Tuesday, January 25, 2011

the instrument and accompanying responsibility

Continuing what I started in the last post, I wanted to share a fun little (big!) detail about my dissertation. One that's probably going to make it take longer than I planned. But it's worth it.

First of all, some progress. Since I last wrote, I have:

  • Met with my advisor again.

  • Completed and turned in my forms for the IRB.

  • Completed a short topic proposal and a second draft of a longer topic proposal.

  • Met with my advisor about the two former things.

So now I'm doing a little waiting and feeling two main things about this process:

  1. Frustrated that the paperwork is taking so long (I want to do some actual work!) and

  2. Honored by the trust my advisor has in me.

So first I'll tell you about the topic proposal. There are actually two.

The Short Version. This is a one page deal that gives an overview of what, why, and how, I'll do my study and what I expect to get for results. The target audience for this is secondarily my committee, but primarily the graduate department on campus. They will look it over and say "sounds good" and stamp it with an "OK!" I hope. I said it was secondarily for my committee because they also need to look it over and sign it, basically letting the grad school know that they looked at it and think it'll be appropriate for me. But they will have more information in the form of...

The Long Version. This is currently 10 pages long, with 3 of those pages being bibliographical. My advisor suggested to keep it under 20. Basically, I need to provide my committee members with enough information to *really* be informed about my study. In other words, this one is the actual topic proposal: the other one is just a summary of it intended to appease the folks in the graduate department. (Yeah, I did the summary before writing the actual paper. It was shorter! I wanted to feel accomplished.)

So what happens next is--once my advisor says it's good enough--the distribution of the long and short topic proposals. I will send them both to my committee members and ask them to read them. Then I will set up a meeting with each of them to talk about their concerns, suggestions, and approval. They might suggest I do things differently, and then I'd need to revise the proposal to reflect this (and possibly the IRB too, if it's really different. Don't even want to think about that.). Eventually though, they'll approve it. They'll sign the form that's paired with The Short Version. Hopefully I'll also have IRB approval by then too. If I don't, I'll need to wait until I get it. And I'll send The Short Version and its form--and the form stating that the IRB approves my project--to the graduate department. After their approval (it's rare that one doesn't get approved after receiving the 'yes' from the committee and IRB), I'll have the 'go ahead' to start writing my first three chapters.

Yes, more writing (yay writing!). There are also a couple more forms (yay paperwork!) and stuff to deal with (yay stuff! to deal with!), and eventually a preliminary hearing. I've heard that these are not so fun. I'll write about all this in detail when I know more. Because this post--several paragraphs later and just getting to my point--is about my instrument.

My advisor--upon looking over my papers last week--suggested a particular observation instrument that he thought I should use. I couldn't find the instrument myself, so he said he'd contact the people who developed it because he had worked with them in the past. I was a little wary of this new instrument though, mainly because of the time involved in getting it. I thought I had my instrument ready to go, and now I was going to have to wait for someone from another institution to get back to my advisor, and for him to receive said instrument and give it to me, and for me to research the use and implications of it before finally using it myself? Tick tock, tick tock.

But he said it was a good idea, so I went along with it because he's pretty smart and he's also my committee chair. Meanwhile, I continued to work on my Long Version and I also did a little research about this instrument. It seemed really applicable and relevant, but looked like it was going to take me more time. (Oh well, I'm getting used to the idea of everything taking me more time than I'd expected. It happens.) Honestly, the use of this instrument would really solidify my research topic. It'd make it more publishable and people would take it more seriously. So that's nice.

A few days later, I received a voicemail from my advisor. He said he spoke with the person in charge of the intended instrument, and they weren't keen on releasing it for me to use it. Basically, they used to let other researchers (not just students, but also professional researchers in the field) use it and these people weren't using it properly. They weren't taking the training seriously and their results were not making the instrument look good, so they stopped letting people use it. Crap.

You following me so far?

  1. Advisor suggests perfect instrument.

  2. Nearly a week of valuable time passes while we wait.

  3. Creator tells advisor they don't distribute instrument anymore.

  4. Damn.

But wait, there's a 5th part to this (and this is the reason for the "honored" comment at the top of this post). Remember how I said my advisor is awesome? Well, he used to work with the people who created this instrument and apparently, he made a pretty good impression at the time. After telling him they don't distribute it anymore, his contact told him that since he had used the instrument himself and had been trained on it, they'd allow him--just this one time--to obtain it, give it to me, and train me on its proper use. I'm not allowed to distribute it to others or even show it to anyone else (except the IRB folks and my committee, and the copy I recently received to give to them had a big "FOR PREVIEW ONLY" stamped across it).

So now I get to use this exclusive instrument that most people can't get their mitts on, and it's because my advisor believes in me enough that he's willing to put his reputation on the line to vouch for my access to it. So I guess I better not eff it up.

Not that I had planned on doing a bad job anyway, but now I feel like I have a higher standard to reach. I'm not just doing my own work, I'm doing work on which my advisor will be judged by his colleagues. It's his credibility as well as my own, so I'd pay the respect to him best by not producing mediocre work.

So that's my instrument story. Coming up soon:

  • I will get trained on the use of the instrument.

  • I will hear back about my IRB's acceptance.

  • I will receive the go-ahead to send my Long & Short Versions of the proposal to my committee, and will set up meetings with them to discuss it.

It won't be long before I start writing actual chapters in my actual dissertation! Crazy thought, right?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

notes from the first meeting of the semester

I had an impromptu meeting with my advisor earlier this week, and thought that I'd go ahead and report on it here. I hope this space will serve double-duty as follows.
1) It helps me remember what was said. I have my chicken-scratch notes, but this is much more detailed.
2) It is more than I've ever written for anyone about what I'm actually studying.

For starters, I have to say: my advisor is awesome. Really.

So... he thinks my august deadline is unrealistic given all of the things that need accomplishing. I should note how he said it too. He didn't say he didn't think I could do it. He said thought the processes would take longer than I'm allowing time for. He didn't tell me I could NOT get it done by August. He simply said he thought I should be prepared and not disappointed if I'm not done.

Ok. I can live with that.

I want to start telling you about my dissertation, but first let me tell you about my degree.

My degree is in instruction/curriculum design. It requires that I understand learning theories, be very good at communication, explaining things (based on proven research), and working with technology. Most people who come into our degree programs are current or former teachers or other kinds of educators looking to do something else...I'm actually an exception to that. In layman's terms, I 'teach people how to teach' from a psychological standpoint. For extra confusion: When/if I become a professor in my area in the future, I will be teaching people how to teach people how to teach.

For my Master's degree, my thesis project was to research, design, test and implement a set of training modules designed to be given to new students in a graduate degree program. My dissertation can't be something I design though; it has to be some 'hardcore' researching. Collecting data. With an instrument and statistics. Oh the excitement.

So that brings me to my dissertation. I will be comparing the necessary* and appropriate* usage of technology in the classroom setting. I'll compare it between two groups: current teacher educators (so this would perhaps be a professor of education at a university) and recent graduates of that teacher education program (so this would be a new-ish school teacher in an elementary or high school who graduated from the ed program at said university). Obviously I need a bunch of people in each group: a bunch of teachers and profs who'll allow me to observe them teaching.

I have an instrument to use for this comparison, too. If you're not aware, an instrument is what researchers call any tool used to collect data. Maybe it's a survey, or a set of interview questions, or a chart of some kind. In my case, I have a rubric with a lot of check boxes on it. It's what's called a "validated instrument," too. This means--to put it vaguely--that someone else designed it and used it with proven success.

But I can't use my instrument just yet. Right now I'm in the beginning of the red tape. I'm pretty sure that a large percentage of one's accomplishment of any higher ed degree is actually based not on knowledge of the subject, but on one's ability to jump through lots and lots of hoops and follow random arbitrary guidelines that'd be laughable in a non-academic environment. Having become a fixture in the higher-ed environment at this point, I am used to a lot of random forms and funky rules. But even I was/am floored by the amount of steps and signatures and processes and stipulations one is required to complete in order to get a doctorate. They really don't just hand them out. That's good, of course. But for example: they even tell you what percentage of *cotton fiber* the paper on which your dissertation is printed must contain.

So yeah, paperwork.

The first thing on my list is a topic proposal. That's not actually the first thing on my list though, because the topic proposal cannot be turned in until I have the approval of my university's Institutional Review Board. Basically I need to turn in 8 pages of answers to questions like "Will fetal cells be used in the research?" and "How will the researcher compensate participants for mental anguish caused by this study?" They use the same form for medical research as they do for somebody interviewing people on whether they like cookies. It's killer. I understand why they do it, but they ought to have a shorter form for 'Research Not Involving Fetuses'...or something. The pain of the IRB is that it asks a lot of specific questions that a graduate student will not have the answer to at the topic proposal stage. Really, all the answers may not be readily fleshed out until after the first three chapters are written by the student (me!) and deliberated on by the committee (3 professors and a qualified staff member, in my case).

Yet, I can't turn in the topic proposal until I have the IRB done and approved. And the topic proposal needs the graduate school department's stamp of approval before I'm allowed to work on my first three chapters. And said topic proposal needs to be done and approved at least 6 months before a student (me!) plans to graduate. If I walk in August, that date is February 1. Which is in like 2 weeks. Yipes! Did I mention I also need to meet with all of my committee members about it and get their signatures on said proposal before I turn it in for approval?

Thing is, after this, it's something else that needs to get done yesterday and with a lot of signatures or with deliberation from outside parties. The whole semester is going to be this way. You can see why my advisor is less than enthusiastic about my proposed August graduation. Haha.

So that's where I'm at right now. Writing an IRB form that only takes a rusty stab in the dark at what I'll actually be doing in the project. Then turning around the topic proposal to go with it, which requires that I meet with each of my committee members and make their suggested amendments before I turn it in... by February 1.

After the topic proposal comes a couple more forms, and a lot of research/writing. And then a defense (the first of two). And then I get to use my instrument.

I'm already nearly a week behind where I thought I should comfortably be right now and if that's any indication of the rest of the semester, I'll be a December grad for sure. Or maybe things will pick up speed and I'll be walking in August like I want to. Either way, it is what it is, and you know where I stand. Questions? Comments? Commiseration?

*necessary and appropriate technology uses are pretty well defined by research in the subject area.

Monday, January 10, 2011

2011, my ABD year

I'm pretty excited for this semester. Mostly, excited for it to be over. But also not excited for that, because I know it's going to go really fast and I'm counting on myself for the momentum to get everything done before the deadlines.

So: I want to walk across the stage in August of this year.

That may seem like a long way from now, but really it's not in terms of academic deadlines and schedules. An August graduation is particularly difficult to do because committee members (I have 4) tend to go off contract in the summer. This means they aren't obligated to be on campus, and many of them go out of town for long stretches. I can't blame them for this; I would too! But what that means is in order to graduate in August, I need to be pretty much defended and set to jet by the middle of May. (So why not graduate in May? Well, if I wanted to do that, I'd need to have it all wrapped up in a neat little package by early April. Not happening.)

Anyhow, our university provides a very detailed student handbook listing the steps to get graduated. There are over a dozen steps, but many of them are things like "fill out form A." Then the next step is "Fill out form B, which you receive in the mail when Form A is approved." Some of the other steps are big ones -- namely, getting your first 3 chapters approved. (The first three chapters are the intro chapter, the literature review and the design of the research.) This is the part I might fail at: if I don't get these approved quickly, there is simply no feasible way I will be able to graduate in August. (So I'd do December 2011, which isn't so bad. But I really want AUGUST for several personal reasons.) The handbook says to allow up to 8 weeks for your committee to read and provide criticisms on your 3 chapters. So I really need to have it done ASAP, and I need to hope that I can get those criticisms and make the appropriate improvements and corrections inside of that 8 week period.

But then I'd get to take a break--relax a little--since, as we covered earlier, summer's not the time for defenses. So that's a silver lining if my August plans tank.

For the time being though, I'll focus on August. Here's what I've done to prepare for the coming weeks. I use Google Docs as my planner. I set up a weekly textual calendar in it, numbered by the weeks of the semester. Then, I added useful info like university holidays, deadlines for specific forms or procedures, and other things I don't want to forget (like birthdays, friends' baby due-dates, etc.).

Traditionally I'd wait until I receive course syllabi and roll through my calendar, filling in assignments and scheduling days in which I plan to work on them. Doing this before the deadline looms helps keep me on track and keeps the work from piling up. This past semester, it worked like a charm! Because of my pre-planning, I had all the assignments done for one class weeks before they were due. That was a saving grace for me when I was in the trenches of comp exam rewrites and would have had little time to complete the assignments by their actual due dates.

This semester, I don't have any classes (woohoo!) but I'm not short on deadlines! I went through and added to-do items like "Work on Topic Proposal," and due dates/tasks like "Complete Topic Proposal by Today; needs Professor's signature." I write everything on this Google Docs calendar-- EVERY THING. It's the first thing I open in the morning. I look at it, arrange the things I need to get done that day by color and the time I have (work-related to-do's, lunch hour, evening before dinner, evening after dinner, etc), and tick them off one-by-one.

Looking at what I need to accomplish this week for my dissertation makes my head spin. But I trust that when I set it up, I was thinking in my own best interests. Procrastination wasn't an option. My to-do list knows best, and if I follow it I just might graduate in August (assuming my committee members also have the time and motivation to review my materials in a timely manner).

Wish me luck!

I will write more about my topic and such, soon. Because, stacked to-do list or not, this semester won't be NEARLY as busy as last semester for me. Stressful, yes. But AS stressful? I just don't know if it's possible. So hurray to that. :-)