Benefits of Visiting Scholarships

As I wind up my six-month sabbatical (Jan-June 2022), I look back fondly on two visiting scholarships that I undertook: one at the University of Maryland – Baltimore County (UM-BC) (two weeks) and one at the University of Hamburg (two months). Perhaps I missed a memo, but as an emerging scholar, I was not aware of the how and why of visiting scholarships and rather stumbled into my first through a grant opportunity meant to support faculty in making international connections. Since then, I have learned that academics use visiting scholarships to familiarize themselves with a different academic context, access different people and events, and most importantly, have meaningful discussions about important research topics of mutual interest. My elaboration here may be motivating for other academics considering visiting scholarships.

My UM-BC visit coincided with the final defense of an MA student, whose committee I was on. As both of our universities were coming out of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, this defense marked the first in-person defense I had participated in since before the pandemic. The interaction order (i.e., ways of doing) of defenses at UM-BC, in particular in the Department of TESOL, differed slightly from what I was used to. How easy is it for us to say that there is only one way to do a thesis defense? I enjoyed the pageantry that went with this defense (e.g., tablecloths, banner, reception afterwards), but I was challenged by the large audience and less formal structure (e.g., more free-flowing questioning). This defense was probably the best example of learning about a different academic context as the university was otherwise relatively quiet with many faculty still working from home.

Visiting scholarships provide opportunities for networking and serendipitous learning. Not only do I arrange to meet with local academics, but in Hamburg there are often other visiting scholars who enrich my visit. This past stay, I met with Carole Bloch who works with early literacy in South Africa and later Liesel Ebersöhn, who heads a Center for the Study of Resilience, also in South Africa. Carole and I spoke about the current misunderstandings around reading instruction for children and Liesel told me about a children’s story writing campaign her center is supporting. Both scholars provided me with food for thought for my upcoming grant application into determining what makes appropriate reading materials for early German reading instruction in bilingual schools. Further to that project, I was able to visit a number of German scholars in the area of reading instruction. Additionally, I got a last minute invitation to a conference on early reading books which brought together colleagues from German teaching and German literature to discuss the topic I am interested in, but from the standpoint of teaching German in Germany. This access to different people and events would be unlikely from afar, so I am very appreciative of this visiting scholarship for its networking and serendipitous learning.

While I had many meaningful discussions with the scholars I met for the first time, I especially prize the ones I had with my hosts. My visit to UM-BC was hosted by Francis Hult, a full professor who has served as a mentor ever since he sat as the external examiner on my PhD defense. My UniHamburg visit was hosted by Drorit Lengyel whom I have been working with more and more since my first visit to Hamburg. Francis spent considerable time with me, for which I have very grateful. He introduced me to colleagues, showed me around the university, and made arrangements for my official status (which included free rides on the shuttle!). Most importantly, I could ask him all those methodological questions I had been pondering, since we both work in educational linguistics. Drorit and I met formally and informally several times over my two months in Hamburg. We wrote a grant proposal for a joint online course between our universities, planned for an upcoming conference presentation and article, and she too paved the way institutionally for me to have an office and access to library materials. Both hosts had me over for supper to their own homes – a real treat to visit with their families as well. The role of the host is crucial in making the visiting scholarship a success – a shout out to both of them for their excellent hospitality!

With these opportunities behind me, I return to my regular work recharged. I have pages of notes and dozens of articles downloaded. I have a few books tucked away to read in full and tons of ideas floating around in my brain. I will use the buffer before teaching starts up to get more of these ideas down on paper. Visiting scholarships are so much more than the line of the CV indicates.

Modern architecture in the HafenCity Hamburg Germany

Discourses in Study Abroad Research: The Tourist Gaze

I recently read The Tourist Gaze by John Urry, a British sociologist. I was drawn to the book as it had been cited in some study abroad presentations I had attended. The premise is that when we travel, our attention (gaze) is that of a tourist or temporary visitor, an outsider. Many resist being called tourists, feeling that their way of traveling is more authentic and therefore somehow different. Yet, in most cases, those arguments are futile, because others can usually recognize the touristy nature of our activities, observations or encounters. In my case, I might claim that when I travel to Germany, I am entering a country that I have visited often, to which I have citizenship and family. Yet, I don’t live in Germany, I speak the language well, but imperfectly, and I view my encounters through the lens of my Canadian upbringing. Hence, I must admit that I am a tourist to some extent.

An important aspect of the tourist gaze is the performance of it. This refers to actions which belong to that of the discoverer or adventurer, rather than everyday life. While I might take pictures of my food when I am home, I am much more likely to do so in Germany, posting and tagging on Instagram as I check of my list of “must eats” during my stay. Similarly, I have seen my study abroad students post and boast of how many countries they were able to visit while “living” in a placement in Europe during which they spend more days some weeks away from their placement than present. This performance is especially problematic when it revolves around stereotypical representations of culture, often objects, rather than the normal, especially people. Do we portray our travels in sanitized, idealized ways? Is it only politeness that keeps us from photographing dirty street scenes? Has the introduction of the selfie exacerbated the tourist gaze by compelling us to pose in front of every landscape, thereby reducing the new country into a beautiful backdrop for our own self image?

These are questions we should continually be asking ourselves as travelers, but also as study abroad program designers and researchers. We have an ethical responsibility to question our actions and prepare our students to think critically about their plans and actions. Perhaps the most important trait we can pass on is cultural humility – to expect that things will be different when we travel and reserve judgment about the rightness or wrongness about how things are done elsewhere. We have opportunities to ask “why?” and to genuinely get to know people. A focus on people, rather than things or backdrops, should be central to those discussions.

Images we take speak to our gaze

Applying to work with me as your supervisor

Graduate program admissions are competitive, meaning that getting in involves more than just being qualified – you must be one of the most qualified among all applicants. In my experience working as a graduate supervisor, many applicants are not sure what is expected of them in the application. It varies from university to university, country to country, so the tips I give here are very specific to my faculty at my university and are based on my experience. I do not claim to speak for anyone beyond myself, nor am I guaranteeing acceptance to anyone who follows my tips, but here are some explanations and recommendations that aim to demystify the graduate program admissions process.

You will be asked to provide a Curriculum Vitae (CV), references, statement of intent, official transcripts, and pay an application fee before a deadline. Some applicants are required to provide proof of English Language Proficiency. Once the deadline has passed, your application will be reviewed to make sure it has all the necessary parts. Be sure it does as it may not move past this stage if it doesn’t. Next it will be reviewed by a committee of faculty in the area of specialization you requested and ranked in order to qualification. That list moves on to a central faculty committee. Since a limited number of students can be admitted, the combined list is ranked and the top students are offered admission. Remember, even if I have a particular student that I would love to work with, that student is subject to this process. Below are tips for the first three aspects of your application: CV, references, and statement of intent.

Your CV is a structured document that tells your life story as an academic. It is different from a resume. In my field, you are expected to include your academic presentations and publications, ideally formatting in APA 7 style. If you want to be considered competitive, present at a variety of academic conferences relevant to your field. Some have student rates and even online options, so this is not always expensive. Present on research you have conducted in your previous degree or at the very least, a literature review or teaching technique. Look at your publications. If you have several, note which ones are in peer-reviewed journals and use subheadings to divide them up. Most students don’t have enough to divide up and are looking to add more. Consider publishing from your previous degree. Balance the choice of local or practitioner journal with higher impact, international journals. If you have published in a language other than English, that’s great, just be sure to include an English translation of the title of the presentation. Above all, make sure the document is organized and free of spelling errors.

References are important. Consider whom you should ask for a reference. Your previous supervisor is an important reference to have. Beyond that, there is a hierarchy: academics above work references, professors above instructors; full professors above associate rank which is above assistant professors. Avoid references that look like they are friends in disguise as academics. Prepare your referee with details of the program you are interested in, a draft of your statement of intent and a copy of your CV. Write them an email and mention the points you would like them to emphasize. Reference letters expectations are not the same across the word, so consider the impression your the reference letters from these referees might be interpreted.  If they do not feel they can rank you as excellent or outstanding, ask them to tell you that so you can pick someone else.

The statement of intent is the most difficult item to write and the most important to get right. Consider that the reader is asking the questions: Can this person do graduate work in my program based on their past track record? Do this person’s research interests match the potential supervisor’s? Is this person’s research idea well thought out? Your statement of intent is meant to answer these questions. Write a 1-2 page document in which you:

  1. Make a case for the kind of research question you would like to investigate in your studies. What is known about this area (previous literature) and how could you study it (proposed methodology). What would make this work significant to the field?
  2. Why do you want to work with the proposed supervisor(s)? It is best to have done your homework and name supervisors who are good match for your interests and whom you have ideally been in email contact with. In the case of my faculty, your chances of acceptance are increased if you apply for the education specialization area (EDSA) that supervisor is in. For example, I am in the Language and Literacy EDSA. These tips are no guarantees, but it can make your application stronger. One way to link #2 with #1 is to cite work from that supervisor. My work can be found on Google Scholar and if you can’t find it in your own library, you may find I have posted the Open Access Expand to briefly say why my faculty and my university are the right fit for this work you are proposing.
  3. Mention why you are the best person to do this work. Speak briefly to your unique qualifications (degrees, awards, etc.) and inform us why you have chosen the referees you have (e.g., I have asked Dr. Smith to serve as my referee. As my former MA supervisor, he can speak to my strong research skills…).

On a side note, the statement of intent is not the place where you flatter the university or potential supervisor excessively or tell us about how you are the most hard working, deserving, or eager candidate. I have seen that before because I believe there may be some places where that kind of letter is appreciated. NOT HERE.

With these explanations and tips, the process of applying for graduate school should be clearer. While you may need to do research to discover if these apply to other faculties or universities, there should be value in all of them for graduate admissions across North America. Please feel free to comment if you have any additional questions I have left unanswered.

All the best with your applications.

Your application is like an interview – you want to make the best first impression. 

Editing a Hollywood Blockbuster: A Metaphor for Writing Your Dissertation

I love watching films and my tastes range from Hollywood blockbusters to foreign films. My family often doesn’t appreciate my taste and accuses me of being drawn to odd choices. The more films I watch, the more I get a sense of the variations within the genre. In looking for a metaphor for academic writing, I believe the Hollywood blockbuster best suits the purpose because the goal of a blockbuster is the bring the viewer along until the end and have them walk out saying “that was great!” As the writer of a dissertation, you too want your readers to close your dissertation and exclaim “that was great!” Here’s how.

Consider first what your dissertation is NOT. It is not an independent (indie) film with a niche idea or way of filming that leaves more questions at the end than it answers. Rather, the writing goal with most dissertations is to bring readers along in a linear argument and have them agree with your conclusions at the end. I am referring to dissertations written in English, since different languages may have different styles of argumentation. However, for the Hollywood blockbuster dissertation, YOU are the director and get to decide how you wish the story to be laid out.

As the director, you have difficult decisions to make. Every scene you create is important to you. As a dissertation writer, every paragraph you have written is important to you. However, in meetings with your producers (committee members), you find out there are artistic disagreements. They are using words like “unclear”, “irrelevant” or “underdeveloped”. Your first reaction may be to storm out of the room yelling “you don’t know what you are talking about – this is a masterpiece”. Yet, upon reflection, you recognize the potential wisdom in what they are saying. Reluctantly you let those scenes fall to the cutting room floor and move on. For my graduate students, I recommend starting a new Word document and pasting the cut paragraphs there, saving them for future writing. Somehow, even if they are never used, it feels less dramatic to preserve the paragraphs rather than hit delete. Try it and see if it works for you.

As you come to the end of your Hollywood blockbuster dissertation, remember how important the ending of a movie is. End with a bang, reminding the readers of your grand conclusion, rather than finishing with the limitations paragraph. As the lights go up at the end of the movie, your audience (the examination committee) will now get their chance to let you know “that was great!”

A decorated Christmas tree: A metaphor for the Structure of Your Dissertation

Picture a Christmas tree with only six decorative balls. These decorative balls hang evenly distributed on the tree: two near the top, two in the middle and two on the bottom, as pictured above. These decorations can serve as a metaphor for the structure of a traditional dissertation in the social sciences. This metaphor may apply elsewhere, but as metaphors go, it likely has its limitations. Still, consider the following:

We read dissertations from beginning to end and may even attempt to write them that way, but often the dissertation builds on previous writing like the research proposal. If the research proposal covers an introduction of the topic, a literature review and proposed methodology, some students begin their dissertations by rewriting their research proposals as chapters 1, 2, and 3. Thus the introduction is fleshed out as chapter 1, the literature review is revisited, edited, and expanded to become chapter 2 and the methodology is rewritten in the past tense to serve as chapter 3) of the dissertation. This tactic means that once they have collected and analyzed their data, they sit down and need to decide what goes into the results (aka chapter 4), discussion (aka chapter 5) and conclusion (aka chapter 6) chapters. This is where the sparsely decorate Christmas tree metaphor comes in handy.

The dissertation as a Christmas tree

Running up one side of the tree and down the other are the decorations (aka chapters) in the order you might read them: introduction, literature review, methodology, results, discussion, conclusion. Looking at the tree head on, you see methodology and results partnered at the top, midway down and slightly farther apart, literature review and discussion, and hanging off the bottom branches, even farther apart, as introduction and conclusion.

Let’s take a look at the top two decorations. The methodology chapter can be written by rewriting one’s proposed research design section from the research proposal, by removing language that refers to planning and proposing and substituting or adding language around what was actually done. The results chapter then, is the detail of what came out of that methodology. If the methodology points to a specific theory, methodology, or analysis, that should be evident in the results chapter. For example, if I conduct a mixed methods study with a large-scale questionnaire and then detailed interviews with a subset of participants, then the results chapter will present a synthesis of the questionnaire results and an analysis of the interview data. Note, the word “synthesis” is used to indicate that not all of the raw data is included in the results chapter, but rather that it is presented in a coherent way that demonstrates salient points, but also draws conclusions to the reader understands what is shown by the results. In that way, the results chapter is a partner to the methodology chapter.

Mid-way on the tree are the decorations that represent literature review and discussion. While the literature that was originally reviewed for the proposal may make a basis for the literature review chapter, the finished product will be in closer alignment with the Discussion chapter. First, it is helpful to read the literature review one has written. Next, the Discussion chapter can be outlined using different headings from the Results chapter. Typically, the Results chapter is organized by themes or data sources, whereas the Discussion chapter might more efficiently be organized by headings that represent the research questions. In any case, the research questions should be reiterated. Then the results is “discussed” in light of the literature. In what ways were the results what one might have expected from previous studies and in what ways were they unexpected, expanded or new? Do any of the results contradict findings from previous studies? Were there results sought that did not materialize? These are some questions that can guide the writing of the Discussion chapter. While brief data examples may be used to highlight a point, the Discussion chapter focuses on examining the results in light of the literature. Once the Discussion chapter has been drafted, a revisiting of the literature review may reveal areas that need to be bolstered and other that turned out to be less relevant and may be could be edited down. In this way, the Literature Review and Discussion chapter are in harmony. As the decorations on the tree are farther apart, the relationship between the two may be less obvious at first glance, but nonetheless important.

Finally, we look at the Introduction and Conclusion chapters. Often the Introduction lays out the problem one is examining, situates it in the larger context or field of research, and argues at the end how this study will address the gap in the literature. Now the Conclusion chapter is the chance to show that the problem was examined, how this study informs the larger context or field, and how it did, barring some listed limitations, address a gap in the literature, creating new knowledge. The partner decorations at the bottom of the tree, although farthest apart, prove as well to be connected.

While not everyone resonates with such a systematic view to the chapters in a dissertation, it may be helpful to try this metaphor out. The simple Christmas tree with six decorations reminds us that the dissertation as a whole is a coherent interconnected piece of writing.

Project-based learning in the second language classroom

Project-based learning in the second language classroom is not new. It has been used in second language classrooms for over thirty years. In German, the term is handlungsorientierter Unterricht (action-oriented teaching). It speaks to the active learning that takes place when students are involved in projects. Experiential learning provides concrete ways for students to learn the language while pursuing topics of interest.

Group work and technology are typical elements of project based learning

In the Winter 2015 semester, I took on the challenge of teaching a project-based learning class to an advanced German class with an enrolment of 4 students. To give the class structure, I had each student create a video, a multimodal presentation and a website. The students co-created the rubrics for these assignments in German at the beginning of the semester. I supported them with class sessions on web 2.0 tools, activities to improve their German and lessons on pop culture. We profited from the support of a teaching assistant who taught lessons on translation and comic books. These classes were interspersed with peer feedback sessions in which the students reviewed each others’ work. While this was new to them, they caught on quickly. Most of all, they thoroughly enjoyed exploring their own topics and sharing their learning with their classmates, an audience of other German learners (another advanced class) and the wider world (since their videos and websites are on the internet). They learned to talk about their projects, their learning, and what they felt made a good final product – all in German!

Strong project-based second language learning courses share ten criteria. Friedricka Stoller, in her 2006 book chapter, outlines these ten criteria as:

having a progress and production orientation
being defined, at least in part, by the student
extending over a period of time
encouraging a natural integration of skills (technology and communication)
holding a dual commitment to language and content learning
having students work in groups and on their own
requiring students to take some responsibility for their own learning
resulting in students and teachers taking new roles and responsibilities
producing a final product for a larger audience
concluding with student reflections on process and product

Curiosity drives student interest in the project they are pursuing.

I used their ten criteria to assess whether my Senior Projects in German course was truly a strong project based learning course. Reflecting back, my small number of students were a blessing since  each student was able to pursue the project s/he chose. Their lack of experience with PBL was quickly overshadowed by their strong passion for their projects. The experience of designing a project-based learning course helped me to expand my teaching repertoire. Looking back, I can see things that I would like to have done differently, knowing now that some students need more structure than others and students work best when the class lessons directly support their projects. Overall, however, I consider the design of this  course to be a success and have adopted this pedagogy for other courses I have taught since.

You can read more about this experience here:

Dressler, R., Raedler, B., Dimitrov, K., Dressler, A., & Krause, G. (2020). Project-based learning in the advanced German class. In G. Beckett & T. Slater (Eds.), Global perspectives on project-based language learning, teaching, and assessment: Key approaches, technology tools, and frameworks (pp. 69-84). London: Routledge. http://hdl.handle.net/1880/113124

Stoller, F. (2006). Establishing a theoretical foundation for project-based learning in second and foreign language contexts. In G. Beckett & P. C. Miller (Eds.), Project-based second and foreign language education: Past, present, and future (pp. 19–40). Information Age Publishing.

This post is an update from the original in May 2015

Organizing your family photos: A metaphor for data analysis

Raw data, like raw film, takes work!

This summer I revisited a neglected personal project: organizing family photos into albums. My mother always dutifully printed off her films, wrote on the backs of pictures, and put them into albums. For a while, I did the same, dividing pictures into albums for me and my husband as well as each of the children. Then came the advent of digital cameras and after that, camera phones. Now everyone was taking pictures, but few were printing them off. At first, I tried to keep up with printing and putting into albums, but eventually gave up. I took the few pictures I had printed, and those people had mailed me, and shoved them into a photobox. Years later, I discovered this box again, full of pictures without homes that I need to make decisions about.

The decision making around those pictures is metaphor for the data analysis each researcher must do. For some photographers, each photo is precious and needs to be kept. For some researchers, every answer to every survey or interview question carries important information. However, to report the raw data, unanalyzed, would be akin to filling up a photo album with pictures in the order you pick out of the box. No rhyme, no reason. From the viewpoint of the researcher, this may seem valuable, but research is meant to be read and understood, so analysis is key.

Depending on the methodological framework, some data analysis is straightforward and follows given steps. However, for many researchers who embark upon thematic or content analysis, the structure is less obvious. Consider your research questions? Are you looking for specific themes or content as dictated by understandings developed by previous researchers? Then decide what those are and sort the data accordingly. If the data were pictures, you might consider sorting chronologically, by occasion, by holidays, or by featured people in the pictures.

Data is easier to work with once analyzed.

Next consider how salient the data is. Do you have some aspects that only occur once? Does that make them stand out as memorable and important or suggest that they are of lesser importance and may not contribute to the larger argument. Using the picture metaphor, do you have a picture of a long-lost relative that is important to keep because it is the only one that exists of that person or is this someone no one knows and therefore the picture would seem out of place on the album?

While this very general discussion might not alleviate all of a researcher’s questions about data analysis, it may shed light on why data analysis can be challenging. We want to keep all the data or we get overwhelmed by the decision-making, sometimes having to take the time to consider what our rationale is for our choices, so that we can feel confident in enacting them.

Completed data analysis is like a well-curated photo album.

Looking at your salient data, how clearly does everything fit within the theme? Does it appear that what you first thought was one theme adequately covers the data within it or does it need to be split into more themes? Consider if you were making an album of cousins and realized that you had too many for one album. Would you split the pictures up further in some way? Grouping them by family of origin or those closest to you? There often is no one right way to sort the data, but you will need to consider what your rationale is for making these decisions. My mother might argue that family of origin makes most sense, but then, she knows everyone in the pictures. My children might argue that they only want to see the cousins they actually know because otherwise the album is full of pictures of strangers. The importance is in having a sound rationale for deciding what fits into a theme, just as one decides what fits into an album.

Working with undergraduate student researchers

This blog has been updated from one published in 2019.

Another summer has come to an end and for the third year in a row I have had the opportunity to work with an undergraduate student researcher. We are fortunate at my institution to have funding for students to apply to do research over the course of their four month summer break. This has been especially important this year with students not being able to find work due to Covid-19 challenges.

For summer research, students need to come up with a proposal and be supported by a supervisor. Beyond that it is very open-ended as students can work on projects in a wide variety of fields. Initially, the list of accepted students were primarily from the sciences, working in the summer in established labs with sub-projects under the supervision of a faculty researcher. More and more education students are seizing the chance to learn about research through doing.

This year (2020) Nancy Liu explored the linguistic landscape of Bilingual Program schools and their surrounding neighbourhoods to examine how their external signage reflects the languages spoken in the neighborhood. Last summer (2019), Lisa Anderson explored language learning and music through the context of a school-based action research study I am doing on the application of intensive weeks of language instruction to a bilingual school program: “Intensive German Weeks for Bilingual Education: Investigating Practices for Oral Language Development.” She chose to disseminate knowledge from her research at a student teacher conference and an academic conference. The first summer (2018), Janessa Bretner  interviewed graduates of our pre-service study abroad experience to find out how their teaching practices were influenced by their volunteer teaching abroad in my project: “Reflective Writing for Sojourn Preparation, Reflection, and Debriefing.” I mentored all three students through the processes of ethics certification, data collection, and data analysis.

Here are some tips for working with undergraduate student researchers:

  1. Welcome them! I like to take them out for lunch and celebrate their achievement in receiving this highly competitive funding. In the case of the second student, I made a formal introduction to the principal and staff of the school where she would be collecting data. With my third student, I asked a colleague, whose work she had read, to join our Friday Zoom meeting to discuss her methodological choices.
  2. Help them with logistics – After they have their ethics certification, I make an ethics modification that includes their proposed work. I enroll them in my shared drives for the research, advocate for them to get office space and printer access, and make sure they know how to get support for the various aspects of their research. I share my knowledge of effective use of Twitter to disseminate blogs.
  3. Make things explicit – for undergraduates, almost everything we do with research is new, so we met regularly to go over aspects of research. To facilitate the lit review, I ask students to read and take notes on at least one article a day. I ask them to blog about their learning each week and we work on accurately citing using APA. When we meet, we go over data collection and later analysis. Depending on how the student would like to disseminate the findings, I assist them in articulating their results through their writing and presenting.

What does a researcher gain from working with undergraduate student researchers?

  1. Whether you see this as teaching or service, you are mentoring a current undergraduate who may do research in the future as a part of graduate or professional work.
  2. Making research explicit allows you to reflect upon your own practices and clarifies your own understandings of ontology, epistemology, and methodology.
  3. Since the student is pursuing a related but new idea, your work together allows you to experiment with a new direction for your research.

Based on the work with these three undergraduate student researchers, I have pilot research for a study that was recently funded (in the first case) an expanded understanding of the work I am doing with teachers (in the second case), and a co-authored article in the works (with the student as lead author). I have an appreciation for the enthusiasm and creativity of this emerging scholars and, because I get them to document their learning, I have a wealth of resources to share with the next undergraduate to come along.

Going to the grocery store: A metaphor for writing up results and discussion

Academics and graduate students sometimes struggle to write up the results and discussion sections of their articles and dissertations. When they receive feedback like “too descriptive”, “need to synthesize”, or “where are your conclusions?”, they wonder what they can do to improve their writing.

During a recent discussion on how to guide our students in writing up their results and discussion, a colleague shared with me a metaphor that she uses: going to the grocery store. She explained how she used it and I have expanded it here to demonstrate how to think of the results and discussion sections of articles and chapters in a dissertation.

When you go to the grocery store, you enter the produce section (research context) and see tables of all kinds of produce imaginable (raw data). You decide what you want based on particular criteria (your research questions) and fill your basket. When you get home, you empty your shopping bags and the phone rings with a call from your curious friend. She asks,“what did you buy?”. You could answer with a list (unsynthesized data): apples, eggplant, bananas, celery, bean sprouts, and a watermelon. However, if you do that, she might say “what an odd assortment! You must not like round foods, because most of what you bought is not round”. Based on what you told her, she has drawn a conclusion.

However, it is unlikely that you went to the store buying foods based on their shape. By providing her unsynthesized data without drawing conclusions, you have left her to draw her own, in the same way that writing up results by only presenting the raw data, you leave the reader to draw his own conclusion.

Perhaps instead, you answer “I bought three kinds of fruit and three kinds of vegetables”. Here you have synthesized your data by grouping the food according to type. What type of conclusion do you want her to draw from this? You add “I wanted a variety of both fruits and vegetables”. Your friend is now much less likely to criticize what you bought because she has been presented with synthesized data and a conclusion and can better follow your rationale. She goes on to ask you about the rest of what you bought, and you present your shopping her in a similar way: “I also bought flour, sugar, and milk. Now I have all the ingredients needed to do some baking” and “I bought lentils, quinoa and rice. Now I have different grains in my pantry”. The results of your shopping trip as presented to your friend on the phone parallel the presentation of your results in your article or dissertation. This may seem obvious, but it is very common for novice writers (I still do it sometimes) to present the synthesis, but forget to draw a conclusion, because to them, it is obvious, although not always to your readers.

Now on to the Discussion: Your curious friend is momentarily satisfied as she hears your results, but then she asks “why?” She may be wondering if you plan to do try some new recipes, cook or bake some old favorites, or go on a raw food diet. The Discussion section of your article or dissertation is where you satisfy the ‘why’ of the reader. You might answer your friend “I chose these items to buy because I am expecting a lot of company and the guests have different food preferences, so I want to cook a variety of foods from scratch”. Now she has an overall idea of what your rationale was.

Now you have her interest as you break down the results with reference to previous supporting literature. “I can cook using the lentils and quinoa. Lentils are naturally gluten-free (Smith, 2020) and a favorite among vegetarians because they are quick to cook (Jones, 2019). Quinoa is considered a highly nutritious ancient grain (Thoms, 2018) and cooks up easily in the pressure cooker, so I want to try that as well. With lentils and quinoa, I have the two quickest cooking grains for those who are vegetarian or gluten intolerant”. With these four sentences you have 1) recapped your results briefly 2) tied your results to the previous literature (which should appear in your lit review) 3) drawn a conclusion demonstrating critical thinking, rather than just description. Ok, you may not do that in real life, but in academic writing, that is exactly what we are called to do.

This last element, demonstrating critical thinking, is crucial to your Discussion conclusions. You need to identify significance, timing, or suitability; structure evidence in order of importance; evaluate significance or strengths and weaknesses; or argue a case. To help my students with the distinction between descriptive and critical writing, I refer them to a useful chart found on p. 12 in the book listed below (Cottrell, 2012). Recently one of my students shared a video that also addresses this aspect of writing. Once you have a sense of what the difference is between critical and descriptive writing, you may find it helpful to create your own chart to post near your writing area as a regular reminder.

The Results and Discussion writing are the parts of our academic writing where we get to share not only what we found in our research, but what it means for answering our research question. That is why I often structure my Discussion by revisiting the research question. By keeping it at the forefront, it reminds me, as well as the readers, what I was hoping to learn from the study, while I situate it in the larger field in which I am writing.

Having a clear concept of the Results and Discussion will strengthen your writing, in the same way that shopping with particular criteria in mind, while not obligatory, will make your grocery shopping more purposeful (but less likely to result in your bring home potato chips 😊). Carrying a metaphor this far may be an overextension. I welcome you to test it out and let me know in the comments if you feel it works!

(Please note that Smith, 2020; Jones, 2019; and Thoms, 2018 are invented citations for the purpose of illustration). If you wish to share this post as a pdf, please cite it as:

Dressler, R.. (2020). Going to the grocery store: A metaphor for writing up results and discussion. University of Calgary. http://hdl.handle.net/1880/112375

Cottrell, S. (2012). The study skills handbook. Palgrave Macmillan.

The responsibility (tyranny) of the digital footprint

Do our digital footprints have more impact?

I recently decided to update my professional photo online, having had my picture taken for an academic journal cover featuring research with a colleague. I normally update my social media every month, but I had never sat down to make a list of all of the places I have a profile. In discussing a similar task with a colleague who just received a promotion, the magnitude of the task hit me. How does one keep a digital footprint current when there are ever increasing places where we as academics might be expected to have a profile?

My digital footprint started out small and purposeful. My name has a unique spelling so if you google me, you get – me! When I was on the academic job market, I positioned myself as someone whose research could be found as I realized how much that would help my research get to the people who most need to read it. I keep Twitter professional and I have this personal blog where I write about professional topics.

Once I got a position, my responsibilities increased. I update my faculty profile regularly, but the platform is currently in flux so there are two, as well as a university profile to promote graduate supervision. We were encouraged to start a Google Scholar profile and I thought I should try my hand at LinkdIn, Researchgate and Academia.edu.

Now I realize I am swimming in profiles. While I had set up an OrcID, I didn’t realize that I needed to keep up a profile, otherwise when people click on the number, nothing comes up! As well, I have to keep up a SSHRC CCV for funding purposes and an additional internal one for merit, tenure and promotion.

My list now consists of six places where my photo appears and twelve that I update whenever I get a new publication. It is too late to go back to the pre-digital footprint world as I cannot bear to leave any of these out-of-date, but over the course of this next year, I will give some serious thought as to how/whether there are platforms I will drop. Making this list has motivated me to revisit how I organize this blog so that I can provide different information here than I do on the other platforms. Perhaps in doing these two things, I can reduce the feeling that my digital footprint is tyrannizing me.