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April 21, 2018

Ph.D Thesis Literature Review Update

What a busy time it has been since I wrote the previous couple of posts about my new research design. I am thinking about this new design constantly and I shall be writing more about the design following on from the previous blog posts in due time, but it suffices to say that the blog posts relate to the second part of the new research design: the graph theory / network analysis stage. The idea at the moment is to convert what shall be the developed grounded theory categories into elements of a network and perform, where and as deemed appropriate, various numerical and quantitative analysis upon the data. I have picked up some really interesting papers and other resources about this so far and some I shall share when I get round to writing the blog posts about the networking side of the research design. I am not entirely sure if it will be mixed methods or multi methods as the need shall emerge from the data analysis but I shall discuss this in future blog posts.

Attention for the time being has been shifted to the rewriting of sections of the second literature review chapter, where I am discussing and exploring specifically the phenomenon of interest and related constructs. The main focus at the moment is continuously rewriting the first section of the second literature review chapter that focusses on the main phenomenon of research interest. I am furthering my exploration of literature and this is leading to a deepening of my conceptual understanding and the potential nuanced existence that the phenomenon of interest takes not just in its own existence but in its co-existence with other learning phenomenon. This is an ongoing process, but this continuous exploration is helping me to further contextualise my discussions of the phenomenon and to really understand the way that this phenomenon fits the context of the research. This first section is important, because it revolves around the reflective, analytical, evaluative and critical exploration of existing conceptualisations and definitions of the phenomenon of interest, the different kinds, and the different ways in which it has been applied within general educational contexts.

The more I develop my depth and breadth of understanding the phenomenon and the more I deepen my explorations into literature, the more I can deepen the breadth and depth of my conceptual understanding, of existing and relevant arguments and debates and engage with them accordingly, and further develop justifications for exploring the phenomenon of interest in the ways that I am presenting. This has always been a long term, continuous process and it continues now, and I am really beginning to observe and understand its complex existence and that it’s part of a complex network of learning phenomena. I am asking a lot of questions about the potential product of the research and the way that the emerging theoretical framework shall be situated between other theoretical frameworks related to exploring other learning phenomena, and therefore the way that it competes with or complements the use of other frameworks. I’m going in directions here I never thought was possible even just a couple of years ago.

As for the process of rewriting the literature review sections, I’ve basically more or less completely rewritten each drafted section completely and continuously extending, amending, and further adding arguments and ideas. Sometimes this can take up the majority of your reading and writing sessions: I spent a whole day recently rewriting a single section because as I was able to develop a concept, idea, argument or critical commentary of a piece of literature or existing argument I was finding that I could reference different aspects of a piece of literature and the ideas and critiques in other areas, effectively leading to a domino effect or a chain of increased idea development across all aspects of that section.

It is a complex process that is continuously driven by the following questions: is what I am suggesting here accurate and correct? Is this the way I am really going to present my argument and critiques? Is the order of the current section logical? Does everything flow and connect appropriately? Does everything communicate exactly what I want to say at that specific time? Is there a way I can better present and build upon my ideas? Can I present my arguments better? Can I improve upon my arguments? Can I in some way enhance them? How can I enhance them? Have I gone deep enough? How do I go deeper into my arguments and ideas? How can I draw out fully the depth and breadth of my ideas and arguments, and their relationships? How do I know when I have achieved the ultimate level of depth and breadth? Is this even possible? How do I know if this is possible? How do I know that I know what is or is not possible? How can I use further literature to support my ideas? How can I use existing literature in different ways? What else do I need to do in various sections? Can I further the logical connections between ideas? Can I present these logical connections between ideas differently? Is this current structure the actual structure of the chapter?

When you think about it though, most of these questions are not just associated with the literature review chapters but every single chapter in the thesis and every single section of each chapter. This is where a line by line, sentence by sentence analysis is coming in handy because I am questioning the purpose, meaning, value, and worth of every sentence. I am questioning the linguistics, grammar, content, accuracy, validity, verifiability, and epistemic stance of each and every sentence. All guided by the questions just mentioned.

Is it taking me a long time to find that happy point with that particular section of the literature review? Yes I think so, but I think I am getting there now and I believe that I have the grounds upon which I can build the rest of the chapter and that might now mean rewriting the other sections of the chapter completely. I have another section that has developed substantially and other section that is in need of a lot of work, but that doesn’t really matter so much now because I can approach the rewriting of other sections within the context of the first section. Remember, everything has to be connected and flow logically. In my opinion there is not a high amount of value in writing disjointed and disconnected sections: you have to write each section in accordance to the first, because it is the first section that really should set the scene and contextual layout for the rest of the chapter sections.

Ongoing and challenging process, yet it is satisfying and a relief when you can observe substantial changes and improvements to the way you are writing your chapters and the way in which everything you want to say is being communicated.

‘Till next time!


February 25, 2018

MILESTONE: Completed The First Literature Review Chapter Draft; Commence Full Chapter Rewrite!

Achieved Milestone!

It’s been a while since I posted an update, but I am happy to say that recently I have completed the first draft of the first literature review chapter of the thesis! The structure of the chapter, as has been discussed throughout some of the postings this year so far, has faced challenges and changes particularly when addressing the concepts of society and culture and their relationship to Education. But I think I am now settled on a structure that emerged as I wrote the chapter, and the structure is not likely to change although the content probably shall do as the editing and rewriting continues. Currently, the word count is standing at around ten thousand words but this is due for strong edits and the shifting of blocks of texts to other thesis chapters or to be discarded.


Remember, when I say discarded I don’t mean literally thrown away but placed in another text file so that sections of text can be recalled as necessary if or when they are deemed relevant for a particular chapter.


The content of the chapter consists of explanations of my ever changing understanding and interpretations of the concepts Society, Culture, Education and Social Technology and their relation to each other. Additionally, the content also consists of critiques and evaluations of these relationships as a result of critically engaging with and critical analysis of published debates and discussions, and the continuously developing evaluative arguments based on these critical engagements. What we have then is a continuous grounding and, through rewriting and editing, regrounding of critical engagements and the developing arguments built from these critical engagements.


Through editing and rewriting, these debates and discussions are being extended upon with new directions and observations being made and grounded in existing discussions and debates. Everything being discussed is situated and bounded by the research context including research problem and research questions.


The aim of the first literature review chapter, as I have previous mentioned in a blog post, is to present a case or a justification for the use and exploration of specific social learning technologies, and the use and exploration of specific learning processes and patterns within these social learning technologies. And, therefore, to explain and argue what has given rise to their importance in recent decades. It is aimed to achieve this goal through not only exploring the relationship between society, culture and Education, but also through discussing relevant pedagogical approaches and different social learning theories that enable particular learning patterns and processes of research interest.


Current Thesis Writing Task


The current task is to strongly, comprehensively, substantially, and with great detail rewrite and reedit the content of the first literature review chapter. This process involves rechecking or revalidating claims and arguments I have made and are in development, and to ensure that they are grounded in the critiques of existing published discussions or relevant findings.


You cannot claim anything without fundamentally grounding the argument in existing published arguments and discussions because without such grounding, any existing arguments would lack philosophical and / or empirical basis and would not stand up to scrutiny in any VIVA assessment. Even in the literature review you must begin to develop arguments. A literature review is much more than just a review of literature: it’s a separate research project in its own right and therefore is its own project of argument and critique building. This demonstrates your understanding of current literature and current discussions, and demonstrates your ability to critically engage with existing literature and to build arguments and counter arguments, etc. from these critiques.


In order to reach a comprehensive level of editing and rewriting, I am adopting a line-by-line analysis method. This method enables me to go through each page on a line by line basis, scrutinising every sentence, every word, every thought, every idea, and every debate and discussion that I am developing and therefore reground in existing literature, and to verify and validate references that I am using to assist with argument building particularly in the context of new understanding and new thoughts that I have documented since I began originally writing the literature review.


This is an extensive and at times intensive exercise, but is something that I think is beneficial in the long term because since I started this reediting and rewriting process of the first draft, I have made observations in the literature that I had not previously observed, and have developed and continue to develop further thoughts and amendments to debates and discussions.

I come across some people in particular quarters who oppose the idea of what they consider to be an “over thinking” of reading and writing processes and the way in which we engage with the processes psychologically and mentally. But I argue that to class or to consider such as “over thinking” is an admittance of only having the desire to think at a level of convenience rather than the level of what is actually possible in reality. Trust me, when you are engaging with a Ph.D. and dealing with challenging concepts and their challenging relationships, there is no such thing as overthinking!


When you have taken your thinking and your mind to what you think is your limit, go beyond!


‘till next time!


February 04, 2018

From a Structured Plan to an Emergent Design: the Pause–Reflect Process

A complete change of Structure!


Furthering the developments noted in the previous blog post, I have now thrown out the original structure plan and have come to realise that the structure is a product of an emergent process. To recap, the original plan was for discussions of society, culture and education to be defined, characterised and discussed separately before discussing their relationship leading onto discussions specific to my research. After tangling with the likes of Macrosocieties, different types of societies and realising that society and education are embedded within cultural definitions, separation of discussions of society, culture and Education proved to be impossible.


This experience illuminates the proposition that whilst structuring, designing, organising and laying out a chapter is beneficial for guidance, sometimes a structure can only come about through an emergent process. Simply getting down to the task of writing and placing the process of writing above the need to structure can be more beneficial. With that, the structure of the first literature review chapter is still emerging; therefore, I cannot determine exactly the way the chapter shall be structured, although I do have general ideas of the topics I want to cover in that chapter.


It is through the process of reading more material, of writing and thinking about what I am writing that has enabled the structure to be viewed as emergent. This is a continuous and cyclical process, swapping between writing and reading, reading and thinking, and writing and thinking; therefore, the way the structure is now might not be the same in the future. There are no absolutes here: the structure, and the content, are adaptable and changeable through the process of reading and writing, in accordance with the chapter’s objectives and intended outcomes. I have even found this weekend, and as I was writing the first draft of this blog post, the possible ways that the chapter could change.


It has been challenging at first: the moving away from the idea of needing to structure a chapter to the idea of letting a structure emerge. But, I have a strategy that frames the way in which these changes take place so that it’s not ad hoc or on the spot emotional moment of needing to include something. It’s a strategy that emphasises the importance of pausing and reflecting.


The Pause-Reflect Process


I found a gap between what I thought I understood, the structure of the chapter, and observations and abstractions I was making from reading the literature. Identifying this gap caused a change in my conceptual understanding of the social and cultural. It’s a cognitive, mental process that requires an objective approach and an open mind, guided and framed by the research context, research problems, and research questions. An open mind is important here, because the impact of a closed mind is spending so much time trying to fit reality within your own conceptions that you miss what is really going on. Subjective biases, emotionally driven responses and personal frameworks would be placed above the truth of reality, or any sense of trying to understand what this truth is. That’s not what doing a Ph.D. is about; that’s not what writing is all about; that’s not the way our mental and psychological processes should be applied.


What did I do exactly to overcome the gap identified, and to therefore change the structure? Writing was paused, and existing knowledge of the concepts and emerging conceptual knowledge from the writing process were reflected upon. These reflections were then compared with, and further reflected upon, the research context, problem, questions, aims, goals, objectives and intended outcomes.


Essentially, it is the research context and its defined problems and questions that provide a general framework for the early literature reviews and the methodology chapter. Whatever you write, always keep the context in focus and try not to go off on a tangent that has nothing to do with the research context. It is through the reflective process that discussions within a chapter can be appropriately managed and reframed and, therefore, enables you accurately and effectively judge and measure the validity of your current understanding, knowledge and meaning. And, additionally, it is through this reflective process that you can make decisions on the path that you are on. Remember: writing is never a set, absolute process; it’s not a long, linear path. There are many twists and turns and forks that you shall come across. But using some sort of reflective, framing process, for me, is helping me to guide the directions of the discussions. It is therefore through this reflective, comparative process that I found that the chapter structure, at least with this chapter, is an emergent feature. It all started because of that element of doubt that I had with regards to the way I was trying to separate the discussions of society, culture and Education.


In general


Every word, sentence and paragraph has an interrelated existence. Every word or series of words should illuminate a subject-object relationship (though this is not always the case); every sentence must contribute towards the overall context and message of the paragraph; every paragraph must contribute towards the aims and purposes of the chapter or section in an interrelated way. Every paragraph deals with a different topic referring to the section of the chapter, and builds upon what has been said previously.


It's not a case of adding a sentence or a paragraph and not giving it any further sound, logical thought. Adding a sentence is easy: it’s the act of logically, critically reflecting upon the purpose of every word, sentence and paragraph and comparing against the context of research and the goals and purposes of a section or wider chapter that offers the challenge. But it is these challenges that shape and develop you as a thinker and as a writer.


Where am I now with the chapter?


I’m at the stage in the draft process where I have gone beyond society and culture and now onto discussing Education and learning theories; however, because of the now emergent nature of the chapter, the structure and layout will more than likely change. Therefore, because I say I have gone beyond the discussions of society and culture I do not mean this in an absolute way, never to be returned to. What I mean by this is, I have written enough to be able to progress onto the next section in draft form, with the motivation and willingness to return to the previous sections as and when is deemed necessary. I might have written enough based on my understanding and knowledge of the concepts in relation to the purpose of the chapter within the context of the research, but this does not mean that at any time what I have written reflects the totality of what I might know and understand at any time in the future.


In my more general views, you cannot write what you think you know and understand and pretend that this is the totality of all that you could know about the subject. If you start to think in an absolute way, you begin to miss the point. The point is to continuously challenge and question what you think you know and understand, and have the mind to seek answers to questions, hypotheses, thoughts and ideas that you develop as you progress with your investigations and explorations. As indicated therefore, I accept that what I have currently written about society and culture and what I am currently writing and shall write in the future shall be a continuously changing, emerging set of discussions and debates relevant to the purpose of the chapter, and the context of the research.


It’s an ongoing journey that continues…….and continues…………..and continues………….and continues…………..and continues…………..and continues…………….and continues…………


But that’s the fun of it all!


June 23, 2017

Methodology Chapter: The Beginning!

With thirty eight pages of rough drafted notes on paper consisting of ideas, quotes, paraphrases, references, elaborations of thoughts along with goodness knows what amount of loose notes and ramblings on the hard drive all pertaining to the methodology chapter, the plan was laid out: to transform this mess into something that resembled at least the foundations of a draft of the initial parts of the methodological chapter! Well, that was the plan to begin the day but my inquiring mind had other plans……


“Where do I start?” “From what point do I begin?” “What on Earth did I write there?” “What on Earth did I say there?” “Was I high on Easter eggs when I wrote this?” “What is the meaning of what I wrote here?” “Why is my handwriting so shoddy here?” “Wait! If I get a magnifying glass I’ll be able to read this!” And other relevant statements started to ring out as I began to make sense and classify the unordered pages. After managing to make sense of the mess to some extent without wanting to throw the computer out of the window (even though I had not actually typed anything at this time) I began to stare at the blank page. The friendly black cursor thing flashed again and again, as if it was calling me to place my hands on the keyboard and write pages and pages of draft notes that in the future could be classed as meaningless dribble but that wouldn’t matter! What would matter is I would get raw ideas down and sort everything else out at a later point! Thankfully as I began reading through a couple of pages to remind myself of what I said when I originally wrote the notes, I was inspired to write, and throughout the day the following words echoed in my ears: Continuity! Consistency! Cohesion! Coherence! Honestly I felt like I was being invaded by a party political broadcast on behalf of the Let’s Have Another Coherent Thesis Written Party.


As draft formation began, my thinking became channelled. I reflected on what I was writing more intensely, reflectively, and critically than when I was jotting down lots of notes on paper during reading sessions of literature. I was scrutinising every word, sentence, reference and paragraph. I really questioned the purpose, meaning, positioning and context of each sentence. Is there something missing from I had previously written on paper? Can I say this better? Can I improve this in anyway? What ideas should come before this paragraph? What else should be included in this paragraph? Are there any alternative ways I can express these ideas? Have I correctly analysed the references?


All these questions and more ran through my head as I became more critical and reflective of my ideas, style of writing, style of using language to express my ideas and thoughts, the content and semantics of the ideas and thoughts, and the interpretations and representations of references. Perhaps some people might argue that at draft phase, my thinking and general approach might be too involving and too intense for the purpose of writing draft form chapters, but I disagree. In my opinion it’s important to practice self-criticism and self-reflection during academic writing not to the point where you go completely insane, but to the point where you can come away from whatever amount of words, sentences and paragraphs produced feeling satisfied. I am finding that I am much more critical of my thesis writing and any other academic writing than my blog writing. That doesn’t negate the importance of constructing informative, and (somewhat) entertaining blog posts that is as grammatically as solid as possible, but for me personally a blog environment is a bit more relaxed. In other words, I can write a blog post at about nine or ten in the evening when I am in a more relaxed mode: I cannot do this for the thesis.


As can probably be understood, my mind cannot fixate on the main purpose of a draft form: to simply get ideas down on paper and sort everything out at a later time. I like to edit as I write. I like to write a few sentences or even a few paragraphs at a time if possible, and then stop and reread, and edit. It’s quite surprising what you can observe as you reflect upon your own writing and the meaning of the content being produced. In a sense you are engaged with the simultaneous activities of writing and self-reflecting.


When I wrote the first initial paragraph, and without reading the rough notes any further, I started to form ideas of what I could discuss next, and began forming conceptions of what I could say before the paragraph. This initial paragraph discussed briefly as a starting point about human existence and the essence of existence in enabling the existence of social processes. Having reread the paragraph I realised that I should be talking about the context and placement of human existence; to transcend discussions of human existence from its impact on social processes to the concept of human existence itself, and what it means to exist: social ontology!


I wrote a paragraph on social ontology with suitable references, but I was being drawn into talking more about social ontology before even contemplating further discussions on the way that human existence impacts social processes, and what processes would be investigated to what extent and in what way from an ontological sense. This then lead to rereading papers on social ontology and I was picking up ideas and definitions of aspects of social ontology that I had not previously observed or interpreted before. As I was picking up different interpretations and definitions I was rewriting this same paragraph and I must have reedited it over ten times, perhaps even up to twenty times I actually cannot remember. This is the result of reflecting upon existing ideas, thinking about the new interpretations and definitions, and integrating these new ideas with existing ideas and trying to be as concise about these ideas when writing about them.


By the time I completed rereading the small set of closely relevant social ontological papers I had three pages of notes written as part of the draft, but the only piece of this I am actually happy about at this time is the very first paragraph! All the other sentences and paragraphs across the rest of the draft are ready to be linked together, edited, or discarded in some way in time. Even though I do feel happy with the first paragraph, due to the nature of research and editing there is no guarantee that this paragraph will be relevant in future drafts of the chapter, as ideas and directions do change. But, as it is, it’s the most “complete” part of the chapter. I could have easily wrote ten pages from the notes that I have written on paper without carrying out any further thinking, reflecting, critical analysis of the language used and meaning of the content, and reading, but that’s not the way my mind works.


Whilst I would have been able to say “I wrote ten pages wooooo hoooo what a productive time” that would actually be a meaningless statement. Simply because, it’s more important and beneficial in the long term in my opinion to craft a most cohesive, correct, logical and easily flowing paragraph that best represents current ideas and references whilst acknowledging that the paragraph could very well change drastically or even be dropped in the future, than to produce ten pages of what could effectively be meaningless ramblings most of which would be thrown away.


That’s the way my mind works and when I think about it, my writing sessions will not be based on the number of words or the number of pages I can muster in a single writing sessions: I want to make sure that every word, every sentence and every paragraph is as carefully constructed, is as meaningful, and is as grammatically, syntactically and semantically correct as is possible at the current time of writing. That, to me, is most important.


My advice? Don’t focus too much on quantity and go for quality. Even in just draft form, it is still worth taking the time needed to construct well-crafted paragraphs that expresses what you want to say as effectively as possible. Academic language is not easy to master, but pausing and reflecting on your writing, identifying knowledge and language gaps and really questioning everything that you write and the way you write shall benefit you more in the long run!


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