Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Organising and Managing your Research: A practical guide for

The expressed aim of the writers of this publication is to address a perceived gap in the research guidance market through a focus on organisational skills, management strategies and the consequent effectiveness and efficiency benefits for postgraduate researchers in systematising their practices of information and research. The text promotes the adoption of well selected, technology supported organisational methods in order to enhance project outcomes for researchers. The authors acknowledge the inclusion of a wealth of tips and strategies drawn from the accumulated experiences of academics, researchers and postgraduate students from universities in Australia, North America and Europe.

The book is structured for exploratory learning, with well placed graphics, templates, "screen captures" and reflection heuristics to provide readers with pause points for demonstration and contemplation. The writing style is succinct, explanatory and enabling in that it invites readers to understand and take charge of their research processes. The introductory chapters establish the value of the technical and organisational systems promoted in the text and explain the concepts and terms used throughout. Introductory statements in each chapter outline the purpose and content of the chapter and draw attention to related chapters. These early chapters focus on the immediate environment of the researcher – personal, physical and digital /electronic to enable readers to examine and evaluate their capabilities for research organisation and management and to suggest ways to manage ideas, time and support systems.
Key audiences for the book are postgraduate students and early career researchers, however the text is also well suited to support the mentoring and advisory work of HDR supervisors and academics teaching research methods. The writers emphasise the importance of postgraduate students being proactive in managing relationships with supervisors, mentors and peers. A series of well designed self assessment questionnaires accommodate a diversity of learning and management styles and provide stimulus for students, supervisors and research colleagues to identify, clarify and negotiate expectations and partnerships.

In addition the book addresses the organisational circumstances of researchers applying for grants and the management of the work of project teams with particular reference to the evaluation, selection and use of a range of project management software packages. A comparative table provides synopses of the program features and licensing requirements of selected software packages which support project design, proposal writing and the management of financial resources and timelines. Chapters concerned with researchers’ organisation and management of their literature promote the systematic planning of literature searches across multiple print and electronic information sources using critical evaluative approaches to information seeking and location. The scope of approaches includes using people resources such
as reference librarians, taking advantage of journal monitoring and table of contents services, and employing selected Web 2.0 tools such as RSS feeds which operate to seek out sources and information proactively. Strategic web searching and management of the literature are demonstrated in screen captures of search engine panels, bibliographic database structures and comparative evaluation of bibliographic software programs.

The data collection and analysis chapters outline the techniques, issues and challenges in gathering and recording qualitative and quantitative research data in multiple media and the importance of selecting data analysis processes or software appropriate to selected epistemological and methodological frameworks. Specific support for decisions on the selection of data analysis software – both qualitative and quantitative – is developed in tables with synopses of program features, licensing requirements and directions to online information. Significant value-adding for those who purchase this text is in the additional support provided in the website: Organising and Managing your Research which is hosted through Southern Cross University. Supplementary materials via the website include newly released information and content which is not included in the original publication, live links to online materials, software and templates for some of the organisational ideas presented in the book, and an ideas sharing forum with the authors and research community.

This publication offers pertinent and systematic guidance in the organising and managing of research using a variety of people and technology supports and is thoroughly recommended as a practical guide for postgraduates. Raylee Elliott Burns Queensland University of Technology
Helping doctoral students write: Pedagogies for supervision Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson, Routledge, London and New York, 2006, 173 pages, ISBN 0 415 34684 3, AUD74.00 (paperback)

Have you ever wondered what advice you should give to doctoral students who turn out "turgid prose, badly structured arguments" or "laboured literature reviews" (p.1)? Or, are you a doctoral student who is worried about the pending submission of your thesis and whether your writing is going to be good enough for the examiners? In either case, Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson’s book, Helping doctoral students write:

Pedagogies for supervision, offers something for you. Although the authors clearly target doctoral supervisors as their main audience, they also cater for doctoral students and, I would argue, for anyone who wants to reflect on, enhance, and engage in discussion about academic writing. The book begins with a theorisation of doctoral writing as a discursive social practice. Kamler and Thomson argue strongly that writing is not a set of decontextualised skills, but that it is an integral and important part of research. Indeed, their argument is that writing is research. And, as we all know, academics are represented and judged by their writing and successful academics have to be able to write well. An important part of doctoral study, then, is the "text work" that develops an academic or scholarly identity.

By conceptualising writing in this way, Kamler and Thomson argue that there is a need to move away from a notion of writing as "a set of arbitrary rules and matters of etiquette" (p.7) – and away from the pathologising of individual writers when their writing seems deficient – towards seeing the potential of "writing-centred supervision" (p. 9). They use the work of Norman Fairclough to frame the "writing" of a doctoral thesis – the production of text – within the teaching and learning relationships of students and supervisors, as well as within the institutional practices of universities and broader social, cultural and political contexts. The location of writing within those contexts means that Kamler and Thomson focus on complex processes and open up
discussion about the importance of pedagogical spaces for foregrounding thesis writing in the student-supervisor relationship.

Using this theoretical frame, the book offers chapters that focus on particular aspects of thesis writing. One of my favourites was the chapter with a memorable title – "Persuading an octopus into a glass" (Chapter 3). Drawing on a metaphor used by a doctoral student to describe the difficult task of "reviewing literatures", this chapter provides practical advice about the tricky tasks of doing "literature work" and the associated "identity work of becoming a scholar" (p. 34). It also teases out Kamler and Thomson’s rejection of the term "literature review" and their resolution to use the pluralised "literatures" in its place. Additionally, it suggests how supervisors might engage in dialogue with their students about the practice of academic writing and how they might work to co-construct texts with their students. Many of the ideas in this chapter resonated with the challenges I experienced when writing my own doctoral thesis and they have given me ideas about how I might work with the doctoral students I supervise. Several chapters (in particular Chapters 5-8) focus on specific linguistic features of academic texts, particularly those that will enable doctoral students to write with authority. These chapters provide a pedagogical and linguistic toolkit, with accompanying metalanguage, that supervisors can use when providing "guidance for revision" to their students (p.100). Using the systemic functional grammar of Michael Halliday, the authors identify some useful linguistic tools, including nominalisation and Theme. Whilst they recognise the panic that some supervisors and students may feel about the use of grammar and its metalanguage, they guide their readers effortlessly through accessible and useful explanations and examples.

In keeping with the book’s theoretical framing, these are not presented as decontextualised skills, but are discussed in the context of the supervisory processes conducted by the authors with their students. Much of the book discusses how doctoral supervisors and students might address issues around writing. The final chapter (Chapter 9), however, moves beyond "dialogue-based supervision practice" and the relationship between supervisor and student, and explores how "systemic attention to writing" can be of benefit at the institutional level (p.144). In looking at the broad context, as per their use of Fairclough’s model, Kamler and Thomson describe a range of strategies that they have used in faculty, university and cross-university contexts.

Throughout the book, Kamler and Thomson do their fair share of myth busting, presenting their concerns and critique about advice that has been offered in publications about thesis writing. Yet they don’t stop at critique. Their book offers practical pedagogical suggestions that supervisors and their students can try. Nevertheless, the authors are adamant that their book is not a "how to" manual. Instead, they "talk about things" that they have found useful and encourage others to "use or remake strategies for their own supervision contexts" (p.1). Examples from their own doctoral students and colleagues, with "before" and "after" examples of students’ texts, provide effective illustrations of how these strategies might work. Kamler and Thomson argue that it should be possible "to dip in and out of the chapters", rather than reading their book the whole way through (p.xi). They do, however, recommend that readers look at the first two chapters where they explicate the book’s underlying theories. Having read the book from front to back cover, I think I would have missed too much if I had been selective about which chapters or sections to read. I know, though, that I will return to particular sections and will use some as ways of opening up discussions about writing with my doctoral students. The book’s theoretical foundations resonated with my beliefs about writing and I loved reading a text that distanced itself from deficit stories about doctoral students who can’t write well.

Helping doctoral students write: Pedagogies for supervision is not a book that offers sure-fire solutions to writing a good doctoral thesis. However, it offers ways of facilitating dialogue between supervisors and their students about "the what" and "the how" of effective writing practices within academia, as well as suggesting ways of developing a writing culture within institutional contexts. This is a book that I plan to revisit.

Renata Phelps, Kath Fisher and Alan Ellis, Sage Publications, London, 2007,290 pages, ISBN 978 4129 2063 6 AUD159, ISBN 978 1429 2064, AUD44.95(paperback)

Robyn Henderson
University of Southern Queensland

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