In high school I had a history teacher who would talk about the second world war like he was a German soldier. At first his performance was funny. In his hands every victory by the allies became a loss; every weakness of the allies was celebrated and German losses were lamented.

But as the year went on and we learned about the extermination of the Jews, I became increasingly outraged and confused. My teacher seemed to regard these atrocities lightly and have perverse admiration for the German war machine. Was he some kind of escaped Nazi war criminal, or merely deluded?  I began to dread history classes, but I didn’t say anything because – well – it was not my place to question the teacher.

Photo by David Niblack

One day however I couldn’t take it any more and finally put my hand up. I asked him why he thought the Germans were so great. Surely the Allies weren’t all that hopeless. They had won the war hadn’t they? By way of an answer he started telling us his story of fleeing from Europe with his parents at the start of the war. Then he told us he was a Jew.

I realised I was being treated to a fiendishly clever teaching strategy. He was showing us that all history is a story told by someone for a particular purpose. He finished his lecture by asking us: “After this how do you know anything said by a teacher is true?”

This question hit me right in the stomach. I was 16, but (sadly) this is the first time I realised a teacher could consciously choose – or even be forced –  to lie. Simultaneously I realised how conditioned I was to believing teachers unquestioningly. I can honestly say this moment changed my life. I felt liberated. I didn’t have to believe my teachers anymore!

But, for the rest of high school I found learning exhausting and sometimes deeply unsettling. Reluctantly (I was 16 after all and wanted to be thinking about boys at that point) I started to question everything  anyone told me – including my parents. Did they know what they were saying was true, or only believe it? Were they trying to trick me?

Prof Jan Meyer, professor of education, would say that when I realised that teachers could lie I encountered, and crossed over, a ‘threshold concept’: this insight once grasped was unforgettable. It made me see the world in a new and transformed way.

As is common with this kind of learning, before I crossed the threshold concept I had been ‘stuck’, unable even to give voice to my questions. After I crossed the threshold the insight I gained was integrative. It caused other knowledge I had been exposed to fall into place; knowledge about history, the school system, my place in it and even the nature of truth and belief, good and evil. But this changed knowledge led to a changed self and was therefore troublesome. Learning was  no longer routine, but question filled and uncertain.

Being ‘stuck’ is a common experience in doing a PhD, which often manifests as a difficulty in writing. Sometimes it is hard to know why you are stuck, or how to get over it. It could be that you are facing a  threshold concept without realising it.

Researchers Margaret Kiley and Gina Wisker have studied ‘threshold concepts’ in PhD study and came to the remarkable conclusion that certain PhD threshold concepts are consistent across all disciplines. These manifest as a common set of struggles:

  • Struggle to understand that a thesis is a claim or defense – not just a collection of work you have done or a way of proving existing beliefs.
  • Struggle to be able to articulate a position on ‘the literature’ or locate  the work you are doing within it
  • Struggle to develop a theory or a model which allows the findings to be used, or applied to other cases

But I think threshold concepts can be more modest, mundane affairs.You may become stuck because you need to unlearn certain ways of doing things.

For instance, a research student wrote to me after my post on Scrivener thanking me for a sudden insight. He used to be a computer programmer. He realised that he had become ‘stuck’ because he had unconsciously approached research writing in the same way.

He had been trying to plan out all his chapters before writing them as he would a program. As a result he was becoming disheartened at the size and difficulty of the task. My description of myself as a messy writer suddenly provoked a simple, but powerful, realization: he could write ‘chunks’ of his thesis, without necessarily knowing what was coming next.

In grasping this he has realised something important about the whole process of research. Sometimes you don’t have to know what the outcome of a process will be – you just have to do it and see what happens.

It is hard for a supervisor to help a student through such a block because they are not always visible in the student’s behaviour. As the psychologist R.D Laing put it:

He does not think there is anything the matter with him
one of the things that is the matter with him
is that he does not think there is anything the matter with him

A lot of the advice on doing a PhD does not recognise these conceptual blocks. Many treat doing a thesis like a project which has to be ‘managed’, not a difficult and troublesome learning process.

Research degree learning involves encountering and changing some deeply habitual ways of operating and thinking. The project management approach doesn’t always work. Unfortunately, when it doesn’t, it’s all too easy to blame yourself for not working ‘efficiently’ – when this isn’t the problem you need to solve.

Even if you recognise the problem, crossing a threshold means you will probably encounter ‘troublesome’ knowledge. For our computer programmer the realisation that a thesis must be written ‘messily’ will not be easy to live with. Writing messily means you produce a lot of excess which has to be pared back.

I think the idea of ‘threshold concepts’ helps us think more positively about  ‘being stuck’ . Being stuck can be a sign you are becoming aware that you are, as Jack Mezirow put it, ‘caught in your own history’. A good way to move forward is to ask yourself: “Is there anything I need to unlearn?”

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