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By Susan Carter

When…you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out in the open and has other people looking at it.                                   (A. A. Milne, 1961, p. 101)

In last week’s workshop with a group of doctoral students, we began by talking about what was puzzling, troubling or interesting people currently about their doctoral writing. A couple agreed that it was really hard to put ideas that are good in the mind onto a page–like Pooh Bear above, they found quite good thoughts somehow looked much less convincing in a draft of writing.

Some common disgruntlements emerged: feeling your own writing is boring to read and boring to write, and wondering whether the current writing might not end up in the thesis so feeling all that work might be a waste of time.

The potentiality of ideas seemed to be shut down when packaged into linear writing, in the same way that the pleasure of having inviting purchase options is gone once you spend your cash. You get one thing, and that is all.

A challenge those with English as an Additional Language agreed on, however, was how hard writing was at doctoral level, because ‘literacy’ suddenly became ‘much more complicated.’ So this week, we met again for a small exercise that comes from Linda Evans on developing precision in expression.

It begins asking students to take approximately three minutes to write down a good definition of a chair.

From there, each definition is examined to see whether or not it is stipulative – having a strictly specific meaning. We noticed that ‘a chair is a piece of furniture for sitting on’ is not quite precise enough, because according to that definition a sofa, couch, bench, stool and beanbag would all be chairs. They are not, so that definition is too broad to be stipulative. In Linda’s words,

A definition should explain precisely what the thing being defined is, and it should be so precise and unambiguous that it excludes applicability to anything else (Evans, 2014, p. 48).

Often what is produced will be descriptive, or interpretive. ‘A chair has four legs and a back and a seat’ is descriptive. Linda’s explanation on how to check whether a definition is stipulative goes more or less as follows:

Does the statement stipulate what the [thing] is: an item of clothing, food, furniture [or a theory, model, example]…

Could the statement be applicable to anything other than what the thing is?

(adapted from Evans, 2014, p. 48)

Beginning by defining something straightforward and well-known like a chair showed just how tricky it is to articulate a fool-proof stipulative definition. When what is defined is more complex, as it almost always is in academic writing, the task becomes much harder.

Defining a chair is one thing, but how do lessons learned in the exercise translate to defining more complex things in academic writing?

I’d asked students to bring their writing, definitions if they had them, or bits of writing that they thought may need more precision.

Working on actual definitions, or sections of writing that introduced theory, meant we arrived at another checking prompt when defining theories, terms, models etc:

Would someone who had no idea of the thing you are defining understand what it is from your definition?

Sitting around a table, we could question each other to drag out more detail. A reader, though, needs it all to be clear on the page. Even though you might expect readers of a thesis to be reasonable familiar with the field and thus able to actively interpret, often this is not the case.

I’m intending to host more workshops for this group where we begin with a small concrete exercise and then move to apply what it shows to drafts of thesis writing. We agree that this is a good way to slowly become more competent with the levels of literacy required in formal thesis writing. We’d welcome ideas you might have and use in the comments box please.

References

Evans, L. (2014). The building blocks of theory generation. In Carter, S. & Laurs, D. (eds.) Developing Generic Support for Doctoral Students: Practice and Pedagogy. Pp. 47-50, Oxon: Routledge.

Milne. A. A. (1961). The House at Pooh Corner. London: Methuen and Co.

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