Know your limits



I’ve always had problems with boundaries. Control is achieved through strict routines around food, booze and exercise. A bit OCD but it worked well until I began my PhD. A late starter, my first degree was after the children, after the divorce; I was full of life-experience but not of the academic kind. In spite of two MA’s, doctoral research was a mystery. I was an educator not a researcher and it showed. There were also confidence issues. As a widening participation student and older female this goes with the territory. The PhD cracked my insecurity walls wide open.

In a new research study group, I tried to explain my fledging research plan. This was to raise awareness of digital exclusion as a new 21st century discrimination, further disabling those already marginalised and disempowered. A mature male student looked (literally) down at me saying loudly ‘…and your point is?’ I withered. It was a struggle to put across my ideas and he didn’t seem to get it yet I’d experienced vision impairment and knew how inaccessible the internet could be. The theory of accessibility was so far removed from practice I wanted to make legitimate claims to knowledge in this area. Instead, my inadequate public explanations seemed to reinforce what I suspected. I wasn’t good enough for doctoral study.  The reality was I simply didn’t have the language to express myself and he was a dork. I left the group and never went back.

My new supervisor was an educationalist with a lot to offer but left within my first year. The next supervisor had strong political persuasions. I’d decided to research VLEs but it was suggested I critique their adoption instead. Everything came back to Marx.  Another year passed. The pile of books and papers increased. It was suggested I use action research, rather than all that positivist stuff and I dived in head first with Freire’s critical pedagogy and the principles of PAR. It was a useful and valuable experience.  Then my supervision changed again.

The next supervisor seemed concerned at my lack of progress so I took a photo of the piles of books and papers on my floor to prove I was getting on. The Japanese have a word for it. Tsundoku. It means the books you never get round to reading. The paper piles were to play a part in my progress but I didn’t know this at the time. I’d read so much about research paradigms and ontologies I tied myself in epistemological knots. I’d written a thesis in note books twice over but was still bobbing in a sea of information with no boundaries. It couldn’t carry on but didn’t know how to stop.  I had to read everything. All references were followed in case they provided the resonance I was looking for. I blew my photocopying budget and ordered so many journal articles through inter-library loans when I accompanied new colleagues on a library tour I discovered staff in the back office all knew my name.

In spite of the literary chaos, I’d managed to collect data. Masses of it. Did I say I had problems with boundaries?  Using action research I’d tracked the development of an online course I’d written from inception to a PG Cert in Digital Education. Every word was hoarded from forums, journals, emails and I interviewed all the participants too. As I drifted off into discussing my masters in gender studies in supervisions (boundaries again!) I realised I was still fluent in critical discourse analysis and slowly some of the pieces began to come together. I wrote a paper on e-teaching which was accepted for ASCILITE.  Kindle and suitcase ready, 48 hours before the flight I stepped on a pile of papers on my living room floor. It slid out from under me and my ankle snapped as I hit the ground.

During the weeks of enforced inaction which followed I read even more and discovered the Action Research Dissertation by Kathryn Herr and Gary Anderson*. I was struck by the simplicity of their description of the action researcher’s aim i.e. to study themselves ‘… in relationship to the program [they’ve] developed or to fold the action research immediately back into the program in terms of professional or organisation development…’ (2015:42). This described my research perfectly. The book was full of references to texts I already had and guidance I’d already followed. For the first time I recognised what I was doing as legitimate academic endeavour. In that moment of resonance the boundaries I’d needed to confirm and validate my research fell into place.

With hindsight I can see my PhD suffered through lack of personal confidence alongside more experienced supervisors and researchers. This was reinforced by the isolation of the part-time doctoral candidate. I had enthusiasm in buckets but no way of containing it so headed off into irrelevant directions. Had I come across the Herr and Anderson book at the start I might have found my research position sooner. Had my floor not been covered with so much paper, I might have presented at ASCILITE. Learning curves hide in unexpected places. The lesson was it’s quality not quantity which counts and while still a massive project, a Phd might ultimately be smaller than you think.

*Herr, K. and Anderson, G. L. (2015) The Action Research Dissertation; a guide for students and faculty. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Author Bio: Sue Watling is a Senior Lecturer in Educational Development in the Educational Development Enhancement Unit at the University of Lincoln, UK. Supporting teaching, learning and the student experience, Sue also promotes the development of digitally inclusive practice.