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by Cally Guerin

Doctoral students often seem to start out feeling obliged to summarise and explain everything that has ever been written on their subject, and to do so in a politely deferential manner. Yet it seems to me that it is necessary to stand back from all that information and tell a story that puts the student’s research right at the centre in the starring role. To try and explain this, I find myself returning again and again to the ‘hands on hips’ stance that Kamler and Thomson put forward in a wonderful chapter entitled ‘Persuading an octopus into a glass: Working with literatures’ (2006).

‘Hands on hips’ strikes me as a great image for the authoritative stance that needs to be taken up in the huge shift from being an undergraduate to becoming an autonomous researcher. It helps to picture oneself standing back from all that overwhelming information in the literature in order to make some judgements about what is important, interesting, valuable and/or topical. With hands on hips it becomes easier to pose questions such as: How would I categorise all this information? What do I think about it all? How do I see those elements linking to other papers, theories and arguments in the field? What have I got to offer that others should listen to? Where is my value-add in all this?

Wisker (2005, p. 93) hits the nail on the head when she says that part of the purpose of a literature review entails entering into dialogue with the discipline. It can take awhile, though, for postgraduates to believe in themselves as scholars with something useful to say to all those other published researchers around the world who are working in the same field. It can seem much more realistic to ask sheepishly: What could I possibly say that is remotely interesting to anyone else? Yet the expectation is that doctoral writing will speak to the discipline at a global level.

So it’s necessary to talk to doctoral students about taking up the ‘hands on hips’ stance in their literature reviews. However, I’ve also been trying to push them to trust their own knowledge of the field much more than they often seem to do—and here I’m not sure if I’m standing on somewhat shakier ground.

I encourage students to stand back from their copious notes and highlighted pdfs, put their hands on their hips, and take control of the story. This is when they can start listing the main topics they need to address in the literature review. I tell students to trust themselves to know what the key themes are after all the reading they’ve done; they will remember the main concepts that must be included; they will recall the ideas that surprised them, that shocked them, that sat in opposition to what they had previously believed. I really do think that they can trust their own memory and understanding of the field for this part of the process, rather than slavishly patching together summaries of what everyone else has already written about the topic. Once they have a fairly detailed plan, THEN it’s time to go back to the literature, filling in the citations, linking their outline to what is already out there and checking all the details. Of course, it’s extremely important to go back and confirm in the literature the precise names, dates and facts to ensure that the information really is accurate and to acknowledge where it originated. They know that none of this is strictly original—it all links to the existing knowledge as presented in the literature. If anything, this process will help avoid plagiarism rather than leave material unreferenced.

But what do you think? Is it dangerous to encourage students to trust themselves this much as they launch into writing literature reviews? Am I going to regret this a little further along the track if they start imagining that they are experts on the topic long before they really do know enough? Or can this be the beginning of establishing a confident, scholarly voice as an author?

Kamler, B. & Thomson, P. (2006) Helping Doctoral Students Write: Pedagogies of Supervision. Abingdon: Routledge.

Wisker, G. (2005) The Good Supervisor: Supervising Postgraduate and Undergraduate Research for Doctoral Theses and Dissertations. Basingstoke & NY: Palgrave Macmillan.