An invigorating, although at times uncertain, walk to see Curtis Falls in the Mount Tambourine area (Brisbane, Australia) in contrast to a Skywalk walk through to see Cedar Creek (also on Mt Tambourine) alerted me to the importance of signposting. I migrated that thinking across to the challenge of providing feedback to doctoral candidates in their writing – particularly the writing skill of signposting in the dissertation.
A first question about this topic might be ‘why signpost?’ and the answer for me comes from the experience of examining a doctoral dissertation. If I am sitting comfortably and my reading of a dissertation flows, then I am in a positive framework to absorb what that dissertation is arguing. When this relaxing and stimulating process is interrupted then my attitude, and hence my examination of the dissertation, is interrupted.
There are obvious and traditional signposts in the doctoral dissertation. An index at the beginning of the dissertation shows a reader how the dissertation is structured. Often in the opening chapter a writer outlines what a reader will experience in the later chapters, and thus in a different way, lays out the plan of the dissertation. The comparisons between an index and a narrative are similar to those drawn between a traditional scientific explanation of an inquiry and the journey or narrative of the inquiry.
Sometimes, a diagram can be useful serving a similar purpose as a map for a road trip.
In addition what I would describe as the genre specific signposts, a writer might adopt more subtle signposts, implanted with the specific recognition that an examiner is a first time reader of the dissertation and as such can benefit from scaffolding the writing with some clues as to where the dissertation is heading and more importantly where the thesis – the argument contained in the dissertation – has come from. Genre specific refers to both the genre of a dissertation as one form of academic writing, and the genre of dissertation writing that adopts the metaphor of telling the story of the journey.
These subtle additions can fall into three categories:
- Telling forward
- Use of scaffolding models that speak to the overall structure of the dissertation
- Reminding (telling backward)
An extended argument is often hard to remember. In such extended arguments, readers often ask themselves questions – for example, what does this section mean? Or I wonder if the inquirer has thought of X? A writer, the doctoral candidate, mindful of how an examiner/reader will read the work, can pre-empt these internal questions by embedding comments such as –
a definition for this term is provided on page…
(and offer a future page number or section heading);
or a comment such as –
The impact of this philosophy on the ways in which this inquiry had been undertaken is elaborated on page (and offer a future page number).
There may be a metaphor or analogy that supports the act of telling forward at this point as well, one that become relevant from theory or that has grown out of the author’s own research and mind map of the work that the thesis will do.
An example of this telling forward metaphor in Jo Trelfa’s PhD dissertation was a metaphor about ‘spirals’, drawn from Trimingham (2002). Jo’s metaphor described the stages of her doctoral investigation, and within these spiral stages, ‘strands’ of the core themes that had been woven through. A metaphor of a weaving or tapestry gave substance to how her dissertation had been structured.
In describing her creative scaffolding, Jo also adds a note of caution….
Metaphors and analogies work well for me; I have always moved toward images to grasp what would otherwise be amorphous thought and feelings. The research and thesis experience lent to quite a few! But, to pick up on Geof’s analogy of going for walk, for the reader it became like making one’s way through a forest of captivating vivid colours but as a consequence losing one’s footing. Pruning was required during editing to help keep the path clear’
A second writing device Jo used in her dissertation was to adopt the literature device of a preface, a prologue and an introduction. In the preface she provided details useful to know from the outset – this included her metaphor of ‘spirals, strands, and props’. The prologue offered a space to tell her story, who she is and how she came to the project and the research question. Together these provided the gateway to the introduction – traditional in a dissertation – through which the reader could enter, readied to do so with that understanding in place. Her use of a ‘prologue’ served a purpose similar to what in this blog has been referred to as Provenance (Hill and Lloyd, 2018). https://supervisorsfriend.wordpress.com/2019/10/16/practitioner-inquiry-and/
As (presumably) Barnard (1921) suggests ‘a picture paints a thousand words’ – so using pictures or graphics in a dissertation can also signpost the dissertation argument structure. In so doing for her dissertation, Jo Trelfa drew attention to an arts-based agenda in doctoral writing of Turner’s (1974) liminoid that celebrates the interplay of the arts and science. Two diagrams in her chapter 1 depicted firstly the spirals of inquiry that represented the five settings in which the investigation was undertaken;
and these five spirals played out in front of four themes, demonstrated in her diagram almost like musical notation.
As an argument becomes more complicated, a writer may choose to embed reminders of what has already been discussed. These can appear at the beginning of chapters to remind the reader what was achieved in the previous chapter and how that connects to the current one; they may be page references to draw the reader’s attention to a definition that had been provided in the argument and at this point in a dissertation need reminding about.
Talking about her dissertation and the writing devices she adopted, Jo Trelfa explained a reminding device that she adopted by including an epilogue in the dissertation.
Finally, in writerly tools, a work that commences with a prologue must have an epilogue. It was a space in which I could precis the thesis and determine what could follow, whilst also highlighting the shortfalls of the research so that these might be avoided in those future developments.
Feedback to the writer
One of the major challenges for a research supervisor is to provide pertinent and timely feedback on various iterations of drafts of the dissertation. As the document comes closer to completion, a supervisor might choose to recommend addition of scaffolding comments or signposts into the text to facilitate the examiner, a first reader, having a comfortable read of the work.
Some examples of this feedback might include:
- In chapter one, reminding the author of the importance of a set of paragraphs that elaborate the whole dissertation. These often appear at the end of the chapter to lead into the remainder of the dissertation. This scaffolding might include a model that illuminates how the various chapters work together to construct a complex argument.
- Sometimes in a chapter such as the conclusions, the complexity of knowledge arising out of the inquiry may make this chapter difficult to read and a coded diagram could be added to facilitate a reader knowing exactly where they are in terms of the conclusions being reached by the thesis. The same concept can work in a complex methodology chapter, that a coded devise – say a diagram of the overall methodology – is colour coded to indicate which sections of the chapter address which parts of a complex process.
Speaking about her supervision, Jo Trelfa commented in interventions that helped to guide her, singling out the support from Prof. Alison James, an expert in the serious business of play in higher education, who helped her to coppice her work. The drawings/graphics of the spirals and threads were inspired by her supervisors, Dr Olu Taiwo, Dr Richard Cuming and Prof. Inga Bryden. Another model developed
was a device inspired by her supervisors and was particularly significant in the early part of the thesis.
As an examiner of this writing, the signposting assisted the reading of the work. In discussion with Jo following her examination she also commented on the supervisor support for her viva, which again reinforced the signposts that she had adopted in her writing and suggested ways to mobilise those signposts in her talking about her dissertation.
Barnard F. B. (December, 1921) Printer’s Ink (December, 1921),
Trimingham M. (2002) A methodology for practice as research. Studies in Theatre and Performance, 22 (1), pp.54-60
Turner S. (1974) Liminal to liminoid, in play, flow, and ritual: an essay in comparative symbology. Rice Institute Pamphlet – Rice University Studies, 60, No.3. Texas: Rice University
Jo Trelfa’s PhD is published by Winchester University
Facilitating reflective practice in higher education professional programmes: reclaiming and redefining the practices of reflective practice