Five PhD students, thoughts, and a couple of questions.
How have you found the writing journey?
“Ahead of the curve! Three minutes before schedule and the group has already started the writing process. Much faster than my own journey, with many stalls and restarts with the backspace key. Writing is sometimes a strange mix of being imaginative and following a structure that falls flat on its face before it even begins. Luckily for PhD students, there are enough distractions from writing itself, such as reading and fair-trade conference wine. When writing develops its own flow, it becomes more enjoyable, with the backspace becoming a minor player in the process.”
“Writing is hard. Like so many paths, there are steep inclines and precipitous drops. Figurative ones, to be certain, but present nonetheless. The steepest incline I have experienced came in the process of challenging my own
assumptions. Not only my unresearched assumptions about my topic, but also my assumptions about my own capacities. Two years on, none of those assumptions still stand. This process led directly to the most precipitous drop. When these assumptions were challenged, I found that all of the several thousand words I had written needed to be tossed. Now, the path is less extreme, but the process of challenging assumptions and cutting work continues.”
How do you test your assumptions within your own research?
“The past is generally a fuzzy product of various sources, each with their own biases and assumptions. Questioning the source can be a dangerous assumption in itself. As the historian can never relive the past, to question the account and its creator can be self-defeating. Within the context of a thesis, testing your assumptions among other historians and the public can have varying levels of value. Asking a scholar about their methodology can allow them to broaden or narrow their focus into a specific area. Conversely, the public can digest your assumptions about the past and think of a significant event in a new light. Overall, the assumptions of history can form a fabric that has a different feel to the reality perceived at the time. Weaving these narratives could result in a dangerous new fashion.”
“The skeptic’s dream – that we are able somehow to interrogate data cleanly and scientifically, free of the baggage of our own assumptions, upbringing, social and cultural perspectives is, I believe, wrong. The very act of asking a question creates a set of assumptions that constrain the ways in which the question itself can be understood, discussed, and answered. Also, by posing the question we engage in a process of silencing the many other questions which could have been asked – we even say we are ‘framing’ the question; putting it in a box, focusing. To focus is to exclude.”
“Picking up any of the ‘how to be a PhD’ student guides will likely offer the advice of ‘think about how you will defend this argument in your viva’ or a similar projected future attack that you will have to defend your ideas against. This is no doubt useful, but an external body won’t (or shouldn’t) be the only measure of how valid your work is. I have found that the most powerful driving factor for validating my work is feeling like I have truly found/discovered/or created something. If this was the product of an assumption I made at the start of my research, and if I ignored any evidence that pointed to an alternative, I couldn’t be satisfied with the end result.”
“In the humanities, we don’t really have a trial-and-error approach, but we do have some assumptions that need to be demonstrated with arguments. My PhD was at the beginning based on a naïve and comfortable assumption: that historical sources always tell the truth. Based on that, the rest of the data has to simply follow a well-established script. It was like reading a fairy tale, knowing already that the villain will be defeated. It was reassuring. The more I looked at the evidence, though, the more I realized that that pattern could not be justified. My world fell apart. How I test my assumptions, it does not really matter. Read, think, discuss, keep an open mind. But always question every assumption.”