In this post I want to reflect on the value of using social media and what it might have to offer research students. As a full time PhD student investigating a messy phenomenon in real time–leadership literacies for the knowledge era–I made a conscious decision to be an active learner, to learn by doing and learn by connecting with people as well as through the literature. I had always been a reflexive practitioner and wanted to also be a reflexive researcher.
The ‘learning by doing’ part began by mapping out conferences where I could present drafts of my work. I wrote abstracts about what I needed to develop arguments for. I thought that there would be no better way to focus the mind than presenting on that topic in 3 or 6 months time! Yes, it might be the ‘extreme sport’ end of PhD comportment, but it did work for me.
The risks associated with presenting work that is not ‘perfect’ and still in development have to be considered, but the benefits of receiving timely and valuable feedback really helped me with my work. The ‘connecting with people’ part occurred at these conferences, where I met theorists in the field (yes they are human beings!) and people with aligned interests.
The ‘connecting with people’ part was also met by the interactions with the social networks I’ve built up using Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, and to a lesser extent Academia.net. The sharing of ideas and resources has been a two way thing and even though most of what I’ve learned through these networks will not go into the thesis, they have been invaluable as an action learning tool to pick up on trends, test ideas and to get a feel for what is emerging or fading. This has helped strengthen the research instrument that is ‘me’.
The reflexive researcher part was taken up with the blog where I have written a lot about my struggles with ‘text work as identity work’ (For more see Kamler and Thomson’s book “Helping Doctoral Students to Write). I started my blog in November 2008, inspired by a Professor at RMIT, Brian Corbitt, telling a story about Germaine Greer writing “The Female Eunuch” from her collection of vignettes.
A vignette is a small piece of writing which tries to encapsulate a story or a moment of insight in a stand- alone piece. The beauty of a vignette is you don’t have to try to connect with other ideas. This is opposite to how one might normally think about a thesis, which is meant to be a long, densely inter-related document. The vignette approach seemed a compelling idea, and one that I reflected on for a few months as I pondered just how I was going to become a writer, specifically how I was going to write A LOT.
I thought that blogging might be the modern day equivalent of Greer’s vignette approach. Brian was quite pleased that he had inspired such endeavours and, in typical professorial fashion, suggested that there could be a paper on ‘blogging as a research method’ in it! I have yet to write that paper, mainly because I don’t feel like I am leading that charge, unlike Lila Efimova whose blog and PhD studies are well documented at Mathemagenic and widely cited.
My blogs were written when I needed to think and reflect and this seemed to be in the period leading up to the confirmation and when designing the research. I am currently using these blogs–these placeholders of my thoughts–as I draft my thesis chapters.
I remember commenting to my supervisor at one low point that I couldn’t write anything, not even a blog posting. I was expecting a blast for being a terrible PhD student but reassuringly Sandra mused that perhaps I didn’t have anything to write because the issues, for now, were sorted. Instead, perhaps, this marked the shift to a new stage of the PhD–a ‘doing the research’ stage, rather than ‘thinking about the research’ stage. That was indeed an ‘aha’ moment for me and it is true that I didn’t feel the need to write many postings while I was ‘doing the research’ but now that I am back into writing and analysing I think that the need to blog will be more frequent.
A blog can be an archive of reflections about what it means to do a PhD. It can be a placeholder for the vignettes that build to become arguments in the thesis and, unlike a personal journal, the thoughts and arguments are open for scrutiny and feedback.
Blogs about the PhD journey–like thethesiswhisperer and by individuals–remove the veils of mystique that mask the hard work. It shows us the ‘invisible work’ which never makes it into ink in the final thesis document. A blog does not a PhD make, but a blog can help develop the necessary confidence to become ‘writerly’ which is necessary to tackle the thesis itself.