Happy Birthday to Me: 365 days of @academicswrite

Well, here we are.  My one year anniversary of this account. I went from hating Twitter and not seeing much use for it, to being a serious convert. It has been an interesting ride here behind the scenes curating Academics Write. To be honest, I’m not 100% sure of the exact date that I opened this account. I know I opened the blog much sooner but didn’t write into it until over a month later. The date on the computer file of the photograph of my mother’s typewriter with the ribbon spilling out is July 23, 2016 so I’ll go with that.

I started with nothing. I was creating an anonymous account, so I couldn’t start gathering followers by following people I knew because I planned to keep the account anonymous for a little while. I am less anonymous now but I was full anonymous for about 9 months. So my following was a build from scratch. I think I had the account for 2 weeks and then went on vacation with 4 followers to my name. I was literally Tweeting into a void of nothingness, retweeting others, trying to interact, and hoping to get noticed like a wallflower.

I wasn’t going to pay to promote my account so gathering a following was hard work. In a year I managed to con 2298 accounts to follow me.  As my follower count has increased, it definitely lowered the effort I’ve had to put in to maintain its momentum. Things just run themselves now. When I started this account, my thought was if I got 200 followers I would be thrilled. And I got 2000 followers purely by tweeting and tweeting a lot: 9297 times, to be exact (if you are doing that math that’s an average of 25 tweets/replies/retweets a day). I once tweeted you needed to write 20 tweets a day to create an empire and 30 to create an evil empire so I’m sitting comfortably somewhere between good and evil, I suppose. Right where I want to be.

Here are a few things I have learned in the process:

  1. There are two key ways to gather followers — one is to get retweeted by another account that has a lot of followers. That, of course, is up to that person to like what you tweet. So really the actual key to make this happen is you have to write good relatable original tweets — I don’t have any secrets to tell you about that other than to point out that the word relatable is key. Riffing off someone else’s tweet in a quote can also work, because if they like your riff, a savvy twitter users of the original tweet will retweet it (that, by the way, benefits them too because it bumps their excellent tweet back to the top of the feed). My other not-so-secret strategy is to be myself, be genuine, be honest, and be original. And for God sakes don’t beg for a retweet. Write good stuff and the re-tweets will come. (Easier said than done on some days).
  2. The second key way to get followers is interact. And interact a lot. This requires having the guts to jump into the mentions of complete strangers and say, kind, relatable and affirming things. Positivity is the only thing that works here. Disagreeing with someone does not. So if you disagree with someone, disagree in your head and let it go. People follow people who think like them. Puns and humour are a good strategy as well. And by mentions I mean reply to them, not flat out @ them on something they don’t see coming, cuz I always think it is a little strange when people do that.  Have meaningful interaction with them about their ideas or interests. Most people love to engage back. Some will ignore you. Don’t take it personally. We are all busy people.
  3. Participate in popular hashtags. #ScholarSunday is one of the best. You use scholar Sunday to call out other academics that people should follow but when those call outs get retweeted, many people have followed me as well as the person I have called out. And do your call outs genuinely. Have something meaningful to say about why others should follow a particular person. It was @ShawPsych calling me out on Scholar Sunday (and @raulpacheco retweeting him) about two months after I started this account that took me from about 40 followers to 100 in about a week.
  4. There are other popular hashtags that pop up from time to time on the fly that trend for a day or two and then disappear. Like the #professorwatchlist one that happened around Christmas or #Rainbowrowcall. Get involved as the hashtag fits.
  5. What does not work to get followers is to follow a bunch of people indiscriminately. I would estimate that only about 10% of twitter users (and it may be less) do automatic follow backs. So follow people you think might genuinely make a positive contribution to your Twitterline but don’t expect a follow-back. You’ll have a much more enjoyable time on Twitter if you expect nothing from no one and you follow people that strike you as interesting and engaging. Earn your follow-backs by interacting with folk.
  6. Speaking of following and unfollowing, people will unfollow you. Expect that too. If not a single person had unfollowed me over this last year, I’d have closer to 3000 followers. That’s a lot of unfollows. Who knows, and it really it matters not, why. Some people only follow to get follow backs and if you don’t follow them back then they unfollow you. Some accounts follow you to get a follow back and if you do follow back they unfollow you just to keep their own following counts low — also, as a side note, means they don’t much care about you anyway, so “shrug.” Occasionally you will get unfollowed by someone that will surprise you. One week they like everything you post, the next week, they are gone. Such is Twitter. This isn’t Facebook. It isn’t your closest friend or ex-boyfriend unfollowing you so best not to take it too personally.
  7. Stay in character. Believe me, whether you are operating off an anonymous account or not, we are all just a Twitter character. The most popular accounts have something that identifies them. Have a “thing.” Have a “schtick” that you are known by. On academic Twitter it is easy because anything academic generally goes over well. I, for example, find that tweeting about writing works best (for obvious reasons), but I can tweet about general academia, research methods, my office space, drinking wine…. and those go over fairly well too. The occasional times I have tweeted about my other love, cycling, or other personal things, have generally gone by unnoticed.  Politics doesn’t work on my account either. I try to stay apolitical but any political allusions I have made have been pretty much ignored. I’ve also occasionally tweeted about anxiety and gender issues but my avatar isn’t a person so those kinds of tweets don’t seem to work well for me either. Stay in character.
  8. Anonymity has likely worked in my favour. People tell me all the time they love my quirky tweets (an actual description given to me by someone I met in person), but I’m convinced (and it could be imposter syndrome) my musings hold more weight coming from Academics Write than they would have coming from that nobody Kim Mitchell MN.
  9. When you have an anonymous account, people don’t give a damn who you are. Being anonymous on Twitter is a position people respect and no one asks for identification. I’ve posted things on my Twitter with my name on it and heard cricket sounds.
  10. My primary tweet formula? This is dumb…. but my best tweets are just regurgitating all the stupid things that run through my head while I am writing, reading, grading, and living the academic life. One of my more popular tweets

 

 

 

 

was written based on a frustrated thought I had reading, you guessed it, Barthes and Foucault one Saturday. This may have been my first tweet to break 100 likes. I always look for absurdities, ironies, and universal truths, and that’s what I tweet. I am not (generally) an advice giver. Sometimes I slip on that.  I don’t give tips on how to write. I believe you know how to write, you just have to be inspired to let go of your hangups and get words on the page, and figure out what works best for you. Trial and error.

People on Twitter are generally kind and supportive. It gets a bad (and justified) rap  for bullying, harassment, and trolls but I haven’t had any (major) issues yet.  The worst thing that has happened to me is I once tweeted that I was finished a paper and didn’t know what to do with myself and someone suggested I go masturbate. Again, I do think being anonymous helps. I don’t tweet anything trolls would care much about, but they can find you and it can change at anytime. The more followers you have the more likely that a portion of your following will be made up of people who will troll.

The most amazing thing about my first year on Twitter is the number of great people who have come into my life because of it. People I know who would help me in a pinch and have my back if I needed it, who were excited to meet me when I wandered into their cities this spring even though they had never seen a picture of me.  Thanks to all of you.

By a quick count I’ve met 9 of my Twitter connections in person, most of whom I never would have met otherwise. I’ll tell one story in particular because it is a fun story and happened at a time before I had outed my identity. I met Alex Clark, nursing scholar from U of Alberta in March. I wasn’t in Edmonton, he came to my city.  I had known since August or September that he was coming to my university to be the research symposium scholar. I was already following him (and he was one of my kind early followers) on Twitter and we’d interacted a little bit. He had no idea who I was, I don’t think he knew (or realized) I was in nursing. He didn’t know where I was located. I thought about telling him we were going to meet but I had two (rather contradictory) thoughts about that. First, that he might not care or even remember my account, and second, that, if he did care and remember, it would be FAR more fun to surprise him. So I deliberately made sure I looked for opportunities to interact with him over the next few months. (That wasn’t hard. We have lots of similar academic and personal interests). And surprise him I did.

 

 

I didn’t approach him in person at this event. I just Tweeted at him and waited for him to respond (which didn’t happen until much later that night).  It was a good response and so much fun.

 

So what will next year bring? More of the same I hope. Better things. More interactions. More learning. Twitter has, on more than one occasion made me look smart and knowledgeable in my PhD studies simply because some source, or conversation, crossed my path that had meaning within my real world.

I need to do better keeping up with the blogging though.  I know. I know. (Guilt).

Part III: How Much Academic Rejection can a Girl Take?

If you have come across this blog first, this is Part III of a 3 part blog looking at the story behind the research which led to the publication of this study:

Exploring Self-Efficacy and Anxiety in First-Year Nursing Students Enrolled in a Discipline-Specific Scholarly Writing Course

Part I explores conducting the study.

Part II talks about what came after.

Part III (this part) will explore the perseverance required to get this thing published. The ending has already been spoiled but the journey is what matters. It was an adventure that turned out alright in the end.

I approached publication as go big or go home. We should always start that way shouldn’t we? I went to one of the most highly ranked nursing education journals and attempted to submit the paper as “original research” ignoring the fact that their author guidelines said they wouldn’t publish single-site studies in this category. In all fairness to my dumb decision, I had gone and flipped through the journal and it did appear that they regularly broke this rule. No shock, it was desk rejected. But they did ask me to revise the manuscript and resubmit it as a “research brief.” I cringed. To fit the “research brief” category, the manuscript, which was 15-pages, would need to be cut to 8-pages. I debated not doing it but I went forth anyway. I was ruthless. I gave myself five seconds to make a decision on a passage and if I hesitated it was gone. I actually think I ended up with a pretty decent short manuscript. I sent it back to the journal. It went to review and two months later it came back….. rejected. The feedback: manuscript didn’t go into enough depth in a very long list of areas.

I was pissed because I had been asked to resubmitted it in a category that denied me the space to give those details and it got rejected for not saying enough. No shit. Perhaps if I had been more experienced I could have foreseen that outcome and declined their resubmit request.

In the meantime, I had continued on with my reading. In 2013 before I started preparing this manuscript I had decided to run my study again, this time with a time-control period prior to the course start, so I was already working on another study.

(In fact, I got the requested minor revisions for the manuscript for this second study last week so that one will be coming soon as well.)

But all the new reading was developing my understanding of self-efficacy theory.  I decided to re-write some of the review of the literature and discussion. I liked some of the edits I made to shorten the manuscript so some of those stayed, in addition to expanding on some of the literature. So if you are keeping track, at this point in the process, I am re-writing this manuscript for the second time.  It was written, it got re-written to shorten it, and now I am re-writing it in preparation to go to another journal.

In September 2015, I submitted the paper to a second journal, where it sat. And sat. And sat in review forever and a day. I would email the editor every couple of months to find out how it was going. She was a lovely lady. Her sympathetic emails back to me always stated she couldn’t seem to get anyone to follow-through with reviewing the manuscript. At some point she had found one person. She really wanted three people to review it.  Seven months later when I was getting the same response (reviewers not responding), I asked her if I should pull the manuscript and send it elsewhere. And she agreed that was appropriate. She sent me the reviews she had — there were 2 completed at this point, much to my surprise — and they were unenthusiastic reviews. They thought the review of the literature was not great. They thought the study was weak. They thought I was good at hiding the study weaknesses with editorializing (truth). I think she allowed me to pull it because she would have ultimately rejected it. It was now spring of 2016.

One of the reviewers told me that I needed to team up with a mid-career researcher to gain some experience.

What the hell? I wrote to Tom in an email. How can they tell?

They looked you up. He wrote back. And if they had looked me up they would have found no publications. All my previous publications were under my former married name.

It was supposed to be a BLIND review. 

I was still reading. In 2015-16 I had been working on a third big writing self-efficacy project exploring all the measurements instruments assessing the concept.  By the time I pulled this study article from the second journal, I had written that manuscript, I had written the manuscript for the replication study with the time control. I dove into re-writing THIS manuscript, especially the review of the literature for the third time. In fact, it seems to me I wrote the new review of the literature for this publication just after I wrote the first draft for the second study manuscript which in the end was probably fortuitous because it meant I was forced to write two different reviews of the literature. I used the same literature to write two different versions of the same background and review of the literature. Those of you who do a lot of research using the same concepts will know what I mean when I say, this is hard.

I sent this manuscript off to the new Canadian Association of Schools of Nursing (CASN) journal Quality Advancement in Nursing Education. It is open access and publicly available but there are no fees. It is peer reviewed but I doubt it yet has an impact factor as it is too new. I’m also not sure if it is indexed yet. I just tried to search for it in our library and it didn’t come up. The journal has been in existence for just over 2 years. I believe this is its 7th issue.

But they were wonderful. The reviews were wonderful and helpful. One reviewer asked me to write a section on scaffolding theory and include an appendix with the scholarly writing course structure and activities. I nearly screamed in excitement. I had already done a ton of reading about scaffolding theory because I had written it into the second study’s manuscript and allowing me space to publish my entire course structure was a gift I would have never gotten from any other well established journal with their strict rules and tight word counts. So now the final product comes in at a whopping 21 published pages. Not including references, tables, or the appendix it is 6500 words long — unheard of lengths for nursing journals.

Incidentally Torrie and Holly were at the beginning of the second year of their nursing program in October 2014 when they wrote their papers for my class on the topic of writing interventions and writing self-efficacy and anxiety. With all the revisions and re-writes this manuscript went through in the time since, there are very few of their actual words left. There is a spot here and there that I remember not being my writing but I can no longer remember what parts were theirs.  They graduated from our nursing program in the fall of 2015. They’ve been practicing nurses for about a year and a half now. They are both wonderful gifted students. It makes me very happy to have given them this opportunity even though I know the whole experience hardly feels like it belongs to them anymore. Funny thing is that I was involved in a project with my professors when I was an undergraduate student that was eventually published. I hardly feel like I played any role in that project either anymore but there it sits in my publication credits. So this paper for me was like giving back to Torrie and Holly  what one of my profs gave to me as an undergrad and I am forever grateful. It may be one reason why I am where I am today.

And so concludes the story behind this research. I look forward to your feedback and I encourage you, if you are a blog writer, to consider telling these stories of your work.

If you missed Part I and Part II they can be accessed at the hyperlinks.

Part II: The Study is Done. What’s Next?

If you are coming to this blog first, this is part II of a three part series describing the story behind my research for this study:

Exploring Self-Efficacy and Anxiety in First-Year Nursing Students Enrolled in a Discipline-Specific Scholarly Writing Course

Part I is here.

Part III is here.

Dissemination and All that FUN Stuff 

Tom did the stats and, dammit, we ended up with a p = .051 significance for change in self-efficacy from pre to post course. Every researcher’s worst nightmare. You’ll note I do what most researchers do with p = .051, I call it non significant in the abstract but proceed to talk about it like it is significant. Take that as you wish.

I went to a conference in February 2013 and presented just a basic version of my findings. I focused the presentation on the course design because I knew that was what my audience would be most interested in. I was swamped after the presentation ended. Writing is a huge problem in nursing programs. Everyone is frustrated. After that conference, we almost “sold” (I wouldn’t have made a cent) the scholarly writing course to be used by another institution but they deemed it then too expensive for the size of their student group. It had taken me 7 years to perfect the design of that course which began when I taught it not-for-credit prior to implementing it as a credit course. A detailed description of the course can be found in the appendix of the publication I am discussing and is linked above. The party that had looked into buying it thought why re-invent the wheel? However, the decision makers at their institution said no.

Related, but incidental, the process the finance people use to calculate how much a course design is worth unto itself is pretty fascinating. They need to pay me more. My intellectual property is worth a lot of money to them.

I finished data collection in February 2012, but it took me till fall of 2012 before I did anything with the data. I presented at that February 2013 conference in Edmonton and then in the spring of 2013 for our faculty, and then I sat on it. I started another study in the fall of 2013 to replicate and improve upon what I had done in this study. So I started to read what had been published about undergrad writing in nursing because it was really time I did a more thorough job of reading. It was a sad state of affairs the writing research in nursing, and very limited or anecdotal. For the most part, what I was reading taught me that I had an instinctive knack for figuring out what kinds of questions researchers and educators had about student writing. Next thing I knew it was 2014 and I needed to do more than present, I needed to write the study up and see if someone would publish it.

And I was terrified. Yes me. Terrified of writing. The last thing I had published was the main study for my Master’s thesis. That one seemed to take a long time to go from thesis to draft. It went through (as I recall) 3 peer reviewed processes at the first journal of submission — 2 revise and resubmit requests and then a final smaller revision. This was in what I now call the “olden days” of publishing when you had to mail hard copies of your blinded paper to be reviewed and they snail mailed your reviews back to you. I had graduated with my Masters in 2002. I sent the paper out for publication in 2003. I had a kid in there somewhere because I remember being on mat leave, coming in for my baby shower, and picking up an envelope with my reviews in it. I don’t know when I finally dealt with them. I think it took me a long time because the paper didn’t reach publication until January/February of 2006. In fairness, it went to a good journal so I was pleased. But that was my last academic publication before the one I write about now. By the time I got that article published, I had written a novel. My marriage was on its way to falling apart. My marriage did fall apart. I wrote a second (shitty) novel. I was about to have a midlife crisis and spend about six years just riding my bike ridiculous distances. I didn’t want to write academically. The next thing I knew I woke up and it was 2011. I had done a stint on anti-anxiety meds, calmed the F down, and realized life didn’t need to be lived with so much agitation and competition and I should be enjoying its beauty not tackling it with a vengence. Ironically enough, I came back to my academic sensibilities through that epiphany. Yes, going back to academia actually mellowed me.  I had changed my name back to my maiden name. I decided to conduct a research study and it took me 3 years to get my ass in gear and write it up.

Getting my Undergraduate Students Involved

What’s the quickest way to get a lit review done? Assign your undergraduates to do it for you for credit. This is where authors three and four, Torrie and Holly got involved. I had this idea. My students wrote this paper in my research course where they had to find 5 primary studies on a topic. Not the same paper I use now but its predecessor. I knew enough at this point to know that there were barely 5 articles on my topic but there were some. I threw out an offer to the class in the fall of 2014. If anyone would explore writing research and writing self-efficacy, I would use their work to structure my review of the literature and I would give them authorship on the published work. Three students stepped forward with interest. One eventually dropped out. I helped them hone their topic. Torrie looked at the studies which had developed interventions to improve writing. Holly wrote about self-efficacy and anxiety. The additional articles that Torrie and Holly found began pushing my reading into the social science literature which is where my ideas on writing instruction and research really began to develop.

Fast forward into the future and when I was finally prepping the first version of the manuscript for publication in spring of 2015, the journal we first sent to required more than just manuscript involvement for publication credit so Torrie and Holly, the troupers that they are, agreed to explore the qualitative data I had for this study. I asked them to read through that data with a lens toward statements made that supported the quantitative findings. They did a wonderful job and identified some similar points to each other and learned the value of parallel data assessment and trustworthiness of qualitative analysis and I could now tick off “contributed to analysis” beside their names for project involvement. The findings of their analysis are mentioned briefly in the paper in the discussion section at the bottom of the first paragraph on p. 12.

I think of everything I did within this project, getting Torrie and Holly involved in this work is the part I am most proud of. These were two bright students (now nurses) who sacrificed researching something more glamorous and clinically based (the stuff students value) to gain a really important academic credential that they can talk about and use on their CVs for years. I was happy to give them this opportunity.

The final stage of this process was the publication experience which can be found in Part III

The Story Behind the Research #1: On Naivety and Perseverance

One of the things we don’t do so well in academia is to talk about the stories behind the the structured, impersonal research articles we write. So think of this post as the commentary on the DVD for a movie you watched, or in this case the academic article you just read, or should read, or will eventually read at some point in the very distant future.

Exploring Self-Efficacy and Anxiety in First-Year Nursing Students Enrolled in a Discipline-Specific Scholarly Writing Course

The first draft of this blog was really long so I’ve broken it into three parts. The first part talks about how I naively plunged into designing this study with little mentorship or guidance. Part II talks about how long it took me to do much of anything with the data and how I got my undergraduate students involved. Part III is the perseverance part because getting this study published was an adventure.

The Naivety: Planning and Conducing the Study

It was about October 2011.  It was the second year of our “new” Baccalaureate Program and I was in the second year of teaching my newly minted “for credit” Scholarly Writing course offered to our first-year students. The idea had been festering in the back of my mind for a year to study my Scholarly Writing course and its effectiveness. My credentials at that point in time: I had been teaching research to undergraduates for about 4 years at this point; I had done a research based thesis for my Master’s; I sat about 5 feet away from one of our psych instructors who was also teaching stats for the program (my second author Dr. Tom Harrigan, who would never let me call him Doctor anything in real life); and, perhaps the most critical factor, there was no one around who would tell me not to do it.

So what the hell, lets do a research study.

I had read very little writing research literature. Actually it would be more honest to say   I had read nothing about writing research. I knew nothing about Self-Efficacy Theory other than that it existed. I had one meeting with our Research and Planning Director who was also the chair of the research ethics board at the College. I knew him from cycling before I knew him as the research guy. He gave me a few study design tips and tips on how to ensure ethical approval and off I was writing an ethics proposal.

I think maybe it worked in my favour to walk into planning and implementing a study on my own. I didn’t have anyone around me asking questions I’m glad I didn’t think of myself like, “shouldn’t you have a PhD to conduct a research study?” Knowing myself as I do, it is highly likely someone did question my credentials and experience in some way and I just didn’t hear it or process it. Being the girl who went out and rode a 300km bike ride last spring on almost no training, it is safe to say that when I get an idea in my head I’m pretty hard to stop no matter how foolhardy that idea might be. I suppose, I had Tom, but Tom’s main involvement didn’t come until I had the data and the stats needed to be run.

The course started at the end of November 2011 and I am pretty sure that I didn’t get ethical approval until just before Christmas. My manuscript says I collected data for the pre-test 4-classes into the term which would be about three weeks into the term because the class was held for 2 hours once a week.

I used Google to find a questionnaire. That’s how I found the General Self-Efficacy Questionnaire. I didn’t know Writing Self-Efficacy (or that other people had made questionnaires for it) existed. I developed the writing self-efficacy questionnaire following the pattern of that General Self-Efficacy Questionnaire. I consider myself lucky (now three studies deep and some reliability and validity data in my pocket) that the questionnaire works. It is probably best that I don’t go into too many details about how very naive I was to go out and just MAKE my own questionnaire. It didn’t occur to me not to. I had developed a questionnaire for my Master’s thesis too. I have a publication describing it. (Yes, I’ve changed my name. We’ll get to that). So of course I was going to develop a questionnaire. I was an experienced writer, writing teacher, and I knew the things that students sat down and talked to me about while clearly overwrought and distressed in the midst of the writing process.

So I plunged forward and ran the study and made oodles and oodles of mistakes. For example:

  1. I wasn’t really pretesting these students I was early testing them. They were 3 weeks into the course before they got their pretest.
  2. I had them develop a personal identification code so I could keep the students anonymous. That code asked them to use their Mother’s initials and date of birth.  Well… some have more than one mother, and their mother has had more than 2 names in her life, and sometimes the birth date was used and sometimes the birth month. And some of them still forgot their code. Lesson learned, nothing is fool proof.
  3. I did the post-test measure into the following term in someone else’s class. The person who was teaching was not willing to give me much of her class time for the students to complete the questionnaire. Some of them took the questionnaire home and I never saw it again. When I got beautiful written reflections about their writing experience in the early part of the course, in post test, the qualitative questions were left blank or were one or two sentences long.
  4. I didn’t think about program attrition. I’m not really sure we realized the degree of our own program attrition at that time but there were many students due to multiple course failures, that didn’t even make it to that third term. I lost all my low grade students from the sample and they are an important voice in writing self-efficacy.
  5. Anxiety — I asked them to rate their anxiety based on their “next” scholarly paper which worked well for the first data collection period because they were about to write the paper assigned in my course. But I made a stupid and naive decision for the post-test. These students didn’t have a known scholarly paper coming up at the end of the course. What exactly were they rating or imagining when I asked them to rate their anxiety for their next scholarly paper?

Nevertheless, when I went forth and analyzed the data some interesting things emerged. And I realized that since I’d last written a research study paper, that all the rules had changed. Two things I will discuss in future parts.

Part II

Part III

 

 

New Publication: Exploring Self-Efficacy and Anxiety in First-Year Nursing Students Enrolled in a Discipline-Specific Scholarly Writing Course

This happened today. I have a planned “Story behind the Research” blog post I intend to write but I have a big assignment due in a week so it will have to wait until after that.  I’m really excited about this article finally making an appearance. This one feels like it was an ultra-endurance race in academic game playing to get it off the ground. It is a numerously flawed study but the story behind how it happened is good. Stay tuned. In the meantime you may find and download the whole article here:

http://qane-afi.casn.ca/journal/vol3/iss1/4/

 

Can I Have an Extension, Please?

Where is the line in the sand when it comes to granting or refusing extensions on writing assignments? The image is a bike tire track on sand but it was the closest I had to a personal image representing that metaphor.

I asked for my first extension as a PhD student a couple of weeks ago. In fairness, my entire class also asked for an extension. It had been strongly suggested to us that we participate as much as possible in the Research Symposium organized by the faculty. The symposium was wonderful so it wasn’t difficult to want to participate, but it was also two full days and two evenings of symposium activities, and one evening of being exhausted taken away from completing an intense 25-page assignment on measurement. We were lucky. (Or charming?) Our prof said yes and it was a like releasing the death grip on our sanity.

Student requests for extensions became a hot and controversial topic on Twitter earlier this week. Extensions are a writing issue that all writers encounter a need for. They are linked to my primary area of study in academic writing: Writing Self-Efficacy. They are also linked to the social inequalities present in academia among students that we may not recognize when we criticize students for their inability to get their work done on time.

The Debate

  1. All students should be given extensions on request regardless of reason.
  2. No student should be given an extension because in the real world, deadlines  are not extended.

It is obviously much more complicated than that but that is the essence of the dichotomy as it comes out of the mouths of black and white thinkers. It might be easier to talk about the shades of grey in between by telling you my process of dealing (or rather not dealing with) extensions.

A number of years ago when I was a much more junior college instructor I observed very quickly that in a class size of 70 students (or more) that it was a time consuming pain in the ass to receive 20 or more emails asking for extensions for various reasons. Not only that, but our department made them fill out a form which was then to go in their file so they could keep track of a pattern of behaviour.  For each student who requested an extension, I would have to make an independent decision to grant or not grant their request.

… but what, after all,  defines a good enough reason?

Illness? A death in the family? Hospitalization? My kid is sick? My parent is sick? I’m too busy with other assignments and clinical? All of the above? Some of the above? None of the above?

I am bound by some department policies. Extensions are allowed, to a maximum of one week, at the discretion of an instructor, and they must be requested 24-hours in advance of a due date (which, think about this, means 72 hours in advance if the due date is a Monday). Something about tracking requests for extensions and making a decision about what was a valid reason for needing an extension based on my own personal view point didn’t sit well with me.

So I began pre-announcing, in the first class of a term, a due date and an automatic extension date for the entire class. No questions asked. AND — this might be the controversial part — I give those who had in their paper “on time” 2 bonus marks.

Here is my rationale for my personal policy:

  1. The students are adults. They should be allowed some control over their life.
  2. No matter how hard we try to say we are preparing students for real life, being a student is NOT real life. Hence why I teach at the college level. It’s been my extended way of avoiding real life for a very long time now. So the argument that no extensions are granted in the real world, doesn’t wash well with me. And it’s pretty much flat out untrue more often than it is true.
  3. I believe that rewards are far more motivating than punishments.
  4. It prevents students from being put in the place of needing to lie to you, or having to accept a punishment such as grade loss.  Having restrictive extension policies such as you can only have an extension if you are sick or someone close to you dies, basically puts students who need extensions for other reasons in a place where they have to make a choice that isn’t a choice.  So they are punished, or they lie to you. Talk about stress and anxiety. I don’t see how either is a good option when you are the less powerful party just trying to survive.
  5. Lets not even go down the road of discussing those who demand doctor’s notes. What a waste of a doctor’s time (and the student’s money — they don’t hand out those notes for free) to send a sick student to sit in a waiting room and spread germs just to humour a teacher’s fear of being lied to and fear being unfair to all the others who were not as unlucky and didn’t get sick.
  6. Sometimes the shit hits the fan within that final 24-hour period.
  7. It demonstrates that I trust my students to make their own judgement call about their lives and what they can manage. It also protects their privacy. They no longer have to tell me their often very personal stories that might be embarrassing to them. And, frankly, I don’t need to know.

How has this worked out for me? I don’t always use this policy. When I am using true scaffolding writing strategies, for example, where students are completing their assignment in small stages across the term, it is often not needed. But when I use it, I find it very successful. Here are some of the discoveries I have made along the way:

  1. Students need a reminder to psychologically view the first due date as the due date because if they start thinking of the extension date as the due date, some of them will run into big troubles with procrastination. I structure the pre-assignment expectations as such that no student should be in the position of not having something started by the time the first due date rolls around.
  2. I tell them to not make a decision until the last minute so the extension is used only if they really need it. I also tell them not hand in crap just for bonus marks. They can often earn far more than the 2 marks just with taking a little time to better edit their paper. (Problem I acknowledge: it requires that they understand what kinds of editing will get them more marks. Some of them don’t.)
  3. 100% of terms over the last 5 academic years has seen more students taking the extension than not. In fact the number of students handing in the paper “on time” ranges from 0 to 15 out of an average of 60 students per class.
  4. The majority of students handing in the paper “on time” are the A-grade students anyway. So the bonus may not be necessary (but I’ve never tested that theory).
  5. Most students know that putting off their school work just makes subsequent school work harder to attend to. There is no down time in  nursing school.
  6. With the very rare and extreme exception, further extensions are not granted.

I’ve heard the arguments about being limiting with extensions. That it isn’t fair to the students who hand in their work on time. That it is laziness and procrastination that makes them request extensions. In my experience, it is rarely laziness or poor time management that leads to a student wanting an extension. It’s the very complicated lives our students lead. Arguments of fairness assume all the students are starting off on a level playing field. They aren’t. You cannot compare the responsibilities of a student who is single parenting three children to the responsibilities of a 22 year old, living at home with her parents and has no job but school work. And that 22-year old may be being abused by her boyfriend. You simply don’t know.

And here is a crazy but anecdotal observation — those with the strictest extension policies for students are also the first to demand concessions for themselves when they need more time.

There are students in our classrooms who are working just so they can feed their family and have many other disadvantages both visible and invisible. It’s family demands, especially in cultures where you cannot say no to your family if they show up at your door at 8 PM expecting to be entertained. It’s being educationally disadvantaged your whole life and being behind in understanding the lingo and behaviours that define being “a good student.” It’s low self-efficacy that can paralyze thinking and emotions. It is an exhausted brain demanding that it be shut off for the night even though the assignment is due in 6 hours. It’s anxiety, which is really a legitimate illness, except it isn’t a socially acceptable illness so how do you describe your “illness” when you aren’t barfing or feverish, so you aren’t “really” sick, but you can’t seem to get anything done anyway?

Having said that, there are limits. There are lines in the sand. Extensions cannot drag on and on or be unlimited. We have due dates to manage our own workloads and personal circumstances too.  The college has a generous 3-month post end of a course policy for outstanding assignments and exams which can be activated in exceptional circumstances. We’ve put it into effect numerous times with students in need (a student whose house burned down, another having gastrointestinal hospitalizations, another hospitalized for mental health issues, another with cancer).

So there is willingness to allow extensions on due dates, but sometimes a student needs to consider their status as a student. Students under stress often have limited insight into when they need to ask for help or need to take the load of school off their shoulders. They think they can do their school work despite the world crashing down around them. They make bad decisions. Sometimes a one week extension isn’t enough to get through. Fortunately I am in a program with diligent and excellent student advisors (who are also nurses) who can coach students through this decision making process. Sometimes an extension is not what a student needs. What they need is permission to stop, take a breath, fix their lives, and come back healthy. School will still be there.*

*mini side rant about scholarships and funders who take student’s money away for failures or time off for illness. That BS needs to stop too. Not all students live lives, or have the academic naturalness, to handle the full time course loads required by some funders.

Publication Peer Mentorship: Starting Your Own Support Group for Writing

 

I have posted on Twitter several times about the publication peer mentorship group I started in my department. Those posts have received a good response and several  inquiries of curiosity which makes writing a blog post about why I started the group and what we do in the group important.

The Background to the Group

First, I should tell you a little bit about our faculty. I work at a non-tenured college in Canada. The college used to be a “community college” once upon a time (people often still call it that, even though the community part got removed from its name before I started working here and that was 15 years ago). About 8 years ago, the provincial government granted the college degree granting status primarily so our department (Nursing) could begin offering Baccalaureate degrees. Prior to that we had a joint program with the University and a 23 month diploma option (which, nursing peeps, if you are cringing at the mention of diploma education, is a really long and sad story). There is one other degree program at the college — Construction Management — and many more diploma and certificate programs. One of the tag lines of my college’s name is “Applied Eduction.” This means we value and focus on practical learning.  We do not have any graduate programs at the college and it is unlikely that we ever will. Being a college that operates in a polytechnique model, my instructor job description does not require a program of research. It doesn’t even require I have a Master’s degree let alone a PhD. Although in my department, a Masters degree is required to be a course leader.

However, being a baccalaureate degree program, our department chair desires that one day we will obtain accreditation from the Canadian Association of Schools of Nursing (CASN). Part of the Accreditation process requires that faculty has a track record of scholarship. Scholarship does not need to be in the form of traditional research but can be any peer reviewed process, so publications, presentations at conferences, and the like.

Of a faculty of about 140, our classroom course faculty is primarily Masters prepared. Course leaders must be Masters prepared but other course instructors do not. There are, however, large number of faculty currently in Masters education. Our clinical instructional faculty are primarily Baccalaureate prepared. We have four faculty members with PhDs (and two of them are our psychology instructors). We have two individuals who have doctoral degrees near completion (one is a doctorate in nursing practice). And then there is me, who is just getting started on the PhD process. I could have floated along until retirement doing what I’m doing and nobody would have cared about the initials behind my name but, for me, a PhD was the next step, and even at 45, I am too young to not do a PhD.

We are a teaching institution and my colleagues focus on and prioritize their teaching above all else. Many of them have no interest in writing, but we are on a push to increase faculty scholarship activities. With a large number of our faculty currently in Masters programs, many of them have papers completed for coursework and papers to write based off of completed Masters theses.  Many of my colleagues also have tremendous expertise in an area of nursing education, clinical education, or nursing practice and they have something to contribute.  My conversations with my colleagues tell me, loud and clear, they feel unsupported and lost as to how to write for publication.

Part of my role in our faculty is to act as writing mentor. I coordinate the assignments across the curriculum in our program. I also offer faculty support with issues related to student writing: plagiarism, grading, rubric creation, and all things APA. I also support faculty with their own writing and, beyond a few Masters assignments, there hasn’t been a big demand for my assistance in this kind of role (which is my way of saying, I should be busier). And even as a Masters prepared faculty member, when it comes to writing and publication and even research, I am one of the most experienced we have.

The Publication Peer Mentorship Group

I was sitting in our Research Coordinator’s office talking about how to motivate scholarship and build faculty capacity to create scholarship, when the idea popped into my head to form a writing support group. I wrote and sent an email to faculty about it within an hour.  Now we are three months in to the group.

Here is what I did:

  1. I sent out an email to all our faculty announcing my idea and seeing if there was any interest. I got probably 4 replies and over the next several weeks, I had 3 more faculty approach me in person.
  2. I started an email list with the interested faculty.
  3. I set a date just before Christmas at a time when most would still be around but wouldn’t be very busy with academic stuff.
  4. We met and we talked.

I’ll be honest. I had no idea what we would even talk about. Someone who had wanted to attend but was unable to asked me to give her a copy of the presentation after. Presentation? That certainly wasn’t what I had in mind. I had started the group but I wasn’t intending to lecture. And I’ll tell you that it is intimidating having everyone look at you for guidance when you feel you are merely baby steps ahead of where they are. The only difference between me and them was that it has never occurred to me to NOT publish what I wrote. Publication to me seemed like the obvious extension to what we do.

There were four of us at the first meeting and everyone had something to actively work on. One person had revisions of her Masters research project to return to a journal. Another had a manuscript she had written for a class ready to submit. Another faculty member wanted to revisit the work she completed as a Masters student. And then myself who was in the position of just having two papers accepted for publication and was awaiting reviewer responses to another two. And I published everything out of my Masters — but that was over 10 years ago and the publication world has changed quite a bit since then. A few others have joined us since then mostly working on new things that will all require literature searches or discussions about approach. Others are in the process of writing up their research thesis and just want to talk about the writing.

 

So how do I conduct the meetings? I wing it. And to be honest, I’m anxious and nervous in anticipation of that. My goal is that the group can be self-sustaining and that I will turn out to be one of many leaders. The most difficult aspect of reaching our faculty members is  that in a culture of teaching, we’ve become accustomed to believing that our lectures, students, our grading responsibilities are our only priority and always come first.  Academic writing guru Jo Van Every (@jovanevery) posted on Twitter a phrase I use regularly. I loosely paraphrase here:

Your students are not more important than your writing, and your writing is not more important than your students. They are equally important and they both deserve to be prioritized.

For example, I have 13 papers left to grade to be done but I’m writing this blog instead. I also have a paper to revise and get back to a publisher and that is going to get some of my time this weekend and next week too. Hence why rule number one is to block off writing time and protect it. It may not be a day, but a couple hours here and there. Set it like an appointment in your calendar and don’t let anything interfere with the time. Writing is hard. Thinking about writing is daunting so it is very EASY to say, “I need to be doing something else,” like grading papers. Chances are that “something else” is in your comfort zone. Even good writers can get pushed out of their comfort zone while facing a blank page.

(Incidentally, I need to write more tweets involving J.K. Rowling because that one was pretty popular)

I try to keep the meetings under an hour (half hour preferably) and everyone must walk out of the room with a plan to get something done, no matter how small that something is. Here are some of the topics we have addressed at the meeting. All these topics have been spurred on by the needs of the members present. I start each meeting with everyone reporting on progress of their goal or identifying a goal they have. These goals and progress reports have inspired many discussions. The goals are also intended to help with accountability.

Topics for discussion:

  1. How to pick a journal to submit to.

  2. How to react or respond to reviewer comments.

  3. I’ve talked about my own publication experiences, of which certainly I have not experienced every possible scenario out there but in my 12 publications and submissions, I’ve had a lot of interesting things happen.

  4. Writing topic ideas suitable for publication and where they come from.

  5. Literature searching and libraries (as struggle for us — our library is funded to support diploma education not baccalaureate).

  6. Creating a presentation first and using that as an outline for a paper.

  7. Finding the right voice for your work.

  8. Sometimes we just talk about how hard it is to write.

  9. Sometimes we talk about how hard it is to find time.

Topics specific to the act of writing are the ones I like talking about the most. One of my colleagues is writing her qualitative findings for an amazing project about the cancer care experiences of rural patients. She has been emotionally invested with her subjects and this project is such a passion for her. Her feedback from her advisor was that her writing was stilted and read like a clinical analysis found in a chart. She needed to come and talk and just get permission to put herself in the work. The writing she needed to do felt strange to her. We’ve had objectivity and anonymity beaten into us through most of our academic schooling.

The main thing I have learned (or rather confirmed) is that faculty writing self-efficacy, especially in faculty with teaching focuses, is a significant issue. If imposter syndrome is bad in tenured faculty, believe me, it engulfs faculty who have been cultured to believe they are lesser and that their ideas are less important than those with fancy degrees. It this might be a gender thing as well. Remember, my discipline is nursing. All the members of my mentorship group are women.

I don’t believe you need a lot of writing experience to lead such a group. I have a lifetime of writing experience both creative and academic. I have experience publishing but my experience is by no means extensive. All you need is one person willing to organize the meetings. What happens at those meetings takes care of itself. The goal is to motivate, inspire, and keep interested writers accountable — not unlike the fiction and poetry writer’s groups I have belonged to in the past. The point is to get people together to talk about writing and realize that their struggles are not unique.

I would be interested in hearing your experiences? What would you find helpful if you were a member of such a group? If you have such a group at your institution, what are its objectives and topics of discussion? What have been your successes and pitfalls? We are just getting started in our group and have had 3 meetings in total. I am in search of inspiring ideas. I’ll be honest, my greatest fear is that I will set a meeting and people will stop comings. So far, though, so good.

Addendum:  I found out just now, I broke the first AND second rules of writing club.

 

Reader and Writer Relationships in Academic Writing

I’ve been re-reading one of my favourite novels while on break between the end of one PhD course and the start of the next. It’s been glorious. I’ve been neglecting my fiction reading as of late in favour of academic articles, partially out of necessity and time but partially because I’ve been finding it harder and harder to connect with novels and get into them — it is hit or miss if I’ll find the writing compelling. I have also found it to be more of a regular occurrence to read a novel and have most of it be good and then the author ruins it with a cheap plot cheat that comes out of nowhere, like an act of God, and solves all the protagonist’s problems. I walk away from books like that feeling ripped off. Once upon a time, I used to insist on reading books from start to finish, even if I didn’t like them. My time is too valuable for that now.

And yes, I am a literature snob. I like a strong voice and strong voices are hard to find.

I also like strong voices in academic writing, and those are even harder to find.

But my Twitter feed keeps filling up with reminders of how important creative writing is to the mind and soul. They say that voracious readers are also good writers. Whether this is scientifically backed up is debatable, but reading, at the very least, gives you the skills to recognize good writing. What you read, says a lot about you as a person. Your ability to articulate your passion for what you’re reading also says a lot too. Because reading is relationship building, and having a passion for what you’ve read means that the relationship was successful. Here’s an untested hypothesis for you: It is possible that writers who are voracious readers, are best able to understand the needs of readers when they write.

In my academic reading, I’ve been examining the social construction of writing and one of the components of writing as a social construction is the relationship that a writer forms with a reader. This is a complicated relationship because intertwined  within it is the identities of both characters, and they never (or rarely) come face to face. The writer has to envision a reader as they write which means they have to guess what that reader knows and understands already, and what they will need to know to understand the argument. They have to guess what emotions that reader may be having. They have to accept the consequences that the reader may interpret what is written in a way that was never intended.

Having an intimate knowledge of your reader is one of the greatest challenges of writing. We see our undergraduate students fail at this time and time again.  I’m convinced this is one aspect of student writing that we mistakenly identify as poor grammar. Undergraduate students believe they have no knowledge or authority and, thus, that everything they do know must be common knowledge. This leads to them writing statements out of their head without citation. This issue also contributes to a lot of lack of clarity in their writing and the giant holes present in their description of their arguments.  Their teachers, to them, are all knowing beings. Why should they have to define that term or make that connection overtly for the teacher when the teacher is already the expert? I have had students come back to question a grade and when they provide their explanation as to why they deserve more marks, they fill in those holes they failed to explain in their original paper. Explaining what you meant after the fact doesn’t change the lack of clarity in the orignal.

Stephen King in On Writing talks about having an ideal reader in your head as you write. For him, it is his wife Tabatha. For an academic writer, it may be a teacher, or a editor, or anonymous reviewers. For a PhD student it may be an advisor or other opinionated committee member. When you are an undergraduate student only writing one paper for a particular teacher, sensing what a teacher defines as good writing can seem a daunting and impossible task. What pleased one teacher in the past may be lambasted by another. When writing for peer reviewed journals, it isn’t much different. What pleases one reviewer, another reviewer will tell you to cut as being a waste of space, or too editorial in nature. These issues can prey on your writing self-efficacy. And influencing writing self-efficacy runs as deep as preying on your identity  (or lack thereof) as a writer.

On the side of the reader, you are continually trying to imagine the person behind the writing. I have read academic papers that have sent me to google to search more about the author and their work or sent me back into the library databases to find other articles they’ve written. This is extremely rare. Yet, in the creative field, we all have favourite authors where we devour everything they’ve written. If a writer has done their job, you will demand to know more about what drove the work. When I was a teenager and in transition from Sweet Valley High to Stephen King novels, one of the things I liked best was his afterwords to his books which told the stories behind the stories of writing his novels. It was his way of inserting himself into his work and connecting with readers — until he got to the end of The Gunslinger series and he LITERALLY inserted himself in his novel, which really didn’t work for me…… but I digress.

The other component of relationship building on the side of the reader is the act of reading and interpreting what is being said. This is the risk that a writer faces when they send their work out into the world to be devoured, critiqued, or even ignored. Good writing will inspire the next idea. It should instil critical thinking. The reader will be making constant connections between what they have read and their own identities, and things going on in their lives.

In academic writing this means that when a writer cites another author, it could mean many things. It could be a direct paraphrase, a misinterpretation, it could be an inspiration, or it could be a leap in thinking to the next great discovery. All of us who have published, have experienced seeing our work cited and thought, “that’s not what I said.” And this is OK, in my opinion. It just means the writer as reader was inspired in some way by what you wrote. Argument building depends upon that inspiration. I’ve often said that citation in academic writing is like a sophisticated game of telephone — a game I remember playing as a kid, sitting in a circle and whispering a sentence from one to the next and seeing how it changes by the time it reaches the last person in the loop. The game itself is a lesson against gossip, but in academic writing, the cycle of reading, writing, and interpreting, and coming to the end of the loop with a new idea, is how knowledge is made. We don’t learn what we know prior to sitting down to write, we learn what we know as we write, and this is where the magic happens.

When I say, all writing is creative writing, I, in part, am talking about this reader/writer relationship building and the writing-reading interpretation loop. Connecting with a reader requires imagination and ideas that inspire, so that a reader takes those words into their world, imbeds them into their own identity and makes meaning.

 

In Defence of 2016

2016 was a pretty good year. Yes, it was shit politically in the USA and the Brits lost their senses. Lots of cool people died this year. Women’s and LGBTQ rights likely took a giant leap backwards and race relations are abysmal — if they were every improved from the days of slavery.

But for me, personally, 2016 was pretty good. This is the year that for me, things have started to come together, where all my wandering paths are merging.  Bear with, or not, in the stream-of-consciousness rambling that is to come.

I am an age that 20 years ago would have scared me to think I would ever be this old, and I know from years of nursing that I’m not remotely close to being old yet. I have enjoyed my 40s, with 4 and a bit years of them left. My 40s have allowed me to be who I was always meant to be without feeling pressured to keep up with some feminine so-called ideal. I don’t have to feel like I should keep quiet when I have something to say, or when some injustice needs to be corrected.  People have listened to me in my 40s. What was, in my 20s, labeled as rudeness or negativity is now called directness and criticism. Strangely, I don’t feel how I say things is different, but the perception and reception of what I say has changed. I choose my battles more carefully, perhaps, but I’m also less willing to back down when I take on a battle. It’s a trade off.

Academically, I’m hitting my stride and everything is coming together. I’m not your typical PhD student who hopped from undergrad, to masters, to doctorate.  In many ways, this route to higher education has likely been a benefit to my confidence. My path has been more meandering. I started with an undergrad in English lit (mostly the classics, Victorian, Romantic, Canadian lit, and creative writing) with a minor in History (mostly white man’s Canadian history and American history — I didn’t choose white man perspectives by choice. The white man part is just how it was taught back then). I was right out of high school, when I started university, with the intention of getting an education degree afterward. A plan I abandoned after volunteering in an elementary school and realizing what hell teaching that age group was.

So I followed up the English degree with a nursing degree. And nursing degrees demand practice experience if you wish to have any shred of credibility. Nevertheless, I was working in a hospital less than 3 months when I realized I couldn’t do that work for the rest of my life. The practice side of nursing carries an inferiority complex. The bullying behaviour is everywhere. And the practice community is anti-academic, and I’ve talked like an academic without knowing it before I became an academic. I did not fit in with my practice colleagues who had different values.

I began my Master’s a year and a half later. It took me 3.3 years to finish. I explored waiting for cardiac surgery as my thesis research project. I published everything I wrote in that program. I gave birth to child #1, 6 months before I defended my thesis. That child is now 15.5 years old. I began teaching nursing at a non-tenured college 6 months after graduating from my Master’s. Child #2 came 2.5 years after child #1. This is where the gap in my scholarship started. But to me it feels as if there was no gap at all.

Editorial Aside

Here marks the just over 500-word point of this blog. That’s exactly the length an editor gave me to write an editorial about writing in nursing education. This is one of the reasons why 2016 has been good to me. Pockets of my profession value my work. (Pockets of it doesn’t value my work and I’ll give examples of that too.) I’ve just awakened to how difficult 500 words will be on this topic. As the editor said:

screen-shot-2016-12-27-at-11-16-26-am

I am wondering how this editor might feel when my editorial says that the problem with student writing is far bigger than basic skills and grammar which is what the bemoaning is usually about at faculty meetings. The problem is with how we teach writing and how we nurture it across a curriculum. The problem is with our outdated beliefs that writing instruction ends at one introductory course or, worse, sometime back in high school.

End of Aside

I looked into starting my doctoral degree in spring of 2005 but there was no local nursing doctorate back then and the alternative non-nursing local program I looked into was going to essentially make me re-take all my master’s coursework. No thanks. I decided to write a novel instead. Then I got divorced. Then I did the carpe diem thing for a while. This is the rest of my gap in my scholarship. Then sometime around 2011 I started coming back to my academic ways.

The years 2006-2010 were not good years. That’s all I’ll say about that. 2011 is the year I turned 40. It was also the year I met my current partner, but we wouldn’t get together for another year and a half. 2011 is also the year I started planning my first writing self-efficacy study. I suppose it takes 5 years to settle into a new area of research because the article I wrote describing that study is due to be published in spring of 2017. In 2016, I did the project on writing self-efficacy instruments (which is a damn fine project if I don’t say so myself) with 2 colleagues — a close friend, and the professor who would eventually consent to be my PhD advisor. That project is getting published in summer 2017 and it is also the project that got me the invited editorial.

In September 2016 I started my PhD studies  at the same institution in the same nursing faculty where I did my undergraduate and my master’s. Familiarity is kind, but I can see in my 15 year absence from that faculty that not much has changed culturally around the building. The faces have changed somewhat… they are a little older, a little more experienced …. but so am I. I was told when I applied that I had experience that most other applicants do not have. I can see, three months into the program, that this is true. I am older than most of my classmates. I am much further ahead in my thinking about where I am going with  my studies than most of my cohort and perhaps the cohort a year ahead of me too. This is despite the fact that my first PhD course was something I had no experience with — philosophy. We went around the table the first class and were asked to discuss what theoretical/philosophical lens we applied to our focus area and everyone had a ready answer except me — 15 years out of my masters and I had no hot clue about theory/philosophy anything. Till the prof, who is also my advisor, prompted me with post-positivism — OooohKaaay — maybe it is? All I needed to do to catch up was read and read and read and read. I’m still reading. I am post-positivist. I’m also post modernist. My classmates, who appeared more philosophically grounded than me at the start, are all extremely smart women who amaze me everyday, but they are plagued with more uncertainty than I have about what they are doing and where they might end up in this program.

Sometimes my certainty in what I am doing makes me wonder what I am missing. I wonder if I am completely misguided and I’m not yet seeing it. If perhaps, I am really just an unworldly, simplistic, chump and no one has figured it out yet. I decided to try my hand at grant writing.  I had a brief moment of panic and almost didn’t go through with it, but the panic was allayed by a hallway conversation with my advisor. The grant application for this studentship required me to plan the design of my main PhD study — 3 months into my PhD I was required to be certain about how I would conduct my research. I think it turned out really well.

That may be naive. There is no way I’m getting out of this first draft of this grant without major revisions. Maybe I won’t get this grant, but I have a good start of a draft for all future grant submissions, assuming some of the other outdated assumptions of academia and doctoral studies don’t render me unfundable in the grant application process — e.g. that I didn’t bridge my PhD work from my Master’s, that all my publications are over 5 years old, and I have a full time academic job already 14 years in the making. Decision makers seem to assume a full time job means I am not dedicated to my studies. That I won’t finish as fast as others or be as productive.  It seems the expectation is that in order to qualify for grant money  I should drop my full time job, be supported by my spouse like many of my classmates have been able to do — which for me would mean needing to give up my house. Live in a tent, perhaps. Feed my children mush, maybe. Continuing to work full time seems to mean I shouldn’t need money. Yeah, I’ll be alright without grants to pay my tuition but likely my colleagues who can afford to be supported by their spouses could also be financially alright without scholarship money.  But they’ll still qualify for the money and the academic merits that come from being able to report winning that grant on their CV. I’ll get neither the money or the merits.  I have to accept the reality that granting bodies may deem me unqualified for student grants because of my employment status. No grant pays enough to give up my salary.  Maybe the solution is to just be better than the other applicants so that part of my CV is overlooked. Maybe there is no solution. Academia is what it is and what it will always be.

The not so good: My abstracted submission for a presentation was waitlisted for a conference I’ve attended and presented at every year for the past 4 years. My one-of-a-kind 3-year longitudinal study on writing self-efficacy and writing across the curriculum was waitlisted for a conference which tends to be weighted in anecdotal presentations about the “cool things we are doing in our classrooms.” I could take this personally but I know what I’ve produced with this data. The abstract did what it could with a 250 word limit. I’m trying to find out how they made decisions to accept or waitlist presentations (no rating criteria was posted as it is for most conferences) but I suspect, like most of my other emails to these organizers, I will be ignored or get some vague platitude as explanation. I declined the waitlist. I don’t need to be forced into last minute inconveniences, presentation prep, and travel planning. I can shoot for something better which will more benefit my learning. Maybe I’m arrogant and overconfident but… naaahh. There have been more things stroking my ego this year, than flattening it.

I wrote two amazing philosophy papers this term that have taken my thinking leaps and bounds from where I was when I started the year. The feedback from my first paper was encouraging and inflating and I’ve already submitted it for publication. I’m still waiting for feedback from the second paper, but this one will likely be the foundation for the design of the writing self-efficacy instrument I develop for nursing. Who knew I would come to think of the writing process as socially constructed? Maybe I did already but I just needed a label.

In July 2016, knowing I would be starting my PhD and wanting to document the process, I started this blog, and an account to participate in academic Twitter. I started it with nothing. I had no following and no plan. I just posted and people responded and retweeted and the followers came. I’ve been strategic about it. I am an astute observer. I learned what tricks worked to draw followers. Like all good academics, I also did some research to help my strategy.  I’m heading into the new year — a little over 5 months into participation — with just over 700 folk, most complete strangers, watching what I do every day. I’m doing something right, I suppose. The plan for the account is still evolving — I will always be “Academics Write” but my real name may start popping up here and there over the next year. I have connected well enough with a couple followers that I chose to voluntarily reveal who I am. I knew the account would be primarily about academic writing (and it is), but it was bound to turn personal as well (and it has). I have blogged before but I did it with high anxiety. I would post something I wrote, often about anxiety, divorce, or relationships, and immediately panic that people were seeing me. I eventually quit blogging because of the sleep I was losing and the worry about what people were thinking and saying about me behind my back in my real world. That I haven’t panicked about my writer here as of yet, may just be a function of anonymity, but so far so good.

If I had to sum up 2016, it would be that it is a turning point year where I have spent many moments looking back at how far I have come and the many things that have shaped my life to bring me to this moment. In many ways, 2016 has been great because of how I am coming to life, coming to know myself, and acting on my dreams and desires. That, more than anything, has made 2016 a great year.

 

 

Let’s Chat about our English as a Second Language (ESL) Students and Writing

Warning:  I’m about to climb up on top of a giant soap box. Maybe you’ll climb up with me, or maybe you won’t. But I would like to hear your experiences with what I am about to talk about if you are willing to share.

Disclosure: In Canada we have two official languages, French and English, but I am fluent in only one (I’ll let you guess which one). I have also always said that I was gifted enough talent in one language to make me forever incompetent in all other languages. I have tried to learn French but it is a struggle. My kids are in French Emersion for school and beyond about grade 3, I lost my ability to help with homework because I can’t read the instructions.  I have tried to visualize myself going to a foreign country and having to learn in a language that was not second nature for me. I have great admiration for anyone who can speak fluently in more than just English. I expect it is a great sign of intelligence. These are my biases. But I have to assess student writing ability nearly daily in my work and I’ve put a lot of thought in how I should address the writing problems of all students.

ESL students, EAL student, L2 students, whatever we are calling them these days are NOT worse writers than our domestic students. It almost feels like a big sigh of relief to get that out.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately since I started my series of research studies looking at writing self-efficacy in nursing students. The body of literature on writing ability in undergraduate students focuses mostly on generic undergraduate groups, or L2 specific groups, and it is rare for researchers to separate out their ESL students from their domestic students and make a comparison. I’m not sure if the lack of comparative studies is because researchers think the comparison is unnecessary or if it is because there may be an inherent assumption that ESL students are worse writers than our domestic students so no one bothers to actually test and see if it is true. In the writing self-efficacy research literature I’ve only come across one study (Williams & Takaku, 2011) that overtly compares these groups.

Certainly in my own teaching experiences I’ve witnessed a number of things that I find disturbing. These experiences span my entire career, and not just my teaching career but also my student life and have been witnessed at more than one institution; many instructors believe that ESL students in English language programs have poor language skills.

I’ve never considered myself an ESL instruction expert and I once considered this a deficit in my ability to teach writing. So one year, after I’d been teaching academic writing to nursing students for about 6 or 7 years, I attended a workshop geared toward understanding the needs of ESL students, in particular with regards to issues of plagiarism.  It was a wonderful workshop. I learned a lot and we had some great discussions as a group. It changed my perspective on how plagiarism should be viewed.

But I also walked away from that workshop wondering why it was labeled specific to ESL students. Everything that was discussed, I had also seen with our Canadian born students.

So in my studies, I decided to ask the question. Do self-identified ESL students have lower writing grades, lower writing self-efficacy and higher anxiety than non-ESL students? Here is what I’ve found so far, bearing in mind this is the experience of one educational institution, a college in a prairie province in Canada that has, up to this point, admitted nursing students with a minimum 60% average and tests students for language ability prior to admission for a minimum standard (Degrees of Reading Power score of 75 minimum).

And yes, I have ethical approval for this work.

Here is a table from the first set of data, that I’ve clipped from my notes about my findings. Comparisons were made between ESL and Not ESL students for paper grade for the first year course (Paper %), final writing course grade (Final %), Writing self-efficacy at three time points (WSES), an APA and grammar knowledge test (APA/G), and state and trait anxiety . The findings were so unremarkable that I didn’t even fill in all the slots on the table:

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Two years later I did a follow-up study with the same group. Yesterday I ran these results. The sample sizes are smaller and the means more variable as a result, but the results are again showing no difference between ESL and non ESL students on the following measures:  Paper grades for year 1, 2, 3, three clinical practice scores, GPA, the Degrees of reading power admission score, writing self-efficacy measures using two different measures, my own — which will be published in the spring — and the Post Secondary Writerly Self-Efficacy Scale, and anxiety using a visual analog scale.

In addition I ran a chi square examine ESL and year in nursing program. You see, in the follow up study, all these students were supposed to be in third year but many of them had fallen out of synch. I thought it might be worthwhile assessing if there was a difference in progression between self-identified ESL and non ESL students.

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The numbers are small so view with caution and the second year ESL count violates the assumption of at least 5 observations per category, but it appears that there is no difference in proportions of ESL and non-ESL students who fail to progress on schedule within the program (X2 = .253, p = .71).

Do ESL students struggle with writing and language? Yes they do, but so do all the other students as well. Williams and Takaku (2011) had a similar finding — in fact, they found that over time and with help seeking as a mediator, ESL students would out perform the domestic students. Domestic born students, in qualitative research, also acknowledge difficulties understanding academic and research language. I hear complaints about difficulties with language every day in my classroom from students of all shapes, sizes, colours, genders, ages, and voices.

So what does this mean for how we approach students and writing in groups of mixed ESL and Canadian born students:

  1. Many students struggle with writing. The elements of writing they struggle with and the reasons for their perceived struggle may be slightly different but they struggle, and many also approach writing anxiously and question their ability to write — some more than others, but it has nothing to do with first or second language status.
  2. Having an accent and a foreign name does not mean one is a poor writer or that that individual has low writing self-efficacy. Not having an accent and having a North American name does not mean one will write well.
  3. Treat each student who asks for help as an individual and address their individual needs and concerns.
  4. Be conscious of unfounded assumptions or biases about any particular student for any reason.

In our program before admission, every student completes a language test and has to meet a minimum standard. It is OK to acknowledge that you have trouble understanding a student’s accent. I have a colleague who is researching internationally educated nurses and those nurses acknowledge they have trouble with accents as well. It is not OK to hear an accent and assume that is a signal for a weak student and a weak writer.

Oh, and if you ever need to give an example of when statistically non-significant findings are important…..