Explaining things

This blog is partly from the common memory of what happens so often in doctoral vivas, when examiners say ‘why didn’t you explain that in your thesis?’ But it also comes from lots of situations when people just don’t tell you what you need to know.

I was talking to an examiner recently about a student I know who they’d recently examined:

  • Me: What I found quite interesting about the thesis was …
  • Examiner: Oh, she didn’t mention that. Yes, that would have been interesting. What a shame it didn’t come out in the viva.
  • Me: Didn’t you see it in the thesis?
  • Examiner: No. I must have missed it. There was so much unexplained detail that it was quite easy to miss things.
  • Me: What a missed opportunity!

I used to think that this was a cultural thing, of course, in the most non-essentialist way – if that’s possible. But perhaps it’s more to do with people being used to communicating with other people in relatively familiar social settings. The above conversation certainly had nothing at all to do with where the student ‘came from’.

This is why I often use the example of having guests visiting you in a place that you are familiar with but they are not. You are showing them around the town where you live. But it might be hard to break out of what is in your head about what is going on and to imagine what might be in their heads. So this example probably doesn’t work.

A long time ago, an Iranian friend of mine went on a car journey into the Iranian countryside with some British people. Afterwards, she told me that she was amazed at what they chose to talk about – what they noticed along the way and what they had to say about it. This was a countryside that she was familiar with; but she thought that they said such strange things about it.

At the time, she explained this as having something to do with British people thinking in a different way to Iranian people. Of course, now, this explanation seems to be ridiculously over-generalised. Indeed, it comes dangerously close to neo-racism! There was certainly an ‘us’-‘them’ implication lurking in what she said about it.

Nevertheless, there will always be discourses, narratives, and the traditions and histories associated with them, that will make any social group talk about things, and appear to notice things, in different ways to other social groups. At a national level, grand narratives, common histories, media preoccupations, and all sorts of ‘us’-‘them’ perceptions of the world that come from how we are brought up, will always bring about differences in what people notice and talk about. This certainly applies to different generations – with different experiences of say social media.

This does not however imply different types of thinking – different degrees of criticality for example. What is common across all cases is the underlying universal cultural processes that enable small culture formation on the go. It is the content that will differ. We are, after all, the same people brought up in different circumstances.

So, what the Iranian encountered in the ‘British’ car journey was not some sort of alien thought process – it was people coming at what they were experiencing with different narratives – different personal cultural trajectories.

What therefore we need to do when we write our thesis, is to try really hard to anticipate what our readers need to know.

This is where the notion of third space becomes useful. Not the old essentialist notion of third space as in-between essentialist culture blocks – but a space that we can somehow construct which might be somehow independent of the narratives and histories that preoccupy us differently. Finding threads that enable us to really communicate with others is by no means an easy matter. It really has to be worked at.

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