By Mary-Helen Ward, who recently completed a PhD on students’ experiences while doing a PhD in Australia. Mary-Helen works in eLearning and Learning Space management at the University of Sydney.
When I enrolled in my PhD, in 2005, blogs were very popular. There were even ‘blog evangelists’, who would tell you that blogs were the best way to do a range of things, from promoting your business to getting undergraduates and even school students to express themselves. I’d always just thought of them as a useful way to record what was happening in your life, but academics were starting to write about blogging as a useful way to both develop ideas and to share them internationally. There was Axel Bruns and Joanne Jacobs’ 2006 book Uses of Blogs, Stephen Downes’ blog and articles (eg 2004), Toril Mortenson and Jill Walker’s 2002 book chapter that was reproduced and referenced many times, and Jill Walker Rettburg’s 2008 book Blogging (which has just been updated and republished).
While I was working on my PhD (over seven years part-time) I kept three blogs. One was the blog I’d already had for a few years. Subtitled ‘What I think, what I do and what I knit’; it recorded my theatre visits, books I was reading, my knitting projects, and my general opinions and doings. The second I started when I enrolled. Originally entitled ‘Faultlines’, later ‘Living in Liminal Space’, this was the place where I recorded my struggles and victories, and also, before Evernote became available, where I recorded useful web-based material on the fly. Then there was the entry I dashed off about something I observed on the way to work, that made it into my thesis as a screen grab exactly as you see it on that page.
The third blog I can’t link you to, because it was a part of the data for my PhD and under the conditions imposed by the Ethics Committee it can’t be made public. Part of my project to investigate how the PhD operates in Australia involved having a group of PhD students blogging their process, and of course I was one of them. For about 18 months, a group of 7 PhD students wrote about their lives, their feelings and their studies. The result, as you can imagine, was a rich and complex document that enabled me to think about the experience of doing a PhD in Australia in a complex and nuanced way. Although there has been quite a bit of writing about supervision and what PhD students need in Australia, as you probably know there has been very little written by students themselves – about their own or other students’ experiences. What has been written includes the theses of Jim Cumming, Kevin Ryland and Liz Harrison referenced below.
There are many ways in which public blogs can be useful in the PhD process. At the most basic level, it can provide students with a place to dump random thoughts and reactions – and at the same time practice presenting their ideas, even when raw, to a reader. Over time, it provides a record of process that can surprise the writer on re-reading, and create opportunities for reflection and reflective writing on progress. This is especially valuable for someone using a methodology that requires reflection and self-reporting, but is helpful for anyone who wants to be self-aware of their own process of doctoral development. Sandra West, a very experienced supervisor, and I have written about the advantages of using joint blogs between student and supervisors. Sandra’s students are often busy professionals, and the blogs have proved useful for her to keep in touch with them between face-to-face meetings, while also encouraging their reflective writing. She asks her students to record supervision sessions, then write something on their blog a few days later about the session, with the supervisors then being able to comment and continue the conversation.
But there is another level at which blogging can be useful for PhD students. As has been well documented – it is really the reason for this blog’s existence – many PhD students find writing difficult. Finding their voice and becoming comfortable with making claims about their knowledge is a threshold concept for PhD students (Kiley & Wisker, 2009). In a blog, an online space that they own and can decorate to represent themselves, they can play with ideas, record emotions, link to others’ ideas easily, store copies of important documents and, if they choose, put their ideas out for others to read and react to.
Although PhD candidates have always kept notes of their research, these have often been concerned with the research project and not with their development as researchers. And although a document is a simple way to record and reflect more widely on what we are reading, a blog, kept over time, easily records how we are developing as researchers and writers. Here is an entry that is a picture of a twitter conversation I had with Inger Mewburn one day, during which I had a small conceptual breakthrough. Looking back over my blog to write this I also found these two entries, which reminded me of stages I went through that I had forgotten – the significance of events shifts so much through time. The comments on the second entry were interesting to revisit too.
So, although some might decry blogs as ‘so twentieth century’, they still provide flexible, easy to share and, in our mobile world, always available tools for journaling and sharing academic work. In addition, the continued popularity of this blog, Thesiswhisperer, Patter, and other blogs like Nick Hopwood’s that aim, at least in part, to support HDR students, demonstrate that blogging has continued to be an important way that students can gain skills and share experiences as part of their development as independent scholars.
Bruns, A., & Jacobs, J. (Eds.). (2006). Uses of blogs. New York: Peter Lang.
Cumming, J. (2007). Representing the complexity, diversity and particularity of the doctoral enterprise in Australia. (PhD), Australian National University, Canberra
Downes, S. (2004). Educational blogging. Educause review, 39(5), 14-26
Kiley, M., & Wisker, G. (2009). Threshold concepts in research education and evidence of threshold crossing. Higher education research and development, 28(4), 431-441.
Harrison, J. E. (2010). Developing a doctoral identity : a narrative study in an autoethnographic frame. (PhD), University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban.
Mortensen, T., & Walker, J. (2002). Blogging Thoughts: Personal publication as an online research tool. In T. Morrison (Ed.), Researching ICTs in context. Oslo: InterMedia Report.
Ryland, K. D. (2007). Reconceptualising the Australian doctoral experience : work, creativity and part-time study. (PhD), Deakin.
Walker Rettberg, J. (2014). Blogging. (2nd edn) Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Ward, M.-H., & West, S. (2008). Blogging PhD Candidature: Revealing the Pedagogy. International Journal of Emerging Technologies and Society, 6(1).
Williams, J. B., & Jacobs, J. (2004). Exploring the use of blogs as learning spaces in the higher education sector. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 20, 232-247.