Tag Archives: research

Invisible Progress

One thing I’ve learned about dissertation work in the past few weeks: progress is invisible. At least at this stage it is.

I have been stuck on some analyses of my network data, which means my qualitative data has taken a back seat as I try to specify this influence model, which is resulting in much (metaphorical) banging of my head against a wall.

But I don’t want to talk about that right now because it makes my head hurt. That, and all the (again, metaphorical) banging.

It’s hard on some days to feel like I’ve accomplished much of anything. Sure, I sat here with my computer open all day. Sure, I generated about ten thousand files of output (no joke). Sure, I stared at some numbers and wrote some notes and tried some things again and stared at some numbers and wrote some notes and… you get the idea. But then my partner comes home from his day at work at 6 or 7 (or 8, or 9), the dog greets him enthusiastically (helicopter tail time is one of the best parts of my day, too, Gertrude), I stop working to fix dinner and talk to him, and I wonder… what. in the world. did I accomplish today?!

Truth is, usually I accomplished a lot. I did some important and necessary thinking. I did some problem-solving (even if I don’t feel any closer to a solution). I cleaned up data sets for future analysis. I ruled out a few more possible explanations. You know, all that. I did all that.

But, and excuse my language here folks, all that shit’s invisible.

I could make a to-do list and check stuff off to make myself feel better, but that wouldn’t help me for two reasons:

  1. I suck at updating to-do lists
  2. Tasks I think will be short are taking me forever, so it would just make me feel worse.

So I’m writing this post to remind myself that I am, indeed, making progress. It’s just invisible progress.

I’m making a little bit of visible progress (and I’ve been trying to focus on that, too). For example, I got a paper accepted into the Journal of Technology and Teacher Education. And I was recently chosen as a permanent author for GradHacker, an awesome grad student blog that recently scored a partnership with Inside Higher Ed. The visible progress just doesn’t seem to matter as much as this dissertation thing I need to write. Which continues to elude me. You know. Because it’s invisible.


Finding My Process

It’s a dissertator’s right of passage (I think): figuring out one’s process.

It’s messy.

Sometimes it’s downright disgusting, as the coffee cups pile up and the books spread out across your desk, mingled with piles of artifacts collected from teachers, your sweaty water bottle from this morning’s run, and half of an apricot that you put down and then completely forgot about when an idea struck you.


This process began (for me) with a couple of weeks of ToTaL confusion. The school year at my research site ended, and I wandered about unsure of what to do next. I:

  • went to a conference (Computers and Writing 2013, which was a blast), and talked about some of the preliminary stuff I was noticing during data collection.
  • exercised.
  • napped on and off in the afternoon, with the dog on me and a book open, pretending to read.
  • transcribed a couple interviews.
  • met with committee members, hoping that would inspire me to get moving, and asked one of them what in the world I should be doing with these mountains of data staring me in the face.
  • organized a happy hour outing.
  • had lunch with some friends.


Then I came to a realization. I imagine most dissertators have this happen to them at some point. The Realization can take many forms. Here are a few that I have experienced or that I have caught wind of from others:

  • Oh crap. I need to apply to that conference. Must find panel find chair write proposal send quickly!
  • Oh crap. I haven’t read enough about ________ (or _________) (or _________). I am stupid and know nothing how did anyone ever agree to let me do this.
  • Oh crap. I just got an email from a committee member asking me where that draft is. I have not written that draft. I better start writing that draft.
  • Oh crap. I’m gonna run out of funding. (Or: oh crap, I wanted to apply for that funding.)
  • Oh crap. My partner just got a job and we need to move.

My realization went a little like this: oh crap, I took an incomplete because I couldn’t find time to write a seminar paper in the midst of data collection, and now I need to write up findings from my quantitative data before the end of the summer.

Then a slightly less awful realization: hey, I could turn that into a dissertation chapter.

Then I decided to get. to. work.

Followed By

As soon as I decided it was time to get to work, I realized I have no idea how to work. I knew a few things needed to happen, like organization of some of my variables. And I knew I needed — NEEDED — to figure out how to work with the SPSS syntax for my statistical model. What followed was some serious procrastination while I organized, reorganized, coded, and recoded some of my quantitative data.

The problem at this stage: my brain could barely focus on one task at a time, because each task made me think of something else I needed to do. For example, every time I want to run a model to examine whether a variable is important to it, I need to clean up (or even create) that variable to include it in the model. Today this has happened to me twice. Every time it happens I have a tendency to leave the task I’m on to go do that, which means in any given span of two to three hours, I’ll leave my central task and not get back to it again until half a day has gone by. Very, very frustrating. And I know this isn’t the best way to work, it’s just that I haven’t figured out what the best way looks like yet.

And Eventually…

VICTORY! Not only did I get my model program to work this week, but I have some pretty interesting findings that I think I can say a lot about. For example, I discovered that teachers’ consultation with colleagues does seem to have an impact on (or at least explain a significant amount of the variance in) teachers’ digital practices in the classroom, but that this is only true for some of the most central teachers in the network — the ones with lots of nominations from their colleagues. I also discovered that this seems to hold even more true in teachers’ “close colleagues” network, meaning friendship matters a lot to teachers when it comes to influencing their practice. Wahoo! I have stuff to write about! (And just in time, too. That paper deadline looms.)


After a month of screwing around and trying to figure out what this dissertating nonsense looks like, I

processstarted writing some stuff down. At which point I discovered that not even this part of the process gets to remain the same. See, I’m what you might consider a “neat” writer. Even my messiest drafts look pretty clean if you look at them when they’re in progress. By this I mean, I don’t tend to write a lot of notes to myself when I write, nor do I tend to leave citations out during first passes. I tend to plug through a paragraph until I’m really happy with it, then move on, even if this means I’m going back and forth between reading and writing. This might extend to a three-page or even ten-page section, depending on the length of the piece, but I don’t leave chunks of self-commentary in drafts for later pickup.

I’ve been self-conscious about this for a very long time, because many of my colleagues do this frequently. Their drafts are marked up, cut up, divided into chunks with lots of meta-commentary. I’ve always wondered if I was a worse writer because I didn’t do as much reflection in writing, in the draft, as they did.

Well I can quit worrying about that, because now I’m doing a lot more of it, apparently. As I started writing what will be my first findings chapter, I realized that my old “plug on through till it’s good” strategy was NOT going to work if I wanted to get anything accomplished today. So I left notes to myself and to my committee members, questions and follow-ups for further analysis, and a few spots where I need to go back and add citations.

Just looking at this page makes me nauseated, because it reminds me of all the things I need to do before this piece can be finished (no wonder I used to avoid all that meta-commentary).

So I’m finding my process.
Which I’m discovering is, in and of itself, a process.
It’s going to take me a while.

Debugging a Program, Debugging my Brain

I have spent a number of days over the past few weeks grappling with my network data, trying to figure out how to run models that will tell me (theoretically) whether teachers’ behaviors are shaped by their network affiliations. More specifically, I’ve been randomizing participant IDs, developing variables, and adding variables to an influence model syntax for SPSS that someone else wrote.

*insert screeching halt sound here*

WHAT!? Let’s back up.

There are a few different ways I am using network data. My friends and colleagues are familiar with my general obsession with network graphics, but that’s only a small part (and, honestly, a somewhat misleading and distracting part) of analyzing networks. Don’t get me wrong. It’s fun. Check out, for example, this network graphic, which depicts the technology advice network at my research site:

a teacher tech consultation network

a teacher tech consultation network

This one, in particular, shows who teachers nominated as individuals they “consult” about technology and teaching. Nodes (dots, which represent teachers) are sized by in-degree (number of nominations received) and are colored based on an attribute variable (number of devices used in the classroom). The darker blue the node, the more devices used in that teacher’s classroom.

Setting aside the academic for a moment, these graphics are cool (I’m obsessed with them). But they can also tell me a lot about the social dynamics at my research site. I can see who is in the “center” (according to their colleagues) of the school’s tech network. I can see who receives the most nominations in the network, which can tell me a lot about where perceived expertise lies in the school. I can use this to inform interviews during data collection, to help me interpret interview and observational data afterwards, and to examine other networks (for example, the “close colleagues” network in the school). And all of that applies in the opposite directions, too.

But this is the icing on a very complicated cake. Beneath these graphics lie layers upon layers of statistical analysis possibilities — these are the layers of the cake that I have not discussed with my colleagues or in my conference presentations because I’m still trying to understand them. I’m good at graphics, and I picked up the graph theory elements of network analysis quickly. But my stats are shaky, and I don’t have much experience grappling with data (not to mention grappling with the sheer volume of data I collected for my diss).

Besides these badass graphics, one can also “create models” with network data, by which I mean, they can develop equations that predict the potential for one’s behaviors to be shaped by their social interactions. OR, equations that will predict how particular behaviors might lead one to choose particular types of friends or collaborators. OR, equations that will predict how individuals within a particular network cluster together into groups. And the list goes on and on.

The value of these models? I admit, I was skeptical when I first learned about this element of network science. I wasn’t in it for the quantitative models — I was in it for the power it would give my descriptions and analysis of teachers on a qualitative level. I wanted to know more about the people, not reduce their behaviors and relationships to mere numbers and equations. But over the past few months to a year of doing this work, I am beginning to see how these quantitative data reveal trends that I might have missed in my observations and conversations with teachers at the school. And these trends may help schools rethink how they lay out their schools, plan for professional development, or purchase equipment.

But in order to do this powerful analysis, I need to gain some basic programming skills. I have been staring at this screen all freakin’ day, folks…

today's work

today’s work

…trying to make that list of errors at the bottom diminish. Trying to, more specifically, incorporate one more variable into a program someone else wrote (which means learning their coding scheme and inserting my own code into it). This is something my counterparts over in Ed Measurement can do in a few swipes on the keyboard, but I’m learning the hard way, with syntax reference sheets and help tabs open in the background.

But I’m learning a lot, and it’s worth it. By debugging this program to meet my needs, I’m forcing myself to relearn the math (and thus the theory) behind the models, I’m gaining valuable statistical analysis skills that I will use in future studies, and I’m thinking about how my quantitative findings (assuming I ever get any actual findings) line up with what I saw and heard at my research site this semester.

And this is all valuable work, even if I feel like I haven’t accomplished much of anything today.

Because I’m debugging my brain. And as it happens, this is an important part of dissertating.

And Now, I Dissertate

I went to my research site (which from here forward I will refer to as Borealis High School or BHS, its pseudonym) on Monday to deliver research incentives/prizes and to say goodbye-for-now to the four teacher participants who let me poke around in their lives for a semester.

One of them asked me if I was sad.

In that moment, I was, sorta.

Now I am, really.

I was only sorta sad in that moment because I had just driven for an hour and would need to drive an hour back home. That has gotten exhausting over the past few months. I was only sorta sad because now I have a whole summer and fall semester to really dig into the data I’ve collected, to think about these teachers’ meaningful lives and the things they told me and taught me about teaching, tech, and… well… life.

And I’m super excited about that, because I’ve had to delay really deep thought due to the chaos of many trips to BHS, a sick puppy (who is now, thankfully and hopefully permanently, healthy), and getting ready for Computers and Writing 2013 (which wrapped up Sunday and was a blast).

But now I’m really sad, folks. Sad because the fun part of this dissertating process — hanging out with people — is over, and it went by too fast, and I didn’t stop and breathe and savor the awesomeness of it while it was happening. Sad because the teachers I met and worked with this semester are really incredible people who are doing innovative things with their students. These four women and their colleagues at BHS are thoughtful and careful about their teaching. I knew that I would become integrated into this school community (even if only sorta) when I chose to do research at BHS. What I didn’t know was that I would meet people who would become my friends, collaborators, and co-thinkers. I hoped that would happen, sure. But I didn’t walk in expecting it. It was a welcome bonus.

I’m also a little freaked out.

Because I made myself a “data processing to-do list.”

And it’s scary, people. Scary, scary shit.

I just totaled the hours of audio interview data that I need to transcribe. Total: 15 hours, 18 minutes, and 38 seconds. It took me the better part of today to get through 38 minutes of that. Blerg.

(I shouldn’t complain too much. I have colleagues who wind up with far more audio than that. But this isn’t counting all the observation tape I’m spending an arm and a leg for someone else to transcribe. At least my research monies are paying me back that arm and leg. Well, at least most of the arm and all of the leg.)

I also need to clean up my survey data, which is a monumentally disgusting task, because I’m learning as I go. Among other things, that’s going to involve:

  • Figuring out how to randomize participant numbers
  • Generating edgelists so that I can characterize the networks (this needs to happen six times: three networks at two different timepoints)
  • Generating data codes for spatial placement in the school, use of digital tech, use of digital devices, perceived obstacles, etc.
  • Debugging programming/syntax to run models
  • Cleaning / matching data for models

All of this needs to happen before I can do any actual analysis (read: deep thinking). This is just data processing! People kept acting surprised when I told them how much time I have to write this dissertation thing. I keep looking at my calendar and looking at this list and wondering how on earth it’s all going to get done.

The answer? By diving in, I suppose. Which is why I transcribed one interview today and am feeling good — I at least made a teensy-weensy-itty-bitty dent. I also made a plan to keep me from doing nothing all day, which looks something like this:

  • Mondays: Reading (AM), Stats cleanup (PM)
  • Tuesdays/Thursdays: Transcription (AM/PM), Memoing (PM)
  • Wednesdays: Stats (AM), Transcription (PM)
  • Fridays: Catch Up, Other Work, Etc.

With time built-in for sanity-maintaining activities, like walking the dog, eating lunch, and going for a run. Because really, a person can only transcribe for so long before she starts hearing voices besides the ones she’s turning into text…

I also set some goals for myself re: what would be done by when. Some of them might be a little ambitious.

So it begins: dissertating. What an odd practice.





Some Thoughts on Teacher Bloggers

First, a Story

A teacher I have come to know over the past year is also a blogger. Let’s call her Allison. Allison is a teacher, a mom to two little boys, a wife, a blossoming tech nerd, and a lover of good wine. Allison maintained a blog that shall remain nameless. Her blog featured humorous but also thoughtful stories about her life as a teacher and a mom. She blogged about things like lessons she found entertaining and hysterical that her students thought were weird (that was one of my favorite posts). Or the ridiculousness of some of the right-to-work policies being touted in our state capitals. Or the realities of being a wife and mother — childbirth, wrangling toddlers, and fostering a positive relationship with her husband. She commiserated and communicated with other parents and teachers in her blog. She cussed a little, too.

I loved her blog. Not just as a researcher who is very interested in teachers and the ways in which they tell their stories using digital media. No, I loved her blog as a person. As someone who used to teach, and misses it. As someone who will someday have kids. As someone who loves some good wry humor now and then.

Note the past tense.

I’m not using the past tense because I no longer love Allison’s blog. I’m using the past tense because recently, Allison had to remove all of her blog content and move to a new online space. Start over. Clean slate. But not in a good way, and not for a good reason.

Allison maintains anonymity in her blogging life. Why? Well, her content is kind of snarky and sarcastic (which is part of why I love it). Also, she doesn’t always talk about teaching — she maintains a different network in her life as a blogger, which she wishes to keep separate from her work as a teacher.

Why else? Probably because, when it comes to being a teacher, there are weird stigmas attached to having a life outside of the school. Teachers are humans? What!? Probably also because it’s getting easier and easier for administrators to find reasons to fire teachers. Probably because, for many reasons, teachers are wary of letting their personal lives come too far into the school zone. Afraid of the vulnerability this poses, afraid of attacks on their livelihoods, on their families, on their healthy frames of mind. Teachers, after all, are already getting attacked on the professional front… why risk allowing that into one’s personal life?

What Happened? One of Allison’s students found her blog and was talking to other students about it. A colleague of Allison’s alerted her, and she removed all of the content from online (didn’t download it and move it — actually removed all content). Allison, alarmed by the fact that her once-anonymous blog was “outed” and that her students were aware of it, and concerned about what this would mean for her professionally, went into immediate blogger hiding. She created a new (also anonymous) blogspace, on which she has posted once. She’s starting over.

This pisses me off, folks. Not the starting over part, the needing to part.

I find this very frustrating, for a number of reasons. I’ll address each one separately below, but here they are in brief:

  1. Teachers are held to a standard of moral conduct that is not in keeping with the moral expectations in the rest of our society, and that is based primarily in Christian doctrine. And that’s just messed up.
  2. Teachers have almost no outlet for ever voicing the experiences they have in the classroom OR the experiences they have at home that might influence their approaches to their work.
  3. Those outlets teachers will create for themselves, because of item (1), often need to be masked by pseudonyms, and many teacher bloggers never tell their administrators or even colleagues about their blogs.

Here’s a bit more discussion on 1-3…

(1) Moral Standards

Do I think teachers are held to a higher moral standard than others in our society? Yes. Do I think this is okay? Yes. I need that to be totally clear.

What’s not okay? For teachers like this one, who got fired after writing horrible things about students on her blog, to maintain webspaces where they call out current or past students for being holy terrors. That’s unprofessional and ridiculous, and school districts shouldn’t stand for it. Teachers like these, in my opinion, shouldn’t be teachers anyway — we need to seek out the best in our students and help those parts of them grow! Not denigrate teenagers for being teenagers.

However, for teachers like Allison (or another friend of mine, who we’ll call Sylvia), to feel the need to censor themselves or to make their blogs anonymous because they’re worried the content might reflect poorly on their characters or might result in professional repercussions… that’s ridiculous. Sylvia has since de-anonymized her blog, which deals primarily with educational policy concerns and the life of the overworked English teacher. Allison’s blog was much less ed-y, yet her desire to keep it anonymous is much more pronounced.

Should teachers be strippers? Probably not. Should they deal drugs? Um, no. But dropping the occasional f-bomb in a blog post directed towards an adult mommy-blogger audience? I can see why Allison is worried about this reflecting poorly on her if an administrator caught wind or if all of her students found the post. I would have probably done the same thing she did if it were my blog. But does that mean she shouldn’t be able to engage this other — very rewarding (and even paying) part of her life? Can she not have this other job because her current one holds her to a moral standard that almost no other profession needs to answer to?

Surely, being the leader of children means teachers need to consider their role in shaping those young minds. But though many people have no problem letting our kids watch HBO, they might have a caniption if a teacher gets spotted at a bar by a student (what was the student doing at the bar, one might ask?) or if she curses up a storm with her friends outside of school. In other words, the moral standard teachers get held to is markedly Puritanical (I think) and is entirely unfair. Teachers are people who should be able to live their lives outside of school as productive adult citizens who, like most adults, might happen to swear and drink now and then.

(2) Teacher Venues for Voicing Experiences

Everyone and their great uncle thinks they know about being a good teacher. Well, that’s probably an overstatement — but certainly many people believe they know a lot about teaching, because, well, they grew up around teachers! We’ve all had teachers — good teachers, bad teachers, teachers we remember for that one amazing lesson, teachers we can picture but not name, teachers we keep in contact with for years after we leave their classrooms. It’s easy to have an opinion about what constitutes good teaching, or what makes a teacher effective, simply based on our experiences as people who once went to school, or as people who have kids who go to school, or as people in a society that has schools.

But really, you don’t know teaching until you’ve lived it. Becoming a teacher turned my understanding of the profession upside-down. Does it have its perks? Yes. My mom, who taught middle school math for 20 years before becoming an administrator, will tell you that teaching allowed her to raise us in the way that she wanted to — it allowed her to stay home in the summer with us, and to spend her evenings with us.

But teaching is not for the faint of heart. As a matter of fact, it can be downright heartbreaking sometimes. At other times, it can be the most heartwarming job on the planet. Basically, if you’ve got a weak heart — don’t start teaching. Unless you want to develop palpitations, that is.

The victories of teachers can be truly stunning, the defeats crushing. I remember a student I had when I taught 8th grade — she got pregnant halfway through the year. She was a sharp kid. Her poetry was beautiful and she loved to read. Sometimes she would come in my room and we would talk about the latest young adult novel she discovered. Sometimes she would write a poem “just cuz” and bring it to me for feedback so she could revise it. Not to turn it in, mind you. Just to make it better. One day, her mom emailed me to thank me. Her daughter had told her that she felt like she was just “that pregnant girl” to some of her other teachers (one teacher had said something terrible about her pregnancy to her friends, which I won’t repeat).

When she stood up at an assembly to speak out against race-based bullying at her high school, I was so proud of her I was shaking.

When she dropped out of school at the end of her sophomore year, I was heartbroken.

Teachers need places to tell these stories. The good ones. The sad ones. The ones that help us think about our society more critically, because schools serve as microcosms full of micropeople where the goods and ills of the world we live in play out daily. Blogs are a great way to do this and to reach a wide audience.

(3) They Who Shall Remain Unnamed

Would I openly — unanonymously — blog and teach? Well, I do. But would I do it if I were still a high school teacher? I don’t know, honestly. It would depend on a number of things, including:

  • The content of my blog
  • The supportiveness of my administration
  • The supportiveness of my colleagues
  • The setting in which I taught (rural? urban? suburban?)
  • The community in which I taught (conservative? liberal? diverse?)
  • Whether or not I had tenure, assuming that’s an option.

…and probably a number of other things, as well. Sylvia’s decision to “out” her blogger identity and to blog unanonymously was supported by her colleagues, though (at the time I spoke with her) she hadn’t directly told the principal about her blog. She also lives in a community that is fairly supportive of teachers and education in general, and that would be likely to agree with whatever “controversial” content she or her co-writers, who are colleagues of hers, might post.

I don’t know how much I would be willing to “rock the boat,” so to speak. I’ve never been in a position to make that choice — I became a blogger after I left the classroom. Allison’s decision to stay anonymous makes perfect sense to me. Sylvia’s decision not to also makes sense.

My concern has nothing to do with individual teachers’ decisions to be anonymous or not, but with the system that requires teachers to silence ideas they have that might prove “risky.” What counts as “risky?” Having an opinion about our governor’s education policies could prove risky in some communities. Teaching a lesson on the history of the word nigger could get you fired in other communities. Experimenting with new classroom formats, such as the “flipped” classroom, could prove risky as well. Which would make blogging about these things risky. Which would make attaching one’s name to her blog super risky.

You might be thinking, Liz, who cares if teachers blog anonymously? Why do you care that they need to use pseudonyms? I care because teachers should be recognized for the brave, risky, innovative things they do. Because the fact that teachers feel the (completely understandable) need to de-identify themselves worries me. It sends a message. And that message is “we can’t speak, for fear of reprimand.” For fear of firing, of being misinterpreted, of being discounted or disrespected. And that’s just depressing. Teachers should be able to show off, to showcase themselves, to have digital presences that aren’t masked or hidden.

I have been thinking through a number of these issues a lot in the past few years. I’ve written a few papers on blogging and teaching, on the role of anonymity, and on teacher identity. I’m happy to share readings or other things I’ve written with anyone who wants to know more, or who wants to engage in a conversation about this topic. It’s a loaded one, and one that I struggle to discuss, because I want to remain critical (of myself, of our world) while still making my ideas clear. So please, let me know your thoughts, reactions, criticisms, ideas.

And when a teacher wants to tell you a story, listen.