Monday 6 April 2009

Reflections on Writing Across Boundaries, 30-31 March 2009

The focal point of the Writing Across Boundaries project is an annual workshop held in Durham. The workshop is aimed at third year doctoral students who are completing theses based on qualitative data and explores the relationship between data collection, analysis, and interpretation in the act of writing. Students are invited to reflect on the writing process itself as a form of social science thinking. Writing up from qualitative data can be a challenging but rewarding experience, and Writing Across Boundaries provides the forum for students to explore the theory and practice while still under the expert guidance of their supervisors.


Early Monday morning I set off north to the pretty town of Durham for a two day residential to attend the Writing Across Boundaries (WaB) 2009 workshop. The workshop intended to bridge that “scary gap” from one's PhD data collection to writing up the thesis. It also had a secondary aim to be a time of reflection on our PhDs and on writing.

Bob Simpson (Durham University) and Robin Humphrey (Newcastle University) were the conveners and accommodating hosts to some-45 students over two days and one night at Durham University’s Holgate House, nestled in the countryside among gentle hills and lofty trees of Durham county.

In the workshops, we formed a few friendships, enjoyed loads of food and coffee, talked about writing and listened to an interesting mix of presentations on writing. The presentations came from many different perspectives such as:
  • How creative writing techniques can help in PhD writing;
  • The use of digital technologies as a possibility to go beyond writing;
  • How the act of writing helps one theorise;
  • The concept of the audience and the author’s standpoint.
But the most valuable (and I think much of the group would agree) was the opening panel of past PhDers who had attended WaB before completing the write-up of their theses. The past PhDers had all recently completed and passed their viva (an oral defense of one’s PhD). They spoke candidly about their PhD experience- previous and post-WaB workshop- and how the workshop contributed to the writing of their theses. There was a great Q&A session after the panel spoke, illuminating some of the most critical issues among the WaB group including:
  • The final thesis looks nothing like the initial proposal: All PhDers submit a proposal before starting their PhD to let their sponsors and/or Universities know what they are looking to find out. These proposals are quite specific and often throughout the research process many PhD’s end looking very different to the initial proposal. One person at the workshop put it well by saying that all proposal's should just state: “give me time and money and I’ll tell you something interesting.”
  • The “circulatory” of the PhD process: There seemed to be a consensus among the WaB group that a PhD is not a linear process, but a circular one. Some of us have found that we cannot retrofit existing theories to our research. This has required us to go back to discover, think and reflect more on what our research is telling us. Presenter Jennifer Mason actually said that a very few of us would be able to fit an existing theory neatly on top of our research and that most, would probably draw from many theories (ditto for me);
  • The issue of honesty: This “circularity” can be an issue in a PhD, especially in terms of how honest one should about finding out that your initial hypothesis is disproved by the qualitative data. The panel advised to be honest. They had been and it added value to their research analysis.
  • Kick starting confidence: The panel said the word “kick start” a lot i.e. that the workshop kick started their write up phase. It gave them a “permission” and confidence to go ahead a write up;
  • The idea of two theses: We talked a lot about the idea of having 2 theses. The first being the focused and “polished" one we submit, and the second being the one that pays homage to all dimensions of our research (the successes, the failures, the off-in-a-tangent thoughts etc). Bob mentioned that these dimensions were really important, and that through writing we could “rehearse and exhaust them.” Personally, I think it'd be great if PhDers could write a book as their second PhD;
  • The 'so what?' question: The 'so what' and the 'why' of one’s research is so important to remember- Why we are doing the research? What value is it contributing? Answering these reminds us of all the reasons for our commitment, of 3 or more years, to one piece of work.

Some practical steps toward writing

As well as workshop reflections, I also wanted to share here some practical steps for getting over the 'writer’s block' we all meet at some stage in the process. Here are some practical steps I noted down during the workshop that might help kick start the writing:
  • If you are not doing well to engage with reams of transcripts from interviews, one of the PhDers at WaB suggested picking up a transcript, picking an issue you see within it and writing about it. He mentioned one thing just lead to another...;
  • Ask a question, then write a response to it;
  • Jot down notes of thoughts about your research. Then write in examples and explain them;
  • Think less academic-speak and start writing things as you would say them. Think about how you would want it to be heard and received by someone;
  • Just do it: easy to say, but not so easy to do. One key reflection I took away from WaB was that writing-up was about confidence. WaB was about sharing all our issues and finding out that others experience and think in the same way too. For me, I know I always struggle with wondering if I am doing the right thing or not, and this can be a huge time waster. Now I would say- just do it, because all my doubts and questions, in terms of what I have been doing, were more than validated at WaB.

Some things to consider when writing up the thesis:

So we're over the writing block, but WaB pointed out some important things to consider:
  • Audience: Who is your audience will tell you a lot about how you should write, what you should write and what language to use;
  • Situating yourself in the thesis: How do you bring yourself into the thesis? After all, we all had a story and a reason for doing the research in the first place;
  • Keep the passion in the text: Don’t detach yourself too much in the write up;
  • Voice: Consider who’s perspective you tell the story from. One exercise we did was to write about someone irritating we knew from a first person, second person and third person perspective.
  • “The fine line”: In our last activity we got into groups to discuss some pieces of literature that we read before the workshop. We had to collectively list 5 reflections on the literature. My group talked and questioned a lot about how far we go on each side of the “fine line”. This is in terms of writing as:
Objective <----> emotive
(Where do we situate our viewpoint?
Taking into consideration that we are writing an academic thesis
but also want to engage the reader?)

Formal <----> informal
(How specifically do we quote people speaking in the thesis?)

Theory <----> narrative
(Could we weave theory and narrative together as well as Bryon Good did in his book, Medicine, rationality, and experience: An Anthropological Perspective)

Absent <----> reflexive
(Where do we situate ourselves in the thesis?)

Sensitive <----> literal
(How do we deal with ethics in qualitative research?)

There are so many more smaller reflections and notes I have from the workshop, but this is not the space for it all so I am going to finish up here. I thought WaB was a really valuable time of reflection in the middle of one’s PhD. The workshops brought a heightened sense of awareness to, and consideration of, one of the most important communication devices in human life- writing.

Walking to the train station, towards Durham Cathedral, after the WaB workshop

1 comment:

Qin Han said...

that's really helpful!!! wish i was there as well... i've been pushing my writings again and again.

But last week I did a map of my ontological assumptions with Bill and now feel more ready to blan a bit about my methodology chapter... also doing a paper on it as well...

Good luck writing -feel good for your progress you have got ur interviews done!