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Six Myths of Academic Writing that must Disappear from our Conversations

The world is in love with a quick fix. Writing is hard. While we easily recognize both statements to be universal truths, we still search for a quick fix to make writing, especially our students’ writing, easier to for them execute and us to read.

Grading can be the bane of our existence. I know. I’m in the middle of grading 51 undergraduate papers right now. But there is simply no quick fix to making our grading consistently pleasant and there is no instructional strategy that will bring every student’s work to proficient. Writing is a flawed and finicky process that requires resilience and adaptability. We struggle with our own writing (editor’s note…. I’m struggling with this paragraph. It has been through numerous nit-picky edits and rewrites). Our students are struggling with what, to us, being years ahead in our writing education, may seem like basic skills. It’s easy to lament about how they can’t write — blame some poor faceless high school or introductory writing teacher  for their apparent lack of skills — but what is our responsibility?

How much of our attitude and temptation to lament are rooted in several pervasive myths about learning academic writing? Writing scholars who work daily with these novice writers have been writing and publishing about these myths for decades but this work seems to preach to the choir. When writing is placed in the hands of course leaders who don’t study writing, don’t read about writing, or don’t write themselves, but yet assign and grade undergraduate writing, the myths live on in poor pedagogical choices and harsh grading.

Some of the beliefs that novice graders or those not interested in writing pedagogy hold, e.g., our students are bad at grammar, that writing is transferable to all contexts, and a basic course is all writers need, do not help our students learn to write and become lifelong writers. So here are 6 myths of academic writing that need to disappear from our dialogue.

Drilling grammar will be a cure-all for bad student writing. Drilling grammar might make them better at select points of grammar but it won’t fix the whole. It won’t fix their tendency to be repetitive or to be too casual and it won’t make them ensure they have addressed the assignment guidelines appropriately. Those are problems of discourse and genre, not to mention personal characteristics of the student, not grammar. If you must, give them a review sheet of all the grammar issues that drive you crazy and are sure to decrease their grade,  but don’t call in the local writing expert to do a one-hour writing workshop to drill grammar. They will be irritated with you for asking, you’ll be disappointed in the results, and your students may not even show up. If you rant at students about their writing being ubiquitously deficient, they will tune you out and devalue writing.

To write is to write is to write. Think of this myth as the equivalent of a nurse is a nurse is a nurse. Can we plunk a mental health nurse into an ICU?…Would you ask an electrical engineer to build an airplane? I would hope not. We also can’t give a student, who has only written poetry or social media posts, an academic paper with citations and a supporting argument and expect perfectly executed writing. Not without some kind of instruction first. The student who has written academic papers in English literature may not be adequately prepared to write a paper in psychology. And guess what, it gets even closer to home than that… We can’t ask a student to write a paper in gerontology and then, in the next course, expect them to competently, without our guidance, to write a paper about maternity or palliative care — nor a research critique, or an ethics analysis or a letter to the editor. Each of these acts of writing is a new genre and requires a new skill set. Writing gets to the core of thinking unlike any other assignment but writing in all these different genres and voices requires significant instructor support. We can’t take a hands-off approach to our own assignments and think a tutoring service or a writing centre would do a better job of explaining our assignments than we can.  Those supports can help to a point, but only you can articulate your expectations and teach your assignment as it should be written.

Requiring an introductory writing course is enough writing instruction. It isn’t. Writing is a lifelong adventure of learning and improvement. Only more writing makes better writers. One course will get them started but every assignment will require new skills, a new discourse, and a new voice.

My students should be able to write using the same language that I would write with. Every discipline and every course within a discipline has its own preferred language and word choices — discourse is the fancy writing scholar term for that experience. Your students have had different educational and life experiences, not to mention lack of exposure to the required language choices of your course material, so they will have a different voice. They will choose different words to explain processes that for you are are second nature. Those different words are going to sound wrong to you but the only way a student can learn the right language is to mimic it or attempt it blindly and in attempting it they may (and will) get it gloriously, heroically, wrong.

Let me introduce my student Melanie to you. Melanie has graciously given me permission to share a piece of her writing. Melanie is a second year nursing student who has been working as a licensed practical nurse for some time now but has come back to school to upgrade to a baccalaureate degree. She knows nursing language but she does not know the language of research methods so she reached out for help with writing a section of her paper where she had to explain how she selected the three themes she decided to write about in her paper.

“Tell me if this is what you are looking for,” she wrote in her email to me with the following cut and past passage inserted within:

 

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This was not a bad start for not knowing this discourse of writing a method section to a research paper. Her APA citing is wrong. Her explanation leaves some holes. She knows I know what she did, but she didn’t explain it well enough for someone not familiar with the assignment or the exercise we did in class to prep them for this paper, to understand her process. There is nothing horribly grammatically incorrect with this passage but, yet, it somehow it doesn’t read quite right.  An inexperienced evaluator might read this passage and mistakenly label it as grammatically inept, be tempted to rewrite her sentences for her, and take many marks off her grade.

I resisted editing sentences, and emailed Melanie back with this response. (I’m the one in purple.)

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Not perfect feedback. I should have commented on the “this” at the start of the last sentence which is missing a clarifier (you’ll note below she didn’t fix it on her own). And Melanie took this feedback, made it her own, and wrote in her final paper a very strong rendition of the method section.

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The highlight on the word knowledge is just my track-changes comment box telling Melanie she made the perfect edits based on the feedback she got. And this is how students learn the discourse of a discipline. They can’t possibly get it right the first time when they have never done it before.

My instructions are really clear. There shouldn’t be any reason for them to screw this up. If you want strong papers from every student, then your instructional process better allow them to write as many drafts as it takes to get there… otherwise, learn to embrace the normal curve. You may think you have written brilliant assignment guidelines. You may think you’ve explained the process of writing your assignment dozens of times but some student will still get it wrong. Some students just need more time and much more feedback to get it to that point. They aren’t all equally skilled and you will never get 50 easy to ready wonderful papers in your mailbox. This is the worst part of our writing pedagogy in the college environment where class sizes are large and the ability to require multiple drafts is labour intensive. I don’t have help with my class of 51 (which is on the small size from typical for my program). I am their only writing support and that in itself is ineffective pedagogy but, I digress. Learning to write takes time and writing and rewriting and rewriting again with strong feedback is the only method to make that happen. If students don’t edit based on feedback it is only because they didn’t understand the feedback they got. The literature is clear about lack of understanding being a huge problem in academic writing feedback.

They don’t do the reading I ask them to do. Chances are they do the reading but they aren’t understanding it. As much as their writing skills are variable, their reading skills are also variable — perhaps even more so. Learning a new disciplinary language is not unlike learning a foreign language. They have to use the language and read the language often to become proficient. Make them read lots and they’ll pick up on the meaning of the discourse, they’ll be able to use it in their writing and their writing will get better — it will sound better to you who are already fluent in your discourse.

Students also have to be able to understand what they are reading to be able to interpret or paraphrase it. So problems with sentences that are intermittently minimally changed from the original in some students’ papers is likely a problem of not having the language to paraphrase. It’s not plagiarism; its poor reading skills (and poor writing skills. They go hand in hand).

What I know to be true is I’d rather put the work in up front before the paper is handed in for grading than leave things to chance and be disappointed by the frustrating results. Your students CAN write and they’ll write better when their instructors don’t instantly assume they are deficient.

 

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The Value of Valuing Writing Self-Efficacy: Changing thinking

If Doctoral programs didn’t change your thinking, they wouldn’t be doing their job would they? Here at the start of a new year, I thought I might reflect upon what has happened to my thinking on my planned thesis project to develop a measurement instrument to assess writing self-efficacy.

I finished all my required course work toward my doctoral degree last month and I’m itching for the next steps.  I still have one more course to take and that is an elective I, and my committee, have agreed upon which will fine-tune my skills in measurement of psychological concepts and the statistics of assessing those measurements.  I’m really looking forward to the change in pace as I have been immersed in philosophical ramblings for quite some time now and that is hard thinking. Something a little more “rule based” and structured might be nice. I say that now but I’ll be frustrated, no doubt, by the particulars in no time. In some ways, taking the course is a bit for show on my transcript so no one questions where I got my measurement training from when I go to defend. I would rather sit and read a hundred articles on my own and figure it out with textbooks and conversations. The bad thing about courses is that the structure I just admitted to craving, hems you in. I really hope I have some flexibility in terms of what I read about and how I tackle my assignments but that is usually not the case.

Since 2011 I’ve been studying writing self-efficacy. I’d like to say I fell into that area of research inspired by something profound I read or a conversation I had but it was quite happenstance and to some degree arbitrary. I had read nothing. I just knew my students lacked self-efficacy about their abilities to write the paper I assigned them. I’ve since read a lot and my thinking has shaped — it is a little less a big lump of clay… it’s taking form. I have opinions. I am developing expertise.

Before I even entered my PhD program I had conducted three studies and a questionnaire review on the topic. I knew when I was writing my please-admit-me letter that I wanted to develop a measurement instrument to measure writing self-efficacy. Nothing about that has changed. I’m going forth. But my thinking about how to approach the project has changed a lot. One of my classmates just asked me recently how it is I’ve managed to get this far and not change my topic.* (She, incidentally, has changed her study focus three times). My response was, first, that it was a bit of pragmatism…. the most direct route to graduation so I could get on with doing exciting and meaningful stuff.

My second response was that it had changed, philosophically. I wouldn’t have considered myself a theoretical thinker when I wrote that admission letter — that turns out to be absolutely not true, and slightly lacking in self-awareness. The originall vision was straight up statistical psychometrics. But, partially because I had to for a course, I developed a constructivist model of writing (for nursing) — bracketed for a reason — which I revised and sent back to a journal at their request over the holidays. But the reading for that has lead to other thoughts about writing self-efficacy, my chosen concept. I chose the concept when I had read nothing but now I have read plenty.

  1. Constructivism is the road to better measurement of writing self-efficacy. Writing has been through three epistemological shifts (product, process, social) that happened in fairly rapid succession and the tools that measure writing self-efficacy reflect that. The earliest tools assessed it by grammar fault and ability to construct sentences and be clear. Later ones took a more cognitive process, motivational, self-regulation, perspective. But none of the tools take a social constructivist perspective. Some of the tools have the occasional item that brushes up against constructivism but they don’t capture all the social aspects of writing bound to affect writing self-efficacy. How do I know this? I did the work and it was published in the Journal of Nursing Measurement along with an accompanying editorial.
  2. Writing self-efficacy does not have as strong of a relationship to grades as we would like to think. I certainly have not seen any convincing evidence in my own studies or anyone else, that it actually predicts grades…. at least not in a real-world relevant way. (In health research they would call what I am talking about clinical significance.) Part of this prediction failure is related to context. People assess their self-efficacy based on previous performance but in the face of a new teacher, a new subject, a new discipline, new rules, they may assess their own ability poorly. I for example would tell you right now that I believe I have fairly strong skills and knowledge of measurement based on the reading I’ve done and my research experience. I should ace my measurement course without difficulty. But I’m walking into a course on Friday in a new discipline (psychology), with an unknown professor, into a post-positivist world when I have been firmly living in social constructs for the past year, and I may really have no hot clue how well I’ll perform or live up to expectations. Writing self-efficacy may not be able to adequately predict grades. It may however predict the behaviours you require to get a good grade. It may also predict your willingness to keep writing. The only thing that will make your writing grades better is more writing. And are grades really a good reflection of the quality of a writing product anyway? Food for thought.
  3. I believe that the way in which people cognitively interact with a questionnaire and come to a decision on what score to give themselves is a complex process. And this is one part of my thesis project that has evolved dramatically. I was going to do straight up psychometrics — factor analysis, multivariate statistics — but I want to know more than that. So I will develop the questionnaire based on my constructivist theory and I will do think-aloud interviews with students to assess how they interpret the items and come to a decision on how to score themselves. Cognitive interviewing, the psychologists call it. So the project has become more qualitative. I will also use a delphi panel to help me with final edits. The question is, what comes first, the delphi or the think-aloud interviews…. Hmmm.
  4. I’m becoming more interdisciplinary in my thinking. Strange since I’ve been immersed in the nursing world for all my courses and my teaching but what I am doing is not just for nursing. I’m discovering quickly that my work will spread further if I quit spinning it for nursing journals. I published the questionnaire paper and it was really good. The theory paper is awesome and I called it a theory for nursing education but…… it is a theory for all disciplines. It’s almost too bad that I sent it to a nursing journal but I also had some bones to pick with nursing and their writing publications so it is OK there. I’ve published a few other studies that have had some interesting findings and I’ve had more than one moment of being ready to lose my shit with some of the overly structured rules attached to some nursing journals. I nearly pulled one submission recently because of that. I had a great journal choice in educational psychology all picked out as my target for resubmitting and then when I went to read the paper for fit, it was all nursing this, nursing that.…… and it was going to be more work to remove the nursing spin than I was willing to do. I just want the damn paper published. I fear that the psychology people doing work in writing self-efficacy won’t find my papers in order to cite them. They will be unlikely to search CINAHL for this topic — for good reason.
  5. My study needs to be about more than about undergraduate writing. I was going to only interview undergrads but the fact of the matter is that I do want the questionnaire to be applicable to research on grad students as well. I also don’t want the questionnaire to be only applicable to nursing education. It needs to be interdisciplinary.

I need to be thinking about writing my research proposal soon even though I am about a year away from being ready to move to that stage. I’ve written now 4-5 papers that have required me to summarize and present a review of the literature on writing self-efficacy. It is going to be tough to find yet another way to write about the same findings without self-plagairising.

I still have a lot of reading left to do. The pile in the photo is all the articles that I have collected since summer of things I want to read. Some of those articles are about construct validity in writing and assessing writing outcomes so I hope to fit them into my  work this term. Hence, since I often focus this blog, and my Twitter on what I am currently focusing on, there may be a little bit of a flavour change in what I write about for the next three months as I explore measurement, and hopefully, measurement as it relates to writing.

 

*In some ways, I would love to change my topic. I have been introduced to all kinds of shiny things that have grabbed my passions — eg. Narrative Inquiry, for one. But I have a committee now set up to get me through a measurement project so I carry on. And, this IS the next step in my work, this tool development. The big qualitative study will come after.

Is Social Media the Creation of a Never-Ending Research Story? 

“At its heart, research is storytelling.”

How do we know our research has impact? What science seems to value in terms of impact is metric based: number of publications, citation counts, uptake of an intervention into practice. But research is a social process perhaps even more than it is a measured process and what if you do the kind of research that seeks social change, or change in beliefs, or adoption of new attitudes? What if your research explores how individuals learn and adopt that learning into their identity?  In those venues, measurement is irrelevant. How could we possibly count how many people change their behaviour or beliefs based on our research?

My focus as PhD student this term has been knowledge translation. Knowledge translation goes by many alternative names — knowledge mobilization, knowledge diffusion, the movement of theory and research into practice — just to name a few.  This focus has caused me innumerable struggles. What does research impact mean when what you are trying to do with your work is invoke a paradigm shift about writing in a health discipline (nursing)?  Traditional discussions of KT and the oft-cited Canadian Institutes of Health Research definition, take a very linear approach – top down, some might say.  You do research. You get practitioners (knowledge users) to implement your research. Success happens. How successful might depend on how quickly that happens (rate of uptake). The knowledge translation model may seem simple if your research is about use a of a new drug to treat a disease symptom but less simple if you are looking at insidious changes that happen in practice attitudes and beliefs.

No matter your research focus, you aren’t getting through a grant application without explaining how you will share your research.  In practice-based disciplines, such as nursing or education, this is a tricky  obligation. We know from our lived experience that when we have a real-world problem, we and our colleagues, don’t immediately go to the library databases and search for a solution.  Our problems are more context-based and require solutions that consider that context. For example:

How do we get students to understand what we mean when we say we want them to integrate reflection and literature into their assignments?

How do I make this rubric assess what I want it to assess on this specific assignment?

As educators most of our knowledge doesn’t come from books. It comes from experience. When we have an immediate problem in our work our first search for knowledge involves walking down the hall and knocking on the door of a colleague or mentor.  That colleague usually responds with a story. Remember the time when…. ? or I had a student once who…. ? And we absorb these stories into our own experience and it changes who we are as educators. It changes what we know and how we practice. This is our mechanism for learning. This is our mechanism for change.

So my struggles with knowledge translation (and the more pragmatic requirement that I write a paper worth 50% of a grade on the subject) have made me ponder my existence on social media. I started the @academicswrite persona to talk about my research — to talk about all change that needs to happen in academia surrounding writing. It occurred to me while reading about the various modes of knowledge translation that I had created for myself a mode of community building and knowledge translation. But through what mechanism does social media work as a knowledge translation strategy? Is social media the creation of a never-ending research story? Is social media a mechanism for social change, and by extension, the uptake of (educational) research into practice?

But change is hard. And in academic writing you are coming up against belief systems that are outdated, emotionally charged, opinionated. There are so many faulty assumptions in academia, especially in the disciplines, about academic writing. I’ve written before about how academic writing instruction is devalued so I will not repeat those points here. In writing there is also a novice to expert trajectory that influences the academic community.  There will always be new people coming into that community that will scream loudly at the top of their lungs that student grammar is so bad and it makes their writing unreadable and this is the fault of someone else — high school teachers, the intro to writing teacher, texting culture.

(Novices can only see grammar problems. Experts can see past the grammar to the real causes of those writing problems that appear to be grammar.)

So, I have to write this final paper and I decided I’m going to tackle the role of social media in creating communities of practice through networked participation, because without knowing it, a year and three months ago when I started this blog and its sister-Twitter account, I was formulating the beginnings of my KT plan. And this KT plan works through a complex web of identity building, storytelling, and the changing of belief systems — a complex blending of the personal and the professional.  Drawing inspiration from Naomi Barnes, a member of my Twitter community, I can see how the relationship between Twitter and Blogs is a subtle process of knowledge building.

It starts with a Tweet that is a small spark. That spark may not look anything like the idea that is brewing inside. In fact, it might appear in your Twitter feed and go by completely unnoticed.

Your psyche may be sensitive to the topic so that you start to see it everywhere.

I tell my research story through tweets. I research and read papers on the topic and I tweet about what I read.

Then I write this blog you read now as a preliminary sketch of my thinking on the topic. The comments I get about the blog and the tweets will continue to shape my thinking. The blog will inform what I write in the formal paper to meet the requirements of my course. That formal paper may turn into a publication. The publication will be released and I’ll tweet about it. More twitter conversations will ensue. I may write a blog telling additional research stories that relate to the publication. I’ll create a larger narrative of my research which adds to the collective meaning and knowing on the subject.

I see blogging and social media as the construction of an ongoing story that blends the personal and the professional.  Because academic writing and publishing is one thing but blogging and micro-blogging, like Twitter, are a whole other genre of writing. A genre created for persuasive purposes. Through my Twitter (primarily) and my blog I’m telling a story that has no beginning and it has no end but that story is intended to seep into your emotions, your psyche, and your identity. And I’m doing it all though telling you stories that contain fundamental truths by using conventions that are part fact and part fiction.

But how do we use storytelling to persuade and create change through social media?

  1. Stories lead to reflection – I’ve often said on my Twitter account I am not a writing tipster but I do aim to inspire. If I make you think about your writing approach, even if what I say just resonates, I will improve your writing process. That improvement may come through simply providing you with assurance that the way you write is not abnormal. I may provide you with the courage to try something new whether it be in your own writing, or in how you guide your students. I will make you think.
  2. Stories create meaning – Meaning comes through creating a supportive relational space. Telling stories to help new community members feel belonging means you take your work seriously and the work of your colleague’s seriously too. These stories move our theory into practice because those experiences are lived.
  3. Stories “freeze thoughts out of context” – Social media becomes a permanent record of thought and its evolution. You can trace your own evolution of thinking through the trail of tweets you leave behind and by the correspondence it elicits.
  4. Stories create community by binding a listener and the teller together –Transformation may occur within a listener/reader in how they view themselves and how they view others. Empathy results. I follow people on Twitter based on who I can learn from. I follow scholars of different races and genders, ages and stages of life, different socioeconomic statuses and backgrounds. They tweet about their lived experiences which are different from mine. I don’t always interfere with their stories by commenting but I read and I learn and I come to understand.
  5. Stories evolve with discussion – we tweet and we write blogs and other contribute to the conversation, and by creating that conversation our thinking changes.
  6. Telling your story teaches others how to tell their own stories – when we tell stories we encourage others to tell their own stories. By listening to the stories of those with experience we can absorb their stories into our own sense of identity. Having an identity within a community means a sense of belonging will develop. In this way, the community continues to change and the collective knowledge developed within this situated learning is in constant evolution.

Storytelling is one of the mechanisms through which our practices change. Social media can facilitate that.  Please comment or tweet at me the aspects of storytelling that work in your community and networks. It will most certainly inform the paper I will write about this process.

Do Academics Devalue Writing?

I meant to write this blog months ago. It is inspired by observations made while at a conference in the spring with other writing scholars. The devaluing of writing is an issue I think about often as I inch ahead in my own PhD studies and consider, while applying for grants for example, how others will perceive my work. How my discipline perceives my work is especially crucial given that I am in a practice-based discipline not a humanities discipline where, you would think but it is apparently not so, that the value of writing would be more self-evident.

My research area is writing in nursing education.  I have conducted research on writing self-efficacy in first-year nursing students in several projects I started before I became a PhD student. When tackling psycho-educational topics in a discipline that privileges the biomedical perspective, there are those that will brush you off, tell you your topic doesn’t interest them, or look at you strangely and tell you they didn’t realize nurses needed to write. In that environment, it is hard to go up against, for grants or even to get certain journals to take you seriously, scholars who are trying to cure cancer, as the epitomes example.

But someone has to teach the future cancer curers of this academic world how to write and think.

In nursing the problem has looked like such:

  1. Most nursing programs in Canada do not teach writing at all to their students. Or if they do believe their students require writing skills, they require an English Literature course as a prerequisite (as if interpreting literature and writing about it will help them write better research synthesis papers). Or they require students take a basic generic writing course which drills grammar and a style guide. Discipline-specific writing instruction is rare in nursing programs (6% in Canada).  I am grateful to Jo-anne Andre and Roger Graves for the study that has fed me that stat.
  2. Writing ability is not an entry level practice competency for nurses at the national or provincial level in Canada.  I have been through the competency documents for every province (except Quebec) and none of them include writing as a competency. One of them (my own province, gratefully) includes the following statement under the heading of assumptions: “Entry-level registered nurses demonstrate English or French language proficiency (reading, writing, listening and speaking).”
  3. The Canadian Association of Schools of Nursing (CASN) the organization that “establishes and promotes national standards of excellence for nursing education”  has written a National Nursing Education Framework. Writing does not appear in the framework as a priority of nursing education until the Masters level of education. Writing is not mentioned in undergraduate education at all so I’ve been wondering where nursing Masters students are learning to develop such skills as as,
    “The ability to articulate verbally, and in writing, to a wide range of audiences the evidence for nursing decisions, including the credibility and relevance of sources of information,”

    if those skills are not honed in undergraduate education as a component of excellence in nursing education. The hardest writing requirement imbedded in that statement above as an educational priority for Masters education is the writing for a wide range of audiences. Understanding the needs of an audience is the most challenging writing skill of all. You come to understand the needs of an audience, through lots and lots and lots of writing and that writing exposure better come well before the Masters level.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be on faculty in a nursing program that includes in its curriculum one of the rare 6% of discipline-specific writing courses. In fact, I developed that course. Our former chair, now retired, valued writing, but it is likely she included the course because she had a ready-made registered nurse faculty member (meaning me) to step in and develop the course. Our course, in its inception, was truly discipline-specific because it was taught and developed by a registered nurse. But she only made it one credit hour in value which does not represent the workload or the stress levels incurred by some students.

Nevertheless, I’ve still encountered problems from our faculty over the value of writing. For example, we have a parallel policy that students must pass every course in each term before moving on in the program. We weren’t far into our new curriculum (2 terms) when the writing course became a quick exception to that rule and students were were allowed to move to the next term without successfully completing the writing course.

As another example, at some point in our program we had to stop allowing faculty to be too autonomous in their assignment choices and the location of writing assignments needed to be pre-selected and permanent because writing assignments were being dropped from courses without any consultation. Instructors would trial an assignment, quickly realize how much work they were, and the next year it would be gone from their course. They did this stealthily, without telling anyone, and no one found out until it was too late.

I have also discovered how quick instructors are to place blame on the introductory writing course as the cause of students’ perceived lack of writing skills. I can’t even count the number of emails, hallway conversations, and pointed questions at faculty meetings, where I was required to address the generic finger point, “Didn’t they learn this stuff in your course?” As if I was the magic bullet. As if my course was the end of the line for undergraduate students learning how to write.

So it shocked me to be at a writing scholars’ conference (CASDW) and find out that the nursing experience wasn’t unique at all. That even in the writing studies discipline faculty were plagued with pointed fingers and statements of devaluing. Faculty calling writing a “soft skill.” The blaming of some unknown entity before these students arrived at their doorstep for their poor writing as if each individual course assignment didn’t require new learning, new writing supports, no matter the level these students were at. We seem to want students to be sitting in our classrooms fully formed when it comes to writing. And the industries we feed want students coming out with better writing (and communication) skills but they don’t want to lengthen programs to help students develop these skills.

When I wrote the tweet I posted above, many of those who contributed to the conversation thought I meant students were the ones devaluing writing but I was talking about faculty primarily. Many defined students’ devaluing of writing by them not caring about the grammar in their assignments. But grammar is not the only thing that makes bad writing. And what makes for bad grammar can be highly subjective and disciplinary too. What bothers me as a grader will be different from what bothers you. I, for example, could not care less about detecting split infinitives or sentences ending in prepositions, but I’m going to be all over bad uses of semi-colons. I’m much more interested in ideas, clarity, creativity, cohesiveness.

Reading qualitative studies asking students about what they think of the feedback they get on their writing enlightened me to student frustrations. The thing students hate the most is when their graders fail to see what they are trying to say in order to simply nit-pick at sentence by sentence grammatical structure. You want students to pay attention to grammar, tell them to read their papers out loud to themselves. Give them time in class to do it. More writing will improve students grammar but students quickly become disengaged in their writing if they feel their ideas are being ignored.

If students devalue writing it is because we model that to devalue it is acceptable. We model it by doing some of the things I’ve described above.  Allowing them to progress in a program without passing a required writing credit is like saying, well, you can get by without it. I’ve heard faculty talking to students about how much they hate writing too and avoid it. I’ve heard them validating student beliefs that nurses don’t need to know how to write to look after a patient. Faculty make these comments without any consideration for the nature of thinking that goes into writing that will benefit student thinking at the bedside.

In my experience, the faculty complaining loudest about the dire condition of student writing are the ones that seem to devalue writing the most. Many of these faculty have no intention of being a part of the solution. Many don’t recognize that in order for good writing to be handed in, supports must be in place and the educator assigning the writing must be a part of that support system. Bad writing in your course is not someone else’s problem. It is your problem. Writing experts have known for years that drilling grammar does not fix that problem, so demanding that writing scholars come in and fix the issue by offering a 2 hour workshop on the basics of grammar, will not fix the bad writing your assignment produces. You’ll be lucky if any of the students show up. Deficit pedagogy, where we tell students what NOT to do over and over again, does nothing to teach them what they should do.

In  my mind, getting good writing out of our students requires three simple things:

  1. Writing a meaningful assignment and allowing student choice.
  2. Providing in-classroom supports for our own assignments.
  3. Allowing students to say something that is their own and represents their identity in the work.

Developing writing identity may be the key to helping students value writing. Students resent writing that demands they leave themselves out of the analysis. I don’t blame them. I resent writing like that as well. But so many disciplines continue to devalue writing, even at the professional academic level, that shows any shred of humanity.  They label that kind of writing as biased writing, lacking objectivity. I conducted a poll shortly after tweeting the devaluing thread, asking academics and researchers if they would call themselves “a writer”

If you remove the folks that were just spying, 56% said yes, 30% said no, and 14% said not sure. So just under half of the academics/researchers and Phd students who responded would not identify as a writer. In the comments below, some said they they felt writing was a necessary evil of the job. It was a task, not an identity.  Some felt it was not their primary identity (teaching was). But yet writing is what we do. Writing is what makes our research travel. Writing is what gets us degrees, promotions, grants, recognition, publications, and advances our careers. How can we not identify as writers?

If such a large proportion of those teaching and assigning writing to students cannot identify as writers then we have an identity crisis in academia. The problem of devaluing writing may stem from this identity crisis. I learned this week that writing studies scholars have challenges even being recognized as a relevant discipline. If we don’t write as academics, if we don’t value writing ourselves, if we don’t want to teach writing or help our students value writing, what is it that we do again?

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