Research and its representations: Ali Smith and the upgrade report

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We are pleased to have this post from Steven Peters, a participant at the Doctoral EAP pre-conference event held in April.

In February 2015 I presented a paper at the Centre for Assessment and Evaluation Research at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Bristol. It was the first time I had acted as an invited speaker in presenting my research work to an audience. My initial reaction to receiving the email detailing the expected length of the talk was to write back suggesting that I split the time into a talk followed by a workshop of equal length. Not long after sending that reply, I wrote to the Centre coordinator to say that I would in fact aim for the 45 minutes originally suggested. Why had I changed my response?

I had, I suppose, prioritised the work over my own anxieties of performing a new set of practices that felt very new to me. In addition, I realised that the new experience would push me to view my work in a new way and provide the opportunity to represent in greater depth the research process, its data, some of the findings, a key bit of method here and there, and the new set of questions arising from engaging with a different audience, including from new starting points. This led me to reflect on how researchers choose to represent all these practices and data differently at different times. It put me in mind of a talk Ali Smith had given about the origins of her Man Booker short-listed work How to Be Both. In this talk, the author describes how she became aware of the processes that lead to the painting of a fresco and the way that previous compositions remain beneath the final version, invisible to the eye.

In my understanding, she wanted to explore how revealing these versions to the viewer could inform a richer understanding of the work. She calls this the under-novel. It occurred to me that we rarely make available to our audiences the various ways in which we have represented, interpreted and adapted our work for others and that this might offer a meaningful addition to understanding the original data, the related theory, and the research as a collection of representations that have been worked upon and reworked. This might be the research equivalent to the under-novel – the under-report. I have to add, I don’t see this as a question of good faith in the researcher but rather one of how to capture the developing understandings and multiple directions understanding can take. Perhaps, the silences and omissions become starker, the positionings and the responses richer in colour? It certainly views research work as a set of discursive practices which can be traced or charted.

At the Doctoral Research PCE in April, one participant told me that she had written her upgrade report and submitted it only to be told to rewrite it in a different style. She was questioning whether this version reflects adequately the nature of the research conducted. Afforded Ali Smith’s freedom, she would be able to create something that goes beyond either single version standing on its own, I would suggest.

It is possible that if one sees research as a way to capture eternal universals, then I suppose it might seem that adapting and representing don’t do the facts justice. However, in a world where we understand a bit more about the human way knowledge construction works, with decision-making and problem-solving bound up with messy ambiguity but helped by transparency through reflexivity, there might be something in looking at how the colours and lines come across once we allow audiences access to our versions. How this would look in practice is another question, or perhaps I have missed where this is already being done. I would argue that EAP practitioners as researchers, with a wide and extensive sense of the needs of varieties of audiences, are in a prime position to explore such innovations in research practices. The under-report might not be such a static thing after all. The immediate questions are, should I have kept all my revisions to this text available for the reader or is that a different question – one which looks at the miscommunicated or irrelevant rather than the diverse, alternative or recontextualised?

Steven Peters
Bristol, May 2015.

Steven is an EAP tutor and educational researcher currently working at the University of Bristol, Centre for English Language and Foundation Studies.

Link to Ali Smith interview at LRB: http://media.londonreviewbookshop.co.uk/2014-09-02-Ali-Smith.mp3

Photo by Lauri Kosonen licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/

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9 thoughts on “Research and its representations: Ali Smith and the upgrade report

  1. Hello Steve – I loved this post!

    Of its many moments, this resonates for me, right now:

    “we rarely make available to our audiences the various ways in which we have represented, interpreted and adapted our work for others and that this might offer a meaningful addition to understanding the original data, the related theory, and the research as a collection of representations that have been worked upon and reworked”.

    What also makes me reluctant to present my research to teachers/practioners, in particular, is that I don’t have a ‘beginning, a middle, and end’ to my research story. Just a collection of potentially interesting phenomena that are still in search of an author to bestow a narrative to them (like Pirandello’s 6 characters in search of theirs ….).

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi Julia,

      Thanks for your response to the post.

      I want to ask you lots of questions about your thoughts on narratives and audiences…and explore the ways in which audiences (including participants) can have explicit input into the processes of meaning-making in research. I’ll keep it to one question for now:

      Why is the issue you mention about narratives important for the group of people you term ‘teachers/practitioners’, in your view?

      Pirandello is a slippery (unsettling?) character to address in a blog comment response such as mine here. Unlike Pirandello, I am optimistic about our ability to empathise with others. If I have it right, his writing explored how it was undesirable to try to bridge an incommensurable gap between people. I hope research enables understanding and engagement rather than makes us afraid of these…but that is moving away from your post.

      Your comment has prompted me to revisit the post and consider how these issues can foreground people involved in research and not hide them behind abstractions of form.

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      • Hi Steve,
        this has all the ingredients for a HUGE conversation, but, as you say, to keep it brief, narrative is important to me right now because as I read more and more, I realise that I could combine all the information I come across in an infinite number of ways, each combination foregrounding sequences (narratives) that could so easily have been otherwise.
        As for Pirandello, I don’t think he thought it was ‘undesirable’ to bridge gaps, I think he wrote under Fascism, which meant he probably sensed it was ‘impossible’ – and even dangerous – to understand an Other. His was the theatre of the Absurd (later developed by the likes of Ionesco), and I suppose the analogy for me is simply that communicating with Others is hard, partly because our own thoughts are ‘in progress’ (yet the minute we make them public they become fixed), but also because we need to become skilled in knowing at what stage of the narrative we should begin at (audiences are new to the ideas that have been brewing in our heads long before we present them so we need to learn to scaffold, which is another way of staging the narrative).

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I love the idea of making the intertextual echoes and “colours and lines” somehow visible – whether as chain or scrapbook or collage, or via whatever means enables the under-texts (and under-cartoons, scribblings and doodles) to reveal the genesis of an idea. Your post made me think of two time-lapse video sequences I’ve come across: this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BNDEDWwZyKM – where 1000 words of writing is drafted and re-drafted as we watch… And this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QjcHhjt6bYo – a ‘speed painting’ of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. Your reflections above are more layered and nuanced, of course, but these clips are, perhaps, examples of the under-text made visible 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for the links.

    I look forward to viewing these and keeping in mind your list of multi-modal under-texts as I do so.

    Could I rework my presentations/abstracts/ etc as a collage/ mosaic in a useful way that would engage audiences? Could they help me do so? I’d like to have a go at least. As I mention in my reply to Julia above, I would want to be mindful of keeping people to the fore, though.

    Like

  4. Hi Steve,
    Since I first read this post, the notion of the under-report/ novel has sprung up in my mind on numerous occasions. Actually, I wish there was some way to capture my under-thoughts! I find that I am constantly revisiting stuff due to the fact that so much reading or thinking I do is made possible by stolen fragments of time. I often find that I have a vague recollection of a thought process that has since been rethought/ rewritten and hence lost. I’m thinking of two things to help me capture my under-thoughts: I’m not just scribbling on articles I read now, I have a pad to keep a running commentary of where my thoughts are going (if anywhere), and I’m going to revise one document when I write using track changes so the thoughts that spawned the final version are still visible, still tangible and I’ll keep a copy of that version. I’ve found that this is especially useful at the stage I’m at where I’m gathering so much information that there are potentially infinite directions to head in like Julia says.
    Thanks for the inspiration!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Archivist of the EAP!

      I am really taken with how you have run with this idea and put it into practice.

      It put me in mind of the ‘running’ notes I kept alongside my working towards data analysis. Eventually, this helped me develop an approach which became central to my research work at that time. ‘Writing the process’ seemed to enable me to slow down the frames (they seem like this looking back now, how each short paragraph had the space to breathe from one another) and explore the mental leaps with a bit more leisure. The discourses and ideas running through these paragraphs I have come to view as interconnected and operating with ‘force and effect’ as Foucault would have had it, so not so atomised as the mechanical metaphor suggests.

      Understanding the historical nature of thinking seems to offer powerful ways to move it forward for me – re-reading those notes put the current frame or theory or puzzle in perspective, setting it in motion again for further development.

      Thanks for bringing some rather abstract musings towards very concrete practices for research, EAP Archivist.

      And for the kind words!

      Like

  5. Do you know, something I haven’t done is get someone else to review these notes. Has anyone else considered/ done this to inform what can be drawn out? I can’t remember if GT suggests that or not. Anyone considered this in light of researcher independence?

    Linking that to Julia’s point in her post on Unchartered Waters: has anybody got someone from another field of research/ practice to review their notes on their thinking in relation to their research? I know it is common practice when looking at ethical considerations to seek peer discussion and feedback/feedforward.

    And, yes, I wondered about whether there is a time to do it and a time when it is less needed. ‘Sticking with it’ suggests to me that we may sometimes decide it will not bring anything more to our understanding…or do we start to automate the writing down and re-reading into short-cuts (that is, internalise the process)?…is that as transparent/ rewarding/ or perhaps more so? With less text to survey, are readers more likely to explore it for insights into the process.

    I remember in reflecting on my research in 2009, suggesting to my supervisor that it is the responsibility of the researcher to do the running, so that the reader does not need to, despite my drive towards transparency. Therefore, the reporting of the research process need not take the reader through every step. Otherwise, why the researcher?

    That view perhaps constrains us to see/prioritise/ privilege only one perspective on any given process.

    Like

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