Friday, 10 July 2015

Post 55: The Value of Reading Others' Theses

So I'm in the fourth of five chapters of my thesis now, and I've just spent an hour going through my supervisor's previous student's thesis. SO VALUABLE! It's not the first time I've gone to others' theses as guides or models for what I would be writing next, but it's been so useful to return to these documents at various stages of the writing, and to get an idea of what I'm aiming for.

The thesis, a comparative case study of two remote mountainous parks, Mount Robson Provincial Park and the Willmore Wilderness Park and their corresponding management challenges in the face of landscape change, is well-written, is engaging, and does a really good job of bringing all of their research together (I'm talking about you, Jenna!). It's also filled with a wonderful array of photo pairs from historical landscape surveys that the Mountain Legacy Project specializes in, and their contemporary repeats that field crews with MLP undertake (and of which I was a part in 2012).

Our beautiful West Coast, from a beach walk earlier this spring!
In a monograph style thesis, each of the chapters functions very differently from the others, and I find in incredibly useful to see how the words and text align and are shaped in these different sections. And, by seeing work from previous master's students, it's possible to see what a completed thesis looks like under a certain professor. I have read through a few different theses, and the diversity of form is actually impressive. Undoubtedly there are similarities, but how various people take creative license to present different chapters, or their analysis information, or how they discuss their methods and methodologies—each of these can be quite different.

Another thesis I've been returning to is Ryan Hilperts,' also qualitative research on the Elwha River Dam Removal project in the Olympic Mountain Range of the state of Washington, USA. Her writing is particularly great, and I love the introductions and overviews she gives her chapters at the beginning, oftentimes with really great epigraphs at their beginnings as well, like this one, from John Mannon:

                "Social research is both a process and a product. Presumably, one informs the 
                 other...[and] the relationship between words and worlds is anything but easy 
                                                                    or transparent."

Ryan was the professor for the class I TAed this spring, and it was great to work with her in that capacity as well, and meet with her to ask about various aspects of qualitative research generally, too. I think it is so valuable to have that inter-graduate-generational learning happening, that I am almost sad our department doesn't have more near-finished grads/PhDs to speak with on a more regular basis.

Sometimes when I'm struggling for the right word choice, or the right set-up, it's so nice to be able to go see how someone else positioned their work, or set up their paragraph. This begins Ryan's Findings chapter: "This research was not a latitudinal or exhaustive study of all the perspectives in Port Angeles on the issue of community engagement. As such, in my findings and analysis, it is not my intention to categorize informants into “camps” of conceptual agreement." And my first thought is "Great start," and then I can constructively think about what my own limitations are, and what perspectives I do have, too.

It's hard not to have a great day's work when these guys are outside the window, giving the bushes a haircut.
There were four of them last week! This is life at the GSS!
One of the writing tips I've retained from early in the writing process is to read the folks whose writing you want to emulate, and for me that included early on Hugh Gusterson's “Nuclear rites: A weapons laboratory at the end of the cold war,” and now it's been great to go to other folks' theses, which are also much closer to the document I'm trying to write. It's also a great reminder that I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel with this document. :)

We can all use writing prompts and tips in different ways, and from one colleague who leaves her laptop alone and spends her time in a creative mess of papers, to me lugging mine to campus and back each day, unable to leave it alone for a day, we all find our own ways through making sense of our data, and learning how to write about it.

A couple of wise words of advice from Joan Bolker's "Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day," too, on prioritizing the time to write:

"Engage those who care about you, and thus, about your finishing this project, on the side of your being ruthless. For example, if you are already teaching, ask your chair to remind you not to take on any extra committee assignments' ask your parent (real or imagined) to give you permission to have a messy apartment (or to come and mow the lawn). Ask your friends to remind you that when someone asks for a chunk of your time, you are free to say no immediately; if you're tempted to answer yes, though, learn to say instead, "I'll have to think about it and get back to you." And then do think about it, hard, and then think about how much you want and need to finish your dissertation. The only reason for saying yes to others' requests for your time is that there is an overwhelming reason for doing so" (pg. 87).

It's very helpful to go back to these texts and remind myself about the conditions I need to successfully write and finish up drafts. All very good at this point.

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