Argumentation in academic writing Part 2: Descriptive vs Critical Writing

In addition to using topic and concluding sentences to improve your writing, another effective means to strengthen your argumentation is to pay attention to your use of descriptive vs critical writing. Both forms of writing are important, but when we receive reviews that we need to balance when we are merely reporting the facts (descriptive) and when we are weighing on and making a claim about those facts (critical). The handout that I share with my graduate students is a one-page excerpt from a study skills handout that came across my path as I began my academic career (Cottrell, 2012, p. 160).

The author provides a side-by-side comparison between descriptive vs critical writing. Let’s take the first example: “states what happened” vs “identifies the significance”. Now let’s try and come up with an example. I might write “Brown (2005) used the term ‘schoolscapes’ to describe the linguistic landscapes of schools”. That sentence is descriptive and states when happened. To make it more critical, I might edit it to read “Brown (2005) was the first to use the term ‘schoolscapes’, which is recognized as the official term to describe the linguistic landscapes of schools.” With these edits, the reader now has a clearer sense of how important Brown (2005)’s use of the term was. Inherent in any claim is the chance that one might be incorrect. Brown may have written the term in an earlier work or she may not have been the first to use the term, but I have identified the significance and part of the strength of my argument comes from the ability of someone to challenge this claim. Entering into scholarly debate is part of the reason with engage in scholarly writing, so we need to be prepared to stand behind our argumentation.

Let’s try another: In an article about German Bilingual Program teachers (Dressler & Mueller, 2022), we might have originally crafted a sentence like this: “In bilingual programs, teachers are often not aware of the pedagogical strategies from other programs such as French immersion and rely heavily upon professional learning to develop their repertoire”. This might be considered as “states links between items” since we state that teachers are not aware of pedagogical strategies and therefore rely upon professional learning. However, since we wanted to “show the relevance of links between pieces of information”, we added the reasons why teachers are not aware of pedagogical strategies:

“In bilingual programs, no one teaching approach is mandated, and since many teachers are not second language specialists (Dressler, 2018; Zhang & Guo, 2017), they are often not aware of the pedagogical strategies from other programs such as French immersion and rely heavily upon professional learning to develop their repertoire”. In doing so, we were also able to cite literature to back up those reasons so that the reader is aware that these are documented reasons that teachers end up relying so heavily upon professional learning. The ability to draw upon previous studies to support our work strengthens our claims as grounded rather than mere opinions.

As a final example, I am providing a whole paragraph from Dressler et al, (2023, p. 234) which demonstrates how descriptive and critical writing can complement one another. This paragraph goes from “notes methods used” to “identifies when something is appropriate or suitable”.

The chart required only affirmative answers. Therefore, if part or all of the chart was skipped, it could not be determined whether the participants did so because they did not use technology or because they did not wish to answer the question. To avoid drawing con­clusions about participants who did not indicate any technology usage at any time period in the chart, we removed those participants (n = 63) who did not provide any answers to that survey question. As a result, the data from the remaining 203 participants were analyzed.

The first two sentences are descriptive. The third sentence is critical, letting the reader know it would not have been suitable to assume blank answers meant “no, I didn’t use technology” since it could also have meant “I don’t feel like answering all of the questions in this survey”. The final sentence goes back to noting the result of that critical consideration, but is in itself descriptive.

The handout is so simple, yet it makes such a difference in one’s writing when the concept of descriptive vs critical writing is taken into account. The choice of which task you wish your writing to complete is up to your discretion as the writer. I encourage you to print out this handout and use it regularly and leave a comment below it if you have found it helps your writing.

The page I am referencing can be found here:

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

Examples for this blog came from one yet-to-be published piece as well as the two below:

Dressler, R., Guida, R., Chu, M-W. (2023). Canadian second language teachers’ technology use following the COVID-19 pandemic. Canadian Modern Language Review, 79(3), 228-246.

Dressler, R. & Mueller, K. (2022). Pedagogical strategies to foster target language use: A nexus analysis. Canadian Modern Language Review, 77(4), 75-90.

Argumentation in academic writing Part 1: Taking a stand and finding your voice through topic and concluding sentences

Writing challenges us to find our voice.

As an academic writer, novice or otherwise, a common, but nebulous criticism is: “you need to be more critical”. The sentence can easily be misconstrued to mean, “you need to be more negative” or “you need to question more”. More frequently, I find, the weakness in my own writing, and that of others, is the lack of argumentation. Argumentation can best be understood as taking a stand or making a point that carries throughout your article or dissertation. One solution is in focusing on whether and how topic and concluding sentences are strategically included in your writing.

When you read “whether” did you ask yourself: but don’t all paragraphs have topic and concluding sentences? Oh, I wish it were so. However, frequently authors presume that their point is obvious and begin and end their paragraphs without them.

Yet, topic and concluding sentences are an important part of argumentation because without them, the writer avoids or neglects to take a stand. This leaves the work of interpretation up to the reader. If the reader is confused as to why they are reading particular content or draws different conclusions than those we intended, our writing is deemed non-critical or confusing.

We can use topic and concluding sentences to lead the reader through our argument.

Let me provide an example. If I am describing my husband to someone who doesn’t know him. I might write:

My husband fishes, hikes, and camps solo throughout the summer. He goes out several times during the summer and is gone for several days at a time. I work weekdays so I can’t always join him.

Without a topic sentence, you might not notice write away that you have three sentences that are only somewhat connected. The first two are indeed about my husband, but the third is not. Without a concluding sentence, you might not understand what your take away is intended to be, especially since the last sentence appears to take a tangent and leave you hanging.

The reader might conclude: “wow, this man never spends any time with this wife!” That would be logical based on what little information you have. The first sentence lists his solo activities, the second time away, and the third focuses on me and why I might be left out of the previously named activities.

My reaction would be: “that’s now what I wanted you to take away from what I wrote!” Yet, that is what happens when we leave the interpretation up to the reader.

Now imagine I had written his description with both a topic and concluding sentence:

My husband is an avid outdoorsman. My husband fishes, hikes, and camps solo throughout the summer. I work weekdays so I can’t always join him. He has found several ways to enjoy nature, despite his weekend work schedule.

Now my paragraph directs the reader to what I want them to why I wrote the paragraph and what I want them to take away from the paragraph. The topic sentence “My husband is an avid outdoorsman” sets the stage for the list of activities, but is general enough to not take the place of the content paragraphs which provide details such as what he does, how it does them, when and why. The last sentence “He has found several ways to enjoy nature, despite his weekend work schedule” draws the reader’ attention back to “avid outdoorsman” through the reference to outdoor activities “several ways to enjoy nature”. It then adds the claim “despite his weekend work schedule” to lead the reader to understand why all of the details about time and work were included within the paragraph listing activities.

Practice makes writing go more smoothly.

This simple example may not convince you with regards to academic writing, but I challenge you to look at your writing and the writing of others to notice whether or not topic and concluding sentences are used effectively and strategically. Use your observations to improve your argumentation and avoid the critique of “lack of voice”.

Course development in Language and Literacy

Part of my role as an academic is developing new courses, either with colleagues or on my own. Over the past two years, I worked with colleagues to develop two topics in the field of Language and Literacy. Each topic involved four graduate courses at the Masters’ level. Additionally, I was asked to develop a new course for our undergraduate program. There was considerable learning that resulted from doing this work.

In planning the graduate four course topics, we gathered as a team of four instructors to determine what we felt might be gaps in our program offerings. We reviewed existing courses to consider whether we were just reconfiguring existing courses or needing to envision all new courses. Although we could have settled for one four course topic, we decided that we wanted to use a combination of existing and new courses to design two separate topics – one that focused on Literacy in the Diverse Classroom and one that considered Multimodal Literacy Across Contexts. In choosing our titles, we deliberately chose titles that made the overall theme of the four courses explicit. Afterall, future students are reviewing a list of topics before clicking on the title to find out more, so we wanted the titles to steer potential students to this topic if literacy was of interest to them. Next, we consulted with stakeholders: teachers, colleagues, and our own graduate students. We asked them to consider if these topics represented topics they felt teachers should learn more about and whether the topic and course descriptions were clear. We then met to review the feedback and decide what edits were needed to our proposal. The proposal was accepted, and the first topic was offered the 2022-23 academic year. In the 2023-34 academic year, the second topic is now running. The healthy enrolment speaks to the attractiveness of the topic to our MEd Interdisciplinary students.

My more recent work is with the course development for Supporting English Language Learners. This online course was offered over five weeks starting in January 2023. Students were in their final semester of the BEd program and had chosen this course from among a selection of options. Potential students were ones who did not have a background in ELL or second languages, but who wished to improve their knowledge and skills in working with ELLs. Since the undergraduate students would be both elementary and secondary specialists from our on campus and community-based (rural and remote) programs, the course needed to be relevant for a range of teachers. My intention was to build the course around the Alberta ESL Benchmarks. Teachers often struggle with how to determine what level students are at. While the website that goes with the Benchmarks is a treasure trove of information, the course provided students with the opportunity to hone their knowledge and skills to be able to apply the Benchmarks to their teaching. I created six videos of ELLs that demonstrated their skills in listening, speaking, reading and writing. Thanks to a grant from our Office of Teaching and Learning, I was able to hire a former student to film the activities the children and I did together. In addition to creating the videos, I consulted with knowledgeable colleagues from the ELL field to ensure that I did not leave out any crucial information. This course will be used for years to come, so being thorough was important.

Through these opportunities for course development, I learned so much. In particular, the experience drove home the value of consulting with stakeholders and working through a cycle of design so that feedback can improve the course design. Moving forward, I will take the success of developing these courses into future projects.

Research update 2022

It has been a busy semester, hence the lack of blogging, but I am motivated to blog today to provide some research updates.

Enduring Innovations in L2 Teacher Practice Resulting From the COVID-19 Pandemic

Integrating Critical Literacies into Pedagogies to Empower Diverse Learners (lead by Dr. Jean Kaya, Eyes High Postdoctoral Scholar; co-supported by me and Dr. Kim Lenters, Canada Research Chair Tier 2, Literacy)

New article in Language and Literacy:

Kaya, J., Dressler, R., Lenters, K., (2022). Critical literacy in Canada: A systematic review of curricula and literature. Language and Literacy, 28(2), 25-61.

Reflective Writing for Sojourn Preparation, Reflection, Debriefing, and Beyond (SSHRC supported)

new article:

Dressler, R., Crossman, K., Kawalilak, C. (2022). Blogging for intercultural communicative competence in study abroad programs: All breadth, no depth? Study Abroad Research in Second Language Acquisition and International Education, 7(2), 181-203.

two new book chapters

Dressler, R. & Kawalilak, C. (2022). The experience of pre-service language teachers learning an additional language through study abroad. In G. Barkhuizen (Ed.). Language teachers studying abroad: Identities, emotions and disruptions (pp.100-110). Multilingual Matters.

Dressler, R., Kawalilak, C., Crossman, K., Becker, S. (2022) Implementing longitudinal, reflective follow-up study abroad research: Following former pre-service teachers into professional practice. In J. McGregor & J. Plews (Eds.). Designing second language study abroad research: Critical reflections on methods and data (pp. 273-286). Palgrave McMillan.


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 fifth year in a row I have had the opportunity to work with undergraduate student researcher.s 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.

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 (2022), my postdoctoral scholar Dr. Jean Kaya and I worked with two students: Arianna Mamer and Kevin Dang. They had two very different, but interesting language and literacy projects. Ms. Mamer examined STEM Critical Literacy, while Mr. Dang looked at Community-based ELL programs for adults. Both are working on articles for teacher practitioner journals.  Last year (2021), Jeanne Liendo researched the history of the Spanish Bilingual Program in Calgary. In 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. She and I presented at an academic conference in 2022 and have now submitted an article to an academic journal. In 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 and most recently, through an academic journal article under review. 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.” All of these students learned about research  through the processes of ethics certification, data collection, data analysis, and writing.

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 some cases,  I make a formal introduction to the stakeholders of the research, such as the principal and staff of the schools. With my most recent students, I set up a co-mentorship with my postdoctoral scholar so that they can learn from both of us and he then has the opportunity to be in a formal mentorship role.
  2. Help them with logistics – After they have their ethics certification, I may 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. All of these activities provide a strong start.
  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 undergraduate student researchers, I have piloted research, expanded my understanding of language and literacy, and co-authored articles (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.

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.