Dec 5, 2016

PhD blog 12/16: What is academic writing?

In my previous PhD blog post, I talked about research methods, and I mentioned a characteristic of bad academic writing I've seen, which is that it tries to look sciencey without seeming to understand what science really is. This time, I want to talk about writing the analysis section of a qualitative research thesis. If I sound overly didactic, I apologize, but in my defense, I'm also getting my teaching qualifications! Also, this post is very directly motivated by an absolutely terrible graduate thesis I recently read. It got a better grade than I thought it deserved, but, well, it still wasn't a very good grade. So I want to make sure that doesn't happen to anyone else if I can help it.

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I strongly believe that an academic, certainly anyone getting a postgraduate degree, should never be following instructions because they exist, but rather needs to ask why they do what they do. So sure, there's all kinds of guidelines for academic writing, but why do we do it?

In qualitative research, the point of academic writing is to make our analysis transparent. A historian doesn't heroically vanish into the archives of doom and reappear later with a thesis and a bag full of gold; we write the thesis so that others can see what we did, where and why. (I need to talk more about academic authority later, but I need to wrangle my copy of Carol Steadman's Dust back from a certain somebody I lent it to first.) Also, there's really no gold. Like, at all. But this is the point: a thesis is a research report, and it needs to convey not only your methods, material and conclusions, but how the first two met to form the third.

In other words, good academic writing walks you through the research it's describing. It'll tell you who's doing what and why, and what conclusions they arrived at and how they did it.

Let's unpack this. First of all, it matters who's doing the research. I know this is still an unpopular idea with some people, who perhaps still feel that we should pretend we're impartial outside observers. I firmly believe that they're wrong. Who you are, where you're coming from and what your relationship to your material and your research question is matters. Good academic writing must convey this information.

What you're doing is your methods and methodologies, which I talked about last time. In brief, clarity and conciseness are values here as well. I've read theses that trip over themselves in trying to be too clever, and also ones where barely any coherent method is presented. The why is your research question. Your methods need to make sense in terms of your research question and material. This is the stuff usually covered in an introduction, which by the way is what I'm writing now myself!

At the end of the day, your research report has to answer your research question. Here, clarity and integrity are key. As I've said, I absolutely disagree with the idea that research reports need to be written after the fact to sound like you knew exactly where everything would end up all along. Leave room for uncertainties, even shortcomings. In my mind at least, it's far better to admit that you can't answer everything, rather than to blithely insist that everything worked out brilliantly when any intelligent reader can see that it didn't. In other words, be honest with your conclusions.

Finally, there's what I consider the keystone of academic writing: the analysis. How you went from your research question to your conclusions. This is where the walkthrough really happens, if you like. A good analysis will give your reader a feel for the material, and at least a notion of the whole of it. It'll let them understand how you've applied your methods to the material, and what happened when you did.

Another way of thinking about the analysis section is that this is where replicability happens. If your analysis section is badly written, it'll appear as a collection of anecdotes about your material. If it's put together properly, anyone reading it should be able to see exactly what you did and why, and retrace your steps. If they disagree with you, they should be able to tell why and where.

In this sense, the key value that needs to guide good academic writing is integrity.

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Since I'm currently also enrolled in teacher training, I do want to look at this from that angle as well. I mentioned the terrible thesis I read, which motivated me to write this post. There was a lot wrong with it, but the worst part was the analysis. It was just a mess from beginning to end: the analysis sections formed no coherent whole, nor did they give the reader any real notion of the material. Rather, one was presented with a series of claims that seemed to be backed up by random anecdotes about the data. The end result was confusion.

Having read the thesis, one question was uppermost on my mind: where was the supervisor? Admittedly, sometimes there are students who refuse to be supervised, and there's not a whole lot anyone can do about that. Sometimes for various administrative reasons or some other acts of chaos, students end up effectively not having any supervision, and are left to muddle things out on their own. I'm sure there are also a whole bunch of other possible reasons. But still, when you read a thesis where all of the component parts are deeply flawed and none of them hang together, it's really hard not to wonder what on earth happened. So although I mostly concentrate on what students should and shouldn't do, we need to remember that academic writing for the most part happens in an institutional context. Bad graduate theses reflect on their supervisors and the organizations that produce them.

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A summary of sorts, then. I've read good theses that got bad grades. Sometimes things happen; I know of a department where there are such deep differences of opinion between professors that they'll basically give each other's students bad grades. If something like this happens, there's unfortunately not a whole lot you can do, other than maybe keep an eye out for this sort of thing if you're thinking about postgraduate studies. At times, I'm sure I've just been wrong, and much the same applies in the contrary cases.

On the whole, though, if I think about the theses I've read that I thought weren't very good amd that also got bad grades, they have two things in common. By and large, they have either gravely deficient method sections, ones that are divorced from the rest of the work, or in the worst case, both. More crucially for the subject of this post, they usually fail to form a coherent whole, and for that or some other reason, they leave the reader somewhat confused as to what was being done and why.

The physicist Ernest Rutherford reputedly said that what you're doing isn't science if you can't explain it to a barmaid. I know some damn smart people in the hospitality industry, so I'm not sure I approve of his phrasing, but I'd say that if you can't explain what you're doing in simple terms to someone without a degree in your field, there's a fairly high probability that you don't actually know what you're doing. Bad academic writing is sometimes used in an attempt to conceal this. A competent examiner will spot it. However, more often bad academic writing is just a failure to express yourself clearly.

I don't believe there are any tricks or short cuts to good academic writing. It's a skill, and like any other skill, you learn it by doing it. The key, to me, is to make sure you have something to communicate, and then do your best to express it clearly and concisely. That's all there really is to it. The values of academic writing are the values of science: honesty, integrity and communication.

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