Communicate and collaborate

Communicate and collaborate

Lucy English

IMG_7200_Lucy_Portraits

Image credit: Simon Goldstein

As PhD students and researchers, communicating with people outside our discipline can open our minds, expand our horizons and help to develop our thinking. It can also lead to fruitful collaboration.

In a session for PhD researchers about communicating research, I put the participants into pairs with someone from another discipline and asked them to describe their work to each other. They had to avoid jargon and were encouraged to listen carefully to the questions they were asked. Somebody from a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subject might ask an artist, ‘Why are you doing this?’ — just as an arts student might ask a scientist, ‘Please explain it simply’. The researchers found it instructive to communicate the vision of their project to a non-specialist.

Communicating with others outside my own specialism led to a collaborative project for my practice-based PhD. I am making short films with film-makers for an online poetry film project. Previously, I hadn’t thought about how my ideas would translate to the moving image, but I’ve learnt a lot by collaborating with people from the visual arts. Interpreting a poem in a film is not how I thought it would be. For example, for my poem ‘Daisy Chain’, where I link daisies in the grass with the nature of transience, my film-maker used images of a snowy landscape. The words of the poem, about summer meadows and blossom, are in stark contrast to the snow and frost, but capture beautifully the essence of the poem, where daisies and youth will eventually fade.

Why not see if you can communicate your research to people outside your field and find a collaborator from another discipline? Funding opportunities exist for collaborative bids from PhD students and researchers for inter-disciplinary work, particularly between the arts and sciences or social sciences. PhD forums within universities are a good place to start looking. Working with someone with a different perspective can be a humbling experience as you accept your ignorance about their field and adopt an open mind, prepared to learn. Removing the blinkers of your discipline can spark off ideas and take your research in a fresh direction.

14 February 2019
Think around your research question

Think around your research question

Image credit: Anna Barker

Anna Barker

On a writing retreat recently with students from the Arts and Humanities, we were talking about how research is about finding answers. You start – typically after much deliberation – with a research question, and everything that follows is about discovering answers. It seems simple enough, although of course it’s rarely that straightforward. The research takes you on a journey down rabbit holes, around blind bends, up steep cliff faces, and every now and then you can feel like you’ve hit a wall: obstacles, unexpected deviations, surprises. Suddenly, what you’ve got in front of you seems a long way from answering your research question. Unsettling as this might be, it’s all part of the research story.

When your research journey hits a wall, it can be useful to take a step back and forget for a moment that you are searching for answers. Instead, dig for more questions. This not only helps you to recalibrate your research question, but it can also open new doors and push your thinking into new, previously unexplored territory.

The technique works well for essays. Having received your essay question, you might set off immediately to answer it. But by taking some time to think of additional related questions, you can work out what you know about the subject already and where you might focus your thinking and reading. Take this essay question as an example:

Critically evaluate the suggestion that problems of overcrowding, bullying and poor conditions have always been, and will continue to be, of concern to penal reformers.

  • What is the extent of overcrowding and bullying in prisons — facts, figures?
  • What is meant by ‘poor conditions’ and what are the causes?
  • What has contributed to this situation — has it become worse over time, and why?
  • What are the reasons overcrowding might concern penal reformers — it leads to less time for penal education/other activities that encourage rehabilitation of inmates?
  • Examples of other activities?
  • Evidence that education/other activities enable rehabilitation?
  • Opposing views?

Once you have a list of additional questions, you can begin reading and note down some possible answers. Your notes might even prompt you to ask further questions. Best of all, you’ll have focused your reading time and begun to get some words on the page that can later be used to shape a first draft.

31 January 2019
Where’s the conflict?

Where’s the conflict?

Image credit: Kona Macphee

Heather Dyer

When I’m writing fiction, I only recognise what a story is really about when it’s very near completion. Only then does it become clear that it’s about ‘control versus letting go’, for example, or ‘security versus freedom’. I realise I need to go back and find the places in the text where these tensions arise, and explore them more deeply.

This can apply in academic writing in the arts, humanities and social sciences, too. Try the following exercise with your essay, dissertation or thesis. Identifying opposing elements in your work can expose underlying conflicts and reveal potential themes.

  1. In two columns, list at least five pairs of ‘opposites’ within your project. You might identify opposing elements in relation to size, space or time — or personality, habitat or temperature, for example.
  2. Freewrite to reflect on the relationships between these pairs of opposites. (Freewriting is writing steadily without stopping and without knowing where you’re going.)
  3. Identify places in your work where you may want to consider these relationships further or make the conflicts more apparent.

I used this exercise on my own doctoral thesis, which explores parallels between the mythic archetype – or classic story arc – and the creative process. I quickly noted down the following ‘opposites’ in these paradigms:

Female Male
Starting out Returning
Conscious Unconscious
Not-knowing Insight
Surrender Questing
Heroine Hero

 

Studying the list, I noticed that these opposites might be further aligned by the typical qualities of masculine and feminine, or yin and yang:

Masculine Feminine
Male Female
Starting out Returning
Conscious Unconscious
Insight Not-knowing
Questing Surrender
Hero Heroine

 

I realised that the protagonist’s journey through a story and an individual’s creative process both swung between these two poles. This informed the conclusion of my thesis.

At a writing workshop for artists and writers, I asked them to consider opposites within their own work in progress. Participants identified contrasts they hadn’t previously been aware of: movement and stasis; smooth and rough; child and adult. These tensions triggered ideas that enabled them to develop the central theme of their work.

If you try this exercise, it might help you identify hidden tensions that reveal a theme. You may then want to ensure that you have highlighted these tensions within the work itself.

17 January 2019
Reading as a writer

Reading as a writer

Cherise Saywell

Image credit: Brodie Leven

Sometimes when I run a workshop, I ask participants to bring along a sample of some writing they like. I don’t make this compulsory, but the response is usually an indicator of how they read. Around half will contribute something, and of these just a few will articulate why they like it.

In her book, Stylish Academic Writing, Helen Sword says that ‘A carefully crafted sentence welcomes its reader like a comfortable rocking chair, bears its reader across chasms like a suspension bridge, and helps its reader navigate tricky terrain like a well-hewn walking stick.’ I tell participants that in order to achieve this in their own work, they need to learn to read as writers. Those who can identify work they admire – and explain why – are already beginning to engage in this process. It’s a vital step that a lot of students seem to bypass. They read to harvest ideas, theories and evidence, and to deepen their knowledge. But not to develop their writing.

At one workshop, a participant contributed an abstract from a scientific journal. When I asked what he liked about the writing, he answered that he found it clear and logical. It flowed, and he felt it spoke to him. To such a response, my next question is always, how? Identify how it flows, and what makes it clear. Concrete images? Strong verbs? What makes that voice assertive, or remarkable? Sentences can function like music, using rhythm and balance to build and sustain pace; taking them apart can reveal how this is achieved. Conversely, if the writing seems deficient in some way, I’d suggest identifying why — it’s not enough to simply declare that a piece is poorly written.

I’d like to develop this aspect of my workshops further. Engaging physically – with pen and paper, with highlighters, reading aloud – can help us to understand how text is composed. I plan to distribute samples of writing and have participants work together in groups to identify the strengths in each piece, copying sentences down, highlighting phrases that demonstrate well-crafted prose, reading sections out loud. Such practices are central to the discipline of reading as a writer.

13 December 2018
Connections

Connections

Image credit: Kona Macphee

Heather Dyer

You’ve done the research for your project, collected your data and you have an idea of where it’s all going. Perhaps you’ve even written a draft and are happy with the structure and the argument. But can you see the ‘big picture’ as clearly as you would like to?

Remember join-the-dot pictures? With each new connection, more of the picture is revealed. While you were researching and writing, you will have made many new connections: connections between sentences, paragraphs and different aspects of your project. But often, potential links remain unrealised. The more connections you’re aware of, the more clearly you will see the big picture.

The following exercise can help bring previously hidden connections into your awareness. Try it for your essay, thesis or even for creative writing.

1. Quite quickly write down 20 words associated with your project, dotted across a blank piece of paper,
2. Now circle pairs of words that may have a relationship and draw lines to link them. If you don’t see any obvious relationships, that’s fine; make pairs anyway.
3. Write quickly and roughly for two or three minutes about each pair of words, looking for the connections between them.

Recently, at a writing retreat for PhD students, I asked the participants to do this exercise. Several students volunteered to explain the new connections they’d made. A student writing a thesis on the history of dance had connected the words ‘dance’ and ‘movement’. She said that freewriting about these words had made her fully consider the difference between them for the first time. ‘Dance’ was shaped by history and convention, whereas ‘movement’ was expansive and more fluid. She decided that she needed to define these terms more carefully and reconsider their application in her thesis. Another student was writing a thesis on a poet. She connected the words ‘shadow’ and ‘line’. The links between ‘shadow’ and ‘line’ gave her a way to describe the impression of a line of poetry and connect it to the ‘shadow’ cast by the poet’s work.

See if this exercise reveals connections that have been lurking in your unconscious mind but have not yet emerged in your writing. Once these connections emerge, the big picture is so much clearer.

1 November 2018
Pick an item, any item

Pick an item, any item

Trevor Day

I am lucky enough to lead the Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellows programme, which trains professional writers to facilitate learning activities in universities. Each year I have the opportunity to observe colleagues demonstrate inventive ways of engaging with students and staff and their writing. Here is one example.

A colleague, Marina Benjamin, originally introduced me to this approach, which she called the ‘grab bag’. I have adapted it over the years, and it has served me well. The premise of the activity is that by introducing a quirky physical object, you trigger unconscious processes that reveal insight. It is an enjoyable process, which invariably prompts a creative response. I used it on a recent university staff development day working with a team of learning developers. Here’s how it works.

I give each person a brown paper bag in which I have placed at least seven objects, from which they choose one. The bag I’m looking at right now contains a pine cone, a polished stone, a padlock, a tiny bag containing worry dolls, a tea bag, a miniature magnifying glass, a plastic charity donation card and a short piece of string.

To introduce the activity, I explain that the participants will be writing a paragraph or two stimulated by the object they have chosen. If working with doctoral students, I might prompt them with the instruction ‘My thesis is like [the object]’. They then write a response. In this case, because they were learning developers, I suggested ‘A one-to-one session with a student is like [the object]’.

This exercise was unlike the habitual writing they were used to, and the use of a simile – the object – brought a fresh perspective. One likened the one-to-one session to a tea bag. Working with the student, they infuse them with ways of thinking and writing for undertaking an assignment. The tutor is modelling the activities and thought processes that the student will later be doing for him- or herself. Two other staff members likened the one-to-one session to a bag. What is displayed on the outside of the bag may not reveal what is inside it. Quite often, what a student brings to a session ‘on the surface’ leads in unexpected directions when you start working with them.

Using the grab bag is a great way of freeing up thinking and writing.

16 May 2018
Back to basics

Back to basics

Are you stuck with the development of your essay or dissertation idea and tempted to shelve it and start again with a different topic? Before you discard the idea, why not remind yourself of what attracted you to the idea in the first place? Then go back to the original premise and think about what you are trying to explore, debate or prove. Talk it over with someone else — the discussion may help you connect with your original passion for the topic. As you explain the idea, you will begin to clarify your thoughts and a new way forward may emerge.

Lucy English
25 April 2018

The story of your research

The story of your research

As a storyteller, I see stories everywhere. We all do this to some extent. In fact, we only ‘exist’ in the context of our stories: who we are, how we came to be here, where we’re going and why. We ‘story’ our existence because we want to understand how things fit and what will happen.

Stories aren’t a random series of events, though; they have a pattern. Typically, a hero ventures out into the unknown, faces challenges and defeats, and invariably has to let go of a false belief or flawed thinking in order to learn something new. Even following a cake recipe is a story of sorts: you want to achieve something, you begin, you carry out challenging steps, then you entrust the cake mixture to the oven, hoping the result will satisfy your guests. Even if the recipe doesn’t work out, maybe you’ll learn something.

The principles of storytelling can be applied to academic writing, too. When students are struggling to shape their research into a dissertation or thesis, I ask them the same sort of questions I’d ask a creative-writing student about their novel:

• What was the status quo before you began?
• What are you trying to achieve? What problem are you trying to overcome?
• Why is this important? What are the stakes?
• What do people believe? Does this need to change?
• How are you going to get to where you want to go?
• What are the difficulties?
• Does your journey have a high point? A low point?
• What have you found? What do you think you’ll find?
• What’s the significance of your findings?
• How will they change things? What will happen now?

Finding the narrative of your research can help you write a powerful abstract, case study, press release or funding application. It will make the story of your research more compelling. Being able to tell this story in a few sentences can also be helpful when you’re networking at conferences or trying to explain what you do to people outside your area of expertise.

18 April 2018
Get cracking, keep cracking on

Get cracking, keep cracking on

Katie Grant

Image credit: Debbie Toksvig

Is the following experience familiar to you? During the night, or while cooking or walking or working on something else, you know exactly how to continue your work-in-progress (WiP). But when you sit down, all prepared and ready, and open up the WiP, you freeze. When I admit to this problem at workshops for undergraduates, postgraduates or staff, I’m always surprised by how many participants think it’s an issue peculiar to them, and that better preparation is the answer. Clearly, it’s a shared problem, and over the years, I’ve found that it’s not better preparation but different preparation that’s the answer.

For most activities, from going on holiday to going to bed, preparation helps. Writing is different. Preparation – making the coffee, opening the laptop, angling the light, setting out materials – can do the opposite. To use a diving analogy, prep can be like slowly climbing the steps to the high board and shuffling along, pretending you’re gearing up to dive in, when actually, the only way you’ll manage the dive is to run up the steps and pitch directly over.

Writing preparation can be that slow climb up those diving-board steps. We kid ourselves that each step is necessary. We have our routine, and who hasn’t made an entire morning disappear writing emails we ‘must’ answer before we get cracking on our own writing? Well, I suggest a new way that works when I practise it myself. Firstly, don’t think about preparation, still less about ‘settling down’ to write. Don’t even sit down. At the time you’ve designated for writing, open your laptop, turn off the Wifi, bring up the WiP, then go for a brisk walk and when you return, without taking your coat off, lean over your chair and start typing.

Just as it doesn’t matter if that first practice dive isn’t perfect, it doesn’t matter if your first typing isn’t great. The point of this typing is to break the freeze before it’s had time to solidify. If you find it hard to type without thought, try leaving sentences in the WiP unfinished so when you lean over the chair, you’ve got something to start on. Once you’ve started, you’ll be on your way. On a good day, you may find it’s an hour or so before you’ve taken off your coat, and when you finally do make coffee, you’ve earned it.

14 March 2018
How is academic writing like writing for children?

How is academic writing like writing for children?

I am an academic writer and a children’s author. On the face of it, these two forms of writing are at opposite ends of the spectrum. But actually, they have a lot in common.

• They’re both about communicating ideas.
• They need to make complex ideas accessible.
• They tell a story.
• They aspire to effect change.
When I teach academic writing skills, I tell workshop participants that their writing will be more effective when it adheres to some of the constraints required in writing for children.

Audience awareness
What’s the point of writing if not to communicate? Communicating requires you to empathise with your audience. How much does your audience already understand? Why are they reading? What’s in it for them? Keeping both the aspirations and the experience of your audience in mind will make your writing accessible and engaging. It will make your readers feel ‘seen’. Your readers will return this favour by paying more attention. This is particularly important if you want to share your ideas beyond the tight circle of your own research community.

Clarity
Explaining something clearly requires you to think harder and dig deeper. The struggle to articulate a complex idea in simple terms forces us to make previously abstract thoughts concrete. It can reveal gaps in our own knowledge, or foggy thinking. Albert Einstein once said: ‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.’ In workshops, I ask participants to explain their research to a child they know, or a family member who knows nothing about their subject.

Brevity
They say children have short attention spans. But don’t we all? Good writing – like any good design – has no redundant parts. Every word should be indispensable to the whole. Getting to the point is another way of empathising with your readers. As an exercise in brevity, I ask workshop participants to describe their projects in 50 words or fewer.

Story
I once heard a child say of a book he couldn’t put down that it had ‘an urging flow.’ What a wonderful description of narrative! Narrative drive is what keeps a reader hooked. If you can recognise a narrative in your research, you’ll be able to describe it in a more engaging way. Interrogate your work in the same way a children’s author does. What was the situation before you started out? What was the ‘inciting incident’ that began your quest? Why is this important? How did you reach where you are now? Were there difficulties and setbacks? Finally, what did you learn and how might it change the world? A story – like research – recounts a process through which new knowledge is attained. We describe a journey, not just a destination.

17 January 2018
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