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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?

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Happy Birthday to Me: 365 days of @academicswrite

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Part I explores conducting the study.

Part II talks about what came after.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was supposed to be a BLIND review. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part I is here.

Part III is here.

Dissemination and All that FUN Stuff 

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

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

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

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

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

Getting my Undergraduate Students Involved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Naivety: Planning and Conducing the Study

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

So what the hell, lets do a research study.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part II

Part III

 

 

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

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

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

 

Can I Have an Extension, Please?

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

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

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

The Debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is my rationale for my personal policy:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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