It might be a little way off yet, but …

“thesis” flickr photo by Liz Henry shared under a Creative Commons (BY-ND) license

The traditional way that most theses are presented is in the form of an 80 000(ish) word report. University regulations usually specify that this should be bound in hard copy format, and ready to be posted onto the shelves in the Library stacks. Recently, in the spirit of openly sharing knowledge, it is becoming common for Universities to also require a digital copy of the thesis for posting to the institutional digital repository. For me then, this will be through the Sheffield Hallam University Research Archive, SHURA. We are also now required, where permissible, to post the data that our research generates. This aligns with my own feelings about research being as open as is ethically permissible, so I have no problem with any of this.

As I have begun drafting my thesis, the necessity for it to conform to the constraint of A4-shaped dead trees is causing me a few headaches. I don’t have a problem with writing text … actually I do, but that’s another story! Read More »


It must be a sign …

“Tracing the field” by IaninSheffield is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA

In my most recent doctoral supervision meeting, I briefly mentioned how I’m recording/tracking the paths I’m taking as I conduct my ethnographic observations. For me, it’s a way to visualise where I’ve been, when I was there, what I saw, what I thought; an alternative to the more traditional, textual field notes (which I’m also keeping by the way). In the meeting, I innocently referred to the process as ‘tracing the field,’ as I have done here in the past. Oh dear! I’d used one of those … ‘little words;’ in fact I’d compounded the problem by also mentioning mapping and representing. Once again I’d committed the sin of using words which may be fine to use in everyday contexts, but which in academic discourse, require much more unpicking. The upshot was that I needed to establish what I meant by these terms. To go away and read, then perhaps write a blog post. Here is the first; I suspect I may need another … or more!Read More »

Mess of methods

flickr photo by kara brugman shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

Earlier today was the first reading group that I’ve convened. My Director of Studies suggested it might be useful to unpick themes I’ve been wrestling with, as exemplified through a particular text – After Method, John Law, 2004. The idea that three learned people would give up their time to discuss a text with me was a complete but delightful surprise. Discussing an entire book was unlikely to be manageable in the available time, so I settled on one particular chapter; the one that had proved most challenging for me.

Chapter 7, Imagination and Narrative, calls into question the Euro-American view of reality as ‘independent, prior, definite and singular.’ Law does this using the example of an Australian guidebook which presents Uluru/Ayers Rock in two ways: the single, definite, realist geological narrative, juxtaposed with the aboriginal Tjukurpas which recreate and retell the stories of Uluru, bringing it into being with each practical enactment. The chapter opens with, for me, a tough paragraph. Tough because of the language and vocabulary used:

Method assemblage is the process of enacting or crafting bundles of ramifying relations that condense presence and (therefore also) generate absence by shaping, mediating and separating these. (122)

What it then goes on to do, is to introduce the ideas which will be covered in the chapter, though I have one of my supervisors to thank for pointing that out. I’d (initially) found it too impenetrable. Law’s work, and the earlier chapters in the book explore and propose that different realities are created by different methods. It took a while for that to sink in. Not the realist, perspectival view that we see things differently depending on how we look at them (an epistemological view), but that the very nature of a reality is brought into being by the methods assemblage used to enact it. Ontological politics –

If realities are enacted, then reality is not in principle fixed or singular, and truth is no longer the only ground for accepting or rejecting a representation. The implication is that there are various possible reasons, including the political, for enacting one kind of reality rather than another, and that these grounds can in some measure be debated. (162)

This was somewhat of a bolt from the blue, forcing me as it did to reassess my ontological stance. Actually it would be more accurate to say that it made me think seriously about it in a way I hadn’t previously done. Now I reflect back, although I’ve usually claimed a constructivist epistemology, I think I’ve been doing that from a realist ontology, in which I assumed an independent, single, definite reality existing out-there. What the whole book, and this chapter in particular, helped me do was to see that reality can be multiple, vague, dependent and brought into being as it is enacted. Chapter 3, Multiple Worlds, in which Law described the research of Annemarie Mol on atherosclerosis really helped here.

Even as I write this I’m feeling queasy. Although I’m beginning to rationalise these things in my head, I’m not sure I’m yet in a place where I can articulate them in a lucid form for others to read. Is that because I’ve not yet developed the vocabulary and grammar to do that, or that my conceptions are still poorly formed? So what should my next steps be? Again I’m thankful to one of the group who suggested mapping what Law was saying onto an example which has more practical ramifications for me. In terms of my own research into professional learning through Twitter then, perhaps I need to reposition? Starting from what the world knows about professional development and professional learning, and seeing how that marries with what teachers are claiming for Twitter, might be framing things too realistically. A stance which views professional learning as single, prior, definite and independent. How might things appear if instead, the myriad of ways in which teachers use Twitter and other sociomaterial assemblages, were enacting different realities? Professional learning becomes multiple, dependent, messy and contingent on the methods used to enact it. Maybe that better reflects the reality (realities?) of professional learning with which I’m familiar?

There were other aspects to the ‘reading’ that also unsettled me. Some of the observations which were made, at the time seemed clear, but in retrospect, I’m not sure I fully understood. This I know to be one of my weaknesses; I struggle to process information quickly enough to follow and synthesise multiple strands of a discursive argument in real time. I need to take things away and allow them to ferment. Looking back, I now know I’m not sure about how ‘politics was absent’ from the chapter. I (now) know that politics can be viewed as the struggle for power, though am still not sure how the chapter failed to deal with that, or perhaps more importantly, why that matters. I know this is one of the criticisms generally leveled at actor-network theory, so getting a better understanding of this has to go onto my ‘To do’ list.

One concept that Law used with which we shared (varying degrees of) ambivalence was that of allegory. Here once more I have no more understanding than a vague recollection of allegory in a literary sense. Memories of ‘O’-level English Literature and Shakespeare drift back. I struggled to see why Law invokes allegory as being particularly helpful. Do different levels of meaning and symbolic representation link with multiple realities? As Law himself intimated, there is an inevitable tension in re-presenting an aboriginal re-creation in the Euro-American format of a visitor guide. Was that where he was going? More homework for me to resolve.

One of the outcomes from this chapter which should inform my thinking, if I find the methods assemblage approach useful, is how I might represent what I find. Is the traditional, linear, definite, singular format of a thesis appropriate if multiplicity, mess and ethereality are what emerge? Perhaps aboriginal Dreamtime or the Dreaming might be able to inform my research? Specifically it’s timeless-ness. One telling of the Dreaming is ‘what happened in the past and how things came to be, what’s happening now and what will come to be in the future.’

Crass though it might initially sound, could Twitter reality be better expressed through indigenous metaphysics? It does after all have this strange temporality which moves back and forth; is recreated and retold.

Aboriginal method assemblages enact a spatiality that is indissolubly linked with the Tjukurpa, the telling, the re-enacting, and the re-crafting of the stories of the ancestral beings – events which exist, as we have seen, in an eternal simultaneous past and present.

Can I legitimately, sensitively and respectfully borrow from a different culture? Much to ponder.

I’m fairly sure that whilst writing my research proposal over a year ago, aboriginal philosophy and spirituality wasn’t at the forefront of my mind.

When scrawling leads to learning

Initial frustration with a borrowed library book quickly turned to spotting opportunities.

In the pICTure

On opening a book borrowed from the library, I struggled to stifle the resigned exhalation reserved for those irritations caused by someone’s thoughtlessness.

flickr photo by ianguest shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

I have no problem at all with adding notes to a text that highlight significant sections, query your own understanding or indicate emerging themes. Quite the contrary in fact. So if you buy a book for your own personal use, then you have every right and very good reasons to annotate away until your pencil is no more than a stub. However, if that book comes from a library collection and will be borrowed by subsequent readers, then surely it is no more than considerate to erase your jottings before returning the book? Or am expecting too much and reverting to type as a ‘Grumpy Old Man?’ (and that’s rhetorical!)

As I inspected…

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Am I too early?

With four months still to go before my PhD officially commences and three months remaining in my current post, is it too soon to start writing about my doctoral studies? Not according to Jonathan at last Saturdays’ Sheffield Institute of Education Inaugural Doctoral Conference. Reflecting on his own time as a PhD student, and occupying the tricky post-lunch slot, he provided several nuggets of wisdom gathered during his studies, one of which was “Just write!” Needing no further encouragement, this post then represents the first tentative steps of the adventure to come.

I was grateful for the invitation to the conference, offering me as it did, the chance to meet a few of the current doctoral students and affording a glimpse into the topics with which they are engaged. I was intrigued to see the different approaches they used to condense between one and three (or more!) year’s work into an all too short fifteen minutes. At times I felt overwhelmed by a tsunami of information which I struggled to process sufficiently well to be able to ask any meaningful questions during the plenary of each session. How on Earth did my fellow audience members to do that?

I don’t think this came as a surprise. I’ve never been under any misapprehensions that the world into which I’m moving will make demands of me; that’s part of the attraction. I was struck however by a number of things. How quickly people seem to assimilate information and respond, whether those who pose questions or those who respond to them. How knowledgeable everyone is and the complex terminology and vocabulary they use in order to explain and discuss their areas of study. Another observation Jonathan made resonated here; “Is everyone in the world cleverer than me?” It was also reassuring to see though that confidence, poise, articulation, clarity of thought or argument and succinctness were exhibited to varying degrees. These were bright people, but regular folks all the same.

As the day drew to a close and I looked back across the broad range of educational arenas covered, a recurring theme seemed to be how significant professional development was for the organisations or people being researched. Perhaps my study might have some merit after all?

So whilst for some it’s the theatre, others the cinema and for countless millions, a variety of sports stadia, I get my kicks  in the lecture theatre and seminar room listening to passionate, intelligent, interesting people talking about their areas of expertise. Even on a sun-kissed, summer’s day.