A Better Approach

So far, one of the most frustrating aspects of my PhD ‘journey’ has been finding the methodology that best fits what I actually want to learn/explore/discover… even deciding on which of those words (among many more) is part of the process!

Before I started my PhD, I had not done much academic social science research.  I did history research for my undergrad degree, a small project in my Masters, and a semester-long graduate certificate in Educational Research immediately before starting the PhD.  This certificate was my first real taste of the sort of research I would be doing for the PhD, but given the time constraints, I completed an extended literature review rather than involving any participants.  It didn’t feel like ‘real’ research.  In short, I quickly felt like I was in over my head with the PhD.  The topics of my research weren’t unfamiliar, but anything to do with methodology or frameworks definitely was.

For the first six months, my supervisor had me “hike through the Methodology Mountains” to explore the area and start to make some decisions about the direction I wanted to go in.  It’s not so much that I would get lost… more that I would wander down lots of different trails and get distracted.  There were lots of “ooo look at this” and “no, no, no” moments where I tried to work out what my research would look like through different methods.  Once, early on, I wandered into a landslide after a miscommunication, but luckily I made it out alive!  Eventually, this process became more frustrating than helpful.  It was all very interesting, but I didn’t feel like I was making progress, so I was called back to base camp to report on my decisions.

I thought I had it.  This was My Plan.  Great, off I go… through a series of six more changes in methods/ analysis.  Each change was an evolution of the last and brought me closer to the research I want to do, but each change was also incredibly frustrating.  Hours of reading and writing were no longer “useful.”  Chunks of texts were deleted.  Each change felt like I was getting knocked back to the beginning.  This, coupled with a delay in getting all my ethics approvals, became quite stressful.

But then things started clicking.  First, I came across this post (https://patthomson.net/2017/06/26/three-things-examiners-look-for-in-methods-chapters/ ) which helped to explain that getting your PhD is a bit like getting a license to do your own research- so you need to understand different methodologies before you’re allowed to do future research.  Makes sense.  Second, I attended a seminar where the presenter explained that many methods are autobiographical, that we are drawn to the ones we have experience with, and that our identities as researchers can come to light through our choices.  Reflecting back on the methods I had considered earlier versus the ones I am currently undertaking, that rings very true.  The presenter also commented that the PhD is something of a safe space to try out different methods, which linked up with the blog post I had read.  So, all the reading and thinking about other methods seemed like slightly less of a waste of time (still a bit frustrating…) and more like what I was meant to be doing.  It has certainly given me a much better understanding of the wide variety of options out there and has allowed me to draw on a variety of different ideas of how to approach my research.  More importantly, and practically, in the short term, it has given me more confidence that the methods I have chosen best suit my goals and developing skill sets.

Coming to the PhD, I had a perception of it as a pinnacle of sorts where you need to Know What You’re Doing and have expertise in what you’re aiming to do.  Now, I’m starting to see that this is back-to front.  At the end you become the expert in your particular area through your particular set of methods, you don’t start as an expert.  Back to the license analogy- I had some experience and understanding of how to drive a car before I attended my first formal driving lesson, but I definitely shouldn’t have been let loose on the roads alone.  So for the PhD, sure I came to it with some content knowledge and a general sense of how to conduct research, but I definitely wasn’t ready to go out into the field yet.  While most of my earlier ideas on methods would have been viable options, they would not have helped me to gather the kind of data I really wanted or allowed me to tell its story the way I really wanted.  Each progression brought a better approach- both to my research and to my understanding of working on a PhD.

Talking the Talk

“Words, words, words” –Hamlet

In case you didn’t notice, there were a lot of words in the last post and if you’ve met me, there are usually a lot of words.  However, in this transition/ journey/ adventure words are proving to be a trickier- and consistent- issue.

We’ve probably realised that there are different vocabularies, different tones, different grammars that are expected in different context and with different people.  It can take some time to ‘read the room’ to determine the right tone.  Learning the new lingo requires work and a deliberate choice over and over again.  And, we’ve probably all misstepped from time to time, especially when we’re expected to figure it out on our own.

Getting a hold on things

Stepping into Academia has meant stepping into a number of new contexts, each requiring their own set of linguistic stylings.  There are different codes and expectations for each- from writing proposals, journal articles, abstracts, chapters of the thesis (blog entries) to speaking to new people like fellow grad students, supervisors, professors and professionals… then multiply that by the variety of contexts you might need to talk to those people in!  Examples of text types are useful- looking through examples of other written texts are fairly straightforward and listening to others in the room are good ways to start, but there are many exceptions to the rules and unwritten rules that should not be broken.  Across all of that, it is important to have your own voice- to be recognisably you.  I think the trick to be recognisably you is needing to have confidence in your voice, both written and spoken- however, having confidence in yourself and your voice as a PhD student and emerging academic, is a work in progress.  Fake it ‘til you make it, right?

For me, faking it in writing is easier than out loud, even though it means any missteps are then permanently recorded.  No one can see how many revisions you made, which words/ acronyms(!!!) you had to keep looking up, or how long it took to craft your ideas.  But, one of the problems with writing is, as a solitary exercise, there is no one to double-check connotations with or clarify the unwritten rules.  I keep getting caught up with the words: research/ paper/ project/ PhD.  These are all normal English words but they all mean slightly different things and for some reason, I keep not using them properly for Academia.  So then speaking, particularly when you’re feeling like The New Kid, feels like one of the easiest ways to be found out.  It’s surely a symptom of Imposter Syndrome; it’s the old keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool… When talking to other academics, I’m finding more confidence in the content, but am still wary of using/ needing to respond to ‘danger words’ (for example current danger words include: paradigms, theoretical frameworks, hermeneutics…) or a new and unexpected word in the vast array of academic vocabulary.  Oh, and fun fact- lots of these words are open to interpretation!  Yay!  (Just mumble something about it being contested and hope for no follow up questions…)  I’m usually not too shy to ask what a word or phrase means when I hear it for the first time- whether it’s a choice example of Aussie slang or another bloody acronym.  People are usually happy enough to clarify, but does the new knowledge then translate into confidence in using it?  I must admit to having secretly Googled words used in a conversation I was participating in (I also do this with ingredients on menus in hipster cafes).  A final source of stress when talking to academics now- I’m keenly aware that these are people I may want to collaborate with in the future or who may be in a position to hire me or review my work.  (For those of you who are reading this- I’m not an idiot and I totally, completely understood that last thing we were discussing.  Totally.)

Hmm, looking back at the last paragraph, it sounds like I’m petrified under my desk and not making a peep.  Let me assure you, that’s not the case!  This is all meant to be a reflective exercise.  Recently I have been writing abstracts, starting a blog, emailing various contacts, procrastinating from starting on actual chapters of the mythical thesis, and marking work from my high school students- so I have been thinking about the different types of language I use and need and bouncing around between a lot of them.

Swapping between the worlds

OK, so there’s lots of new words and conventions to consider with the move to Academia.  That’s not surprising and it’s something I feel like I’m generally making progress with.  But let’s get back to that idea of transition, of being in limbo this year.

Here’s a scenario to consider: the reminder notification goes off on my phone- time to stop struggling through a theory heavy article and get ready to go in to school.  Time to write up a few notes in my own words about whatever it was I just read (it seems important, but I needed to keep Googling things) and get changed into my teacher clothes.  Time for Teacher Mel to take over from Academic Mel.  I get to school and the day is already humming along.  There’s a bit of time to organise myself, get caught up on the little things that have been happening in the first few periods, then go off to class.  A part from a few mumbled greetings, standing in front of 30 odd fifteen year olds in a non-traditional class, is the first time I’m going to talk to a human being for the day… potentially the first time in more than four days.  They are also working on projects and research but not in the way I’m using those words.  Sometimes the word/ideas gears grind in trying to change them for the new context and I stall out.  Sometimes I hear it as it happens, sometimes it’s the interesting expressions on faces.  I try to make a joke with an explanation that I’ve been reading (I think it’s important to talk about doing a PhD and my focus area with my students- more on that in another post probably) and move on.  After a few hours at school, where I usually find the right gear eventually, I go home and see that article still on my desk that needs finishing.  That “break” I had where I spent time with real live humans, means I have to start from scratch with that article before bed.  This is called “Wednesday.”

Finding the right words and the right tone is something I’ve been fairly conscious of since moving to town.  Teacher Mel needed to find her voice and make it recognisably hers in a new context.  I arrived with a wicked awesome New England vocabulary, tinged with four years of Classics’ study.  There were many times I wasn’t understood as clearly as possible (how to explain the term baloney, as in ‘that excuse is a bunch of baloney’ when the lunch ‘meat’ isn’t a thing here- I went with sliced hot dogs), and many times I didn’t understand others.  In my first year, I had to read aloud to my Year 9 (ninth grade) English class from an Australian novel written largely in teenager slang.  Let’s call it a learning experience all around.  Even now, there are some new Aussie terms I use (I now “rock up” to places), and terms I think but won’t say (‘wanker’ is a great word, but just doesn’t suit my accent).  Back to the theme of trying to figure out what to say, learning to speak informally can be just as tricky as learning to speak formally- both in a slightly different version of English.  Trying to figure out how to talk with students and peers, how to comment on their work and write formal reports for them, takes practice as well.  Learning the lingo is definitely part of the transition into any group.  You want to use it properly to be professional, respectful, and to belong.  Fun fact- I only started reading Harry Potter when students on my first teaching placement asked me something about muggles.  I figured I had enough to worry about with Aussie slang, at least I could easily tap into that pop culture reference my students would have (written in yet another version of English).  Turns out having read Harry Potter was helpful in understanding the House competition system at school (except the Sorting Hat was an impressive fro).  Having remembered the process of learning the lingos for my Australian life, both informally and formally, is reassuring that I can do it again and be successful.

So, learning new lingos is complicated and part of the transition to a new group, but not the only necessary trick.  We all belong to various groups within various contexts and we tend to shift our vocabularies and language use accordingly without much conscious thought.  How I speak in the classroom- in each classroom and to each individual student- is different to how I speak to peers in and out of school, to friends, to academics… shifting between the norms of each context usually just happens once you’re comfortable and confident in the context.  However, I think the starker the contrast between the various contexts, the more likely to encounter problems- think about my earlier example of reading about theory to talking with Year 9s).  Swapping between contexts quickly also seems to create something of a lag-time in my brain (no, I’m not talking to a Year 11 student, this is a teleconference with other academics, use better words Mel).  I’m finding though, not only is there a need to be able to shift (with as few stalls or missteps as possible), there is also a need to translate between them.  How do you explain the New England use of “wicked” (a way cooler version of ‘very’) to Australians?  It requires a clear enough understanding of the term in its original context and a strong enough grasp of the ‘new’ lingo to find the closest equivalent as well as the potential missing nuance.  Plus, it takes a willing audience.  In this year of transitions for me, my two (or more) worlds don’t often collide or overlap.  When people ask what Teacher Mel or American Melyssa is up to, the answer is usually boring either way- “reading, writing, same same” (eh) or “I’ve been exploring the various aspects of social justice in rural education and trying to apply them, which is really interesting because…” (blank stare or polite nods).  I do get more positive responses, and I deeply appreciate them, but because I’m spending so much of my time and effort learning new lingo, in a focused research area, there aren’t many people I talk to that don’t require some level of translation.  This goes both ways- for the new contexts and the established contexts (not all education academics remember exactly what it’s like in a school).  Back to a previous point- translation doesn’t work if you don’t really understand it yourself.  And now you know why I haven’t provided my explanation of paradigm here.

Final Thoughts

To wrap things up, I’ve been reading a bit about how writing and working through a thesis is part of identity-making for new academics.  It resonated.  Working in the new lingo, learning it, using it, translating it is all part of moving along.  Much like any transition, it’s scary and exciting.

Through all this, I still need to find my voice and keep a sense of myself.  I’m sure the academic voice will keep developing and I’m fairly certain I can hang onto teacher voice.  But, I’m also finding that the Mel who’s not at work with students, teachers, or academics, is shifting too.  Will I still be able to apply witty quotes from ‘The Simpsons’ in casual conversation or swear when privately venting about some outrage, and what about the longevity of my never-ending supply of sarcasm?  New topics are filling my brain space (no, I haven’t seen that new movie/ TV show, but I’m still all over the politics of Westeros) and I’m not fully in any of my contexts, so informal conversations can become somewhat limited.  For the most part, I can’t talk about the footy in between conference sessions or about the latest interpretation of Dr SoAndSo’s theory in the staffroom over lunch.  Plus, it takes times in a new context to learn about the new people’s personalities.  I know which students and teachers want to talk about footy or ‘Game of Thrones’ or whatever, but I haven’t yet made enough strong connections in the academic world, especially since I’m currently an off campus student (definitely more on that later).  I think this often leads that sense of limbo, of being in between worlds.  One way I’ve decided to try and curb that sense of disconnect is to make time for the ‘background research’ on small talk topics with those people I do come into regular contact with.  So, I make time to watch footy and read up on the season, I watch this show or that so I can keep up conversations I’ve been having with those people.  Not only are these ways to sort of switch off from the various types of work, but it also is helping to ensure the time I do spend with other humans is more enjoyable.

The constant swapping and translating between worlds can leave my head spinning sometime.  When I slow down enough for some quiet reflection, there a growing sense of well, who am I right now?  How do you maintain a strong sense of self through a significant transition?  I’m developing my different voices, my different presentations of self for different contexts, but what’s happening behind the scenes to my self?  The internal monologue is changing along with the external representations, but I suppose it’s all part of the adventure.

Where to start?

Hi!

Welcome to my blog and thanks for coming.  The plan is to write semi-witty posts about my journey to become an academic- whatever that means- and the twists and turns along the path.

Recently, I was asked for my first “official” bio to be published.  It sounded simple enough- what topic would I know more about than me, and I’ve never been accused of being short for words.  Turns out, it was super hard.  I struggled to find a balance between humblebrag and clearly-suffering-from-imposter-syndrome (those are tones, right?). Ultimately, I settled on a glorified list of my degrees and work experience- and managed to forget a degree until after I submitted. When I read the final draft full of objective facts about me, I hardly recognised it as me.  It’s not me, it’s a sanitised, professionalised version of someone with my name. Is that who I’m going to become? A list of intellectual accomplishments?  On the other hand, anything less formal would seem equally inappropriate given the context and purpose; plus sarcasm does not translate well on the interwebs, so it’s probably best if I use my Adult Voice.

I’m finding that same problem as I sit here, trying to figure out “where to start” with this entry.  So let’s see where this goes… and bear with me… (219 words before I actually say something about myself…)

My Australian name is Mel but my actual name is Melyssa.  I am, and was, always Melyssa back home in America.  Most of the time in Australia, I am Mel- much more informal, shortened, and considerably more likely to be spelled correctly- but I’m Melyssa in formal contexts.  (Already there’s a bit of an identity forming theme developing here- and in the next few posts I have planned.)

I’m in the second year of my PhD.  I’ve just passed my Confirmation and am waiting on ethics approval (so starting a blog seems like an excellent way to procrastinate…).  I’m exploring how rurality may impact on careers educators’ professional identity and practice.  I wound up being not only a rural careers educator, but also in charge of overseeing the school’s careers education program.  Let me try to explain to you why that’s a bit remarkable…

I grew up in western Massachusetts on a small llama farm in the woods with my parents and younger brother.  I was one of about 2000 students at the local suburban high school and was quite certain I wanted to be an aerospace engineer.  Probably the most defining aspect of my teenage years was wrestling.  I was the only girl on the wrestling team and despite an uphill battle, became quite good.  In high school I won two national titles and competed internationally on the women’s junior USA team.  I loved it.  I loved the discipline and strategy required.  I loved the physicality of it.  I loved the sense of fighting “the man” and persevering (I wasn’t really aware of the concept of  ‘the patriarchy’ or didn’t have the word for it).  Things were upended abruptly in senior year when I was injured and also discovered I couldn’t really do advanced calculus.

At the private, liberal arts college I attended, I learned three significant things outside of my Classics degree.  One, there are serious athletes who are also serious and intelligent students.  I was pleasantly surprised by my teammates and through them, I learned quite a bit about balancing academics, athletics, fun- and that all of those parts benefit each other.   Two, drinking alcohol is fun and can contribute to some great adventures with friends!  The incredible and crazy stories from uni days do not belong here, so onto number three… I enjoyed living abroad.  I spent my junior year (3rd year) abroad in Athens.  It was meant to be for a semester, but I enjoyed it so much, I stayed on.  Living in such an old and different culture was eye-opening, and maybe something to delve into in another post, but it also proved to be another important turning point in my life: it put the nail in the coffin of my wrestling career, introduced me to my first “academic” friends, and made me realise I didn’t have an actual career pathway/plan.

Finally, I found a level of acceptance while at uni that I hadn’t expected and still touches me deeply to this day.  Not only was it a relief that my male teammates were literate and numerate, they were also supportive and encouraging.  While I was different to most of the team (I trained with them but didn’t usually compete against the men. I only really competed at women’s nationals), I still felt a part of it.  Sharing a flat in Athens with future academics, and the conversations we had, seemed to have sparked a deep desire to belong to that world.

So, without a realistic path to a career at the end of uni, I jetted to Australia for a shortcut- in one year of study you could earn a teaching qualification for a third of the cost of a year’s tuition at home.  Mom and Dad said post-grad expenses were my responsibilities and Melbourne sounded like a cool place to live for a year… 10 and a bit years on and I still haven’t left!  I enjoyed living in Melbourne and found Australians amusing, so deciding to stay and build up some experience before trying to figure out how to become a teacher back in Massachusetts was easy.  I sent out applications to literally every corner of the state, was rejected from schools all across the state, and went on interviews all across the state.  I received a call in my little flat one day from the assistant principal (of the school I ended up teaching at) and after a brief greeting he promptly asked if I knew where the school was.  It turns out most applicants don’t bother to look at a map and just assume it’s an outer suburb, not four and half hours away.

I accepted a scholarship position in a rural school to be the Literature teacher, meaning I had to stay for two years and three months.  Again, I haven’t left yet after 10 years by choice.  I threatened to, wrote up job applications, even started packing once or twice, but living in this town has had a bigger impact on my life than I would have ever imagined.  It’s probably worth stating that as a teenager who dreamed of living in a big city, the depressing possible fall-back job was high school history teacher.  So obviously living in a town with a population smaller than my high school and teaching History and English would be something I really enjoyed.  Living here has changed the way I view a lot of things, mostly for the better, but honestly, not all.  This is where I became an Adult- I have a real full time job, insurance, have responsibilities over students and leadership positions over older peers, I take myself on holidays, I have a house and dog to look after.  I have learned some things the hard way- but those are probably things that need to be learned that way.  I have also made amazing friends that have expanded my worldview (and taught me what good coffee really is!).  I became a permanent resident of Australia.  Other things I have learned here- I LOVE footy (AFL), I prefer my own company, I spend a great deal of my free time watching TV, and traveling is essential.  I need to escape this fishbowl regularly, whether it’s a quick trip to Melbourne for the footy (go Saints!) or a trip to New Zealand or home- traveling is essential.  There’s a lot more to say about my town, my school, and my experiences here, but I’m sure they’ll inspire or be parts of other posts.  My time here can be summed up as- it’s changed my life and I’ve loved and hated it.

Stick with me, we’re almost at the present!

One of the things I struggled with living in my small town was a particular type of boredom.  I don’t need or want a vibrant social scene; I actively try to avoid them.  My small town and small school seem to move at a difference pace to what I had been used to, for example people talk slower.  It didn’t take me long to grasp the rhythm of the school day/year and expectations… and got bored.  I kept dreaming up various projects to start and build up.  It wasn’t just about trying to fill my time, but to challenge myself.  I soon set my sights on school leadership- while being in a classroom kept things interesting (for better or worse), I didn’t really want to do it forever.  (I guess I still kind of struggle to see myself as a “teacher.”  I never wanted to be a “teacher.”)  Leadership seemed challenging and I was intrigued by the bigger picture, systems.  I enrolled in various emerging leaders programs and professional development, undertook more implicit and explicit leadership roles at school, and finally undertook a Master in School Leadership.  I was consciously building a CV to escape on my terms.  Two things happened that changed the plan yet again- I finished my Masters with a mini-research project and I became the Pathways Coordinator for the school (looking after the VCE and careers education).  I enjoyed the little taste of “doing research” and the Pathways role turned out to be frustrating in unexpected ways.  It was through the Pathways role, where I was in a position to see and assist students to make the transition to “real life,” that I truly began to see how unequal the playing field was for my students.  Trying to figure out these systems, what could be done about them, and why things were the way they were, led to me my first research topics.

Apparently, I have a knack for work required for educational research.  Each early success built my confidence and encouraged me to enrol in yet another course, leading up to the current PhD Adventure.  So now, I’m on a scholarship to work on my PhD off-campus (more on that later, I’m sure).  For the first year, I tried to balance my research with a reduced teaching load at school but remaining the Pathways Coordinator.  That left me doing all of my roles not as well as I could/should have been.  Now post-Confirmation, I’ve reduced my teaching load even further (a dream timetable and my two most favorite subjects!) and dropped the Pathways role.  This is my last year at my school in my little town.  Next year, I want to move back to the Big Smoke so I can be on-campus more to have easier access to all those resources during the final stages of my PhD- and walk away from my ongoing employment.  So, this year feels like a big transition… exciting and scary… and putting me in a bit of limbo.  I’m not really in either space- I’m not Teacher Mel or Academic Mel- I sort of play at both depending on the time and day.  But that’s All Part of the Adventure…

One of the ideas for this blog to try to explicitly examine the transformation from Teacher Mel to Academic Mel.  The next post “Talking the Talk,” I’m going to look at the different vocabularies and language conventions as part of identity making.

So there’s the mud map of my adventure so far.  I hope you’ll come back to see what’s next!

Mel