Tales of analysing data : a PhD update

It’s hard, right? I think there’s a point in every PhD journey where you stop and go “wow, so … this is hard”. My most recent point came when I had to begin to analyse my data and really didn’t know where to begin. This isn’t because I didn’t know my subject (although the whispers of imposter syndrome always begin there…) but rather because it felt a little bit like I had a cake that I had to cut and all I had was a banana and a ladle. Torturous metaphors aside, this was – is – a question of tools and utilities. How does one cut the cake? Do you follow the patterns that other people have set (and if so which…) or do you slice transversally? haphazardly? Do you even slice the cake at all?

One of the things that helped me was looking at how other people have worked this. I thought Qualitative Text Analysis by Udo Kuckartz was immensely useful – not in the least, because it recognised how complex and messy this phase can be. It also recognised the kind of silence that exists about the step in this research. Analyse this! Yes, but how? What’s the way to cut the cake? And is it even a cake? Should I be scooping from the middle of it or putting more icing on top of it or what?

(I think the universe is telling me I need cake).

I also found Qualitative Data Analysis by Jamie Harding a very reassuring book, ditto: Interpreting Qualitative Data by David Silverman. There are of course others, but I think these worked for me because they reminded me of what I did know. I think that sometimes we forget the value of that for students – they are learning an immense amount of stuff at this point, and yet they already know a lot of stuff. The stuff that’s being learnt adds a new quality or dimension or texture to that which has come before. Everybody’s story – their personal journey, the things they’ve experienced or learnt or interacted with – influences their approach to that which is yet to come. Sometimes I think the PhD process can be a little bit like ‘well, you know nothing’ when in fact, it’s more of a ‘here’s how to look again at the stuff you do know’. Maybe. Sort of. And yet, here I am doubting even that assertion! Irony!

In between all of this, I have had my first book published. How To Be Brave came out in the US and UK this July, and it’s been very lovely seeing the girls find their feet in the world. How To Be True, a sequel featuring MYSTERIOUS THINGS I CANNOT YET TALK ABOUT BUT YOU WILL FIND A LITTLE CLUE AS TO THEIR CONTENTS IN THE BACK OF HOW TO BE BRAVE, is on its way and I am planning, plotting, dreaming the third book. It will be called How To Be ??? (the question marks are to indicate a kind of mysterious final word and not, as it might seem, a love of grammar). How To Be Brave has received lovely reviews from a lot of people including Kirkus and School Library Journal and I am so immensely grateful for that. How To Be True has been a lot of fun to put together and I can’t wait to tell you more about it.

And now, back to that data analysis. I am trying to pluck up courage to start formulating the chapter where I talk about it. Maybe writing this update will have helped. I think that sometimes writing is like that. You have to creep up on it and start before you’ve quite realised what you’ve done. When you’ve begun, the only option is to keep going. Let’s test that theory!

You can now pre-order signed editions of How To Be Brave

Did You Ever Stop To Think

We are now officially on the countdown to 1st July when my debut How To Be Brave is out and I am very happy to have some news to share with you. If you pre-order through the delightfully lovely Book Nook in Hove, you will get your book signed! personalised! and also support a gorgeous indie bookstore in the process!

(I mean, honestly 😭😍)

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A few quick updates

Hello! I’ve spent the last few months working away on my thesis and on several ‘mysterious yet to be announced’ projects, and I thought it was time for a quick update on this blog. First of all, I want to talk about how delightful it is to see all the libraries preparing to open up again after lockdown. There is very little better than a good library marching back into the world to do what it does best and so good luck librarians! You’re awesome! You change the world everyday!

I managed to get into my university library for the first time this year the other week and it was a delight. It’s been open as best as it could throughout and I did have the opportunity to visit before this, but I was being extra cautious because of family members. But the decreasing numbers of cases in my local area made me feel like I was ready and so I did. Such a delight. Honestly. It’s kind of difficult to not just grab everything off the shelves and hug them.

One of the things I particularly enjoyed was stepping outside of my normal subject area and going to some other places. My research pulls on things ranging from textual analysis through to post-humanism at the moment and so there’s a delight in following the paths that come out of this and seeing where they take me. That was a terribly convoluted metaphor but essentially I looked at new shelves and found some cool stuff.

I really loved Women, Art and Power by Linda Nochlin which is an absolutely searing collection of essays on / about art. Even though I work in creative writing and children’s literature, there’s something really interesting to me about the notion of the ‘gaze’ and how that applies to text (which is, after all, art in its own right). In a way, I think that you (ie: ‘The Reader’) expect to find something in a sentence when you encounter it and, in some senses, have to readjust that which the sentence gives you against your expectation. And, of course, that something you expect to find is coloured by your own positionality within the world and all that you embody / perform / enact within that space. There were some essays I liked a lot more than others in Nochlin’s collection (as is always the way, I think , but I valued them all immensely as provocations. By provocations, I mean text designed / desiring to have some sort of reaction within you (although, having written that, I realise that all text desires for such!). Perhaps a better way to phrase it is to describe them as ‘what if’ pieces; items which consider the possibility of the divergent, otherness of a scenario, and work to explore what they could / might / should be.

I am also immensely enjoying A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. A lot of the work that I’m reading sort of pulls on Deleuze and Guattari as this kind of talismanic reference, and there’s always interest in going back to the original source and seeing what they actually say. So far it’s a delight. I’m always in favour of theory that actually tries to push towards the edge of itself and use the telling of the theory (ie: the words on the page) in order to help make meaning. It’s quite easy to forget how the page looks and feels in favour of simply getting the words out. And whilst getting the words out is important, the texture of them is equally important. That’s a lot of italicisation in a short space, but it is intentional. The look and feel of something matters.

Related: this sort of thing always reminds me about the best book review I ever read which was in Private Eye. The reviewer had written a substantial amount, several paragraphs about this and that, and then moved onto discussing the authors love of a one line paragraph.

“For chilling effect”, they wrote, in a paragraph of its own.

(Honestly, it makes me laugh every time I think of it).

I also have some teaching coming up which will be a nice change. If you’re looking to brush up on your blogging and writing for online audiences skills, another intake of my course at the Institute of Continuing Education, University of Cambridge is about to start. If you can’t make this one then there are later dates. It’s always such a pleasure to teach as it’s quite a short and intensive period – you can really see how people develop from one week to the next.

And finally, How To Be Brave is out in just under three months time! Publishing timelines are big and long things and it’s very lovely to think of my book being out on the shelves soon. I’m very grateful to the people who’ve read and reviewed already (from one reviewer to another: you rock) and I’ll put below some of the advance quotes below. You can pre-order here if you think it might be up your street.

How To Be Brave is now available to pre-order!

I am very pleased to say that my debut middle grade ‘How To Be Brave’ is now available to order (see below for all the info!). It will be published in the UK on July 1st with Pushkin Press.

Did You Ever Stop To Think

What is life, eh? How To Be Brave is now available for pre-order, adding on Goodreads, reading and reviewing via Netgalley, and generally swooning over. (Let us all guess which one I am doing the most of). Thanks so much to the amazing Thy Bui for the cover and the team at Pushkin for making HTBB look so beautiful. I’ve been so grateful at every step of this journey.

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Blogging and Writing For Online Audiences @Cambridge_ICE

I’m pleased to say that tomorrow, I’ll be welcoming another intake onto my Blogging And Writing For Online Audiences course with the Institute of Continuing Education at the University of Cambridge. It runs from Jan 4th to Feb 21st, so it’s a short and intensive few weeks that really do pay off for your writing. I follow a lot of former students online and their work is nothing short of a constant joy.

If you’re looking for a new year kick-start for your writing, then this course might be a good choice for you. There’s still time to join us! We talk about everything ranging from the Barbara Streisand effect through to kitten themed creative writing prompts, and it’s a lot of fun to teach. I’d love to see you there. 😊

Fragments of life as a researcher in 2020

We’re very much overdue an update on this blog, and I’ve been wondering how to do that. I’ve started and finished so many pieces about research – how to do it, what to think of it, how to handle it in this world where everything changes every other day – that I didn’t really know what to write. The notion of ‘failure’ isn’t something that I’ve found easily within research. The notion of ‘what to do in the middle of a pandemic’ even less.

But then, that’s understandable. We’re living this, reacting to it, and writing it even now. We don’t have the privilege of hindsight because we’re not there yet. How can you begin to write about research when you’re not even sure what you’re doing at the moment counts?

Research counts, obviously it counts, but you have to question it and figure out the stuff of it. I research stories and the way they’re told. I tried to describe ‘it’ the other day, and found myself fumbling my way through Moretti’s Graphs, Maps and Trees and, for some reason, joining that to the moors, and the way that that wool twists and catches together, the clart of mud, the sinew of branch –

(the sudden memory of a ram skull placed carefully in the middle of a winter-tree).

It’s left with questions, all of them circling back to that wool and the way it catches, the way the mud’s clarted on, infinity in a whorl of wool-

  • what is matter
  • why does matter matter
  • what makes matter matter
  • what would happen if – ?

Sheep on the moor have been trained to graze a particular area over time. They’re thin, wiry things with an endless sort of air about them. They head to the dips in the road for shelter and when it’s warm, you’ll drive home and see them all over the road, hugging onto the tarmac for warmth and studying you with mild indifference or simply nothing at all. Lambs come the spring and the bright scald of the blue sky and again, for some reason, it’s the wool that I think of.

Sometimes stories can’t be told in the way you want to tell them.

Research is a spiky, strange thing; it is a privilege and a pressure, and I am so lucky to be able to do what I do. I have done it in very dark places and I have done it in the bright and now I do it here, wherever here is.

I’m on the moors, I’m under the sky.

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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