Use white space for a winning thesis

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While it’s easy to be preoccupied by the abstract arguments, concepts and theories of an academic thesis, PhD supervisors and students need to remember that the thesis document is a material entity, even on the screen, and specifically, as Pat Thomson argues in a recent and highly recommended post, a visual entity.

As Pat notes, thinking across disciplines here is useful, as poets and designers are experts in white space, and in giving words and ideas room to breathe. The readability and aesthetics of theses can have a powerful effect on examiners. One of my examiners even commented in her report, on how “clean” my thesis was, and she was referring to the white space, which had been carefully crafted in relation to chapter openings, positioning of images, font, headings, paragraphs, borders, line spacing and even kerning (spaces between letters).

Here are two useful websites to assist with understanding this idea, for those who are guiding students in the presentation of their documents:

This lyrical blog post by poet Orlando White explores the concept of “functional white”, which is just as important in a thesis as in a poem; functional white takes the reader through a text. Language and silence collaborate on every page of writing, even academic writing.

This graphic design blog post by Pratik Hegde describes how white space is integral to branding; this is a useful concept for supervisors and students, to think how the design of every page of a thesis contributes to the student’s branding and academic identity. This post provides thesis-relevant textual examples.

Fundamentally, working with white space is about empathising with the reader; this is very important for a thesis, when the stakes are so high!

Declutter the doctorate

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It’s the new year and time to declutter. As a supervisor, how do you help PhD students refine their physical and mental working environments? It’s not just about decluttering the writing itself (The Thesis Whisperer has a great post on this). It’s more Marie Kondo.

Re modelling a decluttered approach, for eg:

  • Does everything in your study or writing area give you joy, as Marie suggests?
  • Do all those files on your desktop need to be there?
  • Do you have anything overdue or borrowed that needs returning?
  • Are your bookshelves easy to read and navigate?
  • Do you have an elegant and tidy email signature?

Re explicit support for students:

  • Do you actually talk with students about managing, labelling and retrieving  the sheer bulk of material  a PhD (and an academic career) generates and accumulates?
  • Do you notice, comment on and understand how your students are taking notes?
  • Do you share strategies for streamlining, for exploiting reference management software for example?

Here’s one tiny tip that’s worth sharing: if you type “Australian Association for Research in Education” into EndNote’s author field, you’ll get “Education, A.A.f. R. i.” as the author, and have to manually fix it up. If you put a comma at the end of the organisation’s title when entering it in full, it will be fine. It’s all in the record-making! And it’s all too easy for supervisors to assume that students know these tricks of the trade.

Wishing all PhD students and supervisors a happy and productive 2018!

Supervisor “where are you?” blues

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The Supervisor Whisperers have written a great post encouraging PhD supervisors to finish the year with a bang, and inspire students to take action. However, the end of the year is also a time when supervisors, having finished teaching commitments and making the most of the conference season, can go AWOL on their research students. This can be a significant source of stress and anxiety for students, when not handled professionally. It’s all about communication (as usual)!

  • What are your protocols for informing students of your conference/annual leave?
  • How much notice do you give them?
  • Have you explained specifically what email access you will have, and when there may be delays in responding?
  • Are you leaving behind confident research students who can work productively while you are away? Have you met recently and do you have a meeting set up for your return?
  • What arrangements are in place for supporting students while you are away, for example via a supervisory panel?
  • Have you carved out some genuine down time for yourself?
  • Are you modelling a good work-life balance?
  • Was all of this discussed up front at your first supervision meeting?

This is the final post to this blog for 2017. Thank you to all followers and participants, and the blog will recommence in 2018. Please spread the word, encourage other supervisors and students to follow, and consider using the blog, as several universities already are, in research supervisor training for supervisors who care about more than just a thesis! Click the link at the right to follow.

Exploit or support? PhD students and casual labour

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As supervisors, how do we negotiate the tensions of employing PhD students to do casual teaching work? We know this work is underpaid, under-resourced and exploitative. We may even do research in the area of the “hidden injuries of neoliberal academia” (Gill, 2010). We know that contract labour in universities is disproportionately undertaken by women. We know that the superannuation paid for this work is significantly less (in Australia) than we are paid… for the same work. We know that contracts are organised late and that student numbers can change. We know that security and rewards are limited.

And yet… we also know that PhD studies can be enriched, especially in education, by concurrent lecturing work that keeps students in touch with the field. This is also invaluable for women coming back to study and work after parental leave. We know that teaching experience will be important on the CVs of our students when they apply for lecturing jobs post-PhD. We know that university teaching can be very enjoyable and flexible work that fits with students’ busy lives and the demands of study. We know this kind of teaching is a wonderful opportunity to learn from students.

So, what to do? Perhaps the best way to go forward is to make sure that explicit conversations about these tensions take place between supervisors and students, and efforts are made to facilitate change, for example by promoting union membership for PhD students who also come on board as staff. We also need to do whatever we can, from our ongoing, full-time salaried positions of privilege, to support casual teaching work through sharing resources and assisting students to find ways to save time.

References

Gill, R. (2010). Breaking the silence: the hidden injuries of neoliberal academia. In R. Flood & R. Gill (Eds.), Secrecy and silence in the research process: Feminist reflections. New York: Routledge.

 

Top tip for tone in academic writing

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Pat Thomson warns us not to “write ‘classy’” in a new blog post. Who are we pretending to be, in our academic writing? How do we help PhD students think about tone and persona?

A supervisor advised me to find a photo of a trusted friend who was not a particular expert in my field (although interested in and sympathetic to it) and stick it at the top of my computer monitor. While writing, I was to address myself to this person, imagine myself explaining things to her. This is also very much in line with Elizabeth Adams St Pierre’s advice to write pedagogically, to bring people along with you and your ideas, rather than lecturing to them, or posturing above them as superior. This can be tricky for students who feel they must convince supervisors and examiners that they have morphed into experts in their fields! However, few examiners will be expert in every single angle of a thesis.

Writing to my friend helped remove an aggressive tone from my voice, helped me to relax and to use less self-aggrandising vocabulary. It also gave a dialogic warmth, energy and immediacy to the writing. So try this tip yourselves and suggest it to your students, if they are coming over all angry, posh, supercilious, timid, boastful, indecisive, bitter, pugilistic…

Follow this blog by clicking on the black box at the right of the screen, for more tips!

Who’s in your hero folder?

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Do you help your PhD students curate a writing future? As students devour books and journal articles, do you encourage them to collect those that constitute the kind of writing they would like to do? This involves thinking beyond the thesis, and remembering that the doctorate is an apprenticeship during which there are multiple physical and virtual mentors. Other academic writers provide vital guidance in what can be published, what is exciting to read and what communicates clearly.

The style of admired writers can then be deconstructed and emulated, and the collected pieces form a career-guiding portfolio of what to aim for, even as the student develops an original voice. Encourage your students to set up a folder for these hero pieces and revisit them regularly. It is never too early in the doctoral process to begin imagining that academic identity in full flight. And do you share your own heroes with students? Who did you long to be like, and how did you try to get there?

Who is in my hero folder? Rosi Braidotti, Patti Lather, Laurel Richardson, Elizabeth Adams St Pierre, Irit Rogoff and lots more!

  • Susan Carter has written a great blog post about stylish academic writing on the Doctoral Writing SIG, and why students should aim for writing that is better than “submittable”. The hero folder is another way to get there: Exercises for stylish writing.

Note-making NOT note-taking

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How do supervisors encourage students to undertake reading as a productive activity? If a key problem in literature reviews is simply restating or describing the research findings of others, what specific strategies help students move beyond this? And as always, how often do you show doctoral students your own notes, and share your strategies?

Here is a brief guide to making notes that assists students in moving beyond the basic.

  1. WHY?

Why this text? Why have I chosen to read this? (ensures recording of the source’s provenance and highlights the selective, creative and personal nature of literature reviews).

  1. WHAT?

Type of literature (theory, empirical research, practice, policy- this hones conceptualisation of student’s  own project).

  1. HOW?

Nature of contribution to field (ie. methodology, findings, proposed impact, recommendations).

  1. WHY NOT?

Limitations or shortcomings (attunes students to the need to find gaps in knowledge and engage critically).

  1. RELEVANCE? RELATIONSHIP?

Relevance to research questions and strategic positioning in relation to student’s ideas.

  1. WHAT CAN I ADD?

Points of departure from planned study (encourages students to already be positioning their work for publication).

These headings form a neat template that can assist students in developing thorough and generative reading habits. Pat Thomson’s latest post also gives some very useful advice about academic reading.