100 Days (part 2)

‘I don’t know what you’re all moaning about. You only have to write one paper, I have to read dozens of the bloody things!’

We used to annoy a university tutor by fretting about exams within his hearing. He thought we had it easy: write four essays in three hours and we’d be free. He, on the other hand, had to spend weeks labouring to make sense of our nonsense. I didn’t sympathise with him at the time. I think I’m starting to.

Writing is easy. You just put your fingers on the keyboard and type. Writing well is hard. In this challenge, I really started to appreciate how hard it is to write academic texts in a manner that is both engaging and authoritative.

Some of the papers I read were bloodless descriptions of an experiment that summoned up images of rats and mazes. Others were free associative rambles through an author’s most recent thoughts. Most were somewhere in between. Some authors (Pugh) would feel it necessary (Pugh) to provide references (Pugh) for every tiny point that they made (McGrew, B., Cuthbert, Dibble & Grub). Others would cling to a single author like a drowning sailor to a lifebelt.

My prize for the best author was Andrew Collier. His book ‘Critical Realism: An Introduction to Roy Bhaskar’s Philosophy’ is an extraordinarily well-written book which manages to capture the (many) complexities of Bhaskar’s arguments with eloquence and elegance. For example, take the following sentences:

“Nothing that happens in an open system will of itself falsify a theory…If a doctor tells her patient ‘you are out of danger’. and the patient walks out of the surgery and under a bus, no one thinks the doctor unscientific.”

That is beautifully crafted. He also manages to insert just enough of himself into the text for the reader to get a sense of him as an author without ever giving the impression that he’d rather be writing a biography. Whenever, I need inspiration I turn to Collier.

Books on academic writing often recommend that you define your own style as an author. This, I’m sure, is good advice. The problem with it is that other people have their own preferences. This issue is particularly acute for doctoral students who have markers, reviewers and supervisors who might want your style to match their own. To help me define my own style I decided to come up with a few academic writing principles of my own:

  • I am the author. I am not going to pretend that the article wrote itself.
  • Use references to add depth or context to my argument. They are not there to demonstrate the breath of my reading or to fill in the gaps in your own logic.
  • Narrative is important. Papers tell a story, whether you like it or not. Even if you’re revealing whodunit in the abstract, each section and paragraph should contribute a thread to the web that you are weaving.
  • Quote sparingly. Quotes should be used to illustrate the argument that you are making. They shouldn’t be doing the heaving lifting. Demonstrate that you understand the points that other authors make by finding your own words to describe them.
  • Stick the landing. Make your conclusion count. Don’t let it drift just as the landing strip comes in sight. Certainly don’t conclude with the woolly sentiment that ‘this area is deserving of further study’. Summarise what you’ve discovered and attempt your best to answer the dreaded question ‘So what?’
  • Words are precious. There aren’t very many sentences that can’t be improved with the use of fewer words. Most sentences can be improved with fewer words. Short sentences are often better.

100 Days (part 1)

The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. This journey started with a single paper: ‘Enquiry into learning and teaching in arts and creative practice’ written by Susan Orr and Julian McDougal in 2014. It argued that there were distinct parallels between creative practice and teaching practice that should be made explicit and developed through a commitment to reflective practice. It was an interesting read. It also meant that I was one down, with ninety nine to go.

As a doctoral student, one of the most common pieces of advice that you get is ‘read, read, and read some more.’ This is sound advice, for how can you make an original contribution to knowledge without knowing what else is out there. After all, I may think that my idea to shear baked dough into individual chunks may be extraordinarily innovative, but it’s just possible that someone else got there first. However, reading papers takes time, and as a part time student with a full time job I don’t have very much time to spare. I needed something to motivate me. So, I set myself a challenge. Between March – June 2018, I set myself the challenge of reading one hundred academic papers in one hundred days. Easy, right?

As with any challenge I set myself some rules. Firstly, I would adopt a broad definition of a paper. Book chapters were fine, as were book reviews as long as they were substantive. I also resolved to read an average of one paper a day for a hundred days. As such, it would be fine to miss the odd day, as long as I made good my debt at some later date. I didn’t give myself any restrictions on topic choice. I would read whatever I fancied reading. Access to the papers wouldn’t be a problem, as the University College London library has electronic access to pretty much anything that I could desire.

To help me remember each paper, I decided to keep a list of references, which included a short sentence or two that summarised the main points. (well, it did, from day 8 onwards). You can read it here.

So what did I learn? I’ll write more about that in part 2.


Research Diary #3: Progress

Progress is being made. I have completed the IoE research ethics application consent forms and participant information sheet and submitted them to UCL to get a data protection number. With this I can get research ethics approval through my supervisor. I’ve also got the blessing for my research with Senior Management at my own institution. I’m still behind schedule, but less behind schedule then I was. Next steps will be to complete the parallel research ethics approval at my own institution, and to start talking to ‘gatekeepers’ who can help me secure access to research participants.

The other big challenge that I have at the moment is working out how I’ve going to analyse the data. As part of my ‘100 papers in 100 days’ challenge I’ve been reading a lot about content analysis. As such, I know that I have a lot of choices. Unfortunately, I don’t know enough to know which choices to make. Too much choice is a terrible thing.

I’ve taken a scattershot approach to my reading so far, which I’ve enjoyed. I’m hoping as I progress through the 100 days I get a little bit more focused, if only to stop me continually rethinking the focus of my thesis project. I have around half a dozen half-formed ideas that probably wouldn’t survive long if I exposed them to the world. Perhaps I should reserve some of my research diaries to doing just that. Better to identify the dead ends now, rather than hit them full in the face later.

I’ve also starting a short IoE course on ‘Researching Beyond the University’ that looks at how research engages with people and policy in different settings. I refuse the use the term ‘real world’ because it assumes that the world is divided into ivory towers and barren badlands. Equally, I’m not sure that activities as diverse as parenting, banking, volunteering, farming and wrestling should be defined in opposition to academia. I’m only one workshop in, so there’s plenty more to think about. There’s always more to think about.

Research Diary #2: Some steps forward, some steps back

I’m in a bit of limbo at the moment. Ideally, by now I’d be close to securing research ethics approval for my second year project and starting preparations for gathering data. Instead, I’ve gone back to my original research proposal and starting pulling it apart and putting it back together. I think that this is ok, although it might not be. Either way, it’s what I’ve been doing.

This has come about because of the reading that I’ve been doing as part of my 100 day challenge. I’d come to realise that I’d let some fluffy thinking creep into my research proposal. I hadn’t sufficiently honed my original research aims and as a consequence it was in danger of becoming ‘I’m going to investigate this because of reasons’. Now, I’m trying to ask myself the big questions such as ‘what would need to occur for this event to happen?’. In my case I feel that to understand why students express dissatisfaction with their experience it is necessary to understand a) what their expectations were b) how the experience failed to match their expectations and c) why a failure to meet expectations matters to a student. I also need to explore why certain characteristics make if more or less likely that a student will express dissatisfaction.  I don’t think that this fundamentally changes my choice of methodology. However, it does change the questions that I ask. I’ve given myself until Wednesday 11th April before I nail my proposal to the metaphorical door and submit my research ethics form.

Beyond that, I’ve also registered for a couple of training courses. As a Institute of Education research student I’m required to sign up for at least two a year. In addition to the Critical Realism reading group that I’ve been attending I’m now signed up for am ‘Advanced Qualitative Analysis’ workshop, and a series of workshops on ‘Research Beyond the University’ that is focused on impact, public engagement, and collaborating with the third sector.

So, it feels as if I’m doing a lot of stuff. I’m just not sure that I’m doing it in the right order. There’s a joke in that somewhere.


Research Diary #1: It’s alive!

I’ve scavenged pieces of metaphorical flesh, roughly joined them together and applied a jolt of electricity. This blog is alive once more.

Time has moved on, and I am now a 2nd year Educational Doctorate (EdD) student at the Institution of Education. I’m using this blog to keep a fortnightly diary to help me reflect on my research. It will record good intentions, muddled thinking and missed deadlines, as well as the occasional burst of insight it if comes knocking.

The first year of the EdD was a smorgasbord where I got to try lots of different things. I wrote 5,000 word essays about the academicness of academic managers, how students make elective student choices, and the equity of group discussions. It was thought provoking. It was (sometimes) fun. It was an awful lot of work. Now, the training wheels have come off. For the second year I have to complete a 20,000 word Institution Focused Study (IFS). I’ve chosen to focus on something that I think will a) be interesting and b) be of practical use to my institution. As such, I will be researching what informs student expectations of study at a postgraduate creative arts institution.

I think student expectations are an under-researched aspect of educational inquiry. So does Michelle Morgan.  If students express dissatisfaction with their experience then I think the first instinct is to ‘correct’ the thing that students were most dissatisfied about (sometimes described as the ‘you say, we did’ approach). However, what if the problem doesn’t lie with what happens, but rather what was different about what happens and what students expected to happen? I can best explain this in an analogy.

Imagine that you are about to drink a cup of milky tea. Let’s say that you like milky tea. You take a sip. This is going to be great. Except it isn’t. It is disgusting. It’s the worst cup of tea you’ve tasted since the last time you used out-of-date milk. What has gone wrong? You look closer and realise that the tea is too dark. And it smells funny. That’s because it’s not a cup of refreshing tea. It’s coffee. You’re drinking coffee, which is fine because you also like coffee. Now that you know that its coffee you can enjoy it. The first taste was horrible because you were expecting tea and got coffee. The second is better because you were expecting coffee and got coffee. The drink hasn’t changed. Your expectation of it has. I want to investigate whether a similar process takes place in postgraduate study.

To date, I’ve written a research proposal, which is awaiting approval by my supervisor. Then I need to complete the UCL research ethics process. I want to start my research in May, which gives me just enough time to shake of a EdD slump I experienced after successful completion of the first year. To aid me in this I’ve set myself a challenge: can I read 100 papers/book chapters in 100 days. I’m starting on the 19th March. Wish me luck.

This is the end (for now)

Wow. I’ve done it. 12 months, 12 concepts. 48 posts. Around 17,000 words. That is a lot a naval-gazing.

In those 12 months I have learned that

This has been a really useful thing to have done, and a real test of discipline. That said, I think the one thing that I was lacking last year was other people to bounce ideas off. Therefore, I’m taking a break from weekly blogging to think about what to do next. Thanks to Ros for contributing her thoughts to the debate about Professional Learning Communities.

Ta da, Chris

And finally…

It’s the last post of the year. I’m going to post once more about  ‘Conversational Model’ and then  in the New Year do a couple of posts summing up my experience of blogging about educational ideas for a whole year.

I’ve found this theory useful in prompting me to think about the nature of feedback between peers and between the student and teacher. However, I’m not sure that the theory has sparked any new ideas in relation to well worn themes such as the importance of sharing perspectives, applying knowledge and reflecting on the process of doing so. For me, it’s real value lies in the relationship between principles and processes.

In threshold concepts there is a ‘correct’ concept to be learned that –  when internalised – inducts you into a school of thinking. In the Conversational model, there is no correct concept. Concepts are continually interrogated each time that a simulation takes place. This demands that both student and teacher are both explicit about what those principles are, and prepared to adapt (or abandon) those principles if the evidence does not support them.

Let’s demonstrate this in a less abstract fashion. If I am learning to play a piece on the piano I can take very different approaches. I can memorise the notes and their timing, and through repetition develop a muscle memory of where my fingers go. Or I can try to work out what the ‘rules’ of the piece are (i.e. which key is it in, what rhythms repeat etc.). Understanding the principles of the piece makes learning and playing it less overwhelming as I’m applying a few rules rather than trying to process hundreds of disassociated bits of information.  The key (no pun intended) difference with Laurillard’s theory is that not all of these rules are fixed in advance.  I need to keep reflecting on what I’m playing and how I’m playing it, ideally with help from someone who also has experience in doing so.That is the main lesson that I’m going to take from this theory: it isn’t enough to learn something once, you have to be prepared to unlearn it too.