Watershed?

“Summit of Hardknott Pass” by IaninSheffield https://flickr.com/photos/ianinsheffield/9361797530 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA

In the briefing notes I wrote, it should have just been one more supervisory meeting. I intended to cover the recent activity in which I’d been involved and that which was forthcoming, followed by a progress report on my data collection. There were a couple of things which had arisen that I was keen to talk through and seek advice. However, things took a different turn when a thought occurred and I asked what would the implications be if I wanted to submit in time to attend the November 2018 graduation ceremony. Given my October 2016 start, a three year programme would take me to September 2018 finish; rather tight for a November ceremony. So our discussion then shifted to considering the implications, first of which was the timeline in order to fulfill that.Read More »

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Unsettlement

flickr photo by derekbruff https://flickr.com/photos/derekbruff/27336142234 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

Just had a meeting with my supervisory team; one that I called. By the end of September, I will need to have completed what we call locally, the RF2, or ‘Confirmation of PhD.’ It’s a checkpoint through which you can pass if you’ve made sufficient progress and what you’re proposing to undertake is worthy of study in pursuit of a doctorate. There are two parts: the first is a 6000 word report and the second a presentation to a panel. I guess the combined process serves (at least) two functions; whilst providing that obligatory passage point, it also provides an opportunity to experience, on a smaller scale, what the end of the doctoral process is like – the production of a summative report together with an oral examination. It all makes sense and hangs together.

In preparation for the meeting I produced and circulated a set of notes – points I wanted to cover. Some were simply procedural, but the main thrust was to get some feedback on the pilot phase of my study. Although not quite complete, I have enough data and have undertaken sufficient analysis to begin to make some tentative observations. I wanted the meeting to provide some sense of reassurance that my interpretations held water and to help bring some clarity to some the rather fuzzy and less coherent preliminary thoughts I’ve had. It was not to be … as has been the case in most of the meetings I’ve had so far. As I recounted my thoughts, my sensei’s pushed the points I was making that little bit further. ‘If you’re saying xxx, then you’ll need to consider yyy.’ ‘If it’s the case that xxx, then might it be that yyy.’ In many ways, rather than sharpening the focus, issues became more blurred as possibilities expanded. I found the experience most unsettling.

As I began the process of mulling things over, I realised that my expectations of supervisory meetings might have been opposite to what they’re actually intended to do. They’re not there to bring forth order from chaos; that’s my job as a doctoral researcher. Instead, they’re about being unsettled; having your cage rattled. You arrive at a meeting with a set of thoughts, some fully formed and others mere fledglings. What supervisors then do is test the strength, flexibility and elasticity of those ideas – do they stand up to scrutiny and do they fully represent the phenomenon or situation you’ve been studying? Supervisors are there to pose the questions you, as a student, are too inexperienced to have thought of, or too insecure to have articulated. It should be an unsettling process; if it isn’t, your work may not be moving forward or achieving the standard it needs to.

Based on the data and initial interpretations I offered, there were a number of considerations I need to take away and questions I need to address.

  • Professional development, professional learning, CPD – what significance does the terminology have and how big a deal do I want to make it? Do I define what term I’m going to be using throughout my study and therefore set out my stall from the beginning, or is
  • In trying to ‘tame’ the research ‘site,’ I need to take care that I don’t massage out the very essence of Twitter. It’s a messy, intense, unruly, unbounded, chaotic space; some of that might be what helps to generate the benefits and outcomes that people have begun to describe.
  • There some tentative indications that ‘identity’ might be a topic which needs addressing, though I got the impression that that carries with it a whole other set of baggage.

During the course of my summary, I offered up a variety of possible avenues, each of which might make a fruitful area of exploration, but I now need to decide which thread, running through the whole study, that I want to gradually pull and tease out. I also need to begin to set myself some limits, especially if I intend to continue with multiple methods. If I’m unable to reassure those assessing my capability to continue, that I can conduct and complete my study within the time scale, then I may not be allowed to move forward.

So yes, I’ve definitely been unsettled, but that was needed to encourage me to confront and make sense of the raft of possibilities, and to bring some coherence to my unfolding research.

Ups and downs

Following my second supervisory meeting today, I was trying to think of an image which represented the flow of my studies. I settled on:

flickr photo by ARHiker http://flickr.com/photos/aerogel5711/5047206990 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

For those of you not familiar, this is a photo of a ‘standing wave’ on a vibrating string, such as that you might get on a stringed instrument. We can see five ‘nodes’ – places where the string doesn’t appear to be vibrating, and four ‘anti-nodes’ – places where the string seems to vibrating the most. I was minded to think that the timeline of my studies follows a similar pattern from one end to the other. The nodes are the milestones that form punctuations in the study; points where you need to bring things together. To gather up your thoughts and ideas, the information you’ve gathered and the learning you’ve experienced, and bring them to a focus. A supervisory meeting is one of those nodes. Today’s was to discuss the draft of a form I’m submitting as my first progress check. This submission will be assessed by a research committee to establish that the study I’m proposing has sufficient merit and rigour to potentially result in the award of PhD. No biggie then!

Things appear to be largely in order. I suspect that I would never have been accepted onto the programme if my initial proposal didn’t look likely to be able to vault this hurdle. An experienced supervisory team however, (and I’m fortunate to be blessed with such a one) can recognise, even at this early stage, potential banana skins. Which they did. The subsequent discussion then unpicked some of the issues and considered a multiplicity of possible routes forward. I now have to reflect on the outcomes of that discussion and consider which options sit most comfortably for what I want to achieve. My submission needs no more than a few small tweaks to provide those who will be judging it with a little more clarity. For me though, there’s likely to be quite a shift in my next steps – I’ll now be moving towards an anti-node on the string where the vibrations are greater. This will be mirrored in my activity as I seek explore the new avenues which have been suggested; as I try to get to make sense of new possibilities and as I attempt to become more familiar with the new terrain.

This switching between periods of calm and turbulent activity can be very unsettling. Just when you feel you’re getting somewhere, a whole new set of challenges opens up. Just when you think you’re starting to understand some of the concepts or techniques, it’s made clear where your shortcomings are. But I guess that’s the nature of the PhD. That’s what your supervisors are there to do. Not intentionally unsettle you of course, but to reveal the points you missed, or were unable to spot through lack of knowledge and experience. You’re back in the uncomfortable position of a novice learner, perhaps for the first time since you were in school, experiencing the uncomfortable power imbalance between you and a (much more!) knowledgeable other. It’s crucial however to keep at the forefront of your mind that the intention is to help draw out the best from you and help you develop the capability to vault the hurdles as they arrive.

The more I thought about it, the more the photo above is rather idealised. The actuality is perhaps more like this:

Exposure … in a good way

flickr photo by Mike Rohde http://flickr.com/photos/rohdesign/17001574940 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

My first supervisory meeting served to draw a line under what went before and what is to come. Prior to this session, most of what I’d been involved with wasn’t too different from my previous life; attend a few talks, read things, think about them, write a bit. The last week of enrolment, meeting with new people, becoming familiar with new places and culminating in this formal event focused specifically on my next three years, has helped to reify the transition to a different life.

Mainly concerned with the business of undertaking a PhD, we discussed the significant milestones I need to be aware of and how my time might unfold during the three years. It was interesting to project forward to the endpoint of the viva, then trace back through the different possible thesis outcomes – traditional, PhD by Publication, PhD by artefact (a high-risk strategy in this field, but one employed to amazing effect by Nick Sousanis who presented his thesis in comic book format!). Having the end point in mind helps set the placemarkers I’ll need to ensure completion in the allotted time, but all that’s getting ahead of myself to some extent. For the moment, my first milestone is completion of the ‘RF1’ form, which requests approval for the research programme. Most of this was covered within my research proposal, so its completion shouldn’t prove too onerous.

I‘d produced a brief progress report which we then visited to discuss the reading I’ve already undertaken and the directions this might take. I appear to be largely on the right track, but it was useful to hear of other potential theoretical frameworks like critical realism. My concerns over the growing archive of journal articles I’m amassing, but which remain largely unread since I’m focusing on major texts, shouldn’t be considered too troubling. It’s still very early days and the progress I’m making is perfectly satisfactory. One suggestion was that I might consider using NVIVO (a powerful qualitative data analysis package) to record my reading and, since I’ll need to record, manage and analyse the qualitative data I collect in the future, keep all my reading notes and data interpretations in one place where cross-referencing and linking is possible. That makes a lot of sense, but … NVIVO? I’m sure it would be useful as outlined (and doubtless in other ways too), but my proprietary platform hackles have just risen. At $700 dollars, though free to me through the University, it’s not an application I’ll be able to use beyond my studies. However the principle appeals, so I thought I might revisit a tool I used to support my Master’s dissertation Compendium, the latest version of which I’ve now download and will take for a test-drive.

One area that I suggested might prove tough is perhaps unsurprisingly my decision to use actor-network theory as a methodological lens. Again, it’s still early days, but I was advised that these kinds of concerns and the detailed choices I make regarding theoretical frameworks and methodology are far from set in tablets of stone. As I read more, it’s entirely possible that other more appropriate or interesting possibilities might emerge. With ANT, I was encouraged to look towards the more recent developments and how sociomaterial perspectives might shift the emphasis somewhat. I was advised that helpful ways of grappling through issues that we find difficult are often undertaken in the University by ‘Groups’ – these are convened around interesting threads (like literacies, space and place etc); they meet regularly over a coffee (or beer!) and discuss issues, often taking a particular text as as a focus … a bit like a book club it seemed to me. Several were offered as of potential interest to me and I’ll follow them up, but it was also suggested that there’s nothing stopping me initiating a group of my own and offering it up for membership. Social media appears to be a ‘hot topic’ across several disciplines and from a number of different angles. (So something to consider)

One further mechanism through which my ongoing learning could be enhanced is through attendance at interesting events. Of particular interest would be the International Professional Development Association Annual Conference scheduled for November, so I’ll add that to my calendar and stick on my ‘To do’ list to draft a request for funding. A number of other local events were also offered up and I’ll be checking them out too.

What I took away from my meeting then was that I need to maximise my exposure … to as many different opportunities as possible and through as many different avenues that I can find. Makes sense.

Greetings

flickr photo by WSDOT http://flickr.com/photos/wsdot/6329633097 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

Enjoyed my first meeting with my supervisory team who were kind enough to spare a few minutes to say hello and open proceedings. Nothing formal; just a chance to meet, answer any questions I had and offer initial advice and encouragement. (It is after all three months until I begin!).

In discussing potential areas (and authors) to read, it was pointed out that although my research proposal was necessarily tight and focused, there is some latitude in the direction it might take … provided of course it is within the field of teacher professional learning, that being the reason the studentship award was made. From there, the focus might be on Twitter as outlined in my research proposal, or social media more generally. Within that, I could explore the phenomenon of the ‘big hitters’ – those educationalists who seem to carry some sway and who attract considerable followership. How and why has that happened and what effects do they have. Or on a similar theme, those people who have used Twitter almost as a stepping stone into other areas of expertise such as lead practitioners, Advanced Skills Teachers and professional development leaders. It might be that I approach this through Actor-Network Theory as in my proposal, use social network analysis or take a more generalist network view – more reading needed here! And that was made clear; that what I find from the literature might change the emphasis of my study, perhaps because one avenue might offer a more interesting or informative set of possibilities, or another might be either more fruitful or manageable.

The last point was quite significant and introduced a shot of realism. This is a study which is time-bound and as such what can be achieved within the time frame needs to be borne in mind. Whilst the normal way to design a research project is from the research question(s) to the methodology and methods, whilst accounting for what can be accomplished within the time span, curiously it’s also appropriate to flip that completely, start with the time available, think about the methods which will be employed, then that might actually influence the question(s) you are capable of addressing.

I managed to couple the visit with a visit to the University Library where I was able to set up Associate Membership. A limited account only in that I can only borrow up to three books at a time and not allowing access to the online repositories, nevertheless at the moment, that’s perfectly acceptable.

The work of some of the authors I’ve been pointed towards is familiar, but it’s clear I need to become much more intimate with it. Other authors are new to me. My reading list will include:

  • Davis (for a discussion of ‘complexity’)
  • Thompson (for advice on academic writing)
  • Law (for ANT)
  • Opfer and Peddar, Clarke and Hollingsworth, Timperley, Evans, Guskey, Desimone, Vermunt, Van Driel, Sachs (for professional learning/development)
  • Stoll (for communities)
  • Jopling, McCormick, (for networks)

Interesting too that I received further encouragement to write, mirroring the advice provided by Jonathan at the SIoE 2015 conference. In discussing the scope and form of that writing, the subject of digital scholarship rose to the surface, as did the ethical issues that are bound with that. This is another area of the literature to explore and to discuss at greater length later. Digital scholarship might not be the focus of my investigation, but it perhaps illustrates one of those areas that facilitate your studies that you need to be aware of and be comfortable with.

We also briefly touched on conferences which might be appropriate; the International Professional Development Association Conference in November might provide a supportive and somewhat less-pressured atmosphere for one’s inaugural conference experience. A potential place to lay out for comment, the direction your research is likely to be taking, perhaps through a poster or fringe(?) workshop. I’ll get that in the diary then!

Appetite suitably whetted.

Reflection about discussing authors

Having authors mentioned by surname, rather than their research is nothing new of course, however , now in the position of undertaking more reading than ever before, I’m minded to consider the consequences. Some of the authors listed are doubtless prolific, so a search may return multiple hits; is the first listed likely to be the most significant? Most pertinent? As a research student however, I should have the capability to scan their body of work and filter the articles of most significance for more detailed consideration. That’s fine … but there’s a ‘but.’ Quoting authors might be appropriate within a research or higher education context, but what impediments might that introduce when working with colleagues from other educational sectors who may be less familiar with that convention? If I’m ever in the position of needing to refer someone to a specific article/paper, ought I to do them the courtesy of providing the title with the author(s)? Would they find it less intimidating to hear “You would find ‘The Lost Promise of Teacher Professional Development’ by Opfer and Pedder really helpful here,” rather than “You would find Opfer and Pedder really informative”?