Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Firming up The Problem

At the heart of "the problem" of my dissertation inquiry is the importance of reflection and reflective thinking. As a form of strategic thinking, reflection is a central mediating factor for learning and action and problem solving. Dewey defines reflective thinking as a "method"--by which, he means a set of certain intellectual actions and tactics that are applied to a situation that is uncertain or problematic. Our ability to solve a problem or work our way the best we can to find the best course of action within uncertain circumstances depends upon the quality of this reflective thinking. The inability to think reflectively (or apply this "method") results in no solution, the wrong solution, or little or no learning. Thus, the stakes surrounding reflection are extremely high since reflection and the ability to think reflectively are crucial for learning and practice in general.

The problem with reflection in Composition/Rhetoric is a pedagogical one. As Linda Flowers states clearly, the value of teacher-prompted reflection for pedagogical purposes in a writing classroom is an "open question." She questions what sort of knowledge this kind of strategic reflection generates and whether reflection is a luxury whose benefits are so self-evident as to justify the time and effort required. Although Composition theorist and researchers like Flowers, Yancey, and Bereiter and Scarmandalia each find affirming answers to these questions of knowledge and utility, and each generates a "theory of reflection" and its place in the learning and act of writing, the problem at the core of reflection in Composition/Rhetoric remains pedagogical. Does reflection really work to help writers "invent practice" (as Yancey believes) or help solve problems and negotiate uncertainties within the activity or writing (as Flower believes)? How come reflection doesn't seem to have an affect? How come it seems to help some writer transform their approach to a topic?

Rather than questioning "Does it work?" I think more significant from a pedagogical perspective is "How does it work?" and "How does it not work?" What are its true uses and limitations? What are the ways in which a teacher can lead students in reflection that will have the most benefit? Rather than "Does it work?" we need to ask "What are the circumstances and prompts that promote productive reflection?" What kind of things about the student, their writing, and the learning context are indicated within a piece of reflection? We could test reflection, but contingencies and variables surrounding its use in the classroom would always overwhelm the narrow answer that such a test might come up with. Rather than question "Does it work?" as teachers we need to know better "How does it work?" and "What does it work well for?" and "What needs to be known about how reflection works and what it works for to help guide teachers' use of reflection with their own students?" Having better answers to these questions may provide a stronger basis for teachers productively using reflection in their classes.

But don't we already have satisfactory answers to these questions? Certainly, the work of Kathleen Yancey in particular has sought to provide this basis, this theory of reflection to guide our understanding of what reflection is and what it does. However, a close examination of how our current "theories of reflection" were generated calls these theories into question and may account for the questions about reflection that we have. Each of our main theorist of reflection in Composition/Rhetoric arrived at their theories from speculative thinking based upon logical deductions from other theories or from studying their experience of reflection in the classroom. Despite the fact that the theories generated from experiences are empirical and "observation-based," the interpretation of this data and the generation of theory from this data has not followed a systematic interpretive process that adequately grounds their theory in the data. What this dissertation, then, seeks to do is to apply a systematic interpretive process to examples of reflection in order to generate a grounded theory of reflection. No other Composition researcher has used this methodological approach to inquiring into reflection, and the end point, hopefully, will the generation of a new "theory of reflection" that both fits and works better. This new theory will provide a conceptual understanding of reflection that more closely fits actual examples of reflection. Likewise, this new theory of reflection will provide a conceptual understanding that will "work"--that is, it will provide a framework of understanding the relation and consequences of various interacting elements in the act of reflection, so that a teacher may navigate these relations and interactions to help make reflection productive for his or her students.

WGRA? Any teacher who seeks to help their students learn to face uncertainties and problems in their writing better.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Revision Tasks for Pre-Diss Proposal v3.2

--based upon feedback from Fred and Becky
--presented to Rich for his input and any guidance concerning these revision tasks

1)Work on Problem Statement
“Identify the Problem Requiring Research”

I need to define my “problem” better and forecast the general rationale of the proposal within the problem statement. Using TTU as an illustration of the problem has received luke warm response. The level I could work on this task could be fairly minor by adding in the broader context of Flower's discussion about the problem with reflection as a pedagogical practice (we don't know what kind of knowledge it leads to and whether it really is a luxury or not (does it make a difference that is worth it).

I think it is worth it to re-open my “search” for the problem. I think this will involve some thinking and writing on my part. I also will probably look at some example reflections done by some students this last summer to see what I see. Get back in touch with the “in practice” question about this kind of assignment. I also need to look again at my Spring 2007 report on reflection inside the TTU dept. I might be able to cite this study to further bolster my claim that TTU provides a good illustration of the problem. Also, and this is a big if, I could post a message to the WPA list for some input about other's possible problems with reflection. I've wanted to do this anyway, but I don't want to sound stupid.

2)Work on Introduction Section of Lit Review
“Review of Some of the Basic Literature Regarding the Problem”
Provide more of an introduction to the lit review section where I better define “rhetorical reflection” in context. This would mean bringing back the Moon definition of reflection I had in v1 as well as some of the explanation of my graphical depiction of the poles of reflection. The essence of my thesis in this lit review (that our development of a theory of reflection in composition has come from logical deduction and classroom active research—we haven't generated a theory that comes from a systematic comparative analysis of the data (I.e. Grounded theory).

3)Firming up the “So What?”
I need to have a clear statement of why doing this study is important. What difference will it make? What knowledge will it create for us? I think I can look to both Flower and to Yancey to pull some “so what.” I need to have this “so what” referred to in the Problem Statement, mentioned again in the Lit Review, and then expressed more clearly in the “gap” section (p. 6).

In this “So What” statement I will need to clarify why this study is different than Flower's and is needed.

4) Why Grounded Theory?
In the beginning of the methodology section, and perhaps alluded to in the problem statement, I need to define grounded theory better and argue for why it is an appropriate methodology more.

5) Clarify “Shared Knowledge” and “Disturbed Knowledge”
I need to think about this more, but my reader should sense what is shared and agreed upon but what is not agreed upon or not known. What is “disturbed?” I will need to think more about this, but I believe it should give me guidance in how I frame my lit review and then present my “so what” in the pre-proposal.

6) Research Design/Methods—open for now
I think my research design as a two or three part sequence is an open question for right now. I think a lot will be worked out as I do a pilot. Becky thought just doing the grounded theory would be enough, but Rich and Fred both seem to want some “triangulation” in the form of forming a coding instrument and doing content analysis based upon it, and then doing some datagogic data-mining. Fred seems to think I will be developing methods, but in my mind I will be using established methods. I am still not sure how to resolve the theory generation/theory validation dichotomy within my own proposed research design right now.

Notes from Becky's Comments

I want to take a moment to process Becky's comments before I integrate them with Fred's.

Point #1--Problem with the problem statement
She hesitates to locate the problem at TTU, and says that I may not have identified a problem. Do I have a problem? What is meant by the word "problem" and does the research need to center around a "problem?" I wrote an earlier blog here wrestling with the word "problem" and how Creswell suggests that synonyms for problem might be issue or question. Yet the diss genre seems to WANT the frame of problem-solution. How much do I need to cram my round peg (whatever shape it is) into this square hole?

I think I can bolster this section by bringing up Flower's point that it is an "open question" about the pedagogical value of reflection. But is this a problem? I think I need to take some time to try and step out of my reflection bubble and rethink what sort of problems/issues there are with reflection. Rethink the "problem" entirely.

Point #2--Forecast "gap" more in my problem statement
That is, I need to bring up what I am saying is a problem--we have formed our theory of reflection in a faulty way, or possibly in a problematic way. Again, she is saying that I need to put more ummph into my problem statement.

Point #3--Question on comment
On bottom page #3, Becky says I should "situate reader/writer centered in Flower before using it," but I'm not sure what she means. By "using it" she means presenting my chart of reflection along three axis. I think she is thinking I need to bring up Flower's notion of reader-based prose and writer-based prose, acknowledge her influence on those terms I use.

Hmm... It would seem that she wants more introduction to my use of this chart. I do feel that I have plunked it into the proposal. It was a prominent piece in my version #1 to describe reflection and help place different frameworks of reflection used in composition.

I hate to make this proposal longer, but maybe I need to bring back that definition of reflection offered by Moon and then my chart.

Point #4--Who sees the gaps? Is it worth studying?
On page #6 in my section on "what it the gap in our understanding?" I think Becky may have been hinting at a wording change to this sentence:
"We actually have an increadibly rich theoretical understanding of reflection, yet I see two gaps that this research will attempt to address:"

She says, "Not bad, necessarily, but is it worth studying if you are the ONLY one who sees it?"
(Then she has a smiley face.)

But she may be saying more here. I could change the sentence to a passive construction or turn it into a sort of plural/chorus construction (Despite this rich theoretical understanding of reflection, two gaps exist...).

She brings up a good point--if I am the only one who sees "the problem" then is it worth studying? Here again is the WGRA question--the SO WHAT? I think in general this means that I need to bolster the SO WHAT? of my proposal. I think this is very do-able and I need to do some musing/drafting/writing/blogging on the question to refine it.

Point #5--On page #6 she mentions that I need to justify WHY grounded theory is particularly well-suited for addressing my question/problem. OK. It looks like I need a couple of justification sentences in paragraph #1 of the methodology section. I can refer back to what I wrote in an earlier blog post here.

These are all very good points for me to chew on. Next to integrate them with Fred's comments.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Notes from Fred's Comments

Here are key things from Fred's text feedback

1) Research question needs to be strengthened.
(but then... he is thinking I need to include something of a hypothesis in my question which would not be appropriate for a grounded study)

2) I need to define grounded theory better in the proposal

3) He overall wanted more "tell em what your going to tell em, tell em, tell em what you told em" format for the lit review and rationale for the proposal. He wants more foreshadowing. Perhaps this is proposal form? Perhaps this is the first inkling of dissertation form? I am not sure in such a short proposal if I need this kind of redundancy?

4) He thinks also I need to include my definition of reflection. I had that in my draft #1, so I can put it back in.

5) There was some question about my use of the word critically in the statement, "We approach reflection uncritically." Fred jumped in that he does and he has no question about its value (which seems sort of like uncritical acceptance to me). Perhaps the word had too many other connotations to fit here.

6) He wanted me to define theory more, particularly Glaser and Strauss' notion of theory being judged by fit and work. I have done recent thinking on this question--if my diss is to develop "theory" I need to have a good definition of "theory." What is it that I am developing?

7) Facing Flower--In response to my section identifying how Flower focused on the "same essential questions I am focusing on," Fred wrote--"So in this regard, what are you doing that she didn't?" I think by the end, Fred got that I am seeking to answer these questions via a different methodology of inquiry (grounded theory). But this is a valid question. I need to dissect more distinctly the purposes and methods behind Flower's study and distinguish them from mine. She was seeking to explore how students develop the ability to perform "literate acts" and explored how reflection played a role in that development. I have other purposes that don't seem quite so deep or founded in a larger project to uncover how writers think in writing. I need to face Flower more.

8) Goal of research? So what?
Fred expresses that the efficacy of reflection is a forgone conclusion for him. So why study this? I need to ask my self this more deeply. I think the difficulty may be framing the inquiry around "efficacy"--proving that it works. But if I'm not looking into whether "it works" then WGRA? So what?

I am not doing a proving kind of study. The goal is to understand better what happens when students reflect and develop a theory that explains and predicts how it will work within the various dynamics of the context of reflection. I think the "so what?" simply is that we need to know more about how reflection REALLY works (that isn't tainted by our myths about how it works that come from seeing in reflection what we want to see or hope it will be).

9) Method will be as significant as the results
Here is the methods point again that we talked about. I am not sure exactly what he means or has in mind about these methods because I see myself following pretty standard grounded theory methods at first. Then shifting to pretty standard Content Analysis methods. The only new sort of stuff might be the datagogic data-mining? In my mind, I would be leaning on established methods to guide and give credibility to my own research. As I mentioned before, I won't know how my methods will work until I try them out in a pilot. I would be curious to hear what sort of vision Fred has of what methods I would use and how they would develop.

All in all, good feedback and lots to chew on.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Lunch with Fred

Before I forget, I want to record some of the things that Fred and I talked about today related to my pre-proposal. He has provided textual comments, and I will add another response after I look at these, but for now I want to write about our discussion.

We started talking some about my use of the TTU situation as an example of the "problem" surrounding reflection. He felt like the rationale for removing these reflective assignments were not so much on pedagogical or theoretical grounds as on other ones. He was fairly eloquent on this subject. I don't dismiss his take on why they were removed, but from my own interviews with teachers and students in the program, I believe their was enough lack of understanding, dislike, and ambiguity about these reflection assignments that my contention that it is an illustration of the "open question" (as Flower says) about reflections pedagogical place and value is valid. I could cut this example and simply bring up Flower's discussion.

Fred also believes I need to define what I mean by grounded theory better. He thinks a short definition of three sentences or so should do. I agree (since grounded theory has various definitions or we might say approaches). He felt like what will be very important for my study will be the process of analysis that I come up with. I pressed for some clarification, and he agreed that what may end up being as valuable or more valuable than any results that I arrive at is the methods I develop for this kind of analysis. He said that increasingly writing will be archived inside similar type databases, whether in something like Blackboard or in TOPIC, and others may look to my tools of analysis as a model. He used as an example Hugh Burn's dissertation that compared different types of invention to see which was more effective. No one remembers his results (Tagametric Metrics wins!), but many people were interested in his sequenced delivery of questions for heuristics via the computer.

I'll label this feedback as the PROCESS OF ANALYSIS (METHODS) issue. Right now, I pretty much have the idea that I will follow grounded theory methods, but I will be doing it on electronic texts. Not novel, I know. I don't think I will be able to problem-solve and develop my methods until I get into my pilot. Hence the importance of the pilot.

I brought up my concern that my pilot would be tainted by my heavy emphasis on reading theory in preparation for my qualification exam. He didn't seem to see that as a problem. Rich thinks the same thing. I need to start charting out the details of my pilot.

I also brought up my concern about using just TOPIC. Fred affirmed that it could be seen as a limitation, but it doesn't concern him. It offers more opportunities.

We had an interesting discussion about the SO WHAT? of my proposal. Fred openly admits for him there is no question about reflections value and effectiveness. In reference to my research question, focusing on questions of "how does it influence" or "seek to understand what happens" are not interesting to him. He brought up the analogy of studying brakes on a car--we aren't so interested how the brakes work or what happens when we hit the brakes. Instead, we are really interested in if they work and how well they work. What matters to him is determining reflection's effectiveness in improving writing? This effectiveness question, he said, is the most important one (or else why should I be interested)? He felt like I needed to present some hypothesis within my research question.

I then brought up how I had shifted this draft to fall in line with grounded theory's goals of discovering rather than validating theory. To follow what he is expressing as interesting would lead me to probably change my methodology.

I brought up what appears to be emerging as the so what if my study and that is that it is HOW I come up with my theories that may be most important. We have a slew of theories about what reflection is and how it works, but these theories were generated in logical-deductive ways or empirical ways that could be considered as tainted from theory. What might be important and different about my study is that I will use grounded theory--that I will use a more systematic analysis of the data to arrive at my theoretical understanding about reflection. Yancey did it one way. Bereiter and Scarmadelia did it another. Flower in yet another way. No one has done it as a grounded theory analysis. We will see. He seemed to acknowledge this rationale (though a bit tepidly).

He also brought up what he said was an old adage about what makes a good study or even story. The study needs to have a dynamic tension between shared knowledge and disturbed knowledge. This tension needs to be in good balance. The implication is that I could strengthen my proposal by finding those two poles in my proposal and exposing that tension.

Lots to chew on and I haven't even read his comments...

Thanks Fred!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Submission Sent

I just sent off a submission to the online journal Composition Forum with a revised version of the profile I wrote last Spring of the First-Year Writing Program at Eastern Michigan University. I wanted to write here some rather random thoughts about the piece.

I think I did capture some good things about how the program is framed and its characteristic of openness within a structure. I wonder in reality about how other students and faculty/grad students teaching in the program perceive the definition of writing that the program's framing and curriculum seeks to promote. I wonder too if I were to teacher in the program how I would feel about my place inside the curriculum. Would I feel the ability to freely teach within productive boundaries? Would that curriculum serve as a "starter reef" that would stimulate further innovation on my part? I don't know. The true answer likely is "sort of" and "to a degree"--and not the ideal, absolute vision of "open source curriculum development/participation" that I envision.

I am struck also by the paradigm of writing programs, and their unfair labor structure. The administrator oversees unskilled tradesmen who are roughly expendable or at least are easily replaceable. The model has a few professional (tenure-track faculty) at the top, and a large number of teachers at the bottom. It seems that many programs have lobbied for more quality and stability (like EMU) by hiring "lecturers" who get paid more and get benefits, yet they are still second class participants in the program--even though these days many of these lecturer positions require a PhD. What sort of professional place might I anticipate filling if I were to take a job some place else?

Anyway, I hope that this profile gets accepted. I think it is good--though a bit long--and highlights a recently prominent figure in the field due to her latest book, so there may be some curiosity to see her own writing program.