Posts Tagged ‘Academic Writing’

Continuing on the topic of student conceptions of research, another issue I have encountered as students conduct literature reviews is the belief that Jstor is the first and last place to look for academic research. This belief seems to be less prevalent at my current institution than my previous one, but many of my past students never even considered looking for sources outside of Jstor due to the convenience of full-text articles.

One problem with this is the fact that Jstor only provides results from the journals in its own collection, artificially limiting the resources that students have available to them to whatever Jstor has been able to negotiate for. (I wonder if students would be equally willing to limit their movie viewing to those that are available for streaming on Netflix, which has similar convenience and limitations.) The second problem is that even when Jstor does include a particular journal, access to that journal is often limited by a “moving wall” of three to five years. There are many topics for which recent publications contain important insights that were overlooked in the past but that students using Jstor would not have access to for several years (I was once accused of not knowing the literature in a particular area because I had not cited an article published a month or so before I submitted a paper to a journal!).

These issues can cause problems but are not lethal to a student’s chances of doing well. A much worse (though much less frequent) problem I’ve had when students use Jstor is that they think of Jstor as the source of the articles they are using. In the minds of some students, they are reading articles from Jstor rather than from The American Review of Criminal Awkwardness because that is where they got their articles. These rare students don’t realize that Jstor is like a shelf holding specific issues of specific journals rather than a publisher of academic information.

As professors, we can begin to address these issues with our students but the ASA citation guidelines can also help by not instructing students to include web addresses for PDFs that they downloaded from online databases. It is time to recognize that the database through which you access a source is not nearly as important as the original source of the source! (A source is a source, of course, of course…)

“Like” Memoirs of a SLACer on Facebook to receive updates and links via Jstor your news feed.

Read Full Post »

As I have tried to get some writing done this summer, I have often thought back to an essay I read nearly three years ago (via Daring Fireball) dealing with what the author, Paul Graham, called “the top idea in your mind.” He described it like this:

I realized recently that what one thinks about in the shower in the morning is more important than I’d thought. I knew it was a good time to have ideas. Now I’d go further: now I’d say it’s hard to do a really good job on anything you don’t think about in the shower.

Everyone who’s worked on difficult problems is probably familiar with the phenomenon of working hard to figure something out, failing, and then suddenly seeing the answer a bit later while doing something else. There’s a kind of thinking you do without trying to. I’m increasingly convinced this type of thinking is not merely helpful in solving hard problems, but necessary. The tricky part is, you can only control it indirectly. [1]

I think most people have one top idea in their mind at any given time. That’s the idea their thoughts will drift toward when they’re allowed to drift freely. And this idea will thus tend to get all the benefit of that type of thinking, while others are starved of it. Which means it’s a disaster to let the wrong idea become the top one in your mind.

In college I typically wrote papers at the last minute but I did not start them at the last minute. Instead, I would often spend a period of days in which a particular assignment was the top idea in my mind. Ideas about the paper or its organization might come to me during breakfast, in other classes, or, I suppose, in the shower. As these ideas came to me I would write them down somewhere and when the time came to actually sit down and write the paper I already had an idea of what I wanted to say.

There is a crucial difference in my own experiences writing papers as a college student and sitting down to write a paper having never thought about it. In discussions with students about writing I try to emphasize that this work takes very little effort but can make the writing process much easier. Essentially, thinking about a paper “counts” as working on the paper, even if no writing is being done. Far too many students seem to sit down and start writing without having grappled with the issues they plan to address or how they plan to organize their thoughts. The result is work that may have all of the parts that the assignment asks for, but lacks cohesion or depth.

Faculty members are not immune to these problems. One of the difficulties I have faced in writing during the academic year is related to the fact that teaching is almost always the top idea in my mind during these time periods. I still have a hard time transitioning from teaching to research. I have actually had a fairly productive summer in terms of writing, but this productivity has slowed considerably since I started teaching a summer course a few weeks ago. Once again, teaching is the top idea in my mind.  Unfortunately, Graham’s solution isn’t much help to me (or others who work at institutions that prioritize teaching):

You can’t directly control where your thoughts drift. If you’re controlling them, they’re not drifting. But you can control them indirectly, by controlling what situations you let yourself get into. That has been the lesson for me: be careful what you let become critical to you. Try to get yourself into situations where the most urgent problems are ones you want to think about.

Interestingly, this idea explains why I have a hard time writing as well as why those at research institutions may have a hard time teaching. In each case, the top idea in our minds is the thing that is most important for our continued employment.

Read Full Post »

I recently wrote an academic encyclopedia entry for my area of specialization; it was strange. The first reason for strangeness is that I associate writing encyclopedia entries with graduate school. Several of my graduate student colleagues wrote encyclopedia entries that had been passed on to them by professors – sometimes these professors coauthored the entries and sometimes they did not. This association is likely faulty – I’m sure that many professors, even those at my graduate institution, have written encyclopedia entries that I am not aware of since they aren’t likely to be publicized much – but it still made the thought of writing one myself seem strange.

This association was easily overcome by the fact that writing the entry would be relatively easy since it in my area of expertise and it would count as a form of the “evidence of scholarly activity” my school wants to see; the second was more difficult. The instructions and sample encyclopedia entry made it clear that I was to write with no citations in an authoritative tone. As an academic, the first of these requirements was difficult. After years of citing everything and instructing my students to do the same, I had a hard time writing about research findings without the context provided by authors and dates.  As a sociologist, the practice of writing in an authoritative tone was also difficult. I’ve read a number of psychological studies where the authors state that their findings “prove” a hypothesis while sociologists are more likely to say that their findings “demonstrate” something. For the encyclopedia entry, though, I had to write as if the findings by one or two groups of researchers could be taken as fact. I attempted to overcome this as much as possible by mentioning the context in which studies were conducted (e.g., “a nationally representative sample” or “a study of women in their 30s”).

In the end, I think that the difficulties I experienced were similar to the obstacles sociologists face when communicating with the general public. We like to emphasize the contexts in which research was conducted in order to recognize the diversity of the social world. This diversity also prevents us from making broad declarative statements regarding the generalizability of our findings. The public, or at least the media that typically exposes the public to our research, likes short, easily digestible statements (possibly in bullet-point form). Finding a comfortable middle ground is a challenge that we have to face if we want to reach beyond the ivory tower.

Read Full Post »

Whenever my students are tasked with writing research reports, they realize that it is difficult to write about something you have done without recognizing the fact that you have done it. It is much easier, for example, to state “I conducted a content analysis of 20 magazine articles” or “I interviewed five students” than it is to say “a content analysis of 20 magazine articles was conducted” or “five students were interviewed.” The latter options beg the question, “by whom?” Faced with this difficulty, students often ask if they can use “I” in their papers. My contention has always been that research is an active process and that the use of first-person pronouns is a reflection of the researcher’s active involvement in this process. The avoidance of first-person pronouns also results in the use of passive voice, which students are also told to avoid.

When I tell students that they can, and should, use “I” in their papers (or “we” in the case of group papers), they typically say that they have been told to avoid its use in other courses. I always assumed that these courses were in the humanities or other disciplines where writers discuss texts while attempting to leave themselves out. I recently discovered, however, that one of my colleagues in sociology consistently tells her students not to use first-person pronouns and requires them to change their writing when they do so. I was amazed to hear this and, when discussing the issue with her, she noted that this was the way she was taught to write and that she has never included first-person pronouns in her work. Although she isn’t much older than I am, this assertion strikes me as out of date.

To see if I was wrong, I looked at the most recent issue of the American Sociological Review, in which the authors of all six papers use either “I” or “we” in discussing their methods. Most likely, this consistency indicates an editorial policy of ASR, since I imagine that there is still quite a bit of variation among researchers. I believe, however, that it is time for all researchers to recognize their role in the research process and do away with the awkward phrases that are the result of avoiding the use of “I.”

Read Full Post »