Focussing on IT skills in writing a dissertation.

working with microsoft

Such is the dominance of Microsoft that a book linking dissertation writing and effective Word skills becomes both viable and marketable. Having started my first research degree with a ‘lap top’ computer that was as big as a sewing machine, and attached to a dot printer, and later an electric typewriter, I can see the benefits in just the changes in word processing technology with regard to writing the various documents associated with undertaking a research degree.

The dissertation I wrote with my ‘lap top’ and dot printer had to be totally transcribed and formatted because the particular word processing program was not capable of changing the margins. The incorrect margin sizes had not been noted in the early drafts of the dissertation and when it came time to deliver the final product, the concerns raised by the Office of Research at that university were too late.

We talk about graduate skills of research and many of these are writing technology skills. Having capacity to use the ever growing number of technology tools assists both research and research writing. In that context, the review copy of a book that was sent to me raised my interest. I likened it to the Australian Psychology Association writing guidelines handbook that became my editing bible when I was writing my dissertation.

The techniques offered in this book can save candidature time in that time can be wasted with lengthy editorial processes. Being able to format the document as you go enables the groundwork to be laid well before the volume of content is overwhelming. Something as simple as continual updating the contents list helps the researcher/writer locate important parts of their text and saves that searching time. For students whose inquiry draws on and develops data tables, any assistance in formatting the range of tables can save time.

The book is quite comprehensive and thus overwhelming, however following the authors own suggestion of ‘not to read it all in one sitting’ and to think of it as a reference book, reduces the information overload. It draws attention to the effectiveness of the index and whether an IT solution to a problem that you are encountering at any given time can be located within the text. Of the ideas that I located pertinent to my own research, I was taken by Word services such as the auto format provision, one which in the author’s words is ‘quite well hidden’. Mastery of such a tool can mean that first attempts at writing are being corrected in your own styles of writing, but, as with any services it also brings with it a range of other options that you may need to control. Another of the insights was the formatting help to set up structure for the whole document so that as individual parts of a document are introduced they confirm to the styles already adopted.

One of the important issues for research advisors with regard to a book like this is how to go about introducing it to students. I see two options of problem solving are available to advisors. One option is that they solve the problem themselves and tell the student what to do. The other option is that they introduce appropriate references at key problem based points in the candidature and support the student in using the reference book to solve the particular problem. The later seems to me to engender a self-help approach and establish problem solving practices that work well after the dissertation is completed.

Posted in Analytical tools for the early months of candidature | Leave a comment

Looking for signs of quality in the research culture.

algea

On a regular basis, the waterways around Australia are extensively investigated and a report is made to the community about their quality. The investigators look at a range of factors. The longevity of these studies provides additional information over time about whether changes in the practices of some of the population are producing evidence of improved environment.
Most research cultures get nowhere near this level of scrutiny, but there are signs that can be brought to our attention that are worthy of note. In the course of my work related to research supervision I have experienced first-hand two research cultures and been on the periphery of several others, either as a stakeholder or participant. Of the two I have lived in, one I watched change from an educative culture in which research supervisors were supported in improving their practice to a compliance culture in which practice was monitored against a range of indicators. Shifting to a compliance culture did little else but substantiate that people were breathing. It appeared to me that the actual research supervision declined over this period.
Like the waterways analysis there are benchmarks for quality universities. One of these benchmarks by Gardner (1968) suggests that a university stands for

  • Things that are forgotten in the heat of the battle;
  • Values that get pushed aside in the rough-and-tumble of everyday living;
  • The goals we ought to be thinking about and never do;
  • The facts we don’t like to face; and
  • The questions we lack the courage to ask.

Weick (2002), citing Gardner (1968) suggested that thinking related to organisational learning could benefit with reference to such benchmarks. When we think about the research culture in a particular university or faculty, this is a form of organisational learning analysis.
In the research culture of which I am currently a part, I have started to notice signs that I believe point to concerns about the research culture. These signs are often in research student conversations. While these conversations may be to some ‘sounding off’, they also provide what I consider to be valid signs about the quality of the research culture.
One student told me that he had supported his supervisor in a grant application only to find when the grant was granted that the money was given to another person and his contribution was labelled as editing, even though the professor in question had not previously been successful in obtaining a grant.
Another student, whose research proposal presentation I attended, explained to me when I questioned the do-ability of the breadth of his study, that his supervisor wanted both qualitative and quantitative elements of the study, thus generating almost three fully blown studies, because quantitative methods was the professors speciality, even though the student could see a valid argument for qualitative methods.
A third student found that his supervisor’s insistence at a late stage that there be changes in the research proposal resulted in inconsistencies between the research proposal and what was presented in an oral presentation. This meant that he failed to meet the requirements for a particular milestone and was thus denied support to attend a conference.
At the same time as hearing these conversations I also had the opportunity to read transcripts of supervision meetings between research students and their advisors. These transcripts appeared filled with instances of not answering quite specific student questions and at times appearing to take a quite condescending tone towards students and telling them what to do.
Recently, listening to students present their emergent work at a PhD colloquium I was particularly taken aback by the lack of support for students and the apparent need for some professors to show their own knowledge at the expense of highlighting shortcomings of a student. At the same colloquium the key note speaker talked about research publication synonymously with publication in ‘A’ star journals. One lone voice in the assembly of students and their advisors spoke up and expressed concern that this definition of publication was quite a narrow one. I seconded this voicing, suggesting that such a narrow view takes away from the role that publication of any form plays in the overall research process.

Weick (2002, S10) suggests that

‘a surprisingly large number of occupations treat novices as people who must be tested and who must prove themselves. Legitimacy is earned. And in the earning of it, learning suffers, especially for women and minorities. The idea of ‘developing’ these novices, supporting their efforts and stepping in before they fail is foreign to a surprising number of learning organisations’

As I read this general description of organisations and learning organisations I resonated with the articulation of the research culture, the signs of which I have indicated.
There is a chance that in my own view I am also blinded to other indicators of quality culture and this disenchantment moves me to actively look for examples of a quality culture. What it suggests to me as a research advisor/supervisor is to be mindful of what I am seeing around me and constantly asking myself whether these a passing observations of signs of the research culture in which I work and to which I contribute. This generates an agenda of constantly what I can do as an individual to build up a positive and encouraging research culture.

Gardner, J.W. (1968) No easy victories. Harper, New York.
Weick, K.E. (2002) Puzzles in Organisational Learning: an exercise in disciplined imagination. British Journal of Management, 13, S7-S15.

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What constitutes relevant knowledge about a research student?

The little things we do together

When I present workshops (or cabarets) on research supervision, particularly the relational aspects of research supervision, I often draw on the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim’s song from ‘Company’, the little things we do together. One particular line refers to

‘It’s the little things you share together, bare together, dare together,
that make perfect relationships.

This line draws attention to something that I have been considering with regard to building relationships between research supervisors/advisors and their students. As in any relationship, the quality of the relationship grows with mutual sharing. Sometimes what is shared and how much is shared, need to be acknowledged, because this sharing provides indicators of the level of awareness and concern that is developing between the two stakeholders or participants of this important relationship.

In thinking about the relationship between academic and student, I am drawn to consider an event from an earlier time when I was a senior academic, teaching in a post-graduate diploma. I had to follow up what appeared as an anomaly between submitted assignments from two different students. The commonality of phrases gave the impression of plagiarism. One of the students had recently had a baby and my more senior colleague, knowing my tendency to get straight to the heart of the matter of the discussion, reminded me to ask how the baby was faring. It was a respectful alert, that in dealing with any student there is an expectation to recognise that the student is operating in ever widening circles of experience, and sometimes what is happening in the wider circles of experience, what might otherwise be considered irrelevant, is in fact what is behind the current issue. The same philosophy I believe applies to the relationship between supervisor/advisor and their research student.

Remembering this story also alerts me to an instance in my own doctoral candidature when I was quite disinterested during a meeting with my pair of research supervisors. One of the two picked up my despondent mood and suggested we have coffee. In the course of the coffee she learnt that I was due to fly to the U.K. the following day to see my wife whom I had not seen for several months, and everything else seemed irrelevant in the light of this agenda. In reflecting on this event I also realize that, in that instance, my supervisor had made a priority decision that my emotional state seemed more important than any of her other pressing projects at that time, and that she could devote 30 minutes to going perhaps a little beyond the expectations of the relationship to demonstrate concern for me. In the big scheme of things this small event carried a lot of weight in my regard for her and her supervision practices, and added to what remained a good relationship long after I had graduated from my doctoral degree. I am pleased to say that relationship still continues.

These rambling stories and ideas have a point in that I believe that a research student has expectations about what a supervisor/advisor should know about their research and potentially should know about other matters which, while they may be outside the focus of the research per say, may still be relevant in the broader relationship building. These expectations influence the conversations between student and supervisor/advisor.

Given that an advisor/supervisor is reading the student’s work, I believe it is a sound student expectation that the supervisor/advisor would demonstrate command of the student’s writing such that they can point out anomalies in their work. An example comes to mind from talking with one of my students, that part of her description of how a participant had acted in a workshop had bearing on comments she had made elsewhere in her dissertation, and, because of my familiarity with the whole document, and particularly the data she had collected and analysed, I was able to remind her of the relationship between these two aspects of her written work. I was able to demonstrate my intimate knowledge of what she had written in her working documents.

A second level of fair expectation for knowing what the student is doing is where the student is engaged in a range of experiences on the peripheral of their research, such as attending conferences and workshops. If they have shared those experiences with their supervisor/advisor, then I believe it is a fair expectation that a supervisor will bring those into the conversations related to the work, because they often represent opportunities for research publication. That expectation means asking students about their presentations and particularly looking for what the student has learnt by presenting and how that has filtered into the dominant discourse of their dissertation. Similarly, it is a fair expectation that when these ideas are initiated by the student, this is a clear indication that the student is happy to talk about them and from their perspective, these peripheral matters have bearing on the core matter of the research.

A third level of knowledge links to what the research student is doing outside the periphery of their research. If for example a student has been unwell, then I believe it is reasonable for them to expect that a research supervisor/advisor would ask about their health. But, if they have mentioned in a previous conversation that they had tickets for a ballet or a sporting match, that may not be expected to be remembered and may be seen as social chit chat. This is a grey area, because there are no clear rules about what is relevant and what it not, and perhaps each shared piece of knowledge needs individual consideration.

There is in my mind reciprocity related to this sharing of information that reflects the development of academic peers emerging from the advisor/supervisor and student relationship into academic colleagues. If the research supervisor/advisor is aware and noting events in the student’s life, then events that they, the advisor/supervisor have shared, can also be part of the student’s growing awareness of the juggling act that many academics undertake. The student needs to be mindful of these other commitments that impact on the research supervisor’s/advisor’s portfolio when placing other expectations on them, such as the reading of work drafts. If for example a supervisor has commented about a key journal article they are working on, then it would be expected that a student might be more lenient in deadline expectations related to their own work, recognizing that completing the journal article may dominate their supervisor/advisor’s horizons at that time. Even what seems a peripheral comment, such as alerting an absence due to a medical procedure could have bearing on their attendance to the student’s matters. If an advisor were to share that they were having eye surgery, then this directly affects their ability to read the student’s work, and as such needs to be considered when the student establishes expectations about their work being read.

The strength of the relationship between a student and their supervisor/advisor is a key factor in the success of the candidature, and more importantly the likelihood of completion. Scratching the surface of this relationship can often lead to improved relationships and greater certainty of win:win outcomes.

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Supporting the final (dissertation) chapter

Winning runner with cloud background

There would appear to be very little written about the last chapter of a dissertation, and even less about how a research supervisor can support the student in this final important effort. There are multiple metaphors of sustaining oneself through various races. The writing of the final chapter is akin to that last stretch of the race where you can see the finish line in sight but your body is aching and you are unsure whether you will make it to the end. Many a sports coach has advised their athlete on strategies for the final surge. There is nothing worse than collapsing with exhaustion before the end has been reached!

When we think of pedagogy for supporting the final chapter it is worthwhile to take a lead from Socrates and Socratic questioning – asking the research student about their overall study is a good way to help them focus on what needs to be said in this final chapter. This pedagogy brings with it an attitude toward the student that is often talked about, but not always made explicit. After undertaking a long term study, the research student has become the expert in their own topic. They are knowledgeable about this particular study and there is a risk that with all their knowledge they may forget to scaffold their achievements in ways that those who have not journeyed the journey can comprehend. It is akin to choosing a selection of travel photos to share your trip with an interested audience, rather than requiring friends who express interest in your trip to view every photo in order to understand what you enjoyed about your travel.

The whole dissertation is an argument. The final chapter serves a purpose to make explicit the contributions being made by this particular study to the body of knowledge. This idea that research makes a contribution to knowledge is quite a traditional one and one which has been reinvigorated by the Bologna Agreement to ensure that doctoral or research work is clearly focussed on contributions to knowledge.

Some of the questions I have used with students setting out their final chapter include:

  • What are the conclusions you have reached through your investigation? Where do these conclusions fit in the frame you established to contextualise your study at the start of the investigation?
  • How do you think these conclusions will make a difference to whatever you have been studying?

Both these questions make explicit links to earlier chapters, particularly those chapters that helped to frame the issue or question your research was investigating. When these links are made explicit, a reader can remember what they have read earlier in their reading of the dissertation and can then make the connections you want them to as they read the final chapter.

An additional pertinent question about the contributions made by a particular dissertation comes from a discussion I had recently with a colleague about the relevance of theoretical findings to practice. The line of the argument was that as taxpayers have in some way contributed to a research study, they have an entitlement to see that the engagement in research has made a difference in their lives or in the lives of those people whom they know. I likened this to the experience many members of a graduation audience have when they listen to the summaries of the graduating PhD students and struggle to understand what it is they have been studying, and more importantly how their research actually makes a difference. My colleague alluded to a challenge made about a number of Australian research council grants that resulted in one of the academics explaining the relevance of her innocuous topic on talk back radio. This helped to make the connection for the person in the street, or as in this case, the listener on talkback radio.

The second agenda I hope I bring to the writing of the final chapter is one of scaffolding. As claims are made about the conclusions arising from the analysis of the data, it is hoped that the line of argument is also evident. That a reader can remember what they have read about the positioning of the study in the initial chapters, and remember the conclusions reached from the analysed data and make the appropriate connections to the claims being made in this final chapter to the contributions to knowledge. Because of the size of the dissertation, sometimes these claims need quite explicit referencing so that a reader can flick back a few pages and see how the line of argument is being made.

A third agenda relates to other contributions the study has made alongside the obvious contribution to the knowledge base of the topic being studied. One of my students improved a framework used to analyse the data of her study. In her final chapter she wrote about this being a contribution to methodology. Another student, early in the practice-related inquiry phase, had advanced the notion of what it meant to undertake practice-related inquiry, and this at a time when the approach was still emerging within research practice. This also constituted a contribution to the knowledge associated with practice-related inquiry. These additional contributions also need to be teased out in a final chapter so that an examiner is fully aware of all of the ways in which a student has advanced their thinking.

A final strategy that I have found useful in reading the student’s dissertation and particularly in advising about what is needed in the final chapter, is based on a notion that earlier chapters contain promises of what is to come. These may be explicit or may be implied in the writing, and as I read the earlier chapters I try to note the promises being made so that in the final chapters I can audit whether these promises have been delivered. The best example is linking the abstract to the actual dissertation and checking whether promises made in the abstract actually came to pass. That is not saying that all promises made have to be fulfilled. Sometimes the promises produce unforseen problems and explaining how that problem was addressed and resolved is also an important contribution to knowledge as it provides evidence of the problem solving abilities achieved through undertaking an investigation. In the final chapter these threads are drawn together and if still hanging loose, their looseness is identified so that a reader knows that the researcher knows that these issues are not fulfilled. These issues may turn into a section of future directions for this particular study.

A conversation with a research student on day I posted this blog has prompted me to look at a further issues related to the writing of the final chapter. While I see the final chapter as making explicit the contributions of knowledge, I realise that many people also see this chapter as laying the groundwork for studies that may follow in the wake of the study articulated in the dissertation. In this regard there is space in the final chapter for also making explicit the new questions that have emerged as a result of undertaking the study. The student to whom I spoke also added an important coda to this idea. His final chapter not only laid the groundwork for future studies but revealed the emergent passion for future studies that has come out of his initial investigation. In a sense his final chapter celebrated his finding his researcher’s voice. Too often students finish a study and complete their dissertation with the Peggy Lee line ’is that all there is?’ and when the final chapter can thus embrace and celebrate the emergent researcher, this in my opinion is a bonus both for the writer and the many readers who will benefit from their work.

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Negotiating delivery of research supervision service

cleveland-breach-of-contract-lawyer

Since discussions about research supervision started in the mid 1980s there has been talk about the importance of the student negotiating with their supervisor about a delivery of service. Some of this emerged in the literature under a banner of research supervision agreements and prompted a debate as to whether these were contracts as such with legal status and enforceability, or understandings and vehicles for promoting discussion about what a student’s expectations were related to their candidature. In the shift from the laissez faire of the 1980s, in which it was a -maybe not articulated but secretly believed- ‘the PhD will be finished in due course’ culture, to what I perceive as the current milestone driven culture, where there is not only pressure of completion but pressure to achieve the nominated milestones, perhaps these concepts of supervision agreements need revisiting.
The notion of a supervision agreement is a wonderful tool for eliciting from the research student their view of what a research degree would involve for them, and what they expect in terms of support from their appointed advisor/supervisor. This is always a difficult for a research student as they do not know what they do not know. For this reason a tool such as Role Perception rating Scale, referred to elsewhere in this blog in the series of articles about the first six months, is so useful. It provides the agenda of things to consider as to how the relationship might at least start.

While it is important to encourage a student to articulate what they see as their needs with regard to support for their research degree, I fall short of expecting that one person (the supervisor or advisor) can provide all this, and I see an opportunity within the context of negotiating a delivery of service to help the student begin to network, so that the provision of service comes from a range of sources rather than a single source.
For example a request for daily meetings with a supervisor may be possible for some supervisors to grant. Indeed, I have heard some laboratory managers talk about their daily meetings with research students to both ensure progress in research and protection of sometimes expensive equipment. For others, this sort of request may be the opportunity to explore with the student the possibility of student initiated communities of practice in which a group of research students agree to begin their day with a meeting and share where they are at and use the collective for sorting out some of the challenges of making sense of where you are at with the literature and how you are progressing with writing deadlines. This is not a sole solution. The community of research scholars may have insufficient knowledge of the specific literature pertaining to a student’s investigation to be able to challenge the ways in which they are establishing meaning for their topic and positioning it in readiness for a tilt at investigation. It is but one of many strategies that encourage a research student to be part of a network of peers.

These sort of communities of scholars can be even initiated in compulsory coursework, where instead of the lecturer teaching the specified coursework they adopt a pedagogy of facilitating a community of (research) practice in which participants can share their forming thoughts and have these discussed and maybe challenged by other peer researchers. The community of practice can still proceed through an identified curriculum. The impact of this can be a shift in the knowledge base from the lecturer as guru to the students as collaborators in a journey of discovery. With a greater sense in the worth of their own knowledge, research students are more likely to take hold of the reins of their study and progress.

Along the progress of candidature, early agreements, if they were made, need to be revised as the needs of the student and the demands of the supervisor/advisor change. If agreements have not been made, there is a risk of overwhelming demands when the research student is feeling overwhelmed, thus reinforcing the importance of early agreements that are revised as candidature progresses.

Establishing these minor milestones of meetings and commitments to work to discuss at meetings also impact on the project planning nature of a research degree. These events form the in-between events in otherwise identified and agreed upon milestones. For example, the milestone might be delivery of a research proposal but a service agreement establishes a series of meetings and writing samples to advance toward this important milestone.

One of the other areas of negotiating delivery of service can be associated with the advancement of the written work. For some students, being alerted to their spelling and citation mistakes when they are still formulating an overall argument achieves only a degradation of their ability. This can be particularly the case with students for whom English is their second language. There is much to be said for a student specifying the type of feedback that would be valuable for them at the individual stages of writing. If such a demand creates a dilemma for the supervisor who feels that they need to identify every small blemish in the work in order to maintain their professionalism, this may be covered with a blanket statement encouraging the student to pay more attention to grammar check and helping them with resources that demystify the grammar comments.

Each of these ideas comes from a core belief in empowering the student. By encouraging a research student to articulate their needs at the various points in their candidature I believe this develops ownership of the project and lays the ground work for a more likely completion.

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Arguing (philosophically) for something different in the dissertation

I have previously written about this topic. Recent events have made it timely to revisit those original thoughts. I have just completed a tour of three universities in the U.K. at which I have been presenting a cabaret on ‘what happens when a researcher wants to publish their research differently?’, and in presenting this inquiry in cabaret I have also modeled the very points I am making.

The role of publication in the research process is an important one. It is through publication of one’s ideas that one’s peers can read the proposed new knowledge and verify that a contribution has been made. There are two important precedents to this aspect of the research process.

The first of these precedents lies in the history of the Medieval monasteries at which prospective students would have to present an argument and defend themselves against all comers. This tradition has been retained in research in the form of double-blind review in which two peers read and review your work without essentially knowing who you are. This process is used in many of the academic publications and forms the basis of dissertation examination.

The second precedent is in the publication of Boyle’s experiment producing the pneumatic pump. Boyle developed a writing style by which readers of the description of this experiment could ‘witness’ that the experiment was genuine and thus affirm his contribution to knowledge. This style of writing became the common style for writing about research and formed the dominant genre for academic writing.
Both precedents contribute to establishing ways of publishing research and also support the dominant genre of academic discourse. That is not to say that there are not alternatives. The paradigm wars emerging from Kuhn’s proposition that paradigms underpinned the ways in which we investigate, led to alternative ways of undertaking investigations and thus alternate ways of publishing. A good case in point is the use of writing in the third person to indicate objectivity. Following the paradigm wars it became appropriate to write in the first person to demonstrate a subjective relationship with the data.

The majority of research students undertaking their candidature seek an unproblematic process. Rarely is the accepted form and structure of a dissertation challenged. Every once in a while, there will be a student who seeks to let their creativity infuse the final look of their dissertation, and while this invites a greater challenge in terms of dissertation writing, it also provides the edge by which the iconic genre can be challenged. This possibility seems to be occurring more frequently as some of the creative research degrees are launched and as the impact of the OECD definition of research, including creative works, starts to filter through the system. In cases where a student wants something different, I recommend that the argument for such variations to the standard be well established and presented as part of the agenda for making this particular contribution to knowledge. I am aware of three different types of argument pertaining to these changes to the norm.

The first form of argument is based on precedent. In reading the literature the student seeks for precedents to their desired approach to investigating their topic. These precedents may exist in other investigations of the same topic or investigations of similar topics in different disciplines. For example, a student investigating their own practice in business and wanting to use practitioner stories, may be able to draw on the research related to another practice, say teaching for example, in which there is a strong usage of practitioner stories. In their own argument they suggest a similar approach even though the disciplines may be different.

The second form of argument I describe as the paradigm approach. It involves exploring the ways in which the topic is articulated and particularly how knowledge is communicated and expressed by the key stakeholders of that topic. Looking at what counts as knowledge in that field is embracing an epistemological argument, and epistemology is part of the inquiry paradigm. A common example is the nature of ‘water-cooler’ conversations and how these often reflect a more accurate portrayal of what is happening in an organisation, than perhaps the formal lines of communication.

The third approach is less common and has particularly as I have worked with experienced practitioners who turn later in their career to investigating various practices, particularly the ones in which they have been engaging. When a practitioner describes the practice and the ways in which they have been developing that practice, they may recognise parallels to formal descriptions of research. I find it is quite common for people who have been engaged in iterative processes of practice investigation, such as a quality improvement cycle, to recognise the similarity to action inquiry. Once having recognised that this is the way they have already been investigating a practice external to a university setting, their argument is to retain this approach and refine it in the light of the available literature about that particular investigative approach.

These variations from the norm are not restricted to methodologies. A strong tradition in research is that the literature review is contained in a single chapter. A variation on this form is to argue the evidence of literature throughout the dissertation rather than in a single chapter. This choice can be presented from the point of view that continued reading of literature enables the practice being investigated to progressively change.

Doing something different often requires extra effort. This effort is rewarded when it comes to the conclusions of the dissertation. Not only has there been a contribution to the knowledge related to the particular topic, but there have been contributions to the knowledge of methodologies pertaining to that topic. The additional labor undertaken to achieve the desired variations in one’s dissertation is also classed as contributions to knowledge. Once a researcher has championed a different way of progressing their research, this provides for others to follow their footsteps and thus establish a set of practices that then become taken for granted steps in subsequent research.

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Specific pedagogies – a review of the Carolyn Baker Memorial lecture

When the research supervision literature talks about research supervision as pedagogy it tends to use this as a general term, rather than nominating specific pedagogies. From reading this blog it may have become evident to you that I have a preference for the specifics of pedagogy, as it enables a research supervisor or advisor to review their own repertoire of practice and either refine or add to it, to improve the overall research candidature.

You can imagine the delight I experienced when attending the Carolyn Baker Memorial lecture at Women’s College at University of Queensland, when the speaker, Professor Jane Kenway, elaborated on specifics of research supervision pedagogy. Her insights evolved from a study she had undertaken with Johanna Fahey, based on conversations with several iconic educators. The study was intended to illuminate the cross over between imagination and research, and Kenway’s presentation at the Carolyn Baker Memorial lecture was presented to motivate current educational researchers and their supervisors into embracing the imaginative in their research.
She summed up her presentation referring to several pedagogies of research supervision which she believed helped research students to embrace the creative. She discerned these pedagogies from one particular chapter in her book describing Imagining research otherwise.

  1. Encourage uncomfortable thought. Challenge the taken for granted assumptions. This particular pedagogy on the surface relates to the value of students physically travelling and thus broadening their understanding of how research is done in different parts of the world. When they don’t travel, they can still be encouraged to travel from the point at which their research started with its history and biography to where it ends up – somewhere different. In some ways this involves identifying a student’s comfort zone and encouraging them to think outside their box.
  2. Examine the unexamined. Look at how and where you have framed a particular question and whether there are other ways to frame that question. This encourages the researcher to push beyond the identified boundaries of their discipline. For the supervisor I imagine that this would involve constantly helping the student to reflect on how they have framed their question rather than on the actual question itself.
  3. Question the question. This is a related pedagogy to examining the unexamined. Recognise that every question has inbuilt sensibilities. Look for how the question is framed and whether this reveals certain assumptions about the issues you are investigating. This appears to be a form of facilitating critical reflection or reflexivity for the researcher.
  4. Go digging not surfing. Broadening one’s focus to look for what lies beyond the self-evident. As I listened to this suggestion it reminded me of looking more broadly than in the obvious journals. I know in my own research some of the valuable insights have come from journals in different disciplines. Research is very much cross disciplinary.
  5. Strive for complexity. Becoming and imagining beyond what you have become as a researcher. This pedagogy speaks to the rigour of the research that it is intended that a topic will be studied at a much more complex level than everyday conversation, but there is still the challenge to communicate this in ways that intelligent people can understand you.
  6. Discover the intellectual excitement in the problem. Kenway suggested, with reference to one of the people she had interviewed in the book, that imagination is the door to amazement, and that this recognising something amazing was where lay the excitement, what some call the passion of research.

I found that these ideas inspired me as a research supervisor and I hope this summary does the same for you.

Kenway, J and ; Fahey, J. (2009) Globalizing the Research Imagination Taylor and Francis

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Empowering the student

ID-flower

We read a lot, or at least see the rhetoric , that the PhD is the student’s work.
I know from experience with my own doctoral dissertation that there was a point in my candidature at which I saw the dissertation as mine and found a voice for myself as a researcher. In the cabaret I wrote about doing a doctorate I described this moment as

‘I’ve got a feeling of excitement. I know my way around here. The literature, the discourse the ground here’

There is much anecdotal evidence to support the notion that if the student is empowered to see their research as their research, then this factor alone can make all the difference between completion and the alternative, often referred to as ABD – all but the dissertation! On the counter side there is a history of uncontrolled power, that unless checked, works against the student finding and claiming their own voice. Even the term supervisor has power elements embedded in it. Where universities have shifted the term to the less ominous ‘advisor’, that at least changes the rhetoric but these rhetorical changes may not change the range of practices which have served to sustain a power imbalance with the advisor/supervisor as powerful and the student in the powerless position.

In the field of practice-related inquiry in which I work, there is an additional anomaly about power. All of the students whom I have supervised have come into doctoral programs with extensive knowledge of their practice. In most instances their knowledge of their own practice is greater than what I would asses as my knowledge on that topic. In these instances, my knowledge based is familiarity with the various practices associated with undertaking doctoral inquiry, and I try to use that knowledge to ease their journey through the degree, as I grow in understanding about the particular practice which they are investigating by reading their developing work and having substantive conversations with them. I find at the end of the process I have gained additional knowledge about the topic that my students have been investigating.

A call to look to the power relationship in research supervision/advising is in essence a call to critical reflection. It is inviting awareness of inbuilt processes and structures that inadvertently reinforce the institute power over that of the research student. Some experiences I have seen from the eyes of my own doctoral journey include:

  • Milestone challenges that lack specific and explicit assessment criteria. The lack of such criteria gives the impression of ‘secret business’ which disempowers the student as the outsider.
  • Policies such as ‘show cause’ when a student has not met some of the identified milestones frames the student in the lesser power role.

Call to action!
In the early years of my undergraduate lecturing, where I taught Self- Esteem within Interpersonal Communication, there appeared to be two different ways of looking at a notion of empowering people. The dominant theme involved the powerful person sharing their power with the less powerful. A less common theme which was articulated in F Scott-Peck’s the Road less travelled, took the view that everyone has power and if a powerful person became conscious of their use of power and actively reduced their levels of power, this left space for the less powerful person to flourish and find their own (rather than someone elses’) power. The image of the unfolding powerful person reminded me of an unfolding flower.

Some of the ways an advisor/supervisor might critically reflect on their practices of supporting the research student include:

  • Examine how you describe the student’s knowledge. Is there an effort to reinforce one’s own knowledge base that inadvertently positions the student’s knowledge, not so much as different, but as other, or of less value than that of the person supervising. In an effort to prove oneself worth of the role of supervisor there may be discounting of the student’s knowledge base.
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It’s all about the coffee

coffee cup

When I first attended university in the early seventies, my university celebrated the fact that it added a coffee shop into the union building. This was admittedly after they had negotiated to have a bar on site. At my current university there are so many coffee shops it appears like the central business district. The range and choice is important, as having lived in Melbourne, Australia I had grown to love the taste and social value of coffee. It did not take me long at my new university to fall into a routine of visiting the same coffee shop at around about the same time each day. That is also about routines but that is another story!

Recently I changed coffee shops! I was thinking about this shift in my very routine practice while swimming laps of the pool to start off my day. This may have also been a conscious effort to think about something other than my PhD or my swimming!… and without consciously making the segway I realised I was starting to think of something that was quite foundational to undertaking a research degree. The reality is that whatever you do when you are doing a PhD, the PhD is not far you’re your mind. What started out as a swim, then musing about a changed coffee shop allegiance eventually ended up as thinking about research.

If you are a regular reader of this blog you may well ask yourself what has coffee got to do with research or for that matter a contribution to knowledge?

As I thought about my shift in coffee taking practices I realised it that underneath this innocuous change of practice was a set of criteria on which I was basing and making my choices. In terms of reflective practice (Schön, 1983) it was part of the way I framed my practice, albeit my coffee drinking practice. As I thought about why I had changed outlets I became aware of several criteria on which I was judging ‘goodness’ in coffee taking:

  1. The new coffee shop was a little further but I justified the extra walk as working off whatever calories might come from the muffin I had with my coffee.
  2. The new coffee shop was slightly less expensive. We are only talking cents but these add up when you are taking coffee every day. The change I got at the new coffee shop was exactly the change I needed for the next day’s parking metre.
  3. The queues were not as long at the new coffee shop.

Looking deeper at these factors they involved fiscal and time indicators!
You may still be asking how is this relevant to a research student?.

The parallel I see is that everything that you do in a research degree has connection to performance indicators about good research. When you begin to realise the role of performance indicators in something as ritualistic as taking coffee, it may make it easier to recognise the performance indicators in other aspects of your research degree.
Rarely are students helped to understand what the ‘good’ in ‘good research’ is based on. Until you understand about this goodness, whatever you do is like playing a goal kicking game but not being clear where the goals are located. A good curriculum for research students involves early illumination of what a particular discipline or school considers to be ‘good’ research so that the student knows how to aim for ‘good’.

Given that this is a blog predominantly for research supervisors, it is important for me to go the next step and look at how does this matter for the research supervisor.
Conversations about ‘goodness’ are the core of research discussions. They are not always easy to initiate and if you can ground them in something practical, such as where and why a student may change their coffee outlet, then you can also emphasise how these notions of ‘goodness’ are both variable and at the very heart of research practice.

Recently I attended a PhD colloquium designed to provide a platform for research students to voice their various research projects and obtain feedback from fellow students and academic staff. The key note speaker was an editor from one of the A star journals and he was talking about ‘good’ academic writing. He was advocating a position about ‘good research’ that it was what gets published in A star journals. This really clashed with my own views on good research which were about rigorous and accessible research. I started to wonder whether the ‘good’ research agenda had been hijacked by the related publication agenda. It further incensed me that as the speaker talked about publication, again he defined this as publication in the A* journals. I thought how far we had moved from the notion of double blind review by your peers which resonated with the long held (Medieval and monastic) tradition of a scholar sharing their ideas publicly and answering the challenges of all comers.

It comes back to coffee. How easy it is to shift allegiance from one outlet to another. Once the real performance indicators and potential values are revealed, if not leading to a shift in paradigm, it may help a student recognise where there is dissonance for them through a conflict of core beliefs!

Schön, D. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner: How professionals think in action. U.S.A., Basic Books.

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Analysing your student’s technology abilities.

There was a time when the preliminary stages for a research project or research degree involved finding appropriate publications related to the topic and noting the knowledge. There was an emphasis on ‘finding’ as this may involve walking through stacks of journals and reading a number of articles to locate ones which were relevant to the topic. It was often followed with writing on filing cards the particular information so that the cards could be sorted and begin to form the foundation of a research proposal or literature review.
With the advent of technology, there has been a significant change in what is understood as research practice and this now involves dependence on a range of technologies. In the early stages of a student’s candidature it is worthwhile assessing their technology capability such that appropriate interventions can be organised and a process of developing the technology skills can be devised to run parallel with the emerging research skills.
The importance of technology came to mind recently at a research conference at which all research students in a faculty were invited to present. Awards were given and it seemed to me that those who received awards also excelled in presentation technology. The adage ‘death by powerpoint’ is a strong reminder of how important visual publication of one’s findings can be. Many of the presentations at this conference could perhaps be viewed from that ‘death by powerpoint’ lens. They were words on screens! Two of the presentations which won awards were sophisticated image journeys, one of which used powerpoint and the other made use of the emergent précis technology. The experience alerted me to the role that technology can play in all aspects of a candidate’s experience.

Technology is not restricted to presentational technology. There are sophistications in word processing that include formatting and referencing. The earlier a research student is exposed to these the better. In particular, the exposure and adoption of some of the referencing technologies (such as endnote) requires early exposure so that the procedures become enmeshed into the student’s every day research practices. For example it is a lot easier to be loading references into the end note files as you go as a researcher than to have a large number of references that need loading.
Similar technology is the searching technology. Understanding which words to use to find the appropriate literature in a vast array of literature is a skill that is often developed with assistance from librarians and this means introducing students to the library facilities early while they are still formulating their routines.
Because of my own preference for qualitative research there is a range of other technology with which I am not familiar, nevertheless I know it exists. Statistical services that are available through the computer are also important. Even within qualitative research there have been developments in terms of electronic ways to more effectively record data and convert that data to text and in some cases analyse the data as well.
One of the dilemmas for the research supervisor is that their own technology capability can be a draw back. Without seeing the worth of a set of technology skills in your own research practice, it is hard to recommend the set of skills to a novice researcher.
One research supervision strategy for introducing appropriate technology links to the discussion a supervisor might have with their student in the early days of candidature to ascertain what they see as their expectations of a research journey. That discussion might also explore what the student sees as their technology capabilities and gauge their awareness, if not their expertise, with some of the obvious technologies. It may even be worthwhile having a check list to work through with a student to check their familiarity. Where you identify a lack of familiarity, either choose an appropriate time in the candidature to expose them to that technology or look for at opportunities to encourage their networking with the appropriate authorities to acquire those skills.
Interventions over technology also link to the ways in which students learn. Technology skills are often acquired when undertaking real projects. When a real need is identified, provided that the added stress of learning something new will not push out other deadlines, students can be encouraged to learn the technology in the context of a real project. This can be particularly useful for simple technologies such as formatting a document. Once there are the foundations for a document, introduction of formatting also invites using the index as an overall skeleton for the document. The same would apply to introducing referencing programs as soon as a student is starting to identify specific references that help to build their understanding of the topic.

As with any of the skills involved in undertaking research, one introduction is not necessarily going to solve all problems but it does introduce the agenda to a student so that they can be alert to growth possibilities throughout their candidature.

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