This is the WIP section. Working drafts of my chapters will be added as they are ready (or at least coherent).


Having passed my confirmation panel on 24 March 2015, I decided that I should document and reflect on the event. This is the biggest milestone prior to the viva, and so is very important in guiding the writing of my thesis. Here's my reflection, below which is my confirmation document, annotated with notes I took during the panel.


The confirmation is the major milestone for a doctoral student prior to thesis submission and viva. In my department, a PhD student has to produce a 12k word document to be sent to the examiner (aka 'upgrader'), who would read it and then ask them questions during the confirmation panel. The panel involves at least 4 people: the examiner, the supervisor, the panel chair and the student. Because I preferred not to fly to the UK just for this (I've already planned a trip in June), we decided to do it via Skype. On the day itself, this became WebEx instead, due to technical difficulties on their side. WebEx is quite easy to use, but because I wasn't prepared, I was only able to audio record my side of the conversation. 

Prior to the panel, I was quite apprehensive that I might be asked to resubmit. While rare, this has been known to happen. If major changes were to be recommended, I might have a disaster on my hands, since I had already finished data collection and returning to the site to collect more wasn't really possible. Fortunately, I passed. In fact, the whole experience was very positive and encouraging, especially given that this has been a very difficult study for me.

During the panel, the examiner did not have as many questions for me as I had expected, but what she did ask were not always easy to answer. At times, I don't think I was as coherent or as focused in answering as I could have been. I tried to be honest about what I didn't know, and not waffle on too much. Also, despite advances in video conferencing technology, non-verbal turn-taking cues don't always come through well, and so I often found it hard to speak without coming across as rudely interrupting; I was used to that from my Skype sessions with my supervisor, but obviously I didn't know the examiner and chair as well, so I was more wary of appearing rude. I don't think I was -- the whole thing ended on a positive and upbeat note.


I think my most important takeaway is that I, as the researcher, have to have more of a presence in my writing. So for instance, I should give my definition of 'digital literacies' (and perhaps other critical concepts too), and not just repeat what leading scholars have to say. Similarly, I have to be clear about my background and position vis-a-vis my research site and participants. Part of the problem here I think is that I lack confidence in my own voice as a researcher. The other is my tendency to default to more positivist attitudes as a researcher. Despite reading and writing a lot on the ethnographic approach, I have problems actually inhabiting the skin of a ethnographic researcher. As I expressed to the panel, shaking off my old mindset as a researcher has been a constant struggle, and in fact a major reason I wanted an examiner who was an experienced ethnographer. 

A related problem is my struggle to make my research palatable to both of the research traditions that my study straddles (broadly speaking, the more qualitative/ethnographic literacy studies camp, and the more positivist/quantitative language assessment camp); with my supervisor in language assessment, an examiner from the literacies camp could (and did) give me the reassurance that what I'm writing wasn't anathema to either camp. I am a language assessment person crossing into literacies territory, and trying not to step on any landmines. Based on the panel, I have been reasonably successful, though I've still got to look out for slips (see 'generalisations' on p. 17).

It's a little helpful that I am not dealing directly with literacies as such, but actually broadening the idea of social practices from digital literacies to assessment (literacy? literacies?). But it brings its own problems, in that I had to find a more general approach to practice theory that could apply to assessment but is not incongruent with the literacies notion of social practices. As it turned out, this is not a something that I can just 'buy off the shelf', sadly. I've had to adapt my chosen approach for it to work as a viable theoretical framework, and didn't realise this until I started data analysis. Both my supervisor and my examiner agreed that is not a bad thing, to my relief. The lesson learnt here is that in charting new ground, there are no neat boxes to fill.

Other problems that the panel was helpful in concerned the data analysis process and the subsequent structure of my thesis. In qualitative research, there is no one orthodox way to do these things, and I lamented over the lack of specifics in methodology texts. My examiner didn't have an answer for me as such, but she suggested that I look at some examples and encouraged me to experiment with different possibilities. I concluded that I'd just have to live with 'no right answer' again, experiment and let my thesis find its shape over time. She did ask me to send her a draft table of contents, which hopefully gives me a starting point to work from.


So what next? The examiner thought that my timeline was too ambitious but I felt that I needed a strict timeline to keep me on the path. I'm easily distracted and like to procrastinate. For instance, I'm supposed to be transcribing and analysing other interviews this month, but as of 11 April have yet to start. However, I've applied to do a short course on analysing ethnographic data at KCL in June. If I am accepted, it might force me to redo my analysis. So alternatively, I could go with my initial plan to write my earlier chapters first. This is tempting because I am feeling the pressure to submit something to the journals, and it makes more sense to develop something from the chapters I am more certain of. 

It also occurred to me as I was explaining my findings that I might have to tweak my research questions again. After the panel, I rewrote them like this:
  1. What are the digitally-mediated assessment practices of two English Language classes in a Singapore secondary school, in terms of elements (materials, competence and meaning) (Shove et al., 2012)?
  2. How do the teachers and learners of these classes perceive these practices? 
  3. What are the links between elements that enable these practices, within the context of these classes?
It seemed to me that #2 perception should come before #3 links, because as my examiner pointed out, the links are really the crux of the study. But perhaps perception is already covered by #1 elements -- more analysis will have to be done before I decide. For #3 I removed the word 'constrain', because it dawned on me that since the links supposedly make the practice(s), they can't actually constrain. Elements may constrain, but links would enable only. Hopefully this reasoning still makes sense when I analyse the rest of the data!