Mind-maps for organising the layout of a chapter, article or dissertation

This is a part of the series, diary of a doctoral student with stories on politics, emotions and other things that determine our research beyond the research methods.

One challenge that I faced while writing my dissertation was that every time I started a new chapter, I had to deal with multiple ways of organising it. For example, there were times when I could have narrated my story village by village. Alternatively, I could have organized the layout based on themes or chronology of events that would cut across each village. There was merit in organising the chapter in each of these methods. This is a challenge that a writer would face no matter what one writes: be it a story, a journal article, a movie script, a dissertation or any book for that matter.

If organising a chapter or a journal article is challenging, planning an entire book or a dissertation can be absolutely daunting. Sometimes, the author is forced to stick to some broad outlines that are enforced by the publisher or by the University that forces the decision on us. Most dissertations have an introduction wherein we are asked to describe the issue we’re working on, provide literature review, argue that this work is distinguished, discuss the research methods, et cetera. Such guidelines are certainly helpful in expediting our work, by making the decision of organising on our behalf. But even these broad outlines will never leave us without a choice of different ways of organising that which we are writing, at least in the two or three chapters that are left to us.

While the challenge of organising the layout cannot be wished away or mechanically solved, I found it useful to try out different possible layouts by putting each on a mind map. To continue with the previous example, I would start a mind map with three nodes: chronological, thematic and village-by-village. Under each of these nodes, I would attempt to narrate the story by putting the basic arguments together as a tree.

This process forces us to think about how exactly we would narrate the story, and in the process we would be able to identify the merits and pitfalls of each of these layouts. In the process of doing it, we also create a detailed outline that can be extremely helpful during the process of writing. Visualising arguments in different ways can also help us discover a new form of organising that is more logical and effective.

One unanticipated way in this process helped me was that the mind map presented me with a broken down set of topics that I had to write on, and I could focus on one little task at a time when I wrote, instead of trying to relate to the entire book or dissertation or a chapter at any given point of time. Thinking of the dissertation on the whole can be daunting, and the demotivation that comes with it makes us postpone the writing work. Tools like these can help us by putting us back on the track by breaking the daunting giant into manageable little parts.

The art & craft of academic writing: Interviews & talks

Unlike a lot of people, writing does not come to me naturally.  It has been a slow and difficult learning process, and I had to contend with massive writing project as I started the dissertation.  As it turned out, writing the dissertation was fun, but not always.  It took me an year and a half to write the dissertation after the fieldwork, and in the process, it helped me to know what other writers had gone through.  A lot of that advice came from the committee and from my peers at the University, and some of it came from webcasts on the art of writing.

These talks helped me reflect on writing: why I write, how to write, and what one goes through as a writer.  It helped me anticipate that I will have to re-write again and again, and that there will be days when I will get stuck staring at a blank page or a half-written paragraph.  It is not that these talks ensured that I did not get stuck, but it helped to know that it happens.  More  than anything else, they helped me remember that writing can be fun; something that a lot of us in the run to finish a long project forget.

Click on the list icon that looks like a stack of cards in the bottom to see the entire list of videos, or you can always visit my YouTube channel here.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?list=PLE6418F480534AA03&v=3TJe3TWGXYo

 

Making subjectivity visible: Sections from my dissertation

I wrote these pieces in a course on ‘creative non-fiction’ and included them in the dissertation to provide my readers a break from the formal monotony.  Sadly, most people remember sections of this from the dissertation, and little else.  Such is the life of a doctoral student.

15 Jan 2006

I should not have trusted my ethnography professor.  She convinced me today that good academic writing should make the researcher visible.  By subscribing to this, I have created an existential crisis for myself: Who am I?

I would like to write about my fondness for butter scotch ice cream and denim kurta, or that my grandmother asks me to get married every time I speak to her.  Unfortunately, in academic writing these are interesting but irrelevant details.  I asked myself what could be relevant and one thumb rule comes to mind: I should write only about those things that will influence the reader in how they understand my understanding.  It has to have the potential of giving them some “Ah ha moments” of discovering for themselves new information on the information I share with them.  They should be able to say things like, “Ah ha, he could have missed seeing this being a Brahmin boy”; “it is unlikely that an official discussed these things with an ex-activist”, etc.  A good introduction will make my reader, a co-investigator in my project.

PS: I now have the rule, but the question remains: who am I?

Weighty matters

21 June 2007

I climbed the weighing machine today after two years. I pushed the scales to a familiar position and it remained upright.  I nudged it gently to no avail.  After considerable amount pushing around the scale tilted indicating I was somewhere there – and I had grown a full 20 KGs.  If have been Americanised in any way, it is this, and I seem to have put my deposits just where men in hurry always do – a pot belly.

31 July 2007

Strange things are happening to me.  I reached India 15 days ago and went to a women’s college in Chennai on some work.  I met the head of X department and she immediately called me “sir”.  I am unused to this, that too by a senior person in a hierarchical institution like a college in India.  I begged her to call me Vivek.  “Oh OK Professor Vivek”, she said very sincerely.  Earlier when I moved from place to place even a (low cost) rickshaw wala would not solicit me unless I asked for one.  This time around taxi drivers (the high cost end) rush to me to know where sar wants to go.  I have also had an easy time in getting things done in government offices.  Something seems to have changed.  My friends tell me that I am just the same but for some extra weight. I have been wondering what is happening to me.

I think I got a clue today.  A Panchayat president I interviewed told me sweetly that people listen to her because she’s plump.  Two years and twenty KGs earlier, I would have missed the import of the statement, but now I don’t.  I used to be so thin that I was called a skeletonstick of a coconut leaf and other colourful adjectives.  Now these adjectives are gone, and I am convinced that my new status is due to my pot belly. I am ok with the status, but I am not sure if I should write about this in my dissertation.  Perhaps I should consult my ethnography professor.

Rose, black & brown

30 Sept 2007

Amma asked me not to spend too much time out in the sun during fieldwork.  She’s worried that I might become darker.  In the darkest person in the family already; after all, Tamil Brahmins tend to be fair complexioned.

I reached the village for fieldwork and had a conversation with a passerby.  He asked me to go and meet his friend who knows a lot on my topic, and telephoned his friend generously to say that I am coming.  Not knowing how to introduce me he thought for a while and then said, “a rose complexioned young man will come to meet you”.  I have now come a full circle.  I am rose complexioned where I do my fieldwork, black for my parents and brown for the American government.  Who indeed am I?

Ps. I think I told you this before, I should not have trusted my ethnography professor.

Disciplinary approach

Feb 2009

I went to a dissertation defence this afternoon.  My friend was candid and bold.  To many questions he answered candidly that he wanted to try a few things, but did not do so because it is not the norm in political science.  He said, “My hands are tied”.  I do not want to bind my hands, but academic culture may require me to write things in a particular way.  I am glad to be in the social science programme, unattached to any discipline so that I do not have to tie my hands.

Making the researcher visible

20 Oct 2009

A lot of people I met talked about communist, Dalit and other village level movements again and again. I also find reflections of these types of movements in many villages.  I guess these must have had a lot of impact. I am not too sure what other movements might have had an impact in the state…I guess I will never know all of them.

My fieldwork reflected five forms of collection action repeatedly giving me a reason to believe that these are among the major forms that had an impact on collective action in Tamil Nadu.

The following five forms of collective action had a significant impact in shaping institutional changes in Tamil Nadu.

The place of originality in academic writing

A few months ago, I got the criticism that my work is not original, and that most of what I have to say has already been said, and that my arguments are evident to the point of being tautological. When I got the criticism, I felt that there is a ring of truth to it, in a sense that there is practically no argument within my scheme of things that has not already been made by others. At one point, I even started questioning if there is any value to the work I did. Since it is a feeling that a lot of us go through as doctoral students, I thought of doing some loud thinking on this issue.

While I was immediately able to relate to the critique that other people have made my arguments before me, I found it difficult at the same time to identify any other work that exactly resembled mine. As far as I could see the differences between my work and other works were considerable; after all, this is what made my questions unfulfilled. This conflict within myself led me to realise that originality is not a straightforward concept…here are some reasons why:

I heard an experienced professor remark that you could do a whole life’s work and suddenly discover that there is an entire subfield in some other discipline that says exactly the same things. Our thoughts may have been original in the sense that we did not learn it from somebody else, and it was through our own labour that we got to came to a particular understanding. Is it original if it has already been written by someone else?

In critiquing the lack of originality in my work over all, my reviewer mentioned a certain aspect of my work to be an original contribution, but has a lot of scope to be developed. Interestingly that which he thought was my original contribution is widely known among the people that I interacted with in the villages during my fieldwork. Originality here really meant nothing but the transportation what is known in one place to a community where it is not previously recognised. Is it original or not?

Very often we come across works where the authors have used a well established theory to string together a number of well established historical facts. Could it be possible to string together an original story using a combination of well established theories and facts? As graduate students we do a combination of all these things: taking ideas into new spaces, reinventing some wheels without knowing that they already exist, and weaving new stories out of well established ideas. As result of this, the totality of our work is different from the totality of any other individual piece of work, even if there is little or nothing original if we break our work down into pieces.

The value of our work

I also realized in this process that my conflict was not so much about the originality of my work, as it was about my values; you perhaps noticed it when I said earlier that I started wondering if there is any value to my work. I feel that this arose from the preoccupation we have over the ownership of knowledge. The property right attached to knowledge today is based on the originality of a work, and thus even if the original component of our work is somewhat insignificant, that is what gets the priority. Outside the realm of property rights, the knowledge that we hold overall, even if it is highly dated, could be more socially relevant. But the incentive within the academic world to gain this knowledge is limited, especially under the academic regime of publish or perish.

Rigorous claims of originality are particularly hard in the social sciences. To claim that something is a common phenomenon in the society (to be called “social”), but that nobody else had thought of this before us can only be tenuous in a strict sense of the term “original”. The best of ideas within the social sciences is bound to have been thought by others. Jean Drèze reflected this beautifully in one of his articles, where he said:

“At times, I even felt embarrassingly ignorant compared with local people who had little formal education but a sharp understanding of the real world. Some of them were curious about my collaborative work with Amartya Sen (who had become a household name in India after winning the Nobel Prize for Economics), but when I tried to explain to them the main insights of this work, they were not exactly impressed. It is not that they disagreed, but they just thought that the basic message was fairly obvious” (Drèze 2002).

Sen and Drèze are among my favourite writers and academics. The value of their work is not so much that they say things that have never been said by anybody else before, but that their works, more than any other work, helps me understand the issue that they take up. This should be the primary yardstick in evaluating a work in the social sciences, and the value of our own work should mainly be how far it helped us understand the social world better.

One of my most joyful experiences in an interdisciplinary doctoral programme was to learn basic ideas from across disciplines that were lacking in my prior training. Even though these are well established ideas in a different domain, I feel that learning it is an important knowledge function. Hopefully it will help me write across disciplines and enrich understandings in the process; the value of the doctoral student as a truck transporting ideas to different social groups should not be underestimated.

Finally, in the social scheme of things, repeating ideas is important. In fact, knowledge lives in repetition: original knowledge that lies in dusty racks forever is not capable of action, and thus in repeating what is known, we perform a useful intellectual function. In other words, if we recognise the joy of knowledge or its usefulness to the society, the value of our work will be far more than its originality. Unfortunately a property-right based understanding of knowledge with its associated system of incentives such as tenures, publications, recognitions and awards push us constantly towards doing “original work”. Hopefully, the activist in us should realize that it is far more important to shape the system with our learning than to let the system shape our learning.

Drèze, Jean. 2002. On Research and Action. Economic and Political Weekly 37, no. 9 (March 2): 817-819.

Publish and perish

In his fascinating book, “The world of gold today, Timothy Green wrote about gold reserves in Fort Knox as one of the silliest ventures taken up by human beings. We slave hard to take out the gold that lies under the earth at tremendous cost of lives and resources. We refine it, transport it across the world and then bury it again under the earth at enormous cost. There can be no venture sillier than that, he argued.

I just had my Fort Knox moment. I discovered that four of the papers that I worked hardest on and got published have been cited once cumulatively in four years. While that is bad, it gets worse. I heard a statistic that the average dissertation is read by seven people in all, and that often includes the mother of the author. We devote years and resources and to bury ourselves amidst the walls, only to produce something that will be buried in turn, a venture as silly as the gold stores of Fort Knox. It is sobering to realize that the posts I do on Facebook do much better than that, and generally takes only a few minutes to do so.

My recent realisation came when I looked at the software called Publish or Perish. The software helps us to track the performance of various authors, articles, journals and gives us an indication of the “impact” that the author has had. The impact of an author certainly goes beyond the citation that he or she receives: no doubt about that. Such software tend to underestimate the citations one has received since they do not cover all sources, no doubt about that as well. After taking all that into account, it still leaves the work that we do in the academia in very poor light, and life in the academia looks like the perfect route into oblivion: to publish is to perish.

Ps. To those masochistic ones who wish to measure their oblivion or the sadistic ones who wish to precisely estimate the unimportance of your “friends”, you should download and play with Publish or Perish. It costs nothing to download and run; costs to emotions are a different matter.

Reflections of a retiring TA

It is often assumed that Teaching Assistants are powerful, vested with institutionalised power to instruct, monitor and evaluate. No doubt, these represent power over the students. But this is nothing compared to the power that students have over the TA; a kind of power that is silent but brutal. When a hundred notebooks close silently, it can bring the mightiest professor to a halt. A few glances at the clock or one row of blank expressions can freeze the vulnerable TA and crush his ego at the same time. There is no experience more humbling that the knowledge that you cannot create an interest by discussing world peace or economic collapse when someone outside the class can make them smile with a text message like, “Hey, what are you doing?”

The stakes are high. They decide if you’re cool, if you belong to this place and time, if you are knowledgeable, good looking, witty and everything that you wish to be. None of these, of course, are said in words. I instantly knew that I did not belong when fifty eyeballs turned to me saying, what is wrong with you, when I asked, “did you enjoy the mid-term exam?” I knew I was a relic of the past when the polite comment of a student invited muffled giggles from the entire class, “Oh no professor, I am not texting. I am just entering the date of the next quiz in my blackberry”. If they can quash your ego, they can also prop it up. An occasional comment like, “I think it is cool that you use Skype” would make me sigh with relief; I still belong to this generation.

Being a TA is like going through a long trial in front of critical jurors who will decide something more critical than life – one’s sense of self-worth. The TA surrenders his ego to a set of strangers to be tried week by week for months together. We crave for that occasional smile, a question, a moment of engagement or any other small sign of approval every meeting. What is the power that a TA has to monitor a student a few times a semester compared to the power every one of them has to monitor your every word, every week?

We work hard, prepare, anticipate, discuss with the hope that we can find the ultimate strategy to salvage our sense of self-worth. Unfortunately, there is no definite strategy. Each class is a live organism with its own moods, desires and ideas. What works in one does not work in another. It can be a hit in the morning and a flop that evening, leaving the poor TA vulnerable and exposed. Some days its fun and sometimes its frustrating, and overall it’s a rich learning experience that leaves you without any doubt that your control over the world is limited.

And there was that last day of the discussion sessions. The impatience in them was palpable when I took a brown envelope with forms that evaluate me. “When do we get to evaluate you?” asked one student with a sparkle in his eye that unparalleled anything I had seen so far. I felt at that moment that the student’s experience of the TA must be analogous to masturbating…strenuous, painful at times, but it has that one last sweet moment – when they get to evaluate me. It is time for me to retire from being a TA. I may become a full-fledged teacher one day, but it will be with a firm knowledge of my limited influence, a willingness to surrender and the wisdom to enjoy the moment when it presents itself to me.

Ps. Let me add that I had a great time as a TA and I have high regards for my students.  This piece was inspired by the good relationship I developed with my students.  They started gently pulling my leg on a number of issues and this is my turn to get back at them with love ;)

Friendships and “research methods”

The temptation and pressure to confirm in one’s research topic is tremendous – especially if you are a PhD student. In the course of the last 3 years many of my friends have asked me to include some quantitative element in my research. When I tell them that it does not suit my question they’d add, perhaps do what you do and then add some statistical work to it. When my (descriptive) interviews were almost done another friend goaded me to code it and regress it. The notion that regression is what makes a study authoritative is so deeply rooted among students today. To depart from it leaves a student in constant doubt.

Leaving quantitative methods is not the departure I did from the norm. Even within the tradition of qualitative research I am not situated in any particular method. I have taken the path that seemed most suitable to my questions and I feel that I have a story to say at the end of the day. But here is the catch. I am very conscious that my study has a lot of gaps (like most other studies do). The added knowledge that I have not stuck to any recognised method has made me feel insecure now and then. I had one such moment last year when I was just finishing my field work.

When I confided in a mathematician friend this is the advice he had for me. He said that it’s good that I have had the courage to choose the methods that I deemed most suitable for my questions. I have my facts and I have theorised the situation (my story) with much effort. Theory unlike a theorem (which is proved and will remain the same) is bound to change at some point of time. It is an attempt at the known amidst unknowns. A theory is bound to be tentative and vulnerable. So go on and tell your story the way it is without compromising your integrity or worrying about its acceptability. The advice has made me feel a lot better and it feels good to have friends who support you in academic adventures.

I have been lucky to have friends who have advised me in my moments of doubt and have nudged me to do what I find most sensible and exciting. In a world where conformity offers attractive dividends, I wonder if anyone could break from the ranks without the support of such friends. Strange as it may sound, and unacknowledged as it often is, friendships have an impact on our research that is as profound as the techniques we learn meticulously at school.