Some Lessons from Dissertation Writing

This week I turned in my dissertation. Now I wait for my defense. In the moment of euphoria before I find out everything that is wrong with the project I’ve been working on for a year, I decided to jot down some of the things that I’ve learned so far about the process.

Some of these lessons are based on advice and counsel that others gave me, but that I’ve since found to be wise. We’ll find out how well I did on the final product in a couple of months. Even if there are flaws (there are, trust me) in my dissertation, here are some things that I have learned through writing the longest academic work I’ve ever attempted.

1.         It’s never going to be perfect. – One of the hardest things to recognize just prior to my submittal of my dissertation was that there were still going to be some imperfections in the manuscript. I’ve read the completed manuscript multiple times. So has my wife. I have no doubt that there are still a few typos, missing words, extra spaces, or the like throughout. At some point you have to let it go.

2.         You can’t read every possible source. – I wrote each of my chapters, referencing those volumes and thinkers that best related to my point in the text. However, as I was doing my final read through of the dissertation before submitting it, I kept on thinking of additional sources that could have bolstered my point or that I could have read. There are new books in the academic catalogs that are begging to be included in my bibliography and dozens of articles that I downloaded that I never got to read. I could have tried to read and cite more, but sooner or later you have to turn the project in.

3.         Having someone else read it is invaluable. – My amazingly patient wife also serves as my editor. She doesn’t do style manual stuff, but she does read for grammar, clarity, and typographical issues. Having her read my chapters to tell me where I made no sense or where I had errors made a huge difference in the end, I think. There were a number of places she called my attention to that were unclear and needed simple rewording to make the project better.

4.         This isn’t the best thing you will ever write. – Looking at the 358 pages of manuscript is pretty impressive. It’s the longest piece of scholarship I’ve ever written. In fact, most of the chapters are longer than any paper I’d previously written. What I had to continually fight back was the goal to make this my magnum opus. I will write something better later on, so I need to make a good effort but not think that this is the pinnacle of my scholarship. My scholarship and writing should get better in the future. That’s not a ding against my dissertation, it’s a reflection of academic maturation.

5.         Doing a read-through at the end is important. – Before I had the final proofreading done by my wife, I read through the dissertation from cover to cover in about two days. Since some of my chapters had been written about a year before, this was an important step in the editing process. By the end of the writing process I had developed some key phrases and learned to avoid others. I was able to edit the earlier chapters to reflect the language of the later chapters (chronologically) by the end. This step helps the project read more like a cohesive work of scholarship, instead of a collection of essays. I was also able to find some places where I could clarify my own explanations, which, I think, made the end product more readable for someone else.

6.         Creating a project plan with deadlines is vital. – The internet is flooded with “dissertation writing as project planning” sites. There is value in the approach. I only met a couple of my deadlines, so I had to keep revising and extending the project plan. However, by delineating the steps and what it would take to get there, I could focus on the next thing instead of getting overwhelmed by the size of the project. By having an internal deadline (with plenty of margin built in to the institutional deadline) I had something to keep me moving. Because I had looked at the institutional deadline and built my project plan based on that, I knew what I had to do to get the project in on time. This made it easier to prioritize so that I could know when I needed to lock myself away to write or when I could play another game of Monopoly with the kids.

7.         Stay on topic. – There were about a million times in the process of writing that I found interesting rabbit trails to go down. I even ventured down a few of them. I’ve got extensive notes and footnotes to prove it. However, when I was polishing my dissertation, most of the work of those rabbit trails ended up deleted from the final product. I may use some of the material for essays later on, but I sometimes spent a week on research that was interesting, but did little to support my final dissertation. A bit more discipline would have benefited me significantly.

8.         Keep notes on the side ideas. – I wasted some time along the way exploring rabbit trails. However, one of the things that I think will bear some fruit in the future is using some of that material and the ideas that I got while writing my dissertation to produce journal articles at a later date. I’ve got a list of potential topics with some sources that I can chase down now that I’ve finished my dissertation. These don’t all relate directly to my dissertation topic, but there is room for further research. I now have more ideas for the future than my life and schedule can possibly support.

There are probably more things that I’ve learned. Perhaps after my defense I’ll pick up the topic again. Or, I may discover that some of my lessons learned aren’t as helpful as I thought. I’ll let you know what the readers think.

What Value in Assessment in Higher Education?

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Higher education is filled with opinions. Some of them are informed. Some of them are well considered. Every issue is debated with rigor, sometimes with adequate research, too. Since there is benefit to novelty among academics, there should be little surprise that there is little consensus on many issues.

Assessment is a popular topic for debate in Higher Ed right now. There is an increasingly analytical bent and demand for evidence by accreditors. This requires additional emphasis on academic assessment. Often increased budgetary expenditures are a natural result of this. As tuitions rise and some universities look for places to cut costs, this leads some to question whether assessment is worth the time and money. One professor has even wondered whether it does more harm than good.

My professional title is Director of Assessment and Institutional Research, so there is little surprise that I am in favor of academic assessment. However, I do assessment because I believe in it; there are other things I could do to make a living.

The Trouble with Academic Assessment

Most of the time when people are frustrated with assessment it is because they are either doing it poorly or over-doing it.

Academic assessment as it is done does not necessarily align with the way many faculty are trained to think. Good academic assessment is a largely pragmatic exercise, which rubs many idealistic, theoretical thinking professors the wrong way. We are trying to look at somewhat subjective qualities in objective terms. How does one measure critical thinking, exactly?

And yet, though assigning a number to a student’s critical thinking (For example: 3 = satisfactory) seems blasphemous to some, this sort of cataloguing is necessary if we are to consider how the curriculum works for the larger body of students. It does not present a perfect method, but it is a useful one if it is not trusted too ultimately or pressed for too great an exactness.

But the main purpose of academic assessment is not to merely get a bunch of numbers so we can declare success or make unnecessary changes. Rather, the purpose is to provide a metric that encourages a feedback loop in the curriculum design process.

THE PLACE OF CURRICULUM DESIGN

To those experienced in curriculum design as a formal process or business planning in the market, an introduction to academic assessment seems altogether too simplistic. Of course you base your curriculum on your desired outcome! However, what is obvious to some people (particularly in the practical disciplines) is much less intuitive for many in more theoretical disciplines.

I will pick on theologians because I am one. It is altogether too easy to sit down when planning a course the first time, particularly as a new professor wet behind the ears, and decide on the order of instruction in a course and the topics covered based on the texts available. (Or, it may simply be because the professor is borrowing his mentor’s notes.) In the case of Systematic Theology, this may be the order in which an author constructed his or her tome, which provides the basic structure for the course. This is a simple way to plan the course, but it assumes that the main purpose of a course is to impart knowledge rather than to change the students’ way of thinking. Often this initial structure is never significantly redesigned from the ground up.

If you ask this theologian what he intends for his students to learn, he will often reply that he hopes they will learn to theologize and think through the data clearly. However, the course is often not structured to impart that skill. This is not due to  ill intention, but due to a lack of planning in the proper manner.

Content is important and should be included. However, when designing a course (and a curriculum), the first question to be asked should be: What are the overarching goals of this unit of instruction? If it merely to learn facts about theology, then following the path laid out in a recent Systematics will be sufficient. If it is to learn to theologize, then different assignments may be necessary and a different approach taken that takes the student through the process of theologizing.

This approach cannot be designed by looking at the list of class dates and dividing the text by week. Rather, the professor must look at those greater goals and build those into the course of instruction along side the content that must be learned.

Some disciplines tend to do this curriculum design process at the course and degree level exceptionally well already. Others fall prey to a “Great Texts” mentality which accomplishes these learning outcomes only incidentally, though sometimes very effectively.

Academic Assessment is a process that helps ensure faculty and departments are asking those big questions and building explicit instruction into their courses for those big ideas they are seeking in students. After all, particularly in a liberal arts context, it is much less important that a student has laid eyes on the right texts and much more vital that they have the skills to handle those texts and the great ideas of life in the future. Academic Assessment can help that.

Dangers of Academic Assessment

One danger is that the formal Academic Assessment process is often run by people like me who are expert in one discipline or none. We can get carried away with the bells and whistles of our processes and begin to look for the right formal steps to be taken and reports to be formatted properly without regard to the true quality of the outcome. Often this is because we (the assessment gurus) don’t know enough about the subject to evaluate the quality of the assessment. (Let’s be brutally honest here.)

This danger can lead to assessment that is time consuming and produces insufficient positive results to justify the professors’ efforts. For sanity, we must have standard formats and processes, but they should be kept simple. The assessment process is a tool. The simpler the tool the more likely it is to catch on and have a positive return on investment.

When an academic gets embroiled into the depths of an assessment process that seems more about form than substance, it provides fertile ground for discontentment and suspicion of the process.

 Once an assessor (i.e., the conscripted professor) is doubtful of the assessment process, he or she is less likely to invest the mental energy to do it well. Assessment becomes something to be gotten through and checked off as quickly as possible. Just say whatever must be said to get the assessment folks off my back!

Doing assessment in this manner leads to mediocre results every time. There is a certain faith in the process of assessment, even with its limitations, that is necessary to make it work. To compare this to physical exercise: if one only half-heartedly does the exercises assigned by a trainer with little attention to vigor or proper form, one is unlikely to gain the desired weight loss or increased strength. However, even imperfect exercises done with a good will tend to lead toward fitness. The same is true of assessment.

Conclusion

My argument, therefore, is that assessment is a valuable tool for sharpening instruction in Higher Education when it is done simply and with good intent.

Assessment certainly will not solve everything that is awry in Higher Ed. It won’t dramatically reduce tuition, increase budgets, or get students to do their work. However, assessment is part of showing good stewardship and demonstrating a good faith effort to shape the curriculum around the desired goals and the needs of the students. It is not a panacea, but a part of the process.