Doggy Paddle

An elementary swimming stroke in which the swimmer beats at the water with the hands in a manner resembling a swimming dog.

This post is dedicated to my tirelessly supportive and inspiring friend Claire Collison. I’d be lost at sea without you.

Walking along this beach last week I stopped to watch a dog, a goofy golden retriever. The dog was in the shallows, looking towards the shore. She had a tennis ball, which she was trying to pick up in her mouth. But of course, every time she tried, the tennis ball would gently bob off in a different direction. So close, and yet so far to getting out of the shallows, trying her hardest to hold that ball in her mouth, and catch up with her owner.

I’m not a dog person, but good lord, I feel like that dog with my PhD right now.

I was supposed to have submitted my PhD at the end of October, but like many people, life tilted, and I’m now submitting at the end of March. Four months. I managed, thanks to the support of my supervisors and lowering my expectations, to just keep on top of my PhD during lockdown, and when my son finally returned to school in September, I was able to power on with getting another draft of Chapter 4 – the data chapter – written, and write a first draft of Chapter 5 – the findings chapter. My supervisors and I also wrote a book chapter together, which when I think about now, feels like it happened to someone else.

Suddenly it’s November, and I have as of today, 69,491 words written. A PhD is around 80,000 (in my discipline, at least), so I’m close. But like that goofy dog, it’s still exhaustingly out of reach. There is a lot of fine tuning to do, Chapter 6 – the conclusion – to write. Editing, formatting, proofing and pulling together the first full draft. Then responding to my supervisor’s feedback on Chapter 5, and pulling together the final draft. Four months.

And just to make things a wee bit harder, I’m still teaching (online, which is alright), applying for jobs (at least there are some), and writing another book chapter. It’s hard to convey how constantly on the back foot I feel, how constantly worried I am about family, friends and colleagues, the school closing, my students. Actually finishing my PhD.

The clock is counting down now, really counting down. In March the money runs out and the safety net is pulled. I have a six-week schedule which would make an army sergeant cry, it’s so precise. My next submission date is January-sometime, with a Christmas of some kind in between, so it’s going to be heads down until then. The days will be getting longer by then.

My lovely PhD BFF Kristin reminds me again and again that a PhD only has to be good enough, not perfect, and she is of course right. But even ‘good enough’ takes a lot of work and a lot of energy. This PhD exists because of other people’s kindness in telling me their stories, so for them, for those stories, I will push through the tiredness until I can pick up that tennis ball and get out of the shallows.

May Day

For the last year I have had a post it note (I live and die by post it notes), on my desk which says: 29 May: FFD.

This is (my) short-hand for ‘first full draft’, and this date has been my fantasy goal, the magical date on which I would submit a FFD of my PhD to my supervisors, a date I have been counting back from. Today is 29 May, and I do not have an FFD.

When the announcement came that schools would lock down on Friday 20th March, to my shame one of the first things I thought about was that meeting this deadline was now unlikley to happen, and how angry I was, and how disappointed in myself I felt. I spent a number of weeks trying to work out why this was, that in the midst of a global pandemic, with so much terrible stuff happening, why I was fixating on this date, and my feelings about my relationship to it. I am not proud about the answer.

I have written before about being an outsider in my PhD research, so I won’t go into it here again, suffice to say it’s a part of me that will never go away, and I can’t change that identity. But my singular desire right from the start of my PhD was to finish in three years. Partly because I am only funded for three years, but partly because, vainly, I wanted to be that person who did it, that person who defied all the cautionary  tales which float about when you start, that ‘no one finishes a PhD in three years.’ I’m not the brightest student, but I was determined to be the most industrious, and the most organised. I would finish on time.

So, coming back to my pride. Finishing on time was what I wanted to be known for. Not for doing amazing research or having an incredible writing style, because those things still feel very much beyond me.  Smarter people than me will say it’s clearly to deflect away from my discomfort at being an outsider researcher, and to mask my imposter syndrome. I want my research to matter and have integrity and impact (who doesn’t), but more than anything I wanted to beat the system.

Understanding that the longed for date of 29 May was not going to see me submitting the FFD still left me feeling like a failure. A failure for not being able to turn the work around on time, to skillfully balance home schooling and home life. To be clear – my supevisors and my university are, and continue to be, nothing but supportive, and there was never any pressure to keep working under the circumstances. But I still felt like a failure.

Once I eventually accepted that my reduced productivity was due to a global pandemic, and not because I was lazy, and once I slowed down properly (and turned off social media), my reasoning caught up. Because even with a supportive partner and supervisory team, the fact remains that working whilst your child is off school is going to seriously impact on, well, everything. Not just ‘the PhD’, but your whole day, your whole month. And the next month, and the one after that. With no news about a return to school for my son’s year group, this lifestyle is going be around for quite some time, so I need to stop fighting it.

This post isn’t really saying much, and I don’t want to compare how much work I might (or might not) be doing with others, as this is unhelpful, especially between parents. I am also now in the highly fortunate position of a funded 6 month extension, allowing me to work at a more sensible pace. My son and I can now make origami fish, and we’ve swapped Joe Wicks for sea swimming.

I have a feeling my PhD may even be better for this slowing down, because I now have to work in thumbnail sketches, not broader strokes. Rather, it is a small hiccup, a note to my future self, that a change in circumstances is not failing. It just means writing a new post-it note.

 

 

Drought

This post replaces my usual one about progression. We all need to find our feet right now, so I’ll post an update later in April.

The spaces in which we live, work and play are inherently gendered – from our homes to our offices, the changing rooms at the gym, to our mannerisms and ways in which we introduce ourselves, our pronouns, and the clothes we wear. Thinking about the gendering of space is nothing new – feminist geographers and urban theorists have done it for decades, most often in ways which consider the profound consequences for women, such as limiting access to education and healthcare. These consequences, writes  Petra Doan can be understood as the tyranny of gendered spaces, and they intrude into  every aspect of where we live, often constraining the behaviours we display. As I write this during the first week of lock down, sharing a space with my partner and now both home schooling our son, I am intensely aware of how my own behaviour is changing, constrained as it is by the increased number of bodies in the house, and for longer periods. The lines between home, work, and play have become blurred, and all of us are sharing our pockets of private space with each other, in new ways.

I’m in the final stages (at least I hope I still am) of my PhD. I work from home most of the time, partly because I need to be there for the school run, and partly because I prefer a peaceful and quiet environment. My office is our loft, a space that was for years full of boxes of mostly forgotten items: my partner’s band t-shirt collection, photo albums (remember those?), golf clubs and, since 2010, outgrown baby clothes, toys and toddler craft that you can’t quite part with. Before starting my PhD, I had found new homes for these mementos, and turned the loft into my own little paradise. Our loft is light and bright, full of books with a sofa to read on. Some of my favourite objects live there – a soft toy octopus and a piece of green sea glass among them. There are soothing lamps and candles and a bunch of tulips on my desk. The walls are painted the colour of the sky just before it rains, all these sensory delights designed to keep me here, to keep me working on my PhD, you understand.

Those who share their homes, especially those who share them with children, recognise the importance of occasional distance: a corner of the kitchen, the garden, the bath. In this space I am not a mother or a partner or a daughter. I’m Abby, who’s doing a PhD.

Paradise has been temporarily lost since the schools closed. My partner has set up his office on the kitchen table, and I now share my office with my son for the sham we are calling home schooling. This has been the most significant change for me, and one I am grappling with, often not as generously as I would like. It is no longer the quiet, peaceful, tidy retreat it used to be, where things stayed where they were left, and my good pens were safe. There is now an extra table for us to work at together, which I lug to one side each morning so we can, along with the rest of the world, do 30 minutes of PE with Joe Wicks. My printer will never recover from all the worksheets I am pointlessly generating.

His stuff is everywhere. There are pens, Lego, pebbles we’ve collected from the beach on our rationed daily walk to paint on; schoolwork, playing cards, some needlework and crumbs, crumbs, crumbs. There is a big fat envelope from the school containing seven weeks’ worth of home learning, but I spilt coffee on the first sheet on Monday and haven’t looked at it since. My son, like many children has a short attention span and fidgets and prefers Heart FM to the sound of the starlings pattering on the roof when he works. In five short days my workspace has become part playground, part school, part cafe. Gone is the carefully organised desk, because he quickly decided he preferred my desk to his, and my swivel chair is the icing on the home learning cake.  My workspace smells different, it looks different and it’s no longer where just Abby works: now it is where Eddie and Mum work.

I’ve been thinking about space a lot recently, as it features in my own research, and the public/private divide. But I’d been thinking about other users of spaces, rather than my own existence in it. For this reason (and many others) I’d never make a decent ethnographer; I’d rather be invisible. We mistakenly, sometimes, consider our homes to be sanctuaries, retreats from the outside world. Yet they are too often prisons, unhappy and broken places, places so diverse that it’s impossible to say what ‘home life’ is really like for everyone. I spend a great deal of time thinking about those people now trapped in unhappy spaces, with no escape on the horizon, their margins shrinking. I think of homes with no gardens, no outdoor spaces to rely on, now that even the emptiest of playgrounds have been quarantined. I try not to remember how post-natal depression took over the early years of parenthood, when the days stretched relentlessly ahead, and nothing was a joy, when worry about development, stimulation and socialisation became all consuming. What I am trying to remember is that crumbs on my keyboard are insignificant and daily spelling tests don’t matter. But I am grateful when he leaves me to do maths with my partner downstairs.

Staying home and staying safe has now become a public health order, a government directive no less. How we use our homes now that we must remain in them, as a matter of life or death, is undoubtedly going to change how we feel about them. Will be love them more or less? As frustrating as some days are going to be, you can bet I’m going to miss my son doing star jumps next to the piles of books I had planned to read this week.  Sharing my space with my son is an intimate act of necessity, and I am seeing a different side of him, and we’re seeing a lot more of each other than we have since the pre-school years. All the good stuff (the octopus, the swivel chair) is here, and I’m pleased he wants to share it with me, if only for these perks and not because he’s impressed with my home-schooling style.

I’m not one for nostalgia or whimsical thinking. I admire those who are using this time to slow down and see the joy in the smaller details.  Sharing our space even with those we love is a constantly shifting negotiation, and I hope that we can all find a balance over the coming months. But I can’t help but wonder how everyone’s mental health is going to look over the coming months, and if we’ll ever grasp what we’ve all gone through, publically and privately, in the years to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Freestyle

83883321_10156931129487227_4886489712631480320_oFreestyle – using any swimming style or method in a competition.

This post is dedicated to my incredible friend Gemma Dorer, the best swimmer I know. Your continued enthusiasm for my studies means everything; thank you.

It’s 2020.  With a good wind and plain sailing in 9 months’ time I will submit my PhD. I hope so, because I’m running out of swimming/sea related metaphors. I expect you are sick of them too.

I’ve been wondering what to write in this blog, because all of the others have had a very clear purpose. Mostly it’s been me speaking out loud to whoever is bored enough to listen about what my PhD journey has consisted of. From research plans to ethics panels, attending conferences and struggling with methodology. To getting so much spectacularly wrong yet never being happier. What it feels like to teach, present, get published, and how lonely and frustrating it can seem when you just can’t dig your way out of a writing hole. Looking behind me it’s hard to believe that I’ve done so much, when I just hoped I could hold it together, on the surface at least. Never have I appreciated more the support of friends and family, and have so much respect for the students I have been lucky enough to teach. I have a thank you list so long I’ll need to write an extra long dedication at the front of my PhD. Not for the first time am I thinking about Kristin and Gemma when I say this.

So here’s a mini update, because even though things feel quite calm at the moment, it won’t be like that for long, and suddenly it will be July and my son will be off school, and I’ll be having a meltdown about the amount I still have to do. There is no getting away from the sheer slog ahead as this final year progresses. As liberating as free styling is, there’s no escaping the coal face, or as my friend Kristin calls it, writing jail.

My last post talked about how excited I was to start writing the first draft of my findings chapter, and this is what I have been doing since October (as well as teaching, conferencing, and co-authoring a book chapter). I am so incredibly lucky to have the amount of data that I have (around 100,000 words), but it’s been a bittersweet task working out exactly what I want to include. Because you can’t include it all (that’s what all the constant shifting through the data and the coding/analysis stage is for), though of course you want to. But what I was able to do was make a start at getting the words into one place, and making what Braun and Clarke call ‘theme piles’, finding a structure for the chapter and working out the key themes. Giving it a wobbly, fuzzy body.

Listening back to the voices of the people I spoke with I was reminded of how important and necessary it is to centre their voices. I still find it very emotional to hear some of their stories, but often for unexpected reasons. The joy expressed by many when talking about participation in sport is incredibly moving. The importance of community and teammates and the sheer pleasure of just moving one’s body. Of occupying a space with carefree abandon. Stories common for everybody, yes, but especially for trans and non-binary folk who often need to negotiate bodies, spaces and communities differently. These are the stories which need to be shouted about when we talk about participation, as well as the topics of inclusion, and barriers.

In many ways this chapter has written itself, and being able to freestyle along with it has been exhilarating. But like all of life’s pleasures, you have to work before you can party. Feedback on my chapter was fair and solid – it’s as good a start as any when it’s 25,000 words long, most of which is data – but there is much to be done. I need to go back to my analysis and explain it more clearly. I need to think carefully about why I’ve chosen to write about a particular thing. As always, does it answer the research question? In my enthusiasm for getting going on this chapter I have discovered that I haven’t actually written a proper account of my data coding and analysis processes – and this explanation is key if I want to justify my choice of themes.  So back to reading and filling in the gaps. I need to dismantle the little wobbly, fuzzy body and sharpen it up. My methods chapter needs a spring clean.

I also realised whilst writing the findings chapter some of the theory I’m using isn’t quite cutting it, so I need to rethink my literature review. A year ago, that sentence would make me cry, because of the work involved, not to mention the intellectual stretch. At this stage I feel excited that I spotted it, and that I can do something about it, and that it’s going to make things so much clearer – more spring cleaning.  Who knows, maybe I’ll even finally understand what epistemology and ontology are.

As always, a tip. I have always found looking at other people’s PhD’s as road maps really helpful. Even a contents page can reveal the order you were looking for when trying to structure your own chapters. So, use the resources you have, and look for clues, to help make the fuzzy clear.

I’ll be back in May with an update on the first full draft, as well as what it feels like to co-author a book chapter with your supervisors.

Thalassophile

Thalassophile: someone who loves the sea.

I love the sea, and swimming, and most things to do with being in or near water. Much like doing a PhD, there are rough days and smooth days, days when the sea looks spectacularly and fascinatingly navigable, others not so much. I’ve never wanted live anywhere else, I’ve never been anything but grateful for living where I live, and again, much like the PhD, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. As the seasons change and I settle down to write my next and final chapter, I’m both excited and sad that being at this stage means being nearer the end than the beginning. But we’re not on dry land yet.

Somehow, I am in my third and final year, the year the money runs out, also known as the Year of the Viva. I wasn’t off much in the summer, and as usual I wrote and studied around the edges of my son’s days (like I am now, in a trampoline park), on play dates, in soft play centres and at home whilst he watched TV. Everyone I know who studies does this, more so when you have other responsibilities, be they kids or work or self-care.

Working between the gaps of the summer meant I was able to get one piece published with The Politics of Representation and another with the journal Androgyny, which is my very first academic piece (meaning peer reviewed). You can read them here. Both came about after meeting people at conferences who thought my work might have a place with them – another reason to go to conferences and present is this one, you just never know. I also had a publisher approach me about a monograph (too soon for me, but nice to be asked), and another paper rejected. Don’t worry if different opportunities come at different times. Everything is a potential, everything you do helps.

This year is all about writing my findings chapter and improving my first two chapters (the lit review and the methodology chapter), with the aim to have a first full draft of the PhD ready for my supervisors to read in May 2020. So, the first thing I did in September was meet with my supervisors to plot a timeline and work out how to achieve this. We decided to pare back everything I’ve been doing, so asides from a little bit of teaching this semester (which I love), and a couple of conferences, all eyes are on the PhD. It feels rather luxurious to have a schedule with nothing but ‘PhD’ written on it.

As I become more immersed in each stage of this chapter I will write more, but before you can write about your findings, you have to analyse your data. The first thing I did was re-listen to all my transcripts, and then re-read them again. This iterative process was essential for me, mostly because it had been over a year since I had conducted the interviews, and refamiliarizing myself was a very necessary activity. My old field notes helped me to remember how I had felt, the weather, the location, all of which are really important for me when I think about my reflexivity. I then started coding my data: I did this by going through the paper copies of the transcripts and highlighting words that jumped out, which at this stage was rather a lot. I then put all this information into a spreadsheet, giving me something that looked a bit like this:

Participant Age Gender Sport Codes
A 25 Non-binary Rugby Family, changing rooms, school.
B 47 Trans-woman Cycling Role models, policies, clothing

After completing that spreadsheet, I was then able to put all of these different themes into what Braun and Clarke call ‘theme piles.’ What I’m doing here, of course, is thematic analysis – and I found their article fundamental to helping me to follow the steps of using thematic analysis in qualitative research. Now that I have my theme piles, I am beginning to draw up a picture of what it is my findings are saying. I also – very unlike me to get creative – used a big piece of paper and created a sort of weird spider diagram/mind map, and I found it surprisingly helpful to see the themes in one place.  But that’s not everything, of course, and what I have done here is an incredibly simplistic, watered down version of what data analysis is. And I probably haven’t finished. And it might be a bit wrong, but it’s a start. You may do this differently, and don’t forget you’ll be reading relevant texts and articles to help you decide the best analysis tool for you.

What should also be happening alongside this process is remembering what your research question is, and what the questions are you wanted to answer, and what was in the literature review.  As my lead supervisor Dr Hannah Frith said – check to see if any of these themes help to answer your research question, because if they don’t, they have no place here.

And here’s where reading other people’s PhD’s is really helpful – or particular bits of people’s PhD’s, so that you can get a sense of what the findings chapter sort of looks like. For me, at this stage, I’m working on describing my themes and thinking about what bigger key theme pile they belong to (and if they answer my question). Pat Thomson offers some fantastic advice here. I have no idea yet about the chapter structure, this will come I believe with the writing. Will I present all of my findings and then discuss them, or will I combine them in a chapter which includes a wider theoretical discussion of the issues. What will I conclude? Where will I conclude it?

One thing I do know is that I am keener than ever to get writing, because this chapter is going to bring everything together and hopefully offer some meaningful, surprising and helpful recommendations about what it means for trans and non-binary people to participate in everyday sport and physical exercise. And that is why I love this research so much, for the spectacular and fascinating stories I will be able to share with you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Published Pieces

The Conversation, March 2019

‘Hostility to elite trans athletes is having a negative impact on participation in everyday sport’

This article would not exist were it not for the generosity of the people who spoke to me about their experiences. Thank you, you know who you are.

http://theconversation.com/hostility-to-elite-trans-athletes-is-having-a-negative-impact-on-participation-in-everyday-sport-113296?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=twitterbutton … via @ConversationUK

The Politics of Representation Collective, August 2019

‘The Embodied Researcher & the Disembodied Participant: Navigating Telephone Interviews with Trans &/or Non-Binary People’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coasteering, Part 2.

Publishing, conferencing and secondary APR’ing.

My last post was a bit of a bummer, but it needed to be said that writing is hard, and that making time for space and reflection is even harder. We promise ourselves a daily walk, a few hours to read those slightly oblique papers that will enrich our perspective, and catch up on the even more enriching work that’s happening outside of academia, but we don’t always manage it. Time bends when you do a PhD, and there are always more roads to navigate. I think the picture above, from a card given to me by my eternally patient friend Gemma, sums up my feeling like a little truck, trundling through the big, beautiful waves, always moving.

Let’s start with some good news. In March I was off the scale thrilled to have something published in The Conversation. My very first piece in fact, and an exercise I would really recommend PhD students try. You can find out more about The Conversation and what they do here, and my piece is here. I was fortunate that my university arranged some meet the editor sessions, so I popped along. It works by you pitching an idea for a piece, and if it gets accepted, you are invited to write the whole piece (around 800 words), and then you go back and forth with an editor ironing out any kinks. The whole thing took about three weeks from start to finish, but this varies hugely depending on the topic. My original pitch in December was rejected, but then the topic gained huge media interest so there was an element of right place, right time.

Having this piece published was significant for two reasons: at a time of increasing media hostility towards transgender and/or non-binary people in sport (and other areas), it felt good (and felt important), to offer an alternative perspective, one which centred the experiences of transgender people. As a trans-inclusive feminist, doing this is at the core of my personal and political position. Secondly it was a good confidence booster. My last post has already touched on how I  have been struggling, and seeing a real piece of my work in the wild went a long way to calming my anxiety.

This is not to say it’s magically disappeared. My secondary Annual Progression Review was on the horizon. But what happens in a secondary APR? What is expected of you? Does anyone ever survive? The short version is that yes, you do survive, but make no mistake – the focus is more intense. Your primary APR (see ‘Negative Splits Part 2, August 2018), focuses on your general progression. Hopefully you will have completed your ethics and written a solid literature review. Maybe you’ve collected some data and presented at a conference. In your second APR you need to have written a lot more. At least 25 – 30,000 words, most usually your methodology and methods chapter and perhaps a revision of your literature review. An update of what you have done (for example teaching) and any tweaks to your research plan.

My APR took place on Monday 24th June in what turned out to be the busiest week of my year.  That same week I was due at two conferences on opposite sides of the country, but more about those later. As before, my APR readers were relaxed and informal and did everything to calm my shaky voice and twitching hands. One of my supervisors was there again to take notes and provide silent support.

Some people ‘revise’ for an APR, they memorise chunks of text and have a 5-minute presentation ready to role out in their head. Great ideas, and although I had revisited key bits of my theory and argument, I knew that I would have no answers for the stuff I was still weak on – my ontological and epistemological position – so figured faking it would only blow up in my face. So I was prepared, but not word-perfect. Don’t worry, I will be for the Viva.

As it happens, my literature review was barely discussed, though my readers were complimentary. But they did discuss the nitty gritty of my methodology chapter. Remember I did that painful personal narrative? They spent a lot of time talking about that, and the importance of striking a balance as a researcher, and as commendable as it is to have clear convictions (as a trans-inclusive feminist), I need to remember my other commitment is as a social scientist, one who produces balanced, unbiased research. They also discussed the weaknesses in my writing, exactly what I knew they would do, but thanks to having re-written that chapter 4 times, it didn’t come as a surprise. I was ready for their suggestions. They encouraged me to just read a bit more, think a bit deeper and get to the point faster. I managed to neither throw up or cry and held my own when they asked questions about my choice of theories and the omission of citing Judith Butler. It had taken me a long time to justify and explain clearly my use of feminist standpoint and queer theory together in relation to my research, so I was pleased with where I had got to. As for Butler, she simply hadn’t written anything relevant that others weren’t saying more currently, and at times, with more significance. Sometimes, our choices aren’t very complicated.

The whole thing was over in an hour, and I was given the go ahead to progress. My readers also offered me some advice on what to try and achieve in my third and final year in order to be employable – finishing on time and getting published are for me the gold standard here, so if you take anything useful away from this, that’s it. Think about what you need in that last year, what offers you the most currency, and be realistic. Where do you see yourself after the PhD? Lastly, the thing which one of my supervisors is constantly bemused by, is my total lack of confidence and faith in my academic ability. My supervisor worries, quite rightly, that it will hold me back. I don’t know what to tell you about this, only that I’m working on it, or at least working on keeping my mouth shut when I feel an apology coming on. So when (if) you are feeling like this, remember I do too.

A quick note before I go on conferences. Due to commitments I have to choose very carefully what I go to but I was lucky enough to have a paper accepted for three conferences: the Gender in Education Association which took place at the University of Plymouth, a symposium on The Embodied Researcher in Sport at the University of Canterbury organised by Dr Amy Clark, and POWES at Cumberland Lodge in Windsor. I am lucky to receive a bursary to cover these events, so I really wanted to maximise my time there. It’s a great chance to showcase your research and get feedback from more experienced people, and my presentation at the GEA resulted in being asked by the Sociological Review to write a short piece about an aspect of my methodology (see, it’s not all doom and gloom, and it’s due out this month!). I was also asked by someone at the POWES conference to write a position piece on another aspect of my research (similar to The Conversation piece), so I’m working on that right now.

And because publishing opportunities are clearly like buses, I have also submitted an abstract for a special edition journal to co-author a piece with my supervisors. Those last two are peer reviewed – the holy grail of publishing – so if I pull those off then I’ll be heading into my Viva with a hopefully less shaky voice and twitchy hands. Though I doubt it.

I’ll be back in September with my to-do list, which is going to be all about data analysis, and an update on the publishing process.

Coasteering, Part 1

Coasteering: the sport of climbing and swimming around a rocky part of a coast.

Or: trying to work your way along the coast by any means necessary.

My last post, written two hundred in years ago in March, was a happy, sparkly post, full of fist pumps and not giving up. ‘You can do it’ I chirped. ‘This is a lesson in remembering that this stuff takes work, lots and lots of work’, I optimistically told myself before falling headfirst off a cliff into my own positive attitude.

You see at that point I thought all I needed to do for my secondary APR* in June would be to tidy up my methodology chapter for the third time, strengthen my argument and send it back to my supervisors in a nice big bow, done and dusted. I could then revise my literature review, submit my paperwork and sprint for the finish line.

Only my tired old-lady brain had other ideas. In April I hit a wall of confusion. I couldn’t seem to grasp anything anymore, the chapter turned to dust in my hands. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand what I needed to do; I just couldn’t seem to do it. The more I wrote, the worse it got. It was like that story of the magic porridge pot, too many words everywhere, nowhere for them to go.  I felt oddly out of control and lost. I had let go of the reader’s hand miles ago and they had sensibly gone home.

I submitted what I had done to my supervisors, with the usual accompanying list of apologies, pointing out my errors and intentions to do better. The feedback wasn’t good. I had taken something in a decent-ish shape and trampled all over it. They advised me to restructure it and submit it again in a week: a sensible piece of advice but one which threw me into deep, deep panic. I don’t cope with changing deadlines very well, because I plan my work carefully for one big non-negotiable reason: the school holidays. By this point we were in April, and said school holidays and two significant birthdays were all on the horizon. That was a very hard week and involved a lot of crying and working around the clock. It wasn’t comfortable.

On hindsight, I needed a break from this chapter – I hadn’t had one since January – time to read, reflect and then edit again. But when you have caring responsibilities and non-negotiable commitments, time to reflect is hard to find. There is often no other time to push your work into, you are paddling so fast around those rocky coast lines that before you know it, you’re drowning. For the first time since starting the PhD, my self-confidence crashed, and my resiliance crumbled.

It’s times like these the support system you have kicks in. My PhD BFF is Kristin O’Donnell, and without her, I would have gone under. She talked me down, let me go over every single anxiety in tiny, tiny detail, and reminded me that I could do this. And if things weren’t perfect, so what? And as with all jobs, the next day in the office is never as bad as we imagine it might be, and slowly, bit by bit, I managed to get the porridge back into the pot and close the lid.

When the deadline came around, I had managed to restructure the fourth version of my methodology chapter and revise my literature review. They are still not perfect – they will never, ever be perfect – but as Kristin often tells me, they just need to be good enough. Afterall, a PhD is a training programme for what comes next.

I try to end these posts on a good point. On the bright side maybe I’m a little less naïve now than the last post (sink or swim, right?), but my faith in establishing a support network remains. Doing a PhD is hard on multiple levels, at multiple times, and I still have a long way to go. I couldn’t do it without the support network I have, but at least, for now, my methodology chapter is ok. For now, I’m still here.

The next post – coming very soon – will spill the beans on what a secondary progression review feels like (so was the methodology chapter really ok?), the value of conferences, and the thrill of (almost) being published.

 

* The aim of the Secondary APR is to assess your progress towards completion. It takes place in your second year if you are full-time, and around 30,000 words (around 2 chapters) is required. It is the same as a primary APR in format, but more challenging.

Swim Down

– a swimming term to  describe swimming slowly and steadily at the end of the session to warm down.

This post is dedicated to Kristin O’Donnell, Willem J Stander and Claire Warrington: thank you: your support means everything.

No doubt you have been pacing the floors, wondering how my latest supervisory meeting went, and what the feedback was on my methodology chapter?

Well, I have good news. Overall, the second draft was (ahem), ‘a joy to read, and the writing is, in places, at PhD standard.’ There is still much work to do, because there always is with a PhD, but that’s better, isn’t it? I think so. Turns out all that fucking up might have helped after all.

Now, this is not intended to be a boast – I am a doormat, don’t forget. Rather, it is a lesson in remembering that this stuff takes work. Lots and lots of work. And reading, rewriting and restructuring. No one is a natural at this stuff, no one gets it the first time. Or the second, third or even tenth time. Sometimes it feels like you will never get it. And if you are feeling lost, worried, frustrated, flailing in the dark, I promise you this: me too.

One of the hardest things about a PhD is that you are told over and over the importance of pulling all of your threads together, so that your research all connects. My first supervisor, Prof Katherine Johnson explained it beautifully.  She said:

‘It’s like you take the reader by the hand at the beginning, and you don’t let go. Your job as writer is to keep hold of their hand, and tell them your story’.

This is so hard when you don’t yet know your story from start to finish. It can feel like you are doing things in the wrong order and in isolation. It’s true that a PhD is like a jigsaw puzzle; you do bits of it here and there, not always being able to see the final picture until it’s nearly done.

So my advice is: don’t give up. It’s not deeply profound, or original, and you will want to give up some days. Be kind to yourself on those days, do a small piece of the puzzle, read the back of the box, look at the picture again to remind yourself of what is still to come.

You can do it.

Coming next:

Getting ready for my secondary progresssion review: presenting, publishing and final year plans.

 

 

 

On Water Quality

The condition of water with respect to the amount of impurities in it.

Or: Cleaning up your mess.

Surprise! I am still talking about the methodology and methods chapter. Or rather, this entry offers an update on writing the second draft of this chapter after I’d met with my supervisors to discuss my first draft. Don’t worry, though, I’m not going to drone on about the personal narrative again, as that ship has sailed (see blog entry ‘Epilimnion’)

As usual an apology, for still writing about this chapter. It’s because it’s a pretty big deal and a tough nut to crack, as a wiser colleague said. My focus this year is to have 30,000 words written to a good standard, in time for my secondary progression review which will happen in June, so just getting it to any standard takes work.

At the time of writing I have recently submitted a redraft of this chapter, and what a difference that redrafting made. Prior to feedback, I felt like I had a reasonable handle on what a methodology chapter is, or should be – it’s just the nuts and bolts, right? What I did, why and how? Remember, I had MADE A LIST, and making lists is what I am good at. Looking back at the list, well, it wasn’t too far off the mark. I meant well, but I really did speak too soon about ‘getting’ some of the harder stuff.

Boy was I wrong in this first chapter. Like, off the scale wrong. I joke about being wrong all the time: we doormats wear our wrongness openly, and I’ve had a life time of practice. I can even appreciate why being wrong is important, but I was underprepared for the massive error I was about to have gently explained to me.

So, what did I do? Well, my supervisors’ initial comment about my chaper was that they couldn’t hear me, that my voice was hard to find amongst all the nuts and bolts. That overall it wasn’t a very confident chapter No problem – we’ve tackled that with the personal narrative, right?

But here comes the humdinger of a mistake, and I feel it’s important to confess this because, well, what’s the point of doing a PhD if you can’t learn from your mistakes?

I fucked up the theory. I had been trying to take the best aspects of one particular theory (let’s call it feminist standpoint theory, because, well, it was), and make it work for my chapter. But really, I had no idea what ‘making it work’ means or what such an application would even look like. I had spent some time looking back at one of my masters’ essays on concept notes and felt that feminist standpoint theory, if tweaked and combined with queer theory could offer a new perspective on how we think about sport and bodies. After all, bodies are a pretty big deal across all of these areas.

What I had failed to grasp was how polar opposite these theories are to each other, and I had cherry picked the relevant aspects from both, without really thinking on how their differences (and similarities) were significant. Or even explained why I had done this.  I was so excited about feeling I had ‘got’ theory finally! It was my epistemological position! I knew where it belonged in the chapter! All I needed to do was write about social constructionism – my ontological position – and I had solved the puzzle! No matter that the chapter now looked like it had landed from space. Outer fucking space no less.

It gets worse. Early feminist standpoint theory takes a gender essentialist approach – and this could not be in more direct conflict with my position as a trans-inclusive feminist. Even worse still was that I had argued against gender essentialism in my masters’ dissertation, yet here I was claiming that feminist standpoint theory had a place in this chapter. Let’s not even discuss the issues that bringing social constructionism to the table then added. I think the term ‘outdated’ was mentioned.

My supervisors are kind and patient people. They diplomatically informed me that the reason I was struggling to get this chapter to make sense was not because I hadn’t understood these conflicting theories (oh but I had), but was because, well, they conflicted with each other. But I knew the real problem. It was that I had not fully understood either of them.

My first reaction was to strip it all out and start again, and only focus on the significance of queer theory for my methodology. But then my lead supervisor advised me that this might be a good time to explore this further, and see what develops, and perhaps read some more current literature. Something less oudated. She said three more things which I think are worth remembering, and which have liberated me from feeling it was all a wasted word count.

  1. Being a feminist doesn’t mean that you are ‘doing’ feminist research. So, stop worrying about ‘making’ it feminist.
  2. You don’t have to ‘be’ a queer theorist to write about queer theory.
  3. Just write. Write anything. Write that you think there is a connection between feminist standpoint theory, queer theory, sport and bodies. Tidy it up later.

Really what she was saying was to relax, don’t worry, fucking up is important. And speaking loudly from the heart is quite important, too.

I have two post it notes on my desk, both of which have sat there since I started the PhD. One says ‘don’t give up’ and the other says ‘keep reading’. I know this seems obvious, but I often forget how important reading frequently is. I know I’m guilty of resting on my master’s reading a bit and kid myself that I am too time-poor to set aside dedicated reading days. But really knowing your field is essential, and you have to squeeze the literature available and learn from it (and don’t be afraid to be critical, too, in a constructive way!).

My next supervisory meeting is later this week, to discuss if this latest draft has improved, but I’m hopeful it’s at the very least one step up from the last one. The important thing is to remember that mistakes can be learned from, and there is always something else out there to read, to help you make sense of it all.

Keep speaking up, and keep fucking up.

This post is dedicated to Meg-John Barker and Jules Scheele’s book Queer: A Graphic History: thank you. You helped a confused student find a path through the theoretical darkness.

 

Epilimnion

Epilimnion is the name given to the uppermost layer of water, which can be a startlingly different temperature to the one just below.

– or, why going deep when writing a personal narrative feels unsettling.

Remember I promised that I would write an update, talking about how my last supervisory meeting went, the one with feedback on my methodology chapter? It’s coming, but there’s something I really need to get off my chest first.

Why have I found writing a personal narrative so hard? What is it about the necessity of including ‘me’ in the research, surely this is just navel-gazing? I mean – who cares what I have to say? I really don’t need to bore the reader with my deep and meaningful connection to my research, do I? Well, yes, and no. As always, it takes me a while to understand the purpose of each part of the PhD, and my default usually involves ripping it up and starting again.

So let’s start again. What is a personal narrative, you ask? It sounds quite nice, easy even! Well, it’s not, especially if, like me, you are a self-identified doormat, and talking about yourself, no matter how necessary, makes you feel uncomfortable. Afterall – I’m doing a PhD, but it’s not actually about me, right? Wrong. Because it so happens that the range of influences shaping your research, including your own, have value. I had monumentally failed to appreciate or understand this until writing my own personal narrative.

Let’s start with what it actually is. In relation to a PhD, the personal narrative (or reflective piece to give it it’s posh name) is a short section which you include in your methodology chapter. It’s a requirement (in the social sciences at least), so no avoiding it.

Its purpose is to ‘locate’ the reader within the research. That is, when the examiner reads your PhD, they can see how your personal and professional life may have influenced your work. Your politics, ethics, beliefs, objectives, and also your credentials. Why is a qualitative research design the best one for my research? Why interviews, why sport, why trans and non binary people?

Seems ok? Here’s the bit that I struggle with. ‘The narrative’, writes my guiding light Pat Thomson, enacts the (epistemological) position that no research is neutral and all research is written from somewhere, and where matters’.

No research is neutral.

You see, I have been trying to be invisible in my research, neutral, impassive, wanting the stories I have been hearing to be centre stage. Because I am, no question about it, an outsider researcher. I do not identify as the community I am lucky enough to be talking to. This has historically made me feel very uncomfortable. But why? Reading around on the subject has offered me the alternative notion that being on the inside is no guarantee you are better qualified. Or have the same monolithic shared experience as others who occupy the same position. As a mother I can attest to the fact that I most certainly did not feel the same as other mothers about many, many things, often to my detriment. My ‘mother’ status at times in fact isolated me. So perhaps what is meant by this is that thinking about one’s location helps us to identify blind spots, and to operationalize reflexivity. It highlights the inseparability of epistemology, ontology and research practice. Or in other words, reflexive research is often said to look back on itself (Gilbert, 2008).

Pat Thomson advises that the personal narrative is intended to show how the research question arises from the personal life or professional work experience of the researcher. I have struggled with finding a connection, and been anxious that I wasn’t – and I cringe at these words – oppressed enough. Nor do I have a professional connection. I’m researching transgender people’s participation in sport, but I don’t identify as trans. And asides from an unhealthy obsession with swimming, I couldn’t locate my reason for doing this research, I have nothing to draw on from my own experience, professionally or personally.

So what did I do to get through what still feels like quite a self-indulgent process? Saying it out loud helped. Reading a lot helped even more. Then finally I sat and I wrote about everything I could think of that may have influenced my research. I wrote about swimming, and my Dad dying, about post-natal depression and feeling a failure as a mother. I wrote about school and university and work-place bullying. I wrote about doing a Masters and how it changed my life.

Then I deleted it all and stopped trying to write what I thought other people wanted to hear. I stopped trying to find ‘the big reason’ as to why I was doing this PhD and this particular topic and wrote from the heart. I can’t say I was surprised when I realised what had been bothering me, I already had a feeling what had triggered it, but I think I had been avoiding this particular thing being the reason for my discomfort. But being uncomfortable is important. Because it’s truthful.

As Pat Thomson tells us, understanding the reasons for writing a personal narrative are crucial, because what we decide to include and exclude are crucial. And as Mark Erickson once told me, every choice we make is a dismissal of something else.

So be prepared to swim a bit deeper, feel a little bit uncomfortable, and locate yourself in the research. It is your research, after all.