Taking a Minute to Breathe

I haven’t updated this blog in a long while, partly because this was originally an assessment and partly because well, I didn’t think I had time. I don’t really have a lot of time but what I’ve learnt is that you need to make the time to stop, relax, and importantly, reflect on what you have done.
The break between semesters hardly felt like a break at all, I tried to get as much reading for my thesis done in that time that I could. It didn’t go well. I just read through (by read through, I mean I did the all important skimming) three books but that was only a fraction of the list I had wanted to get through. Perhaps I was being a little ambitious. Mostly I think I was making excuses not to do the work as much as I should have. I feel that by the time that the ‘break’ came I was very done with the coursework part of the course but also knew that I needed to use the break to get research done. I think the done side won out.
Getting back into the swing of things this semester has been exceedingly difficult. This is in part due to taking the foot off the pedal a bit during the break but also the schedule was a bit messy at the start. The sort of things that can’t be helped, its okay. Nonetheless, I feel that I am finally settling in, even though its already week 6. Or is it 7? Okay perhaps not as settled in as I thought. The point is, I’m getting there. Its hard, this semester there’s a lot of reading, far more than I think there was last semester. Or at least it feels like it. This semester I am taking the last core unit of this degree Research Design 2. The first few readings, from Murray and Moore’s The Handbook of Academic Writing, were really great. They basically argued that academic writing need not be a chore but rather, if we change the way we think about and approach it, can be a rewarding, creative process. I like the sound of that. Also, we’ve been going over Ethics in research which is so incredibly vital to have a handle on, or at least to know how to get in touch with the people that do. Not that I will be needing Ethics approval, my work is purely intellectual no humans involved, but its still important to be aware of.
The elective units I’m taking are Debates in Global History, in which we’re looking at debates about globalisation, its origins and its historiography. That is full on in that our teacher, Greg Barton, is asking that we read a monograph every week. His expectation is that we spend about 2-3 hours with the book and pick out the main argument. Its a useful skill to hone I believe. The Cutting Edge is a subject that is focusing on how to conceptualise our projects in terms of ideas of space, scale, and time. This is really interesting but also challenging as the readings are really dense and take work to get my head around. We are expected to respond to the readings so this forces us to try to make sense of it and Brett, our teacher, provides brilliant feedback. My final unit is Global Digital Futures, which is dealing with digital technologies and particularly its role in research, knowledge creation and communication.
It’s probably seeming at this point like I haven’t taken time to breathe, or you’re wondering how this is relevant. The point is that, I’m sitting here writing this when there are, admittedly other things I need to be doing because the main thing that I think I’ve learnt in this course thus far is that you MUST take time to stop, step back, and think about what you’re doing and reflect on where you are and where you need to go. So this is me, taking stock of where I am. Taking a breath and realising that I’ve come a long way, despite having a long way to go.

Murray, Rowena, and Sarah Moore. The Handbook of Academic Writing: A Fresh Approach. England Open University Press, 2006.

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“Arrange Your Life to Write”

Last week in Research Literacies we looked at some really interesting readings on how to actually write a thesis. In particular, a chapter from Rowena Murray’s book How to Write a Thesis (2011) was really helpful for thinking about how to really get started on actually writing this thing. The chapter was entitled “It’s Never Too Late to Start” and this in and of itself was an encouraging start. The idea of actually sitting down to start writing seems so daunting and I can’t imagine at the moment feeling ready to begin to make inroads on the actual writing of the thesis but as Jack has been telling us all semester, you can’t wait until you’re ready to start or you’ll never be ready. The beauty of this chapter is that it really broke down the idea of starting to write and how to get the thesis done into small steps that make it seem like less of a beast to tackle.

Murray provides a checklist of ‘Initial Tasks’ before getting stuck in including sorting out when you’re going to meet your supervisor, accepting that not everything you want to put into the thesis is going to be able to be included, and talking to your family and friends about how you’ll have to work because at the end of the day, we can’t do this without them. When we went over this list in class and talked about it, Jack drew our attention to one task in particular, one he deemed to be the most important:

“Arrange your life to write” (Murray 2011, 241)

Everything else stems from this one point. Every other thing comes after realising that we are effectively trying to be professional writers and if we want to do that we have to make writing a lifestyle. Once we arrange our life around writing, scheduling time to write everyday, setting writing goals etc., than the rest of should come at least a little easier.

Murray also provides what she calls “Ten Steps to Fast-Track Thesis Writing.” (238)
These are:
Step 1: Take Stock
Step 2: Start Writing
Step 3: Outline Your Thesis
Step 4: Make Up a Programme of Writing
Step 5: Communicate With your Supervisor(s)
Step 6: Outline Each Chapter
Step 7: Write Regularly
Step 8: Revise
Step 9: Pull it All Together
Step 10: Do Final Tasks
(238)

These are a really nice breakdown of the steps for going about tackling the thesis. There are a couple of things on this list that I know I am going to have to really work on. Step 2 is a really important one for me. This step picks up on that same idea I mentioned earlier that Jack has been drilling into us the whole semester about not waiting to write. Murray also suggests that we “learn to live with imperfection” (244). This is something I am going to need to work on. My being a perfectionist is one of my greatest obstacles. I never feel that anything is good enough and I have ridiculously high expectations of my own work and I really need to learn to live with it because its only getting in my own way. Also, I am really terrible at keeping up with people so making sure I communicate with my supervisor is a big thing for me. I don’t intend to not get on to people when I should but I get really in my head at times and forget to keep in touch. I can’t really afford to do this with my supervisor. Its too important.

It’s definitely nice to have these steps laid out. Its certainly makes the prospect of tackling the thesis seem a hell of a lot less daunting.
Murray, Rowena. “It’s Never Too Late to Start.” In How to Write a Thesis (England: Open University Press, 2011), 238-257.

Knowledge Translation: Articulating and Communicating the Research

This week in Research Literacies, as part of our continuing conversation about Knowledge Translation we looked at the 3 Minute Thesis and talked about communicating our research. Being able to talk about your research effectively is so important I think, especially because to me, it seems that when I talk about it to non-specialist people that’s when it becomes clearest to me what I know best about my research and the parts I don’t have a good enough grasp on. Talking it out makes it apparent to me what is and isn’t working. I suppose that might be part of the appeal of the 3 Minute Thesis (outside of personal benefits if you win of course) the fact that it forces you to really nut out what’s important about your research and to realise how well you know it if you have to present the crux of it to a lay audience armed with only three minutes and one slide.

Working in groups to practice communicating our research to non-specialists was really valuable and a lot of fun. I found it really exciting to hear about what other people were working on and they were all really fascinating stuff. We had a girl working on improving treatments for heroine addiction, a guy looking at masculinity and queer identity in men, and another girl looking at gender in street art culture. It was wonderful for me to see a friend of mine from day one talk about her research, why sporting technologies designed to improve performance have not been integrated into the Australian Netball set up, and see how far she’s come in terms of articulating it. She seems so much more confident in it now, I’m so happy! In the same way it was great to hear from another great friend of mine, my partner in crime in this degree as we have a similar focus, except hers is more interested in bringing non-academic forms of history into the classroom and educating kids on how to understand them. She’s really started narrowing down her focus in the last few weeks and it was great to hear her talk about her plan right now which includes looking at how Tintin could be used. The best thing about this exercise was to hear everybody’s  passion for their research and its certainly a testament to them that I can at least briefly describe their research (at least I hope I’m getting it right!)

As for me, I think I still need to work on this. I’ve never been particularly good at articulating ideas, I’ve always found writing them out to be far easier. It might sound a bit pompous but my brain definitely moves faster than my mouth does and I tend to fall over words and get flustered. I’m also one of those people that gets ridiculously handsy when I speak about something I’m passionate about. Hands fly everywhere and I think that might throw people off. Also this showed me that I’m not all over what I want to do yet, I’ve been thinking in recent weeks in different directions and I have an idea (you can see my Research Update 11 May 2016 for more details) but I’m not sure if I could articulate it that well when I was explaining it to my group. They seemed to follow it well enough but I didn’t feel good about it. I felt better than when I had to do basically the same exercise in a class the day before for my unit Engaging Discursive Fields so maybe it really is about practice and fine tuning. The better I know what I’m doing, the easier it will probably be to talk about it. That’s the gist I guess.

Research Update May 11 2016

I’ve been trying to pin down recently what I’m actually going to talk about in my thesis or what the focus is going to be because just talking about whether history can be represented in film is kind of old hat by now. Scholars have been talking about that for a while and the consensus that it can has virtually been reached. I always wanted to talk about gender in some way, like depictions of women in history or something like that but recently I started thinking about the kind of reciprocal relationship that the past and the present have when they meet on screen (in my opinion at least). On the one hand the present context affects how we represent the present. In other words, these representations end up reflecting present attitudes. For example, films made now about World War II  may be reflecting concerns about the War on Terror. On the other hand, the way the past has been presented may influence how we have come to view it, for instance, one might immediately think of images from Platoon, or Apocalypse Now  and the like when thinking of the Vietnam War. In essence, these contextualised representations of a particular point in history can eventually come to typify that history in the public/cultural consciousness. I was thinking about teasing these ideas out by looking at gender politics in historical films and television series and how they reflect both how we understand that period of time (and whether this understanding comes from prior representations/ideas of that period)  as well as what they reflect and therefore can tell us about gender politics in the present. I hope that makes some kind of sense. I messed about with these ideas a bit in my Public Audience Essay for Research Literacies so when I get that back, I’m sure someone will tell me if its not working at all. Hopefully.

“Moving Pictures: The Filming of History:” Thoughts on Tessa Morris-Suzuki’s Chapter

I’ve steadily been working through Tessa Morris-Suzuki’s wonderful book The Past Within Us:  Media, Memory, History. This book examines the many different forms history can take outside of the traditional academic written form. She examines the ways that these forms of history, from novels and comic books to museums and films, engage with history and how contemporary audiences or readers engage with them and with the history being presented. The chapter specifically on film and television particularly of note to me so and I thought I might share some thoughts on it.

Morris-Suzuki talks a lot in this chapter about the unique power of film as a means of identification with the past, whether this be through the emotive power of its combined techniques (imagery and sound in particular) or through its individual driven narratives with characters portrayed by famous contemporary actors. What I particularly found interesting was her discussion of film and mythology. She points to the intrinsic power of film to provide and perpetuate cultural and societal myths about the past. For instance, she uses the example of Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997) and how it generates a narrative about US history that seems to suggest that “freedom, justice and racial equality have always been the central themes and support for slavery appears as a kind of temporary aberration” (Morris-Suzuki 2005, 152) whilst ignoring the founding fathers own connections to the slave trade. Following on from this, she points out how the myths that films generate are so important because they are global myths that also reflect inequality in ideas about history. Historical feature films often depict important moments in Western history. This is probably because they dominantly emerge out of the oligarchical Hollywood system (one of the most recognizable forms of American imperialism) which also means that these reach the widest audience and have far more cultural impact than films emerging out of Eastern or African countries dealing with their own histories. This in a wider sense consistently reinforces myths about Western dominance and superiority.

In the closing paragraph of this chapter, Morris-Suzuki made what to me was a really important observation. She argues that is crucial that we, as viewers, reflect thoughtfully on what we see on screen in historical films or televisions shows. How is this engaging us in a historical understanding? What are the techniques it is using? What is the context? The aims of the filmmaker? How does this depiction sit with other depiction?  This point is crucial. If we are going to take historical films seriously and we are going to encourage education systems in particular to take them seriously then we need to foster critical thinking about them.

 

Morris-Suzuki, Tessa. The Past within Us: Media, Memory, History. London, UK: Verso, 2005.

 

Knowledge Translation: As Simple as it Sounds?

Truth be told, I thought that ‘Knowledge Translation’ sounded like a really straightforward concept. I thought, ‘oh right, being able to take your research out of the dripping with jargon version that would appear in the thesis and talk about it to or with a non-specialist audience.’ Seems simple enough. I did not anticipate that there would be such different ideas about what it meant and rather naively, I didn’t really think about all of the reasons that its so important.

The first thing Jack really explained to us in the Research Literacies lecture on Knowledge Translation was that this was a concept far more prevalent in the hard sciences, particularly health sciences. Being pretty well confined to the Humanities, I didn’t realise this at all but found it really quite fascinating nonetheless. Although there still seems to be some contention about exactly what it means and involves among scientific institutions, it seems to follow the basic idea of getting the research from the lab to the people that can practically use it in an ethically sound manner. I guess in the Humanities the similar thing would be to use research findings to make recommendations for policy changes or educational reforms or whatever kind of practice the particular research work can be put to. It also involves, for both STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and HASS (Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences) research, the dissemination of the research findings, the sharing of information and new knowledge essentially.

Of course, things in this world are never just about democratisation and social benefit, and money worms its way in here too. To have a chance to get your research funded you have to be able to explain what it is and what its going to achieve. This is knowledge translation too. How do you explain your research in a way that will get your grant application approved?

At the end of the day, I wasn’t necessarily wrong, it is about being able to explain your research to non-specialists, I just hadn’t really considered the wide ranging areas that it can be applied for benefit or for money. I suppose I should start to view my 50,000 family members asking me what I’m doing and why I would want to do that every time there’s a family get-together as an opportunity rather than a chore. Instead of reverting to the more academic version – “I’m looking into theories about historiography  in relation to the representation of history in non-academic sources, particularly feature films, and how that effects how people and societies understand and identify with history” – I should really work on being able to explain my topic in simpler terms – “I’m interested in how movies about history are representing and engaging with it and how these movies can help or hinder us in understanding history.” How’d I do?

‘Thesis’ is Not a Scary Word.

 

Its Week 6 of your first semester of your Master of Research and you sit down to do your reading for your Research Literacies unit. It’s a chapter of your textbook – Rosenwasser and Stephen’s Writing Analytically (2015)  –  entitled “Finding and Evolving a Thesis.” Now, if you’re anything like me, you’re freaking out. “Thesis? What thesis?” I started to think to myself. I know I have a research area (film and history),  I know the questions I want to interrogate (can film engage with history and historical discourse meaningfully and how?), and I know I have an opinion about it (film’s visual and emotional capacity allow it to explore history in creative and experiential ways that are just as valid as written history) but I don’t have a proper question yet, I don’t really have a thesis. Naturally, I started to mildly panic. Once I realised this was the single most unproductive thing to do and actually started reading, I calmed down because this chapter is great. This chapter not only went over what a thesis is and how to work with it and write about it effectively but it told me that I was actually okay and on the right track.

This chapter starts with a really handy definition of what a thesis actually is. Rosenwasser and Stephen summarise a thesis as being “an idea that you formulate about your subject. It should offer a theory about the meaning of evidence that would not have been immediately obvious to your readers” (Rosenwasser and Stephen 2015, 147). I think this neatly sums up what they think a strong thesis is and what it is not. It should not be too broad or too straightforward. There’s no point writing a paper trying to argue something that was common sense in the first place.

The thing that really struck me with this chapter though was the idea that the thesis is not static. It evolves with the evolution of the paper itself. Its probably best not to go into the reading about and writing about a topic all guns blazing with a rigid thesis already in place. This is not to say that we shouldn’t have an idea about the topic, its important that we do as that will guide the research and the writing BUT if we’ve decided that that is the be all and end all then it becomes a case of evidence to fit the theory and we run the risk of ignoring complicating evidence and thus limiting the scope and quality of our ideas and blinding us to better ones (Rosenwasser and Stephen 2015, 148). Rosenwasser and Stephen (2015, 157) use the analogy of a camera lens to describe the thesis and its reciprocal relationship to the subject, “while the lens affects how we see the subject (what evidence we select, what questions we ask about that evidence), the subject we are looking at affects how we adjust the lens.”

Something they suggest (and demonstrate a fantastic example of) is working on exploratory drafts to help evolve the thesis. As you write and explore your ideas and evidence, new and better ideas may become clear as well as errors and problems. The more you draft and explore the thesis, the clearer and the stronger it becomes. Writing as thinking as Jack (our tutor) would say. They provide a six step process to follow when doing this which I’m not going to regurgitate here but it basically involves writing the draft and then identifying the competing thesis statements and complicating evidence that do not fit with the current working thesis and then using these to reformulate your it and then testing the new thesis by doing the process over. Rosenwasser and Stephen (2015, 166) also stress in this the importance of making your process clear to your reader. Basically, explaining to them how you got to where you did. I think that’s really important but also not necessarily something that I’m  used to so I should keep that in mind and work on it.

The class for this week and this topic was also really helpful. Jack got us to freewrite about certain aspects of our projects to get us thinking about our thesis and how it fits with the existing literature. Identifying the “interpretive context” of your thesis is something Rossenwasser and Stephen (2015, 150) also emphasize. In doing this exercise, I realised that I actually did know more about what I wanted to do and what other researchers were doing and what they were debating. Importantly, I realised I was able to tease out possible questions, how does film use its unique language to engage history and do what Tessa Morris-Suzuki (2005, 27) calls “historical truthfulness”  –  how different people and mediums try to make sense of the past.I’m well aware that this needs to be done within the context of a case study and will need to be significantly more specific but I’m working on it. I’m also aware that this time next year, my question will probably not be close to this at all but I guess that’s all part of this process of evolution.

I guess at the end of this week, I felt a lot better than I had at the start. I don’t need to have a thesis right now. I just need to be working on it, reading a lot and writing things down. I have a little more faith in me today than I did before.

thesis

 

 

Sources

Morris-Suzuki, Tessa. 2005. The Past Within Us: Media, Memory, History. London, UK:            Verso.

Rosenwasser, David, and Jill Stephen. 2015. Writing Analytically. USA: Cengage Learning.

Image source: https://theleidener.com/2016/03/06/thesis-tips/