The dead hand of the thesis genre?

Last week @TheMarquise showed me through a her research notebook, which was full of intriguing bits of writing and diagrams. If I was to take the notebook as a guide, @TheMarquise was having a lot of good research ideas and starting to connect them together in interesting ways. In fact she seemed to be doing the kind of expansive thinking that I would expect of someone at the beginning of their candidature, especially in the humanities and the creative arts.

However, it is not my lot to be talking to PhD students when everything is peachy keen. Indeed @TheMarquise had come to see me because she was having trouble writing her confirmation report; the document we ask students to produce at the end of a year’s study to demonstrate that they have a feasible program of research planned. When asked to adopt a ‘thesis style’ her writing had become stilted - and the ideas, so lively in the notebook, now seemed laboured and obscure.

@TheMarquise knew she had to somehow translate the thinking happening in the notebook into her confirmation report, but she was struggling. It’s important to note that @TheMarquise did not lack the skills or knowledge to write this document; she had written a successful masters thesis in the conventional way before. As we talked it became clear that @TheMarquise was facing variation of a common research student dilemma. In our office we call it writing under the influence of ‘the dead hand of the thesis genre’.

There are two dead hands actually: conventional thesis structure, known as the ‘IMRAD’ formula (introduction – methods – results – discussion), and a certain kind of ‘scholarly language’ which is mannered, distancing, defensive and lacking the personal pronoun (‘I’).

Maybe it is unfair for us to call it the dead hand of the thesis genre, because there are certainly a few disciplines where the IMRAD structure and scholarly language of the distancing variety are a pair of warm and lively hands which help you to get the job done. This is because there is a deep and abiding connection between this conventional way of doing a thesis and the scientific method.

The IMRAD formula follows the experimental method cycles and the language is designed to present the results as facts which exist apart from the researcher. In the scientific method the questions are raised before the experiments which are designed to answer them. Sure fresh questions will be probably be raised as the work progresses, but always to drive a new cycle of research.

But in other disciplines, this is not the case. Research questions may not be known in advance or may change substantially during the research – they may even only emerge clearly at the very end. There will not necessarily be experiments to generate data, but observations, interviews, painting, the making of car engines and so on.

There are many different ways of making knowledge where ideas, data and arguments are unlikely to fit easily into the conventional thesis ‘formula’ – yet some students feel compelled to torture them until they do. Or, like @TheMarquise, you may not set out to replicate this type of conventional thesis, yet still find that the dead hand is resting upon you because you freeze up when you try to write something ‘real’ – not jottings in a notebook.

At RMIT we tend to get three other kinds of thesis which do not follow the IMRAD formula: the ‘big book thesis’ (common to history and social sciences), the ‘bunch of papers’ (a collection of published articles,becoming popular in the sciences) and the creative exegesis (text accompanying art and design projects). When there is this variety, why has the IMRAD formula, so necessary in the sciences, come to haunt the rest of us?

There’s a good discussion of this in an article @julierudner sent me awhile back called “Thesis and dissertation writing: an examination of published advice and actual practice” by Brian Paltridge. Paltridge examined some 30 finished PhDs to see how closely they aligned with the type of advice given in the ‘how to do a PhD’ books. The findings were preliminary as the sample set was small, but I think the observations made in it were interesting.

Paltridge starts by analysing a range of texts available on the subject of thesis and dissertation writing. He includes some classics, such as Phillips & Pugh’s “How to get a PhD”, through to the eternally useful “How to write a thesis” by Evans and Gruba as well as some less useful ones. Paltridge found these books vary as to the amount of advice that they give on the overall organisation of a thesis, but all are light on when it comes to suggestions about structure. Some of the less useful ones devote as little as 3 pages to the issue!

Paltridge claims that most authors, when they do discuss structure, tend to outline the ‘IMRAD’ formula in simple or more complex forms. Virtually none of the ‘how to’ books provided advice on other ways of structuring a thesis, most likely because the author is trying to address multiple disciplines. The ‘how to’ genre needs to be read with this issue front of mind – more specific advice will often needed.

While there are some books which offer this (one of my favourites is  ‘Authoring a PhD’ by Patrick Dunleavy who writes advice specifically for the ‘big book’ thesis writers) they are few and far between – perhaps because publishers worry they wont sell enough. The fall back advice is to look to examples of passed theses for models for your thesis. While this can be useful, I would add the caveat that these thesis documents would often be revised by the authors given half the chance – I know I would!

So if you find yourself being pressed under the dead hand of the thesis genre remember that the summary judgment of your thesis by the examiner will be made on how well your thesis ‘sings the song’ of the content within it. Your job is to make that song lively – not a funeral dirge!

9 thoughts on “The dead hand of the thesis genre?

  1. Oh yes, can totally relate to this at the moment. Some kind of calcification occurs in the write up of the confirmation report. When I did hand in a document that contained the fluidity and liveliness of my ideas, the feedback was to lock it down in a more traditional IMRAD formula as you describe. I have had to reduce ‘problematising’ and complexity — essential to my conceptual framework — to a straightforward, instrumental, linear design, just to tick a box. Although I think it is generally understood that once this confirmation report is in, it is fine for the research to expand and circle back and morph and evolve in a messy and nonlinear fashion.

    • Indeed – I think there are a certain number of ‘necessary fictions’ which PhD students must use to just get on with it, perhaps the confirmation document is one? It seems a pity though. I would definitely include Gantt charts in the category of necessary fictions. Never once did I produce one that in anyway resembled what I actually did next :-)

  2. This is such a problem area. Many students seem determined to find ‘the right way’ to write their thesis, and at our Uni the Learning Centre, the only centrally-funded unit that supports PhD students with writing, is very complicit in this. The only courses they offer thesis students are on how to write in the IMRD model. Faculties are slowly starting to offer alternatives, but unless there is a competent, confident and broadminded academic to take up this cause, I suspect that the dead hands simply multiply. In my faculty we have Brian Paltridge – luckily! :)

  3. Another great post Inger, and one that I can relate to.
    I felt enormous pressure to ‘defend’ what I wanted to do at my confirmation. The main reason for this, upon reflection, was that I was bringing an understanding of qualitative inquiry from the Education discipline into the discipline of Management–and I found them to be quite different. However, I was prepared to ‘defend’ what I was doing then, but only then….
    I am committed to arguing ‘for’ the position I’ve taken in my thesis and conversely giving as little ink as necessary in arguing ‘against’ scientism, rationalism and postivist hegemony.
    It’s a matter of picking one’s battles too.

  4. Nice post. Re: Mel’s comment, I’m reminded of the educational research (Hockey and Allen-Collinson? can’t remember) that found that many students actually liked bureaucratic checkpoints that had little to do with their actual project, as this was less threatening than exposing what they were actually doing. This makes total sense to me, though I know it doesn’t make your job any easier Inger ;). If you were planning on doing something critical with form/genre, I would recommend hiding it until you’re nearly finished and then see if it stands up. Not really a viable risk-management strategy for institutions, but genres have to evolve somehow.

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