It’s like a jungle … metaphors for literature review

Tasmania wilderness © Belinda Allen

A paper by Barabara Kamler and Pat Thompson discusses the anxieties around doctoral writing. They say: “What often looks like poor writing is also a textual struggle to take on a scholarly identity and become authoritative.” In this study they looked at the power of metaphor in how research writing is approached by doctoral students. The metaphors expressed by students tended to position the researcher as overwhelmed, helpless and/or lost. Workshopping these metaphors to develop more positive images (for example, a dinner party) improved the researchers’ confidence in approaching the task, and their positive expression of an authorial voice. As I am currently working on (and feeling overwhelmed by!) my lit review, I thought I would like to exorcise my negative metaphors and develop positive ones:

The jungle
It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from goin’ under (Grandmaster Flash)

I’m fighting through thick jungle, at any point I may be tripped by a creeper that I haven’t seen, or ambushed by a wily jungle animal. I’m collecting plants and flowers for my museum collection – I am distracted by those that look or smell most beautiful, but it’s important that I make a representative collection and can justify each specimen.

At almost every step, there is a tantalising byway where I see glimpses of plants that I have not yet collected – but are they important? I need to compare them with all the others, but my bag is so full I can’t easily look through them all. Perhaps I should collect them just in case …. But the weight of all the specimens is slowing me down and I wonder if I will ever find my way out and be able to make sense of the collection.

Kamler & Thomson (2006) point out that negativity in how the task of literature review (and indeed the PhD study) are perceived can adversely affect feelings of self-efficacy in completing the task. Negative perceptions emerge when metaphors are created, and analysing and rethinking the metaphor can help to make perceptions more positive. Lee & Kamler (2008) found that such negative self-perception reduces confidence and authority in writing, and minimises the author’s voice in a way that is detrimental to doctoral writing where the authorial voice is essential.


I consume so much that I must surely explode, or heave up half-digested, multi-coloured vomit: a morsel of truth here, a kernel of wisdom there – but they do not cohere. To me it is of interest to see how what I have consumed emerges and mixes together, to anyone else – a mess made by a glutton. The expectation of my academic overlords is that I will partake modestly, chew each mouthful 37 times, then spit it out or swallow. Methodical and selective; what I choose to swallow is finally excreted as hard little balls that no-one can argue with.

Choreographing the dance

Udaipur dancers © Belinda Allen

It’s a party and I’m dancing with as many people as possible. Some are easy to dance with – their moves match mine without too much trouble. Others are difficult, they have quite special moves that look impressive but I’ve no idea how to do it. Okay, I’ll go home and practice. There’s going to be a performance so I want to get the moves just right, and to make sure that everything fits together. I haven’t invented the dances, but I am the choreographer that will make the performance happen. I want to be able to rehearse again with these dancers so that when the time comes it feels right.