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Thinking of doing some research on doctoral writing?

There’s a lot of work about writing and the doctoral experience, but much of it relies on interview or survey data. There’s plenty of scope, in my view, for using different methods to study writing behaviour and practice. My friend Jason Downs and I are planning a small study about how students approach the task of planning their thesis, using creative research methods, so I have been trawling the literature for ideas.

In this post I wanted to share three papers I have been reading which use methods on the more creative end of the spectrum, where the data is created by the participants, not in response to questions by the researchers.

These methods have strengths and weaknesses, but in my experience of working with these methods and trying to get work published, creative methods are not well understood in the higher education research community. In this post I will outline the methods used in the papers, and the kind of knowledge that was gained using these methods. I’ll then ponder some of the strengths and weaknesses of these approaches, especially when subjected to the peer review process, where they may not get a very generous reception.

Syles, I and Radloff, A (2000). Affective reflections: Postgraduate students’ feelings about their theses. Presented at the Quality in Postgraduate Research Conference “Making ends meet”.

In this paper Styles and Radloff report on their analyses of student’s drawings as a way to understanding the way students feel about their thesis. The rationale for this study is that affect – or feelings towards the work – has an impact on student performance and that drawings are a way of analysing affect.

The authors asked students in focus groups and interview settings “What metaphors come to mind when you think of your thesis?” and encouraged them to write and draw a response. Then the participants were given a list of 18 positive and negative adjectives and asked to pick the ones that described their feelings towards their work. The participants then chose from 8 different colours of crayons and used these to create a colour wheel showing the extent to which they were experiencing each emotion. Students were then interviewed about what they had drawn and coloured.

21 metaphors were identified and 6 themes were generated: uncertainty, anticipation, effort, menace, creation/growth and orderliness. Women picked more adjectives than men and there was a tendency for women to express stronger positive emotions and men to express stronger negative emotions. Students earlier in the process seemed to be less negative than those at a later stage.

This creative mixed methods approach seemed to be fruitful and the authors have a range of suggestions at the end of the paper for universities to use the results of the study in supporting research students, especially with emotions related to uncertainty. Some might object to the conclusions drawn about discipline and gender based on the small sample size (around 20). However, it is very difficult to do this kind of research on a larger scale, which is one of the limitations of such an approach.

Ward, M.-H. and West, S. (2008). Blogging PhD Candidature: Revealing the Pedagogy. International Journal of Emerging Technologies and Society, 60–71.

In this paper Ward and West explore an extract from one of the blogs kept by a PhD student, participating in Ward’s ongoing study of PhD students in Australia. The extract includes comments from other PhD student bloggers. The extract is used, along with some supporting literature and personal reflections from the authors, to analyse the role that blogging can play in supporting doctoral candidature. The authors conclude that blogging is used to: record insights and thoughts, create lists of resources or tasks, store important documents, record events and put ideas ‘out there’ for comment from others.

Blogs, the authors state, are a “new kind of text” (p.64) that can link ideas of the same author together and link the ideas of the author with other ideas and people online. They go on to ponder whether the ‘collaborative knowledge creation’ which blogs allow has the capacity to reduce the role of the supervisor to more of a ‘guide on the side’ (pg 65). They conclude that aspects of PhD supervision could be supported through blogging, including developing research plans, reflecting on meetings, creating lists of action items and encouraging peer-to-peer contact.

The advantage of looking at blogs as data is that they are in the public domain, but many ethics committees are confused about the nature of research online. You may have trouble with your application if you plan to use your own blog to solicit data or survey participants. My view is that a blog is like a newspaper, but I’ve had many heated arguments with ethics committee members who feel that the interaction aspect of blogging constitutes a personal relationship of some kind and, therefore, should be subject to normal ethics committee processes.

Tierney, W. G., & Hallett, R. E. (2010). In Treatment: Writing Beneath the Surface. Qualitative Inquiry, 16(8), 674–684. doi:10.1177/1077800410374028

This paper uses a narrative enquiry approach to studying the supervisor/student relationship. The authors use Laurel Richardson’s “writing story” approach, generating narratives about the PhD process from both the student’s and supervisors’ points of view. Parts of these narratives are interspersed with analysis of the themes which are highlighted in them: trust, communication, time, identity and reflexivity. The narratives highlight the complexity of the relationship and interactions which can occur in the practice of writing.

The use of the narrative method allows very concrete and particular details of lived experience to be communicated – it does not smooth out the roughness of the data, but celebrates it. In this paper the interpretive text which appears between the narrative segments is solidly grounded in other literature, so the narrative can be seen to enhance current knowledge and provide insights which help scholars to build on previous research.

The strengths of narrative accounts are also their weakness. The particular, situated nature of the data can cause confusion in peer reviewers who can be concerned about “generalisability”. Is a narrative account anecdote or data? In my view, it depends on the choice of the narrative and how it is treated by the researcher.

Where to method?

I hope this short survey of creative research methods is helpful to others who are thinking of working in the deep end of the methods pool. I’d like to think that if the researcher carefully addresses the fears of peer reviewers, publication might be easier, but in my experience this is not the case. If you want to work with creative methods be prepared for lots of rejection letters. No matter how carefully you mount an argument, some peer reviewers and journal editors will reject papers using creative methods on principle alone.

What do you think? Have you used any creative methods in your research? What has been your experience with the publishing process?

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