Five Thesis tips in Memory of Philippa Maddern

Curly Grained Wood. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Catslash under a CC0 public domain license.

Hello Readers,

It has been some time since I last updated this blog. It was started as a PhD research blog, and saw me through several years of diverse research experiences. I have spent the last few months doing fairly typical post-thesis things such as working outside of academia to make a living, pondering my past and future, renegotiating my identity, and looking ahead to new things. Two things have happened of late that have caused me to get on with the job of making this blog a place for the sharing of ideas once more.

The first is the passing of my primary PhD supervisor Professor Philippa Maddern after a long battle with illness. Philippa was a truly remarkable academic and human being who lived a full and diverse life, and touched countless people with her scholarly brilliance, wit, and advice. I am saddened by this turn of events, and wanted to write something in the spirit of a great mentor and academic hero. As a tireless supporter of doctoral students, she has passed on many invaluable tips to me which I now share below in the list form so popular on the internet.

The second event is the completion of my thesis. My final revisions are now committed, and only a labyrinthine mess of paperwork stands between me and my doctorate. My three thesis examiners provided me with kind and thorough feedback, and the revision process has been a pleasure. I now feel like the journey has truly ended and another begins, and Philippa was my guide on this journey. As a result, I feel that she would be pleased if anything I write here is of any benefit to those on the road to thesis completion.

So without further ado and in memory of Philippa Maddern, here are five research tips that profoundly shaped my thesis writing experience. These comments are not for the seasoned professional, but for those starting the journey that I now end:

1) Always begin with a primary source example

Get stuck in on page one, provide a vignette, and start your analysis. Extended framing and discursive explanation dilute the power of your material, so get it in there as early as possible. If your source material is poetic, eloquent, or beautiful, then this is all the more powerful. It is a little difficult to overemphasise how helpful this very simple advice was for me. When in doubt, follow it. You won’t regret it, I promise.

2) Show, don’t tell

Nobody will believe ambitious claims if they are not demonstrated in action early on. Guide the reader into your argument, don’t just start arguing. This links back to number one. The reader will be more likely to believe your claims if your writing, in good medieval style, is a ductus that guides them into the topic through demonstration. After all, it is education (from e ducere, to lead out). Philippa was also fond of the medieval notion of the exempluman extended anecdote designed to impress a message upon the reader.

3) Read against the grain

Philippa loved to use this term, which she inherited from Patricia Crawford, her mentor at the University of Western Australia. I think that this statement can be interpreted in many ways, but I have always taken it to mean that some of the most rewarding insights that one can glean from material come not from what it reveals, but from what it conceals. This attitude is derived from feminist theory, but is widely applicable.

4) Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell it to them, and tell them what you told them

Philippa was an avid supporter of ‘signposting’, those references to the structure of a thesis that guide the reader through it in an orderly fashion. Confusion dilutes meaning, irritates the reader, and lessens the impact of ideas. The clearer your structure, the better presented your argument. Don’t be afraid to err on the side of over-signposting, but never patronise your reader.

5) Always scrutinise your methodology

As anyone who knew Philippa can attest, matters of disciplinarity and technique were a source of constant interest and reexamination. Only by moving outside of the debate within a particular discipline and interrogating the context within which we make truth claims or read material can we progress as scholars. Philippa was not a fan of partisanship in methodology, and read widely and voraciously. As a result, her many years of experience culminated in a keen instinct for identifying the strengths, weaknesses, and possibilities of any given approach. Only breadth of reading and a tireless hermeneutics of suspicion can bring these insights. This can be a challenge for  a PhD student just starting out, but my advice would be to forget the notion that any book is ‘irrelevant’ to your work. Be a reflexive practitioner, to phrase it in a slightly glib social science manner.


One thought on “Five Thesis tips in Memory of Philippa Maddern

  1. Hi James,

    I knew Pip at Oxford (Hulme Common Room, Brasenose College). I ran into her a couple of times on occasional visits to the UWA campus. A Christmas card from mutual friends was the first I heard of her death. Saddened to hear of her passing, especially so young. Looking for more information, I came across your blog. Hi and good luck! And congrats on the PhD.

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