Half-way in to the slightly manic process of reorganising my Scrivener notes for my PhD thesis proposal, I wondered if I wasn’t using it to avoid to actual work. I was painstakingly working through a host of references (some with annotations – mainly from the abstract I suspect) – that I had added early on from my initial proposal and largely just dumped into my broad categories without much further thought. I haven’t since come back to them or considered how relevant or useful they are or what I plan to do with them.
My larger goal in this exercise was to try to find some kind of structure for my thinking – I’m increasingly aware that the Higher Education ecosystem is intricate and complex and most if not all of the moving parts impact on each other far more than the current literature seems to acknowledge. I’m still not sure what the best way to represent this is, but I’m hoping that creating some order will help me to place the myriad random thoughts and questions that I’ve come up with so far in something more manageable.
Which seems to be a point that I often reach in large projects (none as large as this, admittedly) before losing interest and moving on to something new. As I thought about this, I worried that I was doing this exact thing here.
Fortunately, I wasn’t. I eliminated a number of papers that seemed relevant on the surface but really weren’t, I found a few more that I’d completely forgotten that I have put into the high priority reading list and I think that now I have a place for everything and everything in its place. There’s a section for the actual writing (broken up by broad topics), a section for notes (broken up by broad topics which I’d say will get more and more subtopics), a section for quotes and references (with sub-sections for individual papers) and some general miscellaneous pages for ‘other’ stuff. What works best about this for me is the way that it lets me quickly jump around the proposal when something useful needs to be jotted down and the side-by-side structure of Scrivener lets me easily copy-paste chunks. It looks a bit like this.
The other part of this process that was useful was finding a brief paper that has the same focus as my research, which gave me some assurance that I’m on track with my ideas as well as check whether I’m missing anything vital. (Turns out that I think that they are missing a few things, which is obviously good for me. I’ll post about this one shortly)
Writing in this format for gathering my thoughts and collecting useful quotes and ideas from articles/books/etc proved fairly useful to me while completing my Masters so I figured that I’d give it a shot here now.
(Actually it’s funny now going back to that old blog as the final post was an overview of my thoughts about doing a research methodology subject, which seemed utterly redundant as it was the final subject in the degree and not an area that I felt that I would likely to spend any further time on)
Anyway, while I thought the first of these posts would relate to Paul Trowler’s mini-book on “Doing Insider Research in Universities”, I’m still working my way through (and enjoying) that and in the meantime was given Chapter 3 of Punch’s book about research proposals to read at the first of the Thesis Proposal Writing Workshop sessions offered by USyd ESW. (Homework, who knew?)
Punch offers a pragmatic and seemingly reasonable (based on my limited knowledge) approach to framing a research proposal. He readily acknowledges that there can be no single perfect approach but more a broad set of guiding principles that should enable one to hone one’s area of research interest down to specific and measurable data collection questions. (This isn’t to say that it won’t be a cyclical, iterative process with some potential dead-ends but ultimately it should result in a product that is “neat, well-structured and easy to follow”)
Here are some of the key points that I took from the chapter:
Three key questions at the heart of the proposal – What, Why and How (how coming later and including when, who and where – i.e. the methodology)
Why is important – the justification for the research and will often merit multiple sections
Logical flow from research area -> research topic -> general research questions -> specific research questions -> data collection questions
Research area: youth suicide
Research topic: factors associated with the incidence of youth suicide
General research question: “What is the relationship between family background factors and the incidence of youth suicide?”
Specific research question: “What is the relationship between family income and the incidence of youth suicide?”
The point is to move toward questions that can be directly asked and answered.
“Is it clear what data will be required to answer this question?”
The answers to the general questions are the sum and synthesis of the more specific questions.
Punch prefers the term “indicators” to “factors” (which I have been tending to use to date) because “of its wide applicability across different types of research. It applies in quantitative and qualitative contexts, whereas the terms ‘dimensions’, ‘factors’ and ‘components’ have more quantitative connotations.
He also makes the point that the more well-considered the research questions are, the more they suggest the types of data that are necessary to answer them. “It is the idea behind the expression that ‘a question well asked is a question half-answered.'”
Punch goes on to point out that “should” questions (e.g. Should nurses wear white uniforms?) are unduly complex and require a lot of unpacking to answer. (Who’s to judge “should”?)
A more productive question might be “Do nurses think they should wear white uniforms?” – to which I would add maybe “Why do nurses think they should wear white uniforms?” – which perhaps gets more complicated but can still form a reasonable question to a nurse.
In broad terms, Punch then reiterates the importance of being clear on the what and the why of the research before moving on to methodology. There is some interesting discussion of the value of hypotheses in relation to the research questions – though at this stage I don’t think they will be relevant to my research – which links to aligning theory to the research questions.
Some reflections and questions raised.
At this early stage I’ve been concerned about my lack of a strong research background in terms of knowing what kind of methodology I plan to use. Many of my peers seem to have already mapped out the next 3-6 years and I’m still trying to figure out what I really want/need to find out.
This chapter has reminded me that figuring out the what and why – which I’ve made a modest start on in my mind at least – is vital in informing the next steps in the research.
It has also sparked a few random ideas and questions for me to pursue, which feels like a win.
Why don’t more people use TELT practices in Higher Ed / Adult Ed?
Is the learning technologist a factor? Where do we sit? In Organisation? or separately?
(There’s some crossover with pedagogy maybe. Also compliance and innovation)
How do these factors interrelate?
What if I start out by thinking there is a gap in the literature and there actually isn’t?
What’s the difference between a learning practice and a teaching practice?
Which factors (or sets of factors) impact TELT practices and how do they interrelate?
What actions are needed at what levels & contexts to mitigate the barrier factors?
Just finally, I’ve also decided on some tools to start my documenting process – Zotero and Scrivener. (Probably worthy of posts in their own right). The following bibliographic entry comes from the Zotpress plugin for WordPress and seems to have done a nice job in preview. (I do need to find out what the “official” citation style is. Currently I’m going APA because I like it)