Doc Blog

Kamler, B. and Thomson P. (2006). Helping Doctoral Students Write: pedagogies for supervision. London: Routledge.

As a new PhD student, I read this book both for my own learning and out of fear of the fact that I could be asked at any moment to meet with a PhD student who will – absolutely – have more experience of this level of study than I do.

Compared with other texts I have read preparing for this next step, this particular book is aimed at supervisors rather than students, and is therefore couched in a lot of politics and pedagogical literature, which will hopefully be of particular use in the mentoring context.

The key advice from the book I believe may be valuable for sessions with doctoral candidates is:

  • Supervisors often wish students would write more simply, more logically, and less tentatively.
  • Students need to make their writing more concise and focus on the order of content: lead with comments and themes, rather than other authors for a sense of variety and authority. However, some level of repetition of terminology for instance can be helpful in connecting all passages of the work.  In short, students need to pay attention to style and the how of writing, not just the what and why.
  • Formatting should not be left until the last minute, as presentation is important too.
  • Use blank space to make the writing easier on the eye.
  • Frontloading or backloading is common in theses: either adding too much background and methodology without enough actual new research, or too much writing about findings which are then undertheorized and unsubstantiated.
  • Literature work requires:
    • sketching the nature of the field and possibly some of the historical developments involved;
    • identifying major debates and defining contentious terms;
    • establishing which studies, ideas, and methods are most pertinent to the study;
    • locating gaps,
    • in order to create the need for the study,
    • and identify the contribution the PhD study will make.
  • It is worth thinking of the Literature Review as a metaphor of moving into occupied territory, as it can be overwhelming, the students feeling uncertain as to where landmines are, or which paths are best to take/ avoid. Or it can be seen akin to ‘persuading an octopus into a glass’, which equates to the living, unruly nature of literature which constantly needs to be updated and revised throughout the years.
  • Moreover, the ‘invisible scholar’ phenomenon is common when literature reviews are all ‘he said’ ‘she said’, without evaluation, centralised ideas, or links to broader discussions. The simple act of shifting attribution/citing to the end of the sentence can foreground the idea and writer though. More assertive phrases can also be used, like little attention is paid to…, it appears that…, this work focuses on…, evidence to date suggests…., despite…
  • Be aware of various expressions and their usages. Hedges like possible, may, believe can either show the writer’s uncertainty, or it can bring attention to the concept as an opinion rather than fact, and also convey deference and modesty. Emphatics clearly, in fact, definitely demonstrate writer certainty and stress the information.  Attitude can also be expressed via adverbs like unfortunately and hopefully, as well as modal verbs like should or must.
  • Being critical is not just about praising or contradicting, but
    • making decisions about which literature to engage with, which to ignore, and which aspects to stress or omit or downplay;
    • paying attention to underlying assumptions, definitions, theories, methodologies, methods, and findings, as well as looking at points of similarity and difference;
    • while showing respect by concentrating on what a work contributes as opposed to what it fails to achieve.
  • It can be useful to think of the literature review as holding a dinner party. It is something found in normal everyday life, it is the student who is actively doing the inviting, the student will expect to be part of the conversation, and a dinner party is usually a positive experience.
  • Take care over bias and assumptions influencing the work however, through self-critical questions. All texts can be deconstructed, even our own.
  • Having a supervisor edit work with the student in the room can be dynamic and allow for more integration of the student, while increasing their understanding.
  • The concepts, arguments, and findings of a PhD need to be ‘potent and convincing’.
  • Argument is the compelling part; so can it enter into more parts of the written work than just fixed formulaic sections like the Discussion section? The argumentative thesis, after all, is central to reaching the ‘scholarly contribution’ criteria of the PhD.
  • Lively and stimulating writing can be very appealing; there’s ‘no reason why the scholarly requirement to interrogate complex ideas and to use precise terminology should equate with eye-watering ennui’.
  • Writing papers helps with flexibility and focus: foregrounding and de-emphasising different aspects and playing with structure and coherence for different audiences is a great skill to adopt.
  • Abstract writing helps develop a clear argument and succinctness, as well as author identity.
  • Going to conferences and talking about the work and defending it will clarify the work in the student’s mind, as well as giving the student a sense of authority.
  • There are 3 types of questioner at conferences: people who want to talk about the paper the student didn’t actually write, those who wish to make themselves look smart by ripping into the student’s work, and people who just didn’t get the point. To all, the student can simply say thank you and seek to discuss it after the talk, while the questions may illuminate the work and its gaps.
  • The main message of the book: stop thinking in terms of ‘writing up’. Writing is a ‘vital’ part of the research process from day one, through keeping journals, summarising information, and recording observations, to expressing ideas and theories as they develop, composing articles and conference talks, the act of thinking through writing, and writing the final thesis dissertation itself.  ‘The phrase ‘writing up’ actually obliterates all this labour and complexity.’  I quite agree!

Watch this space for how the PhD sessions work in practice!

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