Conceptualising our practice: the library service spectrum (and who gets to decide where you stand on it)
Here’s a short piece I wrote for the UKSG Newsletter recently, reproduced here with permission. There’s a downloadable version over here if you prefer.
At a recent ARLG event on ‘Librarians as Teachers’ I invited the audience to consider the idea of a spectrum or continuum of library service provision. At one extreme end of this continuum is a vision that revolves around the provision of quality materials; at the other, a focus on supporting learning and knowledge creation. These poles could be described in terms of an orientation towards collection development and learning development respectively; more loosely, they can be seen as a focus on ‘stuff’ on one hand, and on ‘the people who use the stuff’ on the other.
These positions are deliberately represented as the extreme ends of a continuum or axis rather than as an either/or dichotomy, because most library staff will find themselves falling somewhere along the line between the two rather than wholly at one end. It’s an interesting, and revealing, activity to reflect on how much of what we do in our daily work lies towards each end of the continuum. For instance, at the material-facing pole will fall ‘traditional’ library processes like selection, organisation, acquisition, description and circulation – and indeed also promotion of the selected material; at the learner-facing pole we would find activities like facilitation, scaffolding, reflective dialogue and collaborative question-framing, as well as some formal teaching interventions. As suggested above, the work of many library staff will include elements of both types of provision: the interesting thing is to consider the proportion or ratio between them, and where this places you on the scale.
The first question, then, is: Where do you stand on this spectrum? How much of your professional time is spent organising knowledge that’s already out there – published material, scholarly communications, information artefacts – and how much in supporting and developing what’s going on in the crucible of the mind, where knowledge is still taking shape?
This is a particularly interesting question for teaching librarians. Few would dispute that libraries, and in particular academic libraries, have a part to play in helping students develop their higher-level information handling abilities. These abilities include critical thinking and evaluation, interrogating and synthesising variant points of view, and developing an informed and reflective approach to encountering information – what Neil Postman called “the art of crap-detection” (1969). The issue lies in how we approach this remit of scaffolding students’ critical and academic development. Should we seek to fulfil this role by ensuring that the library offers reliable, authoritative material of academic quality, selected by subject experts to be useful and relevant? Or should we aim to support students in learning to select material themselves for its use and relevancy to the particular task at hand? Champions of the former standpoint are likely to see their role in terms of weaning students away from uncritical Googling and towards a thoughtful use of scholarly information sources. Advocates of the latter, on the other hand, will probably endorse William Badke’s assertion that “An information literacy approach … might not even in every case take the student to a library” (2010).
Our own beliefs and values along this axis will influence how we perceive the relationship between the library and information. Thus a materials-focused approach is likely to conceive of the library as being the gateway to all appropriate information. In this relationship ‘library’ is the dominant concept and contains the concept of ‘information’, towards which it acts as a gateway or quality filter.
In contrast, an approach that aims to support students in developing the ability to evaluate information for themselves is likely to conceive of this relationship the other way around, with the library forming part of a much larger information landscape with which our students engage.
Sarah Cohen draws a sharp distinction between these two approaches, arguing that the former revolves around instruction in library resources, whereas “information-centric instruction” takes in the whole information landscape including, but not limited to, the library. Regrettably for theoretical precision, the term ‘information literacy’ is so elastic that it can – and does – accommodate both approaches: however, mapping them to the material-learner spectrum enables us to see how divergent they really are. Where information literacy instruction deals exclusively with promoting and demonstrating library resources, it falls very close to the ‘materials’ end of the spectrum, despite the fact that, as a teaching intervention, the vehicle of delivery appears to be learner-focused. At the opposite pole, teaching will concentrate not on resources or products but on processes involved in learning – sense-making, question-framing, synthesis and knowledge construction.
Why does this matter? It matters because where we stand on the spectrum has significant implications for how we construct our idea of the library and its mission, purpose and value in the lives of our learners. This in turn will determine how we present the library to our students and affect how they perceive what we can offer to support them in their learning journey.
Yet this is nothing like the whole story.
Beyond the interest, or the reflective impact, of determining your own standpoint on the provision continuum lies a far bigger question:
Where does your library stand on this spectrum?
What proportion of overall staff time is spent on materials-facing work relative to learning-facing provision? Which kind of workflow is better established and supported in the organisation’s culture? How many sections or departments on the organisational chart are named after materials-facing processes, and how many after teaching and learning activities? (I would suggest, perhaps controversially, that ‘Reader Services’ in many libraries actually falls towards the materials-facing end of the spectrum, since it often focuses on what readers do in the library building and with the library’s collections – i.e., the stuff.)
Yet beyond where your library stands on the spectrum is a wider context again: that of the student’s encounters with the whole institution, from application through admission to assessment and finally (we hope) into employability. All our interactions with learners – whether formal teaching interventions or ad hoc one-to-ones at the inquiry desk – take place within this wider institutional framework; and this framework has always already influenced our students’ learning experiences by way of prior encounters or touchpoints and the values that are perceived to underlie them.
So the final question to consider is:
Where does your institution think that your library, and you, should stand on this scale?
Because ultimately, that factor is likely to be the greatest determinant of how our students perceive the role, mission, and value of the library. Time to start working on that elevator pitch for the Vice-Chancellor?
So there’s a Lifehacker thing going the rounds where “productivity heroes” share their habits and in turn invite others to do so. I don’t know where I stand on the productivity scale, but I do know I’m one of the most disorganised researchers I’ve personally ever come across. This is great for teaching – it means I can be a sort of living Awful Warning to my research skills students – but whether it makes me a good candidate for productivity hero is definitely questionable.
But how could I resist Andy Priestner’s invitation – nay, command?
— Andy Priestner (@PriestLib) September 27, 2013
So here we go …
Location: Cambridge University Library
Current gig: Research Skills and Development Librarian
Current mobile device: elderly iPad (no camera!)
Current computer: Toshiba laptop with a missing plus key. (It got stuck on endless repeat and I eventually got fed up, prised it out of the keyboard and chucked it across the room.)
One word that best describes how you work: Chaotically.
What apps/software/tools can’t you live without?: Spider Solitaire. In times of stress I play it obsessively.
What’s your workspace like? I should do some shredding. And some filing. And some general desk entropy measures. I’m sure I had a chair once.
What’s your best time-saving trick?: I have no time-saving tricks at all. I drafted a ton of self-deprecating reasons as to why not before I realised that this is not an embarrassing omission or a character flaw: it’s a deliberate policy. I don’t want to save time. I want to spend it – wisely, profitably, joyously, frivolously. I want to seize opportunities, take on new projects, meet and create ideas with people, walk all 186 miles of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. I could save time easily by doing none of these things. But what would I do instead?
What’s your favourite to-do list manager?: The stash of scrap paper that I cut down to A5 and hold together with a bulldog clip.
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without? My Moleskine 18-month weekly notebook diary.
What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else?: Well, I’m pretty shit-hot at Spider Solitaire.
What are you currently reading?
- The Oxford Book of English Poetry
- The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
- Surfeit of Lampreys by Ngaio Marsh
- The Beckett Trilogy: Molloy – Malone Dies – The Unnamable (that’s been ongoing for a while now)
- Murder on the Flying Scotsman by Carola Dunn (with rising irritation)
I guess another time-saving strategy (see above) could be just reading one book at a time, but why would I want to do that?
What do you listen to while you work?: The general conversation in our open plan office – by turns funny, informative, supportive and just plain bonkers. It’s the best office environment I’ve ever worked in.
Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?: A very highly-functioning closet introvert.
What’s your sleep routine like?: Erratic.
Fill in the blank: I’d love to see Helen Webster answer these same questions.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?: “People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.”(Full disclosure: Thich Nhat Hanh didn’t actually say this to me personally.)
Is there anything else you’d like to add?: Metaphors around ‘being productive’ are often based on motion: spinning all the plates, juggling all the things, dashing around getting things done. In contrast, every research skills session I give is based on stopping and being still for a little while. They’re an invitation to pause and take stock, to look unjudgementally at how you do what you do. Paradoxically, the best way to be productive as a researcher may be to periodically stop doing and allow yourself to reflect on where you are:
“Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”
Image by Rama V, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
It’s Annual Report time again and my savvy colleague Alex suggested: “You’ve been in post five years. Why not make this a five-year report?”
So alongside the figures for this year’s Research Skills Programme, I’ve put together an overview of how the programme has changed in ethos and direction over the last half-decade in response to changes in the wider HE landscape.
It made me a bit sad that the feedback I got on my teaching didn’t make the final cut for the divisional report, which is another reason I wanted to put this document out here * shameless self-promotion klaxon *. But I also think that the work my colleagues have put in to the tour leaders’ Peer Training and Support scheme deserves more attention. This is what I wrote in the report:
The scheme requires commitment on both sides. It is not merely about passing on wisdom in a one-way relationship, but about dialogue and sharing of experience between the partners …. Participants on the scheme have to date responded with zest and enthusiasm, willingly making time for their own and their colleagues’ professional development in an outstandingly positive way.
That bit didn’t make the divisional report final cut either, so I want to shout about it here instead!
Image by Luz Adriana Villa, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
Andy Walsh and I have compiled, edited and published an ‘anarcho-narrative unbook’! Which is a funky way of describing a publication
- that will be electronic by default (but is also available as print-on-demand)
- that will be freely available online and licensed under Creative Commons
- where the chapter authors were invited to choose the most appropriate structure and medium (or media!) for their contributions
- in which the richness of information discovery is represented by an eclectic and inspiring range of writing styles and voices.
The (un)book consists of a series of narratives connected by the overarching theme of information discovery journeys. Read on to discover more about the individual contributions …
From the introduction
Into the woods: teaching trails and learning journeys
These pieces are remarkable individually; collectively they shed new light on the subtle interplay between information and identity. This holds both for the roles we occupy and the relationships we construct during the processes of teaching and learning – librarian, learner, guide, seeker – and also for identity as our innermost sense of self: how we learn who we are. As Osborne writes, “How do we become ourselves – the self that we know and others recognise?” This unbook opens with the voice of the librarian-guide in dialogue with learners and other teachers, and shifts gradually towards an exploration of how our personal identities are shaped or even constituted by the information we encounter.
The two sections of this book thus offer complementary yet deeply contrasting visions of the information journey. Section One, ‘The Mapmakers’, presents a set of planned routes, suggested and tested by knowledgeable guides: a cross between Baedeker and Bradshaw. In this section, librarians offer a range of thoughtful observations on how learners encounter, negotiate and construct knowledge. Few of these accounts are didactic; they give not so much a blueprint or template for ‘how to do it’, but rather a topographical record of their learners’ journeys.
The Mapmakers, then, offer the reassurance of well-signposted paths, including a number of ‘scenic routes’ or imaginative ways in which librarians and academics can help their students to choose appropriate sources of information. Delasalle and Cullen’s literature search “travel guide”, a collaboration between learner and librarian, is modelled as an A-Z directory of the information searching process. Gröppel-Wegener and Walton provide engaging guidelines for navigating the information ocean and identifying what you find in your fishing net, enhanced by Josh Filhol’s beautiful and illuminating illustrations. Gröppel-Wegener’s second contribution, which closes the section, portrays the qualitative difference between summary and synthesis through an imaginative, extended playing-card metaphor which enables learners to evaluate and collate their information ‘cards’ and maximise the value of their ‘hand’.
Several of the Mapmakers themselves invoke and interrogate the journey metaphor. Burkhardt and Carbery’s Prezi, which narrates how staff engage students in critical conversations about their information choices, is itself modelled as a learning journey from unquestioned assumption towards self-discovery. Importantly, the authors acknowledge that this journey requires learners to cross the threshold out of their “comfort zone”, encountering information that may confuse or disconcert them. It’s refreshing to see the emotional impact of learning acknowledged in this way, since although encountering new or contradictory information can be a deeply unsettling experience, this dimension is all too often silently omitted from information literacy discourse.
Johnson and Walsh’s exploration of the information approaches of drama lecturers also highlights the affective impact of learning. Their study sees participating academics falling broadly into two groups: those who advocate “following the paths” versus those who suggest “exploring the landscape”. Whereas the ‘explorer’ academics encourage their students to seek out new routes and new views of the subject, the path-following group focuses on getting students safely to a known information destination. Interwoven with the emphasis on “safe”, stable knowledge is the implication of possible divagation, disorientation or outright danger if the safe routes are departed from.
This shadowy peril is beautifully described by Linda Tolly, who maps the information journey to the template of the hero’s quest. In doing so she highlights one of the most important differences between mapmaking and journeying: the guide is not the traveller. Not even the wisest sage (or librarian) can accompany the learner all the way on the quest, or through the dark forest. The nature of the quest is that the “travels and travails” must be undertaken by the quester, upon whom the adventures and encounters may have a life-changing effect.
Information and identity: “I am other I now”
Our second section is composed of, and by, Travellers. These authors try less than the Mapmakers to show any objective ‘truth’ about information literacy and show instead more of the process behind an information discovery journey in a way that as yet does not have a fixed ‘lens’ of information literacy imposed. Throughout we glimpse the reflective learning self which simultaneously steps into a new position and observes itself doing so: in Joyce’s words, “I am other I now”. The result is candid, compelling and deliberately uneven. The authors employ a range of voices, registers and genres, sometimes within the same chapter; narratives are not brought to closure but left open, the linear sequence disrupted; the learning is ongoing.
We have represented this narrative fluidity and internal counterpoint by using contrasting fonts, but our authors have also broken out of the text-only mode to include video, audio, images, cartoons, and interactive media to both record and communicate their learning journeys. As several chapters demonstrate, the connections and associations we make between concepts are far from being exclusively textual: dialogue can take place by exchanging sound clips, artworks, doodles, dreams.
Going beyond the authority of the written word is an act of subversion, of leaving the path, and it is both perilous and rewarding. As Inês Amado and Ximena Alarcón note, “the issues of migration and dislocation are always present”. The two artists connect across space in a technology-mediated dialogue, which itself exceeds the bounds of the textual, to share visions and dreamscapes which combine sound, video and objects. The students in ‘Memories’ go yet further, connecting across time in exploring how we encode and communicate identity through clothing and across generations.
Penny Andrews and Marika Soulsby-Kermode exchange and explore information in many media, discussing how it both assists and hampers a coming to terms with the true, autistic, self. Antony Osborne narrates compellingly the confusion of trying to construct an identity in the cross-fire of information available from scarce and conflicting sources – medical categorisation, cultural markers, the austerity of legal and judicial language, and the tacit social mores reflected (but never overtly articulated) in media representations of gay men.
There is neither classroom nor computer in David Mathew’s study of the (deliberately ambiguous) ‘stable group’, yet here too the close connection between learning and identity is evident. Here the learning is entirely practical and extra-textual. Horses, humans, and the author-observer all experience a process of becoming, of learning as embodying or extending the identity. Even the dogs are learning to become guardians or gatekeepers: “Zack was teaching Bonnie how to fight and to bark with more aggression”.
The librarian: guide, gatekeeper, barrier?
What is the place of the librarian in these information journeys characterised by the creative, the experiential, the nontextual? A number of guide figures appear in the pages (or pixels) of this unbook, variously depicted as mentor, shaman, guardian and barrier, and helpful or sinister in about equal measure. While the mapmakers tend to represent them in a more positive light, it’s evident that learners and travellers regard the librarian figure with some ambivalence!
Antony Osborne’s redoubtable Mrs Fogg – a classic shusher presiding over a space smelling of furniture polish which contains none of the information he seeks – is surely related to Nick Norton’s librarians, both of whom actually withhold information from library users whom they perceive as using it inappropriately: “No, no, now no. That is not at all what the book is for.” All three are drawn from real life experiences, yet they are strangely reminiscent of the unhelpful bears and robots who staff Bryony Ramsden’s fairytale library. Far from being kindly wizards, sages, or guides, these characters stand uncompromisingly between the learner and information, proffering search ‘tips’ along the lines of “Write a query based on a combination of base 6 numbering and binary … (ensure interjections are in Assyrian cuneiform or C++)” (Ramsden).
At the other end of the spectrum, however, more positive visions of the librarian’s potential role can be found in Johnson and Walsh’s Cheshire cat, who appears at difficult forks in the path (and presumably fades away, grinning benevolently, when no longer needed); in Tolly’s Sorceress-Librarian, who can gift the power of knowledge but who also recognises that the learner must quest alone; and in Norton’s vision of a person-centred library entity based around the core Rogerian conditions of congruence, empathy and respect for the individual.
All these visions have in common a perception of the librarian as neither gatekeeper nor shaman but as collaborator and partner in learning. They also share a vision of the library – real and/or virtual – as a space in which to create and experiment, which fosters “a joyful, playful” attitude to information (Johnson and Walsh), which perhaps even “rebrands as the Zone of Proximal Learning” (Norton).
In the journey into the unknown, play and learning both require an exceeding of preset boundaries. To cross this threshold is to shift into the unimagined ‘now’ of creativity. Signposting, guiding, and the desire to reach a place of safety give way to being playful, joyful and experimental: the positive flipside of the affective impact of information.
Stepping off the path
Teaching is developmental – it nourishes, modifies and deepens our practice and our pedagogy – but learning is transformative: it changes the learner, not the practice, and it does so at a profound level. The two processes of teaching and learning may take place at the same time (in a classroom, at an inquiry desk) yet, as Norton points out, they are “simultaneously intimate and entirely distinct”. Terrain that has already been mapped is nevertheless new ground for a first-time visitor, and each newly arrived explorer steps, at every moment, into unknown territory.
The journey metaphor illustrates this slippage between the processes of teaching and learning: the contrast between retracing an established route into knowledge and the unsettling phenomenological experience of constructing the pathway for the first time. “STOP. Wait. Is that right? TRY AGAIN” (Ramsden). “I try again …” (Cullen and Dellasale).
Our learners go where we cannot guide them. Their learning takes place in unexpected spaces and guises, away from the pathways and into the forest: exploring beyond the ‘safe’, known structure and into to the as-yet-undefined. As educators, we know that these metaphors represent the essence of knowledge creation, and yet we fear for our learners: we can only watch, not accompany. So we must take care that in our zeal to guide learners and help them find the right, safe pathways, we don’t contain or limit or smother their intellectual journeys. We can plot a course for our teaching interventions, but we cannot predict, mandate or define our learners’ journeys through information and connectivity. We can define what a ‘winning hand’ looks like, but we can’t govern the fall of the cards. We can designate the unknown, we can even map out its extent on our charts – but that’s not at all the same thing as crossing the threshold or stepping off the path.
Learning changes the learner. Whether we find the Grail or not, we have still achieved the quest: the journey itself and the information encounters we experience have effected a profound change. And who is to say when the destination is finally reached or where the journey ends? Ramsden’s chapter offers us three endings out of a myriad of possilibities; and this unbook ends with an invitation to you to continue the dialogue. We can continue to make connections between librarian and learner, between knowledge and creativity, through communicating our information encounters.
While I’m in full-on manifesto mode, here’s an updated version of the research jigsaw. The content is very similar to the version I blogged previously, but I’ve tidied up the phrasing a bit and moved a few pieces around …
I use the graphic with course leaders, students and researchers as a way of showing where information-handling behaviours and values fit within the academic learning journey. I’ve found it useful because it illustrates recognisable aspects of the research process alongside some less familiar ones, which may be threshold concepts in themselves, and it helps me situate what I talk about in a way that makes it more relevant to what they’re doing as researchers.
I presented about the jigsaw and how I use it at the ALDinHE conference in March – the slides are available on Slideshare. I’ve also made a downloadable version which includes the blank jigsaw template, so if you want to make a version with alternative pieces you can!
You know how sometimes composing an email focuses your mind to the extent that you find you’ve written a manifesto? Here’s the text of a reply I sent to the LIS-INFOLITERACY list this morning, prompted by the question: ‘How can we move the nature of IL training from “how to do this” to “why this is important”?’ In responding to the question, I realized that although I talk about this stuff a lot I’ve never actually written it down … until now.
I’ve been aiming for some years now to realign my research skills sessions from the procedural “how to” towards the reflective “why”, and the most useful insight I’ve gained is: think process, not product (or if you prefer: research, not resource). Rather than offering sessions on individual resources, my courses are called “How to do a literature search”, “How to decode your reading list”, “Referencing without tears” and similar. They are designed to support various aspects and phases of doing study and research, and as such they naturally introduce useful sources and tools for each process. However, they also aim to spark discussion of choices and values. Why might this particular resource be a useful one for you? Concomitantly, what are its limitations for what you’re working on?
This approach means that I always offer options – a range of resources to support a particular phase in the process, never just one. As a result, it’s up to the individual student or researcher to identify what each resource has to offer and make an informed choice according to their own needs, which are determined by the context in which they’re working at the time. This hands the agency and the responsibility back to the student. It recognises that every information context is different, and that the person who is the ‘expert’ in that context is the individual student or researcher – not the librarian. It means that I can suggest tools and resources, but not mandate their use. It means I don’t frame Google (/Scholar) as some kind of competition, but as an information source which like all information sources has drawbacks and limitations. It’s grounded in a belief that I’m not here to give people answers, but to support them in framing questions.
I think relinquishing our status as ‘experts’ who have the answers and tell students ‘how to’ is vital if we want to move towards becoming partners in the research process, and invite them to consider the ‘why’. That relinquishment of expert status is a difficult move to make as it seems to undermine our most cherished identity as librarians, but I do believe that for a host of reasons – most important of which is supporting research excellence – it’s an attitudinal change we must make.
We’ve all had it. Every member of library staff ever, anywhere, has undergone some variant of this conversation. Y’know, this one …
Me: “I’m a librarian.”
Other [big smile]: “Oh, you must read a lot of books!”
There are varying responses you can offer depending on whether you want to perpetuate the stereotype or burst the bubble. For the record, here’s mine – you can decide for yourself which, if either, it does …
Me: “I don’t have anything to do with books. I work with information.”
Me: “In fact, I don’t even work with information in the generally accepted sense of the word – meaning knowledge that’s been recorded, published or otherwise externalised. What I work with is the information that’s still inside people’s heads, that’s not yet structured or fully articulated, that’s the result of the creative encounter between an individual and a learning context. It’s a chaotic, innovative, ongoing engagement, and it has to hold in play many sophisticated arguments and conflicting viewpoints. And on top of that, in the academic world we demand that this creative simultaneity be converted into a linear and sequential argumentative form and presented according to stringent, highly formalised yet generally very badly explained academic conventions.”
Other: [opens mouth. Thinks better of it.]
Me: “So you see, most of what librarians have done traditionally has been about organising and curating information that’s already been expressed – stuff that’s been published in containers like books and journals. And most of my colleagues still work with that stuff. But what I get to do is work with the people who are working with the stuff and making new information and knowledge.
“Isn’t that the most amazing job ever?”
By this point, of course, quite a few of my interlocutors have been desperately finding an excuse to edge away from the mad librarian. But every now and again – and more often than I would ever have expected – I get this response:
“Yeah, that really is the greatest job ever.”
I’ve been mulling a lot recently over how to describe what it is I teach, why information literacy isn’t the same thing as learning to use the library, and above all why it can’t be covered in an hour at the start of term. I’ve been using the concept of the ‘information landscape’ to give an idea of the scale and complexity of the information-handling abilities needed by researchers. This idea extends neatly into a broader metaphor schema where the subject knowledge is the landscape, while information literacy is the set of navigational and survival tools you bring with you into that terrain – the map, the compass, the energy bars, the binoculars.
I like the landscape metaphor a lot, particularly because it lets me talk about research as exploration and discovery, which is an aspect I sometimes feel we don’t stress enough. It also maps nicely to ANCIL’s ten strands, which express the idea that information literacy isn’t a homogeneous, one-shot entity but a complex (and contextual) array of practices and values around using information. However, when talking to course leaders recently about the set of modular classes i’m designing for their students, I found myself thinking of UWE’s iSkillZone, which uses a colourful, clickable jigsaw image on its front page. Jigsaw pieces are discrete units in their own right, but when put together they make a larger, harmonious entity – literally, a big picture …
So here’s the research jigsaw I designed for masters level students. I plan to give an introductory session that touches briefly on each piece and how they interlock to create a framework for supporting research. Later in the course we’ll focus on specific pieces when we look at various aspects of the research process in more detail, such as literature searching, information and data management, referencing and attribution, and academic writing.
The question mark is partly in homage to the Three Investigators, whose business cards feature question marks that stand for unanswered questions and unsolved mysteries. That seems to me a pretty good parallel with research – but when I send the diagram to course leaders I might express it a bit more like this:
In this diagram the question mark could stand for creating and developing a research question, e.g. during the dissertation phase. It could also stand for the unpredictable ‘unknown unknowns’ that crop up during the process of doing research, including its emotional impact – stuff that can blindside you, throw a curve ball, or give you a new direction and impetus (sometimes all four). Finally, it also stands for the keystone of research: “never stop asking questions”.
I also had a go at mapping the jigsaw pieces to the ANCIL strands, which worked out well:
Between all the pieces all but the ‘transitional’ strands, 1 (Transition to Higher Education) and 10 (Social dimension of information), are addressed. Seeing that gap is a useful outcome to the exercise, all by itself.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what in the ANCIL research we’ve called the affective dimension of information – also known as the emotional impact of doing research, or (in ThesisWhisperer’s words) “the valley of shit“. The affective dimension is That Thing We Don’t Talk About, particularly in academic circles. We know anecdotally that crises of self-belief occur during the research process – as ScholasticRat‘s supervisor told her, you cannot achieve a PhD without undergoing a long dark night of the soul – and yet this particular threshold concept never seems to form part of a research methods course. It’s a dirty secret, passed along verbally by supervisors, postdocs or peers.
It seems to me that often this crisis is linked to the writing process. By the time we hit the PhD, we’re generally pretty good at sourcing and assimilating stuff (or we think we are: there can be quite a few surprises awaiting us there, too). We can read, we can notetake, we can store references, we can cite them. But that moment in which you gaze at a blank page – fingers poised over keyboard or unfamiliar-feeling pen already slipping in fist – that moment is the culmination of all the pressure we’ve ever been under to express, to present, to articulate: to make ourselves visible, vulnerable and potentially risible.
So what do we do? … We read one more article. Because if we know that bit more, we’ll be that much less vulnerable, right? Uh, no. I’ve blogged previously about why this approach doesn’t work. The doctoral learning journey is enough of an epic quest that you really don’t need to add extra anguish. Yet while there is some excellent academic research on this topic, notably by learning developers and information literacy specialists, emotion remains an unspoken factor in academia.
So in traditional Twitter ‘Follow-Friday’ style, here are some great blogs that can help with the emotional impact of writing, reflecting, and surviving the doctoral experience:
The Thesis Whisperer – “dedicated to helping research students everywhere”
Explorations of Style – “The ability to formulate and clarify our thoughts is central to the academic enterprise; this blog discusses strategies to improve the process of expressing our research in writing.”
Literature Review HQ – advice from one who’s been there: “I realised that I had spent none of my time during my PhD reviewing the literature! … I was in for a very steep learning curve…”
Kevin Morrell’s PhD tips – some fantastic myth-busting: “You need to finish a time-bound project, not win a Nobel prize.”
Lastly, check out the #phdchat hashtag on Twitter. You’ll find the bloggers above on there along with many others who are dealing with the impact of the doctoral journey by sharing tips and resources that work for them. I can vouch for this: a community is the most effective way to combat a crisis.