Session 3: Boundaries

Building on Lauren Richardson’s article ‘Getting personal: writing stories’, this week we wanted to explore boundaries between self and writing, introducing the notion of telling our stories as researchers. The group were invited to think more about each of our own stories as researchers and as writers. This may mean narrating our academic journeys to our PhDs, or thinking about where (if at all) we locate ourselves in our work. We reflected on whether these narratives were already ‘storied’ in our heads or emerged through the process of writing. In considering how different relationships occur between writing and the researcher, between the researcher and their theory or methodological paradigm, we wanted to explore the opportunities for resisting potentially restrictive boundaries. This transgressing can include experiences of ‘paradigm shift’ (including the possibilities and confidence to move away from the preferred paradigms of a supervisor), and moving forward and backwards between and within paradigms.

We wanted to explore whether telling our stories allows us to think about what boundaries/contexts/paradigms we are operating within as writers and what these make possible (and not possible) to say.

This is what I wrote:

Showing my knickers

I had a rough plan for the story I was going to write down to share, which was intended to be relevant to encouraging all of us to carry on with our journeys of thinking about how we as real people with histories, loves, fears and shames, are located in our research, and how in doing so we can try to free up our writing and enrich its authenticity and insight (and interestingness). I have deviated a little from this, but I hope not too much, and that it is still relevant. And I hope that I will be forgiven for my deviation, because I am still on a writing-thinking journey about the significance of self to research, that I have waited much too far into academic life to embark upon. So my cautionary tale to others not to do the same.

Sitting at my children’s swimming lesson, using a snatched moment to at the same time plan what I wanted to write down once I finally got the kids to bed later, and also to read a lovely article that I had been introduced to, ‘Writing, power and voice: Access to participation in higher education’ (2008) by Penny Jane Burke. Feeling inspired by the article, and completely ‘getting’ Penny Jane’s heartfelt description of feeling an outsider, illegitimate, as a mature, widening participation student in higher education, all at one a random, involuntary, seemingly irrelevant, and very unwelcome memory from childhood leapt forward and persisted. We all have I’m sure our own particular horrible, unwelcome memories of the brutish jungle that the school playground can be.

Anyway, the story insisted to me that it is more relevant than I cared to acknowledge, so here I am talking about my knickers. We’re in an infant school playground in Australia, so you have to imagine Australian accents that I won’t do now. The Doctor’s wife (they have a swimming pool and a tennis court), whose house my mum cleans, has given my mum a bag of their daughter’s hand-me-down clothes, and I’ve come to school for the first time, wearing one of the skirts, so I imagine I am probably feeling quite pleased about my new outfit. The Doctor’s daughter accosts me in the playground with her friends, and begins to insist with increasing force and vitriol, that I am to give the skirt back. Now. This may sounds humiliating enough already, but this is all the least of my worries. Because the real worry is what they will all see if I am forced to expose myself. I am agonizingly aware that underneath the skirt I am wearing not a pair of the nylon day-of-the-week panties that I would really love to have (it’s 1980), but some seriously terrible old pants, probably from a jumble sale. They are ill-fitting, unisex, and a grubby shade of off-white.

I somehow managed to scrape through resolving the situation without being forced to take my skirt off and expose my shabby knickers (story of my academic life), but this is among the formative childhood experiences that has joyously chosen to find itself a lasting home in my memory. I thought it didn’t matter, but it turns out after all these years that it does.

When I did my PhD in sociology at Sussex, on the university experiences of lone parents (I was one), my PhD supervisor suggested that it was probably best if I didn’t mention that I was one. And so I produced an entire PhD and subsequently an extremely dull read of a book, about lone parents in higher education, without ever mentioning in either, or the journal articles, or the conference presentations, that I was one. Of course if you read Lauren Richardson’s ‘Getting personal: writing stories’ (2001), it’s clear that at least part of the reason my work was so terminally boring was because I told a great big lie at the heart of it purely by not admitting the personal interest I had in the topic.

I only realise now, very much later, that I have spent not just years but decades in academia desperately hiding my knickers so that people don’t see how scruffy they are (I don’t mean now. I mean metaphorically. This is probably too much mental imagery). What’s more, 1. I didn’t make an empowering feminist statement of putting it right, and 2. It took learning from my own students to open up the door to setting this right. I’ll explain both.


(Year 1 undergraduate, ages 19, and 18 months. In our Sussex University campus accommodation)

I have only very recently (in the last year), begun to get my personal photo collection out and tell in my writing and talking about that girl and how she informed my research interests and commitments. I started to do that after I finally got my first permanent academic job. After I had got married. And owned a house, and a people carrier. After I became legitimate, and in doing so gained sufficient distance from her, to be able to talk about her. How she couldn’t go to any freshers events, or library induction, or lectures, in the first term of university, because the two and a half days a week allowed at the nursery had to be booked before the academic timetable came out. Or how she only had £20 a week to spend on food. Because before gaining academic legitimacy and sufficient distance, I was too afraid of being exposed (in my scruffy underpants), of people realising that I didn’t belong, if they realised who I was.

And so I didn’t do anything political. I did nothing to stand up and demand a place for her, and others like her, or just those different in any way, in higher education.

And then much more recently, once I moved to a new department, I began to come across different approaches to academic writing that validated the personal more. This included among my PhD students. One particular student, came to me already well into her PhD, with an already developed, very particular writing style. When I read what there was of the work, I found the tone to be angry, emotive, personal, confessional; everything that I had been meticulously taught in my sociology training, had no place in good, clean (as opposed to grubby) quasi-scientific writing. And so in supervision, I suggested to the student that we really needed to revisit this writing style.

Thank goodness, the student confidently put me in my place by explaining that ‘no. It’s fine. People write like that. It’s meant to be like that.’ We embarked on a dialogue whereby I kept pressing her anxiously for emergent ‘patterns in the data’, while she patiently insisted that she wished the individual stories of these marginalised individuals to be allowed space to come forward in their own words, as unique experiences. Luckily, the student had sufficient confidence, and I a sufficiently persuadable supervisory style, that the story had a happy ending. She continued her PhD with the voice(s) she had chosen. And my main contribution was in succeeding in persuading her to do the mechanics, where this had felt blocked, of generating words into pages into chapters and a full draft (that passed without corrections). But had the student been less assertive or myself more so, the story could have had a much less happy ending, much like my own dull book.

And so I feel extremely grateful to have been able to personally benefit from what I learned from one of my students in this way (and being far from the only time that I have learned from my students). So I really feel two take home messages from this messy, perhaps self-indulgent confessional. One is about the often untapped potential of the mutual collaborative learning opportunity offered through our interactions in all of our academic teaching and peer relationships, if we remain open to them. The second is that I think the sooner we are able to locate what it is that motivates our research interests at a deep personal level, the more insightful (and less boring), our writing can become.


Penny Jane Burke (2008): Writing, Power and Voice: Access to and Participation in Higher Education. Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education, 15:2, 199-210.

Richardson, L (2001). Getting personal: Writing-stories. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 14 (1) pp. 33-38.

For your peer-led independent session next week (Oct. 26), Tamsin, Rebecca and Emily suggest that you read: Beyond Skills: Embodying writerly practices through the doctorate.

Barnacle and Dall ‘Alba (p. 1146) write about the ‘double struggle’ involved in thesis writing.  They characterise this as ‘an exercise in both meaning making, or discovery, and learning how to do research writing, or be a research writer – bearing in mind that in practice…the two are necessarily intertwined…’

We think it would be worth exploring this ‘double struggle’ given that it is becoming a theme when we meet.  In particular it might be worth talking and writing about the way in which this challenge resonates with each of you.  How do you address or indeed, how might you address it in future?

Please do bring the writing that you generate to the next session to share if you would like to.

For the next whole-group session (Nov. 2) Tamsin, Rebecca and Emily would like you to bring some ‘data’ in whatever form or stage or state.  Don’t worry if you feel that you don’t have any yet.  Think innovatively about what could constitute your data.  In the session we will address the question of ‘what is our data’ and use this as a basis for our writing in the session.



8 thoughts on “Session 3: Boundaries

  1. Fawzia says:

    Hi guys, I left a comment regarding session 3 which I posted under session 2…. whoops. There are chimpanzees with better technological competency than myself….

    Liked by 2 people

  2. emilydanvers says:

    This post is really wonderful and moving and theoretically stimulating – it is so generous of you to share it with us all.

    Working with (and tolerating) ambiguity.

    I bounded into the PhD full of ideas, full of what I thought I knew about my topic – students and critical thinking. I may have felt a lot of uncertainty about whether I’m the sort of person to get a PhD done but the topic itself was not uncertain to me. I taught it. It’s just one concept – so I must know it. Right?

    But as I started reading this certainty slowly unravelled. I saw in my reading that critical thinking meant multiple things and, of course, it meant everything to me, meaning I didn’t want to ignore any of the multiple interpretations on offer. I then speed-dated different theorists, not quite knowing which one to settle down with. In truth, it was a bit of a mess. But eventually, I tidied it away into a neat proposal and I was ready to go.

    And then it got messier again. Halfway through collecting my data, I attended a conference which shifted my thinking entirely. I became interested in feminist new materialist theories which encourage researchers to think not just about language but about materiality – or the stuff of things. As my research design was focused very much around people and their words, this was a real challenge to my thinking. These theorists challenged me to ask was critical thinking really about the person doing the thinking or the context that made it possible in a particular moment or time? I considered what role buildings, rooms, atmospheres, clothing, books, bodies, written essays, digital technology had to do with critical thinking? I wondered what if we see critical thinking not just as something possessed by a ‘knower’ but as something embodied and enacted, and as a consequence, always shifting and changing? This provocation was a real challenge to me as someone who felt her research design was already ‘fixed’. I wanted a framework, thanks – not a list of bloody difficult questions.

    So I started to then ‘look’ for the material as I wrote. I re-read my data for ‘things’, I wrote about the atmosphere in the classroom, I inserted the word ‘material’ hundreds of times in the text. I shifted into speaking that research methodology and embodying it in my writing. And simultaneously I worried it was becoming a fetish object in my work – given overdue focus, because that it was ‘new materialist thinkers’ should do. I was also using post structural theories which both complemented and clashed this ‘new’ thinking, requiring me to think about what theory made it possible to say about my data (and what it made possible to write about it). So as I wrote I was moving forward and backwards, within and between paradigms. I learnt to embrace the fact that my research was a bit messy and find theorists who allowed me to work with that messiness rather than bring it to order. I found an imperfect solution and tried to write in a way that felt generative, rather than closed – speculative, rather than certain – but at the same time being sure I was convincing of my ‘expertise’, It was a difficult process of becoming writer/researcher that is given very little space, on refection, in the PhD as a pedagogical process.

    In the end, I also came to realise that my research design had created a set of boundaries not just around what I could ‘find out’ in my fieldwork – but about what it was possible to say in my writing. This is about how our methodologies become our writing styles in that we adopt the language and form of the theorists we use. These can give us a recognised structure for how to analyse our work but perhaps they also restrict us to speak as action researchers or critical theorists do. Becoming a research writer for me was about developing my writing confidence to speak with and not just to other theorists in the field. That they wouldn’t just respond with laughter or yawns or pity! Once I felt I could legitimately speak in that space (because I had a couple of vaguely interesting things to say to a few interested people and I’d hung around long enough to feel I ‘must’ belong) then I spoke up and the words came much easier.

    I should say here that writing was my data analysis. I only knew what I found out as I wrote it down. I don’t just mean as complete chapters. For example, I wrote reflections on my interviews to understand what went on and used that as a form of ‘data’ too. It was sort of an accidental ethnography. Writing into meaning was my analytical tool – if only I’d know to call it that then!

    Just to finish I wanted to emphasise that our thesis writing is very much about us but it is also about the paradigms we are working with, the nature of our topic, the particular socio-political moment we are writing in. It is a social, embodied practice becoming a research writer. As a consequence it is good to interrogate why we write in the way we do, what paradigms we might be writing under, whose voice are we speaking in the words we use and who are we speaking to.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. rebwebb50 says:

    It’s always hard to follow on from those who have gone before, especially when they have written so poignantly and movingly about things that matter to them and that require some pushing of boundaries and the taking of risks….

    In the session this week I shared an excerpt from my PhD thesis which I confessed wasn’t a section that made me ‘glow’ on revisitng it. It was hard to make the decision to share it. This was partly because, I admit, I didn’t feel that it showed me at my shiniest best. But more than this, the writing had been required to do a lot of ‘work’ in my introductory chapter to my thesis (I remember cutting it and cutting it further) and I wasn’t that confident that it had really done what I had required of it at the time. There had been a process of delineating, to capture in just a few hundred words, the shuffling and shifting, and jiggling and wiggling that had taken place throughout my PhD. This had been necessary for me at the time – almost as ‘ground clearing’ – in order that I felt I could make a space from which to write with some legitimacy. ‘This is MEEEEE here now and this was MEEEE…before…(ish)’ Certainly, this was about my own logic of enquiry (so beautifully explored by Dunne, Prior and Yates (2005) in ‘Becoming A Researcher’).

    In the piece that I circulated in the session (and that I will attach if I can work out how to attach it to a ‘comment’) I spoke in terms of ‘paradigm shifts’. This shift was from a position of greater certainty to one of less, embracing wholeheartedly a poststructural ‘take’ of my subject matter (the issue of the doing of children’s rights in a the everyday of primary school life). Representing the process as I did in the piece I shared as moments of ‘arrival’ and ‘departure’ and ‘arrival’, made the process sound relatively painless, I cut out the references to the howling and wailing and gnashing of teeth, and the deviations into the hellishly egotistical identity crises I suffered/generated coming into a PhD as I did in mid-life and feeling that the rug had been pulled from beneath me. I hacked out references to feelings of wounded pride I’d experienced as my supervisor had suggested that I’d come to PhD study to learn something new and to look with fresh eyes…My eyes had done me quite well in the education sytem up until then. How dare she suggest anything other! Paradoxically, in presenting a pardigm shift and a boundary drawing which required negotiation and discomfort, I ended up presented something on the page that was wrinkle free, self-contained within its own tiny world of self-righteous positioning….’now I know who I am….and this is what it means I can say to you…’. At least that is how it reads to me now and – if I am frank- was another reason I was rather embarrassed about sharing it.

    However, I do also recall that there had been something wonderfully cathartic about this storying and statement of my paradigmatic shift in my early docotral positioning in this opening chapter of my thesis. It had meant that I had felt that I could assert a position from which i could make claims and from which I could don my narratorial garb with panache. So for all my discomfort and uncertainty, this was also curiously satisfying as boundary drawing; in order to work against established modernist discourses of rights, I had a writerly position and identity of some recognised and established worth to write within. We all need a ‘home’ in our writing, and for me my paradigmatic assertions of ‘feminist poststructuralist’ held me sufficient to do the job.



  4. trayfuller says:

    I love this blog about ‘showing my knickers’ though I’m not clear who wrote it. Its such a poignant metaphor. Sometimes I think we spend our whole time in academia trying to prevent people finding out that we feel real shabby underneath. Perhaps that shabbiness is what makes us seek out the potential ‘gold star’ that a PHD seems to represent. And why in our imagination the other girls are always the ones whose knickers are Ariel white. So, perhaps like our knickers, our writing seems like the thing that other people ‘do well’, or ‘do easily’-or maybe that’s just me.
    I do find this blog inspiring so thank you everyone who has contributed.


  5. Gunjan says:

    This entry on ‘showing my knickers’ has given me SO much to think about. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading and re-reading this confessional style of writing, and the fact that we are ‘getting personal’. This is more so after attending the Social Movements Learning event last Wednesday wherein many many activist-academics spoke about their learning and knowledge production through social movements and during their everyday life of struggles or everyday struggles of life, and how the issue of bringing one’s ‘activist’ voice into academia could be resolved.


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