At a recent family event, we (naturally) got into a lively discussion of statistics; we all agreed that the biggest mistake people make with statistics is to not demand context. So, for instance, a political candidate might capitalize on the fact that the poverty rate has risen to 13% – but conveniently leave out the fact that it’s risen from 12.7%, or that other measures might suggest that it’s actually fallen from 15% to 8% in the same period.
Also recently, a friend on Facebook asked for details about the new Quebec government’s promise regarding pre-K, and whether it would be mandatory (it would not be, according to the CAQ election platform). These two exchanges got me to thinking about the government’s stance on various aspects of education in the province, and in particular, in the cegep system. After all, in 2011, François Legault – now our Premier – told a crowd of supporters in Longueuil that “we should not have Cegeps” because while they were a great place to learn how to smoke dope, there was a significant problem with graduation rates.
Legault has backpedalled on this position; in fact, he and his team now claim to be big supporters of the Cegep model, which, they say, prepares students for university and professional development, and contributes to regional development. Legault still seems to think, however, that there is a dropout crisis in Cegep, no doubt fuelled by the fact that only 41% of pre-university Cegep students graduate in the two-year period allotted to such programs. That number, though, goes up to 68%, when we allow students more time. As a teacher in this system, I’m frankly amazed that as many as 41% are able to do it in two years – the course load is almost twice what they will encounter in university, yet we expect 16- and 17-year-olds to leap from the high school model to a self-directed model with nary a stumble. And if you’re thinking that 68% doesn’t seem like much, consider that despite the dire outlook of the CAQ, Quebec has more people with higher education than any other province: 50% of Quebecers between 18 and 34 have a post-secondary diploma, compared to 30% in Ontario. And according to the Conference Board of Canada, the Quebec Cegep system has had a significant positive effect on national post-secondary education rates:
One reason for Canada’s high ranking on college completion is the unique role of colleges known as CEGEPs (collèges d’enseignement général et professionnel) in Canada’s second-largest province, Quebec. CEGEP is a pre-university program offered after Grade 11 that replaces the extra year of high school provided in other Canadian provinces. As a two-year program, however, it also covers one year of community college. It is a prerequisite for university acceptance. CEGEP enrolment is around 150,000 per year. Between 1990 and 2006, college participation rates for those aged 17 to 19 were consistently above 35 per cent in Quebec, compared with only 10 per cent in the rest of Canada.
There seems to be a gap between sets of stats. So here’s some context to help, I hope, bridge that gap. Yes, our graduation rate is lower than Ontario’s, but our pass rate is higher – that is, fewer students graduate, but that’s partly because they need a 60% in core subjects to pass, rather than 50% in Ontario. Furthermore, the studies that are typically cited tend to look only at pass/fail or complete/stall, without taking into account cultural factors. Quebec is the only province that requires some non-francophone students to attend school in French and restricts access to English schools. This restriction mean that students that come to Quebec from outside of Canada must attend school in a language with which they are not familiar, no doubt making it much harder for them to graduate ‘on time.’ The impact on Cegep studies is indirect – students can study at this level in either language, regardless of their eligibilities at primary and secondary – but it amounts to the same thing: about half of our students, depending on the college, are entering an English college from a French high school. Of course it will take these students an extra semester or four to successfully complete their program.
There is a generational and regional facet to these statistics, as well. In 2006, an astonishing 54% Quebecers over 75 had no diploma at all, while only 11% of Quebecers between 25 and 34 could say the same. Women are generally more likely to have post-secondary education in Quebec, if they’re under 55 – the gender divide reverses at that point. Regionally, Montreal skews the provincial average – in 2015, less than 9% of the Montreal adult population didn’t have at least a high school diploma (12.8% provincially), and 16% of adult Montrealers had post-graduate degrees, compared to only 8.7% across the province.
So, as with all statistics, context is key. None of this is to say that we shouldn’t invest more in Quebec education or that we should turn a blind eye to the problems that do exist. But we need to contextualize observations so we can invest wisely and provide support when and where it is needed.
UPDATE: yet more validation, in this article from the BBC, outlining how Canadian education at all levels compares favourably on a global scale. Our teenagers are among the best educated in the world, and
If Canadian provinces entered Pisa tests as separate countries, three of them, Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec, would be in the top five places for science in the world, alongside Singapore and Japan and above the likes of Finland and Hong Kong.
Sara Doody, Sarah Marshall, Maggie McDonnell, and Erin Reid
On October 17, we presented the following to our PhD Colloquium group at McGill, and we thought that we’d bring it to a larger audience. We’re in our second year together as doctoral students, and we’re spending a lot of time reflecting on our development as doctoral students, researchers, and writers. We have been meeting as a writing group for about a year now, and plan to continue together at least as long as the PhD journey keeps us writing, if not beyond. We’ve all contributed to this text, so it is heteroglossic, although it’s worth noting that we have all nodded vigorously along as we each discussed our personal experience, as we planned the text.
Social Isolation (Sarah M) – next year we will have finished all our course work, so we will have no reason to actually see and be with anyone else in our DISE cohort. Here’s a nice quote from The Guardian Higher Education blog:
All PhDs are solitary affairs. When you carry out doctoral research you are, by definition, the only person working on the precise topic of your thesis. There will be others whose research is closely related to yours, but nobody else is doing quite what you are doing. In this sense, all PhDs are solitary affairs. (July 2014)
All of us are writing in isolation it would seem, but to use a metaphor, I see it as we’re like bees in a beehive. Each worker bee has their own hexagonal cell to look after, but in a beehive each bee, while working on their own cell, is also a part of the whole hive, as it is with us PhD students: we are a part of a bigger group. By participating in the writing group we are able to break the illusion of being alone – we are not alone. Not only are we writing with others in academe, but with our classmates we are at approximately the same phase of the process. Sure some are a bit ahead (preparing CPs) and others are not there yet (working towards preparing CPP), but we are all PhD3 in DISE.
One could argue that the construction of the author as an isolated producer of texts is only sensible if one takes a very limited, object centred, view of writing practice. The understanding of writing as process, as communication, and as therapy, cannot be supported by the concept of the isolated writer (Pheby 2010).
Society uses a convention that often shows writers, alone in their office or den, slaving away over an unfinished manuscript until – ta-da – it is finished; completely perfect and whole like the Virgin Birth. In my experience it couldn’t be further from the truth – writing is as collaborative as it is generative.
Renegotiating Identity (Erin) – Being a writing group member has allowed me to renegotiate my relationship to not only to writing, but also to my identity as a writer. Throughout my education, I was encouraged, largely implicitly, to view writing as a solitary activity…something that was best done in isolation, with the focus entirely on the finished product. Although writing was something to which I always felt drawn, it was often a site of intense personal stress for me. I struggled to see myself as a legitimate writer/scholar…I was constantly wracked with what I eventually named my CSD (crippling self-doubt). This struggle intensified dramatically when I found myself in graduate school as an MA student in Religious Studies where the long-standing meme of the solitary, struggling, silent and hopefully brilliant writer was in full force. Though the graduate students may have enjoyed some camaraderie in sharing an office and at times writing in the same space, work was never shared, only our anxiety. There seemed to me to be a direct correlation between the most stressed out student and the most brilliant – writing the bulk of my MA in 3 horrible weeks was a badge of honour for me as it was proof that the frustrated, procrastinating, blocked-yet-brilliant artist model was alive and well. But that process was so painful that it literally led to me being unable to move my head due to compressed vertebrae in my cervical spine. It took me at least a year to heal from writing my MA.
It shouldn’t be too difficult to understand why developing a new, healthier relationship to writing was one of the main reasons I decided to return to academia. I needed to find a better way to write, and a way to allow myself to identify as a writer; in short, I needed desperately to develop “new habits of the mind” (Spigelman, 1999). Writing groups have been transformational for me as the process of working with, responding to, and eventually collaborating with my peers has allowed me to identify myself increasingly as a practitioner, rather than simply a learner. As we began to share our work, we developed our skills in critical reading, editing, and giving feedback, which in turn have led to a growing sense of confidence in academic selves, something that Kamler and Thomson (2007) have referred to as ‘discursive social practice.’ Finally, writing groups allow us to identify ourselves as a member of a writing group facilitates our identifying ourselves of a larger peer community (Maher, 2008).
Assumptions – What’s Out There? (Sara D) I have always found writing groups incredibly rewarding. I’ve spent a lot of time in them, and have experienced the “Shut Up and Write”, the peer review, and the roundtable (where you read a paper at home and come prepared to give feedback). You could say that I am a serial “Writing Groopie”.
There is a common assumption of writers as isolated. Writing is often pushed into the margins and talked about as something you do “after” all of the hard work has been done. It is something you share only after it has been “perfected”, so it can be scary just talking about writing. The dominant assumption of writing seems to be that we have to work alone to craft the perfect text before we even think about sharing with others.
Writing groups are really useful vehicles for subverting these popular assumptions about writing. Scholars exploring doctoral writing groups assume that writing is a social practice. Whenever we write, we write to someone, and writing groups make this sociality visible. This is especially true of writing in academe, where we are trying to figure out how to write to a larger community of scholars and peers. As Anthony Paré (2014) writes, writing groups provide a space for us to learn how to participate in these conversations. Writing groups provide us with opportunities to explore how to give feedback and experiment with thinking and arguing like a scholar. He also believes “opening one’s mouth to speak in the doctorate…[is] fraught with danger” (p. 25). What we write and how we write it affects the ways in which we are viewed by our communities. While we learn how to speak from supervisors, writing groups provide a safer environment to test out ideas, ways of talking, and ways of writing (Guerin, 2014; Paré, 2014; Starke-Meyerring, 2014).
Reflexive Strategies (Maggie) We want to wrap things up with some ideas for how to get the most out of a writing group, based partly on what we’ve experienced, and partly on the ideas of those who have come before us.
Our group meets once a week – many groups meet less frequently, but we’re using the weekly appointment as a way of keeping ourselves connected to the habit of public writing. Typically, we use the Pomodoro method, so in our two-hour session, we write in 25-minute sessions, taking a short break to chat, or share bits of our writing. More recently, especially as we worked on grant applications and candidacy papers, we decided to dedicate one session each month to a share-and-respond session, wherein we exchange computers and comment in writing on each other’s work. We discuss our comments before we end the session, but we each leave with at least two other people’s feedback recorded in our text, for reflection and reference.
Of course, there are many different writing group formats, and as you might expect, there are a ton of resources for writing groups online, which if nothing else speaks to their effectiveness. Most academic writing groups recommend a few basic tips, which we’ve included below, along with some links to other writing group resources.
One of the tips is to find a common goal. Although we’re all researching different things – Sarah M. is looking at teacher education in physical therapy, Sara D. is writing about doctoral writing, Erin is exploring how religious education can be beneficial in adult language learning, and Maggie is looking at development of teacher identity in higher education – we’ve been writing together for almost a year now. About a month ago, Sara D. had a brilliant idea – we should present on writing groups as part of the colloquium! And then she added the most enticing part: if that works out, we should write a paper.
So now, as well as meeting regularly to work on our own writing, we’re starting to gather our collective thoughts and experiences, in order to write about our group and its impact on our personal doctoral journeys. When Sara began looking into writing groups, she found a great deal written from the perspective of those who encourage us to form groups, but only one written from the perspective of an actual group member (Maher, Seaton, McMullen, Fitzgerald, Otsuji, & Lee, 2008). So we thought that we should write and share, so others can benefit from this strategy. Since we still have some time before we get to the end of this particular journey, we’re not rushing to write this paper, but we’re gathering thoughts and reflections in preparation.
One of the methodologies we’ve begun using, then, is a form of reflexive memo. At the beginning of each session, we take five minutes to write about what we’re hoping to work on, our personal goals, and our feeling about the session. Then at the end of the session, we take another five to ten minutes to reflect back on the session. Over time, we will collect these, and collectively reflect on the reflections, so we can see how the group is working for us collectively and individually.
You can also use memoing with a writing group as another way of recording reactions to and reflection on each other’s work (Qualley & Chiseri-Strater, 1994), not to mention record and reflect on your own progress. Whether you use memos specifically or not, finding a way to engage in collective reflexivity can help improve your writing and your morale (Barry et al, 1999).
Our experience & commentary
Have a group goal & shared interest/connection
As Sarah M points out, we are all PhD3 students at McGill’s DISE, so we have a few things in common, even if our personal research interests are different. Having said that, we have found that within our research, there’s plenty of crossover, and we often end up sparking ideas in each other, and recommending readings.
Be prepared to commit long-term (at least one term)
We’ve been writing together since last year, and this year, we decided to continue, for as long as we can.
Be exclusive – 4 to 7 people is typically regarded as ideal
We are currently four, although once in a while, someone else has sometimes joined us. It’s not always easy to find a regular time that’s good for everyone, so the group sort of ends up limiting itself.
We do think it’s important to feel comfortable with the rest of the group; after all, these people are going to be reading and commenting on your work. You should feel trust and kinship.
Share or delegate administrative tasks
Inevitably, these will come up – who’s responsible for booking a room? Is really the only one we’ve encountered so far, although there was a lot of emailing to set things up. We’ve never really worried about a leader, as things just seem to naturally fall into place.
Find a good space & time
We’ve tried a few places. We had a few good sessions at Thompson House, but now we find that it gets pretty loud, so we’ve moved to the McLennan library. Remember that you’ll need a space that works for writing, above all – desks or tables are probably necessary, and, given how many of us write exclusively electronically, access to outlets might be a consideration.
Determine which model works best for everyone
Present & respond
Share w/o feedback
Brainstorming & direction
We use the Pomodoro method, and we set aside one session each month for a read & comment session.
If you’re using a presenter model, set up a schedule ahead of time
Be prepared to give and receive feedback
Indicate particular sections or aspects for which you’d like feedback
Take note of feedback, or have people comment directly on your work, so you have a record
This is really crucial – we really get a lot out of our feedback sessions, and it’s nice to hear from everyone, rather than just one view.
We pass our computers to each other, rather than read to each other, so we can make comments on each other’s texts, and then have a record of the feedback as we move forward.
References & Resources:
Barry, C. A., Britten, N., Barber, N., Bradley, C., & Stevenson, F. (1999). Using Reflexivity to Optimize Teamwork in Qualitative Research. Qualitative Health Research,9(1), 26-44.
Guerin, C. (2014). The gift of writing groups: Critique, community and confidence. In C. Aitchison, & C. Guerin (Eds.), Writing groups for doctoral education and beyond (pp. 128-141). New York, NY: Routledge.
Haas, S. (2014). Pick-n-mix. A typology of writers’ groups in use. In C. Aitchison, & C. Guerin (Eds.), Writing groups for doctoral education and beyond (pp. 30-47). New York, NY: Routledge.
Kamler, B., and P. Thomson. 2007. The failure of dissertation advice books: Towards alternative pedagogies for doctoral writing, Paper presented at annual meeting of AERA, Chicago, April.
Maher, D., Seaton, L., McMullen, C., Fitzgerald, T., Otsuji, E., & Lee, A. (2008). ‘Becoming and being writers’: The experiences of doctoral students in writing groups. Studies in Continuing Education, 30(3), 263-275.
Paré, A. (2014). Writing together for many reasons: Theoretical and historical perspectives. In C. Aitchison, & C. Guerin (Eds.), Writing groups for doctoral education and beyond (pp. 18-29). New York, NY: Routledge.
Pheby, A. (2010). The myth of isolation: Its effect on literary culture and creative writing as a discipline. Creative Writing: Teaching Theory & Practice, 2(1), 51-58.
Qualley, D. J., & Chiseri-Strater, E. (1994, Winter). Collaboration as Reflexive Dialogue: A Knowing “Deeper Than Reason” Journal of Advanced Composition,14(1), 111-130.
Spigelman, C. 1999. Habits of mind: Historical configurations of textual ownership in peer writing groups. College Composition and Communication 49, no. 2: 23455
Starke-Meyerring, D. (2014). Writing groups as critical spaces for engaging normalized institutional cultures of writing in doctoral education. In C. Aitchison, & C. Guerin (Eds.), Writing groups for doctoral education and beyond (pp. 65-81). New York, NY: Routledge.
Studying for a humanities PhD can make you feel cut off from humanity. (2014). Retrieved October 19, 2016, from https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2014/jul/08/humanities-phd-students-isolation
 New word for the week! Heteroglossic: from heteroglossia, first coined by Bakhtin, to describe two or more voices within a text.
 We’ve contemplating starting our own online groop – a la Paltrow’s Goop – exclusive and curated, but with fewer juice cleanses.
So my plan today was to write a post about thoughts and conversations I’ve had recently on the subject of failure. The more I wrote and thought and wrote, however, the more I realized that this was bigger than the planned post. So, rather than abandon the post altogether, I’m posting my preliminary plan, with an appeal for your input.
It’s a little overwhelming just how many people have said something about failure. Arianna Huffington said that the “failure is not the opposite of success, it’s part of the process.” Michael Jordan said “I’ve failed over and over again… that’s why I succeed.” A simple Google search reveals countless famous failures, from Albert Einstein to Steve Jobs to Oprah Winfrey. And of course, when all else fails, we fall back on the old saw, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” We seem to understand that failure is an inevitable part of life. In fact, we collectively resent anyone who appears to be an “overnight success,” feeling like anyone who hasn’t paid their dues hasn’t really earned their fame and fortune.
Yet, when it comes to failure in the academic context, we have a different understanding, a different regard for the student who fails a test, a course, or a grade. There seems to be a lot written about how students fail, and about how failure affects students, but I wondered how much has been written about failure from the perspective of the teacher. Are we affected when our students fail? Does student failure effect change in our teaching, in our assessment, and in our professional identity? And, from another angle, what are our assumptions about failure, based on our own experiences? Perhaps most importantly, how can we talk to our students, and to our colleagues, about failure? Can we collectively start to reimagine what failure is, what it represents, and how it (should) influence(s) teaching and learning?
In this paper, I want to explore some of those questions, and look at how we rationalize failure in other aspects of life – in video games and driving schools, for instance – yet equate failure with catastrophe and psychological damage in the academic context. I’ll reflect on my own experiences, as a teacher, a student, and a parent, with failure, and (I hope) get some input from other teachers and students on failure in the STEM fields, in high-stakes standardized testing, and at various levels of education. Finally, in a wild attempt to connect this tangent to my dissertation research, I’ll reflect on failure and identity, from both student and teacher – and perhaps, institutional – perspectives.
Suggestions for resources and, in particular, personal input would be very much appreciated. If you think you’d like to share, but aren’t sure where to start, consider these questions for inspiration:
Did you encounter failure in school? How did it feel at the time? Were you expecting it? How does it feel now, in retrospect?
If you are a teacher, or educational administrator, what do you think the role of failure is in learning? How do you feel if a student fails? How do you react if a large number of students fail a course or test?
If you’re a parent, how have you dealt with academic failure with your children?
If you are neither a teacher nor a parent, what are your thoughts on failure in the academic (or any other) context? Are there fields or levels in which failure should be more or less present?
And, of course, if you have other ideas, please share!
As my final paper for a course on textual approaches to research, I wrote an autoethnographic* analysis of my own tattoos. The paper is my first real foray into this genre of research; arguably, the Fitness & the Academy poster involves some autoethnography, but given that (disappointingly) the topic was rejected as a paper for the conference, I feel I didn’t spend a lot of time on it, and that while it represents my thoughts on the topic, it doesn’t really delve into the topic as much as it would have as a paper.
I am, generally, very happy with the tattoo paper, but I have to admit there is a small voice inside asking if it “counts.” Of course, it does, and in fact I’m hoping that my prof encourages me to submit the paper for publication** (gotta publish!!). I read a lot for this paper, and I’ve sprinkled ideas from those articles throughout, as springboards for my own reflections on my tattoo choices. I consulted other working women with tattoos. I interviewed my favourite tattooist – and underwent three hours of delicious agony getting a new tattoo in the process.
So, objectively, this paper “counts.” I guess it’s the word “objectively” that fuels that small voice, which, I think, sounds a little like my dad. A few weeks ago, my dad triumphantly thrust a copy of The Globe and Mail under my nose, and proclaimed that everything I thought was true wasn’t. He was referring to a column by Margaret Wente, in which she crows about the “doubts and scandals that have plagued the field” of psychology, because recent research calls into question the reliability of research from previous decades. Wente’s column is, unsurprisingly, flawed on several counts; in regard to my dad’s remark, though, the most relevant failing is the author’s lack of understanding of how research – not just knowledge in the disciplines – has changed in the interim; it is not that the research is now unreliable, it is that times and methods and even subjects have changed such that the results cannot be reliably reproduced. My dad is a retired metallurgical engineer whose 1966 BSc thesis was on non-destructive testing methods. My mum is a physicist who spent her career in research and development for Pratt & Whitney. I grew up in a home, and an era, that cherished the Scientific Method, and it’s clear that Wente feels at home there, too.
So again, objectively, I know that times and methods have changed, and I am convinced that the Scientific Method is often completely inappropriate as an approach to a given topic. If one were to write a paper on tattoos, using the Scientific Method, what results would be produced? Statistical data about how many of a given population has how many tattoos? Can we draw anything meaningful from this approach? I say ‘no.’ At the same time, writing about tattoos from a more holistic and humanistic perspective can be fraught with tension, if one were to write about why other people make decisions about tattoos. The safest, and arguably, most honest approach may well be autoethnography – as my own research subject, I can rely on my interpretation of the data and avoid any risk of appropriation of voice or culture.
But – and here we come to the crux of the problem, moving forward – of what value is my paper to anyone else? Although part of me is excited about the idea of publishing the paper, that small voice is asking why any journal would want to publish one person’s account of her own tattoos. And if I can’t quell that voice, it’s only going to get more insistent as I work on my dissertation papers – how can one person’s discussion of her teacher identity and how it affects her approach to assessment be of value to anyone else?
I know that there is value in the method, and I remain convinced that it’s a valid approach for my research. The voice will be still, eventually.
* Further reading: Butz & Besio state that “at its most basic, autoethnography may be understood as the practice of doing this identity work self-consciously, or deliberately, in order to understand or represent some worldly phenomenon that exceeds the self; it is ‘a form of self-narrative that places the self within a social context’ (Reed-Danahay 1997b, 9). It is becoming an increasingly common research and representational orientation in the social sciences and humanities” (1660).
Similarly, and perhaps even more pertinent in my research context, Hoppes writes that “by placing the writer in dual roles of researcher and research participant, autoethnography is a meaning-making tool that facilitates the exploration of identity” (64).
Hoppes, Steve. “Autoethnography: Inquiry Into Identity.” New Directions for Higher Education 2014, no. 166 (2014): 63-71.