craig dennis howard

What they told you is wrong: The prospectus, proposal, and the dissertation

image of child's artwork

If your to-do list contains a row for “write one page of dissertation,” you can move your little pony magnet to the mommy happy column on the fridge when you get it done. (Artwork by 古矢英玲奈 mixed media and magnets, 2019)

There is a lot of misinformation surrounding the prospectus, the proposal, and the dissertation. This may be so because this task is one left to advisement and mentorship rather than formal instruction. An open and critical discussion on the purposes of these documents rarely happens among scholars for good reason. The interpretation of these documents are unique to the research context, and the mentor. Even so, I feel there is much to be gained from an open discussion about the meaning of these documents; I welcome any comments on this. When doctoral students do not understand the purposes behind these documents, their completion may appear like administrative hoop-jumping rather than learning.  While I do not wish to dictate to other faculty how to view these three documents, clarification around the purposes allow a mentor and mentee smoother communication, and hopefully less frustration. I have written this explanation for my own doc students, Katie and Sam, and share it here.

The prospectus

The prospectus is a plan to study something. This plan is written down on paper for the purposes of facilitating discussions with faculty one might want on their committee. Writing the prospectus supports the candidate’s muddling through complex methodological and topical areas to form a team whereby a research strategy can be collaboratively orchestrated by the doctoral candidate. Of course, the writing process always helps clarify plans, but that’s not the immediate practical value of the task. If you assembled a team, you had a successful prospectus.

One thing a prospectus is not—an abstract of the dissertation. While sentences from the prospectus may in fact appear in the proposal or even in the final dissertation, the prospectus is not to be written as an attempt to capture a study in its entirety. Rather, the purpose of the prospectus is to start the discussion enough to assemble the team. The team is going to want to know what your plan is about so they can see where they might fit in, and that the topic is going to jive well enough with your life plans such that there’s a reasonable expectation that you’re going to finish the study. Red flags include academic jargon that seems unconnected to the learner’s larger picture of life goals, or text written purely to satisfy the interests of the faculty member. Effectively, you are looking for their buy-in, on your study, not theirs. Assembling a team requires that buy-in, and among scholars, buy-in is achieved only when ideas meet paper (or digital paper, you know what I mean).

The prospectus is not a written form of your dissertation elevator pitch. Instead, it’s a sales pitch and with that, all the subtle intricacies of sales play into it.  There are a fair number of subconscious elements at work here, including your presentation evidencing that you’re organized enough and cooperative enough to make this working together experience relatively enjoyable for the faculty member. Having your ideas written down makes them real- both in what is said and how it is said. The prospectus need not capture all perspectives, but it should convey enough to the reader knows why you’re in it and how they fit into your study. There is also risk on the side of the learner that the faculty member does not become invested,  and at the same time, the faculty member risks that the student never completes the study. These issues are being felt out in the prospectus process. In real and concrete terms, the prospectus should outline the plan in no fewer than two pages and no more than ten. Having sections mirroring the sections one might find in a dissertation is helpful. These guidelines surely vary among mentors.

The proposal

The proposal is a refined plan of action. It should capture the conversations supported in the prospectus, yet none of the language that appeared in the prospectus need be in the proposal. There is a common adage that the proposal is the first 3 chapters of your dissertation. After I completed my dissertation, going back and changing much of what I had in my original proposal, I felt this was untrue. However, this did not stop me from telling other people that the proposal was the first three chapters of the dissertation; it’s an easy description to fall back on when time is short and one need not get into a longwinded blog post about the purposes of a proposal. This refined plan of action’s purpose is to support the candidate both in laying out directions, and support the candidate’s self-efficacy surrounding the study.

An approved proposal guides the research process. The proposal should support even the most frustrated dissertating candidate because it is a document that, when approved, evidences that the candidate came up with a reasonable, manageable, and worthwhile plan for study and that plan was approved by those who should be able to foresee any issues that can be foreseen. Think bumper rails. Candidates should recognize that part of the purpose of the proposal is to get the scope of the study under control, and manageable. If you’re bring entertained by collecting and analyzing more data beyond what was in your proposal, it is not likely that such activities will be welcomed y the committee unless you check with them. Research studies can organically grow too large to complete. The committee’s oversight is there to make sure the project does not become too large, or wander into territory outside of the reasonable expectations of a first independent study (which is a dissertation after all). I advocate catching up with your committee every once-in-a-while to stay on track. If we look at the proposal as a confirmation that the candidate has the support of four learned scholars who agreed that the candidate had created worthwhile study that is manageable in scope, then the document should support self-efficacy.  The proposal is also to support and scaffold the learner through self-doubt and frustrating times when things don’t go as planned. That leads to the well intended by logically false contract adage.

While logically wrong, there is another adage that the proposal is a contract. A proposal cannot be a contract because a contract outlines what happens when certain foreseen events happen; and unforeseen events void the contract. Unexpected results don’t void your dissertation proposal though. Research is by definition new territory, so not everything can be predicted.  Therefore, a proposal cannot be a contract; the logic simply does not hold. However, the adage is a confidence builder for the student because it offers reliability that the student will not be left in the lurch should things not pan out as expected. It is a way of telling the student that if they in fact do what they planned to do, the process will result in a worthwhile dissertation no matter what the results show. Contracts do not plan for the unexpected, but in the context of a dissertation, there are often feelings of self-doubt, and at times, panic. The contract adage works against the panic, even if the adage is false. A proposal is a detailed plan, but no plan is perfect, and contracts are not plans. While contracts are not written for unknown entities, this way of thinking about the process is a good one; don’t bother arguing the semantics here. Just go with it.

In real and concrete terms, the prospectus should range from approximately 30 pages to no more than 100, and 100 is still really long. These guidelines surely vary among mentors. A proposal of less than 30 pages may raise concerns; it would for me. Not because committees measure quality by word count, but rather because detail is so important. The lit review in the proposal is important ground work. The methods need to be spelled out or cited extensively so procedures are obvious. The committee needs to know why you’re going to do the things you’re going to do, and how you’re planning on doing them requires detailed planning that needs to be discussed. A little working of real data goes a long way in playing out the plan; good to have, but it doesn’t need to be in the proposal. Sometimes that data is not available, but usually, there’s a way to get at least a small sample, enough to make that proposal a really good guess. Of course, you can use previous data, but the closer your data is to the data you will use for the dissertation itself, the better your guess will be. You may well see important things that change your analytical plan in major ways. The task of the committee is to help you get to your goal, and without sufficient planning, you might lose a lot of time in rethinking things.

A proposal of more than 100 pages will raise concerns. Not because committee members are getting old and feeble, making it difficult for us to read for long stretches, but excessive writing suggests you’re over planning, or can get sucked into a rabbit hole. It is important to let go of the writing process and submit it at some point. No writing project is ever truly finished, by life does march on by if you don’t submit it.

The dissertation

The dissertation is a show-all-work, independent, original research task. It’s not a magnum opus. And no matter what you have been told, your dissertation does not define you as a scholar. I have also heard people call the dissertation simply a book, but it’s not the same as a monograph. A dissertation must please 4 committee members. Books don’t necessarily have to do that. Rather, a dissertation places you in a field of study as someone who has contributed. It should connect you to the field you want to be in when you finish it, but if it doesn’t, you’re not going to be doomed. I think strategizing the dissertation takes more time than actually writing it. I would encourage all doc students to start thinking about the dissertation from the start of doc study. Big ideas don’t change; it’s the details of how to get it done that change. I came to doctoral study wanting to study the way people learn language because I was convinced that the way you talk has enormous influence on the quality of life that you lead. After a few years of more graduate study I learned what types of language I wanted to study, and some nifty tools that gave me access to study it. My dissertation topic was the same the day I left as it was the day I arrived. The tech I used to do it was not all that important. What I learned was how to do research.

Long awaited conclusion to this dry blog post

The relationships between these three documents are actually not linear, though they may appear so. One need not finish the prospectus to start the proposal. Each of these documents serve different purposes. There are some tricks that help the writing process. For example, for each research question you write, imagine the possible answers and write down what meaning those outcomes would have. This will make writing the discussion chapter much easier. Try not to be too hard on yourself. Make small, accomplish-able writing goals. For me, I had each chapter in a separate word file, and if I wrote a page a day, on any of them, I considered it a good day. I decided to be happy with myself for that day, even if it was just one page. I wrote a page (500 words), I had worked. Of course, there were days where I wrote a lot more, but I found the key was having no days where I wrote nothing. A day where you write nothing, or do nothing, is your enemy. Those days can pile up fast, as can days where you write just 500 words. You’ll find each chapter done in about 3 three weeks.

I also advocate being cognizant of the people skills beneath the dissertation process. How to navigate scholars and communicate with a committee of very different minded individuals is important learning and part of the process. Lastly, the doctoral research experience is not meant to be uniform. All PhDs do not serve the same purpose nor the same learning. It should do what you want it to do for you, and revisiting that at some point during each of these documents is wise. Each new scholar finds value in different places. For some, the people skills are the most important and the most crucial. For some, it is in fact the writing. For some, it is the defense itself. Some PhD’s are pursued to get a job, some to enter a field of research, some to enter a career in teaching. I believe that in all these cases, the dissertation serves as an exercise, albeit a very formalized, careful, and important exercise. In the end, it is training, an education. The dissertation is an exercise in creating knowledge and convincing others who have also consumed a fair bit of related knowledge to agree in the value of this knowledge that you created.

While everyone’s dissertation experience is different, the three stages of prospectus, proposal, and dissertation unify the experience among all scholars. I think most who have earned a PhD will understand what one means by these three documents though they may not actually have the time to explain the nuances, and will often take the easy outs provided by the adages. The misinformation is not borne of malice, rather of trepidation that their experience is unique, which it is. At the same time, I do not believe anyone who actually went through this process knew the differences among these docs when they started. I sure didn’t.

An Interview Protocol for Instructional Design Cases

image of sewrch results

Google image search results for keywords “interview protocol.” There are many, but this one is for instructional design cases.

We need more instructional design cases written by those who did not actually do the design, but where to start?

I suggest interviewing the designer. Elizabeth Boling did the same in her case about the Alcatraz cell-house audio walking tour. I have done interviews twice now to begin design cases about designs I did not create, and I share the protocol I developed here. This protocol was originally developed from reviewer questions in an article where I belabor all the difficulties I went through doing my own first design case. Of course, the instructional design case doesn’t begin and end with the interview. A good case will also have a few images of the design, the authors experience of it, maybe a few quotes from others’ user experiences, and the author’s reflection about why they were originally drawn to write the case. But of course, start with interviewing he designer.

 

 

Interview Protocol for Instructional Design Cases

Start by:

  • Telling them you are recording AFTER the recorder starts, so you get their agreement on tape
  • Explaining that a member check will go out to them prior to the article’s submission for publication.
  • Mentioning the time it takes–  90 minutes seems about right in most cases.
  • Explaining that the markers and paper are there for exploring, please use them when needed. The notes are drawing from teh designer used to explain their product or process are important parts of the interview!
  • This meeting is about the instructional design, not necessarily about the success of the design.
  • Most importantly, Thank the designers for participation in this process.

Situating the design context and process:

  • What were changes in context which motivated the design? Something must have happened that brought this design about.
  • Who was the design team and what were their influences? Can we assume that the different members of the design team had different goals? Was that discussed? How were those decisions made?
  • Did you initially intend to have students create a game? What were those key decisions? When did they happen?
  • Can you describe the process by which you came to the initial formulation of the design?
  • As you reflect on how you created these learning opportunities, what were the pivotal moments during the formulating of the instruction, the ah-ha moments or innovations, that you would want to tell someone else, who might be considering doing something similar for their learners?

Describing the design:

  • Can you map out all the parts, especially the invisible ones, which someone viewing this teaching intervention might not see from the game itself? [Point to markers / pencils / paper]
  • What is particularly interesting about this instruction?
  • If you were to name the instructional design, NOT THE GAME, what would that name be?

Depicting the experience of the design:

  • Can you describe the user experience? /  How was learning measured, or not?

Transparency:

  • Can you tell me about any unforeseen obstacles or aspects of the design that needed revisions that you only found out about after decisions were made?
  • Did you try anything out, or consider anything, that was deemed in the end to be a bad idea in retrospect?
  • How has this instructional design created complexities or challenges in your teaching? Has the instructional design failed anyone? TA’s, students, not met your goals?
  • Have you skipped anything for simplicity’s sake? This can often trip up a design case because often what was skipped may be rationale for design decisions.

 

Professional Dispositions in IDT

Special thanks to Duren Thompson, Synthia Clark and Lisa Shipley who were the student and staff contributors to this Policy for the LDT and IT Online programs. This policy developed the programs to better serve the field and to better enable our learners to navigate the expectations of practicing professionals in Instructional Design and Technology, both as a field of scholarship and one of practicing design.

Program Participant Professional Dispositions
University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Last Updated April 20, 2018

Preamble
Instructional design and technology is a professional field with common values and professional ethics that influence the way professionals interact with clients, peers, and mentors. During a learner’s time in the Instructional Technology, (IT Online) Learning, Design and Technology (LDT) or the Online Teaching and Learning Graduate Certificate (OTL) Programs, it is imperative for learners’ future success that academic ability grows in unison with the professional dispositions outlined by the Association for Educational Communications and Technology Standards (https://www.aect.org/docs/AECTstandards2012.pdf). Listed below are the core values by which we expect students in these programs to abide. Multiple or egregious violations of these core values will lead to the evaluation of a students’ status in the program, as well as the development of an improvement and retention plan, and thereafter, possible dismissal from the program. The plan procedures and expected consequences when students violate these core values are provided below. In addition to following the shared core values in IT Online, LDT, and OTL learners are expected to follow the Student Code of Conduct in Hilltopics (https://hilltopics.utk.edu/) as well as the Academic Policies and Requirements for Graduate Students in the Graduate Catalog (http://tiny.utk.edu/grad-catalog).

Core Values
1. Show commitment to the profession
• Learners must develop the skills and knowledge to become a productive member of the instructional design and technology professional community. This may include a new identity of professional conduct, which, while it can be intimidating and overwhelming, is a standard expectation. A learner’s professional transformation must evidence a voice that shows commitment to the profession. Remarks to peers, clients, or mentors suggesting a position against the profession as a legitimate entity would violate this core value.

2. Show academic integrity and honesty in your work
• Leaners will abide by the University Tennessee Honor Statement, which is listed in the Hilltopics as “An essential feature of the University of Tennessee is a commitment to maintaining an atmosphere of intellectual integrity and academic honesty. As a student of the University, I pledge that I will neither knowingly give nor receive any inappropriate assistance in academic work, thus affirming my own personal commitment to honor and integrity.” In particular, the ethical use of copyrighted materials is an important issue within the field of instructional design and technology. This includes the use of text, images, audio, video, and other media retrieved online. The use of published work created by others must be properly credited, and, in some cases, used only with express written permission. Learners should not only practice academic integrity, but also encourage and support peers to do so as well. When there are suspected cases of academic dishonesty, faculty and the student will follow the guidelines set for by the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards (http://web.utk.edu/~osja/index.php) to identify the best course of action.

3. Maintain a healthy rapport with your adviser
• Learners must seek help with course selection and remain in contact with their academic advisor regarding progress of their program completion. The IT Online, LDT, and OTL program assumes that learners will take ownership of their learning. This includes following instructions as to how to schedule meetings, the integrity of reporting the outcomes of advisory meetings, pursing shared academic opportunities, and the documenting of advisement. Positive, regular communication with your advisor can improve the overall learning experience and provide important opportunities and connections for after graduation. Ignoring advice or communications from your advisor is not only a violation of this value, but may delay program completion.

4. Be a reflective practitioner
• Learners must evidence that they enter all learning experiences, both independent and collaborative, in good faith as a reflective practitioner. The process of instructional design and technology learning requires reflection. Learners will learn from providing feedback to others, as well as receiving feedback. Program instructors support learners in this process while creating opportunities for them to learn how to work with feedback. While receiving feedback on work, whether positive or negative, can be difficult. Additionally, statements evidencing a desire not to learn the content put forward by faculty and peers is unacceptable. As a professional, feedback on your work should be celebrated as part of the iterative design process. It is the learner’s responsibility to learn how to evaluate feedback and address it in future iterations of design. The outright refusal of feedback as well as Ad hominin attacks or unexplained criticism would constitute a violation of this core value.

5. Be open to diverse ideas, approaches, abilities, and learning needs
• Learners must nurture an ability to work with divergent perspectives and ideation as a means to learning in instructional design and technology. Sharing of diverse ideas, approaches, and reflections lead to innovative practices. Learners may experience discomfort while being challenged by ideas, abilities, and learning needs not encountered prior to entering this program; however, all learners must learn to be open and respectful in sharing ideas and approaches with clients, peers, and mentors. Instructors can support learners to increase knowledge and skills for working with diverse ideas, however, learners may not refuse to listen to collaborators, or accuse others of willful obstruction to the learning. Ignoring or refusing requests for reasonable learning or communication accommodations (from peers, clients or within assignment parameters) also constitutes a violation of this value.

6. Accept the challenge to learn
• Learners must put forward an attitude which views failures as learning opportunities and accept the challenge to learn. Many students who enter the IT Online, LDT, and OTLprograms have exhibited qualities of a successful learner in traditional learning environments. The experience of becoming a professional learner can be quite different from prior experiences. When confronting difficulties while adjusting to new ways of learning, refusals to participate in class, participate in required components of course activities, or to collaborate with others, constitute a violation of this value.

7. Treat oneself and others with respect
• Program participants (both instructional designers and technologists-in-training) engage in numerous project-based course activities in teams and with real-world clients. This experience may be difficult at times. The difficulties themselves are not a problem; in fact, course activities often include authentic challenges that prepare learners as highly-qualified professionals. Behaviors which embody respect for the knowledge and skills of the field lead to becoming a successful team member. It is paramount that all learners show respect to themselves and others throughout this learning process. Disrespect to either oneself, one’s team, other learners, or clients would violate this core value.

8. Be a productive member of our community
• Learners must contribute to the community of practice in which they are engaged, in synchronous and asynchronous whole class discussions (online or face-to-face) as well as in smaller group work scenarios. In whole class activities, learners are expected to both contribute materially and support others in making their own contributions. In teams and group work, the negotiation of roles must accommodate a fair distribution of work. Fair distribution means that learners must contribute equally and equitably as determined by the team and cannot do less than what is agreed upon, nor do more by taking over the group work. In addition, it is a violation of this core value for a learner to refuse to participate in group activities or attempt to claim exception from peer evaluations due to conflicts in teams. Engaging in group processes productively as a member of a community involves skills and knowledge that may be new to them If learners find difficulties in such processes, they should view the situation as an opportunity to learn and reach out to the instructor of the course for assistance. The instructor can function as a mediator to assist team members with how to work together effectively. Refusing to contribute or monopolizing whole class activities would violate this core value.

9. Show integrity, honesty, and inclusivity in collaborative work
• As previously noted, many projects in which instructional design and technology professionals engage are shared by a team, with team members sharing credit for publication. Learners in these programs will give credit to the contributions of others for all completed work and document their own participation with integrity and honesty. In addition, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville values inclusive teaching and learning practice, and this extends to collaboration. Learners must practice inclusivity as a regular part of their collaboration. While learning to become a professional, learners must gain skills and knowledge for assigning work equitably among team members, develop a mechanism for monitoring contributions made by all members, and allow allmembers access to the learning taking place. Failing to properly and fairly credit collaborative work, or purposefully excluding group members from learning, are both violations of this core value.

Professional Disposition Evaluation and Participant Retention
Program faculty review student progress on a regular basis to assist students as necessary. While our main goal is to celebrate learner successes in becoming a highly-qualified Instructional Design and Technology professional, there will be times that faculty need to communicate to learners about issues relating to retention and improvement to ensure that learners are meeting both academic and dispositional expectations.
Program faculty are aware that becoming a professional is a learning experience of its own, and when participants show initial signs of dispositional issues, learners will be provided warning(s) to address them. These warning(s) will be communicated to learners during academic advising sessions. When dispositional issues are not remediated through early warning(s), faculty will follow the steps described below to address them.

Step 1: Students will be notified through a letter sent to their UT email account regarding an academic or dispositional issue that came to light and will be held to a probationary status as a student in the program.
Step 2: Students will schedule a meeting with their academic advisor no later than 2 weeks from the date of the notification letter.
Step 3: During the student/advisor meeting, the student and faculty will jointly construct an improvement plan that clearly lists the identified issue(s), strategies addressing the issue(s), expected outcomes of how student academic performance/dispositional issue will improved, and a date for the improvement plan outcome review. This plan will be kept in the student’s permanent record.
Step 4: The Academic and Dispositions Improvement and Retention Committee will review the improvement plan. This committee will consist of the advisor and two other faculty. Upon review the improvement plan, the committee will notify the student through a letter sent to his/her UT email account whether the plan was accepted or not. If not, students must meet with faculty advisor and address revision to ensure the plan is accepted by the committee.
Step 5: Students will take action according to the approved improvement plan.
Step 6: After the date that is listed as the improvement plan outcome review, the faculty committee will evaluate the student’s improvement according to the criteria of the plan. The committee will deliberate on whether the student did or did not meet the improvement plan expectations. If the students did not meet expectations, it will result in dismissal from the program.

Designing identity

Manipulated Cover image from Matt Groening’s seminal work, School is Hell, 1982, Pantheon Books. This is the exact copy that I brought with me to Austria in 1990, and used to create cloze activities for Austrian high schoolers learning English.

Designing identity is what we do when we talk about education. (not talking about instruction– that’s something different) Once we dig underneath a collection of performance objectives, and the billions of exceptions and complexity that accompany them, what we are really doing when it comes down to it, is designing an identity that we hope learners will assume. PhD programs help people become scholars, ID programs help people become instructional designers. EFL programs teach people to identify as English language learners. In truth, underneath much of educational research, is the true objective of just trying to figure out how to help people to become someone they were not when we first encountered them. Of course saying that would be controversial, so we say other things.

This process is everywhere, down to the simplest experiences that turn children into functioning adults. My daughter is afraid of slugs, and is afraid of riding a bike. It seems there is not much I can do about it at the moment, nor does it bother me in any way that she is afraid of slugs and can’t ride a bike at age 6. It’s cute. At age 24, I don’t think it will really be so cute anymore. I like her for who she is now, and I want her to be who she is now. For as long as she is 6, i’d like he to be happy with being 6. But no matter how much I love the girl she is now, she’s going to be someone else tomorrow– and I want that person to be someone who is not afraid of slugs and can ride a bike. That’s an important change; and most of it is identity.  As soon as she decides she isn’t afraid of slugs and can ride a bike (I know she can ride a bike because she didn’t fall over until she realized I had let go) she will be those things. As long as she thinks she is x, she will be x. We’ve got lots of words like “self-efficacy” to mask the truth of what we’re doing when we’re teaching.

I see this process of change in our graduate learners. I recently wrapped up the final course for a new batch of graduating instructional designers. One candidate I saw present on an LMS implementation (Fred Kelly) just today and another has already moved on to the ID job she came to the program to get, Janelle Galbraith. At one point in this paste semester I could see the change happening before my eyes. In a talk about revising websites, Janelle recounted her design process. There was a point in which a certain instructional image had to be redesigned. I could see it had gone through extensive development.  I took a guess at how many iterations, I guessed four. She replied, “HA! Try 18.” The next part of the interchange is what has been eating at me for weeks. I asked, “Wow, what kept you going beyond four?” and she answered, “because it didn’t work yet and that’s just what you do.”  It’s just what you do when you are a designer, but it sure isn’t what they did when they started the program. I would argue that keeping going when it’s not working is surely not what you do when you are an eye surgeon. It’s a good thing I don’t teach eye surgery.

I went through the same identity change myself. In 1990 I inherited a tutoring gig from Steven Pfaff as he left Karl-Franzens Universität Graz, Austria, to go to NC Chapel Hill to start on his doctoral study. He had been teaching using magazines, but that wasn’t my style really. I started using comics. If you have ever tried turning comics into cloze activities, you would quickly realize this is likely the worst textual choice for foreign language learning strategies one could imagine. Comics hinge on providing unexpected turns of phrase, not the ones the reader is prepped for. As discouraging for the serious learner as it might sound, I had a good time teaching, I think my learners had fun talking about the jokes, and I had a fair bit of fun choosing which words I would block with white out before I made the copies. What I didn’t do is see myself as a teacher, and surely not as an instructional designer. It was too much fun to really view it as work, per se. It took six years, a few student teaching placements, a comps exam, a number of academic papers, a whopping student loan, and then a full time teaching job to finally see myself as a teacher. Then, years later, it took a PhD and a stint with Microsoft to see myself as an instructional designer. All that to get back to where I was at 19, albeit with some identity. Would I still make a cloze activity out of a life is hell comic by Matt Groening? Hell yes. But I would do it over 18 times until it worked right. All this schooling and learning didn’t in effect change what I was doing; it changed how I was doing it and how I thought about what I was doing. The end goal of school is to make you someone new, and that’s painful because, now I would totally suck as an eye surgeon. So yeah Mr Groening, school is hell.

The rhetoric of citations in Learning, Design and Technology

Low_res_1984-chevrolet-citation

This is the 1984 Chevy Citation. This is a matched non-example of something else that is generally out of place as a citation in a LDT paper. Photo credit goes to myclassicgarage.com, and if they ever back link check my use of this image, they are gong to be seriously confused about why this image is here.

Citations are rhetoric, plain and simple. Each time you cite something, you are employing a rhetorical device. When you employ the device erroneously, you make the case to your reader that you don’t understand what you are trying to say. The most common rhetorical citation device I see is the consensus citation. A consensus citation is when you make the case that a whole bunch of scholars agree about something. For example, multiple citations on a given point express how pervasive the consensus is among scholars. Here is an example: Scholars agree that asynchronous communication is democratized (Chun & Plass, 2000; Gunawardena, 2004; Howard 2012; Johnson, 2006; Stockwell, 2007; Warschauer, 1997).

The same sentence with only one citation is not just a case of fewer citations, it’s actually a different rhetoric altogether. It suggests the author is the one make the point, the first one to coin the term, or the only you happened to encounter that mentions such a thing. For example, consider if you had the same sentence from above with just one citation, “Scholars agree that asynchronous communication is democratized (Howard, 2012)”. This sentence means that Howard (2012) claims that scholars agree about this, but you as the author of the piece, may or may not agree. Contrast this to the meaning of three or more citations in the same space. These are two different rhetorical moves, both made via the use of a citation.

Sometimes we find a writer will inadvertently credit a concept when they mean to credit an explanation. A direct citation or a paraphrased citation credits an author with a concept, but some scholars inadvertently credit an author with a concept when the author has simply used the concept or explained it more elegantly than others. For this second case, we have the rhetorical device “see” within the citation space. If the author simply explains the idea and doesn’t originate the concept, add “see” to make that clear. Thus the sentence, “This will be a Criterion-Referenced Assessment (Mager, 1997) to measure my students’ knowledge of each subject area based on the Common Core Standards.” Gives credit to Mager (1997) and the sentence, “This will be a Criterion-Referenced Assessment (see Mager, 1997) to measure my students’ knowledge of each subject area based on the Common Core Standards.” Lets the reader know that Mager (1997) is a good place to find a discussion of this concept, though Mager is likely not original contributor of this insight.  In other words, this first citation says the author (Mager) coined the term, or that the author is using an interpretation of the term that is drawn from Mager because there are other ways to interpret the term. And in the second example, Mager simply explained the term, as suggested by the rhetorical “see” prior to the citation.

The rhetoric of citations can also backfire on you if the relationships between the written work and the argument are unclear. If you have used a section in a way that exposes faulty logic, you can evidence that you don’t understand what you are talking about. For example, I sometimes find advanced learners use citations in such a way as to imply an implausible logical relationship, such as a causal relationship that actually does not exist. For example, look at this construction, “Participation has been argued to be an intrinsic part of learning,” (Wenger, 1998; Hrastinski, 2008) therefore the videos provide clients and their staff opportunities to learn about the features of the software during the course of integrated authentic performance assessment.” This means that because Wenger said it, the learners will learn. But f course the learner neither care nor heed what some obscure educational researchers say, so the reader dismisses the writer as misinformed, or worse. What a tragedy when the student is actually an insightful designer explaining complex designs! Had the writer phrased structure the rhetoric of the citation more accurately, their design insight would have shown through. For example, read the revised statement: “There is moderate consensus that participation is intrinsic to learning (Wenger, 1998; Hrastinski, 2008). Therefore, with this in mind, we designed the videos to provide clients and their staff opportunities to learn about the features of the software during the course of integrated authentic performance assessment.” With the questionable logic removed, the writer’s insight becomes far clearer. For this reason, I ask that none of my learners attempt to finish direct quotes in their writing. The rhetoric can too easily run amuck.  The same goes with direct quotes with two authors, which is impossible, and unfortunately, more common than I would hope.

Sometimes, the citation is the right rhetorical move. The rhetorical value of a citation does not trump a first-hand account; rather the citation is another perspective altogether. For example, “I noticed learners tended to complete online discussions only in the final hours prior to the deadline (Howard 2012).” By adding the citation, you have effectively told the reader that you are crediting someone else with what you saw. This makes no sense and is at the same time, a common error. If you witnessed it, that is evidence enough that it happened. If the phenomenon is also witnessed by another researcher, you’re free to say so. However, one separate the two perspectives or your point will be lost and the reader confused.

The date is part of the rhetoric of a citation. Furthermore, citations must always have a date; otherwise, they are not citations. The rhetorical value of the date has meaning on many different levels. For example, by citing a much older publication, a researcher can show that a concept has been churning through the mind of other scholars for quite some time. For example, “Design precedent (Lawson 1990) is a concept integral to our understanding of design Learners might grow in their understanding of how to design (Boling 2010).” Scholars often change their position on something over the course of their career, so the date is as important as the name. Also, if there really is no date, it is wisest not to include the reference unless you’re employing a rather complex rhetorical strategy, such as mocking public opinion.  For a detailed discussion of this, see my blog post on citing Wikipedia. But in general, I advise my learners that if there is no date, it is not worth citing at this point in their learning.

I often find myself suggesting to authors not to put citations in the first sentence of a paragraph. The reason I advise this is because, in such a position, the rhetorical value being employed by the citation is unclear. The topic sentence needs to lead the reader to the evidence behind the argument. When we have a citation in the topic sentence location, the typical role of citation as evidence can’t be used, so the reader goes searching for what the paragraph is actually about. But the topic sentence is supposed to say what the paragraph is about. This confuses the reader. I am sure there may be cases where putting a citation in the first line of a paragraph could be employed advantageously, but in 20 years of teaching writing, I am yet to see someone pull it off.  A citation in the first line is simply not a wise move.

Lastly, citing websites’ about pages, or product pages a firm produced about its own products, is very poor rhetoric. It makes the claim that you, as the researcher, trust an advertisement as much a scholarly paper. I can’t think of any scholarly context in which this strategy could be viewed as rhetorically sound. For example, the reaction one might fetch from this citation is easy to predict, “YouTube is arguably the best website ever known to mankind (YouTube, 2015).” Other citations from product literature, be they from web sources or elsewhere, are effectively the same though they may be less obvious to the learner. I strongly encourage my learners to question the source and not take a company’s literature at face value. I would not trust any corporation to give me an unbiased evaluation of its products in an advertisement, which is basically what an about page is.

If you have other citation rhetoric insights, I would love to hear them. Please send me a comment.

Scaffolding the five finger filet

Instructional graphic designed to teach the Five Finger Filet game. Notice the five dots below the thumb depicting the pattern. Erena Furuya Howard, pencil on paper, 2017.

There is a game called the Five Finger Filet. One holds a knife and stabs between thine outstretched fingers, risking a dangerous errant stab. Personally, I never had any attraction to games like this. I would surely chop off a finger and regret my own stupidity in a matter of moments. This however doesn’t dissuade my 5 year old daughter from trying to get me to play such a game. Of course, I show that I will get it wrong and continually mess up, stabbing ridiculously far-off and in the wrong pattern. To instruct her father, Erena designed this quick instructional scaffold. The location of the dots is what is important. Notice the string of five dots under her thumb. That’s the pattern, to each finger and back. I actually had not known what the real pattern was. But what caused me pause is how natural her behavior was. If a five-year old so naturally creates visual instruction, what does it say about the way we teach and learn that teachers and masters students in education rarely chose that avenue? Is any one else getting the idea that the pendulum has swung too far toward understanding learning as simply reading, writing, and nothing else? Maybe I am just chopping off another finger.

The Nutshell Studies: An instructional design case worth listening to, again

Frances Glessner Lee, Parlor (detail), about 1946-48. Collection of the Harvard Medical School, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, courtesy of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Baltimore, MD. Photograph by Susan Marks, Courtesy of Murder in a Nutshell documentary. I believe this is how my students feel during the academic crunch time in November, but that’s not why the picture is here.

Years ago Elizabeth Boling mentioned this classic instructional design, The Nutshell Studies, and I just had not run into a thorough discussion of it for years. It is an instructional design intended to support the learning of forensic science for detectives. The most remarkable part of the design are 19 miniature dioramas which make lifelike crimes scenes available for viewing by multiple detectives in training. A perfect instructional design case for a historical issue of IJDL, but the dioramas, and the life of their creator Frances Glassner Lee, were recently featured on an NPR show called Sidedoor, and in all honesty, Tony Cohn from PRX does an excellent job, hitting all the required components of a design case. As AECT is just around the corner again, I am sure I will be talking about instructional design cases again in the near future, and this Sidedoor episode is a case worth discussing.

Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, is actually the name of an art exhibit, but is spawns from an instructional design, from which Cohn crafted his audio instructional design case. Mrs. Lee created complex dioramas with such detail that they could tell the story of an entire murder, well, almost the entire story. A curious aspect to her dioramas was their purposefully unsolved-ness. There is no solution offered to the detectives in training. In other words, despite their intricacy, they will always remain, unsolved. This 1940’s design choice of creating unsolved murder scenes, fodder for discussion but not for resolution, speaks to the persistence of discussion, rather than resolution, as being an ever-present aspect of higher order thinking. The key is not to select the right answer, but to untangle the complexity and multiple possibilities that could play into each scene. Of course, the hope is that with practice, learning the process of disentanglement will result in better investigations, leading to a higher chance of getting things right eventually.  Once we let go of the idea of always getting is right this time, and focus on getting it right most of the time, our chances go way up each and every time.

Learners in the Master’s program in IT here at UT chuckle about my choices of terms: grapple, dig in, go deeper, dissect, take apart.  But these terms do tell what I am trying to accomplish. I don’t think we’re ever going to learn definitively how to teach (sadly) and I don’t think we’re ever going to definitively determine the right way to design instruction (woefully), and , that’s not the point (joyously). The point is, to see a design like the Nutshell Studies for more than just the dioramas, though, for sure, the dioramas were pretty damn cool.