Review: The Routledge Doctoral Student’s Companion

My physical copy of The Routledge Doctoral Student’s Companion (Thompson & Walker, 2010) arrived in my mailbox on Monday. I’d seen selected chapters before but now having the work in my hands reminds me of how nice reading a physical book can be rather thanpdfs via my Kindle or on the tablet screen. In this short post, I’d like to highlight two chapters from the book that may be of direct interest to you. (Earlier, I had mentioned that Wagner’s (1993) had been reprinted in this volume. That must-read introduces the notions of blind spots and blank spots and is very useful in helping researchers locate new knowledge.)

On writing

With absolutely no disrespect intended towards Baaska or any other module instructor, an online, asynchronous model of educational delivery does at times fail to be responsive to the needs of students (at least mine at any rate). In this essay collection, many questions that I’ve had are answered directly. One of them is how should masterly (or mistressly) writing look like. Thompson and Kamler’s essay in chapter 12, It’s been said before and we’ll say it again — research is writing, is a highly effective demonstration of one aspect of good writing at the doctoral level. They take (with permission) three students’ output and explain why they represent poor, middling and quality writing. The first example was poor. Using the pejorative ‘he said, she said’ descriptor, example 1 is just a collection of names, dates and listings of theory without … Well, without what, exactly?

Example 2 does have (the answer) some semblance of a writer-generated question which the listing of names and dates hangs upon. Upon reading example 2, we get the sense of their being a person behind the text, of a research question being investigated. But still, the text feels student-y. It has the sense that the student has to answer a posed question and has to include their point of view. In other words, reading example 2 lacks something.

Example 3 feels authoritative; it has the sense that the reader is being told something of importance by someone who knows enough of the theory, of the literature and of the practice to let them into the secret of what problem exists and one way of handling that problem. Outside literature is referenced but only in support of the story. I used the word ‘story’ deliberately. When I go to a lecture, I want to learn something of value. It’s like listening to a story, an unfolding narrative whose main character is the research question and the supporting actors are the ideas embodied (not literally) in that question. Literature is used to relate ideas in the story to the wider academic world, but it is not used as an integral object in the story unless it is the literature itself–i.e. not the ideas therein–that is the object of the story, but that is unusual. This kind of writing is fascinating and easy to read.

On theory

I admit that occasionally play around with theory. When I come across an interesting theory during my reading, I’ll often try to incorporate it–or rather, shoe-horn it in for fun–into whatever post or response I’m working on. I don’t do this unethically; if I can’t see a way to use that theoretical lens to answer a current question, I won’t force it. But this playfulness is both engaging and developmental for me. Please try it. However, an antidote against this playful attitude is provided by Gulson and Parkes in chapter 6 in their discussion on Bringing theory to doctoral research.

Both writers describe their relationship to theory during the writing of their Ph.D. thesis. [Don’t worry too much about the Ph.D. focus in this book; much of it relates directly to the Ed.D. as well.] The search for an appropriate theory that mediates the research question and the conclusions is a mammoth one for both writers. What becomes apparent is the necessity of thoroughly understanding not only the implications of any research question fully but also the relationship between the researcher, the question and the potential theory candidates.

Both Gulson and Parkes understood that in choosing a theory, they accepted that they became a conduit for the theoretical lens they used. In other words, their relationship to the theory wasn’t simply a matter of them using a tool to help them answer a question, but in using the tool, they became agents of that tool. This is a crucial point which goes back to Kant. Humans interface with the ‘real world’ through (Kant described) 12 types of cognitive structures that should not be understood as influencing our vision of the world but as being constructions of that lens. Our world is how we perceive it, not the other way around. The lens of a sociologist may see a particular ‘answer’ to a particular ‘question’ in a very different way from how a psychologist may see it. (Echoes of Wagner [1993, or ch 2] here).Gulson and Parkes submitted to a particular theoretical lens and their quest for that theory was informed by the nature of their questions and methodologies. The intimate connective nature of theory to question to methodology was made clear in this chapter.

However, I have a slight criticism of this chapter on this point. Gulson and Parkes had to confine their conclusions within the boundaries of their chosen theory. This makes research dissemination easier because of the shared language between their works and the wider scientific world. But I feel that they could have shared more about how much was lost rather than gained when they had selected their theory. Both writers presented their chosen theory almost as if a key had been handed to them with which to unlock the secrets of their question. Yet we are all aware of the neo-Kantian concept that the theory limits knowledge to that theory. In a single work (the thesis) it makes sense to stick to a single worldview, otherwise the thesis would become too abstract and unwieldy. This essay, being located in a book for doctoral students, would have been stronger if the writers had addressed a bit more deeply the implications of choice and not just the difficulties of that choice.

Jim

Thompson, P. & Walker, M. (2010). The Routledge doctoral student’s companion: Getting to grips with research in education and the social sciences. London:Routledge.

P.S. Note the singular possessive student’s in the title. This book cannot replace a human advisor, but the cutesy title suggests that it tries to. Anyway, it’s a book that I would highly recommend.

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About theCaledonian

Scot living in north Japan teaching at a private university.
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