Research basics

First day of the Nuts n’ Bolts Conference, formerly known as the  methods conference and it was just great. It started off with Prof. Bob Spicer talking about his research on fossil leaves and how they can be used as a proxy to document past climate change.  When he started I confess that I was surprised because in the previous conferences people came to explicitly talk about research and I was wondering why I was there listening about a topic that is not even remotely connected to my own research. However, the topic was simply fascinating and much broader lessons can be taken from his account of his research. First of all, his visuals were stunning: beautiful photos, interactive graphs – a lesson on how to create a PowerPoint presentation.

Secondly, it is quite eye-opening to see that some people are really engaged in research that can change the way people see and do things – that can have a real impact in they way we understand the world. This was really inspiring.

Thirdly, and perhaps the most important lesson I took from his talk,  I realised that we can get a bit parochial with our PhD research concerns, which is quite right because if we do not go though this stage we will never get to be the sort of researcher Prof Spicer is, but having said so, I also think it is important to realise that research is much more than a 3-year small project. His research has been going on for over 20 years and involves people from all over the world working for other academic institutions. The more we open up to exchange of information and collaboration with other experts on the field  the more chances we have to really get to something substantial. I see that most researchers still have a ‘Gollum’s attitude’ towards their work.

After the plenary I attended a talk by Dr Kirstie Ball on how to prepare for the Probation Review. Extremely useful,  especially the part on how to write your research questions.  I just wish someone had done that before as it would have save me at least a year of agony over how to write them. I’ll work on mine later,  keeping the principles she gave us in mind, and then see what my supervisors think of it.

The second plenary was with Simon Buckingham Shum of the KMI on ‘ how new forms of narrative can emerge through the use of hypertext tools that treat ideas, problems and arguments as coherent networks of nodes.’ Translating it into English, the talk was about a software they developed that allows us to create a visual representation – sort of a mind map of the interactions between texts of any kind. basically, it allows us to visualise the connections between speakers and ideas in such texts in terms of agreement and disagreement and introduction of new ideas in the discussion. In other words is is a way of  visualising argumentation – a sort of dialogue mapping that let us see texts/discourses in connection with each other.

I really got excited about this because it can be a useful tool to relate participants’ posts with each other and also to the literary texts and the stories they will produce. Using this I can visualise the how people agree and disagree with each other and also how they can reinforce their own previous statements or contradict them. Moreover, perhaps there will be a way of extending the codes there to include quotes, appropriation of language and repetition so that these can also be brought into the textual dialogue visualisation. I’m not sure if this is possible, but I can always try to talk to Simon and see what he can do about it.

After that I went to a workshop on how to unpack the terms in our research question. Also quite useful because it makes you be prepared for that sort of question about  terms you use that  for you seem so obvious that you never really bother to think of how to put them into words and when people ask you them you look like a complete idiot. For example,  people may ask me , ‘What is dialogue? Professional development? A narrative? A literary text? Interaction? Participation?’

Good research should make:

  • the invisible visible
  • the opaque permeable
  • the ephemeral persistent