Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Talking about hacking my PhD thesis for #clmooc


Reading Time: 3 minutes

Ok, I say “for” #clmooc, but of course it’s for myself inspired by #clmooc. I am inspired here by Michael Weller to write my reflections on this rather than produce a “make”. In my case, mainly because I don’t have time, plus O have a slight creativity block (not to be confused with writer’s block hehe), and thought writing it out might help and also get me some feedback.

Right. So when I found out this week would be a hacking our own writing week, I thought pretty quickly of the closest piece of writing to my heart, my PhD thesis. Well, ok, I like other stuff I have written, but the PhD thesis is the one I have a love-hate relationship with. I’m not really sure what it means to hack one’s writing, exactly, still figuring this out, and wanting to do it in meaningful ways (need to go watch those hangouts I missed this week; loved dipping into the twitter chat after it was over) but here is why I wanted to hack my thesis and how I thought to do it

Why I wanted to hack my thesis
First, because that thing where people ask what your PhD thesis was about? I never perfected the art of showing the highlight of it in a way that made me feel comfortable that I had done it justice. I don’t have a pre-set answer because it depends on the context and person asking me the question, and particularly if they are in my institution (AUC, which my research is about, and where I now work) it can get quite political (which I am ok with) and I often think of which parts to highlight to make an impact, make my research have value to others.

Second, and this relates to my previous point, I believe strongly in the importance of academic research/writing being accessible to wider audiences. It’s why I now blog, why I originally started writing articles for Al-Fanar. I guess the critical citizenship article (apologies for referring to this for the millionth time) is the closest I have come to presenting ideas in my own thesis to a wider public, but it’s only part of my thesis that’s there. When I submitted a book chapter on another aspect of my thesis, I was asked to write it in less academic writing. Strangely, though I have a naturally pretty informal blogging voice, years and years of my supervisor telling me to write my thesis more formally means it was very hard for me to then use the same ideas in my thesis and rewrite them with my blogging voice. This may be because I started blogging a couple of months after I defended my thesis, so they are almost two distinct parts of me. The reason the critical citizenship article is so readable is thanks to a lot of back and forth editing with Al-Fanar’s editor-in-chief (it is the only article I published with them that needed that much editing, which tells you something).

Third, I always felt uncomfortable with the necessary linearity of a thesis, when I always wanted to show my jumbled up thoughts that held connections all over the place, because I could not put my thoughts into neat linear things into the thesis. In my head, they were not. I am not a particularly visual person but I was still seeing my thesis that way.

Four, the love-hate thing: I wanted to be able to make fun of my thesis…

Five, I hope to someday soon present my thesis to the AUC audience. I don’t want to bore them to death. I want to really highlight what’s important but in an open way that invites criticism and even hacking from their side (hence point four above)

How I thought to hack my thesis
Idea #1: Newspaper/magazine headlines. Use key findings or analyses from my thesis chapters and make them like a magazine with catchy headings

Idea #2: some kind of visual that’s more than just a concept map, maybe an infographic or something? But it’s not gelling right now. Not a visual person, you know?

Idea #3: cartoons? Not sure I can make them funny enough but it would be cool… Maybe not even necessarily funny ones, maybe like the serious memes idea, so serious memes or cartoons, but something to get the message across faster

What I did try is to put my thesis abstract and acknowledgments into one of those online “word jumbler” things that mixes it up and of course it came out ridiculous looking, and I thought, “that’s a waste of everyone’s time, I want to so something meaningful”.

I gotta go now… Ideas?


  1. Hi Maha! Trapped (in a good way) in a three-hour Reading/Writing Retreat with only only one (rhizome-themed) article to dissect I first produced non-linear notes in an attempt to shake it up a bit. No – not hacked enough! The words still looked dull and boring. They did not lure me in. Next step – produce a cartoon strip/comic book page from the ideas that had been essentialised in the short notes. That was it!
    I’d try that if I were you.
    And if the comic book strip itself does not work – perhaps ask some younger students to produce their alternative versions of your comic book?
    Good luck. Sandra 🙂

    • Sounds great, Sarah, thanks! Did you do the comics by hand, or? Would love to see them! Also made me wonder why other institutions have writing retreats and mine doesn’t!

    • Hi Maha,
      I also like how you are analyzing your work for different audiences and purposes. You mentioned that your work isn’t linear. Have you thought of mind mapping your ideas? Then use that nonlinear organization to consider images that represent the parts. A would help with presenting the ideas and images in a non linear way, perhaps even within a word or umbrella phrase that pulls the parts together. I’ll try to look for an example. Anyway, those are just some possibilities. I’ve also recently discovered which creates a stream of annotated media which is embeddable. Haiku Deck is probably too simplistic to share a thesis. Excited to see what you decide.

      • Thanks for the ideas, Sheri… I did try mind mapping, but since i am not a particularly visual person, it only helped a little at the time. I might try it again, though. What is funny, really, is that my thesis was about critical thinking, and there is evidence that mind or concept mapping can be used to promote critical thinking, but I haven’t really got the hang of it yet! I should start 🙂 Prezi sounds like a good go, even though I wasn’t a huge fan (again, because i am not a v visual person, but i need to get out of that mindset and i have to say clmooc has helped a lot… With the meme week and i have been doing more visual stuff since)

  2. I really appreciate the lens you bring into the mix — the rationale for the reasons why you would consider. Yes, we use the word “hack” here (and this word has sparked considerable conversations in the G+ space) but really, it is using a new lens to look at something, and present it differently to the world. The idea of surfacing the main ideas and distilling those ideas in an approachable form makes a lot of sense to me.

    • Hey Kevin, ur comment made it here after all! I do need to follow the g+ community more closely, i only saw the discussion on fb but there r fewer of us there, I guess.

  3. hi

    how about turning your thesis into a patent application?


  4. Hi Maha, patent application looks great for re-framing your thoughts. I find when thinking about something a lot almost everything I see contains some element of the idea. This is why it’s particularly dangerous for me to be let into a book store or the Taylor and Francis catalog online when I’m on a project–every author everywhere is thinking the same thing.

    This is like the idea of once you buy a Volkswagen or red shoes you see Volkswagens and red shoes everywhere. To extract information from clues in the world that relates to your thesis is a natural perceptual process. There’s also the tension of being so single minded that the world so distorts into continuous agreement with you that you think you might be right even when as a critical thinker you know are being pulled into a trap.

    That said, by turning this a bit you could question the little suggestions the world sends about difficult the thoughts you are working on. Why did red shoes connect in my mind with critical thinking? Why does making fun of your serious work attract your attention? Where does that path lead?

    • Hmm, Scott, well you’re right about perception. When I was pregnant, everyone around me seemed to be pregnant (but they really were! We are an office of around 6 women and three of us were pregnant and delivered the same month, that’s crazy).
      Will think about all your other points. Thanks for raising them!

  5. I think the world fluctuates between a reflection of myself and an entirely independent entity with nothing to do with me and my perceptions. Having spent a lot of effort on the model of the world streaming in and out of my head, the idea of being non-participant in reality is appealing. It sometimes feels more true to release reality to be as it is. This is difficult to explain except as an attempt to release control or influence. To be there but not? Maybe it comes from a wrinkle in critical thinking where even thinking clearly can be seen as biased.

    Liked Sheri’s prezi on hacking. There’s a saying in writing instruction: let go of all the clever things you create so your mind can get beyond itself. To break-down pathways in the brain to allow new perspectives.

  6. 1. Create a pechakucha/ignite talk on your thesis
    2. Create a zeega to sum up your phd work
    3. Find a partner to monetize what you are doing?
    4. Read your work aloud online–soundcloud?
    5. Crowdsource your phd.
    6. Create a new twitter feed and populate it with one sentence gems from your phd or that sum up your phd- a commonplace book for your work. When you are done, put all the tweets back together and go from there.
    7. Publish as an ebook.
    8. Do a series of Hangouts about your book. Don’t worry if no one shows up.

    • Wow, Terry, those are amaZing ideas! Except #5, kinda late to crowdsource it since it’s over? I particularly like the first two because i could use them to present quickly if needed. Don”t understand #3?

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