Tag Archives: thesis

In the beginning was the word…

This might sound egotistical but I have realised recently that the title of this blog, ‘From Tweet to Thesis’, points to the PhD as an image of divine creation (in the same way than humans are made in the image,of God). As I have probably said so many times before, a PhD thesis starts with a tweet in the imagination – a phrase that could be written in a limited number, say 140, of characters. In my case, that tweet would have been ‘How does law change behaviour, if nagging doesn’t work?’ The answer is physically embodied in my thesis, which is also a collection of words. One is words in my mind, the other is words on a page. But the whole point of this blog is that the tweet of the imagination is not the real beginning of the thesis, because it itself is the result of a process. The tweet can be broken down into smaller collections of words, and words themselves, and each word is themselves the result. As Hegel argues in his preface to The Phenomenology of Mind, my tweet of the imagination is merely a proposition. Trafford argues from his research into the nature of doctorateness that my submitted thesis will be a proposition too.

There had to therefore be a first word, from which all words came. And if there was a first word, there had to be a first speaker and thinker. According to the Gospel according to John, in the beginning was the Word. He used the Greek word, logos, which translates as ‘word’ in English but was used by Ancient Greeks to describe an underlying rationality. But John continued: the Word was with God and the Word was God. The first word was God and it was also with, that is, in the mind of, God. In other words, God is the first word and the underlying rationality of that word. In autopoietic fashion, God beget God. As alpha, he is at the beginning of the first word and, as omega, he is at the end of the word; that is, God will last for as long as God exists.  And when God spoke, as per Genesis, the word became embodied. For Christians, the word is Jesus Christ and the thesis or embodiment of him is The Bible. Therefore, there is a dialectic or conversation between God and everything he speaks into being; he speaks, it exists, and he then sits back and sees that it is good, before speaking again. Given the experiential beginnings of PhD theses, it could be argued that they – like everything else – are part of the continuing creative work of God. However, he does create things to have a mind of its own and they can choose how to act, so even though as he is writing his thesis, as any PhD student knows, the thesis often resists being shaped. In many ways, though, writing a PhD is like creating one’s own world, where one’s thesis is the prevailing value. (Just to be clear though, the PhD student is most definitely not God.)


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When did you start your doctorate?

By Professor Emeritus Vernon Trafford

President Truman in Oval Office

Vernon’s PhD grew out of his professional work on an interdisciplinary, collaborative project

How often have you been asked that question?  What do you say?  Is your answer always the same?  If it varies why is that?  For some people the answer is easy; it is the date when they were accepted by or enrolled at a University.   For others, the answer is more complex.  I am in the latter category. What follows explains how I now view the question as well as how it links to my choice of my doctoral topic.

After leaving school I had various private and public sector jobs before studying for a BA at Liverpool University.  Then, lectureships in three polytechnics exposed me to the practicalities of my primary disciplines – political science and organization theory.   An invitation to be part of a British Council educational development project in Bhopal, India, was an opportunity to apply my learning in a new context.

Based at one of the four Indian Technical Teacher Training Institutions, the project comprised five sub-projects including education management. For eighteen months I contributed to the education management sub-project, working with counterparts to design, undertake and report on various small-scale research projects.   This involved travelling throughout the three states in the Western Region of India, presenting at regional or national conferences, providing management development workshops for polytechnics and writing detailed reports for the British Council.

Then I became the director of a new sub-project looking at institutional evaluation.  The purpose of this project was to improve the practice of evaluating polytechnic performance.  For years this function had been undertaken externally by ‘inspectors’ who checked regulatory compliance and seldom acknowledged positive achievement. Discussions at the State level in technician education resulted in twelve Polytechnic Principals being seconded to develop an appropriate evaluative instrument. They were the group from whom Polytechnic Evaluation Teams would be chosen.

In this project I was responsible for planning and delivering each stage of the developmental/training workshops, selecting and involving specialists in key aspects of the project plus editing drafts of working papers and operational manuals.  My filing cabinets in Bhopal and UK quickly filled with working papers and British Council reports.

As a result, it became apparent to me that the project was:

  • interdisciplinary at a time when this was rare in international development projects;
  • designed and operated as an evaluative process which replaced one that had been imposed by the prevailing technical bureaucracy on the polytechnics and so had been judged to be ‘not-fit-for-purpose’;
  • exemplifying successful international collaboration between the twelve seconded Polytechnic Principals and the small team of expert advisers;
  • converting an untried theory of institutional evaluation into a practical instrument and training professional education managers to use it.

Since my academic work in a business school also involved educational management developmental projects in Europe, I knew that the Indian project was quite unique. I concluded that it was suitable for doctoral level study and could make a contribution to knowledge.  Thus, my choice of the topic for my doctorate evolved naturally out of my professional practice with me as the insider researcher.

Foolishly, I believed that having a potentially worthy topic for doctoral research would instantly appeal to a university.  I put forward my case in a two-page synopsis outlining the international, cultural, technical, micro-political, behavioural and educational aspects of the project.  Appropriate sources were included to locate these components within their respective theoretical perspectives. Also, an agreed five-year time line illustrated the resources and schedules that would sustain the project.  My part-time research would be inductive, insider-based and use multiple methods to collect and interpret the data. This document was approved by the British Council, my counterparts in India and academic colleagues in UK.

My first application was to my Alma Mater. A beautifully phrased letter from them regretted that my proposal erred too much on ‘the practical aspects of your very interesting project’ and they wished me well.

My second application went to a business school that had international links in Europe.  They rejected it because ‘we have no educationalists on our staff.’

My unaltered proposal was then sent to two other universities.  It was rejected by a centre of development studies because it was ‘too educational’ and was also rejected by a school of education because it was ‘far too international for us to handle’.

My first interview was in a faculty whose Department of Education had institutional links with other countries.   I arrived with high hopes and was armed with my two-page outline, examples of the evaluative materials and some photographs too!  The staff member who saw me instantly launched into explaining why I should drop my ‘little project’ and join his team of econometricians who were studying longitudinal educational development in other Indian States.  I listened in silence until he finished and then refused his ‘kind offer’. . . .

Two weeks later I saw an advertisement in the education press to study for Ph.Ds at the University of Southampton.   Applicants were invited to provide a three-page outline of their intended research and a short CV.  My project outline was extended and submitted.  I was invited to the University for a sequence of meetings that commenced with the Faculty Doctoral Admissions Officer – a retired academic.  He obviously understood my ideas and for an hour asked searching questions about why I wanted to study for a doctorate, the origins and future of the institutional evaluation project, my conceptual understanding of multidisciplinary research and the difficulties of undertaking research in another culture and country.  By the close of that meeting my choice of a topic for my doctorate had been justified to his satisfaction.

The next meeting was with a possible supervisor whom, I was told, ‘normally has twelve doctoral candidates and last week one completed successfully so he could take you on.’  His questions then, and during the following years of our relationship, were Socratic in style and intention.  He helped me to understand the depth and complexity of my topic.  Although he was neither an expert in educational evaluation nor institutional management he was highly skilled in helping people, including me, to think.

Looking back, I realise that my undergraduate and graduate studies had each enabled me to start thinking like a researcher through the lens of disciplines and theories. Then, directing the institutional evaluation project had sharpened my research skills and appreciation of the interconnectedness of parts in a system.  Perhaps, sometime before the University of Southampton registered me for a Ph.D. I had already ‘chosen and started on my doctorate’.

Hopefully my experience of rejection letters and that first interview(!) are atypical of current recruitment practices.  Having now admitted numerous candidates to their doctoral studies and supervised over fifty to completion, it is fascinating to hear applicants’ answers to my question ‘When did you start your doctorate?’

Vernon Trafford is Professor Emeritus at Anglia Ruskin University. After working in the private and public sectors, he gained degrees in public administration and political science.  In 1978, he registered at the University of Southampton for his PhD in “Developing a critical success factor system of evaluation for polytechnics in India”. But, catching hepatitis and a substantial research grant in UK, plus writing a book, delayed his thesis being submitted until 1987 (Editor – that’s 9 years).   He has undertaken education-related consultancy assignments for QAA, OECD, the British Council, the World Bank and various governmental agencies. Since 2001, his research and publications are into the nature of doctorateness. His book with Shosh Leshem, “Stepping stones to achieving your doctorate”, was published by Open University Press in 2008 and has been reprinted three times.  Visit his website at www.vernontrafford.com.

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Giving children a voice on education

By Dr Narelle Lemon 

Children play chess

children learning, captured by Narelle's children-researcher-participants (supplied by Narelle)

My doctoral thesis was a huge learning curve, personally and professionally – perhaps one that could even be said to have had quite a number of pot holes, cliff hanging moments and resistance (and of course there were great moments of celebration and reward). But its origin and the why remained consistent. I wanted to make a contribution to the voice that young people and children have, to empower them and offer opportunities for them to share their experiences of learning and teaching.  I did this through encouraging them to be digital photographers of their learning and teaching experiences. Throughout an entire school year, the young children I worked with in a year one classroom captured their learning through visual narratives: their own digital images with their reflection and voice of the stories they wanted to share. What was important to them highlighted even further that young children, and in my doctoral study these were 5 and 6 year olds, are capable photographers and amazing sharers of their meaning making when trusted, empowered and listened too.

So to go back a few steps and frame where I had come from. I am an educator, trained teacher in music education. My teaching experiences allowed me to move between teaching high school students and in primary schools as well, and now I work in teacher education in the university context. My original thesis topic was to be on music performance and how students interpret their experiences. It emerged in the work I was doing at the time in a kindergarten to year 12 school and largely influenced by the changes I was noticing through teaching 3 year olds and then a class of 16 year olds on the same day.

My Masters had been in the area of music performance anxiety and I was noticing a few overlaps. In meeting with a potential supervisor, who had been one of my influential undergraduate lecturers, we soon unpacked that I was perhaps destined to research in another area. She gave me the best advice so early on in the journey, ‘Narelle, I think you are thinking too narrowly. Where do you really want to be in 5 years time? Will you really be teaching just music in a school? What do you actually really want to research?‘ Now this may sound a little harsh but in reality out conversation was nurturing and one where my tendency to go off in tangents and become excited about all things reflection, learning and teaching was dominating my enthusiasm, not my thesis proposal. So after a great heart to heart, and advice to go and chat with some of her colleagues, I met an inspiring researcher who would become my first supervisor. She introduced me to the world of image based research. What really excited me was listening to learners’ worlds, and understanding and appreciating their meaning making this way. Matching this to participatory teacher-research and photography was quite a momentous ‘ah ha’ moment. The turning of my eventual thesis topic.

At the time of wanting to study further and taking on the doctoral thesis journey, I had moved from teaching music into the generalist primary classroom. The passage of learning and teaching is one that has no ending. For me, my music teachers had characteristics about them that as a student I found enchanting. The teachers who impacted me significantly were engaging, enthusiastic, and they got to know me. They became my role models and have profoundly shaped the way I teach. In undertaking my doctoral research I wanted this to shine through as well. It was important for me to make a contribution to the field but also the children I was working with. I like to be creative and I like to challenge myself. My learning is ongoing and one that is very much open to learning from the children I work with. It is this way of thinking that has allowed me to have a career where I have taught music across the spectrum from early childhood to those in tertiary institutions. Opportunities have come along for me to challenge my notions of learning and teaching including being given the opportunity to teach in the year one classroom where my doctoral thesis study was set. This was a huge honour and a beautiful gift that also led me into looking at children’s narratives. The classroom, researched as part of my doctoral study allowed me to shift how I saw myself. It was the classroom where I moved from being a teacher to a teacher-researcher.

So in thinking about the thesis, the challenge was set for me, unexpectedly by a colleague, when she remarked in the months preceding my teaching the year one class of my doctoral study. Good luck with these kids, you’ll have fun with some of them. It’s a mixed bag of students who have a lot of special needs especially x, he’s a handful. There’ll be days when you can’t do anything with him and you’ll just have to sit him in the corner.  I was horrified. What sort of teaching was this? And what on earth did this colleague think I was going to do? There was no way I would ever let that happen but there was certainly definitely no way it would happen after a comment like that. As a teacher I believed it was my role to inspire every student to experience success and to achieve their potential.

My idea to use a digital camera in the classroom emerged as a tool to encourage students to be out of their seats, to move around the learning environment, to be creative and to reflect about their learning and teaching experiences.  I was excited and couldn’t wait to see what would happen. And the learning that occurred together was one of the most empowering experiences of my career. Through the digital camera I was invited into the world of each of my students; a world where each individual shared a part of their heart and allowed me to learn so much from them. It was a beautiful gift, one that I will treasure forever, that allowed me to see life and learning in such a different way.  It was with these realizations, and enthusiasm for what could be possible, that the thesis topic was chosen.

As a teacher-researcher I was fascinated by the concept of being able to change from what is often called a specialist teacher to generalist classroom teacher, and thus my reflective practice was running at full speed. While I was reading literature about digital technologies in learning, curriculum and assessment, I was also addressing my inquiry into pedagogy. I was also led towards reading further about reflective practice – what I was doing, what I was looking at and how I was developing my own understanding and knowledge of the thesis. So alongside the thesis learning curve, learning to be a writer and researcher, I learnt an incredible amount from the young children who allowed me to actually be their co-researcher during their growth as communicators of their lived experiences of learning and teaching.

Dr Narelle Lemon works at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia where she lecturers in Arts Education and the interdisciplinary field of Teacher Education. She completed her doctoral thesis at the end of 2010 and is now writing in the areas of Arts education, image based research, community of practice, and social networking. She tweets as @Rellypops and blogs at Chat With Rellypops



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Inspired by “The Omnipresence of God”

By Isabelle Bernard

The moment that you had the idea and decided it was something you wanted to research (your Archimedes moment):

The sight of a tattoo gave me my thesis idea! On the arm of a Ghanaian working colleague was a tattoo representing “Gye Nyame” (an Akan ideogram meaning “Omnipresence of God”). Very intrigued, I started to question him about it, then search for more information on the internet, then read about the topic of ideograms in Akan societies and found other ideograms. One of them was “Sankofa”, which was the main theme I decided I wanted to research. More commonly seen as a bird facing forward but looking behind for a forgotten egg, it represents the proverb “It is not taboo to go behind and pick up what has been left”. I argue it represents their particular conception of history and defines their relation to tradition, that is what my whole thesis is about.


Sankofa, the theme of Isabelle's thesis

How your background and experience may have led to your choice of PhD topic, no matter how tenuously:

In undergraduate studies (in International Relations), I wrote a lot of my papers on politics in Ivory Coast (which I was interested in for no other reason than it was my then-boyfriend’s country of birth). I also took a couple of class concerning Africa & Political Studies but was always surprised by the academic lack of interest for the influence of cultural values. For my Masters thesis, I decided to study how theories were used as normative tools and became convinced that norms and values were what regulated the social relations and therefore the debates over them was more political than politics.

Gye nyame

Gye nyame - Akan for "The Omnipresence of God"

How your reading and research may have been shaped by things by extra-curricular or non-academic factors:

I started to read about “adinkra”, the ideograms of the Akan people of Ghana, just out of curiosity, without any academic intent. It has hundreds of symbols, each of which is coupled with a proverb.  I thought it was a fascinating conceptual system. Then I started to extend my readings and became interested in the transmission of tradition and conception of history among the Akans. At one point I figured out that it could be a good, and very original, topic for a PhD in political studies.

Isabelle Bernard is currently doing a  PhD in Political Studies at University of Ottawa on ‘Transmission of values through oral tradition among the Akans of Ghana’. You can follow her on Twitter at @IsabBernard.

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