How uncertainty and doubt are friends of your research writing (John Hannon)

Photo by Kyle Glenn |

During my post-graduate research I needed structure. First, I used goals, theories and methods to structure a space for the exploration of knowledge, then this gradually filled with things that count: progress reports, due dates, prescribed word lengths, abstracts, submissions to conferences, journals and grant bodies. What started as a personal program became populated with institutions, peers, academic traditions and disciplinary cultures. This was my introduction to the academic game, in which researchers have a stake and play by a set of rules. The game offers graduate researchers and academics, both employed or underemployed, a (competitive) position in a field of knowledge, that is, a space of certainty. You are really there when you forget about playing and the game is taken as doxa, the way things are.

 As one who came late to the game, a late ECR, I had no time to lose and plugged in, conferencing, networking, and aiming to produce a little more than the required annual output. Playing the game offered me clarity and certainty that was useful in the fast introductions that are a currency of the academic world.

Soon after completing my PhD, I recognised a familiar sensation when embarking on writing a research output - a pit in the stomach, the emergence of a gap, a doubt, an aporia. Like The Matrix, the game has presented appearance as reality.

What lies beneath the academic game

Locating the self in the game invites an array of spatial metaphors: the feeling of not belonging or imposter syndrome (including that favourite dream of new academics of giving lectures without all one’s clothing). There are journey metaphors: a rite of passage or a scholarly dark night of the soul in which you enter a zone of confusion, abandonment and doubt. There is also the threshold concept: an in-between space that marks the threshold moment of apprehending the world is a fundamentally different way. There are also less abstract descriptions, like the Valley of Shit described in the Thesis Whisperer blog.

My familiar sensation arose as I struggled to find meaning and value in my research writing, drawing me to a state of intense interiority ­– immersed, solitary, a state that resembled feeling somewhat depressed. An internal dialogue challenged my fitness: what do I really mean here, am I entitled to stake a knowledge claim here, what am I even doing here? The ‘here’ is my location in the game, my tenuous anchor in a bubbling unconscious sea of knowledge, of limitless possible trajectories. Since my role in the game was highly contingent, it was in constant need of bolstering and shoring up.

The burden falls on the researcher to reach beyond the game to nourish the game, to find the well-spring that sustains a research career, indeed to find your research passion, where that word passion has its dictionary sense of suffering & agony. My struggle to connect my research goals, my research soul, to the myriad institutions through which research is produced, is. I think, an awkward fit, something between the passionate private and the cold institutional metric. Yet this connection is what sustains the academic game.

Intellectual technologies to connect interior and exterior knowledge domains

If our commitment to the academic game is to be sustained, it needs techniques that enable us to draw upon the inchoate well of knowledge. Intellectual technologies can be thought of as an array of conceptual and methodological techniques that have currency among researchers, and can enable the connection between inner and outer domains: to name just a few – reflective writing, methods such as GT (Grounded Theory, or gin and tonic), rhizomatic analysis, field notes (see La Trobe’s Michele Hosking’s advice on the online research notebook).

My experience of moving between an exterior and interior orientations to knowledge domains mirrors a qualitative research approach I built on in my PhD thesis, of analytical bracketing. This is a technique from ethnomethodology that distinguishes and separates the data-informed whats from the reflective hows, and addresses the question of why things are the way they are for a particular state of affairs. Translated to research writing, this works explicitly between two orientations, the external, data-informed world and the researcher’s inquiry evolving process.

I think of research writing as doing more than account for research that has been done: it crafts a narrative that develops an understanding of the world as coherent and meaningful, and it also develops an interior world – the longer project of the self as researcher.

My reminders to self:
  • Good work can emerge despite feeling bad: recognise the moment of entering the realm of uncertainty and doubt in its embodied and conceptual manifestations, as it beckons towards fresh and new framings of knowledge in your field
  • Reflection precedes reflective writing: reflection can be social (as in SUAW), an inspiring writer, or even embodied activity like walking that helps shift patterns of thought
  • Assemble your own intellectual technologies into a set of tools for working with and through uncertainty

Dr John Hannon has an honorary role as Adjunct Senior Lecturer in the School of Education. His research focusses on the transformative effects of the digitisation of academic work and teaching, developed from his PhD Reassembling Practice: A relational approach to online learning, which informs research into academic/professional development, curriculum in digital environments, open education resources (OER), and intercultural communication. His teaching experience includes HDR supervision, teaching and coordination of the Graduate Certificate in Higher Education, and workshops and seminars in educational research and digital media. Recent grants include research into interdisciplinary teaching and curricula (from La Trobe’s Remaking Education DRP), and an OLT funded project on digital literacies in undergraduate health curriculum.