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.