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I’ve just spent the morning reading a whole pile of writing. Writing in papers, writing in journals, writing in my drafts and writing in other people’s drafts. There’s so much writing, I don’t know what to do with myself.

I can’t believe I have to produce 80,000 words of writing in my thesis. And that they actually have to make sense. And, preferably, a valuable contribution to scientific knowledge.

In my own limited experience of writing in academia – spanning not more than 5 or 6 years (yes, that’s a relatively short time in the academic bubble…I don’t know whether that makes me feel old or young) – I have always spent shocking amounts of time struggling uncomfortably through less than perfect drafts of papers only to find that I could not tolerate the imperfection any more, leading me to review my writing, figure out what was so imperfect about it, and then scrap the whole thing to start from scratch. It has, most usually, been this completely rewritten draft that I save for editing and submitting rather than any of the pages upon pages of imperfect material I wrote in the first place.

The trouble with this is that when I set out to write something perfectly the first time, it is impossible. The imperfections I suffer from most are waffling on about things that don’t matter, not coming to the point, and being unable to articulate my point in a way that conveys my intended meaning satisfactorily. I also tend to write long-winded sentences to convey what are essentially simple points, such that when I reread them I cannot even grasp my own meaning. This frustrates me enough to toss it all away and start afresh. At this point I realise it has happened again – I have written a whole imperfect draft only to trash it and write a new, more perfect one. Sure, the more perfect one is acceptable and can be moulded into something vaguely worth submitting, but it takes a whole lot of time and effort to get there, even though the time and effort spent on the end product itself is often only a fraction of the total time and effort I spend trying to get to that point.

So, what is my point?

I suppose my point is that I’ve come to a point where there is not much left to do in my PhD other than write my thesis. And that I am utterly terrified of doing this because the sheer magnitude of the task seems to make it impossible to accomplish, especially to the level of perfection I stubbornly insist on. I am petrified that I will fail to be discursive rather than descriptive, and that I will forget to include literature that is essential – or, even worse, that I will fail to even know of the existence of some important citation or other. It makes me shudder to think that 6 whole chapters of writing – paragraph upon paragraph upon paragraph – are waiting for me to draft, read, denounce, redraft, edit, tweak, trash and draft again. I’m scared that I will not be able to finish on time, that May will come and I still won’t have anything to show my supervisors – not even a working draft. I will be disowned by my supervisors and evicted from my office, and left cold and penniless on the streets, never to see the holy light of academia ever again, and will die a recluse under some university cafeteria table, muttering statistical formulae and critical theory gibberish to myself.

If you’re newly starting a PhD, be warned: Yes, the process is rewarding (occasionally, eventually), but there are also many times – long periods, in fact – when the road ahead of you looks never-ending, and it can be difficult to keep going because you will often be unsure how to do so.

It’s fine…I’m going to get out of this ditch – I just don’t know how long it’s going to take.

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I spent the weekend preparing slides for a lecture I’m giving to a group of undergrads in a few weeks’ time.

I, the supposed-to-be-submitting-in-May PhD candidate.

Over the years, the more immersed I’ve become in my very narrow, very specific area of research, the more complex my understanding of the world has become, and the less I am now able to see the world in simple (or simplistic?) terms. Where, as an undergraduate, people, places, events seemed reasonably clear to me in what they were, now I always seem to be saying “but only if”, “based on the assumption”, “may have a different perspective”, “if we hypothesise”, “insufficient evidence to suggest”, “need further research” and “remains an open question”.

Even about things like what the weather’s going to be like today.

I’ve forgotten how to think like a lay person. Science has taken over my thoughts. I can’t resist the logic, the rationality, the stoic procedural calmness of thinking like a scientist.

So it’s not surprising that I find it difficult – infuriating, even – to write lecture material for an undergrad cohort mostly newly out of high school and unaware of the basic things many of us academics would expect they ought to be aware of. At an undergraduate statistics tutorial last year I only just managed to hide my incredulity at a student who didn’t know how to round numbers to two decimal places when the purpose of the tutorial was to construct a simple 2D correlation matrix using output from statistical software.

“So when you’ve got 0.972, you look at the 2 and then what?” she asked. I stared for a second, unsure if she was serious or joking.

“Then because the 2 is a number 4 or under, you leave the 7 as it is, and your answer is 0.97,” I said.

I thought that would address her confusion, but a while later the same student called me over again and this time asked me what to do if the third decimal place was a number 5 or over.

Honestly, I remember learning about decimal numbers in 6th grade. At primary school. Where have these students been all their lives? What do schools teach them these days? And I’m not even that old – in fact, most of the students I teach are just about my age, in their early twenties. It’s not like I was educated in a different era.

So, in what should theoretically be a straightforward research methods lecture, I have, deliberately, included words like “paradigm”, “constructivist” and “empirical” and suggested reading original articles dating to the 1960s. In short, I’ve included material that, in comparison to the relatively ‘soft’ lectures other staff seem to give, will shock and repulse many undergrads and fill them with the horror of actually having to look up an article themselves and read it in all its 1960s snobby white upper middle class style of English. And, imagine them being forced to look up “paradigm” in the dictionary! Oh, the torture!

So what do we conclude? Am I a bad lecturer for raising the level of complexity in my material even when I know many students won’t be able to understand it completely without, shock horror, doing extra reading, researching, or investigating? Or is the system to blame for so many of the students coming to university without knowing how to round decimal numbers, write essays, or address lecturers respectfully? Or, conversely, are all undergraduates at a degree of understanding that is somehow ideal, and instead I’m the one who’s gone nuts because my PhD has made me far too scientifically knowledgeable?

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The Final Countdown

Submission of PhD ThesisMay 1st, 2013
The big day is here. Joy to the world!
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