Archive for the ‘Research and writing’ Category

Publication without tears: a workshop for doctoral students

I’m a little sleep-deprived at the moment as this week I paid a brief visit to Aberdeen for the iDocQ student conference – up on Sunday night on the sleeper train, left for home again at 3pm Monday afternoon, finally got home at half past midnight on Tuesday … But I had a brilliant time at the conference, especially listening to the ‘One Minute Madness’ presentations where students talked about their doctoral research, and I really enjoyed giving this presentation on publishing.

The first part of this talk is inherited from previous JIL editor (and ANCIL co-conspirator) Jane Secker. It’s designed to be a demystifying glimpse inside the ‘black box’ of publishing – because nobody really knows what happens when you submit an article to a journal! This gives a step-by-step overview of how we work with articles submitted to the Journal of Information Literacy, from the peer review process through the copyediting stage right through to final publication.

The second section invited the listeners to think about their own research and what could be published from it. As this conference was specifically for PhD students, I talked about how theses and articles differ in scope and characteristics, and why it might not work to simply try to condense your thesis. We finished up with some of my favourite tips for managing the mess and uncertainty of the writing process. These include a gem from Jane – think about writing as like eating an elephant: break it down into bite-sized chunks!


Image from Pixabay (CC0)

Goodbye, #AcWriMo (and hello #DecWriMo!)

I’m amazed – and frankly dead chuffed – at having made it through #AcWriMo. Yes, I set myself a low target (10-12 train rides; no pomodori for me!) and deliberately kept my aims fuzzy (to quote from my plan: “let’s call it ‘expanding each chapter from skeleton to emaciated flesh'”). I have just about enough wisdom, or experience, by now to ensure I do both those things, otherwise I set myself up for full-blown I AM FAIL mode from the start. But I’m still astonished that I managed 11 train rides and did get some flesh on those zombie bones – even though, er, I decided to completely rejig the structure and rewrite the whole aim of the book along the way *kicks table leg sheepishly*

And I’m even more astonished that with November over, I want to keep going. What the what … ? There I sat on the train yesterday looking back at my completed record for the month, relaxing in the glow of having finished something, and then all of a sudden I was writing a plan for December…

DecWriMo plan

… and then I was sketching a literature map …

literature map

… and somehow now it’s not that I have to write because I’ve signed up publicly for #AcWriMo, it’s that I have to write because I’m impelled to, because that’s how I make sense of all the things still going round in my head.

I had no idea that the power of Don Diego could be such a force!


Thank you again to Julieta and Don Diego, @charlottefrost, and the whole #AcWriMo community. If you want to join the December writing bunch, you can sign up on the spreadsheet and tweet your progress using the hashtag #AcWri.

Kaleidoscope mind

I’ve got to the stage of #AcWriMo immersion where my ideas are in constant motion: spinning around, forming new configurations and endlessly joining up to make new patterns. It’s like being a kaleidoscope. Colette has a great phrase for this: “mes idées sont en salade dans ma tête” (Claudine a l’école). It’s all very exhilarating as well as fairly exhausting, and it reminds me of J.M. Barrie’s description of a child’s mind, “which is not only confused, but keeps going round all the time”:

There are zigzag lines on it, just like your temperature on a card, and these are probably roads in the island; for the Neverland is always more or less an island, with astonishing splashes of colour here and there, and coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs, and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers, and a hut fast going to decay, and one very small old lady with a hooked nose. It would be an easy map if that were all; but there is also first day at school, religion, fathers, the round pond, needlework, murders, hangings, verbs that take the dative, chocolate pudding day, getting into braces, say ninety-nine, three-pence for pulling out your tooth yourself, and so on; and either these are part of the island or they are another map showing through, and it is all rather confusing, especially as nothing will stand still. (Peter and Wendy)

Underlying all the angst produced merely by writing (as if that weren’t enough) is a kind of infinite recursion caused by the fact that I’m trying to enact the processes that usually I just teach. My area of professional expertise is academic information practices – literature searching, critically selecting, reading, notemaking, bouncing off other researchers’ ideas like a springboard … It’s one thing to explore with students various techniques for approaching and enacting these practices, to discuss how encountering new ideas can stretch and unsettle you or challenge your existing mental model. It’s A. Whole. Other. Thing to go through it (again) yourself *grimace* *twitch*

And you don’t want to think too much about the conceptual slippage caused by trying to write about what you do, and simultaneously trying to do what you write about:

Then his mind’s eye looked up and caught his own image and realized where he was and what he was seeing and — I don’t know what really happened — but now the slippage that Phædrus had felt earlier, the internal parting of his mind, suddenly gathered momentum, as do the rocks at the top of a mountain. Before he could stop it, the sudden accumulated mass of awareness began to grow and grow into in avalanche of thought and awareness out of control; with each additional growth of the downward tearing mass loosening hundreds of times its volume, and then that mass uprooting hundreds of times its volume more, and then hundreds of times that; on and on, wider and broader, until there was nothing left to stand. (Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance)

In all this oscillation between pattern and chaos, however, it’s comforting to find that there’s a tiny part of my kaleidoscope mind that’s constant, that even feels fiercely triumphant. I’ve been arguing for some while now that information literacy – that is, the ‘good’ or appropriate use of information – shouldn’t be seen as a set of standards but in terms of an event: an encounter between a unique individual and a body of knowledge. What I’m experiencing in trying to write this book is precisely that encounter. I’m learning all over again that learning isn’t additive – you don’t just bolt on a new bit of knowledge as an extension to the structure you’ve been building since day one (and when was that anyway? First day of university? of your schooldays? Your first word? Birth?). Learning is transformative, dynamic, constantly in flux. There’s a rippleback effect every time you encounter new knowledge: your whole vision of the field undergoes a tiny shift, and the elements settle into a new pattern.

So amid all the upheaval of my mental furniture there’s a sense that I’m on the right track, that this endless movement and reordering of ideas is actually, paradoxically, a persistent element in knowledge creation.

Who knows, someday there might even be a book about it …

Writing from Attleborough to Wymondham: #AcWriMo in train journeys

#AcWriMo is genius. Started by the wonderful PhD2Published as an academic variant of #NaNoWriMo, it’s a self-forming, mutually nurturing community of people desperate to write something and not quite getting pen to paper on their own. The key is accountability: you declare your writing goals for the month of November by signing up to a spreadsheet, tweet your progress (or lack thereof), and maybe occasionally blog about how you’re doing.

Others in the same writing boat share tips on getting started and keeping going (my favourite this morning: “Press the bridge of your nose to stay awake” [?!]), pass on useful websites and apps, and tweet encouragement and sympathy as needed. Like this:

In between the moments of anguish caused by trying to actually write instead of talking to students about how to write, one of the aspects of #AcWriMo that fascinates me is how people declare their goals. Looking at the spreadsheet, there’s a huge amount of Pomodoro going on, along with other variations of time-based measurement. Another popular option is setting a word count. I’ve suggested both of these approaches to students as part of my former class on Academic Reading and Writing, and used to love when students, initially sceptical, would come back with the light of the true convert in their eyes to tell me that one of these strategies worked, just really worked, and was now part of their writing habit. It’s such joy when you witness something crystallising for students like that: you can see their confidence in their ability to actually write this damn thesis take a huge bound forward, along with their word count. Because although both these strategies may sound like productivity gimmicks, what they do – as ThesisWhisperer points out – is give you room to explore who and how you are as a writer without being stifled by the anxiety of perfectionism.

However, obstinate “do it my way” mule that I am, I seem to have decided on a different way to set and measure my writing goals, one that’s neither time- nor length-based. It’s … erm … spatial. Because I have a long train journey every morning, I figured that would be the best time to work: an hour and a half of time already set aside for me by the grace of Greater Anglia, and a surprisingly comfortable workspace (because I start my journey at the terminal station for that route, I’m one of those annoying people who’s already occupying a table seat when you get on further down the line). But when I record what I’ve done, I don’t write the length of time spent. I write the station intervals. Like this:

03 Nov  CBG-THF [Cambridge to Thetford]. Slow and sticky.

05 Nov  ELY-WMD [Ely to Wymondham – almost the entire journey!]. 4 pages. Not great but something there.

06 Nov  ATL-NRW [Attleborough to Norwich]. 2 pp. Unpicking ‘right answers’ [a key theme in my book].

07 Nov  ELY-HRD [Ely to Harling Road]. INTRODUCTION!

I didn’t intend to measure my writing in railway stations; it just came out that way. A bit like how I went from ‘slow and sticky’ to ‘INTRODUCTION’ inside the first #AcWriMo week. I didn’t plan it, any of it: it just came out

And there again is the crystallisation moment: the point when you look back at the pattern formed by your writing record and think: Hello, Muse.


[1] Thank you to everyone involved in #AcWriMo – and keep writing!

[2] I’ve used a bit of poetic licence in the title of this post. While I could in theory ‘write from Attleborough to Wymondham’ it wouldn’t be much of an accomplishment, since that leg of the journey only takes about seven minutes : ) But it’s the closest I can get to ‘from A to Z’!

The power of the post-it: on studying, sensemaking and stationery

Last week I tweeted about my joy at being back in reading mode and, as a consequence, having an excuse to indulge in stationery.

I was entertained that my tweet got favourited, suggesting that I’m not alone in seeing study and stationery as mutually fulfilling partners. I also got a request for a peek at my research diary, which I’m very happy to comply with because it reminded me how much I love seeing how other people lay out their “vehicle for ordered creativity” (Schatzman & Strauss, 1973). What I mean by ‘research diary’ is not the neatly-written lab report designed to be shared and perhaps assessed, but the scruffy, tatty notebook we carry around and scribble in privately. In my kind of research diary we don’t write for anyone else’s eyes. It’s a force of nature, a place where our thoughts rampage unfiltered by academic proprieties. And it’s really not very tidy – because as I may have said a few times before, the process of knowledge creation is by its nature a messy affair.

Study kit in full glory (with coffee)

Above is my newly-started research diary along with the odds and sods that make up my study kit – pens and highlighters of various colours, post-its of various sizes, and a nifty little book of tear-out pages that acts as my mobile To Do list. I find that there’s always a degree of self-consciousness about plunging into a new notebook, a desire to make the inside as neat and pretty as the outside. But only two pages in to this new one, the mess and the overflow have already started! That torn scrap with the orange post-it stuck on it is a bit of thinking from another time and place that needs to sit alongside what I’m doing now. It will float around in this perilous, unanchored state for who knows how long, until I find the right place in the new diary to glue or staple it in (which of course, along with all the other similar thought scraps, will end up contorting and bending the outside so it does, in effect, match the inside – just not in any way that could be called ‘neat’).


Here’s my previous notebook. It’s less of a ‘pure’ research diary and even more of a mongrel planning-thinking-writing tool, as alongside research notes it contains lesson planning for work, bits of writing towards articles and a book, and random thoughts inspired by the Fen landscapes. In fact it’s such a patchwork of various facets of my life that I went back through it and post-it’d it so I could find my way around all the bits that are still ‘live’.


Post-its are also my go-to notemaking strategy when I’m in a flailing-round-trying-to-orientate-myself phase such as starting a research project, or entering a new field (as I am at the moment). Orientating yourself in a new field often demands that you read classic monographs and textbooks rather than articles and papers, which means that you have no hope of buying, printing or copying everything you need – which in turn means you can’t interact with or answer back to the text by annotating it directly. For me this is a real problem. (Please don’t be shocked: of course I write in my books. Books are knowledge tools, not decorative artefacts. As I A Richards said in 1924, “A book is a machine to think with”.)


When you can’t write in books because they’re not yours, but you’re not yet at the stage where you can mash up what a writer is saying with other stuff you’ve read and with your own thoughts – which is what the research diary is for – I find the post-it strategy is perfect. Although it’s not in the same league of bibliographic criminality as marginal annotations, I know some libraries aren’t crazy about people putting (even slightly) sticky things (even temporarily) in their books. However, I’m resigned by now to the fact that I’m a bad librarian … and active reading is fundamentally necessary in order to locate yourself in your field, to find a standpoint, and to join the dialogue. Being able to ‘talk back’ to the literature is the foundation stone of a contribution to knowledge.


Here’s another form of answering back (and another page from my old diary): the ‘double entry notemaking’ idea, where every time you copy or paraphrase something from the original, you also write your reason for grabbing that quote or idea, your response to it, or both. I love the emphasis this places on the reader’s context and reasons for reading. In practical terms it’s a great way of futureproofing the work that goes into reading and notemaking, but it goes further than that: as you capture your response to the text you start developing your own thoughts and making connections between concepts. And when there’s this much stuff chasing chaotically around in your mind, keeping hold of those connections needs all the help it can get!


Lest anyone think I might be pushing the connection between studying and stationery a bit far, it’s worth bearing in mind that according to constructivist thinking, learning takes place through individual sensemaking: through perceiving and building patterns, relationships and hierarchies for yourself rather than assimilating someone else’s conceptual model. John Holt says this beautifully and resonantly:

I doubt very much if it is possible to teach anyone to understand anything, that is to say, to see how various parts of it relate to all the other parts, to have a model of the structure in one’s mind. We can give other people names, and lists, but we cannot give them our mental structures; they must build their own. (1982, 145).

(This is one of the quotations on the double-entry notemaking page, above. My response is pretty concise: it says “YES!!” in large letters : ) ) If we accept the constructivist approach to learning, it follows naturally that how we organise our knowledge influences both how we learn and how we apply what we know (Ambrose et al., 2010). I think this is one of the most important principles of both learning and research, and yet we rarely talk about it explicitly or devote much time to reflecting on the practices we use to organise and make sense of knowledge, and how they interact with the practices of our academic discipline as well as our own desire or need to learn. When I do get to talk about how we organise knowledge, usually in my information skills classes, I always come away feeling inspired. Our tools for recording, ordering and juxtaposing knowledge scraps are hugely various and reflect our individual, unique approaches to learning. They can be analogue or digital, can range from the hi-tech to the humble. But perhaps what I find most endearing is that even the unassuming post-it can play a part in making connections and, ultimately, making a contribution to the dialogue.


Researchers (and anyone else) feeling the #stationerylove, please do look at these other lovely posts on creative uses of notebooks and stationery:

My notebooks and other animals by @samanthahalf, which shows some notebooks that are even more beautiful inside than out;

@florilegia‘s post on keeping a ‘commonplace book’, An anthology of one’s own;

Stationery love (hurrah!) by @Aurelie_Sol, which has some wonderful tips on journalling and notebooks as organisational tools for your thinking.

Manifesto, part I: on not being an expert

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.

Emotion and the PhD: a blog #followfriday

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.

“Don’t get it right, just get it written”

I recently stumbled across an academic writing group set up and run by PhD students here in the University, and went along to see how it works.

We began with a 5-minute warm-up exercise, getting into pairs and swapping plans verbally of what we wanted to write about. It’s a gentle, non-threatening way of getting into your topic by explaining it to someone else. In my session we were put into pairs consisting of one more experienced participant (in terms of writing group attendance) and one less so, which was thoughtful.

After the 5-minute exchange of plans – and two and a half minutes is really not a lot of time to say what you want to do! – we had 8 minutes of free writing. The rules for this section are:

  • you must use complete sentences, but not necessarily “academic” language
  • you can’t go back over anything you’ve written: no edits, and no spellchecking
  • you can’t stop writing until the timer goes!

What you write in this segment is for your own eyes only – not for supervisors, colleagues or anyone else to see and criticize (unless you decide otherwise afterwards). And what you write can vary tremendously. Some participants use the 8 minutes to outline what they’ll work on in the main section of the time; some use it to reflect on how they feel about their research that day. But what happens when you get stuck, or are blank to start off with, and yet you must write and keep writing? That’s what’s so interesting about this approach. The session leader described a participant who, in utter frustration, wrote “I hate this, I hate this” repeatedly for 8 minutes. Yet the action of writing, even the writing of negative or emotional sentences, brings its own release – that’s the point of the free writing.

This is very reminiscent of how Maya Angelou describes the writing process:

What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.’

After the 8 minutes’ sandbox time, the final section is 45 minutes of ‘real’ writing, intended for consumption by a real audience. By this time everyone in the group was physically settled, writing materials arranged comfortably, and grounded by our earlier discussion and by the fact that we were no longer face to face with a blank page. I found it remarkably easy to focus: ideas flowed as my writing flowed, and yet – because I was writing in full sentences and with one eye on future readers – I was forced to fit the ideas into the rhythm of the writing and develop them in an orderly way. And the astonishing thing was that I was able to do this. I didn’t lose track of anything, and I ended up with a piece of coherent, well-developed writing that I could type up* and (with minor amendments) present to colleagues. Magically, I was getting it written and getting it right – pretty much; and that’s a first for me.

Rowena Murray, whose work on academic writing techniques was the inspiration for this choice of format, describes how writing can become “part of the researcher’s thinking process” (‘What can I write about?: The rhetorical question for PhD students and their supervisors‘). Yet, as she also points out, in most UK universities writing is not perceived in this way, and a dislocation between the thinking and writing processes results.

This idea of “dislocation” encapsulates my PhD experience perfectly. I was the student who couldn’t write. It seemed to me that until I had something definitive and irreproachable to say, I couldn’t go near a pen. The sight of blank pages in my research diary gave me hysterics. I read and took notes compulsively and wrote nothing – until my final year, when breaking through the barrier that I’d so painstakingly constructed was a slow and anguished business. The Muse did come, of course – in the end. But incorporating writing/thinking time on a weekly basis from the start seems a much saner way of summoning her.

* Yes, my writing is an analogue affair. Interestingly, the majority of the participants present also used pen and paper.

Writing group structure

In the writing group I attended sessions take place weekly and last an hour and a quarter. Have one person who can explain how each part of the session works and act as timekeeper (setting the timer on your phone is the easiest way).

  • 5 minutes’ discussion in pairs of what you plan to write about in the session
  • 8 minutes of free writing – complete sentences, no stopping, no editing
  • 45 minutes’ writing for an audience

The time in between is used for taking breath, stretching, and thinking about how to approach the next section.

The session finished with tea and biscuits (brought by participants) and an informal debrief where each participant described to the rest how the session went for him/her.

Title quotation: James Thurber