Doctoral writing and feedback: Moving on from negative emotion

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By Susan Carter

I’ve just had the amazing experience of getting to know Professor Rowena Murray from the University of the West of Scotland. We spent a pleasant few hours weeding a graveled area around a church hall with the community gardeners in the village of Lochwinnoch.

img_2212Talking about our research topics while weeding was a great way for one thought to lead to another, almost like the bramble rhizomes we were pulling out. I’ve walked a supervision meeting, but suspect that there might be other physical activities that both student and supervisor enjoy doing that would allow for the same organic thinking together process.

Weeding allowed time to talk about academic writing and doctoral students.

This post covers one topic that we sifted through and agreed upon: the potential for emotional disturbance in relationship to writing and feedback (see to Sara Cotterall’s earlier post and my own on emotion.) Then we also thought about how students might learn to manage their emotions, and resolve differences between themselves and their supervisors—and then be aware of their own personal development from handling something well recognized as challenging. Continue reading

Who says in academic writing: ‘I’, ‘the researcher’, ‘this study’, ‘this thesis’…?

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By Susan Carter

Choosing terms for the agent in academic writing can be tricky for novices, and in my experience, not all supervisors give wise advice on the terms to use for the speaking author. This post considers choice from the perspective of textual clarity. ‘I argue that…’ could also be ‘this thesis argues that…’ or ‘the researcher argues that…’ Doctoral students must decide what nomenclature is best for their research projects.

Some writing shies away from admitting there is an author. Historically, empirical science disciplines sought objectivity; to do so, they chose to hide human agency with passive constructions, e.g., ‘It was found that’. With humans eliminated, arguments were muted, not acknowledged in text: ‘results may suggest that….’ Textual masking of agency signaled a positivist epistemology.

By disappearing the people from the text, the matter of the research itself is emphasised, since, in theory, anyone could duplicate the study, and a measure of objectivity is established. Thus, the use of ‘I’ would be almost misleading for empirical study, in line with the grammatical idea that the passive construction makes the receiver of action, not the doer, important.

In common speech, we use the passive less often than we use the active; its most common use is when we don’t know or care who did something or wish to avoid naming them for social reasons: ‘someone has taken my lunch’ means that I am not accusing anyone in particular.

We also use it when the topic of our focus is the object of an active sentence: ‘these people have been invaded in their homeland, raped, tortured and mass murdered ’ or ‘she was given a bunch of flowers.’ Then we need not name the doer because they are not important for the point we want to make: the focus is on the object of the main verb not the doer of it.

And yet, this is a convention undergoing change. I propose it is softening, as my data showed in Carter 2008, when no doctoral examiner [n23] from any discipline was averse to the use of ‘I’ in a thesis. And I believe that it should soften purely in the interest of readability. When it is not done very well, the results are unreadable. For me, the text of the thesis, its clarity and accessibility, matters too.

Active verbs, the ones we commonly use in speech, are easier to unpack. ‘I’m going for lunch’ makes instant sense, whereas ‘Lunch is to be gone for by me’ is awkward. Then when sentences are conveying something more complex than that ‘I’m off for lunch’, they can be a hard to read. (This is not to be dismissive of simple passives focusing on the objects of verbal action, as in ‘Every year, thousands of people are killed on the roads.’) For research to be replicable, you need to be able to easily read and accurately understand what the researchers did.

Another option for agency is for the writer to refer to herself in the third person as the ‘author’ or the ‘researcher’. I’m not sure of the epistemology behind this convention but it seems to me like a fusion of social science constructivism and hard science positivism. There are people, but they are part of the matter of the study, and the author thus distances herself as thesis writer from herself as researcher.

When I am examining or reviewing, I dislike the convention of an author writing about herself in the third person because it causes textual ambiguity. Commonly in the discussion, the research of the thesis project is compared with findings from other literature. More than once, as a reader I have had to read three times to figure out whether ‘the researcher found’ refers to the researchers of the last-mentioned piece of literature or the authorial candidate.

An option that allows for active verb construction and readability while keeping people out of the way is to allow the thesis, the chapter, or the findings to speak. ‘This chapter’ can review, analyse, or theoretically position the project. ‘This thesis’ may even argue. It is oddly anthropomorphic but does accord with different criteria–including mine, one shared by many examiners, that a thesis ought to be clear and easy to read. My preferences are not necessarily constructivist, but emerge quite simply from respect for readable academic writing.

That’s my approach. I’m sure others will have quite different approaches, or more to add here, and I’m curious as to what your experience has been with the issue of ‘who says’ the thesis.

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

 

Voicing writing: exploring the link between body and text

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By Susan Carter

During my own doctorate, I was troubled by voice and identity. As an undergraduate, I aspired to sounding like an academic; at doctoral level, it felt important to sound like myself. This post picks over some of the purposes of having doctoral students read their work aloud.

Most of us who support doctoral students with writing will repeat this handy bit of revision advice: ‘read the sentence out loud and you’ll hear when it is too long, or when the syntax is a bit skewy.’ It is the case that the process of voicing written prose will bring to light what’s going wrong in a way that helps revision. Continue reading

Olympic endurance and doctoral writing: on motivation

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By Susan Carter

What I have loved about watching Olympic events on TV is the athletes’ demonstration of determination, self-possession and focus. At the same time, I have been reading a couple of books that deal with writer’s block, bringing the intensity of emotion around writing to the fore. The books are Alice Weaver Flaherty’s (2015) The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain and Peter Elbow’s (1998) Writing without Teachers. This post was prompted by a combination of the Olympic games backdrop to my current reading about writing. Both things are inspiring. They converge.

I keep seeing connections between Olympic effort and doctoral writing. OK, so those writing PhDs are not striving to be the best in the world, but they are labouring to become a world expert in their niche. Over the course of a PhD you need to acquire some of those strengths that world athletes take to the limit.

And the limbic system seems to have a lot to do with this. Continue reading

Simplifying text: Three rules for making academic text easier to read

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By James Hartley & Guillaume Cabanac

It is commonly thought, although not necessarily true, that technical and academic texts are difficult to read. In this blog we outline three rules for simplifying such text. Our aim is to show that applying such rules makes it easier to write clearer prose.

The first rule is easy.

RULE 1: If a paragraph is too long split it in two.

A general guide about paragraphs is that they should convey one idea, usually expressed ih the topic sentence. But certainly paragraphs that run over a page of typescript are probably too long, and much can be achieved by breaking up the text. Here is an excerpt from an early draft of one of our papers:

Refereeing submissions for their suitability for inclusion in an academic journal can be a tortuous business for all concerned. As illustrated by Paglione, et al. (2015) debates about the problems inherent in managing peer review are leading to a growing number of initiatives to make the process easier. There are numerous discussions about the value of ‘open’ and ‘blind’ submissions, ‘open’ and ‘blind’ reviewing, ‘post-publication peer reviewing’ and training for referees. In this paper, we concentrate on describing the method of peer review used by the British Journal of Educational Technology (BJET), and how new technology allowed us to explore it systematically. BJET has an unusual review process as it uses “peer choice”. Here a panel of volunteer referees is maintained by sending regular requests for reviewers to join. Currently the reviewers on the panel come from all over the world, and typically take between 7-21 days to review a submission. ‘Peer-choice’ has an advantage for the editor in that he does not need to select different individual reviewers for every paper received, and an advantage for reviewers in that they choose to review papers on topics that they feel most comfortable with, or would indeed like to read.

Now consider what happens when we split this paragraph into more meaningful groups (as in the final version of our paper). Here we separate the first (introductory) part from the detail.

Refereeing submissions for their suitability for inclusion in an academic journal can be a tortuous business for all concerned. As illustrated by Paglione et al. (2015), debates about the problems inherent in managing peer review are leading to a growing number of initiatives to make the process easier. There are numerous discussions about the value of ‘open’ and ‘blind’ submissions, ‘open’ and ‘blind’ reviewing, ‘post-publication peer reviewing’ and training for referees. In this paper, we concentrate on describing the method of peer review used by the British Journal of Educational Technology (BJET), and how new technology allowed us to explore it systematically.

BJET has an unusual peer review process as it uses “peer choice”. A panel of volunteer referees is maintained by sending regular requests for reviewers to join. Currently the reviewers on the panel come from all over the world, and typically take between 7-21 days to review a submission. ‘Peer-choice’ has an advantage for the editor in that he does not need to select different individual reviewers for every paper received, and an advantage for reviewers in that they choose to review papers on topics that they feel most comfortable with, or would indeed like to read.

RULE 2: Long sentences can be split into two (or more)…

The same principle of conveying one idea at a time also applies at sentence level. Consider this sentence taken from a blog by Dunleavy, Bastow & Tinkler (2014), and reproduced here with permission of the authors.

Every social science must handle an inescapable tension between knowledge advanced by the reductionist tactic of focussing down on simple processes and the recognition that all social processes operate in complex, multi-causal environments where, in the latter case hundreds of thousands of influences interact with each other to shape any given social or behavioural outcome, and where the same outcome can eventuate through multiple diverse causal pathways.

An example of applying Rule 2 to this sentence leads to:

Every social science must handle an inescapable tension. Knowledge is often advanced by the reductionist tactic of focussing down on simple processes and the recognition that all social processes operate in complex, multi-causal environments. In the latter case hundreds of thousands of influences interact with each other to shape any given social or behavioural outcome, and where the same outcome can eventuate through multiple diverse causal pathways.

Rule 2 also makes the text easier to follow. The principle is similar to that of Rule 1: a sentence, too, should contain just one idea, and the more complex a sentence the more difficult it will be to read.

RULE 3: Examine each sentence in turn to see if you can delete two (or more) words from each one.

Next is an example of the application of Rule 3. This piece of text is taken from the initial draft of a recent article (Hartley, 2014). Now, when thinking about our third rule, we have printed in bold some of the words that might be removed:

Ten years ago I published a paper with virtually the same title as the one above in which I reviewed the findings of over 30 studies on structured abstracts. Here I wish to comment on the developments in the research since that time and the use of structured abstracts over the last ten years.

The term ‘structured abstracts’ has now become common-place, and there is now no real need to define what is meant by it. Such abstracts typically contain subheadings and sections – such as ‘background’, ‘aim(s)’, ‘method(s)’, ‘results’, and ‘conclusions’. Occasionally there are more subheadings – such as ‘sample’ and ‘limitations’ – and occasionally there are fewer.

Structured abstracts were introduced in to medical journals in the mid-1980s and since then, their growth has been phenomenal – they can now be found in several science and social science journals as well as medical ones. Furthermore, conference abstracts are now often submitted, distributed and published in a structured form.

These superfluous words in bold can be removed, making the text more succinct and easier to read.

Concluding remarks

These three examples have not been faked or chosen because the techniques happen to work. We have been surprised by the effectiveness of our simple rules. Removing overly long paragraphs, sentences and superfluous words makes text easier to read. Why? Well, applying these rules produces shorter sentences and clarifies what it is that we, as authors, wish to say.

Perhaps, dear reader, there are other techniques that you have found useful for making academic text easier to read? We would be grateful for your comments!

About the Authors

James Hartley is Emeritus Professor of Psychology in the School of Psychology, Keele University, UK. (j.hartley@keele.ac.uk) He is well-known for his book Academic Writing and Publishing: A Practical Guide (Routledge, 2008).

Guillaume Cabanac is Associate Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toulouse 3, France (Guillaume.cabanac@univ-tlse.fr). He and Prof. Hartley are frequent collaborators.

References

Dunleavy, P. Bastow, S. & Tinkler, J. (2014). The contemporary social sciences are now converging strongly with STEM disciplines in the study of ‘human-dominated’ systems’ and ‘human-influenced systems’. LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog, 20 January 2014. Short URL: http:/bit.ly/1mzJodJ

Hartley, J. (2014). Current findings from research on structured abstracts: An update. Journal of the Medical Library Association, 102, 3, 146-148.

Paglione, L. D. & Lawrence, R. N. (2015). Data exchange standards to support and acknowledge peer-review activity. Learned Publishing, 28, 309-316.

 

Supporting graduate student writers: Research, curriculum and program design (2016).

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This book review is written by guest Susan Mowbray, Western Sydney University. The book seems highly pertinent to our community, so we thank Susan for alerting us to it with her detailed critique.

Supporting graduate student writers. Research, curriculum and program design. (2016). Edited by Steve Simpson, Nigel. A. Caplan, Michelle Cox & Talinn Phillips. Ann Arbour: University of Michigan Press.

Supporting graduate student writers captured my attention as I have recently taken on a literacy support role with our Graduate Research School. The idea for the book was conceived at an invited colloquium on graduate writing support in 2014 and the result of the editors’ labours arrived via the University of Michigan Press in March this year. The book is organised in three parts. Part 1: What do we know/need to know? broadly covers supporting graduate research. Curriculum is dealt with in Part 2: Issues in graduate program and curriculum design. How to acclimatise students to the contemporary university is the focus of Part 3: Program profiles. Within the three parts, 14 chapters detail issues, concerns and/or initiatives in graduate education with 11 providing insights into North American contexts and the other three presenting perspectives from Canada, Sweden and Australia. The most striking aspect of the text for me is its explicit advocacy, and example of, cooperation and collaboration amongst members of the international graduate education community. Caplan and Cox are co-founders of the online Consortium of Graduate Education and this book exemplifies their commitment to actively sharing and building knowledge and engaging with members of the global doctoral education community. I found myself nodding in agreement with many points in each chapter and dog-earring multiple pages to return to later to think and read more about the information being shared. Continue reading