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.