Your thesis is the map, not the journey

Before we begin the scheduled post, I want to interupt normal programming with a brief announcement. Australians reading this blog will know that we have an announcement about the outcome of our marraige equality survey due today. Here’s a message from the ANU ALLY group about how we can support our LBGTIQ colleagues and friends at ANU, thanks to our convenor Hannah Birke:

We have mentioned this before but we can’t stress enough how important it is to show the LGBTIQ* community your support at this time. The marriage equality debate, with all its negative impacts on the LGBTIQ* community, won’t just stop when the result is announced. The LGBTIQ* community will continue to be the target of discrimination and hate speech with the survey result providing new fuel, regardless of whether it is ‘no’ or ‘yes’.

The ANU Ally Network will run an event on Wednesday the 15th between 12 pm and 2 pm at the Pop-Up Club (that’s inside the Pop-Up Village). This event will be open to everyone from the LGBTIQ* community, as well as their allies and friends. To our knowledge, this is the only ANU-wide event on that day and we encourage you to come at least for a little while and show your support (and bring your friends and colleagues). The nature of the event will obviously depend on the outcome of the survey. There are plans for some small activities, but mostly it is about coming together and sending a strong message that no matter what the survey result is, the ANU community is proud of its diversity and is standing behind its LGBTIQ* community!

I personally hope that the outcome will be positive and will be there at the Pop up village event at 12pm. Whatever happens, I hope that if you identify as a member of the LGBTIQ* community, you are being well supported today. Know that you are beautiful and wonderful humans. To my fellow straighties, let’s encircle our LGBTIQ* students and colleagues with love today – take them out for a coffee, buy them a cake and, if it’s appropriate, be free with the hugs. Let’s hope they are happy ones. #solidarity

OK, back to our normal programming! This post is by my colleague and co-author Dr Katherine Firth. We’re writing a book together with Shaun Lehmann which will be called Academic Writing Trouble and How to Fix It. Take it away Katherine!

‘Writing trouble and how to fix it’ distills the advice you would get if you took us out for lunch and asked us your most pressing questions. I’d love to have lunch with every single one of you, but currently I’m making do with the connections you can maintain on Twitter – I’m at @katrinafee. I tweet about writing, higher ed, food, social justice, and self-care and via a blog Research Degree Voodoo (which is 5 this year!), and hopefully soon via the book—they are all safe places where you can sit me down and go: ‘huh, this PhD thing, how does it work again?’.

This blog post is based on a section from Chapter 3 of the new book, and draws on something I draw on a whiteboard every single time I run a Thesis Boot Camp. The post talks about moving from your research question to your research answer, by means of a hypothesis: an educated guess at what your answer is going to be that you try out through researching and writing it up. It means you don’t have to wait to the end to get a clue about what the argument might be, and this helps you with structure, voice, clarity, and not being descriptive!

I can’t say how useful having a hypothesis is in shaping your writing and research. It helps you to shape your research proposal, your research plan, your first draft. It may be that your hypothesis is wrong, that’s fine. It’s easier to fix a wrong hypothesis than to introduce an argument into a draft that has none.  This is because drafts that describe your research journey are exploratory writing, whereas drafts that describe your findings and analysis are explanatory writing.

Scientific writing always has a hypothesis, and this is one of the reasons science theses are, on the whole, faster to write than theses where the hypothesis can only emerge very late in the process like anthropology or projects using grounded theory. But most humanities and creative projects can be written using a hypothesis, and it’s worth doing so.

Surprisingly, it is MUCH easier to rewrite a text that had set off in a definitive direction but the direction turned out to be wrong, than to rewrite a text that had no direction at all. You may need to change words, but it’s actually quite easy, fast work. Why is it easier to rewrite an argument that was wrong rather than to construct an argument for the first time? Because arguments are linear, and descriptive research is not.

When you have piles of articles, books, field notes, discussions with peers and supervisors, undergraduate text books, potential theories… it’s all messy and networked and multivalent and full of potential. Describing this research will also be messy, distributed and full of potential lines of enquiry. However, a thesis is just that, a single hypothesis that you explore in a linear manner across 70,000+ words. (Or, for some anthology PhDs, 3-5 articles, each of which takes a single hypothesis that you explore in a linear manner across 7,000 words).

To create a linear argument out of a mass/mess of information involves an enormous amount of work of constructing knowledge. It is really hard to turn the words of a description into an argument—you are often better off starting again with a blank page (though using your existing research, obviously!) than trying to wrestle that prose into a new shape. In cases like this, typing up 20,000 new words is surprisingly easier and faster than reworking your existing 20,000 words into a structure.

On the other hand, to update a linear argument involves just a bit of shifting. And that shift can be successfully achieved with quite small changes in your language, perhaps by using modifying words like ‘partially’ or ‘in only two out of the five cases’, or even ‘not’.

For example, you might start with something like:

Scholars have agreed for about the last 60 years that Middle Earth kingship was contingent on the support of the Silvan Elves (Baumgarden 1952, Schwartz 1992, Allan 2007, Ringwald 2014).

This close analysis of 7 manuscripts from the Kloster Anduin written between 1300 and 1400 will illustrate the ways in which the royal family of Naith maintained temporal power by courting and relying upon the institutions of the Silvan Elves.

Except you got to the archive, and all the manuscripts are actually letters between the prince and the elf lord quarrelling about money and lands. You’ll need to rethink your hypothesis, but you’ll find it extraordinarily easy to rewrite any draft introductions.

While scholars have agreed for about the last 60 years that Middle Earth kingship was contingent on the support of the Silvan Elves (Baumgarden 1952, Schwartz 1992, Allan 2007, Ringwald 2014), this close analysis of 12 manuscripts from the Kloster Anduin written between 1300 and 1400 will illustrate the ways in which the princes of Naith maintained temporal power in spite of extensive opposition from the institutions of the Silvan Elves.

Two tiny tweaks and a change of punctuation, and my argument now says something completely different. And the tweaks make all my wrong ideas completely disappear.

The reader doesn’t need to know that I thought I was going to find something, but when I got to the archive I couldn’t find it, and then I spent a fortnight walking through the woods totally lost and confused and panicking, and then I talked to my supervisor, and then I talked to my other supervisor, and then I wrote three drafts of the new introduction none of which were any good and then… [You are bored by now, and I can promise you, your examiner will be too.]

The thesis is a map to the best route to the destination of your new knowledge, not a travelogue of how you got there.

PS: I made up everything about those sentences about Middle Earth research—so sorry to everyone who is a more serious Tolkienite than I am and was wincing (or wondering who Baumgarten was).

Thanks Katherine! I’m sure Katherine will be happy to take questions, but hopefully you will be interested in following our progress through our Writing Trouble Mailing List.

Other posts in the Writing Trouble series

The vagueness problem in academic writing

Academic writing is like a passive agressive middle class dinner party

Don’t let those ‘sticky words’ confuse your examiners

 

6 thoughts on “Your thesis is the map, not the journey

  1. I try to persuade people working with NVivo software that using hypotheses can be really useful as you analyse data too- even when you are working with messy qualitative data and in inductive mode. Why? Because if you have an idea ( (e.g ‘I’m seeing a difference between the way male participants and female participants talk about this topic”) stating it as a null hypothesis (no difference) and looking again at the data will push you to check that the idea is sound. If it is, fine, write that up. If it isn’t , still fine; maybe add nuance to what you write (‘while most of the men and women were similar in their views the five older participants showed difference…..) or just write a note to yourself that for this part of the analysis you can safely ignore gender.

  2. My thesis is a bit like what the Queen said to Alice,’Begin at the beginning, go through to the end, then stop ‘trouble is it never seems to work like that.I think that my roadmap must be out of date.

  3. Thank you for this post – it is precisely what I am struggling with at the moment. My question is, though, how do you formulate a good hypothesis in the field of humanities? My impression is that it cannot be too simple (otherwise it will not reflet everything you plan to write) nor too open and vague… Could you give more examples? Will you give more detail on the process of turning you preliminary knowledge/research data into a good hypothesis in your book?

  4. I see you don’t monetize your website, don’t waste your traffic, you can earn additional bucks every month because you’ve got high quality content.
    If you want to know how to make extra $$$, search for:
    Boorfe’s tips best adsense alternative

  5. Really I’m not comfortable with inclusion of such announcement in your post. I used to like your posts so much, and have shared some of them with my friends. Thanks for your efforts. But this time, you made my life very difficult once you’ve included such announcement. I would really be happy if you could remove that portion from your post; to ensure continuity and growth of your blog.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s