Revisiting the research journal…

This morning I was preparing my section of a literature review workshop that we are offering to a group of secondary teachers who are part of our cohort supervision project. My section involved showing the students how I moved from reading to conceptual mapping as I went about the process of my own literature review. So I’ve spent the morning lost in reverie as I trawled through the research journals I kept as part of my PhD and retracing the way I went about constructing my own lit review.

In among the notes, entries and artefacts collected as part of my PhD journey are little bits and pieces of my life at the time. A note from a year 12 student that said ‘you changed my life that day’ and thanking me for the care I showed her during a tough final year, chopped out reviews of fiction books I wanted to read (when I had time to read for pleasure!), a letter from my school principal when I left full-time teaching to finish my PhD that nearly makes me cry, a ticket stub from a holiday where I was lost in the wild, wonderful beauty of nature- all this and more I have stumbled upon. The intermingling of my personal and professional life is not lost on me as I look through my research journals. Each entry charts a key moment on the journey of my PhD and the challenges, successes and incidents that were proving to be so important at the time.

Littered throughout my journals are tiny sketches – visual representations of how I was feeling as I navigated my way through a project that was unlike any I had undertaken before. I have never been an artist but throughout my PhD I found myself sketching a little stick figure me. On the days were things were hard I might have sketched my little stick figure head, trapped in a vice, feeling squashed from all directions as I tried to work my way through a muddle. Two days later little stick figure me has wings and is starting to fly as I found a breakthrough and a way of representing a concept. Another day little stick figure me is like evil knieval standing before three flaming wheels- hurdles of the journey that I needed to jump. I filled three big visual diaries as I completed my PhD, and each one has a heading chopped from a magazine- arbitrarily chopped out in advance and stuck in, there ended up being synergies between the headings and the concepts- whether the heading gave me an idea for what to write each day I can’t be sure.

I had thought about having a digital blog throughout my thesis, but in the end I went for the visual diaries as there was something about them that enabled me to chart my journey, my thoughts, my tensions in a most visceral and raw form. I worried that if I had a blog it was too open, too public and there were parts of my journey I wanted to record but didn’t want anyone else to see. Even now I re-read some of the tough moments and wince at the pain that is inked across the page in my scrawly handwriting. Students often talk about the challenges they face, the way their personal lives implode and explode at key moments of their PhD journey and in my own diaries I found these moments when I re-read the section of my confirmation of candidature, a professional moment juxtaposed by my father’s resuscitation and subsequent illnesses. The research journals also show the thoughts and considerations I made as I grappled with the decision of whether to leave full-time school teaching and head down the path of academia. In one sketch little stick figure me is poised, standing before a signpost and not sure which way to turn. Through revisiting my journals I can remember the challenges and can remind myself of the journey my students are currently taking.

Whenever a new student starts I tell them to start a research journal. I encourage them to write in it frequently and often so that they too can record the journey they are undertaking and they can see the evolution of their thinking. For me, this is one of the best parts of revisiting my journals. I can actually see my understanding growing. I can watch the development of my knowledge about methodology, theoretical frameworks, of the method I took in analysing my data. I can see the mistakes I made, the detours, the impasses and the moments where my light bulb metaphorically clicked on and I could move forward. The entries where I wrote about the process transcription and analysis became central parts of my research design chapter, allowing me to step instantly back into the processes I was employing. There is perhaps only one thing missing from my research journal – and that’s a drawing of little stick figure me handing over the final product-by then I must have been too excited to sketch it.

I still keep a research journal, although now I keep it in my laptop – an integration of notepad, one note, files with meticulous headings. Looking back through my PhD journals though I am struck by how much I love them. The feel, the touch, the way I can be instantly transported back to a moment in time. My laptop screen doesn’t accomplish this in the same way.

 I think it’s time to go buy a new visual diary and start anew.


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