It’s on like Donkey Kong: Dissertation update

So here is my little ugly duckling of a dissertation proposal, with data collection planned for this Fall. Wish me luck! Of course my hope is that it grows into a swan that helps push the field forward on theoretical, methodological, and practical levels, but, to be perfectly honest, I'll be glad even if it grows into a little larger ugly duck.

Tentative Title: The Influence of Peer Review on Writing Achievement and Individual Writing Self-Efficacy

Draft Abstract: This study will examine the influence of peer feedback and review on individual writing achievement and self-efficacy. Undergraduate first-year composition students will engage in normal instructional activities, using the Eli Review program in order to conduct peer feedback and review sessions. Using the data collected from surveys and through the web-based peer review system Eli Review, the influence of giving and receiving writing feedback in peer review groups on both individual writing achievement and individual self-efficacy will be modeled using a multilevel, social-network analysis methodology. The influence of other possible mediating variables also will be explored, including: the influence of the instructor; the influence of outside help such as roommates, family members, or use of the university writing center, and the individual’s prior achievement. This study will contribute to understanding the influence of peers in the writing peer feedback cycle as well as the ways in which writing achievement and self-efficacy are influenced.

My Writing Workflow: Dissertation Dispatch

I was too lazy to find a real image. Too busy writing.

I was too lazy to find a real image. Too busy writing.

Writing is happening. I am currently plugging away at my dissertation proposal. I know this varies from department to department, so I will quickly give the run-down of what I understand to be the expectations of my department, adviser, and committee for this document. In terms of length, I’ve seen a big variation with the lower end running 60 pages and the upper to 120. My current draft includes the first four chapters of my dissertation: 1) an introduction to the study, 2) a lit review 3) A run-down of my proposed study (aka method goodness) 4) Everything else: significance, limitations, ethical issues, etc. Plus a whole batch of appendices.  So that’s what I have drafted in various stages of completeness at this moment. I still have at least a few more weeks of writing and revising, but I am still hoping it will be all defended this semester and I’ll be collecting data in January (wish me luck!).

But this post is really to catalog for myself and others the way I am handling my workflow through this process. Anyone who has read me at Gradhacker knows that I am a sucker for a good workflow. I have generally maintained my lit review process, but I’ve found even more fun ways of hacking my writing workflow to make it feel more fun and seemingly more efficient. I’ve been tracking my word rate, so I eventually should have some data to support my general feeling that I’m faster (even without that, I’m definitely having fun writing, so there’s that.).

Writing tools: Scrivener, Mendeley, Timer, Random Number Generator, Study app (links below)

  1. Start with an outline. I am back to Creswell’s Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed-Methods Approaches for help with making sure I’ve included all of the parts I need to specify the study. At this point, I’ve read and participated in enough research that it feels all very familiar, but I was glad to have the Creswell nearby to be sure I’m including everything.
  2. Write in chunks. I am a HUGE Scrivener fan. I tell every new grad student I meet to immediately buy this program and learn how to use it before the time crunch of proposal writing happens. I am lucky that I participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month–coming up soon in November!) my first year of Phd school and used a trial version for free. It was a great, no-risk way to learn the program and it has saved me time and again. I use Scrivener’s interface to scaffold each section, header, and sub-header into it’s own discrete chunk of writing. I then number these chunks. This is important because…
  3. Get random with it. Once I’ve layered in my writing for each section, I find I run out of steam. I need to say more, but I don’t want to. Thus, the random writing strategy was born. After I numbered all the sections that needed work, I turned to a random number generator to tell me what I should work on next.  I work on that section until I can’t think of what else to say and then return to the generator to get my new number. Thus I am forced to work on sections I would avoid until the bitter end or I get to rejoice when I draw a section I am excited about. It also ensures that sections I’ve labeled as ‘finished’ get another read in the midst of fleshing out ones in need of work. For some reason, it feels like a game to me and I get a little jolt of excitement each time. I also spend a lot less time hemming and hawing about which section to tackle next.
  4. Get a timer. I am a product of the Red Cedar Writing Project at Michigan State and was, once upon a time, the co-coordinator of our writing marathons.  In our writing marathon tradition, we warm up with a ten minute writing session followed by sharing, then fifteen, then twenty, and so on, working up to longer and longer time periods. When the timer goes off, it’s always in the middle of a sentence which just makes me want to get immediately back to what I was writing. I do the same thing for my personal writing sessions. I start each session with a ten minute free-write on whatever is top of mind for the project at hand. For the following writing sessions, I use the random number generator to guide where I’m writing. Using the timer ensures I’m taking breaks, keeps the writing fresh, and is a favorite technique of lots of writers (also check out the pomodoro technique, which many people swear by).
  5. Turn on the white noise. I am not easily distracted when I’m in the writing zone, but there is some pretty compelling evidence that ambient noise really can foster creativity.  I use (I like the coffee shop one) or I have the Study app going to keep me focused and productive.

So that’s it: the method to my madness. I’m resolving to also blog some of the actual content of my proposal in the coming weeks as I work through my study design issues and lit review.



On Gatsby and dream crushing teenagers

I don’t think this means what you think it means.

It is spring and spring always reminds me of reading The Great Gatsby with my 11th graders. It helps now that Baz Luhrmann’s movie is coming out soon and I imagine that if I still were reading it with 11th graders we would rendezvous at the theater dressed in flapper costumes (of course I have a flapper costume!).

I have an ambivalence towards F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel that I never quite reconciled in my days of teaching teenagers. I never had to read the book in High School and the first I time I did it was in order to develop a teaching unit for my student teaching days. The Great Gatsby inspired really great lunchtime conversations among the faculty, I remember, with a particularly vicious argument about Daisy’s nature. It amused me then because I didn’t quite understand the passions involved.  The strongest I can say about the book is that I liked it, I enjoyed it, but I don’t love it. It has it’s moments. But I had, and continue to have, some trepidation about teaching it.

In the weeks leading up to what is/was inevitably termed “THE AMERICAN DREAM UNIT,” I felt a crushing sense of guilt for what I was about to do these bright young things on the cusp of launching into adulthood. Read any curriculum guide that includes Gatsby and you’ll see they do horrible things. They ask the kids to write about what their “green light” is, what their “dream” is, with no regard for how it will turn out for Gatsby. We get them hooked on this American Dream stuff and then spend weeks or more reading a book that deconstructs the lie. Ouch. I’m not even sure we explain very well what the American Dream is, in fact, and tend toward eliding the mythology.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the shared experience of reading this book with my students. The book, and I suppose some of the texts we paired with it (including the New York Times “Class Matters” series, which would be even more compelling today considering current rates of income inequality), sparked generative conversations. I agree with Kathryn Schulz that Fitzgerald’s characters are lack dimension, but this made for great fun in creating projects about the characters. Each spring my classroom would explode with amusement parks with each character symbolized by some crazy ride. I miss hearing all the creative ways the students would make that work.

I’m not sure how many dreams I crushed in framing Gatsby in terms of the myth of the American Dream. I remain ambivalent about the place of the the American Dream, what it is, and how important it is anymore. I know that I have a nostalgia for the experiences I’ve had around Gatsby: the explorations with my students, their brilliant insights, deep conversations with colleagues, Robert Redford, and now I can add Leonardo Dicaprio. I will go see the movie and groan at the Brooks Brother’s ads along with everyone else. In the end, I’m willing to just go along with it all, to get swept up in all of it: the decadence and the tragedy.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.