Saturday, November 9, 2013

How to: Academic Writing for the Humanities Part 3

Part 1 is here. For those who thought parts 1 and 2 were too cerebral or boring but are interested in improving their writing, Part 3 will probably be the most interesting.

Possibly the most important part of this whole thing

What are we looking for when we “analyze”? I've heard people say “I spent so much time on this paper and my professor says I'm not digging deep enough. What more do I need to do???” The answer, for me at least, lies in Bloom's taxonomy. Bloom is a last name that all educators know with a first name that everyone has forgotten, but he developed something very important for us: levels of thinking. Bloom created six levels of thinking from lower to higher those levels are: knowledge, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, create. The first three are often called “lower order thinking skills” while the last three are “higher order thinking skills” (HOTS). It is the HOTS that we want to primarily engage in our papers. These skills are easier to understand when we see key words that can be found in questions associated with each level. For instance, your paper may call for a definition of “religion.” Quoting Durkheim's definition of religion would be at the knowledge level. Consider knowledge regurgitation. Putting his definition into your own words would be at the understand level. These would be at the lower level. Deciding if a specific tradition meets Durkheim's definition of religion would be a HOTS. Comparing and contrasting Durkheim's definition to someone else's definition is a HOTS. Illustrating the ways in which Durkheim's definition shows a Western bias is a HOTS. Creating your own definition of religion would be a HOTS.

HOTS are where the juicy parts of our paper need to come from, not the lower order questions. The lower order questions often need to be addressed in order to set up our HOTS, but they should not be the focus of a paper.

Here is an image I admittedly stole, but this stuff can be found in so many places it's basically common knowledge (note they do change names of some levels). For more information (especially visual representations of HOTS), simply Google “Bloom's Taxonomy.” In your papers, you want to shoot for the top three levels in this visual aid. Included with the levels are keywords to help determine which level you're currently addressing with your research:

Knowing that you're addressing higher order analysis in your research paper requires you to know what sorts of questions belong to which level. Here is a good chart showing the levels and the types of questions that belong to each. For the humanities, here are some good types of questions to consider when analyzing data (journal articles, books, etc.) for a research paper (all are taken from the above link):
  • "What is the relationship between...?"
  • "What things justify...?"
  • "What could be changed to improve...?"
  • "What outcome would I predict for...?" (the flip of this would be taking the outcome first and then designing the process needed to reach it)
Parts 1 and 2 of this series (hopefully) helped those who are intimidated by the research process. For those already comfortable writing, they can skip them. Part 3 helps those who aren't sure if they're digging deep enough in their analysis.

Friday, November 8, 2013

How to: Academic Writing for the Humanities Part 2

Part 1 is here. This part, heavy into "coding" may sound unnatural or forced. Again, these first two parts are for those struggling with the writing PROCESS. Grounded Theory (GT), qualitative data analysis (QDA), and the coding process may not be for everyone, but they will help those who feel lost in the research part of a research paper.

A note on coding -- when I first wrote this presentation, Twitter had not IPO'ed and news media were not using "tags" in all of their stories. So anywhere the word "code" or "coding" appears, it could easily be changed to "hashtag" or "tag."

OK, I'm done reading everything and have excerpted everything I want to excerpt. Now what?

This is where the “A” in QDA starts to happen. Go through all your excerpts and look for “themes.” These themes will be your major organization groups. In some cases, you can treat them as a “parent code.” After finding major themes, you'll want to start looking for specific codes that you'll use to organize your data. This IS analysis, by the way. These should be words or short phrases that sum up what the excerpt is about. Many times, codes can be found within the QD. For instance, if you're doing a paper on gamers and the term “newb” keeps coming up, this is an in vivo code – a code made by the informants themselves. Use it. Same can be said for typologies developed by the informants themselves (in this case your authors).

You'll know you're done developing codes when every excerpt can be classified into a code. This is called “saturation.” And yes, a code could very well be “misc” or “unclassified.” This is especially true of any excerpts you want to save for later research that don't directly apply to the current question(s).

Here is the rough draft of my themes/codes for a paper:

This list isn't quite useful yet. Many of these themes are actually subthemes of others. The best way to do this would be to have each theme on a Post-It note and sort themes into groups and then place related groups next to each other, etc. until you get a visual form of your mental concept. For my themes, I decided on three main themes. Here's what I ended up with:

All done!

Not quite. Now that you have your codes, you need to go through all your excerpts and assign them their codes in WeftQDA. Excerpts can have more than one code as well. The reason you're doing this will become clear (and awesome) in the next step. So just get it done . . .

OK that took awhile, this next step better be good.

Now you can ask WeftQDA to show you all the excerpts that are coded “_____” and look at each excerpt across author. Yes, you could have done this on your own with copy and pasting or with different colored highlighters, etc., but it would have taken a long time. It is at this point that you'll realize how important it was to begin each excerpt with author initials and page number – when they're organized by code they're all jumbled up. It would be very hard to go back to the original text and check context and citation information without this step.

Now that you see all your excerpts across authors sorted by codes, you can better analyze this data. You don't need to print out 12 PDFs and lay them on your floor and try to keep track of what neat quote you saw where that goes with this other neat theory from so-and-so which you thought you put here but is actually hidden under another paper . . . etc. THIS is where the good analysis happens.

This process looks really tiring and cumbersome. More trouble than it's worth.

It may be for some people. They're probably better off not using it. But for people who struggle with the writing process, more structure is often a good thing while they get “used to” writing academic papers. This process might be a life saver for someone's first semester or two and then might become superfluous afterwards. Or it might be great for certain types of papers and unnecessary for others. If you get A's on papers already, keep doing your thing. If you're worried about your grade, it might be worth it to try this out.

Part 3 now up.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

How to: Academic Writing for the Humanities Part 1

This presentation was originally called “Using Grounded Theory (sorta) and Qualitative Data Analysis (sorta) for Academic Writing in Religious Studies.” There is no reason why it needs to be limited to religious studies. I also didn't want to pigeonhole it too much with the GT and QDA part -- even though I found I use those two things quite a bit in my writing. Many will probably notice they use some sort of GT intuitively. While understanding GT and how I suggest using QDA and coding is NOT necessary to write well, for those struggling to find their writing groove, it could be a systematic way to improve the process.

What is the point of this presentation?

I've often heard grad students in the humanities describe difficulties with writing. Even when the end product was of high quality, the process of writing itself was often daunting. It doesn't need to be. It's a lot of work, but need not be difficult. Along with these complaints about intimidation, I've also heard colleagues make comments such as “how am I supposed to meet expectations for this term paper when in undergrad no one ever taught me how to write like this?” Writing at a graduate level is not easy. And when our high school and undergrad programs don't teach us the skills needed to analyze data at a graduate level, we're often left floating downstream and feeling like we aren't meeting expectations: either our own or our professors. This presentation is made with the goal of (1) making the process or writing easier and (2) showing some strategies for meeting expectations for quality of writing.

What is Grounded Theory?

The short answer is that Grounded Theory (GT) is a method employed mainly in the social sciences for developing research questions, constructing data collection techniques, collecting data, and constructing theories. Central to GT is the idea of “leaving baggage at the door.” While they play a part towards the end of the process, preconceptions and existing theories should be kept at bay for the time being (the “theory” should be “grounded” in the data). Also important to GT is the concept of a spiraling methodology. After a research question is decided upon, a preliminary literature review could easily lead to a revision of the original research question. This would then lead to further refinement of the literature review. The same is true of data collection. Data may show up that leads to a revision in collection techniques or even a step back all the way to deciding on a research question. This visual aid illustrates the spiral (or 2 steps forward 1 step back) nature of GT (from Qualitative Research Methods for the Social Sciences by Bruce L. Berg).

But I'm not doing a social science project with surveys, questionnaires, and interviews. Why should I use GT?

While GT was developed and is primarily used by social scientists doing these sorts of projects, it can just as easily (and effectively) be used for academic writing. The main difference is that the data collection and research design will be replaced with library, journal, and database searches. Instead of getting data from people through surveys and interviews (or videos, photos, etc. in the case of content analysis), we get our data through reading. Lots of reading. Yet the data gathered through reading can still be used within a GT method by using the spiraling technique listed above. While reading journal articles related to a research question, data may show up that leads to a revision or refinement of your research question. Or it might inspire a whole new research question altogether. One of the primary advantages to GT is that it helps keep confirmation bias in check.
OK, so what's the process?
A first step is to figure out a general topic for your paper. Remembering the spiral method, this step goes along with a literature review which will further refine the topic . . . which will lead to a refined literature review . . .which will lead to a re . . . you get the idea. Hopefully, you will end up with a research quesiton or series of questions. Write these down and organize them. Some questions will be “subquestions” of others and some will be different, yet related, categories entirely. From here, you do those handy Boolean searches for books and articles which will help answer your research question(s). These are what will become your qualitative data (QD).

Note: Almost everyone who writes in the humanities does this -- whether they consider they sources QD or not. While I go through how to use QDA software below and in Part 2, for papers with fewer sources (say . . . less than a dozen), it is probably not worth the time to use the software. But the same idea of coding (see part 2) applies -- just done mentally.
Luckily, most of this QD will be in the form of PDFs. Most PDFs allow you to copy and paste text. Of the dozen or so I used for this paper, only one prohibited this. So the next step is to read through all these articles. I had the PDF open in one window and my word processor open in another. Whenever I came across an excerpt I thought would help with my research question(s) (or that simply seemed interesting for further review), I copied and pasted it into my word processor. Two notes on this: (1) use .txt as your file type as this is what WeftQDA accepts, (2) before each excerpt put the authors initials and the page number on which the excerpt is found. This second step is important later on in the process.
Part two will look at how we deal with all this data.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Book Review: Anarchy, State, and Utopia by Robert Nozick

I'm certainly not a libertarian. My views rest very much closer to Rawls and the communitarians. So I was prepared to dislike this book from the start. Yet one cannot embrace the Rawlsian view without also being open (and knowledgeable) of those who critique it. I communitarian who has never read Nozick is no better than a libertarian who has never read Rawls. So I set out to tackle this beast. I was pleasantly surprised. Nozick is a great philosopher. His logic is clean. His arguments (usually) concise and easy to follow. Yet I disagree with his conclusion.

The main reason I end up disagreeing with Nozick's arrival at a minimal state is due to his presumptions. Nozick believes that the foundation of the state must begin with individual rights. I'm inclined to agree with him. The rights be believes the state should enforce, however, are limited to property rights and freedom from aggression (pretty explicitly stated as bodily harm from assault or war). I find this far too narrow a list of rights. I am much closer to the Nussbaum/Sen idea of rights as capabilities/functionings. Why should the state preserve the right of a citizen to not be assaulted, yet deny that citizen the right to health care? The difference seems arbitrary. Nozick's idea of giving individual rights primacy coupled with the human capabilities approach could yield some very interesting results.

My other main disagreement with Nozick comes from his defense of the minimal state against those who have criticized libertarianism. When defending one's position against critiques, real or imagined, it is often difficult to avoid arguing against a straw man. Unless citing specific criticisms of one's position, it is very easy to construct a hypothetical position and then argue against THAT instead. I feel Nozick does this to a degree when he explains why libertarianism can withstand the assault of communitarians.

Overall, this is a must read for anyone interested in the justice debate of the last 40 years that started with Rawls and continues to the present.