By Susan Carter

In a previous post (1st September, below), Cally Guerin cited Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson’s metaphor of hands on hips to explain the attitude that you need to adapt when you work on a doctoral literature. You don’t want to be too humbly grateful for other researchers, or unquestioning of their work. I completely agree: in my own peer review writing group we frequently alter tone for each other to eliminate that sort of modesty that may make you more likable in real life, but doesn’t cut it in terms of academic rigour.

The metaphor I use, though, when teaching how to review the literature, is home invasion.

When you are reading an article, you want to get into it quickly, spot what will be valuable to you, grab it being careful not to damage it (take the page numbers and reference carefully) and get out fast. You don’t want to waste time admiring anything too large to carry off—if you can’t get it into your own writing, then cut and run with what you have. You might note what interests you in case you get a chance to return some other time, but you need to stay alert and get out as fast as possible.

Of course it makes sense to spend time in text that is enjoyable or valuable–it’s one of the pleasures of being academic. This is not off limits as a possibility. Yet, when teaching I recommend a smash and grab approach because most doctoral students are overwhelmed by how much literature is out there.

Many students are reading in a language that is not their first language, so the tsunami of what needs to be read is frankly terrifying, sometimes literally sickening. Even when your first language is English, academic writing is often pretty challenging to read and digest. It is too seldom pleasurable. You can feel condemned to hard labour.

It is common to suggest to doctoral students that when reading they skim, skip, or speed-read first to identify what must, groan, be attentively read cover to cover and possibly re-read. The home invasion metaphor version of sullying into literature cheers me up because it is rowdier and less doggedly systematic than ‘skim, skip, speed-read’,and more cavalier. Students cheer up with the thought of pillage.…you are less at the mercy of other authors (which takes you back to hands on hips approach).

And it captures that muscling in required to psych yourself up as a reviewer of literature who has control.

The metaphor extends to the idea that while you are making this grab and go, you check out what you like about the décor. Don’t think you can take it with you as it is, but check out the style. When you find academic writing that is a pleasure to read, often this is because it does something special stylistically. We all often learn how to improve our own writing by looking closely at how others achieve eloquence.

Maybe the point of this post is that when we teach, although it is crucial that we explain the various academic requirements, and the ways writing demonstrates having met academic criteria, we also often look for ways to make tedious work seem doable. Humour and irreverence helps with that teaching ambition. And it keeps doctoral writing grounded in reality.

Do others have different metaphors for the psychological challenges  of reading literature towards the goal of writing a viable literature?

Apologies that in an earlier version of this post I failed to reference Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson for originating the very useful ‘hands on hips’ metaphor.

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