Multiple ‘ologies…

mickey mouse and ghost image from blog.wdwinfo.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/lonesome.jpg

The spectre of the Phd has moved in. Taken up residence. Where I go it goes; car, office, home. There’s no escape. I’ve reached the stage the ‘DIY PhD’ books tell you about. I hate it! Last week I wrote about the funnel effect, the logistical nightmare of having too many words and not enough space. This week it’s been the question of validity or the doctoral dilemma – how do I know it’s any good? The sad answer is you don’t – not until someone else passes judgement.

Validity includes lots of positivist measure of excellence like reliability and replicability; the ‘integrity of the conclusions’ (Bryman 2003:30). But the concept of validity itself is contestable. In the red corner there’s the quantitative view of reality as observable, measurable and infinitely knowable while over in the blue corner qualitative reality is more vague, forever open-ended and uncertain.

The Methodology chapter is a challenge. This is where it all comes together or falls apart. It’s a matter of pinning yourself down philosophically – for the purpose of the dissertation at least. There are so many alternative constructions. They can’t all be wrong so it’s a bit of a winner for the blue corner although the reds won’t have it. To a positivist we’re all as predictable as time and tide. Richard Dawkins versus Karen Armstrong. I know who I’d rather have dinner with.

Taking up a position midway between the corners, with an ontological realism and epistemological constructivism (see, I’m learning the language), there is a critical realist approach where the world is knowable but knowledge is fallible. This suggests a possible answer the crisis of validity where ‘There is no single interpretive truth [only] multiple interpretative communities, each with its own criteria for evaluating and interpretation’ (Denzin and Lincoln, 2000:23). Which in itself is something of a certainty, because one thing you can be sure of, another new philosophical lens for viewing reality is likely to be coming along quite soon.

Affliction of doubt; a common doctoral disease like procrastination

box image froom http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-stnAzKsT8Ss/TnoBBXG_gYI/AAAAAAAAAEg/ALWGaOkQErw/s1600/stick_figure_tight_quarters_800_clr.png

I’m calling it the funnel effect. The process of writing up my dissertation is like fitting an umbrella the size of a planet into a box the size of an ant. Every day I find new pieces of information which weren’t there before and I gather them up – that’s me in the corner – with a Phd head and increasing sense of panic. How to know which words to use? Not find them in the first place, I’ve 100’s of 1000’s of the pesky things in 50 shades of font design. It’s more about how to identify the ones I need.

Then – instead of narrowing them down – I get side tracked and end up adding even more. Today it was phenomenography which is one of those linguistic research tricks to see if you can pronounce the word never mind produce a description of what it means. For some reason, known only to the deep web part of my brain, I decided action research was like ethnography because as the researcher I was in the position of observer – so maybe I wasn’t doing action research at all. Affliction of doubt is a common doctoral disease. Somehow, and only google history can explain this one, I ended up in a phenomenographical paradigm and another hour had passed. At least by then I’d forgotten about the ethnography .

Now I’m blogging which is another diversion and distraction technique. I’m good at D&D’s. In a previous life I would clean the oven rather than get on with the task in hand. It became a joke how a clean oven signified an assignment deadline. Today I have the internet. It’s amazing I get anything done at all. I’ve a weakness for cute kittens and babbling babes– have you seen the one about….

I get up early, make coffee, greet the laptop and begin. Three hours later I’ve done nothing of any value towards my dissertation other than add a few more hundred words which I’ll probably take out again tomorrow. Oh, and a blog post, aspirationally tagged PhD but in reality it should be the other P for Procrastination. They could give me a doctorate in that ten times over!

Getting the blogging habit back

habit image from swarajyamag.com

Habits can be hard to break. It took me years to stop smoking. The line between addiction and habit is blurred. I’ve blogged for years. It was my soap box, work record, window on the internet, my weekly reflective habit. Then it stopped and now I’m struggling to get the blogging habit back.

It’s not as if I’m short of words.  Me and my laptop have bonded these past few weeks. In a threesome with the settee, I’ve written tens of thousands about VLE, critical realism, digital education, e-teaching and more.

But the blogging habit broke.

As I fell – slip – trip -snap – into the world of broken fibulas and fracture clinics, my life fell apart too. Become immobile in the winter and your world shrinks. I couldn’t even get to the allotment. My grape vine still needs pruning! In theory, this loss should have created space for blogging.  I could have become a blog-a-day woman. Instead of scrabbling to fit a blog post into Friday mornings I had blog freedom. And I used it to stop blogging.

It was as unexpected as the trip itself. A trip of the non-travelling kind. You can make a metaphor out of most things in life, but I’m not too sure what to make of this. I missed the pin point where something sticks. A blog is a map; it’s where I pin things down each week. Usually with regard to digital inclusion, TELEDA, my PhD, or some digital scrap which has intrigued me.

Something magic happens when you take a thought and reproduce it in words. It works verbally – a la rubber duck syndrome – and it works when you recreate an experience in writing. There’s a flash of insight or resonance which is part of the whole learning experience. A regular blogging habit is an alchemical opportunity to focus on something which has happened and study it more closely.

I need to break the habit of not blogging and get the blogging habit back!

Out of the mess of random dots a shape appears.

Book cover to Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Casteneda

With a PhD you are never lonely. At least, not in the cognitive sense. There’s always something to read, write or reflect on. My enforced immobilisation has been in the company of text. No longer piles of paper and books across my floor. I’ve become neurotic about picking up the smallest bit of anything. Instead I’m surrounded with books on the settee, the coffee table and three dining chairs positioned for the purpose. I won’t slip on paper but I need to take care not to trip over chair legs.

For some time I’ve had problems with PhD boundaries.  My reading was unstructured. Books started but not finished. Journal articles would arrive and I’d forget why I wanted them. Some times I’d forget by the time I picked up my printing. I was searching for research validation, for recognition – like a mirror on the pages.

It took time but I’ve found it in slim volume called The Action Research Dissertation*. Dated 2015 it explains how the AR dissertation is the new kid on the block. Not only do the authors give valuable advice on how to prepare for defending your AR, they also offered the resonance I needed. The aim of the action researcher is to study themselves ‘… in relationship to the program [they’ve] developed or to fold the action research immediately back into the program in terms of professional or organisation development…’ (2015:42).  I couldn’t have put it better myself;  the problem being I didn’t believe researching my own practice this was enough. Some deeply embedded discourse about the nature of academic research was telling me my choice was inadequate.  It didn’t fit with anything I was reading and I didn’t know anyone else undertaking a practitioner based doctorate.

Overnight, it feels like boundaries have appeared and this affirmation of my research genre is another threshold on the PhD journey. I’m reminded once more of Castenda in the Tales of Don Juan who describes how he had to find his spot on the porch. He tried a dozen places until one felt right.

‘…I wanted to find it without doing any work because I had expected [Don Juan] to hand out all the information. If he had done so, he said, I would never have learned… I would never have had the confidence needed to claim it as true knowledge. Thus, knowledge was indeed power. (1968: 20)

No matter how qualitative your research, how critically reflexive or emancipatory, it’s still contained within academic discourse and subject to external processes of validation and rigour. In that respect all research is positivist yet there have to be moments on your research journey when intuition draws the lines between all the random marker points. This is where I’ve arrived. Out of the mess of random dots, a shape appears.

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*Herr, K. and Anderson, G. L. (2015) The Action Research Dissertation; a guide for students and faculty. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Tripadvisor – how to miss a conference in one easy step

Thanks for the support image from  http://www.pinterest.com/dot1932/drawings-to-create-with-ii/This is the third time a bone in my leg has let me down. Always at inconvenient times:

  • two weeks into my new job at the university,
  • a conference dinner in Stockholm,
  • 48 hours before a flight to Dunedin, NZ to present at ASCILITE 2014.

It could have been worse, but as I looked at my foot, pointing in the wrong direction, it felt as bad as it could get. The up side is everyone has been wonderful; my room looks like a flower shop and I have cake, chocolate, grapes and wine – gifts don’t get much better than this. I’m immobilised but still connected and have recorded a narrated version of my presentation ‘e-teaching craft and practice’ which summarises the key points  of my paper which can be downloaded here  e-teaching craft and practice ASCILITE 2014 Concise Paper Fortunately this had already been uploaded to the conference proceedings so you could call it a break just in time!

The seven step guide to being an e-teacher can be summed up as follows:

  • pedagogy of uncertainty; always expect the unexpected, nothing can be predicted
  • go do a mooc; experiencing the reality of e-learning will help prepare for e-teaching
  • myths of digital confidence; not everyone knows their way around, expect to provide step by step instructions and reassurance
  • it takes two to talk; no one wants to go first,  e-teachers have to make discussions possible through the design of their tasks
  • Activity Based Content (ABC); interaction is key, set up groups and make use of tools like blogs, wikis, forums and journals
  • signposting; new students feel overwhelmed by too much information, provide content in layers and hyperlink to non-essential resources
  • identity blur, virtual education is different, e-teachers can expect to become facilitators of learning experiences from back of stage rather than in the spotlight

e-teaching calls for a digital lens to be applied to teacher education programmes. The ‘e’ in e-teaching is not a pedantic endeavour. It’s the other side of e-learning; the side which has always received less attention but is equally important.

PhD as art installation of unread texts; bring on #AcWriMo 2014

Academic Writing MonthThe best thing about mess is its synonyms; clutter, litter, muddle, mishmash. Word pronunciation doesn’t get better than this. Sometimes life gets messy. Mine has gotten messy and the biggest mess of all is the Phd. A mess in the messiest sort of way.

There’s barely room for me on the settee or my feet on the coffee table. I”m surrounded with books of two kinds; open or closed, all unfinished. Ditto the papers; printed in haste with misplaced enthusiasm. Regretted later. Scribbled on pages 1, 2, sometimes 3 before the underlining and highlighting stops. I have scraps of notes everywhere. I’m good at notes and buying notebooks. These are my random ideas, written before they flit back where they came from. My PhD has become an art installation of unread literature while the NVivo laptop has dust on it, hidden under more piles of paper in the corner. A messy space is an unproductive space. The Phd is in a bad way; it needs resuscitation.

I’ve signed up for Academic Writing Month to get myself back on track.

It’s a write-a-thon by the PhD2Published team who along with The Thesis Whisperer provide social networking for doctoral researchers. The idea of #AcWriMo is you publicly declare your writing intentions, set your goals and get writing for a whole month with support provided by Facebook and Twitter. Academic writing is a problem no one talks about. Everyone needs to do it but not many find it easy or know about sources of support. There’s an assumption we pick up a pen and it all comes naturally. Writing is your alternative voice but while the ability to speak in public is recognised as a skill to be learned, writing in public rarely gets attention. #AcWriMo offers the opportunity to get something written and links up a network of people engaging with the same issues. The wisdom of crowds and all that can be a powerful motivator.

Here are some reasons why you should consider #AcWriMo …

  • You choose your subject; it might be an ongoing project which has got stuck or something completely new. Either way, it will create time you didn’t think you had.
  • Even if you don’t meet your goals, you’ll write more than you would have done otherwise.
  • Academic writing is a skill and like all crafts needs to be practiced; #AcWriMo is a safe place to explore the power of words and make progress.
  • It will lead to a sense of achievement; you’ll feel better afterwards than when you started
  • You are not alone! You get to experience the networking effect of Twitter and/or Facebook. Across the world there are people struggling to find time to write and #AcWriMo brings them all together.
  • A month is long enough to change attitudes and behaviours; taking part might lead to new and beneficial writing habits.
  • In the west the days are shortening, mornings and evenings are dark and it’s getting colder. What else will you do with all your extra time indoors?

I’m not yet decided on my writing subject. I have problems with boundaries as evidenced by the ways my PhD floats off and gets lost. It’s absent at the moment. If I want to bring it back my subject needs to be e-teaching and the absence of voices in the literature. Rhetoric and reality. Fiction and fact. Postmodern v critical realism. But I’d also like to do something around creativity and academic writing or reflection as literacy. Clearly the first challenge is to find a subject and I set myself the public target of doing this by next Friday. Gulp!

Dog ate blog and other stories…

the piles of research books all over my floor

Guardian Witness invites photographs on the theme of a ‘Day in the Life of a PhD Student‘ I sent in this photo of my floor. A sign of the shrine my floor has become to the Phd. Virginia Wolfe famously called for ‘a room of one’s own’. Often missed is the rest of the sentence ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.’ JK Rowling’s story of writing Harry Potter in a coffee shop with free heating suggests neither is totally essential, or maybe that’s writing of a different kind. In the absence of money, I do have a room and it has been taken over by my work.

Tsundoku is the Japanese word for buying books and letting them pile up unread. Tsundoku is Me.  It isn’t just the floor – there are piles on the cupboard, under the table, beside my bed. I’m a bookaholic. My name is Sue. If numbers left by the back door I wouldn’t notice. Show me a spreadsheet and I break out in a sweat. Give me words and I’m happy.

Recently I’ve been pe tsundoku - japanese word for buying books and letting them pile up unreadpersuadinga fellow part-time ‘PhD-er’ to blog. Saying it helps to formulate ideas and structure thoughts. The art of reflection is a core learning tool and I’m not sure we promote it enough because blog routines are effective ways to cultivate the reflective mind. Give it a regular outing. Typically, I didn’t find time to blog this Friday. The dog ate my blog or the internet swallowed my work.

We all need warning signs and for me, an absence of Friday blog post says something’s out of kilter. It’s a busy time. Forget January. New year is September. The establishment of EDEU (Educational Development and Enhancement Unit) means a new team with a new remit. Different faces and spaces and routines to learn like kettle etiquette and tea towel management. There are the open-office conundrums; air con versus heating and blinds up – blinds down plus important issues like the art of entering a tiny toilet without activating a misplaced hand dryer which wooshes into life unexpectedly before you’ve even shut the door.

We’re on the edge. Relocated to the heart of the student village, above the launderette where molecules of fabric softener free float through the air. There are trees and masses of bushes by the railway line, all changing colour. Across the road is the FosGoogle Satellite image showing the location of EDEU at One Campus Way sdyke with a tow path where I can walk by the water. I like it. But this week I didn’t find time to blog.

I had a plan. It was going to be about the Graduate Teachers Education Programme. How the room in the engineering building had rows of benches fixed to the floor supporting a didactive teaching style; a pedagogy of transmission. I would compare this with the invisible e-teacher; the subject of my research paper for ASCILITE14 but instead I was catching up with emails, writing up the actions from the first VLE-Operations Group (Action 1. Change name) and responding to Blackboard queries. In this new EDEU shaped world I’ve been escalated to the realm of the ‘tough ones’ and they do take up time.

So when is a blog post not a blog post? Only when it’s empty. Blogs are forgiving places. They don’t really care what you say so long as you say something and in the process, you’ll nearly always discover a different way of seeing or being which wasn’t there before. Try it and see. Now, excuse me please, apart from immersion in the back-end of Blackboard, I also have a few books to read 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

Lost in transcription

lost in the translation transcription

When time is tight and research squeezed into whatever’s left of the working week, it’s a case of learning on the job. Hindsight is a wonderful thing! There’s little time for being pragmatic or always having pre-event reflection. It’s more act first, think later. When it came to the interviews and transcriptions I made some mistakes but hopefully learned from them too. In June I listed ten tips for managing p/t doctoral research  http://suewatling.blogs.lincoln.ac.uk/2014/06/05/ten-top-tips-for-managing-part-time-doctoral-research/  Regarding interviews I can now include – with confidence – the following advice:

  • Test the volume, speed and microphone connection – every time.
  • Don’t rely on the recorder to preserve your data – back up back up and back up again
  • No biscuits – eat and talking don’t pair well.
  • Allow for pauses; the verbal gaps are not spaces for you to fill.

Transcribing my interviews was also an action orientated process. I slowed the recorder speed and typed. For hours. Every repetition, deviation and hesitation all faithfully reproduced. Apart from aching hands and an overheating laoptop it was ok. A folder of MP3 files and transcripts felt like real progress. Then I started DIY NVivo and realised I’d done it again. Gone in head, hands and feet first without reading the literature.

NVivo was a good point to break the habit and do some preparatory reading on text analysis and coding. Here I came across guidance on transcription.  Steinar Kvale says beware of transcripts – or was that be aware. The change of medium from verbal to written means within the process things risk getting lost or taken out of context. Transcripts are not transparent but can mislead – which will come as no surprise if you’re of the interpretivist persuasion. What was surprising were attitudes towards the process. Tedious, boring, onerous, time consuming – 1 hour of interview often compared to 5-6 hours transcription. I heard one lecturer on You Tube advocating paying to get them done, claiming he hadn’t transcribed for the last ten years. Silverman lists common mistakes made by external transcribers, many confirming the need to be aware or beware e.g. ever for never, formal for informal, was for wasn’t etc. I didn’t mind the transcription at all.

There’s no better way to start the process of getting to know your data than transcribing an interview. If it’s tedious and boring then something’s wrong.  The transcript is the first read through and a valuable opportunity to begin the mental mind map. A transcript is a verbal snapshot of the moment so should be verbatim, include all repetitions, deviation and hesitations, and be carried out by the researcher.   In the way photo-shopping is frowned on for misrepresenting the truth, so transcripts should contain attention to detail.  The transcription process is the end of the interview and the beginning of the data analysis stage. Not getting anything lost in the translation from speech to text is critical. Researchers are in positions of power and have a responsibility to record with accuracy everything that was said.

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Silverman, D. (1997) Qualitative research: theory, method and practice. London: Sage

Back to the …piste… Hello Hello NVivo

NVivo software logoAugust is the busy month. I’m mostly on my own at work. There are advantages; I get the printer to myself and there’s no queue for the kettle.

I’m solo commuting. Playing the same cd over and over, loving the early morning colours of the corn fields and finally discovering leaving at 7.00 pm does guarantee an easy run home!

If you don’t read the detail of the OoO emails ……I’m away…. in Madagascar  ….sooooooo sorry…..back next month……..it’s ok. I’ve had the first meeting with my new supervisor. It went well. I have enough data. Maybe too much but that’s ok because in the PhD quadrant I’ve seamlessly segued into the third section; lit review and data collection behind, looking at data analysis and writing up. Wow! This is beginning to take shape.

Is it darta or date-a? Is this the castle and bath debate?

There’s been some reassuring pieces in the Guardian’s Academics Anonymous. I liked the one on older Phd study in particular the comments. Thank you strangers 🙂 Your reassurance towards late life postgraduate education was very comforting for this middle of the quoted age range academic.

  • I got my PhD at the age of 52
  • I completed my DPhil at the age of 57,
  • I got my PhD two weeks before I was 66
  • I met a man who was in his mid-80s and doing a PhD…

From here I slid into neighbouring pieces – like you do – click click….. another year older… I was drawn to a piece titled How to stay sane through a PhD: get survival tips from fellow students, but it was a bit depressing.

‘From what I’ve seen, it doesn’t matter much what discipline you belong to or which university you go to when it comes to developing chronic unhappiness.’

My PhD journey has not been easy but not chronically unhappy either.

‘We have to start by being honest with each other and ourselves, admit when we are struggling and then seek help.’

So it’s no coincidence the initial caps of this Anonymous Academic series are AA?  My name is Sue and I’m doing a PhD…

It’s interesting how the URL for this piece calls it mental-health rather than survival tips http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2014/mar/20/phd-research-mental-health-tips  I guess I’m lucky. My mental health is ok. Or as well as it can be – all things considering – and I think it’s one of the advantages of being er, um…. a little older. Hopefully, with age you learn how to deal with the less pleasant aspects of being. My Phd is a new learning experience but it’s also reinforcing what I always suspected about how knowledge is constructed and known, I just didn’t have the theoretical lens for expressing it. For me, this is a privileged position and I’m sure I couldn’t have appreciated any earlier in my life.

Moving onto data analysis will be interesting. Hello Hello NVivo, we’re going to get to know each other very well. In the meantime its back to the piste of epistemology, ontology and conceptualising the hundreds of thousands of what I love best – words!


“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing you can do is keep your mind young.” Mark Twain