Monday, 30 June 2014

The final (PhD) stretch

My lack of posts recently (sorry about that) has been mainly due to all effort going into completing my thesis. As I write this post, at the end of a long list of posts, I am smiling a bit. Not too broadly, you understand, there are Endnote references to drop in and a mock, then actual Viva to do. It feels like I have been doing this thing for ever - but actually, I have made great progress, completing the thesis (pre Viva) in four years part time. Here are a few of the things I have learnt:

My thinking has changed.
I have immersed myself in what at times has seemed like an ocean of ideas, and had to grapple with them, gaining some sort of mastery over them. It is true that you do the work of a PhD in your head, and beyond words on pages my mind has been turning over ideas and relating them. This has caused me to develop larger explanations and understandings of the things I focused my study on. It has caused me to be aware of my own position as a researcher and writer, and to ask questions. Doing this over a sustained period changes your thinking.


I have learnt about writing
Not that you would know that from this blog, but I have changed as a writer. I will go on changing, of course, but perhaps one of the most significant things I have learnt is that I waste lots of words, and I am not trying not to. This is ironic, as I spent quite some time today editing down my thesis so it would fit in the "10% over the maximum word limit" allowance. I have learnt about voice, establishing and sustaining a narrative and so much more. I now love (and can hate) writing, but it is more part of me now.
I have taught myself sociology and philosophy (well, a decent chunk)
Someone should have given me a reality check early on - or perhaps they were decent enough to trust my potential. Either way, apart from some diversionary reading in my first and masters degrees, I have not studied sociology or philosophy. I then decided to work with Paul Ricoeur as my main philosophical influence. I am glad I didn't know how ambitious that was at the start. Going where I needed to meant I had to grapple with words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters I did not understand. Worse than that, in order to understand them, I need to understand the other people's arguments referenced or implied. This has truly stretched me. I know this because I can now pick up even quite complex social theory and philosophy texts and find a way of making sense, and enjoying them. Usually. Unless they are rubbish.

I have made some wonderful connections 
I honestly am amazed by the wonderful set of connections I feel I have with people in real life and through twitter / Google+. I am amazed and proud that I was one of the first four people to start off the #phdchat community on twitter, which has become massive today, connecting research students across the globe and going beyond our original conversations. I look forward to maintaining links, and hopefully meeting some people in real time. Talking with colleagues, and people at conferences has also been great, and I realise I love hearing about others' research. I look forward to supervising my own PhD students, and I love that I will get to start as a second supervisor once I am through.
Challenging and innovating has paid off
To quote the cheesy book - "Feel the fear and do it anyway". I am so pleased that I have mixed things up a little, chosen the uncomfortable, not the easy route, and been forced to do that whilst being rigorous. I love that I have been able to invest into and develop existing skills (such as use of visual methods) and stretch new ones.

Nearly at the end, I am a bit bored of the thesis, as is to be expected, but I look forward to conversations about implications and next steps. Of course, I have written about this in the conclusion, but that is the beginning of a conversation. This may not be my last post in this blog, but I am nearly there. Amazing.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Working with feedback

I am still thinking about a conversation I had today with a respected colleague and friend who was kind enough to read my 'thesis so far'. I've not shared it with many people, and want to avoid falling into the trap of taking too much advice, but this conversation was so helpful I need to tell you about it. Let me talk you through the parts of the conversation, and point out a few things about hearing and working with feedback.

Some context: this was a conversation with someone whom I regularly talked theory, research and writing with. We had just under an hour to catch up and for me to hear a few thoughts about how they found my draft thesis. It's - I think - in a fairly advanced stage, but at the time I sent it through was without an introduction or conclusion. I felt positively about the conversation and arrived ready to think and to listen. This itself was important; I think if I had arrived wound up, or worried about a writing project, I might have been reactive or sought to jump in with a whole list of questions. Believe me, I did have a whole set of questions and things I wasn't happy with, but I purposefully focused on listening and appreciating someone else's views. 

Be careful what (and who) you ask
It started well. I was a bit surprised, even. My colleague started with some views about my findings and discussion chapter. I'd re-worked this chapter, as it was the first I was asked to write, I suspect to help me capture my thoughts following my final block of data analysis. I was surprised to hear they thought it worked, it flowed, and I'd managed to discuss concepts and insights. I was all ready for this to be the chapter I was going to hear all the bad news about. The thing I thought was the thing wasn't the thing. Good job I don't write like this in the thesis. Instead, as I would have confirmed, the chapter I was most bored by was in need of the most work. 

We quickly got to the material which would benefit most from work, in their opinion. When they told me it was the literature review, my heart sank. It was like telling Frodo and Sam they had to go back to Mordor. Writing it was a pain and felt laborious, like stitching diverse and confusing parts together. My second supervisor, who has taught me so much about writing, had also pointed out that my feelings about the chapter were there for all to read (between the lines). I should have seen it coming. Here's some of the major thoughts offered as I heard them;


  • write about the things I need to write about; the things that respond to the research questions. 
  • make each section cumulative; it would benefit from building and should not be a bland survey
  • point out limitations, who is getting it wrong and what material adds 
I had a moment when my brain froze and simply shouted at me "you are not going over that again". In effect, I had stopped listening, or part of me had. I was stuck in the experience of putting that chapter together and how it was unsatisfactory in a few ways. I had worked so hard on getting it to that place; no way was I going to mess with it now. Actually, I wasn't being 'told' to do anything, this was a friendly conversation, but I was weighing every word, calculating every implication. Good job I'm not dramatic. PhD life can do that to you. 

As I came back to the conversation, I suggested that my whole relationship with this particular chapter had been framed by some trepidation. I was attempting to span huge subjects, and was coming to some of them without much of a background in sociology or philosophy. The result was a lack of thinking about what the literature review needed to do in the thesis, and what I got on with was something more like a survey. I even found myself saying that I just wanted to get from point A to point B so I could justify what followed. Oh.

So, we were beginning to agree: I could see how the chapter needed to contribute in a more active and constructive way to the thesis. We agreed that it wasn't that a re-write was called for, but some material could probably just go, whilst other material needed structuring so I was building and going somewhere. My colleague then offered an opinion that really hit home; they suggested that I was too accommodating. I was wary of some of this material, and I saw that I was simply pinning it in place.  I had my kid gloves on. It hit home because we were talking about my learning and my journey. Later chapters got right in there and did the work, this wasn't. I had shifted from being a anxious impostor and now was writing rom a much more confident place. The literature review wasn't sounding like me. 

I have a plan about how I could take the material I have, edit some out, and structure the rest into three sections which takes readers on a journey through things readers need to know, what my research questions were asking. I will be clearer about what the literature contributes, what's wrong and why and where I pick up. 

I am still irritated. Just for the record. But once I reflect, and focus on advice from my supervisors I think I know what it is I need to work on to get this thesis done. 

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Thinking with a brush and a pen

I made an agreement with myself that I wouldn't work on my PhD (or mark assignments, for that matter) over the Christmas holidays, and I haven't...really. What I did do was to use two of my recent acquisitions (a book by Tim Ingold and some art material) and 'played'. Before my break, I'd been re-working my 'findings and discussion' chapter of my PhD thesis, which had involved me in thinking about how I had represented and explored the findings of my research, which included non cartographic 'maps'. See an example below:

A section of one of the 'maps' I produced in exploring
connections and patterns amongst narrative data in my study.
Representing narrative data ('stories') as maps got me thinking about how any given part of a story connects with other parts, and actions, in interesting ways. I won't go into that here, as that's the stuff of the thesis, but suffice to say that seeing patterns on maps of narrative data is productive. Thinking in this way is not new in itself: literary material and visual arts uses things like metaphor to talk about life stories. Apart from the post-modernists, we tend to look for meaning among the parts, and identify, or look for patterns in more or less insightful ways.

I'm one of those who thinks that we can benefit from representing stories in other (visual) ways; to unsettle cosy romantic stories, to challenge established ways of looking, to open up understanding to those who don't see themselves as literary or academic. This is uncomfortable territory for academics who like a very strict divide between data 'analysis' and 'interpretation'. That's a debate which I don't want to oversimplify here, but my own shorthand is that I think we can approach data in hermeneutic ways, so that - as Paul Ricoeur said - description can become understanding. This does not mean that interpretive work can do the same things as so called 'objective' analysis of quantative data, but we need to do much more to understand stories - of biography, or of practice.

So: I've worked with my own maps to begin to find ways to see stories differently, to 'open up' ways of understanding the practices that construct narratives. I'm only just beginning, of course. This hunch was confirmed over the last couple of weeks when I read Tim Ingold's book "Lines: A Brief History" (Ingold, 2007). Ingold is a social anthropologist, and writes wonderfully about the history of the line. I'll summarise his work elsewhere, but let's just say that he drew on some sources I have always noticed to talk about our strange contemporary relationship with the line, which serves as the quickest route between two points, instead of a trace or thread created in what he calls "wayfaring". Ingold's discussion of how lines move, and what their function is helped me think about how my own maps could possibly evolve.

I worked through these thoughts as I read, and subsequently drew. I uploaded my early thoughts to issuu, which is a handy online publishing format. There is a link to my issuu here. It's not meant to be an explanation in any formal sense, but it's here to give you an idea of 'thinking aloud'.

A screenshot of one of the pairs of pages from my issuu.
See the full thing after the link given above.




Sunday, 8 December 2013

Facing writing challenges (without being a drama queen)

Sometimes we don't get to choose the ideal conditions in which to write. It's great to have longer stretches of time, and an environment in which we can think things through. Sometimes, we have to work with stolen bits of time, and to stop and start writing around other responsibilities. This works well for editing (most of the time) but less well for substantial writing tasks. On those occasions, cue the dramatic music.

A silent scream (thanks to 'The Actor')
Firstly, I've been working on some suggestions for editing a couple of chapters from one of my supervisors. I've got lots of respect for this person, as they write, and edit, lots. They write wonderfully well.  Of course, getting a draft chapter back with lots of suggestions was quite challenging, and I had quite an emotional reaction. As I've worked through the suggestions, I've seen how my writing is now much clearer. I can see that hardly any of the content has needed to change, but the technical aspects of writing itself has benefited from some work. On receiving these suggestions, my first thought was 'Oh: I haven't learn't anything about writing'. It's been good to realise that people who write well are those who remain committed to improving their writing. When I despaired at those suggestions for editing those chapters, one of the professors in my Faculty casually said to me "I get that from her too", and reminded me that we can all benefit from thinking about our writing. Whilst some of the suggestions reflected this persons' stylistic preferences, 95% of them helped me to focus on what I meant to communicate, and was mainly about 'streamlining' my text by stripping out unnecessary words and bringing some consistency to how I was using simple things like in-text citations. Writing longer pieces of work, and living with bigger projects like a PhD thesis, can make us blind to what we are actually writing. I've thought lots recently about how important it is to actually communicate what readers' need to know. Living with ideas for an extended period of time don't make them automatically understandable to others!

'The Notebook'
So, that was the easy bit.

In my last despairing blog post I was dangling over the edge of a chapter, my fingers barely gripping onto the last shreds of enthusiasm and self belief. Ok, a closer description of this particular dilemma is that I didn't quite know how to approach that difficult re-working of my findings and discussion chapter. Not quite the same, but you get the idea. Like all of these jobs that lurk in the back of your mind 24/7, there are practical and psychological ones. The psychological challenge of returning to a complex and mashed up chapter was, for me, the fear of unpicking the metaphorical knitting. I knew I needed to focus, clarify and structure, so that key findings and insights were front and centre. I was quite petulant, you see, because I felt that I'd already put in hard work on this chapter in getting the raw materials down. I'd been through a hefty interpretive process and the pulpy mess that was my findings and discussion chapter was high quality pulpy mess; an organic, wholesome one, even. So, returning to the chapter was like being sent to my room, even if I had sent myself there.

I'm not Picasso, and it's not a masterpiece.
Out came the trusty notebook; and not even the Evernote electronic one. In desperate times, the paper one was required. I needed to produce solutions that I could carry round with me and leave open. I began the fightback with a conversation with my friendly second supervisor, who helped me get a good feel for what I needed to do here, which didn't involve a total re-write. Having done that, I added a fuller summary of the biography and narrative themes for my participants. That helped, as it re-focused me. After that, I tackled the horrific issue of the extent to which I would separate the findings and discussion. You may well have strong views about what should be done in situations like this. In my case, I knew I wanted to pull them apart a little, but had listened to too many people who all appointed themselves as experts on my thesis. My own compromise, which I have yet to work, was to introduce each section with examples of how each participant did that 'thing' (the chapter is presented along the lines of six themes for presenting what was findings and discussion) then to move into a discussion. Because the study was hermeneutic and involved collaborative sense-making work with participants, the 'findings' were also discussion. The discussion started in the first session, so to speak. Anyway, I thought (think) that I had avoided a complete separation of findings and discussion (which I didn't want) and also a complete mash-up where I pulped findings and discussion together in a way which was just as unhelpful. If only I approached it like I used to draw and paint, where I valued the process of re-working an image.

Perhaps I am being dramatic because my life has not had much space for this sort of writing work, or because it feels 'high stakes' ('surely this is where my genius must sparkle' sort of thing). Either way, I have begun the fightback.



Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The distorting effect of the home stretch

I've slipped into a strange sort of mental place at this stage in my PhD. I've got a chapter to re-write, then an introduction and a conclusion. I should be feeling motivated and some weight coming off my shoulders. I don't, and I've only just realised that I've just lost some perspective. It's a rare moment of stopping, the TV is on and someone is working out why someone has been murdered in the background. I'm wondering why my confidence in my writing, and even my grasp of some of the concepts I've been working with has slipped. I've got an awful feeling an external examiner will read the thesis and will go well, it's *OK* but...

I think editing your own work, and returning to a very early draft of an important chapter is wearing. I anticipate the material and ideas I have only discussed with my supervisors being exposed to others, and wonder if it's all smoke and mirrors. On other occasions, I go back to my thesis, hoping to magically 'see' those insights that I simply need to foreground in order to make it all fall into place. I am bored with bits (lots?) of it, and feel that I'm stating the obvious.

Oh dear, I am in need of perspective I will only get at the other end. I do realise that when I'm away from the material I do have the potential to be excited again, and to engage with new ideas. It's all still there, but I need to see this through. Practically, I think like most people in my situation I need to carry on and not be so hard on myself. I'm working hard in my full time job in HE, and not doing much fun. That affects perspective. Onwards.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Tales from the library: learning (again) about writing

OK, for those of us in the Northern hemisphere, it's been summer. Most of the time. For me, that's involved a great family holiday to Brittany (France), more than a bit of planning for next years' courses and...writing. Oh, and more writing. To prove the holiday bit, see the pictures.



If you're reading this, you may do writing of your own. You and I know a long list of things about writing, but the thing is, these things only stay in our heads for short periods of time. Most of the time we are writing idiots. When we are writing, we realise things such as:

  • Despite the best background reading, planing and drafting the ACTUAL process of writing is a bit of a discovery, as the text created brings is done at a particular moment, has to connect to writing before and writing you anticipate coming after and so on. Unless you are copying, the act of writing is (hopefully) an act of thinking things through, even if it isn't the first time you have thought about them. Writing is messy, and often hard work.
  • Things you thought would fit together into a neat little narrative don't. In my case, I had a well developed plan for a review of literature. The plan looked great, but I just couldn't string certain sections together. I was beginning to tell a story, and some content I thought would be helpful just didn't contribute to that story. I had to improvise and re-think.
  • Writing takes time, but most of us don't have the luxury of uninterrupted hours of writing in an ivory tower. I have learnt to use different 'slots' of time for different things, and to prepare well to make the best use of writing time. For lots of writing, time just has to be made, and writing needs prioritising over emails, planning and even reading that Game of Thrones book. 
  • Sometimes I have just had to walk away, or the writing and I would have had a fight. On occasion, having some space from a section that just wasn't working was the best thing. Of course, on other occasions, I just needed to slog through. Judging when to step back and when to press on is a learnt skill. The litmus test involves having a headache, obsessing over silly little details and getting angry. Step away from the keyboard, sir.
  • Sometimes we just don't need to include certain things. I have made the mistake, on several occasions, of spending quite a long time on a particular section that if I was honest, I didn't really need. Perhaps it was something I thought I should know, but it just wasn't needed. None of us are immune from writing cul-de-sacs (planning minimises them), but I have tried to learn to spot them early on, and to be ruthless. If I'm not sure, I'll cut and paste the text somewhere else and if I don't miss it, it's usually a confirmation. 
  • Some things might even need major revision, but editing is part of writing. I think on a bad day I have this idea that I will write, it will be done, and then I will simply move on. Sometimes this happens. I crashed a few days ago when I realised that my draft findings and discussion chapter needed major work. I wanted to curl up into a ball. I complained to several people. After this, I had to summarise the contents of the chapter for my annual PhD progression report, and realised that in this case, re-working the material really improved it. I am almost reconciled to the idea of re-writing and editing that huge monster of a chapter.

Because of my surprising ability to forget about writing, I could add to this list. The important thing is that I am...doing it. I've avoided procrastination, and made progress as a result.

Keep your eyes on the goal: stay on target.
(See what I did there?)

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Writing at the speed of snail

I must be mad. Finding myself stuck in go slow speed in writing my literature review, I thought a bit of writing might help. Perhaps it might. I know in my head that the process of writing is a combination of planning, persistence and...grappling. This last week has felt like 'grappling', which is my shorthand for the work involved in moving from a plan to actually configuring a text that works, makes sense, is relevant and flows. Reflecting on this now, I wonder if I need to examine my expectations. Perhaps because I am impatient, I want to make quick progress but I've been starting my literature review chapter with a particularly picky policy discourse section.

It's dense stuff, and it's felt like 'stitching' numerous texts together, ensuring I have the exact bibliographic details for each as I go added to Endnote. Aaargh. Every few words I've had to locate an document from government archives (often with difficulty). I'm pretty good at finding things, but this has been testing. As I've written, I've been unsure as to how much detail was needed. I finished writing one section today and was hit by a horrible feeling that I will have to edit most of it out, as I'd got to 5,000 words in what needs to be about 15,000 for about six sections. Aaargh again.

I thought I knew what I wanted to say, but I guess the truth is that I could have thought more about what I wanted to achieve; what the review needed in terms of the building narrative. Would this have helped? Perhaps. I'm not going to beat myself up, because the material will be useful for other things in time even if it does not get used. Perhaps I needed to write this thing out in full so that I can distill it down. I need to see the full 'arc' of the policy story so that I can think about which elements are pertinent to the questions I am asking and the draft chapters that follow it. You never know, someone reading this material who knows nothing about Sure Start Children's Centres or the discourses of English early years policy might just need it.

I will persist, but I note the need for motivation as I grapple with the next set of texts and the story I want to tell. I have a cup of tea lined up with my second supervisor tomorrow, who may need to give me a slap.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Shortest post ever: publishing from / alongside my thesis

I got an email today from the editor of the Gender in Management: An International Journal saying that I have my first article from / alongside my PhD thesis published online today. Milestone. 


Robson, I. (2013) “Women’s leadership as narrative practice: identifying ‘tent making’, ‘dancing’ and ‘orchestrating’ in UK Early Years Services”, in Special Edition: “Experiences of Women Leaders in Alternative Sites of Organization”, Gender in Management: An International Journal, Volume 28, Issue 6. 

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

On facing up to what I'm really writing in my PhD..

I had quite a bit of interest in a tweet (you know, the thing you do on Twitter) I posted at the end of May on the subject of writing up your ideas. Here it is:










Naturally, I had a few people tell me I was being particularly philosophical in that tweet - which worryingly tells you something about most of my output - but I also had quite a few people 'favorite' it. Of course, that can mean anything; people 'favorite' cat pictures, after all. I have decided, knowing some of these people, that it's been favorited and retweeted because it resonates with other people's experience. I shall try to explain what I mean and how it came about for me.

Living with ideas for an extended period of time is something that PhD students, researchers and academics do as part of the job. This is a great privilege but is one that, in my view, needs to be handled carefully. Whilst I'm involved in other research and writing in my day job as a lecturer, I'll talk here about my PhD research and writing. Undertaking PhD (or similar) study involves becoming immersed often several academic discourses; different 'worlds' of ideas and ways of seeing the world. This is a process that takes time, and much of the PhD journey occurs as we wrestle with new ideas and perspectives and return to them many times as our understanding is expanded.


During that time, ideas and arguments gradually coalesce: I understand ways of seeing, theoretical perspectives and individual ideas. I relate authors and positions, and create my own conceptual 'map'. In my experience, ideas co-exist in different states of formation and are not all articulated. The strange thing is, despite all the writing I have been doing as I go along, some of the most important ideas can remain in a surprisingly basic state of articulation, or don't get configured within an overall argument. It is challenging to hit the right balance between holding ideas loosely, so I remain open to learning and challenge, and beginning to commit to a position.

As I am writing my thesis, I have realised that some ideas come surprisingly easy, whilst others (that I felt comfortable with) caused me more problems when I sought to commit them to paper. I found myself saying 'don't I know this now?' and having to go back to texts to articulate the exact nature of the relationships between ideas. In some cases, I realised I had used ideas 'iconically': they sounded good, they acted as good metaphors for conversation, but they needed 'opening up' and clearly articulating. Should I have let myself get away with this for so long?

The process of writing is part of the learning process, as it involves the shift of knowledge and understanding from one state (conversational, tacit, emergent) to another (clearly more articulated).  Writing over the last few weeks has reminded me that forced me to let go of some ideas and to face up to what I can actually achieve within a specific study and word limit. One of my biggest challenges came when I realised that I wasn't really creating a hybrid theoretical framework drawing together Ricouer, GH Mead and others. I could do that, but my study didn't need to do it. I could have done that, but I would have written a 30,000 word theory chapter. The alternative will be better, and it represents a sort of 'growing up' of my thinking.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

PhD paranoia and justifying my theory frame?

I've been getting increasingly concerned about defending the theoretical framework constructed for my PhD study. This has built on (that fairly common) impostor syndrome I think part time mature students often have about their study, but it's more than that. I have dutifully read all of those articles and blog posts about how PhDs are examined, and heard from others who - on the surface at least - seem confident about their rationale for their choice and use of their theory frame. These things have led me to those predictable - 'how do I measure up' comparisons. I imagine any other Phd researcher saying "Oh, you haven't created a relational map of the whole of social theory and philosophy, located your theory frame in it and then justified your position in relation to all other points?...Ohhhhh".

I am being dramatic, but you get the idea. Let me let you in to my thinking process at the risk of pulling the curtain back on what I could otherwise present as some very 'intellectual' process. You see, I realised today whilst talking to a friend at work that I really have constructed a theory frame to reflect how I already thought. In other words, my theory frame was not selected through some cool, depersonalised purely logical or theoretical process. I realise in saying this that somewhere someone is going to accuse me of simply wanting to confirm or reify my own prejudices, but I'd not see it like that. I'll explain.


[This is a picture of our cat. She has no such worries. Neither is she likely to pass her viva.]









I came to my PhD study with a clear idea of the questions I wanted to ask, albeit in an embryonic form. I also came as a mature student and experienced professional who had thought about how they thought. Only now do I see that my immersion into PhD study and it's various communities and discourses has somehow prompted a weird sort of response from me. I had begun to construct a forced rationale for why I was using Ricoeur and Mead in the way I was. What I've realised - properly - today is that I had a way of thinking and being which I brought to my study, and I shaped my theory frame to help articulate my position. I see this as trying to achieve some honestly about the choices I have already made which position me in relation to my study. Those of you who talk Bourdieu might waffle on about 'habitus' to help explain this.

What I'm thinking today is that, as someone who is working with narratives and using a hermeneutic approach in my studies, I have configured a narrative (the theory frame) from my practices which in many ways prefigured it. After all, I am arguing in my thesis that practices and narratives are mutually constitutive so I'm also applying this to how I came to express my questions and articulate my ideas.

I might still have to fight impostor syndrome, but i have a line of thinking to pursue here. I am not willing to disregard the way I was already positioned in relation to my study, and I should not apologise for talking about how it has shaped the construction of my theory frame, instead I shall see this as a strength. Of course, this does not mean I will not address questions or inconsistencies, but I won't base my theoretical validity on needing to know about, and justify in relation to everything there is to know.