Step outside of yourself

Life’s a… re-posted picture of a beach

In one of the crueller ironies of life, I’ve been working through a half-dozen doctoral theses – either as supervisor or examiner – in recent weeks, just as the weather has been so lovely as to make any work a distraction.

But, professional that I am, I have managed it, just in time for my summer leave, during which I intend – successfully, I warrant – to do absolutely nothing that doesn’t involve relaxing and/or eating.

Consuming such a volume of words, and commenting thereon, has been instructive for me, as well as for the authors (I hope).

In particular, it’s underlined a couple of key messages that apply as much to teaching as they do to research.

The first is that we have to explain our choices.

In a doctoral thesis, the candidate has the power to craft their own question, chose their own theoretical framework and methodology and reach their own conclusions. But they also have to justify each of those steps.

In large part, that’s about internal consistency: does choice A lead logically to choice B? Has the most suitable means of answering the research question been chosen?

But there’s also an element of ‘so what?’ about it: The choices being made are not only logical, but also valuable, above and beyond themselves.

If we can expose such dynamics to others – in our thesis, or in our classroom – then we can better take those others with us on our intellectual journey.

The second message is that we don’t have to do everything.

It’s easy to throw in the kitchen sink into a thesis: anything that might possibly be of relevance, anyone who’s every written something even tangentially related to the subject.

I seem to recall I did this when I started out on my own thesis, which I justified on the grounds it was on a new area that hadn’t been studied before.

That didn’t really work out.

And it’s for the same reason just outlined – there was no consistency, no direction.

Making choices also implies leaving things out. Sure, you can note there are other interesting debates out there, but it doesn’t have to mean you get stuck into – or just plain stuck in – them.

I sometimes say to doctoral students that their thesis isn’t a murder-mystery, where we find out at the end whodunnit, but a thesis, where a central argument is laid out at the top and then pursued systematically throughout.

It’s the same in our teaching: if our learning objectives are clear, then we can help guide students through our activities, showing them what we want to focus on, and how it fits with other things, rather than just offering up a jumbled mess of everything.

And finally, it’s essential to remember that you are not your work.

For doctoral students, the degree of attachment is high: it’s been their life for several years, after all. But a viva is there to test their ideas and their presentation of those ideas, not them personally.

Just so in the class: it’s not about you and it’s not about them, but it is about how you interact.

Being reflexive, being able to step back and see your work as something discrete, offers the potential for remedial action.

Of course, the clearer you have been about your intent, the more likely it is that others – your examiners, your students – will have made the journey with you. They might not like it all, but if they understand it, then half the battle is already won, because the attention will be even more clearly on your work and not on you (as you).

In short, this experience reminds me once more of how researching and teaching aren’t really that different in their underlying logics and approaches.

And on that thoughtful note, I will catch up with you all again later in the summer, reporting from the UACES conference in Bath.

2 Replies to “Step outside of yourself”

  1. Thanks Simon. As always an interesting blog. I agree entirely particularly with your final point. Too often lecturers are so obsessed with themselves that they seem to forget that the point of lecturing is to help students to understand. Which usually means not lecturing them but engaging them. Hope you have a good summer. I always enjoy your blog.

    1. Thanks – not sure I’m recommending reading 500K words as the best way to reach that insight…

      Have a great summer too

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