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)
Reflective Writing for Sojourn Preparation, Reflection, Debriefing, and Beyond (SSHRC supported)
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. https://doi.org/10.1075/sar.21028.dre
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When I entered graduate school I knew I had to learn to do research, I didn’t realize I would have to learn to write, really write, a lot! I thought of research articles as research reports, rather than the persuasive writing pieces they actually are. As I started to get articles reviewed, I noticed similar comments each time. Without going into detail, those comments taught me that I needed to invest in the craft of writing. One way I do that is by reading and trying to apply the suggestions in books on writing.
Recently I have been working on “The Sense of Style” by Steven Pinker. My favorite factor chapter is #2 on the classic style of writing. I appreciate his criticism of writing that is wordy and lofty, since academia is full of unclear prose that I have always struggled to understand. Pinker uses three very different writing excerpts to discuss what makes a piece of writing exceptional. My motivation to write more clearly was strengthened by the examples.
Rather than geek out on the many aspects I liked, suffice it to say that all of us who write for a living, and I consider academics to be professional writers, can benefit from greater clarity in our writing.
How do we know if international teaching sojourns are more than a great travel experience? That is the question we have asked ourselves for the past three years as five of us have researched sojourn preparation, reflection and debriefing. The term “sojourn” refers to a period of time spend abroad. In the case of this research, the sojourn is the time the BEd students in our Teaching Across Borders program spend volunteer teaching and living abroad. While our larger project examines reflective writing in the preparation and time away, this research update focuses on reflection upon return home.
Sojourn debriefing – usually we like to begin at the beginning, but in the first phase of our research we started where most research, and programs, do not even venture – the end. We designed a reflective writing model that we used during a reflective writing workshop the participants attended after they had been back home for two months. We wanted the participants to reflect deeply on one significant event from their time away. The model provided quite effective as students were able to use it to think and write about this event, starting with descriptive writing, but moving on to descriptive reflection, dialogic reflection, and in some cases, critical refection (These are four types of reflective writing described in other research as levels of depth of reflection).
What did we learn?
First, we learned about ourselves as researchers who have also each spent time abroad. In designing the model, we tested out three widely known models on ourselves: Gibbs’ (1988) Reflective Cycle; Rolfe, Freshwater, and Jasper’s (2001) Reflective Model; and Johns’ (2010) Model for Structured Reflection. We met, tried writing based on each model, and then discussed which aspects of each we felt should go into a hybrid model we would use for our program participants. Through sharing our writing and developing this process, we became more aware of the strengths each of us brought to the project. We found this method effective for helping us design a model we could envision using, because we had lived the experience of assembling it. The new model was more than a sum of its parts because we added to it from our own insights. We have written about our design of the model in this scholarly publication:
Dressler, R., Becker, S. Kawalilak, C., Arthur, N. (2018). The cross-cultural reflective model for post-sojourn debriefing. Reflective Practice: International and Multidisciplinary Perspectives, 19(4), 490–504. doi:10.1080/14623943.2018.1530207
Second, we learned about reflective writing and our participants. Reflective writing forces writers to think about their experiences and consider what they might learn from them. Some of the experiences were difficult ones: experiencing homesickness, encountering systemic racism, questioning one’s career choice (in this case, teaching). Others were poignant: reaching out to a misunderstood student; seeing the historical, political significance of the place one was living, surprising oneself with language and intercultural competence that was previously unnoticed. While not all students reflected to the degree of dialogic or critical reflection, each had the opportunity to reflect, grow, and make sense of their experience.
We have recently submitted an article about these post-sojourn reflections and anticipate writing more about them when we look at the cases of individual participants over time.
Looking back at our work summarized so succinctly does not do it justice. Stay tuned for more updates in the coming year.
My research took an interesting turn when I invited one of my daughters to explore the role of social media in the identity positioning of one particular study abroad sojourner – herself. We focused on her use of Facebook and that project resulted in an article for the Canadian Journal of Applied Linguistics. Not only did we learn a great deal about how she, as a study abroad sojourner, used Facebook to position herself as an emerging bilingual over the course of two sojourners, but learned that there was so much more to using Facebook to study abroad than I had first thought.
I had once read a great book about EBay and its history. I believe it was The Perfect Store by Adam Cohen. It provided an overview of how it came to be as well as how the platform evolved over time. Although it is now dated, I felt it provided the perfect example of a storehouse of apparent trivia that a researcher might appreciate when studying EBay. Unfortunately, such a book does not exist for Facebook. While the history of how it started is well known and has it’s own movie, documentation of its evolution is much harder to track down. On top of that, when Facebook changes, it does so retroactively, so you can’t look back at your older Facebook posts to get a sense of what used to be. As a researcher, it is frustrating to realize that you can’t easily and reliably claim that Facebook was a certain way at the time of the research.
So, after the first article was written, my daughter and I embarked upon a project about a project – exploring the methodology of using Facebook to research study abroad. In doing so, some questions were answered – we connected with researchers who shared how they establish procedures and came across this nugget: a Wikipedia entry for Facebook Features (not Facebook history which one usually discovers first). Our work resulted in an article that is currently under consideration for another journal. Stay tuned to this space to learn more!
Update: You can find our methodological article here:
Dressler, R., & Dressler, A. (2019). The methodological affordances and challenges of using Facebook to research study abroad. Study Abroad Research in Second Language Acquisition and International Education,4(1), 126-144.
I have written before about the “long road to publication” and “five things I have learned about writing”, but perhaps one of the hardest lessons I have learned to date is “Reviewer #2 is always right”.
There are many internet memes about the notorious Reviewer #2, the nemesis of the would-be author, who seems to wilfully misunderstand the argument of the article, require citations of literature that are irrelevant or suggest numerous edits while warning of the word limit. We have all had “that” reviewer and oddly, it is often the second reviewer in the list.
We are mentored not to take the comments personally: do the work, write a document to accompany the changes, and provide a rationale as to why or why they were not addressed. There is a form a blind dialogue that occurs as this document is mediated by the editor to the reviewers, to keep the identities of both parties on either side a secret.
We have all (except for the newest among us) been a reviewer. It is part of the service we render to the academy. Yet, I would hope that we keep our own experience with “reviewer #2” in mind when we write our responses. I would hope that we strive to explain ourselves with respect for the person who will be receiving the comments, writing as though that person were sitting across the table from us.
Despite my previous experience with reviewers and being a reviewer, I was shocked and unprepared for a recent article submission experience a colleague and I had. We submitted an article to a journal we had chosen based on considerable research into the aims and scope and a look at sample articles on similar topics. We sent a query to the editor as to the suitability of our article based on an abstract and it was received favorably. So, we sent off our manuscript and were delighted when we received a response of “accept with revisions”. There was a considerable list of desired revisions, but we were asked to submit within 30 days, which gave us hope that a publication was forthcoming. We addressed all of the concerns from two reviews in a table format and highlighted them in the revised article for easy of reading. The response from reviewer # 1 came quickly. A few small changes were required. We did those and awaited reviewer #2. Approximately one week later we heard from the editor that reviewer #2 felt we hadn’t addressed the changes and therefore the recommendation was “rejection”.
What? That’s it? We were stunned. We grieved, we complained, we regrouped. We asked our colleagues for advice. Although many had never heard of such a turn of events, a few had. We wrote the editor for an explanation and what we learned was that she had to guard her relationship with her reviewers such that there would be no recourse, no third reviewer, no editorial override. If Reviewer #2 said “rejected!”, there was nothing to do, but lick our wounds and move on.
This incident is too fresh for me to convey all of the learning that will come from it, but for the time being I am reminded that editors value their reviewers and if they have to pick sides, it will be the side of the reviewer. As someone who reviews as well, I in turn, need to have the humility to realize the work and effort authors put into their work and their revisions and remain aware of the great responsibility the role carries. Meanwhile, my co-author and I have resubmitted to a different journal. The waiting game begins again.
Update: the article was accepted and published in the second journal:
Tweedie, M.G., & Dressler, R. (2018). Visual aids as response facilitators in dialogue journals. Language and Literacy.20(2), 125-143. doi:10.20360/langandlit29182
A conversation in the hallway created the spark for this blog post. A colleague of mine mentioned that she thinks of doing a jigsaw puzzle as a metaphor for writing. Together we fleshed out a more complete metaphor.Here is how it goes:
The edges – some people love doing the edges of a puzzle. The straight lines provide structure that allows the puzzler to know everything is falling into place. The same goes for writing – some people like the beginning. They outline their argument and organize the data so that they know they can begin and those steps are in themselves a beginning. However, some people leave parts of the border unfinished because they know that straight edges are not always obvious and that searching for them can be frustrating or unfruitful. It is better to wait until part of the puzzle is done and the edges surface. In the same way, some writers leave the outline in a rough form, knowing that the process of writing will inform the structure of the paper. The original outline sometimes gets reordered, in the same way one sometimes ends up moving a large chunk of border to where it fits better.
The middle – while I have never heard anyone say they love the middle of the puzzle, I have encountered those who love taking on the most challenging part – sky, for example. They notice the subtle differences and enjoy the challenge of trying to make pieces fit based on their shape. These people are similar to those who relish the argument or discussion section of the paper because they like to make sense of data or big ideas that surface in the writing. However, just as some puzzlers get frustrated and leave the toughest parts for last, some writers try around the discussion and conclusions in an attempt to get as much structured or straightforward writing done first. That would be me!
The end – someone is always holding on to a piece of the puzzle in order to be the one who puts in the last piece. With great satisfaction it is placed and the final work admired. Most writers gets a great sense of satisfaction in completing an article, although I haven’t seen anyone argue over who gets to write the last edits or even less, format the article for submission. (These people must exist). There are also those puzzlers who, as soon as the puzzle is done, mourn its completion. They wish they could prolong the enjoyment that comes with doing a jigsaw puzzle. The completion of an article can have the same effect. The submission may signal the end of a project, a collaboration, a relationship with the participants