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:

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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…..

 

 

This Writer’s Identity

I started writing this post earlier this week but got that sinking feeling in my stomach of boring myself, so I abandoned. It was that same feeling you get when someone not academic, like an old aunt or some random dude on a bus, asks you what you are studying in school and it requires too much thinking to make it digestible to outsiders so you make it really brief and boring so that they won’t ask any more questions. I didn’t start this blog to regurgitate my research topic and all the extensions of it … I started it to tell the stories about my research and writing that can’t go into academic papers.

Like the fact that this week I was doing statistical things. I’ve been learning SPSS, mostly on my own but also with the help of this book. I really need to take another proper stats class because the last time I took stats was in 2001. I kind of had to run my results in a hurry because I was writing an abstract for a conference. My results for my long term follow-up of writing self-efficacy across the nursing curriculum are really cool, if perhaps not really surprising. For example, just less than half of my sample fell out of synch from their entrance cohort and the comparison between the students who fell behind and the students who stayed on pace is validating for our recent decision-making about entrance requirements and ideas I’ve had for writing interventions with our students. The out of synch students have lower grades in general (writing, GPA, and clinical), higher anxiety and lower writing self-efficacy. It’s also suggesting that my second year paper I have the students write does a kick-ass job of being predictive of student performance and clinical ability — or at the very least, I make a very valid rubric.  I still have to figure out the “so what” of these findings.

The other thing going on in my school life parallel to that is that I am taking a philosophy of nursing science course. The topic of the week was theoretical integration or bridging the gap between the “received view” and and more modern philosophical thinking — maybe post positivism and mixed methods or qualitative and its various identities. I’ve been teaching research methods to undergrads for over 10 years and the textbook I use simplifies the post positivist paradigm so much that I always thought post positivism WAS mixed methods. Which it is totally not — or at least not entirely.

So a lot of what I had to read this week was about positivism and where it came from and the arguments against it, which are loud and strong but somehow it still survives as the dominant “received” view. I haven’t liked everything we have discussed in philosophy of nursing science. I hated our readings on defining health from different paradigms, for example. I said in class this week, after others said that they found the readings really challenging (I didn’t find them hard at all. I found them the easiest yet), “that all the cells in my brain breathe a collective sigh of relief when the readings are describing things in positivist, terms.” It such a comfort zone for me.  So comfortable in fact, I took a creative writing course one year and when forced to write some poetry, I managed to slip in the phrase, “skewed to the left.” I had to. I’m not a poet. But I do remember the class commenting on the oddness, but yet effectiveness, of the phrase — when they were told what it meant.

And this is where I finally get to my point about identity. Because positivism while comfortable, isn’t what I believe in, in terms of science. I’m not in the least suggesting that all that statistic-ing I’ve been doing this week is positivist. There is too much self-report in my work to be making that claim. I can feel comfortable with statistical thinking and still recognize its tremendous limitations. I’ve come to understand that social construction is my dominant view — especially feminism. Writing, gender, identity, pedagogy, and academia are all socially constructed. I want to sit down with each of these students and ask them why?  What makes writing assignments make you feel like it is an attack on your being? An attack on your sense of self and self-worth?

Of course IRL, I have these conversations every day with students. For the most part, they validate that what I am trying to do with my writing assignment, works. They walk away from my course knowing more, and learning more, about research than they do from reading the textbook. But the ones that really despise writing, of course, likely lie to me and avoid me. But I am convinced, that writing is the best way of knowing out there for student learning and theoretical integration with practice. (And that is the topic of my next paper).

The paper I wrote for my philosophy of nursing science course was on academic voice. And knowing my comfort zone is positivist, logical, and mathematical it may or may not surprise you that my argument about academic voice, which is not unlike the argument that every academic who takes the time to write about academic voice makes*, is that it needs to be better infused with the writer’s identity. I did something in this paper that I have never done in my entire academic life — I got autobiographical. It was a risk because the professor of this course is my advisor. I’ve already learned that she does not appreciate some of my little flair-ups of less-than-academic words (whatever that means) in some of the papers I’ve written — e.g.  the idea that we need to better “sell” the importance of writing to our students; that writers “juggle” many processes when they write; that some students fall out of “synch” from their cohort. She has considered all these phrases slang or colloquialisms.  I acquiesced and edited “sell” and “synch”, the latter of which I still think is now an accepted variant; note that I rebelliously used it in paragraph two, above. Synchrony is such a pretentious word. “Juggle” I would not cave on — there is nothing colloquial about this phrase; it is vivid and pulls a picture into the mind of the mental exercises writers experience when they write.

*(Because, lets face it, if you hold the received view on writing, you probably aren’t writing articles to try and sell the need to continue on with the objective, boring, colourless, turgid, disembodied voice that is positivist academic writing. There is no need to defend the dominant perspective. I can’t take credit for this statement. I read it somewhere. Or many somewheres.)

But my autobiographical use was for argument building. I was trying to illustrate that identity in writing is sometimes critical for understanding the meaning behind the text. Words may not be innocent but they are, for certain, often inadequate especially when it comes to making meaning. I had been using examples of how infusion of identity works when used strategically — see for example Potgieter and Smit (2009), or Fleischman (1999) and (1998). I have recently read two amazing papers where academic writers have struggled with voice and identity based on the nature of the epistemology of their work (see Leggatt-Cook, 2010; and Ward et al., 2015). There are times I am reading an academic’s work and my mind and being are begging to know who they are and what drives them (again, see the two Fleischman articles linked above). So at what I felt was a strategic and appropriate juncture in the paper, I shared that I was a woman and I had written a novel and that I believed all writing was creative writing.  And… that sometimes I don’t feel I have an identity unless I am writing. We’ll see if she “buys” that this paragraph enhances the paper. It is quiet possible we may not agree — but that’s OK. She told us she didn’t have to agree with us. We just had to have a sound argument.

So while my brain cells are in their comfort zone when I can use logic and statistics, my writing self is not in her comfort zone unless I can show myself in what I write. And so I embrace my Cartesian duality. I hope to spend the next five years honing it and flaunting it.

And just to really humiliate (and maybe humanize) myself, here is the poem I wrote in 2006 (at a really f&%ked up time in my life), where I used the phrase “skewed to the left.” (Looking at it now, almost exactly 10 years later — it is dated October 20 — for the first time … it is actually not terrible)

Two Dimensional

I wish the camera had caught the moment when

I glanced up and saw you watching

with your eyes flashing in a lens flare and

your smile back-lit with infatuation

That it could have captioned my heart

faltering and my voice cropping

a syllable in a lilt only I was aware of

 

But two dimensions flatten

events, unfocused and tinted

perspective appears as lint on a lens

mood a sepia shadow over my face

Memory imprints faulty connections

retelling the story not from the centre

but rather skewed to the left

 

Will it matter in five years

will I remember your presence

both awkward and comforting

or will dullness and discolouration transform it

me on display at that moment when

I was someone else

before I looked up and found you

On Using the Media to Teach Research Writing and Critical Analysis

When I first started teaching research methods, I would have told you that having an academic writing assignment in my course was a bad fit. The only writing assignments that I had ever heard of being done were an article critique or a research proposal.  A research proposal was above an undergraduate level and an article critique got them to think about the strengths and weaknesses of research but only apply that knowledge to one isolated study.

However when our program was redesigned, my research methods course was updated to  include teaching the concept of scholarship in nursing. While I wasn’t looking to steer undergraduates toward publication by asking them to write, I did want to get them deeper into the scholarship of research. I had been having them analyze portions of research articles since I began teaching the course, but wanted to push it a step further and have them begin to critically analyze a small body of research on the same topic.  Imagine that! I wanted them to actually read research in a research course.

The First Assignment Plan

My first academic writing assignment plan asked them to find 5 primary studies on a researchable topic of their choice. I told them it was preferable if they chose 5 qualitative or 5 quantitative studies and not try and mix and match the paradigms, although I would make exceptions depending on topic. Hint: it really only works if their quantitative studies are purely descriptive. Undergraduates trying to compare the results of 4 randomized trials and a qualitative study is disastrous… one of these thing is not like the other.  They had to provide a background, nursing significance and explain the gap in knowledge on their topic as indicated by their 5 studies (and other sources as required). A compare and contrast of the findings of the 5 studies and a discussion of study limitations as indicated by the authors of those studies, was the bulk of the 5-7 page limit requirement. Their conclusion to their paper was the purpose statement for a future “hypothetical” study.

What followed, and ultimately what got me to modify the assignment, were 4 appendixes describing portions of a possible future study. Replicating a study in their pile was allowed but “difficulty points” (ultimately meaning I was more forgiving if they made mistakes) were awarded to students who developed the next steps in the body of the work, corrected the flaws in the studies in their pile, or developed a new intervention. I told them they had unlimited funds which resulted in more than a few brand new exercise facilities built.  The appendixes were to describe their study method (A), their sample (B), procedures for ethical protection of their participants (C), and to find and discuss the characteristics of one questionnaire  to measure a one variable, if their study was quantitative, or develop 4 open ended research questions if qualitative (D).

What happened was amazing. The students developed a great understanding of the methodologies they were writing about and using for their hypothetical study design. But the flaws were also huge. The ethics section became repetitive from student to student and the only students who did well on the questionnaire section were the ones who came to see me about their paper and we sat together to identify its characteristics and find reliability and validity information.

And there was one other, not insignificant problem — the assignment was labour intensive to grade. Each paper was 10-15 pages long including the appendixes.

Modifying the Plan: Research Versus the Internet

The decision to modify the paper was as a result of reading this Deitering and Gronemyer (2011) article describing the importance of getting students involved in the public discussion about research. Their arguments about why students should be examining more than scholarly work were compelling and I made them discipline specific by recognizing the following: Students have a need to understand the literature that influences public debate and the opinions of their patients. They are also in need of understanding the difference between a published study and a blog post/newspaper article related to the published study and be able to explain why the former is a more reliable source of evidence.

Let me state the obvious — obvious to us academic-types anyhow — the media gets health information wrong much of the time.  Media articles are rarely written by knowledgeable health care professionals or researchers and are instead written by journalists with no medical training who may never read the full research study but produces an article for their publication based off a press release which may give an incomplete picture. For example, this popular media story on wine drinking and its equivalence to an hour worth of exercise was conducted on rats who drank the human equivalence of 100 bottles of wine to show the effects the media article claimed.  The media report was so much fun it was emailed among my colleagues and we giggled about it wishing it were true (and later that term, a student tackled this topic for my scholarly paper assignment). Sigh… back to the treadmill.

I didn’t want to lose what I had observed to be the best part of the assignment — sending students off to search for 5 primary studies on the same research topic. While settling on 5 as the appropriate number of studies to locate was somewhat of a guess, it proved to be exactly the right number to be challenging for undergraduates, yet possible for most every topic. Some students were able to find more than 5 and have the flexibility to exclude an article that didn’t fit well with the others. Other students struggled to find that 5th article and developed some clever research skills as a result.  The requirement that they show me their 5 primary studies to ensure they were using the correct sources got me face to face with every student. I heard their stories of why the topic interested them. We had conversations on making the articles fit together for easier critical analysis. To this day it surprises me when grading the papers, how much I’ve learned about each student simply from these 5 minute conversations.

While the option to choose their topic based on the inspiration from a media, blog or other internet source remains the most popular option, two other routes to inspiration have also been observed as successful adaptations. Students can also describe a clinical experience they had where the practice they observed differed in some way from the practice they were taught — for example, alcohol swab versus no alcohol swab prior to glucose monitoring.  Personal experiences with the health care system have also been addressed such as a student who gave birth to a premature baby who felt her husband was ignored during kangaroo care. The point is to describe a practice, or relate what the media is saying to influence their readership, and see if the research literature matches the message. It works well with qualitative article sets as well, for example the media article of inspiration can be any first person narrative of their experience with a disease or other condition related to health.

The Assignment Guidelines

In brief, each student paper must contain a discussion of the following:

  1. Background to their research problem.
  2. Significance to nursing. Students are more than welcome to use research from other disciplines to support their research question but they have to explain (and cite) why nurses should care about that problem.
  3. A summary of their media article, clinical scenario or personal experience.
  4. Compare and contrast their 5 primary studies in terms of their research findings.
  5. Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the research studies reviewed.
  6. Discuss how the research findings compare with the media description (I’ve had students integrate this requirement throughout their compare and contrast and that works also).
  7. Practice implications. In what way, if any, should practice change given what the research says?
  8. A table summarizing their research studies with author, title, independent variable, dependent variable, population, sample size  for quantitive studies, and phenomenon of interest replacing the IV and DV in qualitative sets.

Students are able to construct their paper in the order of their choosing and in whatever way feels logical for their topic.

Evaluation

This assignment has been successful beyond my wildest dreams. Student engagement has increased. I get the chance to speak to every student about their topic which meets my requirement of looking them all in the eyes during the writing process. I strongly believe that having every student connect with you during the writing of their paper reduces the likelihood that they will plagiarize. By having a quick review of their primary studies, I also save myself a tremendous amount of time while grading because I know I am reading a paper amalgamated from the correct type of literature.

In the second year of implementation, due to feeling I was doing a little too much handholding in helping them identify qualitative versus quantitative research, I created a document which outlined the characteristics of various published articles (primary quantitative, primary qualitative, research protocols, review articles, discussion articles, and other). The students are now required to review this document and fill in a log sheet which attempts the article identification prior to approaching me to approve their articles. I no longer identify what their articles are for them which allows me to spend more time exploring how well their articles fit together as a package.

Implementing this paper is time consuming. The mini meetings I have with them about their topic take up all my mid class break time and I usually require another 20-30 minutes immediately preceding or following class to attend to every student who wants my attention on a given day.  I have to teach them how to synthesize their results and thematically analyze the themes from qualitative studies. But the upfront time I put in prior to the paper due date, is time I don’t have to spend frustrated with poorly conceived assignments while grading.

If you are interested in modifying the assignment for use in your own courses, you have my permission. I believe this assignment can work in multidisciplinary contexts. Just send me a tweet to let me know @academicswrite and I’ll be happy to answer questions.

Starting a ‘movement’ of voice

I go to conferences sometimes.  I always present something because I don’t see any point in going unless my name is on the docket and — reality — it is now the only way to get money to go. There are always hot topics in nursing education; the past couple years it’s been simulation and NCLEX prep (the translated American to Canadian nursing registration exam). Transition from student to grad nurse seems to be everywhere these days as well. Years past, grade inflation was the big topic. I have often — no. Correction — always — had little interest in whatever has popped up as the hot topic of the decade, which has always made me feel a bit like an anomaly. Off and on for 10 years I’ve been going to conferences and presenting something about writing. And I am the only one talking about the subject. I have moderate sized audiences, though, and the attendees usually want to bitch about how bad students write and how big a problem it is.

(As an aside, I am also anomaly in feeling our student writing isn’t that bad at all — most of them anyhow — they write just fine when they feel their writing is valued).

At the last conference I was at, one senior administrator (no, not my own) raised her hand and said, “I would like to thank you for taking this on.”  Thanks. I need some friends. In my discipline, I feel pretty alone.

Nevertheless, every once and a while nursing does something brilliant about writing in the published literature.  There are only spots of brilliance in a pool of the mundane and superficial. How do we say that in academic voice?  There is a paucity of literature on this subject and what exists in the published literature is primarily anecdotal and refers to local contexts. For all the style guides that warn of the weakness of euphemism in writing, academic writing is really good at sophisticated euphemism: anecdotal and local contexts, vs. mundane and superficial. The latter is a little mean, isn’t it? The article I quoted in the image (Ryan, Walker, Scaia, & Smith, 2013, p. 297) is an exception and far ahead of the curve of where actual thinking about writing currently stands in the nursing discipline. That quote is the reason why I wanted to start this blog. There is so much that can be said when you aren’t governed by the need to cite everything — and you can use slang and contractions and funny punctuation like double-dashes, ask rhetorical questions, drop the occasional four-letter word, and sometimes even fragment sentences are OK (if for emphasis). Ironically, the ellipsis in the quote is a citation I removed (rebel!). There is a good chance it was cited more because it inspired the point rather than because it made the point.

I’ve never been one to be very good at not just saying out loud what I think. It’s got me in trouble on more than one occasion. I find blog writing easier because I can share my reflections that can’t go into my papers in their raw form, and I can write in a semi-controlled stream-of-conscious style. It is freeing to let go of structure and rules — neither of which I am very good with in real life anyhow. But paradoxically I find academic writing easier because of the ability to hide my real voice which is sometimes contemptuous, sarcastic, and critical. Like most women, I’ve been socialized that I should never make others feel bad, not even accidentally or if by telling the truth. Sometimes my real voice sends me into a tail spin of anxiety and embarrassment.

I wrote these sentences into a recent and pending paper I am working on:  Nursing students’ devaluation of writing can only exist because their instructors and their programs allow it to. While the importance of writing skills for nursing students is emphasized in every publication, the wider profession devalues its importance. 

Those phrases never made it past the first draft. I never send my first draft to my co-authors. So while they never got to read those sentences, they did get to read my track changes side comment a paraphrase of which was: I wrote (paraphrase of above sentences) in the first draft. I took it out because I’m not sure the world is ready to hear it yet. One of them, bless her soul, I love her, wrote back: “I agree!”

But let’s look at a sampling of evidence.

“Writing is not merely the responsibility of the English department, but of the entire academic community” (Luthy, Peterson, Lassetter, & Callister, 2009).

“Student competency in writing …. is often assumed rather than explicitly taught” (Miller, Russell, Cheng, & Skarbek, 2015).

“Students may actually view writing assignments as a burden, as they struggle with trying to determine what an instructor wants in a particular project” (Schmidt, 2004).

“nursing faculty … feel they do not have the time to grade written assignments” (Luthy et al., 2009).

“Many nurse educators do not write academically themselves and yet they expect their students to” (Whitehead, 2002).

“academic writing may not be perceived as a legitimate part of clinical nursing practice” (Whitehead, 2002).

“The central question here is why do nursing students have to write essays? … the emphasis on essay writing (and the failure to succeed even in that) is highly symbolic of the mess in which nursing education finds itself” (Cottingham, 2005).

Now I recognize that every one of the above quotes have been pulled out of context and with the exception of the last one (although, I may argue a devil’s advocate subtext is present here because the author is clearly a great writer himself), every one of these authors supports writing as valuable to nursing. Most of them say nursing could benefit from allowing students to have a voice and not locking them into academic conventions.  Creativity and individual personalized expression are valuable too.

But the message is clear. We have a problem with writing in nursing.  We suspect our profession would rather pass the buck on writing instruction to someone else (English departments) rather than be responsible ourselves, and that tendency affects our students’ understanding of what we are asking them to do. We have better uses of our time than grading (ubiquitously bad) writing assignments. We don’t do enough writing ourselves. Writing may not be important to clinical practice.

We are the only discipline that even questions why we write (that I’ve noticed). I’ve read about writing across many disciplines (with psychology, education, libraries, writing centres, and history being the most prominent). That students have to write and that instructors need to be a part of that learning process is a foregone conclusion.  But in nursing, not so.  We are the profession that published the article by Cottingham, which can also be read as an ironic and sarcastic piece,  proposing the question of why do we bother to teach writing at all?  “There is not a skerrick of evidendential connection between good essay writing and good nursing (or even intelligence, come to that!).” It made my blood boil when I first read it but, damn it!, he’s not wrong.  We haven’t provided any evidence at all. Does writing make nursing students better critical thinkers and clinical practitioners, as every article claims in its review of the literature as justification for their work, or is it the other way around? Or is there no connection at all? Does it matter? Does having evidence even matter?

I’m trying to do the work to find out. I may be alone in that mission. I recognize there is irony in my discussion of the need for us to step outside from behind the comfort of academic voice, show our real selves and say what we mean, while I write this blog not yet revealing who I am.  Right now I’m just putting out feelers. In due time, my readers, in due time.