Three and six

Today in 2005, we welcomed Madelyn into the world. Three years later, Amelia was born. Two girls born on the same day! Today, my big girls are three and six. We celebrated with my parents: dinner, cake, ice cream, a few presents, and a video chat with my brother and his wife (Aunt Erica and Uncle Curtis).

Birthday girls

This is just a start. Our annual ridiculously huge pajama party is late afternoon this Saturday. Y’all come.

It’s a fantastic life we have, my girls and I.

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Amazon error

Amazon error message

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Infographics, tables, and spring teaching

Information visualization is hot stuff these days, as sharing on Facebook shows. Ivan Cash built an “Infographic of infographics” based on visualizations. FastCompany offers five tools for making your own. Some Occupy Wall Street supporters are printing them on dollar bills. As I start building a spring 2012 course in visualization, I’m looking for texts, examples, starting points, courses others have taught. I’d love to hear your ideas.

Right away, I’m wondering about notology: how much time we’ll devote to what not to do. There are lovely visualizations out there, but a lot of noise competing with the signal. Too many “infographics” would be better rendered as simple text with an occasional chart or graphic, rather than a gigantic graphic. Here’s an example, “Securing yourself from a world of hackers,” 1000 pixels wide and 3172 pixels tall. Another, “Profile of Mac vs PC,” is 947 × 3693. Both graphics approach interesting subject matter: password security is particularly welcome, and the Mac vs PC comparisons are funny. But execution is poor. Form seems the starting point, not content. (“Infographics are hot hot hot. Go get me one.”) Worse, I see plenty of of questionable how-tos high in Google search results. Again, I welcome suggestions for high quality sites.

Detail of password infographic

I’m considering opening week work which features a few graphics, discusses their high and low points, and makes clear that visualization is not just prettying up (poor quality) content. Tying these activities to course objectives would set a clear path for the semester. For example, content in this password security graphic is weak:

  • The headline “Securing yourself from a world of hackers” is alarmist and misleading. Any security professional will say “securing yourself” is impossible. Reducing risk? That’s possible. Unfortunately, bad content carries through to “How to create the perfect password”–no. There can be no perfect password; no security mechanism is perfect. The copy promises something which can’t be delivered. From a security firm, this is disappointing.
  • The method for password generation and memorization is questionable. Try the mnemonic recommended here: it’s cumbersome at best. They generate ?LACpAs56IKMs” with five steps. Who can remember this? How is it more secure than other common methods of creating pseudo-complex passwords? If, as they recommend, it’s okay to write down passwords, why not just use randomly generated character strings? And it’s incomplete: they recommend testing passwords, but don’t say how.
  • The authors call on a few sources (Schneier) but cite irregularly, truncating citations to base URLs or not including them at all. The graphic mentions NASA guidelines but there’s no mention of NASA in the sources. Not a good example for academic writing!
  • Writing style is wordy and inconsistent. Some bullets use second person; some use third person. (“It is okay to write passwords down so they can be remembered” not “You can write down your passwords” or “Writing down your passwords is okay.”). Copy needs revision to bring characters and actions forward.

Etc. This maps to an objective about enhancing high-quality content through careful representation of data. Similar critiques could be targeted at others: effective design, knowing common visualization approaches, and familiarity with common visualization tools. (I guess it’s time to build out those objectives, eh?)

What “good” graphics should I include? Tufte’s well-known favorite, Minard’s rendering of Napoleon’s march? Staying meta, David McCandless’s What Makes Good Information Design? would be a good pick. I like both, but I think I also need some tables. Sometimes, tables are just better. A course in visualization which taught students how to make accessible, effective, well-designed tables would provide a very useful and transferable skill.

Posted in Nerdliness, Teaching, Visualization, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Transfer research design

I mentioned the transfer research project Neil Baird and I have started when I discussed my sabbatical retooling, but I haven’t written much about it here; just a brief outline long ago when I discussed my application to the Dartmouth Seminar. Since then, things have changed quite a bit. So here’s a more in-depth look at the evolution of our research design over the past year.

In October 2010, not long after I committed to retooling, I approached Neil to see if he wanted to collaborate to study transfer, since I knew from our research group he had experience with qualitative research. Like me, he was interested in the transfer research of Elizabeth Wardle and other scholars, and agreed that our writing program needed to better understand transfer student needs and other changes reverberating from WIU’s adoption of the “2+2” model. I outlined the work I imagined doing to Neil, shared the Dartmouth Seminar application, and suggested we apply for a University Research Council (URC) grant as well. This is WIU’s featured internal grant, up to $5,000 “intended to promote research or its scholarly equivalent in appropriate fields by providing ‘seed’ money for the initiation of new projects.” We began meeting regularly in November, sharing readings in writing transfer, methodology, and working on the grant application as a way to begin designing a study. As Neil and I talked, we realized our long term research interests shared a key commonality:

  • I was refocusing on ease, the array of specific practices which favor simplicity and transparency over complexity and difficulty, and discovering strong correspondences between qualities discouraged by ease yet conducive to transfer.
  • Neil had long studied the negotiation of writerly identity which occurs when writers learn the particular worldviews, genres, and tools associated with the communities in which they seek membership. Imagined as conflict, this negotiation could hinder transfer.

That is, we realized both ease and negotiation might operate as barriers to transfer, and we could shape our study around this concept and the institutional needs we agreed were most pressing. Thinking big, and with some previous studies we liked in mind, we begin imagining a multi-year project which sought to collect data from multiple sources, answering the oft-discussed difficulties of studying transfer: surveys, interviews with faculty and students, and case studies which included analysis of student writing. Piloting the research would begin in 2011-12, most of the work would take place in 2012-15. We named the project “Transfer @ Transfer,” since our target is writing transfer in the upper division, and it’s a given at Western that includes many transfer students. By December 15, we had our application to the Dartmouth Seminar ready to go, and we were thrilled to see our acceptance in early January. At the time, these were our research questions:

  1. What successes and failures do students have as they move from writing in general education courses to writing in their majors?
  2. What strategies do students use to transfer writing skills and knowledge from writing in general education to writing in the major? Baird: how do students negotiate rhetorical and ideological conflicts between two or more activity systems? Dilger: does ease (making easy as a strategy for mitigating complexity and difficulty) play a role?
  3. What differences in transfer of writing skills and knowledge, if any, exist between students who satisfy writing requirements at two-year and for-profit colleges, and those who do so at WIU?

In January, Neil and I began writing the URC grant. We began to articulate our research design more explicitly: we sought to collect data which would allow us to understand the activity systems involved in transfer. For this reason, we imagined a three-stage research design: surveys designed to generate preliminary data and help us recruit students and faculty for more in-depth interviews and case studies. We planned to interview faculty and students at WIU and area community colleges which send large numbers of transfer students to WIU, followed by case studies of students at WIU and perhaps community colleges as well. Given the many different student and faculty demographics in which we were interested, we thought a fairly large number of participants would be required to be able to effectively answer questions raised by our institutional exigences. Faculty interviews would allow us to understand how transfer was (or was not) discussed in the classroom, and would help us understand better understand students’ experiences. We assumed, based on the literature, that talking with faculty would be needed to help us understand what students could or could not transfer–to get access to students’ thought processes, and to help us learn more about things students might not even be conscious of. With methods on our minds, Neil and I proposed a roundtable on transfer research methodology for the Midwest Writing Centers Association conference, October in Madison.

In March, the online component of the Dartmouth seminar began–email, telephone consultations, and group video chats with Dartmouth facilitators and other participants. These conversations helped Neil and I begin to see the limits, or rather the over-extensions, of our research design: the amount of work we imagined was just too large. (After one email exchange with Charles Bazerman, I checked a spreadsheet I had built to project our workload, and discovered an error which underestimated some required time by a factor of 5. Doh!) So we began to scale back the size of our study while keeping our diverse data collection methods. That is, we still felt that our research required a rich set of data to work with in order for us to understand the activity systems in which our writers moved, and to gain access to the discursive processes involved in transfer. We believed workload could be addressed by reducing the number of participants in each leg of the study, and finding ways to be more efficient (including more than one student from the instructors in the study). By the time we submitted the URC grant in April, we had made changes which reflected this thinking, and we submitted a research design to our IRB as well.

Three items of good news came in May when we found out our proposal for MWCA was accepted, we were awarded the URC grant, and our IRB protocol was approved. At this time, we were still planning to use surveys for the first stage of the study, with the hopes of targeting summer courses, but it soon became clear that wouldn’t work, since there were so few writing in the disciplines courses being taught. We also had trouble scheduling interviews: there just weren’t that many people around WIU or our local community colleges. My travel schedule didn’t make things any easier. We did get to interview four WIU faculty, and those interviews gave us a lot to think about. But we didn’t get as much work done as we planned.

When I traveled to Hanover for the Dartmouth seminar, I had the opportunity to sit down with Chris Anson and Neal Lerner, describe our intentions in detail, and get feedback about our plans. Independently, both Anson and Lerner suggested further changes would be wise. They agreed that Neil and I needed to find ways to get at information which would not necessarily be articulated by students. But they suggested that we didn’t need to work both sides of the problem–community college and writing in the major–to fully understand it. And, again independently, they suggested a different approach: rather than multiple kinds of data collection, turning to stimulated recall or techniques like those used by Flower and Hayes. Over the next few days of the seminar, I realized we might drop everything but the case studies, reconceptualizing those around interviews, and reintroducing other types of data collection if needed. Rather than spending a lot of effort to develop and execute surveys, interviews, and other instruments, then building an analytical framework to bring their data together, we should focus on interviews with a small number of students, and broaden data gathering only if it became necessary. I wrote up my ideas and shared them with Neil, and we quickly came to consensus about a new design.

That brings us to the current time. Neil and I recruited participants by visiting writing in the disciplines classes in August and September, building a pool which satisfied us in terms of demographic and curricular diversity. We made contact with ten students and interviewed them all once, with very interesting preliminary results. We’ve continued refining our design and our goals, and submitted a proposal for the CCCC Research Initiative. Over the next year, we’ll interview our participants four or five more times, collect their writing, discuss it in depth, talk to their instructors, and learn how writing transfer happens for them. As we move forward, I hope to keep up with our study here. Reconstructing what we did from email, meeting notes, and other archives is possible, but it would be far better to have a more formal record.

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Sell me your blog!

Facebook thinks I’m neglecting my blog:

Sell your WordPress blog

In all honesty, I was. I have been. I probably will again. Wonder how much I could get for these digs?

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Achilles surgery

Yesterday, after a talk with my GP Michelle Reeves, I called local orthopedic surgeon Drake White to schedule a surgical repair of my ruptured Achilles tendon. I had visited his office the day before and was pleased by his attention to my questions and his candor. “Hrm, maybe we can do this tomorrow morning,” he said. “I already have three joint replacements scheduled for next week. Let me call the hospital and get back to you.” About fifteen minutes later, he called to say, “We’re on for 8:00 am.” He explained some preparations to me, and wished me a good night’s rest.

Not surprisingly, I had a little trouble sleeping. I woke up at 4:00. From that point on I dozed a little. I got out of bed, got dressed, and wished I could have coffee. Erin drove me to McDonough District Hospital at 6:45, and I went through the paperwork, signatures, surveys, etc. I forgot to tell the hospital about my wisdom teeth extraction, but other than that I think got my medical history right. My first surgery. (Can I hope it’s my last?) I marveled at the speed of the people in admitting: I mean, I’m fast with the ole computer, but the two people I spoke with  flew through the screens in the hospital’s database system. Quite frankly, I just about flew through admitting, too. At one point, I had to wait about two minutes, but that was it.

Once I got into pre-op, I learned I’d be waiting there, because someone had come in for an emergency appendectomy and the OR wasn’t ready. I changed into the hospital gown and went through all the pre- and post-op info with “my” nurse. A different nurse put in an IV. All the members of the surgical team came through, introduced themselves, and expressed good wishes. (I realize now this was probably part of their “do the right thing to the right person” protocol.) Dr. White spent a few minutes with me making sure I was ready to do the procedure. I was. He then confirmed it was my left achilles which needed fixing, initialed my leg, and went to do rounds while we waited for the OR to clear.

Meanwhile, Dr. Shea Trost came in to begin the anesthesia. I enjoyed talking with him, since he was glad to explain what he was doing and why. (Yes, I am a geek, and I thank him for geeking out with me.) He introduced an anesthetic, then used ultrasound to find the sciatic nerve and perform a popliteal block, effectively cutting off any feeling in my leg during and shortly after surgery. (For sure. My leg is still numb as I write this, 16 hours later.) I watched SportsCenter for a little bit. Then the team came to wheel me into the OR, returning things to deliberate speed: without hurry, but with no wasted time, they positioned my gurney next to the operating table, moved supplies into position, etc, kidding with each other the whole time. Someone gave me a mask with anesthetic; I don’t remember who. I thought, “I wonder how long this will take.”

Casted left leg, October 2011

Next thing I knew, I was in recovery. I don’t remember exactly what order things happened, since I was pretty loopy, so this may be a bit loopy too. I got to have coffee and some crackers, and Dr. White came by to say everything went well. (His call to Erin at 9:45 shows the surgery took a little more than an hour.) It turns out I had a full rupture of the Achilles, not a 85-90% rupture like the ER doc thought. However, my plantaris stayed intact–saving me from a more invasive surgery–and there was little damage to the tendon sheath, which should make recovery go more smoothly. As Dr. White described it in my office visit, he made an incision about 6″ long, opened up the tendon sheath, trimmed all the frayed bits off my Achilles, stitched it back together, and closed me up with staples. From my understanding, there’s really only one way this is done; here’s a more technical explanation.

I called Erin around 10:00, and she walked over. Once I was feeling clear-headed enough to go, she went home to get the car. About 11:45, we headed home. I was still pretty loopy, so I wheelchaired it to the car out front. My good friend Rizwan Hamid came over to help Erin get me up the front steps okay. Not long after that, Chris Delany-Barmann stopped by. Turns out we are all White patients, so we talked about our respective medical problems a while. Erin made me some lunch–the turkey I was gonna fry the day my rupture happened. Yum. Since then I’ve been sitting in our big comfy chair with my foot up. That’ll be my MO for the next few days.

Unlike most foot or leg injuries, most Achilles tendon issues are casted with toes pointed down so the tendon doesn’t heal too long. This cast is heavy! It’s two thick pieces of fibreglass connected by cloth bands and wrapped in Ace bandages. This allows the cast to expand as I swell up, then contract as the swelling recedes. While accelerated rehabilitation protocols appeal to me, the risk of re-rupture does not. So my route will be more traditional: after two weeks, this cast comes off, my staples come out, and I go into a new cast, also toes down, for six more weeks. After that, Dr. White and I will see how things are going; physical therapy may start at that time, or we may wait longer. Many of my friends have wished me a swift recovery. I’d like that; getting around on crutches isn’t easy. And I’m glad for all the good wishes. But safe will trump swift. In some ways, what we did today is the easy part, and the real work will happen in PT.

I am very grateful to everyone who has offered to help my family and I deal with this. Thank you for the good wishes—on Facebook, email, this weblog.

Update 10/25: I got a note today from MDH Surgery, so now I know their names! Thanks to Debbie, Carol, and Kathy, in addition to Drs. White and Trost.

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Fast into secondary

Brewing update. Last Saturday, Chris and I washed bottles, readied more for washing, and moved beer around. Everything we made has fairly flown into secondary fermentation. We’ve got a lot of bottling to do! (Thank goodness for my brewing partner. No way I could do that with a busted Achilles…)

Four brews in October 2011

I’ll describe each left to right. I was thrilled to see the cider come out at 0.998–lighter than water! And not even a week later. Wow. Not much sugar left in that one, and it’s still bubbling a bit. I was planning for a long secondary fermentation. I guess not!

The British-yeast-blonde (from a group club brew, with Safale S04) tastes great but fits no style. Like a bitter, but with Cascade aroma and flavor. At 1.012 after being racked Saturday, clearing nicely and ready to bottle!

The honey+wit is the same base beer as the blonde, with honey added, and using a belgian wit yeast (still don’t know which one–gotta ask). Measured at 1.012–again, lower than I expected, with honey really coming through but the signature fruity wit taste as well. It’s still chugging along.

The milk stout (also on S04) is very good: not as malty and big as the last one, since we left out the oatmeal, but a little more chocolate and hops come through. When carbonated, it will be great.

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My left achilles tendon ruptured today. About 30 minutes into a pickup football game, I started out from the line of scrimmage, then “pop”–down I went. No contact, though that’s what I thought happened; it felt like someone kicked me in the shin. Other friends playing took me to the ER and wrangled the girls as I got the bad news. (Thank you, John, Tom, Vajo, Barclay, and Rizwan.)

I went through exercise logs tonight. In March 2008 I had some tightness and soreness in this achilles after a bad step down basement stairs. In response, I cut out running for a month, then worked my way back into running slowly. In fact, that incident led me to change my whole approach to exercise, shifting from running four or five times a week to a mix of biking, running, and sometimes swimming. I haven’t had any symptoms since then. So this comes as a surprise, to say the least. Sure, I’ve had some foot problems in the past year, and tweaked my knee in January. But no sign of achilles problems.

Surgery and rehab to follow.

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US states, diagrammed

From an advertisement for the plug-in version of the Toyota Prius, a diagrammatic version of most US states:

USA states diagram

I like this concept and parts of this work very well. Obviously, out west where state borders are more orthagonal and less tied to geographic features, it’s easy to draw. New England looks good, too. But states with rivers and lakes as borders, like Illinois, don’t fare so well. Michigan would have been better with the lake included. And Louisiana, in particular, gets a raw deal. I’m guessing the curve used for California, though the rest of the map is angular, is an homage to the Prius’s teardrop shape. But it seems out of place to me.

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Sabbatical report: retooling

It’s high time I wrote about my AY2010-11 sabbatical, which is gone but fondly remembered. My plan going into sabbatical was to rewrite recent conference presentations for publication, two talks for one article. But as my sabbatical began, I began to realize I wanted to make more radical changes. I spent my first few months of leave (June, July, August, and September 2010) working on a few conference papers, traveling with family, making a fantastic beer trip, taking care of an unexpected house project which required immediate attention, and finishing up From A to <A>. Then Sandra Jameison visited WIU to talk about the Citation Project’s empirical studies of student writing. I was floored. Writing up my notes from her talk, I thought, why don’t I do this kind of work? The talks I was refactoring into an essay for College English were good–the poor quality of web sites in English studies, and the need for standards to target their improvement–but it wasn’t hard to see how much better an essay would be if backed up by empirical data. One of the models I was looking at, Clay Spinuzzi’s CE 70.2 piece on web accessibility, referred to his fieldwork, and I began to imagine an essay which used a similar approach.

So I took a deep breath, decided it was time to retool, and pushed the pause button. Instead of writing more essays which were primarily theoretical and historical, I would read broadly in method and do my best to add empirical research methods to my toolbox. I began that work by reading some qualitative research textbooks recommended by Jameison. I also returned to texts I had read and taken notes on over the years, asking, what’s going on here method-wise? I also started imagining how I might investigate long-standing questions about ease not only by going to the archive, but through other means.

In late December 2010, I found out my proposal for ATTW 2011 was accepted. The following excerpts from reviewers’ comments were telling:

  • “It is not clear from the proposal if the author is drawing on original studies that reveal ‘new patterns of use’ and that go on to demonstrate/recommend new usability evaluation techniques?”
  • “The nature of the study that would be presented in the session is not clear based on this abstract.”
  • “Arguably, this presentation does seem to be somewhat speculative but if the author has solid supporting data then I can see it being a solid contribution to the program.”

Each reviewer referred to empirical research in some way. Each one asked, Where is your data? And I realized the question I’d asked myself not long after Jamieson’s visit was right: Where is my ability to produce reliable data? 

Once I committed to retooling, I applied to the Dartmouth Seminar for Composition Research, and I asked my colleague Neil Baird to help me to develop an empirical research project focusing on writing transfer, writing in the major, and transfer students. I posted the tag cloud I made from Dartmouth notes here, and I’ll soon follow up with a longer post. And I hope to begin writing more about the collaborative work Neil and I have been doing, as a way of taking up some of Christina Haas’s suggestions for being a more effective empirical researcher.

So no, I don’t have a list of articles I sent out to share–better, I have a new way of doing business that has changed the way I approach research, assessment, and other spheres of my academic work.

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