By Susan Carter
This post applies a book index-building experience to doctoral writing with multiple audiences. You do not need an index in a doctoral thesis. I am not by any means suggesting this as an exercise before submission: it is a big time consumer, but I will suggest the possible usefulness of a truncated version.
Some doctoral students have two distinct audiences beyond the examiners. This may be true of those taking an indigenous, feminist or queer theoretical position, or showing that one group of people (nurses in the ward, or teachers in small rural towns, say) need more support in some area or that they are undervalued. Research like this often creates new knowledge that underscores the need for support for a particular course of action. The authors of such theses may be aware that have some sympathetic readers—insiders who will welcome the research on a topic of concern to them–and others who are sceptical. Thus they need to direct their argument in two different directions at once to influence the progress of their cause.
I learned a new way of seeing when I co-edited a book about generic support for doctoral students. The book’s structure was unusual: in addition to the introduction and conclusion to the book, we editors also wrote introductions to each chapter and some sections within the chapters. Our joint coherent argument was built through a bricolage of other voices, with about thirty-five others giving us short inset pieces we fitted into our own frame. Most of the book’s expected readers would be sympathetic: other learning advisors providing generic support to doctoral candidates and seeking inspiration. However, our argument really hoped to persuade the unconverted of the value of our practice and pedagogy. These readers include a middle group of academics whose supervisory work meshes with generic support, doctoral students who sometimes don’t realise how useful generic workshops would be for them and, most of all, senior management who so frequently engage in a program of change management that entails restructuring generic programmes. We felt this last group might very well be sceptics.
Now, to build an abstract index, i.e, one that indexes ideas and not just single words, you work through your list of terms to be indexed and find-search in your large document, checking each instance recording how long its discussion runs. This gives a quantitative overview of how many pages are devoted to the themes and factors that build the overall argument, the thesis. The process showed us how often we talked about good practice in terms that learning advisors would recognise, and how often in terms likely to speak to senior management. For example, the index included:
1. Terms for the sympathetic: academic identity formation, critical thinking skills, culture, equity, graduate attributes, homeliness, indigenous, insider/outsider, theory, thesis-writing
2. Terms that talked to those neutral folk we complement and work with: collaboration, communities of practice, intercultural skills, supervision, university context
3. Terms intended to persuade senior management: accountability, assessment, benchmarking, completion of doctorate, curriculum, effectiveness, employability, publication, key performance indicators.
The index-building process surprised me with a new view of a document that I had gone through diligently so many times.
I had worried we might be biased towards our sympathetic reader, or too didactic overall, soapbox thumping about what matters to us. Instead I found that we were fairly even-handed in the attention we gave the different audiences as instanced by our interweaving of different stakeholder discourses. In effect the search for terms let me gauge how appropriately and successfully we were in driving one argument forward that was differently nuanced for different readers. I could see that it was a way to pick up any lack of balance.
Many doctoral students are similarly motivated by the desire to articulate the value of their work to sympathetic insiders who know that a cause really matters, and to persuade the unconverted. This method could be modified when scholars/candidates/ students have a near-completed thesis: they could make a short list of the most significant themes and associated terminologies and then do a find-search for each thus enabling them to build a map of usage. When this task is undertaken as though constructing an abstract index, it means checking the text surrounding the term to decide how much attention is given to the concept. This kind of quantification shows how the overall argument weighs out in terms of speaking to different target audiences.
I’m hoping you might have other suggestions for doctoral students in the last few months before submission. What other ways are there to audit the structure and the weight of argument throughout the entire thesis? And what else needs checking when different research methods are used?