Touch stones

Here’s what was missed

It’s been too long, I know. I say often enough how valuable I find this site to go back and remember aspects of my thinking at various times but that only works if I post…anyway, this is sort of a catch up post in the vague hope I’ll be here more regularly. I’m not optimistic.

On 25 November last year, I had a meeting with my supervisors. I didn’t post at the time because I had been given a lot to think about. While positive and constructive with their feedback the basic take away message for me, intended or not, was that my thesis is too confusing and they can’t really remember what I’m doing so the analysis makes no sense. At the time I was a bit hurt but then I realised they were right. I still didn’t know what my thesis was, so how on earth could they?

This coincided with CPA Australia starting to help me out with data. In early October I had begun the reach out process with the help of my supervisor and on 21 January I was in the Melbourne offices of CPA going through archive material. It was wonderful. I really do love old documents. The history they tell you, the surprises they contain, the story they create.

Throughout December I had been busy pulling together the thesis in total on the request of my supervisors. They wanted a full draft in order to work out what the hell I was doing – fair call I think. This meant finalising the data analysis for the submissions and continuing the analysis of the Hansard. It is so boring to read Hansard. I have no words. Politicians are repetitive and stupid. 1988 was more interesting than 2014 simply because the party rhetoric wasn’t quite as prolific, however, boring is boring.

All of this work came to a head on a train back from Melbourne on 23 January when I realised the thesis I started in December, based on what I’ve been working on for five years, was flawed. It wasn’t my thesis. It was the product expected by the establishment and it didn’t work for my data. It didn’t work for my question. My problem is complex, murky, full of pluralities. The stock standard structure of a thesis doesn’t fit.

So I have a new structure. It uses literature and data in sections throughout the thesis. The story is the story and I use all the evidence I have to support the story as it unfolds rather than segmenting the actions of research by chapter. In adopting this approach writing is easy. I am finding it simple to pull together materials previously written with new content based on my analysis of my new data, and old, to tell the story of the problem in my research and then offer solutions. Even my theory has come together in a useful way because I combined it with my model of university education as a process, providing a clear link (for the first time) between my theory and problem. It’s like a switch has flicked. Finally I know what my thesis is.

Last note: My second paper with Leo was submitted to a journal and they have asked for revisions which we are working on now. Looks like we might have win here, but too early to count chickens.

WiP is done – and another chapter meeting complete

On Tuesday 16 July I complete my work in progress seminar (WiP). It went well. I spoke okay (had a dreadful cold) but what was awesome was when I got asked questions I had answers. I know that my seem weird, but it was the first time I’ve been confident in my question, my data, my analysis, to the point I could answer questions. I mean, I’d always had a go before, but this time I actually could say “Oh yes, well as I show in the model here….” or “Yeah, I know what you’re saying. I’ve not had time today but there’s this reading…..” or “Interestingly the data is not going in that direction and my thoughts are….”. There is something empowering in knowing that you just know your shit!

Then today I had a supervisor meeting which went so well! Basically we all agree I’m on the right path, I just need to do more and find my voice. This is an interesting problem to have. After 13 years in the public service, changing my voice for whatever senior manager desired I’m not really sure I have a writing voice. What was more interesting is my supervisors said the way I presented at the WiP should actually be my voice in my thesis…now that’s food for thought. I’m being encouraged to write as me. For those who have ever been part of the government you will know that never happens! Anyway, deadlines are looming and I need to get more analysis done so no time to waste. I’m off to find my voice!

Omissions are painful

I met with my supervisors three weeks ago and haven’t posted about the meeting. It’s not that anything bad happened, in fact quite the opposite (I now have a little model I’ve built based on the feedback which is helping to form my problematisation chapter), I just have been short on time. The advice from my supervisors was useful and has helped shape some of my data analysis as well as totally restructured how I’m thinking about the Context Chapter. What has happened though is I’ve fallen into a hole.

To get out of the hole I thought I’d use my blog as I remembered putting my question here somewhere so I would be able to see it change over time. Only the problem is I haven’t. I have no tag of ‘question’ (well I do now because I created it). This has dug my hole deeper. I was hoping there would be a tether here to guide me back to the whole point of my thesis by showing how my thinking has progressed over time. Turns out I omitted it. The pain will continue. Stupid omission.

Are we there yet?

My last meeting with my supervisor (on 23 Dec) ended with him telling me not to work on Christmas day but instead to enjoy myself. Well, I did. It was great. I also met with my coach before the end of the year and he gave me some great advice including structure for my proposal which works for me much better than the one provided by the university. He also gave me a theory framework template which helped me make a leap forward in my understanding. It’s like every now and then someone tells you something or shares something and it’s like your brain grabs hold and goes “Oh! That makes all this other stuff make much more sense now!”. He also gave me a book on theory by Blaikie which really helped piece together missing links too. I don’t agree with his position on postmodernism (spoiler alert Blaikie doesn’t like it) as I think he’s making the complicated more complicated and not realising that by understanding post-modernism is about understanding not explaining, it actually works quite well.

See that’s the break through my brain has had (among others). I finally understand why I’m post-structural (which is not the same as post-modern).  I want to understand university education in the context of commodification by understanding the expectations of universities, Government and industry which requires me to understand the political, social and ideological relationships between them. I seek to understand through language, expectations, context and relationships. I don’t want to explain. This makes me post-structural. The language has meaning (hermeneutics) and context of the language in the text, of the text, of the author and reader provides more meaning (structural linguistics) and the social, political and ideological relationships provides more meaning again (post-structural). I will need to take all these steps to conduct my research but at the last, I am looking at the relationships and how they work with and against each other (hegemony).

In the mean time, over the last week I’m supposed to have done a stack of work I’ve not done…I’ve done other stuff which is good and I’ll send onto David for our meeting this week, but it’s not what I’m supposed to have done. Apparently we’re not there yet and confirmation seminar is getting closer….hmmmmm

So I don’t forget

I was thinking about doing an email for my supervisor and then thought stuff it I’ll put it here so I don’t lose and it forms part of the history. That means this post is rambling rather than anything useful so feel free to ignore (unless you’re David when we’re in our meeting).

When working on a question, how much can I assume? For example, can I ask “Is the commodification of HE due to policy decisions?” or do I have to ask “Has HE moved from being a public good to a private and if so, can that be linked to policy?”? In the first one I’m assuming everyone agrees that commodification is occurring. In the second I don’t. These are example questions, not real ones.

We have discussed the three lenses of the literature review being the Australian experience, the business course experience and then the politics. I don’t think this is working for me. I think the lit review needs to be about the global experience of HE, mainly the US and UK, then the Australian experience, then the expectation of HE from stakeholders. I think that I’m moving towards how everyone has an opinion and is angry about the HE legislation, but that no one agrees on what HE should actually be so commodification has become the main driver of HE by default. This means I don’t really want to look at business degrees at all. But I’m still looking at the business of HE. I think I’m heading to:

“How has the funding of HE in Australia over time changed and has this impacted on the educational purpose?”

This opens the door to different perspectives of HE from industry, ivory tower folks, citizen construction, policy makers and perhaps at some point people.

So for the lit review the rationale to get to discourse theory is that everyone has their position, but no one really knows what that is and while everyone is arguing over the same thing but not realising it, commodification is rolling through and becoming the main driver and maybe that’s okay. I need to do discourse theory as the answer lies in stopping people arguing over what their position is, and start talking about what is actually happening. Thoughts? Basically this is our March meeting as well as the unit requirements.

And it’s a pass!

The resubmit of the resubmit is a pass! Means a pass for this unit so the PhD journey continues.

I feel like I’ve let my supervisors down by only getting a pass grade, but I think given how badly I research, write and generally exist at the moment, I think a pass is something to be happy with.

Now for the second unit…….oh and the literature review, and the reading for the literature review, and the learning of writing skills to write the literature review……..oh it’s going to be a long eight years……

The story

Joelle constantly tells us about the story you have to thread your thesis. It’s about the narrative, the experience of the thesis, even when it’s straight out positivism, there’s just more numbers in that story!

Today I finally got why. I watch two HDR presentations and they didn’t have a story. Well, they did, I’m sure, it’s just it wasn’t told. I sat through the both presentations not really getting it. Now, it could be the content, but I sat through a presentation before that made no sense content wise but I understood his story. I got the message he was conveying. The data was six feet over my head, but I understood what he was saying.

So that got me to thinking about my story. My story is that for the last few decades higher education has been becoming more and more privately funding in relation to tuition for a whole range of reasons. The impacts of this change relate to the quality and type of education provided and demanded. The Australian experience is that substantial change has led to a loss of the purpose of universities to the point where no one is really clear anymore when they talk about higher education. This lack of clarity is not ideal moving forward as public funding should go to a clear outcome and if people are paying for a product, they really should know what they are getting. After all, higher education is our third largest export, we really should know what the product is. Alternatively, there might be multiple purposes for higher education, but again, it’s important to know what the purpose is for which eventuality.

I think that’s not a bad story. But is it a thesis?

The story rewritten

I’m doing an assignment for the seventh time. It’s actually how I work. When I was writing briefing papers and policy documents I would do about 20 versions. That was before I actually gave it to superiors to review so you can imagine with how many I would end up with!

I’ve worked out that it’s just how my brain likes to process ideas. Each time I write, I find something new. The process is the thinking itself. My problem is though, that I don’t have a story. I don’t know what my thesis story is. I have been reduced to my first paragraph being:

I am going to research how higher education policy choices throughout Australia’s history have led to today’s deregulated market and if this type of market has value for society or only for individuals. The purpose of this research is to: interrogate if it is possible to have an agreed meaning of higher education for policy development, or if it exists only as a hegemonic construct; examine the impacts of public policy decisions on higher education; and to facilitate future debate on the value and purpose of higher education today.

But that’s a different perspective from what I had yesterday and is also really shit writing. I opened with the those words because it was the only way I could think to articulate what I am actually doing. Words are failing me. I can do nothing clever, nothing smart. I can only put ‘i’ at the beginning of sentences. Look at this post for heaven’s sake.

The really depressing thing is my supervisor is amazing with words and the material he’s written for my assignment is perfect. The problem for me is that I’m not sure I understand it and/or that I agree. I don’t know because I don’t know. I feel stupid. It’s going to be a very long eight years.

Drawing the strings

Previously I described my topic as similar to a baby rattle that keeps getting pulled away from me. Today I’ve had the interesting experience of bringing two texts together to bring together the information in my head to start coming up with my own ideas. For me this is a little bit like the draw strings on a bag (yes an old fashioned one, but I’m old!). The information in my head is so little that sits at the bottom of the bag, very lonely. Then I read one text and it fills the bag a bit, and then I read another one that also fits into the bag so the bag gets a bit bigger. My hope is that when the bag gets to a nice size, I will draw the strings on that piece of the research and say ‘done’.

Last night Joelle referred to boxes and how research fits into the boxes except when it doesn’t, but it’s still important to know what the boxes are. Maybe my boxes are drawstring bags instead, but for me it’s compartmentalising all sections, not just the research methods. Of course, the funny part of this is by thinking of my research in sections of any kind, I begin the process of creating a double void. (Guess what I was reading this morning.)

I think my research topic, combined with my haphazard brain mechanisms, is going to be susceptible to missing the point if I’m not careful. By defining higher education one way, I prevent it from being something else. This means I might miss meeting my research objectives because I will prevent some part of the discussion from occurring. Hmmm…..this is rambling a little, but scarilly it makes sense to me (today). Maybe the drawstring bag analogy is going to work. It does compartmentalise the thinking for ease of progress in the reserach itself, but you can never acutally close one of those bags. You have a five cent piece in the bottom, draw the strings, and tip it up, that coin will come out. The same way you can alwasy get a coin in. Maybe that means even though I will have to narrow my work, I will always have a way to get more debate involved. Hmmm…..

The smart person said no, then yes, then sort of

It took two hours yesterday with my amazing supervisor for my brain to come close to getting to 10% of what he was trying to get at. He said no to the narrative theory as the way to go, and then said yes, but well, it’s sort of the same as discourse analysis, if you’re not thinking Fairclough and thinking more Laclau and Mouffe but then again it all depends on perspectives. I think you can see why it took me two hours to catch on!

So what does this mean? It means I need to read more. I need to get my head around this. And it means I need to trust me a bit more. Speaking to David I realised that I was right about discourse analysis, just wrong about the material I was reading. I knew I wanted to do analysis of the material available and that I was going to be relying on how to interpret official documents and viewpoints through philosophical lenses. So I knew what I wanted, but I didn’t know the academic lingo/context/framework to put it in. It is a new language. It’s coded to the academic world and as discussed yesterday I am not part of the academic world and have no intention to be.

On the upside, tonight while listening to amazing music (thanks Borodin Quartet) I started to re-grasp what I’m trying to do. I keep thinking the research problem for me is like a baby rattle that I see and go to grasp but an annoying adult thinks it’s entertaining to pull it away. But tonight, I was thinking about the commodification issue and the business angle. Working titles came to mind (I know titles are the last thing – but it helps me frame ideas) and it related to ‘lies we tell’ and ‘follow the money’. The more I read the more I realise that the changes in higher education come from the lies people tell themselves about what they think of higher education (and what they tell others) and the incentive of money. I know I want to explore the incentive of money because this is the link to industry. In 1997 when I first thought of this, it was about the skills gap, and role of higher education to fill this. I think that’s something I lose sight of. I think I need to create a touch stone for concepts that I want to hold onto. Like that industry link. This is going to be a long eight years and I need to not lose sight of what I want. More food for thought.