The Path to Successful Thesis Writing

by Carolyn Mamchur

Very early in the process, I teach my students the classic design of the 5 chapter format most often used in the humanities.  I do this even though I know students, especially those using art-based research may deviate from the norm.  As in art, before you create your own model, you start with the classics, the classics is where we begin.  Art students understand and accept this.

I attach a function to each chapter or section.   The ‘job’ of section one is to define purpose and need.  What and why.   Need can be of two threads, personal need to do the work and educational value - why this work is needed in the world of art education.  A common  question the external will ask is, “What is the significance of this work?  What contribution does it make?

The ‘job’ of section two is to present a review of the literature to demonstrate that the student has knowledge of her subject, that she has found researchers, theorists, philosophers, other artists who have supported and laid the foundation for the student’s ideas (or that if they disagree with the hypothesis, the student can counter with an argument that explains the differing views). In scholarship, it is important to research both, those who agree and those who differ.

The ‘job’ of section three is to describe the methodology, the “how” of the work.  This is the biggest chapter.  It is the place that many other researches will go if they want to build on the student’s work.  This is the most creative part of the dissertation.  And it is the part the student must love.  If this part feels like a hardship, something the student might dread, it is not likely the work will get done.

The ‘job’ of section four is typically one of analysis.  This is the most objective part of the work.  What did the student find out?  Here the student uses her more scientific skills.  This can challenge the art student who may feel satisfied with the personal experience, with the creation of the work of art, with the description of how that art was created.  That is not enough.  What is the significance to education of that art making?  How can the student help himself and others make meaning of that process, that experience?  Finding a tool, a paradigm, a categorization, a way to analyze is crucial.  It is the purpose that will inform the best way to analyze the material.

The ‘job’ of section five, the final section is to bring things to a feeling of completion, resolution.  What conclusions can be drawn, what are the implications for education, what might be future studies that continue the work.

Once students know the function of the classic structure, they are ready to begin the work.  That’s right.  I do all of before they write, before they begin to collect data, before they start their review of the literature.  This helps to clarify the process and what will be expected.  I also suggest that students read several examples of thesis in the classic structure.

Secondly, I invite students to write a proposal.  The most important part of the proposal is the first sentence.  Students must be able to write, in one sentence…’The purpose of this dissertation is to ……..’

One sentence!  That is a real struggle.  Often I have students do this in class, with other students asking questions.  It is an amazing clarifying process.  “A problem statement is composed entirely of words about finding out and contains no words justifying a topic of investigation”. (Van Wagenen, Writing a Thesis)

The job at the beginning, the job that is clarified by the one sentence purpose statement is discovering a subject.  What is it, really, that the student wants to do?  This demands deep self exploration.  If this initial work is not done, abandoned projects may filter the hallways.   It is at this point that the language of creative process becomes helpful.  Most of my students have taken a course with me, and know the language of the four essential elements of creative process that Linda has described in this paper.  Using that terminology is not necessary, however, it is very useful.

Often the student begins the library search next, searching for the specifics that are needed for the work.  Here the nature of the students, their learning styles, often affects the way they go about this process.  Most students in the arts earning masters and doctorates are highly intuitive and see connections in everything.  It is important to impress upon these students that they use only the details that count. Only the details important for their subject, only the ones that earn their keep.

Some will find ten quotes, for example, which say the same thing and the lit review becomes a listing of references.  This does not enhance meaning and move the work forward.  Which specific, which quote, does the job best?  Which links to another in a good transition, adding something to the meaning.  A lot of playing with ideas and a lot of learning happens here.  Often students have to go back and reread articles to make sure deep understanding has occurred.

The research/project/art work/investigation happens.  Data is collected, arguments are made, art work is produced, journals are kept, students are observed, whatever the research demands occurs.  Documentation, lots of documentation goes along with the work.  A writer writes from abundance.  This the place for too much.  Students often think they will remember an idea, a feeling, an observation.  But a year passes, and memory fades.  Document every day, is a recommendation I suggest.

Finally, the student is ready to write a first draft of the work.  This draft can ramble.  It can be organic.  It often is with arts students.  Some want to work from an outline; but most don’t.

As I read the first draft, I circle aspects using the original labels that we examined.  This could be purpose, this need, this is your method, this could go into the conclusion.   Now, you may think these things are obvious; but they are not.  The students needs to be guided through this analysis of their own work.  They have all the parts, but there is no real design at this point.

If the traditional 5 chapters work, then students follow it.  If that isn’t the most useful to bring meaning and beauty to the work, then we play with the structure.  If we can come up with a good structure, a good framework, the work falls into place.  The design must enhance the meaning.  It is the most important work I do with students.

In creating the design, in deciding on headings, on what goes where, a lot of editing goes on.   We take a lot out.  That may seem like a contradiction.  I ask them to write from abundance, but not keep that abundance.  However, I also encourage my students not to throw away what they edit out, but rather to keep it in a folder on their computers labeled ‘Articles to come’.  “ A good draft might be measured by the amount of good material that has to be discarded. A powerful, rich draft grows from abundant soil.  Besides, you can save the discarded good stuff for another day”. (Murray, The Craft of Revision)

Selecting a design also demands careful consideration of the audience.  How can the various audiences best make sense of the work.  The audience that really matters to the student at this time is the examining committee, especially the external examiner.  Is the work clear?   What must go first for the audience to have a readily accessible understanding of what is to come?  This is, as it is in narrative writing, the set up.

Are the specifics ample enough to convince the reader?  Are they integrated into the material in a useful and convincing manner? Are the connectors guiding the reader? “Connectors contribute to the fluency and tone of the text by creating an atmosphere of dialogue and discussion while also keeping the reader oriented to what’s going on.” (Howard & Barton, Thinking on Paper)

Does the middle contain the tension, the true story, the part where the personal meaning and creativity of the student prevails and informs and hopefully delights the reader.  Delight may come from the originality, the importance, the beauty of the heart of the work.

Then, finally, what is the conclusion, the part that will satisfy the reader?  That will give the reader ideas for future work?  That will give the feeling of this part of the work has been resolved, concluded, completed.

In creating the design, we look at all the possibilities, all the ways the work can do the job of the traditional structure, but in a way which makes most sense for the work at hand.  Categorization is important.  Attention to the flow, the beauty, the poetry of the piece.  But always with the goal to enhance meaning.  The purpose of design is to provide a living space for all components, both large and small, enhancing meaning.

Finally, I invite students to look at other works which have moved from the traditional to see how other researchers have designed their work.  This leads to consideration of another audience that is important to the student.  That audience is other researchers who will look to his work for inspiration, for information.  The purpose of the dissertation is not only to demonstrate that one is a scholar, but to provide information for other scholars.  That information not only resides in content, but in design.

How does the dream come true?  By working closely with the student early in the game, by helping the students discover the true subjects that will consume their lives for the next two years (or more), by teaching the job of each chapter in a classic structure, by being open to various structures, by using models and by applying the four essential elements of creative process.  Oh, did I mention chocolate cake, the odd glass of wine and lots of heart felt encouragement.

Link to article in The International Journal of Art & Design 28.3, 2009 by Apps, L. and Mamchur, C.

Artful Language: Academic writing for the art student





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