Why you might be ‘stuck’

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?”

43 thoughts on “Why you might be ‘stuck’

  1. Jeffrey Keefer says:

    Inger, this is a great introduction to a wider audience of threshold concepts, which is becoming a more central element in my doctoral thesis proposal. As a student of educational research, I have been captivated by research on researchers since I first learned about transformative learning while studying about (and a little with) Jack Mezirow and his colleagues at Columbia. Now that I study in the UK, I have come to feel comfortable with Meyer and Land’s framework as a lens in which to consider academic study.

    I am not sure that your experience was a threshold concept, as opposed to an experience of transformative learning (cf. Mezirow), especially given the growing discomfort you felt with its eventual disorienting dilemma. Regardless, these lens are valuable when considering learning shifts.

    BTW, I believe the reference above should be for Kiley and Wisker (2009).

    As a recent reader of this work here, I am very fond of what you are doing, and look forward to reading and speaking more about all of this.


    • ingermewburn says:

      Thanks Jeffrey – and thanks for the correction on the reference! You are quite right – I will correct it.

      I struggled to write this post. Normally it only takes me an hour or so to make a post – this one took most of a day. The hardest part was trying to ‘tame’ the idea of a threshold concept, which can be slippery. I suppose I thought that moment in my history class fell into the category of a threshold concept because the learning I experienced as a result was unforgettable, transformative, integrative and had ongoing troublesome effects. On reflection the concept I actually grasped that day was not that teachers could lie, but there was a link between power and subjectivity – although I could not have expressed it like that before I read Foucault for my PhD some 20 years later!

      • Jeffrey Keefer says:

        Yes, I recall a similar experience about power and subjectivity when I finally read Freire, who I had struggled with for more than a term, when I finally glimpsed, and only later really got, the concept of hegemony. Those aha moments, which is what I have started to term them, can be quite powerful. Makes me wonder how faculty can use them to intentionally move student thinking, such as your history teacher.

        Of course, this raises ethical issues enough to put into a bucket. For example, I am sure that some students in your class all those years ago never “got it,” and perhaps to this day they have a skewed perspective on something that did not work due to pedagogical misfire. Makes me shudder to think of these things, especially as I had taught middle and high (secondary) school for ten years!


  2. Christiana says:

    Inger, great post! Good questions. I am in step one of the dissertation process. I feel stuck. You have given me a lot to think on. Thanks!

  3. Jane says:

    Hi Inger
    A thought provoking post and one I will revisit. In order to push my way forward with writing, I had fallen into the project management trap with a resultant sensation of failure when life took hold and I found notes (and blog posts) all over the place but no chapter as planned. The notion of messy creativity retains the initial excitement of undertaking this awesome study and is more forgiving; it brings me back to my original intrinsically motivated state. Nice one!

  4. ailsa says:

    Got to love the stuckiness. I have continually been surprized by each time i am stuck its because i have something fairly significant to learn, even when i thought i already knew it…
    My best writing comes from such moments.
    I’d like to be able to reframe such moments, liquid chocolate, caramel… yet such moments are uncomfortable and invoke fear of not progressing or of sinking.
    Nice to be able to consider them positively,
    Thanks for the post.

  5. Heather Davis says:

    Great post Inger, thank you. I agree with Ailsa that the inevitable periods of stuckedness have preceded, great aha moments. In fact Ailsa and I have been FBing on just this point over the break when I was having just such a moment. I have come to accept the notion of procrastination as a positive with the understanding that the mess is necessary for me to learn/unlearn/rreflect upon something significant before I can move on but this time I felt even ‘stucker’. I felt an almost wilful compulsion to not even look at my writing or open my word document containing the dreaded methodology chapter.
    I overcame this latest hurdle by starting afresh and writing the essence of that chapter to see the narrative made sense.

    This helped enormously and as with any ‘writing as thinking’ opportunity I came to realise that for me, my major stuckedness moments come when I bump up against my philosophical disposition. Here is a snippet from my current draft, which I think connects very well with your post:

    Excerpt from research design chapter:
    This inquiry, like all research, is framed and influenced by metatheoretical elements (Bates 2005; Miller 2005) that form the philosophical foundation for the study. These metatheoretical elements are most commonly described as the epistemology, ontology and axiology of philosophy. These elements are presented here as statements of the metatheoretical positions that inform my worldview and are drawn from insights gleaned from the reflexive thinking that occurs as part of the research process. Kamler & Thomson (2006, pp. 15-17) suggest this is because “text work is identity work” and this taps into my own reflections that a greater understanding of self and identity is a hard won and valuable by-product of the research process. Indeed, a lot of the angst I experienced in the development and conduct of this inquiry stemmed from the bumping up against the metatheoretical positions I describe below. I can trace my periods of inertia and the subsequent revelatory moments of deeper understanding directly to dilemmas of an epistemological, ontological or axiological nature that I needed to resolve. I worked through these issues of text work and identity mainly by writing and thinking them through in my research blog (see for example, Davis 2008, 2010) and through many conversations with my community of scholars. I came to understand that it is impossible for me to be metatheoretically plural, no matter how tempting, easy or convenient it may have been in the conduct of the inquiry…

    • ingermewburn says:

      I totally get what you are saying about being stucker and having a wilful compulsion to continue the pain. There’s another post herer – maybe you should write it? 😉

  6. Colleen Boyle says:

    Ah, good ol’ ‘I can count the world’s greatest generals on one hand’ Carl T. What a teacher. This ‘threshold’ stuff reminds me of two other areas of life where I encounter such learning.

    1) When I used to practice the martial art Kendo. My 80 year old Japanese teacher would remain almost motionless as I frantically fought around him like a crazed bee with a stick. He would make me attack him again and again until I was utterly breathless and wanted to stop, but he would make me do one more, and with that stroke I would hit him successfully. ‘Ah’, he would say, ‘You’re always better when you’re tired: don’t think’.

    2) When making art. You always think that you are the one in control of the image. You work diligently away at it until one day you reach an impasse. Suddenly, the tables have turned and the image is asking something of you. It knows what it needs but you just can’t seem to see it. I once hurled an apple at a work of mine, screaming ‘I don’t know what you want!!!!!!!!’ After a good nights sleep and a more open mind, I could ‘hear’ the image and provide for it what IT needed, not what I thought it needed based on what I always did.

    I know they’re two fuzzy examples of ‘threshold’ learning experiences. But that’s what they feel like to me.

    • ingermewburn says:

      I think you might have even been in this class with me…? Love the Kendo example 🙂 I think one feature of threshold moments is that you grasp so much in a single stroke that they are hard to explain to other people.

  7. Holly says:

    Thank you for this insight, as I found it very helpful. I am not yet working on a thesis, but that journey is just around the corner, since I am a few months away from my undergrad degree. As the classes get more involved I am finding myself getting “stuck” more and more, so this helps 🙂

  8. is pollytickle (@pollytext) says:

    Wow. Just wow. So pertinent right now. Made a major conceptual leap this week, while writing an article and it has really shaken me up. I have found it very hard to write while being unsettled like this. But I think you’re right: I just need to learn to write in this state.

    It’s been a kind double conceptual threshold I’ve crossed. One related to how to approach the thesis (almost from the opposite direction). Plus one about my fear of writing and submitting something I’ve written when it doesn’t fit my conception of how it should be written. The following quote is relevant here:

    ‘Write when the book sucks and it isn’t going anywhere. Just keep writing. It doesn’t suck. Your conscious is having a panic attack because it doesn’t believe your subconscious knows what it’s doing.’ (From http://blogs.plos.org/neurotribes/2011/06/02/practical-tips-on-writing-a-book-from-22-brilliant-authors/)

    I need to learn to trust the subconscious in my writing more – in fact, in my thinking in general. And learn to submit for revision work which I’m not 100% confident about submitting, because it’s no longer about the writing being bad, it’s about being scared that I might actually have something to say, which would shatter my belief that I don’t belong here. And sometimes even shattering a negative illusion is difficult, because it feels ‘safe’ in its familiarity.

    • mickeyonacoustic says:


      I just wanted to say THANK YOU. This post and the post about Scrivener were SO affirming for me.

      In fact, I shared the following at phinished.org, and will re-post here just so you know how impactful those two posts were for me:

      My phinished.org post:

      “Aside: This is going to sound like a Scrivener infomercial, but I have NO affiliation whatsoever with them.

      Anyway, I got a HUGE confirmation today in my email inbox for the rationale of taking time to prep up front. It came in the form of today’s article at thethesiswhisperer wordpress blog.

      In the post (see this link if interested http://thethesiswhisperer.wordpress….ight-be-stuck/) she mentions ANOTHER post of hers about Scrivener (see http://thethesiswhisperer.wordpress.com/2011/01/13/is-your-computer-domesticating-you/).

      My computer WAS indeed domesticating me! I’m glad she asked! I knew that (thus the new focus on Scrivener), but seeing it in print was SO confirming and comforting. That computer programmer she mentioned could just as easily have been me (my initial undergrad major was computer science): I had EXACTLY the same problem. Trying to make this writing process linear and not messy/organic/dialectic has resulted in the stuckedness and stall out of a LIFETIME, it feels.

      So, It was SO affirming to read the post and comments about Scrivener. Some peers of mine have kind of seen my move to it learn and use it as a procrastination tactic. I am SO far from wanting to procrastinate. I actually love my topic (thank God!). No–I see it as the ONLY way my computer science mind can understand the messiness of drafting, and the only way for me to stop my computer from domesticating me.

      All that said:

      Whoooooo hooooo!

      I am DONE constructing my Scrivener proposal outline/template-with-embedded-guidelines. All I need to do now is let it marinate for a day before proofreading, and then correct any errors.

      After that, I will be able to open a file that uses it as the template, and I can copy and paste into it section drafts and notes I currently have. Scrivener is a game changer for me. I could KISS its developers.

      I also created a PowerPoint version of my proposal (this forces me to distill things down and allows me to make/see an overall organization.)

      Things haven’t seemed so clear in . . . well . . . EVER!

      I’ve worked like a beast this week to accomplish my big goal: to move from prepping to ONLY note-taking and drafting (no simultaneous prepping/organizing/etc.). I am so sleep deprived. But I am ALMOST there: Once I get a handle on all the PDF articles I’ve collected, I will be able to see the finish line in the distance.

      Thanks for the inspiration.”


      Thanks, Thesis Whisperer! I am gaining momentum and getting my mojo back! I have even launched a blog to share why and how! It’s totally adding dignity to this whole process!


      • ingermewburn says:

        How wonderful! Thanks for writing in. You encapsulated my own excitement at discovering how ‘scrivener freed me to think – not constantly battle with my computer. Many of my colleagues seem sceptical – or resistant to change. I think this their loss, honestly. Good luck with your work (but you won’t need it 🙂

  9. thehibernator says:

    thank you for this post. I am not a student, just a truck driver who writes and a person in a very stuck place. What I have to unlearn is precisely what I have to learn and though this blog is for writers,students you speak about the essence of life. Thank you from another angle

  10. Anonnya says:

    Great post Inger! Thanks for articulating the thing I’ve been struggling with for months! I’ve been badly stuck and have been looking at ways and means to make myself more efficient. But what I probably need to work on is to find out the threshold concept/s I’m stuck with. Looks like I’ve got a good deal of journalling ahead of me to sort this out.

  11. Aditi says:

    Thank you for the post! Bookmarked it for future moments of being stuck. The attribution to unlearning and being on the threshold is extraordinary. It helps to not be unkind to oneself – the guilt of inefficiency and not producing is what I learnt in my childhood. This perspective, in fact, adds meaning to the process of engagement with knowledge. Very meaningful and encouraging. 🙂

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