One of the most rewarding aspects of the research I’m doing for my doctorate is the opportunity to just sit down and talk with colleagues. I’m using interactive interviewing,* which means that I get to hang out with other teachers, talking (venting, ranting, musing, crying, laughing) about teaching. We’ve talked to each other about how we got started, what we think teaching is, how we deal with assessment, and even what our theme songs are (right now, I think this is mine. No Rick Roll, I promise).
I have just finished the final round of four interviews, with my nine participants (yay!! finished!!). I’ve met with each person one-on-one four times since last May; each time, we’ve talked for more than an hour, allowing ourselves to explore the tangents and spirals that naturally arise in our dialogue. The first time we talked, our theme was simple: how did we find ourselves in the classroom? In the second round, we talked about mentorship and metaphors for teaching and learning. In the fall, we met for a third time, to talk about assessment, evaluation, grading, and feedback.
In our final conversation, I asked my participants** to reflect on our process: did anything in particular resonate? Were there any 3-a.m.-wake-up epiphanies? Any moments in the classroom where our discussions echoed in your mind? What was the most valuable part of this process? Each person had different things to reflect on, or to elaborate upon, but what struck me was that every single one said that they just really loved talking about these things with me. One or two said that they’d spoken about teaching and learning with me more often in this past year than with anyone in their department. Most said that they’d really like to keep talking about teaching and learning, even if my research cycle is complete.
Earlier this month, I presented an overview of my research to my college department, and suggested that one of the take-aways from my research so far is that while we may not have Yoda-esque mentors as teachers, most of us experience what I’ve taken to calling mentoring moments. These moments share a few characteristics: they are typically peer-to-peer dialogues (although not exclusively); they are mutually beneficial (both parties get something from the dialogue); they may arise from a crisis but are not really designed to solve a problem – rather, they allow both people to explore ideas, share experiences, and brainstorm strategies, without trying to find the one-and-only way to deal with the crisis.
So, for example, I might engage in a discussion with my colleague Jane about our deadline policies, perhaps because one of us is dealing with a situation that has made us question our current policy. So, I’ll talk about what my policy is, and Jane will tell me about hers. We’ll naturally talk about how our policies differ – maybe Jane refuses to accept any submissions more than three days after the deadline, whereas I accept them but provide no feedback, or deduct 5% for each day late. Perhaps I’ll realize that my policy now is pretty different from what it was five years ago, and we’ll talk about what changed and why – maybe I’ve stopped deducting marks for late submissions because I reflected on that practice and came to the conclusion that I wanted the grade to reflect the work done, not the time management. Maybe it’s the other way around, and I’ve realized that I want students to learn how to manage time and workload, so my deadline policy now reflects that desire. Jane and I might talk for an hour or so, sipping tea, sharing stories of students who’ve tested our policy patience. In the end, maybe one or the other of us will adjust her policy; maybe neither of us will make any changes. No matter what, we both will feel more confident in our policy; in discussing, exploring, challenging, reflecting, we’ve come to understand better why our policy is what it is. We can better articulate the how and why of our policy.
So here’s what I’m thinking about now: these mentoring moments are so fruitful, yet, as I’m sure many of us have experienced, when our institution sets up a community of practice or a mentoring program – even if everyone’s really keen and excited – eventually it fizzles. The online forum for our department includes a space for dialogue – the most recent post in that section is from 2016. We talk about mentorship and community of practice, but it seems like things never really get off the ground.
I was discussing this fizzle phenomenon with a colleague today, and she said “and that’s when people just give up.” People stop attending the brown bag lunches, stop posting to the online forum, stop trying to track down their appointed mentor… but maybe, like a neglected plant, we need to do some pruning, some repotting, careful watering, and see if we can’t bring that plant back to life.
So, then, of course, the question is how. How do we revive a wilting community of practice? How do we keep conversations going? And how do we do all of this organically, so we don’t feel like we’re under some kind of administration-mandated obligation to pretend we’re talking to each other.
*Note: Interactive interviews go beyond the conventional researcher-participant construct to establish a collaborative relationship between the researcher and her participant (Ellis, Adams, & Bochner, 2011). Unlike more traditional, ‘objective,’ interview techniques that ignore the emotional facet of the interview relationship itself (Ezzy, 2010), interactive interviewing uses autoethnography to recognize and reconstruct or redefine the relationship between researcher and participant. Ellis (1999) described her own experiences with interactive interviewing as an opportunity to engage in immediate responses to a participant’s story with her own lived experience. As the stories, experiences, and attitudes of the interviewer and interviewee flow into and through each other, the traditional boundaries and distances between the two participants are blurred or even erased (Fontana, 2002). [This section appears in the draft of my dissertation as well as in Finding Myself in Methodology (2017).
** OH MY GOD if someone can propose a few synonyms so I can stop writing “participant” over and over… the word has lost all meaning. Or rather, its connotation/denotation is starting to rankle – it feels very data-oriented to discuss “participants.” But I digress…
An experiment: As part of my critical self-reflection, I’ve been rereading some journal entries from more than a decade ago, when I started my M.Ed. I thought it might be fruitful to respond to my thoughts, to explore how my thinking has evolved, shifted, or even changed. In regular text, my musing from 2005. In green italics, today’s Maggie responds.
[NB: this is journal #1 from the College Teaching: Issues and Challenges course, which was the first in the Université de Sherbrooke’s Master Teacher M.Ed. program]
After only four classes, my ideas about knowledge are already changing – not that I am ‘changing my mind’ about knowledge, but I am expanding my definitions. I have always thought that there is a reason we talk about knowledge and wisdom, and that the two are not synonymous. In the context of this course, one way to think of these concepts is that knowledge is knowing certain information, and wisdom is knowing what to do with that information.
In class, we’ve looked at different kinds of knowledge, and discussed knowledge as a basic foundation upon which to build the learning experience. As an English teacher, and generally, as a student of the language, I find it fascinating to consider the various nuances of a single word – knowledge. What do we mean when we say that we “know” another person? Context is key here – we can “know” someone in the sense that we are aware of that person’s existence and can pick them out of a police line-up. Alternatively, we can “know” someone in the sense that we can predict that person’s behaviour, and be surprised when that person does something “out of character.” Do the same degrees of knowledge apply to information, such as literature? It seems to me that when we talk about the levels of learning or thinking, when we discuss knowing vs. understanding, we are simply drawing distinctions between knowing a subject superficially and knowing the same subject in-depth.
A couple of thoughts here… First, I like how I grappled with the degree of knowing here – I think it still resonates and makes sense to me. But I think I’m better able to articulate the why and how of “getting to know” someone or something, and I think I’m more interested in how we create knowledge and meaning through interactions. Each time I interact with another person, we “know” each other a little more. When this interaction happens near the beginning of our relationship, these incremental deepenings of our mutual knowledge may seem much greater than they do when we have already come to know each other well over years. Presumably we can say the same about how we come to know a subject or discipline – consider the threshold concepts idea: once we’ve crossed those first few transformative thresholds, our further progress within the discipline may not be as remarkable, in the literal sense.
We have labels for how this happens in personal interactions – we are friends of a mutual friend; we are acquaintances; we are friends; we are good friends; we are close friends; we are “besties.” We don’t signpost these stages – there’s no ritual or ceremony to mark our graduation from acquaintance to friend. Yet there are signs: friends get invited to dinner parties; close friends get invited to intimate dinners; “besties” get invited to family gatherings. Academically, we do indeed signpost certain stages in our knowledge creation, or at least in our demonstrations of having created knowledge – we move from grade to grade, from secondary to post-secondary; we are “admitted” to degrees; we move on to post-graduate work. Yet the true threshold crossings are typically not recognized or celebrated by our collective – we have an “aha” moment in class, or while working on our own, or in the shower, or while walking the dog. It must also be said that those moments that are recognized are identified by others – someone else decides that we’ve passed a test, passed a grade, passed into the next stage. We may have felt the actual transformation – from high schooler to college student, from learner to practitioner – well before we’re “official;” we may feel like we’re not ready yet, even if we’ve successfully passed the tests and received our certification. And of course, the certificate is a fixed point in time, and does not represent who we are at any other point. Am I a better driver on the day I get my license than I was the day before, when all I had was my learners’ permit? Am I as proficient a driver on the day I get my license as I am after a decade of driving?
Finally, in light of my current explorations, I want to think about this concept in terms of self-knowledge. How much better do I know myself if I purposefully and consciously reflect on my self than I would if I did not engage in that reflection? Is it possible to surprise oneself? I think it must be – consider the well-worn “if you’d told me ten years ago that I’d be…” phrase. If you’d told me ten years ago that now I’d be doing a Ph.D. in Education, I probably wouldn’t have been surprised. But if you’d told me that I’d also be a certified yoga and fitness instructor, I’d probably have been a little bemused. If you’d told me that I’d be living where I am, with two dogs, I’d probably have been at least somewhat surprised. And while I might have been nonplussed about the doctorate, I probably wouldn’t have predicted an autoethnographic narrative inquiry into teacher identity and assessment…
In the courses I teach, knowledge of the subject depends on the level of the course – the knowledge a second-year student is expected to bring into the course is obviously different from the knowledge a first-year student has. By the time a student gets to the second-year English courses, his or her knowledge of basics – from grammatical structure to key analytical elements such as plot and symbolism – should be well-enough established to allow an analytical discussion of specific genres and themes. So when I’m designing an introductory English course, I try to keep in mind the knowledge I will expect from these students next year, and work backwards from there.
Interesting that I was thinking in terms of “what do I expect them to know next year,” and not in terms of “what are the ministerial objectives.” I was writing this while part of an English department that (a) had a common final exam for the first-semester English course and (b) insisted that students take the Block B course in their second semester, unlike the college I’m at now (since the fall of 2005, in fact). So I could have talked about what I expected my students to face on their common final exam, or about what they needed to know for their Block B course…
The course I have chosen to design is a second-year course called Introduction to Playreading. This course covers drama from the Ancient Greeks to Aphra Behn (18th century England). I have chosen this course because I find designing second-year courses more challenging – first-year courses demand a lot of juggling, but are so chock full of material that course design is really a moot point. Second-year courses, on the other hand, are much looser – the ministerial objectives, for instance, simply state that the student should be able to write a 1,000-word essay and “to apply a critical approach to literary genres.” While this ambiguity allows our department to create and offer myriad variations on the theme of genre courses and thematic courses, as individual teachers, we are very much left to our own devices in terms of course content and assessment.
This leaves me with the question “what do I want my students to know at the end of my course?” Well, to quote myself (from the Successful Student assignment), ‘I consider students successful if they have not only learned the material, but learned to appreciate it, and have understood the relevance of the material. For instance, in a course on literature, students can pass simply by reading the material and writing a competent essay or two; but successful students will see connections between authors in the course and other authors, between themes in the course texts and their own lives, and between analytical skills honed in this course and those required for other courses. Ideally, students will seek out new authors, and expand on what they have learned. Ultimately, maybe the measure of a ‘successful’ student is not the grade but the grasp – and maybe the student can only be as successful as the teacher!’
“not the grade but the grasp” – I do sometimes have a way with words. This is essentially what I’ve been talking about with my research participants when it comes to our struggles with evaluation. We want to assess our students’ grasp, but we’re obligated to determine their grade. Ultimately, beyond the walls of academe, those grades are more or less meaningless. Yet within these walls, actors on all sides of the transaction are conditioned to emphasize grades over grasp. Students “need” to pass the course, not to learn. Teachers are sent spreadsheets with their pass rates compared to departmental averages. Institutions use grades (almost exclusively) to determine who gets to study and who gets left out – without, as one preservice teacher I recently talked with points out, considering the why and how of the grades. My A- or 84% is perceived as equal to my classmate’s same grade, even if I live with my parents, close to a metro, with no financial obligations, while my classmate is a single parent with a full-time job and rent to pay. When we both apply for entry to another program, those grades are the first determiner of our success – so if my cushy circumstances mean I’m more likely to have higher grades overall, then I get in, while my classmate, whose average suffers because of external factors, can’t get past the gate.
When I started this blog, I was very excited about the idea of recording and reflecting on my doctoral journey. Well, as it turns out, that journey is well underway, but the recording, not so much. Ironically, the journey has been going so well, and so quickly, that I haven’t had time to step out of the vehicle to write here.
My research is going so well, I’m starting to get paranoid about the proverbial other shoe. Patterns are emerging in the interviews – so many of us have parallel experiences, and a definite narrative structure is taking shape. I’m excited, and eager to get to the next round of interviews, and into the real heart of the writing itself.
I am not going to promise more blog posts, more regularly – aside from the dissertation (I am now ABD, so the text itself, and the interviews feeding it, are my focus), I am now back at work full-time, and time is harder and harder to find – I’ve dropped a few other commitments in order to make life manageable, or at least more so. However, I am trying to post to the companion Facebook feed more often, so feel free to follow my thoughts and reflections over there.
Many of the ideas expressed in Bergeron’s piece are valid – but I can’t help but feel that the author glosses over the fact that school, while absolutely necessary for some people’s goals, isn’t necessarily easy for everyone.
Pourquoi sommes NOUS, les enseignants, ici ?
Because school probably came pretty naturally for us. Because the things that fascinated us – philosophy, history, literature – naturally led us into teaching. Because we’re comfortable (perhaps only comfortable in) an academic environment.
Yes, encourage students to reflect on their purpose, both short and long term. Yes, encourage those who wish to pursue non-academic paths. But don’t assume that those who struggle – whether to get the reading done, hand work in, get to class, or stay awake – do so out of disinterest or misdirection.
For my Candidacy exam, I wrote two papers. The first of these explored some of the fundamental questions behind my research, namely
what does it mean to teach?
how do we develop a sense of ourselves as teachers, particularly in the higher education context? and
how does our sense of identity influence our assessment practices?
This post is composed of excerpts and distillations of that paper.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE A CEGEP TEACHER?
For teachers, Cégep can be an excellent opportunity. Most programs, pre-university or technical, require a Master’s degree or equivalent, rather than a doctorate; furthermore, Cégep teachers are not required to conduct research, publish, or present, although many institutions support individual teachers who wish to pursue such endeavours. Teaching in Cégep is a largely autonomous affair; teachers are not accountable to parents, nor are they accountable to funding agencies.
At the same time, teaching at the Cégep level can present its challenges, not least of which is navigating the question of what level are we really teaching. Since there is no equivalent, the Cégep system has had to address this question – or ignore it – internally. Our students are 17-20, especially in the preuniversity programs, and they are not yet in university, so we might think of them as high school students, and ourselves as high school teachers. On the other hand, they have graduated from high school, and are now enrolled in specific programs akin to undergraduate programs in universities, so we might think of them as freshmen, and ourselves as university professors. Although Cégep programs are mandated as competency-based, that is, curriculum is developed around a concept of knowledge that includes social and academic skills, Barbeau argued that paradigmatic shift toward the competency-based approach has not been properly explained, integrated, or implemented by government, institutions, or faculty (in Doucet, 2016).
Teachers in primary and secondary classrooms also face challenges to their sense of professional identity, of course. In postsecondary education, however, new teachers must negotiate their identity as teachers as opposed to practitioners in their discipline – or, as Garnett (2013) argued, they must embrace their discipline-based identity within the institution and in relation to their students. In postsecondary education, teachers are likely to self-identify first as a member of their discipline, and must, consciously or not, develop a sense of themselves as teachers, both within the discipline and in the larger context of the institution.
Shortly after I was accepted to the doctoral program, I ordered business cards, thinking that they would come in handy at conferences and the like. I filled in the form, and checked off the box marked “PhD Candidate.” After all, now that I was in the program, that’s what I was, right? A candidate?
It turns out there are designations, and that “candidate” indicates, typically, that you have completed any required coursework and have demonstrated – through comprehensive exams or papers, or both – that you have sufficiently immersed yourself in your field and are now prepared to take on original research.
The graduate secretary and the print shop were happy to accept my order, though, so I was the proud if confused owner of 250 business cards that erroneously identified me as a PhD Candidate.
When I told my supervisor about this mistake, she laughed and confessed that she had made the same mistake, introducing herself as a PhD Candidate as a newbie in her program. We’re actually working on a paper together now, exploring who makes what assumptions in the graduate context – because while the business card gaffe may be an innocuous blunder, there are assumptions made, by students, faculty, and institutions, that may have more dire consequences, or at least more embarrassing ones. Our conversation began with me relating the frustrating experience I had in applying to the program; the frustration stemmed from the institutional assumption that I (a) knew departmental faculty, (b) knew that I was expected to work with someone in preparing my application, and (c) knew how to remedy the situation if (a) or (b) were not true.
We all make assumptions, as teachers, as students, as parents, as citizens. As teachers, we may assume that students understand our instructions and know what to do with our feedback, for instance. We may assume that our colleagues share our beliefs about our role as teachers, and that our institutions will support us in our pedagogical choices. We may assume that someone will tell us that we’re not “candidates” yet, rather than signing off on a card order.
I think that a large part of the writing and dialogue I’ll engage in in the next few months will involve recognizing and challenging my assumptions – considering why I’ve made such an assumption, why it persists, and whether or not it’s valid. At least now that I have presented and defended my methodology and concepts papers, I can use those business cards 🙂
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.
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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!
One of the things that yoga has taught me about the academic classroom is not to take for granted that my instructions are clear. Just because I know what I mean – or even if half the class does – doesn’t mean I’ve reached everyone.
In my yoga classes, I do a variation on sun salutations that includes a twisting low lunge. It always astonishes me how many people instinctively twist away from their front knee, into an awkward and unstable twist. 1 It took me months before I realized that I needed to change my cues to reach those people. About half the class got the ‘let’s raise our arms and twist right,’ but in every class, I’d look up to see more than a few in the shaky went-the-wrong-way version, looking at me with distrust in their eyes. They clearly felt something was wrong, but having misinterpreted my cue, they weren’t at all sure how to correct.
Then I started saying ‘let’s twist toward that front knee,’ and they all got it. My revised cue also works for the few who inevitably lead with the left leg when I cue the right, since my cue is no longer based on direction, but on relative position. I think it also helps that the cue references a specific point on the body, so there is no confusion of right/left, with no fixed point.
So, I realized, I need to be willing to reflect on my cues, and be open to changing them, even I think they’re pretty straightforward. We don’t all visualize our bodies the same way, so while I might be generally comfortable with direction-based cues, 2 I have a responsibility to find other ways to lead people through the poses.
I’ve also realized that I need to be open to variations, and not just when I’m offering them. 3 At the end of every class, our final pose is Savasana (the Final Relaxation, or Corpse Pose – and hence one of the few that I only name in Sanskrit). Getting into Savasana is pretty straightforward, and I give a series of cues for coming out of the relaxation after two or three minutes: I ring a tingsha bell, then I say “to come back, let’s start with small movements of the wrists and ankles, then a nice big stretch, and a moment on our sides, in a fetal position, eyes closed… and when we’re ready, let’s use our arms to push up to seated.” It drove me bananas that so many people shifted and fidgeted during the Savasana, and even more bananas when they completely ignored my sequence to come back to Easy Seated Pose for our Namaste. One of my regulars hugs her knees to her chest and rocks herself manically to come straight upright!
But it struck me that my stressing about Savasana was counterproductive. So, rather than insisting on the sequence, I’ve started saying “find any position, laying on the mat, where you can be comfortable and just relax for a few minutes,” instead of insisting on the ‘real’ Corpse Pose. When I ring the tingsha, now I say “let’s take whatever movements we need to come back” and then offer some of the sequence as options. Some people do the whole sequence, some choose one or two of the steps, and my rocking horse still rocks herself back up. I let go of my rigid definition of Savasana, and now we’re all more relaxed.
If I consider both examples – the low twist and the Savasana – it’s clear to me that for the twist, I needed to find a new way to explain, in order to ensure that the pose is safe and stable. For the Savasana, on the other hand, I needed to let go of my vision, and allow people to find their own best expression.
How does this realization – that it’s not them, it’s me – manifest itself in the academic classroom?
Last week, I had my Master’s students work on an exercise in assessment. I gave each group a different colourful image, and instructed them to determine the learning objective, the appropriate and acceptable evidence that the objective has been met, and, using backward design, to decide on the instructional strategies that would get the student to the objective. I thought my instructions were clear enough, yet broad enough to allow for some creativity. The idea was to take the concepts – learning objectives, evidence, criteria for assessment, and backward design – out of the classroom, to make them clearer.
I was initially dismayed, then, when the first two groups that I checked in with showed me their progress and both were using their image as if they were teaching a primary class with the image, rather than teaching someone toward the image. In other words, the lovely photo of the garden, I thought, would inspire a lesson on how to plan and plant a garden; the group with that photo, however, used it to teach children how to identify colours.
My first reaction was to “correct” the groups, and get them to consider the garden as the objective, rather than the tool. But then I stopped myself, and wondered why I needed them to use the photo the way I thought it should be used. Would they not get the concepts if they changed the function of the photo? Would my exercise somehow not work? Would they be unable to present an objective, an assessment, and a learning plan? The answer to all of these questions was ‘no,’ of course. So rather than correct the groups, I discussed their ideas with them, and let them get on with their work.
In the end, about half the groups worked with their photos as tools, rather than as objectives. Each group presented to the class, and gave feedback to each other, and there were no problems at all – most groups began with “we chose to think of the photo as…” and we all accepted each group’s approach.
In future iterations of the course, I plan to use this exercise again, but I’ll model my idea of how to use the photo. I still think it’s valuable to think about assessment outside of the classroom context (as my yoga crossovers demonstrate!), so I’ll adjust my instructions to guide students in that direction – but I won’t get bogged down in “why don’t they get it?” frustration. I need to learn to recognize the “why don’t they get it?” reaction as a cue for me, to reflect on what I’m saying, and how, and whether, ultimately, different interpretations are problematic.
Is this a twist, or a Savasana?
yes, it’s certainly doable, but for the level I teach, it’s not a comfortable pose ↩
and honestly, I’m just as likely to go left when someone says right, especially if I’m teaching and being the mirror. I have to cue Eagle very, very slowly. ↩
Because I teach “all-level” classes, I tend to offer several options for poses as we go along. So, for instance, I might cue Downward Dog, but give the option of Child’s Pose as an alternative. ↩