Month: March 2015

What kind of presence?

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Much is made at Doctoral writing of ‘finding the gap’ in the literature  within which PhD / EdD research is situated. The broad advice offered – is that to be original Doctoral research has to explore an area of work that has not yet been explored. This bothers me. Not least of all because the first chapter of most books I buy start with the author outlining the gap in the literature they have found and how their book fills it. I am being sold something I have already bought!

Howard Becker offers a slightly different stance towards this. In his book ‘Writing for social scientists: How to start and finish your thesis, book, or article’, he has an informal, folksy style similar to Les Backs @academicdiary and offers an insight into – not the rules of academic writing, but the practice.

What is it that successful (in inverted commas) academic writers do, how and why, drawing on what resources, when and with whom? In other words does the generic advice to ‘find the gap’ adequately capture what it is that writers do?

Chapter eight of Becker’s book – ‘Terrorized by the Literature’ – provides a sideways glance at how he stitched together this seminal text Outsiders (1963). In the process of getting to grips with and developing his theorisation about deviance, Becker wanted to argue that once a certain label has been acquired, it becomes the most important thing about that person. The language he uses is dated and made me wince, but the thrust of what he says makes so much sense. This work was premised not so much on a gap but on a novel use of an idea already in circulation. A causal aside is made centre stage. There is no gap here as such. There is – instead – a set of premade ideas that he uses and reuses in a slightly different context adapting it until it fits his theoretical purposes. He goes on to suggest two metaphors for this approach – a manly woodworking one in which he is building a table – making some parts from scratch drawing from others that are already made; the other is a more feminine needlework metaphor in which he simply stiches ideas (like bits and pieces of fabric) together; this is academic writing as craft – ideas are cut and stitched, tailored to suit the writer’s desired purpose. Like quilt making.

These are also very active processes. Active in as much as they imply the writer has to make a series of decisions and judgments. The writer has to:

(This list is not exhaustive)

absorb the content of what they read,

determine what is known and what needs to be known,

identify important ongoing disciplinary debates,

develop the judgement to discriminate between work of high quality and mediocre efforts,

extract useful information on which to build,

juxtapose multiple theoretical perspectives and explanations,

connect research studies to one another,

synthesise and reappraise others’ work,

connect their own thinking to that of those who have come before,

and learn the stylistic conventions of written work, such as norms of what to say and what to omit (Becker 1986; Boote and Beile 2005; 2006; Delamont and Atkinson 2001; Kamler and Thomson 2006; Maxwell 2006; Richardson 2006).

Walker and Thomson p106

Learning to work with the literature, ‘to canvass and interpret the field and to construct her version of its terrain’, is also a form of ‘identity work’ in which the scholar positions herself and her own work in relation to the field (Kamler and Thomson 2006: 28–9)

This activity – absorb, determine, identify, develop ….  is done by the writer. The writer’s presence is inescapable. The choice is between a declared ‘Here I am’ presence or an undeclared ‘Here is not where I am’ presence.

The Victoria and Albert  have a lovely exhibition of quilting and patchwork as Art. The image is of course one of Tracey Emin’s Quilts. 

Thanks to Charlotte @charlottedean99 for tweeting this you tube

Becker, H. S. (1986) Writing for Social Scientists. How to start and finish your thesis, book, or article. Chicago,

Boote, D. N. and Beile, P. (2005) Scholars before researchers: On the centrality of the dissertation literature review in research preparation, Educational Researcher, 34(6): 3–15.

——(2006) On ‘Literature Reviews of, and for, Educational Research’: A response to the critique by Joseph Maxwell, Educational Researcher, 35(9): 32–35

Delamont, S. and Atkinson, P. (2001) Doctoring uncertainty: Mastering craft knowledge, Social Studies of Science, 31(1): 87–107.

Maxwell, J. A. (2006) Literature reviews of, and for, educational research: A commentary on Boote and Beile’s ‘Scholars Before Researchers’, Educational Researcher, 35(9): 28–31.

Richardson, V. (2006) Stewards of a field, stewards of an enterprise: The doctorate in education. In C. M. Golde and G. E. Walker (Eds). Envisioning the future of doctoral education: Preparing stewards of the discipline. Carnegie essays on the doctorate. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, pp. 251–67.

Walker, M., & Thomson, P. (Eds.). (2010). The Routledge doctoral supervisor’s companion: Supporting effective research in education and the social sciences. Routledge.


“Ideas like impenetrable knots” … metaphors for writing

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In this post Doctoral Researcher @marycryan  reflects on writing her first Doctoral assignment, exploring her own metaphor for writing.   

I write everyday, it’s a part of my job, so why was writing this so difficult? Firstly because it is a new challenge and raised many questions

  • how do I to know that I’m writing at the correct level?
  • how do I express my passion for my subject in the appropriate language?
  • will the reader ‘get’ my passion?
  • how do I know it has not all been said before?
  • how do I explain every detail of why my research question needs an answer?

After the first couple of weeks of developing my assignment, I began to realise that it was this final question that most perplexed me. In my day job I am trying to express ideas and practices in a fully formed, condensed and succinct way, expressing the material in an easy to pass on way, like a tightly rolled ball of wool.


Writing about my ideas for my research topic was to be very different. These are my ideas; they are muddled; they have many layers; they are not succinct. To visualise as a length of wool, that has been played with by a kitten and has become quite tangled.


Some of my ideas are more like very impenetrable knots! To complete my assignment I needed to give all these thoughts a narrative and a back story, make them orderly and lead in a structured way from one point to the next. This, I realised,was the difficulty and where the guidance I had been given and the planning I had done would come to fruition Drafting the assignment would begin to untangle the ideas and feedback on the draft loosen the knots and give direction to my edits.

The final write up gave the whole thing flow and polished my ideas. Hopefully I have delved into the cause of every knot and tangle and ended up with a length of wool more like this.


I hope my ideas are now fully explained and my passion clear, I won’t know if my woolly thinking is fully untangled until I get the feedback!

Reblogged from EdD researcher: