When Words Fail: “Crafting” the Doctoral Experience

When I was working on my doctoral research, using ethnographic methods to understand the meaning and informal learning embedded in the experience of care giving for an older family member, I took what seemed at the time like a fairly bold step in the writing of my dissertation.  I included, in the Methods section, about ten pages describing my own internal experience during the conduct of the study – thoughts, anxieties, joys, insights.  Verbatim examples from that chapter include these:

  • During the first weeks of interviewing, I had to make a conscious effort to be an ethnographer and not an occupational therapist. It was often difficult to resist offering suggestions and advice in situations commonly dealt with in therapy.
  • [In the early analysis] I tried to discover themes within the topics, but made a note on one day, “This is not working very well yet.”
  • [More early analysis] I began to worry that by breaking the data down into little pieces, I was losing the context.
  • [And more] I am so frustrated with this attempt to code”.
  • The breakthrough came one day when I noted in my journal, “I find I’m coding something as learning, but it’s really meaning.”.  . . The separation of learning from meaning, as I had been doing in my attempts to create two categories from the data, was unworkable.”

Thus did I proceed with my word-bound descriptions of my doctoral experiences.

But I recently discovered a colleague who seems light years ahead of me in terms of finding creative expression for her experiences.  Bel Youngson is an occupational therapist and doctoral student at the University of Cumbria, in Lancaster, U.K..  I ‘met’ her through an occupational science discussion group on the Linkedin network.

Bel is in the process of launching her doctoral study, an investigation of the lived everyday experience of adults with diabetes type 1, type 2 or pre-diabetes, focusing on lifestyle changes and occupational self-management.  She states, “The novelty of the whole experience of being a full-time student again seems to have also inspired a corresponding creativity within me and so I have been expressing my research journey in arts and crafts.”  Three examples of her art work, along with her thoughts about each piece, are shared here.  To me, the works are delightfully fanciful as well as truly compelling.  Enjoy!


stitching up the thesis

BEL:  The first art work, Stitching up the Thesis, came about after a couple of months of starting the research.  I had been reading a lot of books on research and on occupational therapy and my usual method is to read through a book, marking interesting or thought-provoking passages with a mini post-it note.  I then go back through the book, making notes on all the bits that I have previously marked, taking out the post-it notes as I go along.  Of course, at the end of that process I had a whole stack of post-it notes, many of which had comments written on them, and I wondered what to do with them all.  It seemed a bit of a shame to throw them away. 

So I started making a quilt pattern with them (inspired by something I had seen on the Cloth Paper Scissors website that looked like strips of quilting material), and then stitched it all over using a sewing machine.  I left the quilt unfinished in the middle to represent all the gaps in my knowledge and filled that with images of question marks to represent my uncertainty of where it’s going next. 

While I was in the middle of this, my husband came in and said, “What are you doing?  Stitching up your thesis?” which I thought was a brilliant remark, so that also became incorporated into the quilt, now making it a collage with each of the letters stitched on individually.  Finally, I put a bit of a paper frame around it, made from random bits of paper that I had previously stitched together and that seemed to correspond to the many layers of context around the research project. 

What is particularly interesting in doing this is that I have found new meaning while putting it together.  Most of the sewing lines are deliberately not straight, as the whole experience of the research does not take place in a straight line and I find myself wandering and meandering.  And this seemed to allow me to feel OK about that, rather than anxious.  I was also struck afterwards about the layers – how many there are, but also how inter-connected they seem.  Sometimes one idea strikes off another.  There is also a lot of interest and colour, which symbolizes, I think, the richness of this whole experience, apart from the fact that I love colour anyway. 



raw data

BEL:   I have now completed 7 interviews on the lived experience of type 1, type 2 or pre-diabetes and have been thinking about how the research process (particularly in writing up) constrains the data and the process.  I am in the process of analyzing and coding, which is absolutely fascinating, but in the end the themes will still be constrained by the boxes they are put in.  I tried to make sense of that with this bit of art work, which I finished yesterday.  The raw data image is all the richness of the interviews and the moments of illumination.



Wholes, sums and parts

BEL:  [After completing the Raw Data art work]I then took a deep breath and cut it all up to represent chunks of data for codes and then stuck them onto bits of foam to represent themes.  They are attached to each other with tags so could be in any order and orientation or shape but essentially will still be in boxes whatever the final layout is.  So there is a new meaning or interpretation, but is it greater than the original or just different?  Wholes and sums and parts come to mind. 

As Bel continues to move more deeply into her doctoral research, so, too, does she continue to turn to arts and crafts to express the meaning in her experiences.  She recently offered up a quotation that seems to neatly express her visual approach to life:  “The human mind is not, as philosophers would have you think, a debating hall, but a picture gallery” (MacNeile Dixon, W. (2008), The Human Situation.  The Gifford Lectures delivered in the University of Glasgow 1935-1937.  Publisher: Read Books). For Bel, the analogy of the human mind to a picture gallery seems ever so apt.  Perhaps she will be able to share a few more pieces of her art work in the near future, works that continue to express her lived experiences in the dissertation process including that all-important and monumental time of completion.

2 thoughts on “When Words Fail: “Crafting” the Doctoral Experience

  1. As Bel’s first advisor/ supervisor it has been a pleasure to see her growth over the last year. The art and craft work has added a dimension and discussion that may not have been possible to explore in the depth we have. I feel this will enable Bel to explore meaning for her participants more than may have been possible and will truly be authentic. I look forward to reading others views on her work.


  2. I love Bel’s process! (And I also love arts & crafts and color.) It takes a lot of courage to cut up a work of art – and the results are surprising in what they reveal.


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