August 13, 2019
I have come across excellent articles that combine well a first person narrative (which is simple) and keeping the focus on the object of analytics (which requires advanced skills). But to master both together usually takes years of training and practicing, as much as riding a bicycle at a high-wire does. And most people won’t start to learn riding a bike at a high-wire, and likely there is a good reason for that.
What I want to point out in this post is, how easy it is for students to go off track once they adopt a first person narrative. Using a first person narrative, it seems to be very hard for them to detect themselves that they have went off track – or that they perhaps never had been on track in the first instance.
Over the years I had to read thesis extract from well beyond 500 doctoral students aged 35 to 70, and there is a clear pattern: The use of first-person narrative seems to be an open invitation for just reporting and uncritical writing, or the blablabla as my kids would say. It is easy for students to write about what they have been doing and what the motivation had been for this. And they are very good in doing this, and they can do this in the hundreds of pages (a month) – each of them. Contrary to this, critical writing is slow, demanding, and by times painful, so sure the blablabla is a tempting alternative, and notably if students were to get away with this. Let’s just look at the below Example I taken (randomly) from the data and evaluation section of a thesis.
Example I “I interviewed the directors one-by-one on different days and in their own offices. At the beginning, I felt a certain distant behaviour with three of the directors as if they were waiting to see what I was going to deliver and whether this could be an interesting subject and of benefit for them. Therefore, I needed to present in detail what I was going to do and how the subject was relevant to their daily work. Once they realized the importance of the subject, they showed not only high interest in the subject of the conversation but also agreed to participate in the joint discussion and analysis phase. The interviews took up to 90 minutes on the time exceeding the initial schedule of 30 to 40 minutes. Not all the directors felt comfortable in providing clear responses to all the questions. Depending on the subject, the question, the scope of work of their department, and the personality of the interviewee in being hesitant or open, the responses were different. When I felt that the response was not clear enough, I re-phrased a particular question or came back again to that question. In this section, I present the conversations and quote those responses that provide clear statements.”
Now, these are 1209 characters (with spaces) and they tell ZERO about the problem that the student has been looking at. It comes down to plain reporting of what had been done, and the feelings that the student and the interviewed had, and where the information about such feelings are mere context information, but not used in support of the analytics. And the lack of focus would have been obvious to the student if he would have had established the object of analytics as the focus of the writing.
To leave little to no room for misinterpreting, what I attempt to say here, and apologies if this might sound harsh: It is all about the research problem and ZERO about you! You are in a doctoral program and expected to examine a research problem, and while it is sure “you” who is doing this, the focus is on the “research problem”, but not on you. Therefore you might want to take yourself out of that equation and focus on what matters: the research problem.
You are conducting a research and presumably were putting forward a research problem to be examined and some research questions to be looked at. And this is what should be the focus of the work and as subsequently exemplified.
Example II: “A regional intergovernmental research organization is experiencing all sort of issues that prevent it to develop up to the quality expectations. Problem domains that contribute to this situation to exist include communication failures, learning difficulties, absence of organisational memory, focus on hasty actions and rush, or poor leadership. While the workforce is sensing that such issues exist, the organizational culture is discouraging to talk about organizational problems. A careful analysis of the situation reveals that there are a number of factors that are contributing for this situation to happen, such as (1) leadership issues consisting of a lack of capability to direct, existence of unmoral behavior geared at own benefits over organizational benefits, non-compliance to own commitments made to the workforce; (2) a lack of knowledge and capabilities in the HR department that does not understand the training and development needs of scientists; and (3) a limited mindset in the scientists that does prevent their development beyond their scientific domain. Factors (1), (2) and (3) seem to be interrelated and impact each other mutual negative and thus the situation is very likely to persist.”
Example II is setting a focus on the research problem and critically examining the problem domains, problem variables, and problem determinants. Any deviation from this focus is thus easily to spot, and it can be spotted by the student himself/herself. And comparing these two examples, it should become obvious that in the second case students can easily spot once they go off track and start to just report or summarize, or once they focus mainly on reflecting on their learning (but little on the research problem).
‘ugh, thanks for pointing this out, so then I will write more about my learning and reflect more on what I learnt from the things I did.’
Having touched on the “reflecting on ones learning”, there are other well intended tools and techniques that we suggest to students, but that equally seem to encouraging them to keep the focus on me, myself and I, but not on the research problem. And one of these is called the journal.
One rightfully could argue that to turn the object of analytics (the research problem) into the focus and deriving a narrative in accordance, might be slightly challenging (or impossible?) once the object of analytics (the research problem) is still not fully understood and blur. And the use of journals can support the students in their sense-making at such earlier stages, and thus in the potential identification of their research problems.
But for one reason or another, this again seems to be like an open invitation for focusing on Me, myself and I, and to engage in the light weighted and easy to accomplish blablabla type of writing. And taking this “Example entry in a learning journal”– quite literally speaking – as an example, it is easy to understand why students are misguided.
While the example provides some useful information, they are presented in a way that invites the student to relate the suggestions on how to be reflective to oneself and others, but not to the problem as the object of analytics, and even less on how to identify and isolate it. And once the thesis is written up the content seems to be easily leveraged from the journal into the thesis in exactly the same manner… Unfortunately, keeping a journal and reflecting on what one does is very different to the writing up of a thesis where the focus and narrative should be on the examination of a problem, or a set of problems.
Let me close this post by coming back to the bicycle analogy; presumably there are not that many parents out there that try to teach their kids on how to ride a bicycle by using a high-wire as a training ground. More likely, one first would let the kids train at a balance bike at a large open space. Now, having seen so many students struggling and going off the track on the me, myself and I matter, perhaps we might want to follow the bicycle analogy and use a more appropriate training ground that allows them to first understand the concept of a “research problem”, how to craft it, how to engage with it, and how to turn it subsequently into the focus and derive a narrative in accordance to this. Many students with whom we work are still struggling on this very matter, and as we discussed in this webinar.