Reflecting on Qualitative Methods Workshop: Reflections from a PhD

I was in a bit of PhD pickle when I saw Heather’s Tweet about the “reflecting on qualitative methods” workshop having had a tumultuous six-year journey with my doctorate which has included relationship breakdown, fieldwork nightmares, two extended withdrawals and epic debt alongside part-time work as a lecturer, I was pretty frazzled and suffering from major writer’s block. Then came the dreaded email from HR with my final (and I mean final) submission date and I have to say, I felt pretty grim about life at the point. But then the masochist in me reared its ugly, yet highly productive anxious head, and pumped me full of adrenaline right at the same time I saw Heather’s Tweet about the workshop and I thought, hey, I need to do something different, I need to get off this sofa and out of this room, into another with other people who might be going through the same thing as me, or might even know how the hell to move forward. So I guess you could say my expectations were pretty high 🙂 but at the same time, I also took with me a heavy load of baggage that made me think deep down, this is over.

The day was broken down into three main parts. The first included an introduction to the organisers, Heather, Eveleigh and Dan followed by an interesting Key Note speech by Gillian Rose on digital geography. The second and third parts can broadly be described as qualitative and reflexive practicals which included solo and group exercises engaging with free-writing, body and imagined mapping and reflexivity with scenarios and vignettes…oh and a lot of glitter, rhinestones, broken up with coffee, sandwiches and finally a well-deserved round or three at the local boozer. The main focus of this blog are the “practicals” we did during the second and third parts because engaging in these practicals both on my own and in groups, helped me emerge from my toxic writers block and finally feel like I’m ready to just get that thesis in and done!

Freewriting Exercises

I’ve done freewriting before, going right back to GCSE English and Drama when I used to write a lot – plays, poems, stories, memoirs, biographical pieces – everything! Although then it was called stream of consciousness and it inspired me to spend many years journaling. But as I listened to Eveleigh talk us through the notion of freewriting and the potential benefits, after my initial smugness wore off, I started to struggle to remember when I last actually wrote like this. My writing life at the moment consists mainly of editing, rewriting and clarifying all of which take place around the computer keyboard. These exercises were with pen and notebook and I was actually writing.

We did three exercises, one spending a minute writing as though we were one of our own research participants, another on what our theses mean to us and finally, a longer session freewriting on what our methods mean to us. All of them had hugely unexpected benefits for me.

First, the freewriting exercise helped me reconnect to my research question (does growing up after a disaster change young women’s decision-making across their life courses, especially around gender and sexualities?). Reconnecting to my research question then helped me understand the meaning of my participants’ words. For example, the first exercise where we wrote from the perspective of our research participants, I decided to channel one specific person whose story I was struggling to analyse. Writing from her perspective and thinking about the research question helped me to understand the significance of her story and where it fit in terms of the thesis as a whole.

Second, and I guess a pretty big thing and oddly interesting to me was that I realised in that moment that I don’t “write” anymore, not properly, not with  my notebooks and pens because in PhD terms, I’m past that but actually, proper writing is one of the reasons I wanted to do a PhD in the first place. So I rediscovered the part of me where I remembered how much I love writing and why I love it.

Thirdly and finally, across all three exercises, I realised that my PhD had become a demon in itself. One that I was afraid of, one that I resented for never doing what I wanted it to do, one that caused me pain – emotionally and physically and I finally felt free of this. The main thing that helped me here was the freewriting exercise where we wrote about our theses and what they meant to us, Eveleigh giving us prompts such as personifying them. As I was writing, I recalled how my friends refer to my thesis as my “faeces” which usually, even though I laugh, makes me feel a bit prickly because they aren’t actually being affectionate when they say it, but somehow when I wrote it and then read the reflection aloud to the workshop participants, it really did seem funny and suddenly, it didn’t feel threatening to me anymore. In the cold light of day, surrounded by likeminded people, what was scary on my own was now something I could laugh at and also remember to feel happy.

Imagined Mapping and Body Mapping

After lunch, we moved on to Body Mapping which was perfectly placed and mitigated that afternoon slump I usually get around 2 o’clock where I struggle to get anything productive done. The basic premise was to use either a blank piece of paper or a ‘body’ map to explore your research. We were encourage to get up and wander around the RGS, use coloured pens, glitter and rhinestones, to build our embodied visualisations, our maps. This part had two benefits for me.

Firstly, as I said, it woke me up because I had a change of scene. I found a little corner up on the mezzanine, set a couple of my favourite PhD tracks on my playlist and attempted to embody my research onto paper. I didn’t actually end up being able to physically create that much, but sitting up on the quiet mezzanine, high up in a hidden corner gave me a bit of daydreaming space where I could just think, indulgently about the meaning of my work. This is unusual for me as ALL of my daily tasks have to have a productive, measurable outcome and actually, I never achieve my full list. Today though, I could just think.

The second benefit came when we returned to our groups and talked through the exercises. At that point I had had a go at the body map and the freestyle map with the latter going a bit better for me and it made me think about a teaching tool I use in my own classroom to explore intersectionality, reminding me that it’s good to provide a few different ways for students to complete the task as we all learn differently. Talking through the tasks with other researchers helped me feel like part of a community and that struggle was part and parcel of doing a PhD but also that sometimes, it’s important not to suffer in silence as doing a PhD can be a very lonely journey and whilst I have a “PhD buddy,” it’s important to get out of your usual spaces and do something different, like a workshop to see other human beings and support each other.

Reflexivity with Scenarios and Vignettes

The final part of the day involved engaging with a series of two vignettes, each about a PhD researchers’ issues from the field where we would then explore, how to deal with them and why they occurred. To do this exercise we were re-jigged into new groups (which was also great to meet more people at the workshop). However, at first, we had to write individual responses before we each got the chance to speak. Speaking was also managed with a “talking stick.” Whoever held the talking stick could speak but everyone else had to be quiet so not interrupting plus, you were only allowed to recall what you had written down. This was such a great idea because it bought out peoples’ egalitarian sides where the stick was simply passed round and no one talked over each other, which I have to admit is a bad habit of mine so it helped to keep me in check and made me suddenly very aware of how bad my overtalking had gotten! It also made me listen more carefully as well as think more about what other people were saying.

Ending the day with this task put me in a very positive frame of mind because it made me realise how far I have come and how much knowledge I have developed. I know imposter syndrome gets bandied about all the time in academia, but sometimes you do need a bit of assurance that you’re on the right track. Doing this exercise made me realise how much experience I have developed in qualitative research and how lucky I am to have such a strong network at my University where my Director of Studies and colleagues give me a lot of rich feedback and support. I felt grateful for my own personal interests in research methodology and feminist theories that, since I was a teenager, have made me this person. This person who has had a bumpy ole’ ride on this bloody PhD, all of which have led to a unique little contribution to knowledge…Well, it will on 30th August!

My advice to anyone considering going along to a workshop like this? DO IT! The outcomes will surprise and inspire you.

By Lisa Overton, Middlesex University – @scholarlyscribe