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Skip to 0 minutes and 3 seconds[TYPING]

Skip to 0 minutes and 15 secondsSo it's very true that knowledge is language, and that there are other dimensions to language. So the two things that I would probably pick up on is the critical stance that a student needs to take when they're engaging with that knowledge. So it isn't just a blurt of knowledge on the paper. The knowledge has to be crafted in particular ways around how you evaluate the knowledge. So students have to learn what is the appropriate way to critique and evaluate the literature that they're engaging with. So that interpersonal aspect to knowledge where they are finding the right critical voice is a really important part. And then there's another part, as well, which is, how do you organise that knowledge?

Skip to 0 minutes and 54 secondsSo you can't just dump the literature review on the paper, and think that it's going to somehow miraculously be in the right shape. You have to actually lead the reader through a path. And I think one of the critical things about a literature review, in a sense, a literature review is a map. Here is the map of all the kinds of literature that I'm engaging with. Yet, the writing is a line. So you have to write your way through this map in a linear fashion, which means you have to be very careful around the way you organise your text. And organisation of a text can be a really critical feature and difficult thing for students to master.

Skip to 1 minute and 29 secondsSo how, for example, can a person or student organise their literature review so that at the very front, we know what's coming, we know what to expect? And then as we go through it, the beginnings of each paragraph, there's some high-level organisation that is predictive, and almost like signpost of telling the reader what's coming. And I think that students forget the value of the textual signpost, which I say to my students, be kind to the reader, me, in other words. Be kind to me. Tell me where you're going so I know what's coming. Tell me what you've said so I know what's important.

Skip to 2 minutes and 3 secondsAnd that kind of aspect of holding the knowledge in a very organised and tight way, I think, is particularly difficult for some students to master. But you can explicitly teach that in ways that are quite simple. You can show them lots of literature review. You can do little activities whereby you cut up literature reviews, and get students to reorganise them, and put them in the right place, and discuss why does something go, for example, at the beginning as opposed to the middle or the end? And how do all the parts of it support other parts of it? So it's actually quite a tightly organised piece.

Skip to 2 minutes and 36 secondsAnd of course, that means that with students, one of the things you have to scaffold for them is the process of writing a literature review, that you can't just come up with it, you actually draft it, and redraft it, and recraft it, and change its shape till it's gradually the thing that you want and the thing that stands well, a bit like making a sculpture in a way. You put all the different touches on it, and then you glaze it, and then you smooth it so that the final piece is something that's really good. It really needs to be a conversation that is critical and produces an argument, leads obviously.

Skip to 3 minutes and 13 secondsAnd that's where the work is and the craft is, to produce an account of all of the material that other people have produced. That leads kind of inexorably to where you want to take the field, what you want to do with your research question. Yes, I do observe some different patterns between the people who are writing in their first language and the people who are writing in their second language. And often, from my observation, they tend to be often quite superficial differences. The sorts of discourse markers that people who come from a different language background will use tend to be not what we would normally use in an Australian English context or native speaker context.

Skip to 4 minutes and 3 secondsA lot of words like besides, to introduce some contrast.

Skip to 4 minutes and 13 secondsIf you can relexify those choices, if you can just give the students different vocabulary for making those same semantic relations, then that's a fairly easy fix.

Skip to 4 minutes and 35 secondsThere are some more fundamental differences. And I think the western manner of writing a synopsis of what we want to write or a text preview, if you like. So saying what we're going to say, then saying it, and then reminding the reader of what we've said. That's not a model that everybody uses in other countries. The literature review needs to weave that very, very particular result that was found by this particular study into this global picture, this big picture that we don't totally know about yet. But we can see it shaping up. So that the literature review, of course, will be finalised after other parts of the thesis have been written.

Skip to 5 minutes and 28 secondsBut it needs to be constructed, even in the beginning, as something that's going to produce that sense of the relationship between the detail and the big picture. Otherwise, it's not going to work as a PhD thesis. It's really what distinguishes honours, masters, everything else from the PhD, is that ability to have depth and scope. So quite a lot of depth, and a reasonable amount of scope. But even if it's a very particular study itself, it's got to have quite a lot of general relevance for some policy, or for some theory, or for some thing that's bigger than the thesis project itself.

Skip to 6 minutes and 17 secondsWhen you've got to manipulate the degree of technicality and specialisation in your field, with that really, really subtle engagement between your voice and all the other voices, and you're also modelling a really peculiar kind of audience in a way-- when it's a thesis-- you're still the student, but you're just about to become the world expert. And so the textual function in systemic functional linguistics, which is the function of language that brings together the ideas and the relationship between the writer and the reader, control of that is really crucial. In functional linguistics, there are nearly always long stretches of spoken text or quite long written texts that people are analysing, and analysing with quite close analysis.

Skip to 7 minutes and 21 secondsSo one of the difficulties is that they can go down an analytical rabbit hole, and get stuck down there, and find it very difficult to pull back up. So they're comfortable in the zone of, oh, look at all these features that are occurring in this text that you might not expect or that are really different from the features that occur in this other text or this other genre, or they're really comfortable with, the person does this now, and then the other person says this now, and the response to that is the other blow by blow description.

Skip to 7 minutes and 56 secondsBut pulling back up to the big picture, when you do that, how you do that, that is a really crucial thing that I think we can help our students with. How you do that at a point by point level, and then how you do that for the whole thesis. And that relates back to specifically the literature review as well, because the literature review needs to weave that very, very particular result that was found by this particular study into this global picture, this big picture that we don't totally know about yet. But we can see it shaping up so that the literature review, of course, will be finalised after other parts of the thesis that have been written.

Skip to 8 minutes and 48 secondsBut it needs to be constructed, even in the beginning, as something that's going to produce that sense of the relationship between the detail and the big picture.

Coherence and the flow of information

Coherence and flow - key aspects of readability

As well as signalling some critical engagement with the work of other scholars, reviewers also need to present information in a way that works for readers. Students often get feedback on their writing that suggest their text is hard to follow - that might be a matter of logic in the sequencing of points in an argument, but it’s usually a comment on coherence. The reader feels like they’re struggling to make sense of the text.

If readers are not able to smoothly and quickly go from one paragraph to the next, and maintain a clear sense of where a text is heading, and why it’s going there at a given moment, the writing could be better. It is the writer’s job to minimise the chance of readers getting bogged down, losing the thread, and forgetting what was said previously. If readers have to work too hard to make sense of what is being presented, they’ll get frustrated and bored. To avoid problems like this, we need to consider how texts can be designed to help readers see the whole, while moving through individual paragraphs, and to see connection between paragraphs.

Conversation starter

  • When you’re drafting a text, do you find it difficult to control the flow of information you are presenting?

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This video is from the free online course:

Research Writing: How to Do a Literature Review

University of Wollongong

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