A forest … more metaphor wrangling

Sacred site - angophoras

Sacred site - angophoras © Belinda Allen

Here’s a longstanding metaphor for my thesis. On reading Kamler & Thompson I thought maybe it could be more positively focused:

The forest

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
 (Dante – Inferno: Canto I)

The thesis is a dark forest, and I feel lost in trying to navigate its complexity. Feelings of inadequacy stem from the fact that I have not done major research before, and insecurity stems from my experiences with the administration and assessment of the process, which so far has been difficult and unclear. The whole field of qualitative research has opened up before me and seems so vast that I cannot see the end. But it is that I cannot see the forest for the trees – each unfamiliar branch of the literature seems to loom large before me until I can take the time to read and digest, it then takes its place among the multitude of trees.

On the other hand, ideas of risk-taking, exploration and liminal space are important to my topic. If this thesis is to be in itself a creative activity, I should relish the lost-ness, and even seek it. In Dante’s journey, the lost way is precursor to a difficult and even life-threatening journey (through hell) which is necessary for the experience of transcendence in the end (to paradise) – it is the hero’s journey, and so is the journey of my thesis!

The liminal space:
In philosophy, an ‘aporia’ is a philosophical puzzle or a seemingly insoluble impasse in an inquiry, often arising as a result of equally plausible yet inconsistent premises. It can also denote the state of being perplexed, or at a loss, at such a puzzle or impasse. Lather (1998) proposes a praxis of stuck places – where ‘aporia’ – the impassable passage – is a place of critical power. The kind of ‘new criticality’ espoused by Burbules (2009) suggests that aporia is a starting point for radically new thinking – that deep criticality depends upon embracing what seems to be unknowable and impenetrable.

So – the forest metaphor changes, from representing being overwhelmed and lost, to representing adventure, challenge  and opportunity – I am the creative orienteer, designing my own compass.

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.