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.
James Hayton said:
You hit the nail on the head here. I always tell student to base lit reviews on their own experience, expertise and opinion first, and to act as an authority.
That said, you started with an authoritative stance in this post, then finished by doubting your own advice! Trust your expertise!
Thanks for the reminder, James!
Susan Mowbray said:
the points you make resonated with me…I remember the ‘deferential politeness’ of my first drafts of the literature review and grappling – physically and literally!- with the sheer quantity of literature!
The ‘hands on hips’ imagery certainly conveys the stance I came to develop. Prior to this however, in the early weeks and months (and months…) of reading and writing, it is a picture of Kiley and Wiisker’s (2009) concept ‘threshold learning’ that comes more readily to mind; teetering on the cusp of grasping and understanding the literature to link ideas in a new, different and complex way was an essential precursor to having the confidence to trust myself.
Barnett (2007), like Kiley and Whisker, also speaks of the uncertainty (politeness?) students can experience in gaining genuine understandings and in developing their own ‘voice’ (p.56). I think he effectively supports the importance of the points you are making Callie:
“The voice to be encouraged…is not a solo voice, but neither is it one in unison with all others. It is more like the improvisation of the jazz player in the ensemble. The student finds new possibilities, those possibilities being realised in situ, in company with others” (p.56).
For myself, as for other PhD students (Mowbray, 2010) the company of others and the discussions I had with them, in combination with the often solitary, often gruelling intellectually challenging processes of thinking and learning, were integral to developing my own hands on hips stance. Or, to invoke Salmon’s (1992) metaphor, these processes enabled me to “step out from behind the skirts of others” (p.16) and confidently express my knowledge and understandings – and hold my stance.
Barnett, R. (2007). ‘A will to learn: Being a student in an age of uncertainty.’ Maidenhead: open University Press
Kiley. M & Wisker, G. (2009). Threshold concepts in research education and evidence of threshold crossing. ‘Higher education Research and Development’ 28 (4), 431-441.
Mowbray, S. (2010). Students’ perspectives on impacts of the PhD process: the PhD as the acquisition of intellectual virtues. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Western Sydney.
Salmon, P. (1992). ‘Achieving a PhD – ten students’ experience.’ Staffordshire; Trentham Books.
Thank you for this wonderful addition to the conversation, Susan! These are fabulously evocative metaphors, and I hope our readers will use them to help conceptualise just what they can get out of writing lit reviews. I too find the threshold concepts theory useful in this area, particularly in relation to authorial voice. My colleague Ian Green and I have been thinking about this for awhile, and spoke about it at the QPR conference last year. Cally
I am one of those students who is battling with their dissertation lit review right now. My struggle is, I am to advise of the current state of the literature and also engage with the literature. But when I engage I am told I am not to make statements about the current state of the literature, just engage with it.
I am going to check out the references you and Susan provided – thanks!
Hmm, that sounds like an impossible task! Is it your supervisor telling you this? Might be worth trying to clarify the difference between ‘making statements’ and ‘engaging’, perhaps with a model of a good literature review (that is, one your supervisor regards as ‘good’) in front of you so the supervisor can point to examples of what is required. Hopefully the papers we’ve referred to will also help to illuminate this difference (I’m not sure exactly what the advice is getting at). There’s no doubt something underlying this, but probably needs a more detailed discussion to work out what it means. Cally
Thanks for the advice, I have (more than once) so now am undertaking alternative actions. Ahh, the fun of study 🙂
Bronwen Wade-Leeuwen said:
Thank you for your advice, its a difficult road the Lit Review and all your comments have helped. Particularly, finding my own voice and making it heard. I am interested in looking at others patterns of writing a lit review from human sciences perspective.
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