The goldilocks dilemma

When I was hunting through my reader request pile I found this email from @thetokenlefty asking about writing for different  audiences:

I had a quick question for you about this 5,000 word literature review I have to write for my methods course.  It is going to be read and marked by people like yourself — not engineers, much less engineers in the narrow area I will be writing in.

The simple question I have is: should I write this lit review for the audience marking it, or write it as if it were a real part of my thesis?  That is,  assuming a very high level of understanding by the reader.

This question really pertains to writing my thesis as well.  I’m finding it hard to strike a balance .. I am used to my academic writing being used to demonstrate my understanding, which runs the risk of insulting/boring a thesis examiner!

@thetokenlefty is right to worry about his examiner as he or she will be the most important reader of his thesis.

In their excellent book “Helping Doctoral Students to write” Kamler and Thomson explain how talking down to your reader (boring them witless with basic information they already know) or assuming they know more than they do (loading your thesis with obscure ideas and language) are two basic mistakes that many thesis writers make. Kamler and Thompson claim that thesis writers face the ‘Goldilocks dilemma’. The content and style of the thesis should be not too hot, not too cold, but just right.

Mullins and Kiley argue a similar line in their seminal paper: “It’s a PhD, not a Nobel prize” where they explore how examiners examine theses, specifically how they decide whether it is good or not. One of the things the examiners Mullins and Kiley interviewed said was that they want to learn something new from reading your thesis. This tells us that a thesis is more than a show of erudition; it must inform and explain at the same time as showing off your scholarly abilities.

The work of the thesis writer is therefore twofold: finding out what you need to say and working out how do you need to say it. However this twofold task is complicated by the fact that many students will have @thetokenlefty’s problem: how do you do this for multiple audiences in one document?

I would suggest that you start by doing a basic audience analysis. During an excellent talk on writing for exhibitions I attended the other week, some people from Melbourne Museum explained how they researched their audiences and represented them as a matrix:

The idea was that every museum patron sits somewhere in this Cartesian grid.

The ‘easy riders’ are parents out to amuse the kids on a Saturday afternoon. Easy riders are less ‘engaged’ (ie: not as into finding out information) as the ‘duty bound’ parents, who were taking their kids to the museum as an educational activity. However both sets of parents were ‘other motivated’, ie: visiting for their kids rather than themselves.

The ‘self motivated’ museum visitors occupy the left hand side of the matrix. The ‘inspirers’ come to openings, but are less engaged in the museum content than the ‘informers’ who were there for the purposes of educating themselves. Of course, some Easy riders will be more engaged than others and some informers not as interested in learning, but I think this diagram is a useful simplification nonetheless.

The exhibition designers told us that they target their shows at one or two audience types only, but they make sure there is a mix of different exhibitions so there is always something at the museum for everyone. Clever.

I am going to use this idea of identifying, targeting and accommodating specific audiences for @tokenleftys thesis in a diagram, which hopefully can be applied to yours as well.

I have identified 4 potential audiences for @thetokenlefty’s work:

You (@thetokenlefty), your examiner, practitioners (professional solar energy engineers) and other researchers in the area of engineering and solar power generation.

Now @thetokenlefty and his examiner are probably more concerned with the form of the thesis: is it coherent? Do all the chapters follow on from each other? Have all the questions been answered?

Other researchers might be reading for specific content. They probably wont read the whole thing from start to finish but will dip in and out to find the things they need. Practicing engineers will be similar to researchers, but they may need more background as they will not be as immersed in the literature.

Hopefully practitioners will be looking to action @thetokenlefty’s work (@thetokenlefty wants to action it too – to get a job!). I have put ‘research’ on the opposing axis to ‘action’ because I think examiners and other researchers will be interested in generating research based on things they find in the thesis.

What advice can we give @thetokenlefty based on this analysis? Like all thesis writers he needs to think about the needs of each different audience: what does each audience know already? & What do they want to learn about?

An examiner will know different things to a practitioner, who in turn will be looking for different things to a post doc. The challenge for @thetokenlefty is how to make the ideas and content which is relevant to each audience accessible.

For example, @thetokenlefty may want to have more ‘simple’ information which is necessary to a practitioner alongside, but not in, the main text so it doesn’t bore the examiner and other researchers. He might put this basic information in footnotes or an appendix, but there are other ways: a common magazine trick is to use easy to read panels alongside the text.

There are many other potentials to explore, but no more room! So I will leave you with this thought: who are your audiences and how might you re-purpose -  or redraw -  this diagram for them?

2 thoughts on “The goldilocks dilemma

  1. The idea of dividing an audience is a useful one, if for no other reason than preventing writing to “the world”. However the difference between a museum audience and a thesis audience is the priority of their judgement. A museum, if the staff do “customer satisfaction surveys” is judged by all parts of a diverse audience, which will probably not have the last word on whether the museum stays operational. A thesis, on the other hand, is judged ultimately by a very small number of examiners, who make what is known to evaluators as a “summative judgement” and penultimately by one or more supervisors who make a formative judgement. This means the sort of writing that will appeal to this more limited audience is a priority.
    Inger’s post suggests that supervisors are engaged in the issue of form – structure, coherence and the like, while examiners want to learn something new.
    On the face of it, this is a not too divergent set of expectations. However. it may not be an exhaustive list. The criteria for a summative judgement by examiners are indeed of critical importance. The difficulty lies in identifying them.

    • Of course you are right – the examiner’s judgement rests on a lot of things – and can be hard to predict. I agree that their judgement is the priority in the first instance, but it’s not the whole story in many cases. Many people will want their thesis to be used by practitioners, who may have different needs and ways of approaching a document like this.

      I also think it’s a danger to think the examiner doesn’t need help to understand what you are doing. The examiner might not know as much as you think they do (I refer you to the paper mentioned for a longer discussion of this).

      I guess the real value of a tool like a matrix is to help you think about how the information can be presented in multiple ways; it wont help you to make a great thesis on its own. I wish I had a tool like that!

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