 8(2).

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