Academic Writing and Some Questions To Ask Your PhD Thesis

One of the key things I’ve been doing recently is thinking about structure in my thesis. I am investigating the writing that girls do, and what that tells us about girlhoods (elevator pitch: girls write stories write girls) and the nature of such a project means that it is fiercely interdisciplinary in nature. I’m trying to connect to a lot of points of theory, located in different disciplines, and to do so in the middle of a pandemic. And so, structure has become increasingly important, not only to keep my stuff together but also to give me something concrete to hold onto during this process.

Here’s a method that’s been working for me, and I share it in the hope that it might work for you. I have found a lot of benefit in looking at what other people do, and this is an adapted version of the very useful: Top 40 Potential Viva Questions. It struck me that asking myself these now -and providing the questions – would function as a pretty excellent method for giving me the structure I craved, and also a pretty damn solid outline in the process.

I wrote all of the questions out, cut them up, and put them in a plastic pocket before taking them out one by one. It’s a satisfactory process to work through and one you can do that doesn’t involve typing or reading! I did it while listening to some lectures as part of an online conference I was attending – this also helped a lot in generating further questions as I could reflect on their own projects as much as mine.

Questions to ask your PhD thesis

  • What is the thesis summary?
  • What are my research questions?
  • What is the problem I’m tackling?
  • What is the relevance to teachers?
  • What is the urgency / timeliness of the project?
  • What is my positioning as a researcher?
  • What are the two / three most important papers for this study?
  • How did my research questions emerge?
  • What sort of a study is this? (Interdisciplinary / quant / qual etc…)
  • How do I define [key term]?
  • How do I understand [key term]?
  • How do I apply [key term]?
  • Why did I choose to do X rather than Y?
  • What have I not done here?
  • What are the limitations of the study?
  • Why do I analyse my data in this manner?
  • How do I generate data?
  • How did I design my methodology?

And here’s an example of one question with an answer so you can see how it all goes together. The first line is the section and summary so this one will go into the introduction and talk about how the project is relevant to teachers. And the bit at the bottom talks about what readers will need to know before they read this section in the thesis. You’ll note that it is very ‘signposty’ at the moment but that’s precisely what we want.

Question and answer

Introduction: Relevance to Teachers

This research is relevant to teachers because it offers an opportunity to investigate creative writing not only through issues of gender, but also on commonalities of age and location (ie: the school setting). It offers teachers a chance to see the representation of gender in girl’s creative work and how they can offer opportunities to creatively explore the performances of gender within their own classroom. In addition it offers a model for running creative writing workshops which can be adapted for their own purposes.

Things you need to know before this section: This is very early stuff, so this will be in the introduction just after a general idea of the project itself.

The final part of this process will be to get all the blocks in a logical order and delete the ‘things you need to know before this section’. That’s still a while to come yet, because this has also highlighted some gaps and things I need to drop / rework. It’s been a really valuable thing to work through, so thank you to the authors of the original post which prompted the idea and I hope this iteration of it offers some support to everybody else who’s been going “how on earth do I write a thesis or research a project in the middle of a pandemic?” We’ll get there!

Writers and their gardens

I’m very happy to say I have an article in the July issue of The Garden, all aboout writers and their gardens. It was a pleasure to put together though somewhat complicated to do so in the middle of lockdown! Nevertheless, I’m so pleased with the outcome and hope you enjoy it if you come across it.

One of the things I wanted to do here was offer some further resources to you if you’re interested in the topic. I’m always a fan of DVD Easter Eggs, so consider this the written equivalent of such. I hope that, at the very least, they give you some enjoyable further reading.

  • Blyton, Enid. (1944). Enid Blyton’s Nature Lover’s Book. Evans. (A book I reviewed back in 2015 here)
  • Bodger, Joan. (1999, first pub. 1965) How the Heather Looks : A Joyous Journey to the British Sources of Children’s Books. McClelland & Stewart.
  • Elkin, Lauren. (2015) Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.
  • Hodgson Burnett, Frances. The Secret Garden. (As this is so widely available, I won’t include a publisher / year here but would suggest you find an early and relatively unabridged edition. Project Gutenberg might be a good starting point).
  • Hyams, Edward (1974) The English Garden. Thames and Hudson.
  • Lively, Penelope. (2019) Life In The Garden. Penguin.
  • Redoute, Pierre-Joseph (2001) Redoute’s Roses. Taschen.

If it’s not too hideously self-aggrandizing, I’d like to also share some posts I’ve done on the topic of land, line and literature. The dialogue between pen and place, I think. These are all themes that fed into my article and they are all things I need and want to explore some more.

Thank you! 🙂

Some News

My debut children’s book HOW TO BE BRAVE will be out in 2021 in both the UK and US, and I am SO excited to introduce you to this world. Here’s a few tweets on the topic..

I’ve never met a transition in interactive narrative that I liked

One of the things I keep circling back to with my work is the notion of the interactive narrative. It’s sat at the edge of my methodological circle for a while now, teasing me with the promise of something immersive and innovative and interactive, something that does story in a way that it has not been done before. I refer here to doing story in the manner that Judith Butler might refer to doing gender; a performance of narrative, conscious and deliberate, a claiming of space and place and all the implications that act of framing brings with it.

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National Association of Writers in Education conference and Thought Bubble Comic Art Festival

One of the more certain things I have found out about academia is that everything you are interested in comes at once. It’s for that reason that I spent three days this week heading from talk to conference to panel to presentation to comics-convention and today having to clear things off my desk before they collapse and consume me.

One of the ‘this week’ things was the National Association of Writers In Education (NAWE) conference – a conference I co-presented at last year. It’s a three day affair but due to circumstance, I was only able to attend day one. Nevertheless, it was the most important day for both my academic and personal interests so it was a useful exercise. It was also a useful, if somewhat painful, exercise to see how many people in the room nodded when the presenter mentioned “the PhD crisis”. It is a curious system this world I’m in, I think.

I gathered a few things in the Twitter thread below, because I have also come to realise that if I don’t record the things that interest me then I’ll inevitably lose the bit of paper I wrote that thing down on. I’ll also lose the backup bit of paper and the backup backup, so digital posterity is the way to go. I also like being able to look back at this sort of thing – it’s like breadcrumbs in the woods. Should anybody be interested in what I do, then these are the steps I followed. Maybe not all, but at least some of them.

And besides, these are good people doing brilliant things. I’d encourage you in particular to look at some of the output from the Writing City programme facilitated by New Writing North. They spoke very movingly and powerfully about how this was not about creatives dropping in to “do good” (seriously, those sorts of parachuted programmes of creative benevolence are the worst) but rather about working with young people and facilitating them to tell their stories. After all, as they said, the young people are the experts in their lives and have the right to tell stories about that. It’s also important to note that the outputs from these programmes are immense – being performed in venues as notable as the Sage. Places such as this have their own narrative borne of space and place, and enabling the young people to be part of that narrative is a powerful thing. As I said, there’s a link to several of these outputs below. They are high quality, brilliant pieces of art.

One of the other things this week was Thought Bubble, a comics convention located in Harrogate. It’s been in Leeds before this, and I think this is the first year for it to be held in Harrogate. I’ve been before and loved what they do, and particularly how they integrate the local community. Festivals that work with libraries (and libraries that work with festivals – let’s not forget that this sort of outreach is a two way street) are good things. I also like how Thought Bubble plugs me into a whole range of independent creators and small presses, in a way that the high street and the internet simply can’t do.

Before going, I asked for some recs on Twitter. I find this helpful if I know the venue’s going to be popular and possibly quite crowded. It’s different if I’m going to somewhere smaller and quieter – for example, I rather love going to a zine fair with no particular agenda in mind. But for this trip, I had a very specific agenda going on:-

One of the books I was recommended – and subsequently bought – was called Bertha The Brave by Hannah Kate Sackett. It’s the story of a goose in AD940 inspired by Beowulf – and if ever a premise was to make me buy it, I think that’s the one. Naturally I picked it up and a few others which I will be reviewing soon enough on my children’s book blog. For now, my heart’s with Bertha – here’s a look at the two opening pages.

(Re)Beginning; starting over on the PhD process

I am a PhD candidate again. I was one before, for a while at least, until anxiety and culture shock made me shift my research into an MPhil. I remember feeling nothing but relief at the time; I had worn out my bag of tricks and had nothing else to give. My eventual thesis span out of a conversation with my supervisor in which everything changed. I told him of the reactions I’d been having after the supervision meetings, and how I thought there was a thesis here instead of that which I’d been doing. Literary tourism shifted into questions of landscape; the relationship between individual shifted into girls in space, and the world changed.

I was relieved, but with that came a sense of loss. I wanted that doctorate even though I did not quite understand what it was, or what it could be, or even how I could fit into that world. It’s something I don’t think we talk about at all (hence this post); people have alternative journeys into this space and come with alternative needs. Even though I’d worked in the administrative side of a university for a long while and knew more about the processes then I cared to admit, that shift into ‘academia’ was immense. It still is. Nobody in my family teaches in a university. Nobody has done a doctorate. The absence of what I knew was immense, and realising that was not easy.

But I did, and I have, and now I have started a PhD again. I am starting it on ground so very different than before, starting it on a stability and power and strength that I have earned. These qualities are something that the past few years have given me. Learning is no straightforward thing; it does not map itself onto your journey and you should not worry if you do not map onto its. You will connect at some point, maybe now, maybe later, but it will come. The important thing is to know that. Because you do. It will always come.

I think it’s important to talk about this sort of thing. It is difficult to learn or teach without understanding who you and where you are, and articulating that is an important thing. This process has made me the scholar who I am, and that’s valuable. The support of my incredible supervisor has made me who I am, and that’s a gift. It is nothing to be ashamed of, and I’m not. This isn’t a pity me journey but rather something that I hope, in expressing, will provide some solidarity to others experiencing a similar journey. You are not alone. Alternative routes into the academy, divergent journeys and new voices are to be celebrated. You may be wrapped in imposter syndrome, you may be wrapped in it every single damn day, but you persist.

When I write things like this, I’m writing to the person I was only a few short years ago and I’m telling her that it will be okay. That this process will make you a scholar, a writer, a researcher who looks to help other people onto their journeys, to find the point of connection in their assignments and to celebrate that and build upon that. Everybody has something, somewhere. All we have to do as educators is find it and help it be seen.

I am starting the PhD over in a practical, administrative sense, but when it comes to my work and what I want that to say and be, I’m not. This is no beginning. It’s the second chapter. The third. The fourth. And there’s more to come. I think the big thing I’ve learnt is how to let myself see that. And I do now, I really do.

“A river being formed” On academic article writing

I am writing an academic article. Obviously, I’m writing this post at the moment instead but I think that’s the way when it comes to articles of this nature. You do a thousand other things, as is the way with all writing, but somehow they all contribute. Words flowing in the right direction. A river being formed from scraps of thought captured in the middle of the night. An ocean growing as you do the dishes.

Writing is so often not about writing. Or, to be more precise, it’s so often about not writing the thing that you should be writing. Words matter wherever you find them. And the words found in a shopping list, or in a half-scribbled poem, will always contribute to that final goal. The important thing is to keep writing. To be stubborn about it. To master those words and those thoughts that swirl around inside. Because that’s what this is: it’s about mastery. Control. Finesse.

There is the grey morning silence
that slides into her throat,
makes her touch the air before her lips, and
that the worlds will not turn to dust before she says them.

Poetry is a useful way for me to work towards such a goal. It is perhaps not what I would call good poetry, but it is important for me. It reminds me what matters and how to edit. How to stop, how to start. This is my warm-up, my stretch before the race: a stanza. Two or three before I realise they’re becoming self-indulgent, and then I cut. I pare. I bring them back. I bring them back to me.

I am, I am, the echo of furious selfhood
claimed against the bright, bare Summer; a light that
sounds and tastes and feels;
she holds it in her palm
and lets it fall through her fingers when the clock strikes
Twelve. This moment of power, of peace, oh how it shines –  

I have always written tightly. I’m never going to be the sort of writer who can write into the six figures; rather, I’m the sort of writer who has to push. An incision here. An extra paragraph here. An extra point there. It’s like building, I think; materials being found where none seemed to be, and putting them together and believing that something shall come.

There is a point, of course, to everything, and for me it is about Barthes and A Lover’s Discourse. Language yearns for language; words yearn for words. The singular word wants more; we fill in the gaps either side of the isolated word because we know there’s more to it. A sentence, a thought, a love poem thrown out into the ether. The other words are always there, even if they’re invisible.

I seek to woo, I seek to tease the thoughts from myself and find them, to love them, to shape them, to know them. I look to find my other, my self, and so I write for it. I give myself to it in the hope that it shall give something back to me.

“Am I in love? –yes, since I am waiting. The other one never waits. Sometimes I want to play the part of the one who doesn’t wait; I try to busy myself elsewhere, to arrive late; but I always lose at this game. Whatever I do, I find myself there, with nothing to do, punctual, even ahead of time. The lover’s fatal identity is precisely this: I am the one who waits.”  A Lover’s Discourse , Roland Barthes.

And that is it, that is it right there.