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.

Thoughts on MOOCs

letter M PAIRS IN PEARS Outline Letter O Brass Stencil Letter O Foam Letter C

So it’s been an interesting start to 2013 for the state of MOOCs. First I want to reflect on the recent disaster at Coursera in a course entitled “Fundamentals of Online Education” in which the course was forced to close down after a series of unfortunate events. The irony of the failure of an online course about online teaching aside (oh the schadenfreude!), I agree with Debbie Morrison’s astute analysis of what happened over at her blog. (Be sure to read her great post “The MOOC honeymoon is over:three takeaways from the Coursera calamity.”

Right now I am also one of four instructors co-teaching an online course about designing and teaching online courses in the MAET program at Michigan State. I also had technical difficulties this week in our course that caused disruption. Of course it wasn’t to the tune of 40K students unable to access their course, but it was stressful nonetheless. My students are in the midst of weighing CMS system options, and will commit to one to design a course in for the rest of the semester in a few days. We do a weekly check-in with the students and here is what I wrote to them about the incident:

I don’t know about you, but it has been a busy week around 820 for me this past week. As some of you noted (and emailed me), ANGEL had a weird bug that broke many of the internal links. So any link to a PDF stored in ANGEL or to another part of the chapter just suddenly wouldn’t work. At first I thought I just did a bad job checking links, but a conversation with a colleague helped me realize that it wasn’t a problem isolated to our course. This is just one example of an unanticipated issue in teaching an online course that sometimes is beyond even the best planning. One of the things we do in 820 is we check all the links before the semester begins and again as we open each chapter. Even with those precautions, the links still were broken causing frustration to both the students and the instructors. As an instructor, I try to approach this by quickly responding to emails from students, to be as honest as I can about the problem, and work quickly with the CMS provider to resolve the issue.

There is a lesson in the “Week of Broken Links” as you go forward and choose a CMS: there is no “perfect” CMS out there. They all have their problems and hiccups no matter how well we plan. I have found this to be true for face-to-face teaching as well (how many perfect lesson plans did I have interrupted by unexpected fire drills or other disruptions?). As teachers and instructors, we know we have to be ready to be flexible and we just try to do our best with what we have.

As institutions weigh whether or not they decide to wade into the swift waters of MOOC development (and subsequently whether to partner with Coursera), I think the lesson remains the same. There is no perfect system. Things will break. An instructor will think they have planned well when they haven’t. There are always risks with something new.

I see the Coursera disaster as one part a failure of online teaching pedagogy in large as well as a problem with failing to anticipate issues that the scale of a MOOC brings (and I don’t mean to conflate MOOCs with online teaching, because they aren’t necessarily the same animal). What works with 40 students online will not work the same with 40, 000 students online. If 10% of your students don’t understand something in a class of 40, you deal with 4 students and doesn’t seem to be that big of a deal. With 40,000 even 1% of students not understanding becomes an unmanageable issue from the perspective of the instructor.

Finally, I am tired of hearing that it is possible to learn/teach EVERYTHING in the MOOC format. Even in face-to-face courses, we don’t employ the same pedagogical strategies to different content, or even the same format to different content. If we are doing a really good job, we are integrating our technology choices, our pedagogy, and our content (see TPACK –now with bonus badges!). For instance, we wouldn’t want to teach someone to play the piano in a lecture of 400 students. That would be ridiculous and noisy. Are we finally reaching some point of clarity that the MOOC is not the right venue for every type of learning? Can’t it be okay that a MOOC isn’t right for every type of learning? I just struggle with the pro-MOOC rhetoric that sees all learning as possible in this one, quite narrow format. While I see there are lots of possibilities for innovation, I also see that there are some learning experiences better facilitated through other, non-MOOC formats.