Wednesday, May 26, 2010

It's a grand muddle

E.M. Forester in Passage to India talks about mysteries and muddles. I believe I am in a great big muddle. I have immersed myself in my slice 5 of data, and I think I have dug so deeply into the minutia of the data that I am overwhelmed with it all. Like I experienced as I prepared for phase II of my lit review, I have been busy collecting and preparing separate "items," and now I have all of these cards scattered on the floor like 52 card pick up.

I am struggling with the axial coding, and how to do it in such a way that I am seeing patterns and relationships. I'm struggling with my insights to the overall draft cycle and then maintaining my focus on the reflection. I can say that these reflections present a partial and even deceptive picture of what really is going on and ends up happening. Mostly, I am intrigued by how things go astray and by my speculations about why. This mirror of reflection is a fairly cracked mirror.

In my mind, I keep coming back to my analogy of my son going to school with his collar up or his hair unbrushed and a wing of hair flying high from the back of his head. The act of reflection is the act of gazing in the mirror. The mirror itself is the "other" that presents a representation of you--a peer response, a self-evaluation, a glance at an other's draft, or looking at additional research. I have recently reincorporated viewing drafts and doing research as "mirrors" along with considering/reporting feedback, and I'm not sure they exactly fit, but they do provide contrastive and additional perspectives. Hmm. I'll have to think more about how to categorize them, but I know that they impact the identification of problems and coming to know (and eventual revision goals).

So now that we have the elements of this act of reflection in place, let's return to my son walking down the hall past our hall mirror and let's say he looks in the mirror.

Scenario 1: He sees his collar is up, realizes that it is a problem, and reaches up and folds it down. Reflection works. He would have gone to school looking like a slob, but now he is a guapo stylish guy. He gets an A on his paper.

Scenario 2: He looks in the mirror, sees his collar is up but shrugs his shoulders, says who cares, and walks on. He either purposefully decides the collar is not a problem, or he doesn't see it as a problem at all. He either does not have the appreciation (this is good/this is bad sense) of collars being down, or perhaps he doesn't think it is that bad. It fall within what McAlpine called his "corridor of tolerance." He can tolerate his collar being up. So has reflection failed? It has from the sense that we (the teachers) think all writers should have their collars down (our view of essay success).

He might also not have any sense that collars should be down. The whole concept of collars is so ill-defined to him that he really doesn't even notice the collar is up. As he looks in the mirror, he might even think his image in the mirror looks good. He leaves it up.

Scenario 3: He glances in the mirror, and he sees his shirt is untucked and hair unbrushed, but he doesn't even notice his collar is up. He might tuck in his shirt, but then decide not to brush his hair and not touch his collar because he has no realization that it is up.

Scenario 4: He looks in the mirror, sees his collar is up, but proceeds for the door without touching it. He told himself, "I need to pull down my collar," but he doesn't because it he is late for school and doesn't have time to pull it down. The expedient thing is to leave it up so he isn't late. Or he said he will get to it later, but then when he arrives at school he is is distracted and forgets.

Scenario 5: OK, once again he is getting ready for school. He puts his shirt on and the collar is up. He walks by the mirror, doesn't see the collar, but on the way to the car he feels the collar is up and then fixes it. He makes this change on his own without the aid of the mirror. Did he even need the mirror to make this change?

Scenario 6: Let's say he walks by the mirror, sees the collar is up and even acknowledges that it ought to be down. However, he doesn't know how to pull his collar down. He doesn't have the strategies, tactics, and skills he needs to make this change. So the collar stays up.

Scenario 7: He's back in front of the mirror, and he knows that I am standing there too, so he says the collar is a problem and that he will pull it down just because I am standing there and that is what  he knows I want him to say and do. I go into the bathroom, and he proceeds to the car having appeased me but not pulled down his collar. This problem identification and setting of revision goals has been done for my benefit. And the collar stays up.

I'm running out of scenarios, but I think these give a picture of the muddle I am seeing and trying to make sense of. So what role does reflection play? What is the purpose and effect of looking in that mirror? What if we had no mirror in the house? Is it necessary? Do we only gain this perspective on ourselves through this reflection?

Muddle muddle muddle.

I believe that the dymanic of these writing reviews is fundamentally shaped by what I am calling "essay success." I believe that will be my core category. So how do I do selective coding just for it? My axial coding is a mess right now. I think I need to spend some more time now that I have the cards all scattered about the floor. I think these scenarios point to variations I am seeing in the dynamic of reflection, but I need to refine these patterns and compare them to other patterns. What is significant in each case?

I'm also confused as to what constitutes a "theory." What is it that I am creating? I've become so lost in my data I feel that I have lost sight of what my end point will be. So I am going to take a break from my data for tomorrow. I want to review my literature on grounded theory both to refresh and guide me at this point and prepare for writing my methodology chapter. I'll come back to it on Friday and see what I see then.

In the meantime, I muddle on.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Processing the Annual Review

October 1st.
That's the date I need to have a draft of my dissertation done if I want to defend in December. OK. Sounds good to me.

While things are fresh in my mind, I want to record some of the things we talked about at my annual review. Becky was double-booked with another presentation this morning, so she was not there.

Rich gave me the admonition that now is the time to arm wrestle my data and the entire dissertation project and get it done. He complemented me on how I have sought to follow grounded theory's methods and remain open to my data and let it lead me where it will, but that now I need to begin to pull things together. I don't think he is advocating forcing the data, but instead saying that the time of openness and inquiry is passing and it is time to shift into analysis and findings--to develop my theory. I mentioned that while I am still open and inquirying with slice 5, I am pushing hard to get through this slice here in Lubbock and begin the end game of generating my theory. (That will be a subject of a future blog post, I am sure.)

Both Fred and Rich are interested the deep picture of what is going on for students within a writing assignment that my analysis is revealing. I showed them my refined version of my categories, properties, and dimensions and I used the analogy of a rubics cube to describe how these different categories and other elements fall into and out of alignment and even embed within each other. What I am gratified to hear is that the language I have chosen for my categories (fitting in bounds, essay success, coming to know, revision goals) were used by both Fred and Rich, and they seemed ok with them. They seem to grasp the concept and phenomena that the terms describe. That's good. I have been so close to these terms and using them so much that I am losing a sense of whether they work or not.

Interestingly, we had some discussion about time (or timing). Fred pointed out the diachronic and synchronic aspects of my study. I think what he is interested in is the diachronic aspect  of my analysis--looking at the writing review in the context of the larger essay or draft cycle (and even the semester). Both Fred and Rich think I am digging into a perspective on student writing that has not been done very much, and it provides a unique perspective. What is often revealed are mismatches and discordances in the "system." I had just been looking at some of Spinuzzi's stuff on activity systems, so I referred to this classroom context of writing instruction as a kind of activity system. I spoke of a few cases I had seen where students misinterpreted the assignment, DI feedback did not critique following the assignment criteria, and the reflection was a total failure in terms of what we theoretically believe reflection will do (the value-added assumption of reflection). Fred referred to this phenomenon as "missing each other in the night" and as the "dark underbelly of composition." Mismatches and discordances occur due to poor views of essay success. So, Fred said, this research shows the importance of providing clear and available as well as concrete and detailed representations of essay success.

 I had a few excerpts from Writing Reviews that we looked at together, and I narrated what I saw going on using the language of my categories. A couple of things came up from this discussion. I wanted to show cases where resolutions/goals were made and also instances where concrete steps were proposed to follow, but the student did not follow them in the next draft. In these WR, you can see instances of "coming to know" but then that knowledge does not extend (or transfer) into changes in the draft. Rich spoke of the importance of kairos or timing--that perhaps the time gap between the moments of realization and then working on the draft again led to unfulfilled resolutions. The moment of the coming to know should then be immediately followed by the act of application. He spoke of his believe in inserting the "teaching" of essay success right at the moment of realization and application and how that is what he has been wanting to create.

Fred also had some interesting things to say about the strategies these students were coming up with as their revision goals. He called them soft strategies. They mimiced the language of teachers using the words, but these were really like weasel words. They are really so vague that they are really expressing a true understanding at all. He mentioned S. I. Hayakoka's Language, Thought, and Action as having discussed this kind of use of language. 

I had a few questions regarding my lit review and how I had framed my inquiry. Question 1 was whether linking my inquiry back to Young and his work on invention made sense. I want to anchor my inquiry into the questions Young had about invention back in 1978, showing how my inquiry has roots in a central concern of our field. They both thought it sounded ok.

The second and third questions focused on terms I had used to describe the gaps or problems in our field's understanding of reflection that in a sense justify my own inquiry. The first gap is what I call the value-added assumption of reflection and how we uncritically think that reflection will provide "value" or a benefit to students (and it is a certain kind of benefit). This gap and term for it seemed to check out ok too. I also think that our view of reflection is influenced by portfolios. We see reflection as a post-task constructivists activity, and don't conceive it in in-task terms. I call this the "portfolio-centric view of reflection." They both thought it sounded good too and rang true.

I think this about covers what we discussed. I know I am missing things. They both often referred to "this is the kind of thing to put in your chapter 5." I can't say right now I saw all the things that they did for what could go in there, but I think I can return to these possibilities when I get to chapter 5.

I still have a long way to go, but I am well-positioned to complete this project. But I will have to do some arm wrestling to get it done.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The May Workshop

So another May Workshop has begun, and I am once again sitting in a dorm room in Carpenter Wells. I want to write for a bit about what I hope to accomplish while I am here. Time is short, and time is long. I hope to make the most of this time.

I am on the verge. I am near the point where my research will come together, but I have a lot of work yet to do. Let me chart out what I see that I need to do with my grounded theory analysis.
  1. I need to define my categories, properties, and dimensions.
  2. Then I need to analyze slice 5 with these "more consciously defined" categories
  3. I will then need to process this analysis along axial lines
  4. See if some core category truly emerges? 
  5. Recode previous slices along axial lines to further clarify my sense of a core category and densify my categories and emerging theory
  6. See at this point if I need to do more coding
If I can get this far this May, then I will feel truly accomplished. I may only get through item 4, but that will be OK I think.

Since I can't code the whole time, I thought at the same time (probably in the evenings) I would work on my methodology section. I may not be able to do all of the methodology because I have not finished my actual coding and thus reached the end of my coding, but I can at least pull together my rationale for this methodology better.

I have a few steps I think that this will involve. I can't quite see the sequence, but here are the tasks:
  1. Review previous drafts of rationale and methodology description
  2. Review other dissertations to see their description of the methodology and see what goes into a methodology section
  3. Review other readings I have related to GT to see what other kinds of rationale I can use
  4. Begin drafting/redrafting the chapter
And that should keep me pretty darn busy.

While I am here, I also want to get a good sense of what my real lit review chapter would be like. I have a section that seemed to be moving in a direction that would work in the dissertation, so I want to get some feedback to see if that direction is a good one to go in.

So I have three main goals
--GT analysis
--methodology drafting
--double-checking direction for lit review

Accomplishing these things will all need to be done, but it will position me for the summer work much better if I have managed to get this far. We shall see how it goes.

I will update along the way.  In the meantime, it is a beautiful day outside with a clear blue sky, and I am still in my dorm room inside.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Plato and "Essay Success"

Has it all come back to Plato? This morning as I pondered over my concepts and emerging theories of how they relate to each other, I came back to Plato (with a bit of horror). I am deeply worried that I am reducing my theorizing into an ancient box, but for the moment I will explore this connection for what it is worth.

A possible "core category" for my theory is what I have called "essay success" (or "writing success"). The concept of essay success, however, seems to fit this school context since it encompasses other aspects of the task than just the writing. Everything is permeated with the influence of the concept of essay success. What problems are identified and recognized come from notions of essay success. What assessments and evaluations are made about the essay as well as the process of composing or the goals for revision are gauged against this notion of essay success. What counts as "coming to know" is that which is closest to essay success.

I have charted out that essay success related to conceptions of the ideal text and the real text. The ideal text equals a fulfillment of essay success; however, the writer's as well as the responder's grasp of ideal text is often (or how about always) imperfect. Likewise, our apprehension of the real text is also an imperfect representation. Peer response is a kind of measuring and matching of the real text against the ideal text. An imperfect understanding of either (or both) leads to difficulties.

These are the kinds of conceptual musings I have been doing with my categories, and it hit me as a kind of recognition that all of this business about essay success sounded a lot like Plato's notions of the Forms (or Ideas). Oh no. While I certainly don't ascribe to the belief that the Forms are immortal and unchangeable and live up in the Empyrean Heaven, I can see that they are another way of articulating the notion of mental models, schema, or representations (so often used by the cognitivist). Task representation. Well, that representation is based upon a mental picture and understanding of the task. What is this mental picture? this mental representation?

Plato, just as I have noticed the significance of this mental model, uses an analogy to communicate this importance. He sets up three components:
--the power of sight (our capacity to apprehend or take in, perception, what is inside us)
--the visible (outside reality)

He states, "If sight is in the eyes, and the possessor tries to use it, and if color is in the things, you know, I suppose, that it will see nothing and the colors will be unseen unless a third thing is there specially created for this purpose" (Republic, VI 507B).

This third thing is light. We see nothing and the visible is not seen unless there is light. Of course, this view contradicts premises of positivistic science which believes no third thing is necessary. Observation is direct and unmediated. Plato may be fairly post-modern (ironically) here since he is saying that our "sight" is mediated and even enabled by something else. For him, it is the Forms--this ideal, abstract conception of things that serves like light to help us see (within ourselves) and makes apparent qualities of reality.  Here is Plato making the comparison between the influence of light and knowledge:

"my meaning must appear to be that this, the offspring of the good which the good begat, is in relation to the good itself an analogy, and what the good effects, by its influence, in the regions of the mind, towards mind and things thought, this the sun effects, in the region of seeing, towards sight and things seen" (Republic, VI 508D).

The effect of "the good" is like the effects of light for our seeing. Plato goes on, then, to articulate a theory of epistemology from this analogy: "when it [the soul] settles itself firmly in that region in which truth and real being brightly shine, it understands and knows it and appears to have reason. ...Then that which provides their truth to the things known, and gives the power of knowing to the knower, you may say is the idea or principle of the good, and you must conceive it as being the cause of understanding and of truth in so far as known"  (Republic, VI 508D-E). He goes on to distinguish knowledge and truth AS WE KNOW them are not the good. They are good-like.

Here is a scan of Plato's chart of this relationship.
I think I would need to dig deeper into Plato to get what the heck he is meaning with his equation.

What I think Plato gets at here, and it is exactly what I have been noticing, is the influence of the conception of "the good" or in this case "essay success"--the good piece of writing. He even goes so far as to say that the good is the cause of knowledge:

"Similarly with things known, you will agree that the good is not only the cause of their becoming known, but the cause that knowledge exists and of the state of knowledge, although the good is not itself a state of knowledge but something transcending far beyond it" (Republic, VI 508E). "Coming to know," realizing, figuring things out, seeing now, understanding all are rooted in the good. What counts as knowledge? That which is in alignment with the good.

So where does reflection come in? How does this work within the Writing Reviews. I can't say that this "thinking" only resides or is exclusively present in writing reviews, but what is happening is purely contrastive. Put this up to that. Contrast your text to the image of the ideal text in my head. Reflection, as Dewey noted, involves a "double-movement" which basically goes from the world to our conception of the world. It is out of this contrastive double-movement that I see students "coming to know." This fitting in bounds is the epistemological nature of reflection in the writing classroom.

I don't know if by bringing in Plato's thinking I am helping or not, but I can certainly see parallels between his connection of the Forms to knowledge and my own connection of essay success to what students learn. But I have to think about all this more... . Certainly this theory of epistemology has been critiqued by others.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Conceptualization of Data

Judith Holton in an article titled "The Coding Process and Its Challenges" within the Sage Handbook of Grounded theory sums up grounded theory and the coding process: "The conceptualization of data is the foundation of grounded theory development. The essential relationship between data and theory is the conceptual code" (266). It sounds simple, right? Who knew that in that little word "conceptualization" lay all the misery and mystery of research, as well as the source of so much disagreement.

This blog post won't examine many of Holton's interesting propositions about grounded theory as its own research paradigm or her thoughts about pre-conceptualization. Instead, I want to write for a few moments on the subject of description and conceptualization.  Holton states: "To understand the nature of classic grounded theory, one must understand the distinction between conceptualization and description. Grounded theory is not about the accuracy of descriptive units, nor is it an act of interpreting meaning as ascribed by the participants in a study; rather, it is an act of conceptual abstraction" (272). Holton attempts in her article to distinguish GT from qualitative research methodologies, and you can see her do it in this quote surrounding the issue of description and interpretation. While I think her differentiation of GT from qualitative research is interesting, I am more interested in her discussion about the movement beyond description toward conceptualization.

I have struggled with this issue of moving beyond description in my own research. Corbin and Strauss stress that naming and labeling is a first step of open coding, yet it seems more mysterious as to how to arrive at "codes" that are conceptual in nature and not merely descriptive. Holton warns that those of us trained in qualitative research may latch onto what she calls "descriptive coding" "with its capacity to portray rich detail, multiple perspectives, and the voices of lived experience" (272). I have certainly felt this descriptive pull and done my fair share of it. At times I feel as if I'm lingering on the "ground" level of description waiting for the wings of conceptualization to pop up on my back and enable me to fly. Perhaps this flight will still happen.

Reading Holton, however, provided me with one anchor for this conceptualization process that I think I might find helpful. She is admittedly a Glaserian "classic" grounded theorists, and I have spent more time studying and using Strauss and Corbin as my guide (though I consider Dey a neutral mediator), so I hope that I don't "mix my method" by incorporating some of Glaserian practice. But Holton brings up Glaser's notion of the "concept-indicator model." I was not familiar with it (or had forgotten it), but it make sense. Holton gives an example of a number of in vivo, descriptive codes. The researcher then looks at these codes and asks, "What concept might these indicate?" What concept might these descriptive items/features indicate or be described by in a more abstract sense?

I am seeking to delineate the categories, properties, and dimensions of my data, so which comes first? The property or the category? Are properties the "indicators" of a concept (and a concept is the heart of a category)? Or do you get your category first and them map out its properties and dimensions? It all seems  messy because I don't think this conceptualization process happens sequentially, nor can description ever be free of elements of conceptualization. Holton seems to acknowledge the messiness of this activity, and affirms that it is GT's methods that are most important to trust and follow through this process:

"The chaos is in tolerating the uncertainty and subsequent regression of not knowing in advance and of remaining open to what emerges through the diligent, controlled, often tedious application of the method's synchronous and iterative processes of line-by-line coding, constant comparison for interchangability of indicators, and theoretical sampling for core emergence and theoretical saturation" (273).

Chaos and uncertainty indeed. She calls GT a form of discipline, and she is right. I am getting more comfortable with this messiness and with the procedures of this methodology, and that includes becoming more at ease with the uncertainty. Interestingly, Holton brings up one warning that Glaser talks about related to when researchers begin to generate concept (true concepts!) from the data. They talk about an excitement that happens: "Captured by the imagery, or 'grab' (Glaser, 2001: 19-21) of the emerging concepts, they [the researcher(s)] switch their attention from abstraction to description" (273). It sounds like a possible danger is to jump back into the descriptive level to use the concept as an integrative descriptive tool too soon. I must remember not to do this.