Affirmation

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So this is a short interlude….Actually it’s a long comment on Steve Kirk’s post – Of Dark Caves and Community.

I have been festering in a dark cave of silence for the past three months. Three months ago I was on a high, I had a proposal submitted that I had run past a potential supervisor and I was hopeful that finally I might get my PhD underway (it had only taken about 5 years to get to proposal stage!!).

Then a few weeks went by with no response, I was starting to get a bit edgy. Then the weeks turned into months and my edginess was replaced by a feeling of pointlessness: why bother contemplating devoting 5 years of my life to this? Why bother picking up an article and reading it when it seemed I’d never be starting my research? Perhaps I should turn my attention to smaller research projects – I wouldn’t need to wait around for anyone else then.

I should say at this point that the cause of the long delay in hearing back on my proposal is beyond anyone’s control, but I still felt like it was another cog in the machinations of fate, and that some ethereal force was telling me that actually my idea was no good and I should shelve any aspirations of doing a PhD, even that I was arrogant in the first place to think I could do one and that I should return my Birkenstocked size 6s back to earth.

Steve’s absolutely right. Community matters. I voiced by exasperation to a few; to some I knew would be sympathetic and to some I met only briefly at an Early Careers Researchers forum. I realised then that I had to give myself a kick up the arse and do something. I am, after all, the master of my own destiny. I approached another institution, another potential supervisor, and I have since received real encouragement. And it dawned on me … all I needed was someone to say my idea was an OK one. That let the light break through to illuminate my dark, dank cave.

So I guess I shouldn’t have pinned all my hopes on one supervisor in one institution. I should have sent my proposal to a couple of places to start with – you can’t be in two caves at the same time, can you? I also shouldn’t have stopped talking to people about it, that just got me more and more interred in my own insecurity.

I know that a PhD is a fairground ride of intense highs and lows (with all the thrill and terror that entails), but I didn’t expect to be a victim of this so soon! I know now that to stay positive, at this stage at least, all we need is affirmation: someone to say, “you know what, you’ve got a great idea here and I’d love to work with you on it”. That’s got me riding high… for now.

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Of Dark Caves and Community

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We are really pleased Steve Kirk took some precious time out of the day job and his EdD to write this post for us.

I’m an EAP course director. I’ve been in EAP teaching and management for over a decade now. I’ve always read quite a lot in applied linguistics, education and related fields. So of course my own journey as a doctoral student has been fairly smooth and relatively easy.

Right?

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

It’s been hard. Really hard. And not for the reasons I necessarily expected. It’s been very up and down, a snakes and ladders game. For a long time it all seemed pointless. Just not worth the effort.

So what have the challenges been? Well, there have been many, not least time and motivation. Here, though, I want to focus on what I’ve learned as I emerge from one particular dark cave of struggle. This has been the struggle between two selves: between my identity as an EAP programme manager and my identity as a research student.

I’ve had a really hard time reconciling my student sense of not-knowing with a professional sense of should-know. How can I lead an academic writing programme when I find it so hard to write myself? How can I supervise MA student dissertations when I find it so time-consuming to think through my own research methods? I experienced real lows and pockets of significant self-doubt that made me question pretty much everything.

It has taken a couple of years (I’m part time), but I seem to have made it through the cave and am emerging out into something calmer, something more balanced. And I am now, finally, more enthused than I ever have been. So what have I learned? Here are a few things I would want to highlight for anyone early (or perhaps not so early…) in their EAP doctoral journey:

1 Become friends with uncertainty
There are many tales of the doctorate as stumbling lost through the forest. Believe them. Expect the same – though your own forest will always feel slightly different. I’ve been teaching for twenty years. I am a reflective practitioner. I have always been scholarly in my practice. I feel at home in theory. But this has not really made things much easier. I only began to feel a true sense of progress when I accepted that sometimes I just needed help, that I was not the writer I thought I was, and that not knowing was okay, despite my professional position and roles.

2 Put aside your writing-specialist self
I was told not so long ago that my literature review was far too descriptive. I couldn’t believe it. It’s one of the things that bugs me most about my MA students’ writing. Surely I know what criticality looks like. Don’t I know by now how to avoid ‘presenting’ ideas in favour of engaging with them? I challenged my supervisors slightly on this one…but then later re-read what I had done…and they were completely right. My LR has now been through 3 major re-thinks – and is much much stronger for it. My chapter 2 is now my chapter 1. Forget that you’re a writing specialist. You are too close to your own writing to have the critical eye you need. Get feedback often – from anyone. Your supervisors, your colleagues, perhaps even some of your students. Listen to what they say. Reject nothing immediately. Your critical readers are not always right, but they have the distance you don’t, and that will benefit you immensely.

3 Don’t wait to ‘ship the bastard’
Perfect is the enemy of done, as Inger Mewburn (@thesiswhisperer) puts it. She is so right. I have been writing little-and-often for myself, but it took me a very long time to get anything substantive to my supervisors. This, I now realise, was because I wanted it to be really good before I sent it. Bad move. This was again my should-know self trying to lead me through the forest – and it didn’t get me very far. To paraphrase some advice from this wonderful book of Dr Mewburn’s blog posts, don’t let the whispers from your inner engineering department stop your marketing department from shipping the bastard :-). I have learned rather late that faster and greater progress is made if you: start in the middle of an idea…write in chunks…edit later…ship it early…and expect it to be torn apart when it comes back :-).

4 Find people who speak your languages
My supervisors are not EAP specialists and I am now using a theoretical framework that neither of them knows. This has made one thing really important for me: community building – though I would recommend this to everyone. Research methods books and piles of journal articles just won’t give you the human stories, the insights into experience and the motivating sense of I’m-not-alone-here that can come from engagement with others who speak the same theoretical languages you need to. For me, these people are largely not in the UK. I’m on mailbases, Google+ communities, Facebook groups and Twitter. I skype and hangout with a handful of people who converse in the conceptual languages I need far more fluently than I do – and it’s amazing. It’s challenging. It’s motivating. If you’re not already, get onto Twitter and follow #phdchat. Find online communities that do some of the things you do. The people, blogs, links and resources you will come across there will form a bedrock of inspiration that will help carry you through the entire process. Really.
…And of course on this last point, this is what the Doctoral EAP blog hub is all about. Building community. Building a home for EAP practitioners looking for their researcher selves. Developing ideas and sharing practice. The most valuable insights in my Ed.D journey so far have come from outside EAP, and I hope this space will enable more of us to meet new and unexpected ideas, to meet strangers and to make new connections.
So, what are you up to? What are your puzzles and problems? What are the conceptual and research languages you wish you spoke better? And what is currently your dark cave of confusion?

Outside his cave of confusion, Steve is director of summer Pre-Sessional programmes and a senior teaching fellow at Durham University English Language Centre. He also teaches MA modules in SLA for teachers and in TEAP on the Centre’s MA Applied Linguistics for TESOL. Inside the cave, Steve’s EdD is explores the relationship between the ‘espoused curriculum’ and the ‘enacted curriculum’ in EAP teacher practice.