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.


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