If you see a whole thing - it seems that it's always beautiful. Planets, lives... But up close a world's all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life's a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. - Ursula K. LeGuin

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Finding The Story

I work closely with doctoral students on their research.  Most of it is somehow connected to my research but sometimes it is research they have conducted without me (either on their own or with another faculty member).  I teach methods and writing in several of my classes and students have learned to come to me for assistance when they are in uncharted territory.  This summer I've had two similar but different experiences with students that has me thinking about how we learn to "story" our research.

The first incident involved quantitative analysis a student of mine did in a class I do not teach. From this analysis she got an idea for a paper.  She had permission from the faculty member (who supplied the data) to write it up for submission.  For whatever reason, she did not feel comfortable giving this faculty member her first draft but asked me to read it and provide feedback.  I agreed gladly.  Writing up your first paper is not an easy process (neither is the 50th paper and probably not the 500th paper but the first seems particularly difficult) and you need a trusted yet critical reader.  I was glad she felt I fit the bill.

Before she gave me the paper, we talked about the analysis and how she was framing the story. From that discussion I suspected that either the data was not so great or she was not using the correct analysis.  When I read the paper I surmised that it was in fact both.  She did a great job of drafting out her idea into a full-fledged paper but there were serious problems with both the research design and the data itself for the way she was framing the story.  In other words, the paper she wanted to write was not supported by either the design or the data.  There is potentially another paper in the data that she could write but it would require different analysis and a complete rewrite.  I'm not sure that is what she wants to do.  

My approach to feedback was to point out both the flaws in the "story" and the flaws in the design/data.  I wanted her to have a learning experience for how to story a paper (if the design/data were to fit) but I also wanted her to understand why it did not fit in this case and what type of design and analysis is needed to make the claims she wanted to make.  This type of feedback took some effort and time.  I sent it to her and then spoke to her about it in person.  I'm not sure she completely understands the feedback but this is a student who often needs to mull things over in private before she can learn from feedback and move forward.

The second incident occurred today.  I was meeting with another student over lunch and she was telling me the story of her "dead project walking" (her words not mine).  This is a qualitative study she started a year ago with another faculty member.  The data is collected and mostly analyzed. She felt the project was a good learning experience but did not feel that the findings were publishable and was ready to put it behind her.  However when she described the findings I found them interesting and was able to point her towards literature in the field that could serve as anchors for the rest of the analysis and the framing of the story.  I saw her face light up as the discussion unfolded.  It was not just the idea that excited her but seeing that there is a process to working through the "storying" of a paper.  

Now the second incident was far more rewarding (and less time-consuming) for me but both seem instrumental to student success.  The only way I learned to find the story in my data (quantitative or qualitative) was to work through the process with a more experienced researcher.  I'm not sure it is something that can be taught in a class.  There is something about coming up against a wall first that seems essential for eventually learning how to navigate walls. 

What is interesting to me is that one student saw the story in spite of the data and the other person couldn't see the story for the data.  One could argue that the problems are method-specific but I feel I have struggled with both problems using both methods.  What is hard for students to recognize is that The Study isn't The Story.  Students often perceive manuscripts as lab reports--you do the study and you write up the results--when the reality is writing is a form of interpretation and interpretation involves telling a story. 


Drax said...

Hell yeah!

Julie said...

Very interesting. It made me think of MFA workshops. Most classroom instruction and student feedback was a worthless waste of time for me. The individual time I spent working through problems with master writers was how I truly learned.

Of course, our worlds are completely different, but in a way, the process is very much the same. Your students are so fortunate to have you.

Annie said...

This was an interesting analysis to read, and I'm sure both students benefitted from your experience. It's probably not something you want to devote your time to, but if you did, you could probably write a paper, or even a book, on how to find the story. It would be applicable to your field, but I'm betting some aspects could also be generalized to other forms of nonfiction writing.

Annie said...

I just wanted to add, though, that I agree- getting specific feedback from an experienced writer based on an actual project is of the greatest benefit, more than reading any "how to do it" article.

Maggie May said...

This just made me happy to read. Satisfyingly interesting and thought out. Lucky students to have you :)

Unbalanced Reaction said...

I just live for those moments when you see something click in a student, and they suddenly "get it." Great job.