By Susan Carter
I’ve been thinking about the divide between doing research and packaging it up into a thesis. On one side, there’s all the thinking, sense of inadequacy and panic that goes into the research work, and on the other there’s the calm emotional-suppression of the doctoral thesis’s formal academic writing. The thesis contains all the baggage of the literature review, methodology, theory, with aspects of research that entailed roller-coaster emotional highs and lows packaged up in pristine neatness. I’m thinking about how one crosses that divide in order to submit the thesis.
And about the role of creativity in problem-solving. I’m reading an interesting book called “Imagine” by Jonah Lehrer. (It’s actually someone else’s book and after showing it to me he has taken it back. I’ve only had about an hour in it and I’ll probably need to find it in the library to finish it.) Lehrer’s premise is that the work of the imagination, in the right hemisphere of the brain, which interprets irony, metaphor, and art forms and doesn’t affect speech or movement, is more intertwined with logical thought than Western philosophy allows. Creative, even metaphoric, ways of thinking can provide solutions to quite hard-nosed problems. Lehrer has some good examples (and he uses Dylan’s elusive-yet-evocative lyrics and their instant uptake to demonstrate how the right hemisphere works). You may have seen this man in the news for the ignominy of plagiarism, and in fact, for manufacturing a quotation from Dylan, so there is a moral there too. But the book is stimulating—I aim to try relaxing a bit and giving my sometimes excitable right hemisphere space a bit more credence. I think Lehrer’s ideas are helpful to thesis writers, who almost by definition grapple with problems to be solved in their research. We don’t just have to rely on logic.
Then, once solutions to problems are found, the next challenge exists, which is taking the experience into the medium of the completed thesis’s academic prose. At the stage, when the work is done and the drafts are in, you need to cross that divide.
Kevin Sowerby, an Engineering academic at my university, told the story of a friend who had travelled the same route as Michael Palin, of Monty Python fame, but also now known for his travelogue TV docos. Sowerby’s friend noticed when he later saw the TV film that people and places were often presented a little out of sequence. He realized that production loyalty was not to exact detail of the journey’s order, but to the detail that would enhance the viewer’s pleasure. Aesthetic values were over-riding those of detailed factuality. And he decided that this was not a bad thing but a good thing. The end product was more interesting. It was not false—you could say “As we approached this village we noticed…” and it was still true even if the shot that followed was filmed during the eighth approach to the village as they came and went. The effect was that what seemed significant and unique was emphasized. Kevin was pointing out that this is true of the thesis: emphasizing what is significant is more important than faithfully following the trajectory of your research progress.
A second comparison is the art of packaging. Imagine that you have changed jobs. You are no longer production manager. You have moved into packaging up the product for its success and marketing it. You can ditch all those anxieties about meeting deadlines, pumping output up, and making sure that the machinery runs properly. Let all those concerns go. Now your task is only to envision the product consumer and what they will buy. How can you best package and promote your wares so that they sell?
Sometimes head shifts can help the writing and thinking processes…especially at that stressful time of getting the thesis to where you can hand in your copies over the desk to be examined. I’m sure there is more to be said about all that is involved in this final spasm of doctoral writing.