By Cally Guerin
I’ve had the opportunity to read lots of interesting papers written by doctoral students and colleagues lately, as well as reviewing journal articles. As I work through the various pieces of writing and line them up against each other, the styles used in different genres are clearly evident. This is especially noticeable when a paper doesn’t quite produce what one would expect of that genre. One of the challenges for any author working across a range of genres is adapting one’s own style to suit the current writing task. In particular, I’ve been noticing a tension between the more leisurely, discursive manner of a thesis, and the brisk pace of the journal article that needs to get to the point much more quickly and efficiently.
Having started my academic life in the world of feminist literary criticism, I find I’m drawn to the style of writing that takes its time to unpack each point of the argument in detail. But I’m torn between that and wanting to get to the main point quickly – like everyone else, I’ve got a lot of other stuff to read too! If the idea can be expressed adequately in 5 words, then why use 15 to make the same point? And too often, it seems that those extra 10 words are padding formed from empty jargon that poses as ‘intellectual’ but doesn’t really say much at all.
I think the ability to write in different genres (thesis, journal article, book chapter) is one of the difficult challenges facing doctoral students, who are expected to understand the differences of genre in quite nuanced ways in order to pitch their work to different audiences and different outlets. I’m very much in favour of the thesis by publication, and advocate that format most of the time. For those who plan to work in universities or in research institutes that require publication in academic journals, there are great benefits in learning how to write articles, and how to negotiate the reviewing and publishing process. Most will only need to write a thesis once, but will need to know how to write articles repeatedly during their research careers.
But just lately I’ve noticed a sneaking feeling forming deep beneath my general conviction that thesis by publication is mostly helpful. I’ve been wondering what might be lost along the way if the traditional thesis format is abandoned. Where else does one have licence to follow through on the fine detail of intellectual thought, to expound at length on a complex theory, or to work through the digressions and tangents that surround the core ideas?
And there are some very good reasons why we don’t always want scholarly work to be constrained by the demands of contemporary publishing practices, of tight word restrictions imposed by journals, or the costs of printing hard copies within the traditions of how many pages the existing machinery can bind together. Not everything can be fitted into such tight spaces; not all writing needs to be quite so dense. Maybe this represents one area in which inexpensive publishing in electronic media becomes so important in disseminating extended excursions into intellectual thought—a few more pages (maybe even quite a few) might not cost much more, but allows for the longer discussion of an idea. This extra space could apply to longer journal articles just as much as to books that otherwise would not find a publication outlet.
Perhaps this all points to the strengths of a PhD thesis format that allows for a combination of published papers and the more conventional framing chapters (sometimes referred to as a ‘thesis with publications’ or ‘hybrid’ – see Jackson 2013; Sharmini et al. 2014). Here the big introductory, context-setting chapter allows for more extensive philosophising on the topic. That’s the place to take up the more leisurely style of careful unpacking of big ideas. But the shorter, neater, more concise representation of the findings can be found in the article-length chapters forming the middle of the thesis.
This preference for different kinds of writing might also mark a tension between scientific and humanities writing. There’s obviously a place for the beautifully crafted sentence in science writing – and certainly, poetry can find a place in science – but it doesn’t always have to take a lot of words to get there!