Monday, January 20, 2020

The PhD: Getting to Grips with New Literatures

Over time all researchers build a knowledge base about their key interests. A large part of this knowledge is a core set of literatures. They/we do need to keep up to date, but they/we can rely on – and use – our incrementally expanding personal library of literatures. However, every so often, researchers have to deal with a completely new topic and brand new literatures.
My colleague Lexi Earl and I are currently writing a book about school gardens. Learning gardens are pretty popular at the moment. They are promoted by celebrity chefs and by environmental scientists alike – and many schools believe gardens are a great place to learn about the processes and practices of cultivation and/or to appreciate the natural world.
Lexi and I have done some research, school garden case studies, and we now have plenty to say. But we thought that we needed to start our book, contracted to Routledge, with some historical discussion about school gardens, because now is not the only time when they have been popular. We had a hunch that there might well be something to learn from what had happened before.
So this meant that we had to find a load of new books and new articles – well, I mean new to us. And that meant … reading. And lots of it.
We were pretty keen to find primary source material as well as literatures from contemporary educational historians. And so there’s been a fair bit of archival searching as well as the journal and book based searches we are used to doing.
We are immensely grateful to the generations of librarians who have catalogued, conserved, digitised and weblogged the books and reports that we are using. The British historian Raphael Samuel often argued that doing history was a collective endeavour – the introductory thanks to the army of librarians that make writing histories possible are just too little recognition. That’s certainly our experience too.
We have had to come to terms with this historical material fairly quickly. But this history chapter is mine to draft first of all so I have done most of  the primary source reading. Lexi is focused on other reading about current school garden issues and so she is adding additional points into my draft.
But I haven’t just done any old kind of reading. I have been reading with a purpose – we already knew the key areas we were interested in from our case studies. Because we are taking a genealogical approach (Foucault), we are interested primarily in how gardening in schools is and has been understood and categorised, as well as practiced.
approached the historical texts with five key questions:
  • What’s the purpose of a school garden? What’s the problem for which school gardening is the answer?
  • What is the garden – what is important about it (size, plants location etc)
  • What school subjects is the garden connected with? What is the disciplinary basis of teaching?
  • How is the garden organised?
  • What successes and problems are encountered in establishing and sustaining the garden?
I then recorded details of each text in bibliographic software.
Then I wrote the answers to our questions into a landscape table. Below, an example of the record of one key book  – designated key because we saw that other historical texts referred to it, and it was also referred to a lot in contemporary accounts. You can see here that I’ve bolded the major point that this book talks to, and I’ve highlighted bits I think I might use in the draft chapter
IMG_0981.JPG
After I’d read all of the texts and recorded details on the table, I then wrote some very short notes on the answers to our questions. These were more in the form of a synthesising memo than an outline.
IMG_0983.JPG
I then
  1. decided on the argument for the chapter, (a Tiny Text), you might use mind mapping to get to the argument
  2. decided on a structure – I divided the material into three big sections (in this case, philosophy, historical accounts, contemporary accounts) and then I
  3. wrote an outline.
Finally I started to generate text. A first draft. This drafting process did involve shifting some things around in my initial outline. But mainly I had to keep going back to the table to ensure that I brought all of the material about any single point together.  I also frequently went back to the digital books.
So the drafting was actually working with at least three and sometimes four documents on the desktop – table, memo and original text as well as the developing first draft. If you are a Scrivener user then this all happens within the software. I’m not, largely because I like to insert the references as I go, so my Endnote is always open too.
You can see what a small section of this first draft looks like.
IMG_0984.JPG
You will see that I have presented some historical “evidence” which I go on to read critically to see: what is presented and how, what is put together, what assumptions are made, where there are tensions or differences, what is missing, what the consequences of thinking in this way might be and why this might matter.
And of course this first draft might be completely changed as I start to revise. Who knows how much the final version will look like this? 🙂
But please don’t think this is how you must work.
A concluding caveat. I am often asked how I work with literatures and will I show and tell. So I’ve done some. But I do try not to do a lot of display of my own processes, as my methods are bespoke to me.
And a confession. I’ve been doing this a long time. In this kind of overview work, I tend towards pretty minimalist noting  – I actually spend much more time thinking about the questions I want to ask of a text than writing notes. When I am teaching people how to work with literatures I generally use more notes and write more memos. When I do my own work, I’m a bit lazy, I rely on my short term memory probably too much, and I tend to shortcut some written processing.
And most important – this is not the only way to do literatures work. I am pretty sure that Lexi does this differently  – I have seen her taking a print-it-out-and-highlight, notes-on-the-printout-and-then-themes- in-a-memo approach. That works just as well.
No matter the techniques used, both our approaches will mean that our final text is firmly connected with the literatures through our critical reading  – and our work will read seamlessly as if we are one person writing!!!
But that’s another post.
Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Monday, January 13, 2020

The PhD: Tracking the Path to Research Claims


All researchers make claims about their work.
Remember the phrase staking a claim? That’s what we are actually doing when we claim something. We are metaphorically placing a marker in a field that we are prepared to stand on, stand for –  and defend. We plant that marker at the end of the account of our research. We’re here, we say. This is where, why and how I’ve got to this point.
So… What does claiming look like? Well, we researchers always claim that we make a particular contribution to what’s already known about our topic.  We sometimes claim that we provide new insights, alternative approaches, different interpretations, innovative methods, novel results. We might also claim that our work has the So What Now What factor  – there are significant implications that arise from the work – there’s a need for more or particular research to be done, for law and/or policy to be changed, for practitioners to do some different things and/or not do others.
What’s also important is that we researchers make our claims in and through writing. And any account of the research we’ve done should provide a traceable pathway from start to finish, from warrant to claim. When they get to the end of our text, readers must understand what claims we’re making and how we got there. Along the way, we need to show – evidence – that our ending claims are warranted and justified.
Making claims can be a particular challenge for doctoral researchers. It is hard to summon up the chutzpah to make a firm claim. PhDers sometimes dodge the issue by concluding their thesis by restating their results and perhaps offering short and vague suggestions about potential consequences. Alternatively, occasionally nearly-docs overstate what they have done, making sweeping generalisations. Or – a particular bugbear for me – they conclude their thesis with recommendations – as if thesis readers, particularly examiners, are in a position to act on what they say.
In order to make reasonable and defensible claims, all researchers have to do three things:
( 1) make sure that the claims match their research tradition, design and its results. So for instance, we can’t claim that policies need to change if we have only a handful of interviews, but we can claim that such research raises questions that need to be investigated further. Another example – we can’t claim causality if what we have are correlations.
(2) make sure that the research is trustworthy – we have to provide sufficient details about what we did and why, and make sure this information is available to be checked – so we always provide an audit trail with relevant details of data and analysis – perhaps even the data set itself.
(3) summon up the courage to get off the fence and own our expertise, while acknowledging the inevitable particularity, and the limited scope of our research. We recognise our blank spots – the things that the research design, methodology and methods just didn’t allow us to do.
Examiners look very carefully in the thesis for the argument that leads to claims. They read forwards and backwards tracing the path that leads to final claims.
Here are some of the things that examiners ask while they are reading a thesis:
  • Is sufficient data presented to support the claims that are made?
  • Has the full data set has been used – or not, and if not, has the researcher made it clear why and how this data was selected for presentation in the text?
  • How is the data, analysis and interpretation presented? Quotations? Tables? Images? Graphs? Diagrams? Have the implications of these forms of presentation been recognised and taken account of?
  • How have multiple data sources been brought together? Are alignments, misalignments and tensions with these data sources recognised and dealt with?
  • Are the claims congruent with the data and analysis presented? Can I trust the researcher?
  • How is the data and its analysis connected with relevant research, theory and literatures – and possibly the social and policy context?
  • What evidence is presented in the text that the researcher has spent time reflecting on the significance of their findings? On their research? On their development as a researcher?
These are general questions of course, and as such they need to be made bespoke to discipline and research tradition. Supervisors can help doctoral researchers consider the particularities related to their claim-making.
Revising the thesis for submission can usefully include  claim-tracing – going backwards through the text from the conclusion to check that there are no missing parts to the the argument path, it’s not a maze, there are no gaps or time -consuming detours.
And the examiner questions listed in this post are a place to start.
Photo by Lili Popper on Unsplash

Saturday, January 4, 2020

New World Disorder: The Academy’s Role in Upholding Internationalism

Rachel Kyte
Rachel Kyte (Source: Reuters)
by John Gill, Times Higher Education: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/new-world-disorder-academys-role-upholding-internationalism

As dean of the oldest graduate school of international relations in the US, Rachel Kyte is acutely aware of her institution’s foundation in the run-up to the Second World War and the echoes of that past today.

As a former executive and adviser on climate change for the United Nations and the World Bank, she is equally aware of the new dangers facing the world as we start a new decade, in which action to address the emerging environmental catastrophe will be crucial for all of our futures.


The two issues are, of course, inextricably linked.


“If you’re interviewing me in 2029 and we haven’t got more traction than we have today on decarbonising our economy then we are in big trouble,” says Kyte, who took over as dean of The Fletcher School at Tufts University, just outside Boston, in October. “How we will…overcome or put to bed politics which makes people look inside rather than outside is going to be the biggest challenge.”

After a career she likens to an “international merry-go-round” of the supra-national organisations that dominated global governance in the 20th century, Kyte’s move into academia comes at a time when we “may be about to break into a [separate] Chinese sphere, a US sphere [and] a European sphere”.


And she is clear about the additional responsibility that this puts on universities. In the face of numerous challenges, many driven by climate change, “having an academy that is able to collaborate will be essential – these issues are resolvable only at a global level”.


Equally important, if universities are to rise to the exceptional challenges we face, is ensuring that there is diversity of every sort in the academy – but most vitally, for Kyte, diversity of perspective.


“The preciousness of a multiplicity of view must be understood,” she says. “We are at a moment when anything that’s elite can be branded as of no value or dangerous, and there’s a definite echo to earlier in the 20th century. As a school of international relations, I think it’s particularly important for us to stand back and understand what’s going on. We were founded in the 1930s for this precise reason. So it does really matter that your faculty is diverse, not just in…race and gender but in its perspectives.”


A couple of months into her new position, it is natural that Kyte reaches for examples from her previous incarnations to make her point. But it helps that there are clear parallels.


“That was the same at the World Bank,” she explains. “If every economist is from one of four schools of economics, then do we have a diversity of opinion? From the right or the left, we need those perspectives.”


For universities to fulfil their role in helping society to “look around corners”, Kyte continues, it is not viable for them to continue to “look at the world from the perspective of mid-20th-century European man, which is how the whole construct of international relations has been taught”.


And the pressure to change is coming not only from the global agenda but from students too: “This generation of students are intersectional in the way they think about themselves and the world,” Kyte says. “And graduate students are surgical in their analysis of whether we are giving them what they want, and whether we are able to give them what they want.


“Over the last 15 years we have been able to build a very strong female cohort within the faculty at Fletcher, but we now have to travel that distance on other issues of diversity as well. We also have the issue of decolonisation of international relations as a discipline, and the students are saying to us that this just has to get done. There are nuances about exactly how you achieve that, but for them it is a sine qua non. This is not a phase. It’s not going to snap back to where we were. For this generation, this is a baseline.”

Extinction Rebellion protest
Kyte, who grew up in England, is also a strong advocate of interdisciplinarity, observing that “having walked through the back of the wardrobe” from organisations such as the World Bank into academia, “I can see that when we do that well that’s when we attract resources and students”.
She is also impressed by the learning environment to be found in a graduate school in which students come to their studies with considerable life experience. “There’s something very powerful about being in a team of four people talking about some aspect of human security when you have a guy who has done three tours of Afghanistan sitting next to you,” she says.
As for the specific responsibilities of a school of international relations at a time when international relations are more strained than they have been perhaps in living memory, Kyte is clear that it is up to institutions such as hers not only to evolve but also to hold their ground.
“We have three responsibilities,” she says. “We are based in the US, but we are a globalist institution in our views, and we have a responsibility to remain globalist and not get sucked in to the US view of the world to the extent that we can’t represent how things look from other parts of the world.”
A related responsibility responds to the fact that the process of getting a US visa is “more important and expensive than it used to be. So, along with the rest of the academy, we must try to ensure that the US is still a place where scholars can come and exchange their views.”
And a third responsibility reflects the Fletcher School’s history of “studying, influencing [and] feeding people in and out of a set of global institutions which are on the ropes at the moment. And so rescuing multilateralism, or understanding the future international order, is very important. And being open to very different ways of organising the world is important.”
One of the biggest geopolitical tensions of the final years of the last decade, and very much carrying over into the new one, is the increasing dominance of China in a number of spheres: a phenomenon that is often depicted as an inconvenience and a threat to the West. But Kyte believes that maintaining scholarly engagement is essential – and notes that China is not the only nation that is potentially problematic to work with.
“In my previous jobs, there were moments when we were involved in collaborative work between international organisations, thinktanks and academic institutions, and [the question was often]: ‘Are we going to be OK with China?’” she recalls. “But in the last couple of years – particularly in the area where I was working, which was on climate – it became the US that was the problem. It was the US that was saying: ‘This is not going to get published.’”
She also contends that without deep relationships with Chinese institutions and scholars, and a true understanding of China, there is too often a “naivety about who you’re dealing with and how they are going to react. There is often a tendency to paint China as if it is a monolith, and it isn’t. You’ve got reformers and conservatives within central government in Beijing; you’ve got different tendencies among provincial leaders, in state-owned and private enterprises; there’s a bit of naivety here.”
fire
Given her previous roles, as special representative of the UN secretary-general, chief executive of the non-profit Sustainable Energy for All and vice-president and special envoy for climate change at the World Bank, Kyte has thought deeply about how institutions can best respond to the climate crisis.
In the case of universities, she suggests that individual campuses can do their bit locally by enacting divestment policies, cutting down on air travel (which she says is a subject of “robust debate” in a sector that remains addicted to long-haul travel for academic conferences and collaborations), and ensuring that their estates become as sustainable as possible. “But even more important is what and how we teach,” she adds.
Researchers’ contribution to the understanding of the science of climate change is clear, Kyte adds – even if the reliability of the science was still being seriously debated as recently as the start of the last decade. And Kyte says that, as dean, she will aim to further strengthen the work that is done in Fletcher’s Center for International Environment and Resource Policy.
“But I also want our work in international security studies to have climate built in, because Nato is struggling with what climate means for military installations,” she says, adding that global warming is also relevant to security because of its anticipated role in enhancing the number of refugees on the move as parts of the world become increasingly uninhabitable.
“So, for me, [climate change] is a threat intensifier and an existential risk, and I want to teach it across our curriculum – that’s where I think the academy can really help,” Kyte says.
She adds, as an aside, that she finds it “astonishing” that business schools still do not teach in this way, despite the work by pioneering scholars such as Lord Stern, chair of the Grantham Research Institute at the London School of Economics, who was “the first person to bluntly point out that [climate change] is an economic risk”.
It is only by understanding and teaching the ways in which the climate crisis affects everything, Kyte suggests, that universities will maximise their ability to bring about the change the world needs. But she cautions that this has to be done as part of a “symbiotic” effort with industry and government – with each understanding the role they fulfil.
“When it works well, those three are pulling together,” she concludes. “In a world where facts are being thrown back in our faces, when to be elite or an expert is bad, the academy has to have the chops to hold the space.”
As for the argument that politics is too short-termist to deal with the climate crisis, she dismisses it by pointing to the politically toxic impact of intensifying wildfires and flows of refugees.
Not that the path from crisis to action is always straightforward. A case in point is Australia, which holds general elections every three years and whose government continues to resist serious measures to address climate change even as unprecedentedly intense bushfires choke the air in Sydney and other eastern cities. The country’s energy minister, Angus Taylor, is reportedly fighting to keep open a loophole that allows Australia to meet its commitments under the Paris climate agreement via what thinktank The Australia Institute has dismissed as “clever accounting” rather than genuine emissions reductions.
But Kyte suspects that a change of heart is only a matter of time.
“Tomorrow came today,” Kyte says, reflecting on Taylor’s presence at the UN’s COP25 climate talks in Madrid in December. “The entire eastern seaboard of Australia is on fire and he is going to try and persuade them that there is some accounting trick he can play to avoid hitting any aggressive targets.
“Time just ran out on that kind of thing. Because when he took off from Canberra, I am assuming he saw the smoke.”

The PhD: A Festive Gift from Patter - A Checklist for Revising Methods Chapters

PhDers sometimes find writing the thesis methods chapter a pretty tedious business. But the methods chapter is a key part of the examination process – it shows that the researcher knows how to research. 
You see, examiners make their decision - yes or no, this person can be Dr - on the back of this chapter. It's not all that matters for sure, but get this chapter wrongish, and doubts arise, questions are asked, corrections loom.
Examiners are looking for the evidence in the text, and any accompanying appendices, that will allow them to tick the box that says the researcher can DO research.
And when examiners decide on methods, they are acting as stand-ins. They speak for both the discipline and the wider scholarly community. When they bring their knowledge of ‘standards’ to their evaluation of a doctoral text and viva, they aren't reading and deciding as an individual, but as a gatekeeper.
So examiners read the methods chapter very carefully.
It is helpful therefore for doctoral researchers to understand some of the concerns that examiners bring to their reading. Understanding what examiners are interested in can guide the revision of the thesis. PhDers can make sure that all bases are covered before handing in.
So here are some of the key things that examiners look for.
The Researcher:
  • Is the researcher’s positionality made clear? (This may not be expected in some disciplines)
Research Design:
  • METHODOLOGY
Why was this methodology chosen? What does it have to offer? What claims does this methodology allow and disallow?
  • METHODS
What methods were chosen? What data are to be generated and how will these help answer the research question? Given that data are partial and particular, how are the inevitable blank spots acknowledged?
  • SETTING
Is the choice of setting explained? How does this context connect with the research question? Does the rationale for choice recognise the limits as well as the benefits of this context?
  • SAMPLE
Why was this sample selected? Was a particular approach used to make this choice?How was this done? If it is necessary for the reader to understand particular details about the sample, are these details provided and clearly signposted?
  • DATA GENERATION
What is the data? Are there important implications arising from inclusions and exclusions? When, where, and how was data generated? Was a theoretical or conceptual framework used and is this explained - or referred back to if it is presented earlier? Are the tools used available to the reader? Is a clear audit trail provided?? Were there any particular considerations or issues involved?
  • ETHICS
What approach is taken to ethical concerns - is this explained? What approach to anonymity and confidentiality has been taken? Were there any particular ethical concerns that arose during the research and how were these addressed?
Analysis:
  • APPROACH
In what tradition is the data analysis? What are the implications of using this approach?
  • PROCESS
How was sense made of the data? Is this made clear? Is (some of) the working available to the reader? Are the workings defensible/accurate?
  • TRUSTWORTHINESS
What steps were taken to ensure rigour? Is it clear how the full range of data is to be brought together? How has theory or conceptual framing informed the data work?
Now these are not a complete list. Nope. Sorry, there's more. Specific disciplines and research approaches will add their own criteria. Supervisors know these and can add them in.
But these are at least a head start - and maybe a heads up.

You might also find these older posts helpful: