Possibly coming unstuck at the first hurdle, possibly not.

I started writing this post with less than two weeks to go until the wedding, soon after I’d woken up at 4am covered in hives. They were even on my face. Now, there are millions of people in the world in far more worrisome situations than having to plan a wedding – not least the 3,000 refugees in Calais who Brendan had just spent the day handing out supplies to – and it was clearly time for me to focus on something else. Fortunately my thesis lurks here in the background; a hairy skulking monster with a wide, lecherous grin.

I had a couple of days on the number 55 with Guy Thomas’s very readable how-to guide recently and it got me thinking about my research question. I really need to speak to some more worldly-wise people about this very soon because, while my thesis idea has been received quite positively so far, the question I am seeking to answer began to retreat. I couldn’t even determine which of Thomas’ four basic types of research question it is.

So let’s just bung down all the questions I noted on the bus:

  • Why do we find it difficult to talk to people we disagree with?
  • Are our differences reconcilable?
  • What does it mean to reconcile our differences?
  • As academics, how divorced from reality are we?
  • How can we widen our circles of mutual influence?
  • How can academics help each other to widen their circles of mutual influence?
  • What happens when academics mindfully converse with those outside their usual networks?
  • How does broadening our conversational networks affect academic practice?

Okay… now I’ve done that it seems clearer that what I’m looking at is a ‘what happens when’ question. The penultimate one is singing the most sweetly to me at the moment, so I’ll use that as my working title. I think the final question points too strongly towards impact on academic practice; on one hand I think that’s obviously going to be implicit in a question like what happens when you get academics to do X. On the other hand, in doing this project I do want to question the notion and boundaries of academic practice. So I want to keep it broad for now.

Of course the problem with such a broad question is precision (Guy Thomas calls this ‘preciseness’; not sure why). I think with a project like this, ‘interesting’ outcomes are necessarily and appropriately going to be identified and highlighted by the participants themselves. And of course there are only going to be ten primary participants, so my question is really ‘what happens when these academics mindfully converse with those outside their usual networks’. So this is the prima facie question that will direct my literature review. I will start with literature on conversation, perspective and interpretation, the nature and boundaries of academic practice and ‘holistic’ views of academic life, and methodological reading – e.g. reports of projects with similar research designs.

Another key question Thomas asks at this stage is about ‘doability’ (or feasibility I guess). The three biggest potential stumbling blocks as far as I can see are ethics, recruitment and the maintenance of participation. More on those later.

The next question Thomas asks is about motivation, which is relatively easy; I am intrigued by the notion of conversation as an art, by the existence of so many different points of view and the possibility of being able to understand all of them. Personally, I don’t find conversation easy; I know I can do it well when I prepare and focus, but I rarely feel the inclination to do that. In my recent observations I am finding many people (myself included) to be lazy conversationalists; killing time (and indeed the conversation) by asking basic and/or uninteresting questions. I want to get better at conversation because I believe it has the power to change us. However, Thomas warns against being committed to any position, or slipping into activism or campaigning for an issue, and this is something I really need to guard against. I need to maintain a disciplined, critical spirit.

Upcoming posts:

  • Ethics questions and ideas – in time to ask tutors for advice.
  • Draft introduction. The introduction should be a working document. Hence I should start writing it now, apparently. I’ve ordered Becker’s (2008) ‘how to start and finish your thesis’.
  • Literature review: link to working checklist of reading material
  • Responses to literature
  • Gantt chart of project plan (I saw a nice one of these made of lego once, but to be honest I’ll probably just use a google spreadsheet, seeing as there’s enough crap in my flat already).
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