Monday, 16 January 2012

#tweetyourthesis: elegant simplicity

I think it's about time that I talked about #tweetyourthesis in rather more than 140 characters. Susan Greenberg and Anne Welsh have provided excellent accounts of how it all happened: conversation at a dinner for PhD students turned to questions of how concisely to summarise your thesis. Susan picked up the idea and tweeted it first, but then I chimed in with the idea that if you can't summarise your research question or problem in a tweet then it requires more work. Why did I do this? Well because as Ernesto Priego says, it's something I often say IRL, and had been doing so that evening. One of my colleagues used to say that the argument/question/problem of the PhD dissertation ought to be summed up on the back of a postcard- so in conversation several of us decided that the most technologically current version of this must be a tweet.

This is not something I only say to PhD students. I read a lot of research proposals- I'm Vice Dean: Research for UCL Faculty of Arts and Humanties and a member of the AHRC Peer Review College, and periodically review proposals for other international councils. I find it surprising how often people cannot summarise their proposed research in a sentence or two. The research question section ought not to be a paragraph long, but it very often is. Furthermore, I almost always find that if there is a long, rambling 'question' the rest of the proposal is often weak, confused and lacking in clarity in other areas, such as methodology or research context. However, the best proposals are able to convey complex concepts in clear, concise, precise terms. I have therefore come to the conclusion that being clear in your own mind about what you are aiming to do has a lot to do with having a properly worked out plan of what your research is going to be about, and why it might matter.

This is why I insist that my PhD students ought to think carefully about their question. I also find that the very best PhD work is such that when you have finished reading a dissertation it is immediately clear to you what the original contribution of the research is. If I am examining a PhD and can't immediately work out either what the main question is or what its contribution may be then I worry about its quality.

The exercise of summing up your research concisely is therefore not about dumbing down. As I often say to people, sometimes the most difficult questions are seemingly simple. Huge amounts of ink have been spilt over 'What are the causes of the first world war' or 'Why can't Hamlet take revenge?' and this seems likely to continue for a while yet. A lot of people in my field get very exercised about 'What is digital humanities?'. I don't think the people at CERN thought it was especially easy to answer 'How can we find the Higgs Boson, and what might happen if we do?' Nor do I think that Crick and Watson thought that their efforts to answer the question 'What is the structure of DNA?' were based on a programme of easy, pointless research. My point is therefore that just because your question is simple it doesn't mean your research must be simplistic.

I also think there has been a bit of a misunderstanding about understanding. Some people have objected that in science they are dealing with very complex concepts and new ideas that the public don't yet understand, if they ever will. That still, to my mind does not rule out being able to communicate your topic concisely to people in your own field. I didn't say that everyone has to understand your research: in the case of my PhD students I just want them to be able to communicate it to me, their examiners, and, ideally people who might give them a job, if it's in academia. If you can also explain it to a member of the public, that’s even better.

But this is also about something very much deeper in the academic psyche. There are some people who feel, as I do, that the greatest and most impressive form of scholarship is to be able to express very complex ideas in a seemingly simple way, so that they may be easily understood. It's the swan argument- you make it all look easy, and only another expert can tell how hard you are working. If, for example, you watch a truly expert rider doing dressage it looks as though they are just sitting still and the horse is doing beautiful, elegant movements because it wants to. Yet if I or most average riders were to get onto the same horse we’d be eating the arena floor in seconds. Only when you know a bit about riding, can you appreciate what incredibly hard work it is to sit apparently still and ask a huge, powerful creature to do what you want it to, with tiny movements of your hands, legs and body. That is what I aspire to in research myself: power and elegance that appears effortless. I do know, however, that some scholars feel that the opposite is true: only if you express yourself in such complex language that only a very few of the brightest of your colleagues and comprehend it are you a true intellectual. I have to say that I cannot agree with that view. That in the end is why it’s elegant, not dumb, to be able to tweet your thesis.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for a great post, Claire. "I'd have written less, but I had no time" as the old quote goes: it perhaps applies more than average in academia, where people can sometimes hide behind obscure words and overly-long sentences.

    You might be interested in Dissertation Haiku: as the name suggests, it challenges students to share their theses in haiku form. Perhaps all final-stage students should be asked to write a haiku!