Posts Tagged ‘ research ’

Catching up with the Zeitgeist…finally! – by Neil Baldwin

Courtesy of Creative Commons.

Author Neil Baldwin publishes a roundup of articles, books, conferences, and websites that caught his eye this past year. Each selection bears upon current topics in teaching and learning, creativity, and general academic interests. Take a look!

https://blogs.montclair.edu/crdirector/2012/11/17/catching-up-with-the-zeitgeist-finally-by-neil-baldwin/

Hey, Academic Writers, You Can Have Style and Substance

Stylish Academic Writing

Stylish Academic Writing, Helen Sword. Harvard U. Press

 

Hey, Academic Writers, You Can Have Style and Substance

Sword, Helen. Stylish Academic Writing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard U. Press, 2012.

Available from Harvard University Press; April 2, 2012; $21.95

A Book Review, by Julie Dalley

I have always been interested in the ways in which scholarly writing seems to tangle meaning with a flurry of important-sounding words. I’ve done it often in my own writing, partly because I thought it was required to establish authority and credibility, and partly because I didn’t have the training to be more creative in my academic writing. So when I came upon Maria Popova’s blog piece on the blog Brain Pickings, titled, “The Power of Simple Words,” I was intrigued. Accompanying the brief essay – composed to remind writers to keep it simple – was a two-minute TED Ed video also called, “The Power of Simple Words.” The message concerns simplifying your prose, and knowing your audience, illustrated through the comic re-arrangement of pop culture sound bites: “”No coordinates exist like one’s domicile” for “there’s no place like home” or “ambulate this direction”, for “walk this way.” Its message is important for all writers, professional or academic, student or teacher.

Students and practitioners like myself confuse big words with good writing or sound argument. The brevity of the video imparts its message forcefully: we don’t always have to “sound smart” in order to leave a huge impression. Sometimes the simplest of words or phrases, a subtle and delicate metaphor, or a brief but powerful story, can capture a broader audience.

Likewise, in Stylish Academic Writing, Helen Sword argues that academic writers don’t need to write in jargonistic hieroglyphics that require readers to decode their meaning. Instead, they should be open and willing to soften their writing to make meaning more concrete and knowledge more accessible. Sword’s central argument is that, by falling into the habit of writing rigid academic texts without concern for style, we are failing to connect to our own agency and voice. We alienate readers beyond our disciplines, and sometimes even within our field of study.

Dense academic writing – with few exceptions – is by definition that which takes a meandering path to come to a simple point. It is often exclusionary with its complex disciplinary jargon, muddling clear ideas and inhibiting authentic meaning-making. And yet, there are academic writers whose work echoes far beyond their disciplinary domains, whose writing reaches beyond their fields, beyond academia, and into the larger audience of the public, while contributing to our body of knowledge in significant ways.

Sword structures her book with a series of case-studies of these breakout authors, using “Spotlight on Style” portraits of those who have broken the mold without threat to their disciplinary expertise or authority – and who infuse their writing with style and voice that engages the reader and delivers thoughtful, insightful, authoritative, but most of all, accessible, knowledge. Examples include Nathaniel Mermin, physicist (38); Ruth Behar, anthropologist (45); Stephen Greenblatt, literary critic, author, and scholar (p. 83); and Robert J. Connors and Andrea Lunsford, English scholars and researchers, writing as “Ma and Pa Kettle” (128). Alongside these exemplars of stylish writing, Sword presents a guide to crafting stylish prose in a book that is short, concise, and replete with tips and tricks (Things to Try found at the end of each chapter – extremely useful for writing instructors). The author demonstrates with concrete examples and suggestions that “…the most engaging writers are almost invariably those who pay the closest attention to the real people – specialists and non-specialists, colleagues and strangers – in whose ears their own words will echo” (44).  We forget that our audience needn’t be limited to a select few academics; we should write as though our ideas have resonance beyond our disciplines, and as far as the layperson with a curious mind.

Stylish Academic Writing contains a list of specific and transferable skills for improving anyone’s writing and this guide will become a well-thumbed resource every time you begin crafting your own stylish writing piece. The list includes some basic advice: create catchy titles, use anecdotes and stories, begin with a strong opening sentence or paragraph, provide lots of examples (concrete over the abstract), and more. This is practical advice for those who believe they must compose to achieve membership in their disciplinary field: fling the lingo, obscure the simple, flaunt your mental prowess through the anguished manipulation of language and the doors to academia will swing open. There’s a better way.  Scholars have long been making the case for better academic writing, going back to the classic article (which Sword references on pages 6-7) by Patricia Nelson Limerick, “Dancing with Professors: the trouble with academic prose,” (New York Times Book Review, 1993). Limerick famously critiqued the academic snobbery that favors impenetrable, jargonistic papers that few understand, and that even fewer still will admit they cannot understand.

But what is good writing? And what does bad writing look like?  In addition to spotlighting accomplished academic writers, Sword peppers her chapters with snippets of badly written prose plucked from numerous (one thousand, to be precise) articles and essays from a broad swath of disciplines: science, math, history medicine, law, psychology, anthropology, philosophy, education, literary studies and more. She also takes aim at style guides, and their conflicting messages that can lead a writer to constrain or even limit personal voice at the expense of their scholarship. Sword isn’t alone is arguing for better writing. She pays tribute to authors and scholars such as Peter Elbow, William Zinsser, Strunk and White, and Howard S. Becker, who have championed the stylish writing cause (6).

Sword consulted seventy academics from across the disciplines who gave her a list of ideal characteristics of good academic writing: elegant, carefully crafted sentences, energy, intellectual commitment, passion, engaging prose, a compelling story, avoids jargon, aesthetic and intellectual pleasure, and originality, imagination, and creative flair (8).  She dismisses the mythological tenet that individual voice and personal agency should be eliminated from academic writing. Rather, she insists, it is through the use of personal pronouns that we connect more intimately with our audience and attach our expertise more closely to our work and immersion in our discipline: “Academic writers strive to convey a completely neutral perspective; as merchants of truth rather than fiction, we see it as our job to inform our readers, not to play with their expectations or their minds. Yet that neutrality, when closely examined, turns out to be something of a myth” (94).  Why do we research and write if not to establish our own authority in the field?

Sword’s strongest argument comes in Chapter 10: Jargonitis, a term often used as a pejorative to describe text that is “obscure and often pretentious language marked by circumlocutions and long words” (112). Here she sways the reader by pointing out the exclusionary nature of jargon in academic text (i.e., “I belong, you don’t”), how academese has reduced the writer to ostentation, obfuscation, and obscurity, and how jargon can become a substitute for legitimate thought, a placeholder for fully developed and creative ideas.

Struggling with meaning and difficult and complex ideas has long been considered an integral part of academic training; our style and authority is formed and informed by the literature we review and the research we build upon in our own work. Is it necessary? Mostly not, Sword says, “Sometimes, however, the line between technical precision and intellectual pretension becomes a fine one.” (117). Sword points to the invocation of Michel Foucault by numerous scholars, many who appear to never have engaged directly with his body of work.  “Foucauldian” references in humanities and social sciences scholarship are a straw man of academic writing, according to Sword: in most of the cases she reviewed for her study, the authors engaged with Foucault through the work of others. This twice-to-three-times removed jargon diminishes the scholarship, becomes exclusionary for the general public, and contributes nothing to a dialogue on Foucault. Ironically, Foucault’s work, per Sword, was “rhythmically compelling, relentlessly concrete, and almost entirely jargon-free” (119).

Sword concludes her book with two chapters that deal with the more intangible elements of good writing: passion, persuasion, playfulness, making the abstract concrete, challenging the reader, engaging the reader’s imagination, abiding in elegance; in other words, “paint a big picture on a small canvas” (Chapter 13: “The Big Picture” and Chapter 14: “The Creative Touch.” 147-172).  She shares the following advice from evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, which neatly packages her argument:

Do not talk down. Try to inspire everybody with the poetry of science and make your explanations as easy as honesty allows, but at the same time do not neglect the difficult. Put extra effort into explaining to those readers prepared to put matching effort into understanding. (qtd. on 157).

Noticeably lacking in this otherwise comprehensive book is any reference to the emerging trend of digital writing and the new literacies that govern those writing forms.  Some literature exists that suggests that writing online offers us a more relaxed platform, even an agency and space where voice and self become prominent, while still reflecting academic rigor (cf. Elbow, P (Nov. 2007). “Voice in Writing Again: Embracing Contraries.” College English, Vol. 70, No. 2, pp. 168-188). As our writing worlds collide with digital worlds, any guide or work on academic writing should include some discussion on this movement and where academic writers stand when confronting style and format online. Sword does discuss augmenting text with images (108), however, that is as close as she comes to addressing multimodal academic writing.

Will this book, and other movements to redefine “writing” and literacy instruction, become influential in loosening the rigid disciplinary confines of academic writing and make academic text more appealing and available to a broader public? It’s not as though ponderous academic writing is a secret or hasn’t long been thought unnecessary; academia itself suffers from a deep-seated tradition of exclusive and territorial scholarship, and there is an intrinsic fear of diminished intellectual perception or agency that comes with making academia more accessible and less lofty. In addition, academic writing, and the research that feeds it, is the merit badge of belonging to the academy.

This is the core of the resistance to change in American education. If we do move to more stylish academic writing, Sword’s work is a informative and useful place to start: it provides foundational instruction on how to write clearly, the license to write freely, and the motivation to make the leap.

Sword’s lesson comes down to courage on the part of the scholar: you must choose if you want your writing to stand out from the crowd or conform to the disciplinary academese that both confounds and confirms you. This book gives you license to take some risks with your academic writing, and provides solid evidence of other scholars who have gained world-wide acclaim, in some cases became household names, for daring to step outside the writing box and be stylish.

Helen Sword is Associate Professor in the Centre for Academic Development at the University of Auckland.

To find out how stylish your own writing is, take Sword’s WritersDiet Test: http://writersdiet.com/WT.phph

 

Action Research for Professional Development: Concise Advice for New Action Researchers (excerpted)

Action Research for Professional Development: Concise Advice for New Action Researchers (excerpted)

Copyright Jean McNiff, 2002. Reprinted by permission.

by Jean McNiff, Professor of Educational Research, York St. John University (UK)

What is Action Research?

Action research is a term that refers to a practical way of looking at your own work to check that it is as you would like it to be. Because action research is done by you, the practitioner, it is often referred to as practitioner based research; and because it involves you thinking about and reflecting on your work, it can also be called a form of self-reflective practice.

The idea of self-reflection is central. In traditional forms of research – empirical research – researchers do research on other people. In action research, researchers do research on themselves. Empirical researchers enquire into other people’s lives. Action researchers enquire into their own. Action research is an enquiry conducted by the self into the self. You, a practitioner, think about your own life and work, and this involves you asking yourself why you do the things that you do, and why you are the way that you are. When you produce your research report, it shows how you have carried out a systematic investigation into your own behaviour, and the reasons for that behaviour. The report shows the process you have gone through in order to achieve a better understanding of yourself, so that you can continue developing yourself and your work.

Action research is open ended. It does not begin with a fixed hypothesis. It begins with an idea that you develop. The research process is the developmental process of following through the idea, seeing how it goes, and continually checking whether it is in line with what you wish to happen. Seen in this way, action research is a form of self-evaluation. It is used widely in professional contexts such as appraisal, mentoring and self-assessment.

How do I do action research?

The basic steps of an action research process constitute an action plan:

  • We review our current practice,
  • identify an aspect that we want to investigate,
  • imagine a way forward,
  • try it out, and
  • take stock of what happens.
  • We modify what we are doing in the light of what we have found, and continue working in this new way (try another option if the new way of working is not right)
  • monitor what we do,
  • review and evaluate the modified action,
  • and so on …

(see also McNiff, Lomax and Whitehead, 1996, and forthcoming)

Two processes are at work: your systematic actions as you work your way through these steps, and your learning. Your actions embody your learning, and your learning is informed by your reflections on your actions. Therefore, when you come to write your report or make your research public in other ways, you should aim to show not only the actions of your research, but also the learning involved. Some researchers focus only on the actions and procedures, and this can weaken the authenticity of the research.

A number of models are available in the literature. Most of them regard practice as non-linear, appreciating that people are unpredictable, and that their actions often do not follow a straightforward trajectory. The action plan above shows action reflection as a cycle of

identify an area of practice to be investigated;

imagine a solution;

implement the solution;

evaluate the solution;

change practice in light of the evaluation …

This action research cycle can now turn into new action research cycles, as new areas of investigation emerge. It is possible to imagine a series of cycles to show the processes of developing practice. The processes can be shown as a spiral of cycles, where one issue forms the basis of another and, as one question is addressed, the answer to it generates new questions.

Remember that things do not often proceed in a neat, linear fashion. Most people experience research as a zig-zag process of continual review and re-adjustment. Research reports should communicate the seeming incoherence of the process in a coherent way.

Action planning

A number of action plans are available in the literature. The action plan that has grown in popularity around the world is the one developed by Jack Whitehead. The aim is to encourage you, a practitioner, to ask critical questions about your own practice, and find the answers for yourself. No one else can give you answers. Other people can comment and advise, but only you can say what is right for you and your situation. It could be that there are no answers to your particular issue, but the process of asking questions is as important as finding answers.

Here is a modified version of Jack’s action plan. On the next page, the plan is explained in greater detail.

  • What issue am I interested in researching?
  • Why do I want to research this issue?
  • What kind of evidence can I gather to show why I am interested in this issue?
  • What can I do? What will I do?
  • What kind of evidence can I gather to show that I am having an influence?
  • How can I explain that influence?
  • How can I ensure that any judgements I might make are reasonably fair and accurate?
  • How will I change my practice in the light of my evaluation?

There is always a dilemma between suggesting action plans and avoiding making them appear as prescriptive. In action research, everyone takes responsibility for their own practice and for asking their own questions. You do need to ensure, however, that your research is reasonably systematic and rigorous. In doing your research you are aiming to make a claim that you have improved practice, so you do need to produce validated evidence to support that claim.

The action plan in detail

In deciding to do action research, you are showing your intent to learn more about a particular issue within a particular situation. Your research is a conduit for your learning. It can take the following form:

What issue are you interested in researching?

Some researchers present the idea of a research issue as a problem. Action research is not only problem solving, though it contains elements of problem solving. It does mean problematising issues and engaging with them; questioning what is happening, and asking how it might be improved. This then involves asking questions about the conditions that are allowing the situation to be as it is, and finding ways of changing the conditions. The main point is to identify an area you wish to investigate, and be reasonably clear about why you wish to get involved.

It is important, in your first action enquiries, to be reasonably sure that you can do something about the issue you have identified. You should be practical and ask, ‘Can I actually do something about this issue? Can I influence the situation, or is it outside my scope?’ If it really is outside your scope you should be realistic and leave it. Having said that, do not give up altogether. Aim to address one small aspect of your work. While it might be true that you cannot change the world, you can certainly change your bit of it; and if everyone changed a small bit at a time, a lot of change could happen quickly.

Once you have identified a research issue, you should formulate a research question. This can be stated in terms o

How do I …?

The main ideas are:

  • I am asking a real question about something that is important to me, and I am hoping to find ways of engaging with it;
  • I am a real person;
  • I am trying to improve something; this might be my own understanding, or it might be an aspect of the social situation I am in (remember: improvement does not mean perfection. Any improvement is still improvement, no matter how small).

Why are you interested?

You need to be reasonably clear why you want to get involved. The reasons for our actions are often rooted in our values base, that is, the things we believe in and that drive our lives. If you believe that all people have equal rights, you will try to ensure that your workplace is a place in which everyone does have equal rights, and you will organise your own work so that everyone has the opportunity to exercise their rights. The trouble is, we often work in situations where it is not possible to live in a way that is congruent with what we believe in. You might believe in equal rights for all, but your workplace could well be a place where the rights of some people are denied. As your research progresses you might find that you are the one who is denying equal rights to others. You should expect surprises like this.

Action research is a way of working that helps us to identify the values that are important for our lives and to live in the direction of those values, that is, take them as the organising principles of our lives. It is unlikely that we will ever get to a situation where our work and situations are entirely congruent with our values. But we are not aiming for ‘end products’; we are aiming to find right ways of living.

What kind of evidence can you gather to show why you are interested?

If you are in a situation where things are not as you would wish them to be, how can you show that situation so that other people can relate to what you are experiencing? How can you show what the situation was like, which made you resolve to do something about it?

You need to gather data about the situation, and you can use a variety of methods for this – journals, diaries, notes, audio and videotape recordings, surveys, attitude scales, pictures, and so on. You can use different data gathering methods at different times if you wish. You will compare this first set of data with later sets of data, to see whether there is any change and whether you can say that you have influenced the situation. Aim to gather as much data as you feel is right; most people gather too much to begin with.

You need to begin identifying working criteria to help you make judgements about whether the situation might be improving. These criteria would be linked with your values. If you believe that all people should be treated fairly, a criterion will be whether you can show that people are being treated fairly. The criteria you identify might change as the research project develops. Your data will turn into evidence when you can show that it meets your nominated criteria.

What can you do about the situation? How do you act in order to influence it in an educative way?

You need to imagine ways in which you might begin taking action. You might want at this stage to consult with others about how you could move forward. These others could be your critical friend or your validation group. A validation group is a group of people you invite to look at your research from time to time, and offer critical feedback. The decisions you come to about what action to take will be your own decisions; you take responsibility for what you do. You need to consider your options carefully and decide what you can reasonably expect to achieve, given the time, energy and other resources you have.

Having decided on a possible strategy, you now need to try it out. It might work and it might not. If it does, you will probably want to continue developing it. If it does not, you will probably abandon it, or part of it, and try something else.

What kind of evidence can you gather to show your educative influence?

This is your second set of data, which will also turn into evidence by meeting your nominated criteria. You can use the same, or different, data-gathering methods that you used before. Perhaps you used surveys and interviews to gather your first set of data; now you might want to use audio and video tape recordings which will capture not only people’s words but also their expressions and body language. You should try to show, through this set of data, whether there is an improvement in the situation, even though that improvement might be very small. You might also be able to show a development in your own thinking and learning. This is an integral part of the action research process.

How do you explain your educative influence?

Remember that the focus of the enquiry is you. You are always in company with others, so what you do is bound to have an influence on them. How can you show that your influence was as you wished it to be? To gauge your impact on them, you need to get their reactions to how they perceive their relationship with you.

Remember that you are not trying to demonstrate a cause and effect relationship between you and other people’s actions. You are not saying, ‘I brought about improvement’ or ‘I made that happen’. You are saying, ‘I can show that certain changes took place as I changed my practice, particularly in myself, and different relationships evolved.’ You are aiming to show a development of influence, an unfolding of new understandings and actions from people working together in new ways, and their influence on one another, that is, how they learn with and from one another.

How do you ensure that any judgements you make are reasonably fair and accurate?

If you say, ‘I think that such and such happened’, you can expect someone to say, ‘Prove it.’ The answer is that you can’t. You can’t prove anything. The word ‘prove’ does not exist in action research. You can however produce reasonable evidence to suggest that what you feel happened really did happen, and you are not just making it up.

In saying that you believe you have influenced your situation for good, you are making a claim to knowledge. You are also producing evidence to back up the claim. Now you need other people critically to consider your claim and agree that you have good reason for making your claim. They might agree that you are justified in making your claim, and their agreement would be validation of your claim. They might suggest that you need to look at the research again and gather further data, perhaps, or tighten up the link between your data and your criteria. Once you have other people’s validation you can say in all honesty, ‘I am claiming that I have influenced this situation because I started looking at ways in which I could improve what I am doing, and I now have the endorsement of other people to show that what I say I am doing constitutes a fair and accurate claim.’

How do you modify your practice in the light of your evaluation?

You will probably carry on working in this new way because it seems to be better than the way you were working before. It is more in line with the way you wish things to be. You are living in the direction of your values (though you might still have far to go).

This does not mean closure. Although you have addressed one issue, others might have emerged which now need attention. Perhaps in addressing one issue, you have unearthed other issues that you had not expected. There is no end, and that is the nature of developmental practices, and part of the joy of doing action research. It resists closure. Each ending is a new beginning. Each event carries its own potentials for new creative forms.

This is what makes action research a powerful methodology for personal and social renewal. You are thinking and searching all the time. You are never complacent or content to leave problematic situations as they are, because you refuse to become complacent or lazy. As long as you remain aware, alert, constantly open to new beginnings, you will continue growing into all the persons you are capable of becoming.

***********

The full booklet on performing action research is available at no cost online at: http://www.jeanmcniff.com/ar-booklet.asp

Dr. McNiff is a Professor of Educational Research at York St John University, UK: and  holds Visiting Professorships at the University of Limerick, Ireland; the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, South Africa; and the Ningxia Teachers’ University, People’s Republic of China. She has published a new and updated resource for researchers interested in performing action research:

Action Research for Professional Development:

Concise advice for new (and experienced) action researchers, by Jean McNiff
Publication date: 14 November 2010
192 pages
Price £14.99, including post and packing

Available at: http://www.september-books.com/actionresearchforprofessionaldevelopment.asp

Further Reading:

Whitehead, Jack and Jean McNiff. Action Research: Living Theory. London, UK: Sage Publications, 2006.

McNiff, Jean. Action Research for Teachers: A Practical Guide. London, UK: David Fulton Publishing, 2005.

(available in the Research Academy Library):

McNiff, Jean. All You Need to Know About Action Research. London, UK: Sage Publications, 2005.

Cross, K. Patricia and Mimi Harris Steadman. Classroom Research: Implementing the Scholarship of Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1996

Angelo, Thomas A. Classroom Assessment and Research: An Update on Uses, Approaches, and Research Findings. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1998.

The Scientific Imagination – Where Do Ideas Come From?

This month the Creative Research Center at Montclair State University filmed a one-hour virtual webcast, The Scientific Imagination – Where Do Ideas Come From?” as part of its Second Annual CRC Symposium.

The video, available here, presents a panel discussion on creativity and imagination, discussed among scientist educators working at MSU, to foster innovation, creative learning, and adaptive expertise in research and in the classroom. The discussion is moderated by Dr. Neil Baldwin, professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance in the College of the Arts and director of the CRC. He interviews Dr. Jennifer Adams Krumins, assistant professor, Department of Biology and Molecular Biology; Dr. Cigdem Talgar, director of Research and Programs and acting director of the Research Academy for University Learning (RAUL); Dr. William Thomas, director, New Jersey School of Conservation; Dr. Ashwin Vaidya, assistant professor of Physics in the Department of Mathematical Sciences; and Dr. Meiyin Wu, associate professor, Biology and Molecular Biology and director of the Passaic River Institute.

For educators, an essential struggle in any discipline lies in exciting our students’ imagination, getting them to think creatively about a problem or concept, and asking them to adapt to new knowledge and variable information in order to think more critically and deeply. This video highlights ways in which this is being done in the classroom, what role models and sources of inspiration have served our educators, how important engaging students in world views and creative thinking is to change, innovation, and adaptability, and much more. The conversation takes us into the specific profiles of each scientist educator, leads us into their world of development and experimentation, and models how they integrate their passion into their research and teaching.

I highly recommend that you watch this video, and share with your colleagues and students. There are numerous ways to approach creative thinking and imaginative learning; here are several of them packaged into an active and informative discussion.

The Scientific Imagination – Where Do Ideas Come From?

 

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