Dartmouth Seminar

I’ve mentioned a key element in my sabbatical retooling, the Dartmouth Seminar for Composition Research. The first two weeks of August, I traveled to Hanover, NH to the campus of Dartmouth College, where I participated in an intensive two-week research seminar that followed some directed reading and online discussions. I was one of about 18 writing studies researchers interested in learning more about empirical research methods. Participants were diverse in multiple ways. We came from many kinds of institutions: state comprehensives, private colleges, research universities, and community colleges. Many career stages and types were represented: graduate students, non-tenured instructors, academic support staff, and tenured full professors, with some carrying administrative duties in composition programs, writing centers, or writing in the disciplines. Research projects were diverse, too: other writing transfer research projects; CCCC-sponsored research into institutional support for veterans; online authorship; evaluating the workload of online teaching; and a variety of projects closely tied to institutional assessments.

Not surprisingly, the seminar was demanding intellectually: after a few days, some of us took to referring to it as “research boot camp.” That’s what it was. We first met the night of July 31, and finished our work August 12–just about two weeks. We had one day off: the middle Sunday. Every few days, new visiting scholars joined us to speak to their expertise: Charles Bazerman gave an overview to situating research in the larger field, and Cheryl Geisler offered a two-day workshop in coding data and discourse analysis. Dartmouth professors John Pfister gave a crash course in statistics, and Jonathan Chipman in visualizing data. John Brereton offered excellent advice about grants. Chris Anson and Les Perelman spoke to assessment and situating research in larger institutional frameworks. The last two scholars to join us, Neal Lerner and Chris Haas, spoke to research design and ethical research. We concluded with two days of presentations in which participants summarized our research design and described what we learned during the seminar, with Haas and Lerner offering commentary. Throughout, all of the visiting scholars were available for office hours and individual consultation–for me, some of the most valuable time I spent at Dartmouth.

The seminar felt like a week, or maybe two weeks, of graduate school every day. Seminar organizer Christiane Donahue planned the calendar very well, keeping us busy but providing time for individual work. Some days, especially early on, consisted of eight hours of intensive seminars. Some were divided between morning seminars followed by individual work, consultations, and group work. None of the activities suffered for want of attendance and participation. Even optional night and weekend classes were very well attended. All of the participants lived in Fahey Hall, a dormitory on campus; classes were held in a common space on the ground floor of the building. It wasn’t hard to find attendees hanging out and working in the common space on the first floor, and it was downright easy to seek help with seminar work: for example, after Geisler concluded her lectures on Friday, I suggested all interested attend a “coding party” on Sunday afternoon. About eight people showed up and worked for two hours, coding each others’ data and reviewing segmenting and coding schemes as well. This good-natured work ethic stuck for the entire seminar. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all work and no play: I definitely enjoyed local beer culture with Scott Whiddon, Molly Oberlin, Justin Lewis, Tara Lockhart, and other attendees. We got to hear Charles Bazerman sing opera during a much-needed first Wednesday social. But it was great to collaborate with a group of people serious about learning and getting things done.

Much of what I learned during the seminar was focused specifically on the transfer research Neil and I are doing. As always, I took notes carefully–55,000 words in seminars, group work, and on my own. I’ve shared my wordcloud. I boiled those notes downs to eight pages of takeaways after the seminar, but can focus on three things here:

First, our research design was too complex. Neil and I wanted to use multiple methods of data collection in order to achieve the complexity we believe is necessary for understanding our research questions about writing in the major–learning about the activity systems in which our participants work. But planning for multiple kinds of data collection is cumbersome. Better to achieve complexity by focusing on case studies driven by interviews–and learning to become a very good interviewer. Here are the changes I proposed in my presentation:

original revised
  • Preliminary surveys of students in writing in the disciplines courses
  • Interviews of students and faculty at WIU and local community colleges which supply WIU with large numbers of students
  • Case studies of students at WIU and local community colleges
  • Pilot year in 2011–12; larger longitudinal study with similar methods 2012–2015.
  • Case studies of 8-10 students at WIU’s Macomb campus, 2011–12
  • Longitudinal study (methods and length to be determined) to follow.
  • Complex–many techniques to learn
  • Very labor intensive
  • Difficult to change on the fly
  • More focused research technique (interviews)
  • More manageable workload
  • Scales down if necessary, or up if desirable

Secondly, I failed to separate assessment and research. Part of the reason for the over-complex research design Neil and I imagined arose from prioritizing institution-focused goals (including all of WIU’s diverse constituencies–transfer students, first-generation college students, etc.) over research goals (gathering a manageable amount of relevant data). Ironically, over-prioritizing WIU needs could mean not meeting them as the study collapsed under its own weight.

Third, I left the seminar with a list of methodological questions to approach as I continue to learn the art and craft of empirical research:

  1. What principles can guide our comparisons of information from different sources?
  2. How can we measure the quality of our interviews—given the difficulty of research into transfer?
  3. How can we be genuinely beneficent to our participants, on the short and long term?
  4. What mechanisms can help us apply lessons learned from this study to future work?
  5. What support structures and resources will help us move the project forward?

All of the seminar leaders were very helpful, but I want to mention two in particular. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen any academic work as hard as Christiane Donahue did for the entire the two-week seminar. It seemed like she was up before everyone every day. Before all else, she created a fantastic intellectual experience for us, providing quite a bit of it personally by speaking to transfer, research design, and other specialities while offering us individual help. In addition, she arranged trips to the local grocery, helped us get access to scholarly resources on campus, and woke up in the middle of the night to help seminar attendees who’d locked themselves out of their rooms. With Kathy Herrington, I was very glad to sneak around Hanover a bit and put together a basket for Tiane which recognized how helpful she was for all seminar attendees. Secondly, Chris Haas: her talk on research ethics came at the end of the seminar when many of us were borderline exhausted. But it was invigorating, and thought provoking too. I went straight from her first talk to a chair and wrote Neil immediately to say, “Hey, we’ve got to think about this.” The two three page handouts she provided were very dense, giving me two or three specific things to think about. After I returned to Macomb, I wrote Haas with some follow-up questions, and she traded email with me, providing some very helpful suggestions and things to read–and strong encouragement as well. Much appreciated.

Quite a nice exclamation point to my year of retooling. A wise choice for all of the audiences I noted above: people like me looking for a mid-career change, early career scholars with projects develop, or graduate students looking to establish a firm grounding in research methods. I’m looking forward to following this year’s Dartmouth Seminar, and getting together with my cohort at CCCC in St Louis.

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