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_Demystifying_Dissertatio

_Demystifying_Dissertatio

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Published by Abdulredha Shuli

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Published by: Abdulredha Shuli on Nov 17, 2012
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05/13/2014

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While engaging in prewriting, do not collect articles or books; instead

collect interactive notes. While I was a graduate student, before the ubiq-

uity of the Internet, I had to go to the library to copy articles. One after-

noon, after I had been standing in front of a copy machine for a few

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INTERACTIVE READING AND NOTE TAKING 59

hours, I had an epiphany. Yes, I know epiphany is a strong term, but at

the time my brain was so overloaded with reading, ideas, and things to

do that any type of productive self-reflection was an accomplishment. I

was copying the articles while mentally lamenting that I would only go

back to my office and add them to the stack of unread articles on my

desk. As I thought about this, I realized that I spent more time standing

in front of the copy machine than I spent engaged in interactive reading.

I stopped copying articles and began reading them in the library. By doing

so, I gained back all that wasted copying time.

As a result of this change, I managed to read many more articles. I also

saved a lot of money, at a time when every dime was precious. The pile

of unread articles on my desk slowly dwindled. I felt good about myself

and my progress every time I walked back from the library. The danger

was that sometimes I would have to refer back to an article that was not

housed in my file cabinet. But I decided that what I gained by spending

my time engaged in interactive reading and note taking more than offset

the few times I had to walk across campus to the library to retrieve an

article for the second time.

These days, with the Internet, you can access articles and books on

your computer, which exacerbates the problem of having more reading

material than time to read. As you download articles, read, and take

notes, keep in mind that you should continually examine your work hab-

its. Are they working for you? If your work habits are not working for

you, change them so that you convert inefficiently invested time into

useful time. A large pile of unread articles or books buys you nothing;

fewer articles or books carefully read are more useful than a large unread

stack.

When you engage in interactive reading, I suggest that you keep a few

goals in mind. First, you are reading to provide information that informs

your dissertation research. Your goal is a completed dissertation. To write

a successful dissertation, you need to learn the expectations, structures,

formats, and styles associated with the academic writing in your field.

Everything you read informs your knowledge of the expectations and

format used in your field. Becoming familiar with the elements of aca-

demic writing and the acceptable structure for setting up these elements

helps you enter, and then contribute to, the conversation. By focusing on

the patterns instead of each aspect or finding as a separate unit, you will

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60 DEMYSTIFYING DISSERTATION WRITING

shorten the time needed to read and to become an expert in your field.

Okay, I know that sentence is vague. Let me provide examples.

Based on research on expert performance, recognizing patterns and

leveraging this recognition distinguish experts from novices.1

Expert chess

players view a configuration of chess pieces as one unit and consider a

series of future moves, not one move at a time. In contrast, novice chess

players see each chess piece as a separate unit and each move as a single

event. Expert typists type the, while novice typists type t, h, and e. In

addition, when expert typists type the, they are looking forward to the

next words to type.

How does this translate into academic reading? As you increase your

ability to understand the meaningful patterns and relationships among

the various elements of academic writing, you can decode the writing in

your field. You increase your facility to engage efficiently in interactive

reading and note taking. Although academic writing looks very different

across the humanities and social science fields, it follows some pretty

straightforward patterns. The basic pattern is that the author sets out a

premise, analyzes sources or data, and then presents conclusions that

either support or cause her to revise the premise. Based on the supported

or revised premise, the author presents conclusions and implications for

the field. The same pattern is used whether a researcher is putting a liter-

ary text into a new context, conducting empirical research, reviewing

historical records, or writing a review paper (for the review paper the

author analyzes and synthesizes articles and books as sources and data).

In an article published in the American Historical Review, Tyler An-

binder provides a nice example of putting forth a premise, examining

sources, and then either supporting or revising the original premise. In

this instance, the author revised the premise. By focusing on the experi-

ences of one woman, Ellen Holland, Anbinder examines the experiences

of Irish immigrants who had lived on the Lansdowne estate, the poorest

and worst hit area in Ireland after the Potato Famine of the 1840s. Hol-

land resettled in the Five Points district of New York, ‘‘the most infa-

mously decrepit slum in North America.’’2

In his article titled ‘‘From

Famine to Five Points: Lord Lansdowne’s Irish Tenants Encounter North

America’s Most Notorious Slum,’’ Anbinder presents his original

premise:

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INTERACTIVE READING AND NOTE TAKING 61

When I began investigating the history of Five Points, I assumed that the

prevailing, gloomy picture of the famine-era immigrants would be borne

out on its mean streets. Given that Five Points’ residents were the most

impoverished in antebellum New York, I expected to find them barely

scraping by from payday to payday.3

Through his research, he provides a revised premise:

But the bank balances of Ellen Holland and her fellow Lansdowne immi-

grants force us to reconsider such long-held preconceptions. . . . whatever

such future studies may reveal, a few things are certain. First, the degree

of financial success achieved by the Lansdowne immigrants despite their

decrepit surroundings suggests that the famine immigrants adapted to

their surroundings far better and more quickly than we have previously

imagined.4

He is able to consider and revise the originally held premise because

he had access to newly released original sources. These sources were the

records from the Emigrant Savings Bank, the bank in which many of the

Lansdowne immigrants deposited their life savings. The bank records

were particularly useful because they include not only financial accounts

but also ‘‘test books.’’ The test books include personal biological informa-

tion that was used to test anyone desiring to withdraw money to ensure

that they were the account holder. In Appendix A, I provide excerpts of

this article and annotate the various elements that I introduce later in

this chapter. In this appendix I also include a narrative that explains the

annotations.

Although the pattern of premise, examine data/sources, support or

revise premise is pretty uniform across academic fields (exceptions always

do exist), how this pattern is implemented can look quite different. In

‘‘Improving the Writing, Knowledge, and Motivation of Struggling

Young Writers: Effects of Self-Regulated Strategy Development With and

Without Peer Support,’’ an article published in an education journal,

Karen Harris and her colleagues investigate interventions for improving

the writing performance of struggling young students, students who were

around seven years old. When the authors present their premises, they

state them as research hypotheses (as opposed to statistical hypotheses)5

:

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62 DEMYSTIFYING DISSERTATION WRITING

One purpose of the current study, therefore, was to examine the effective-

ness of an instructional program in improving the performance of young,

struggling writers attending urban schools serving a high percentage of

children from low-income families. . . . The second purpose of this investi-

gation was to determine whether social support through peer assistance

would enhance SRSD-instructed students’ performance, especially in terms

of maintenance and generalization.6

To examine these premises, the authors collected data by conducting

an experimental study. They randomly assigned young students to three

groups. One group was the control group who were taught using a widely

implemented writing instruction method. The second was an experimen-

tal group that was taught writing by focusing on the planning and organ-

izing stages, and the third group received the same intervention as the

second group except with an additional social support component. Based

on the analysis of their data, Harris and colleagues present a revised

premise:

The present results demonstrate that, as early as second grade, the writing

performance and knowledge of young struggling writers can be improved

substantially by teaching them . . . strategies for planning in conjunction

with the knowledge and self-regulatory procedures needed to use these

strategies effectively. . . . Finally, our results show that a common proce-

dure in clinical psychology, peers helping each other maintain and general-

ize gains, can be applied successfully to academic learning with young

children.7

For this social science article, I also present excerpts, annotate the vari-

ous elements of academic writing, and provide a narrative to explain the

annotations. You can see these in Appendix B.

If you take a positivistic approach to your analysis, then the premise,

analysis, revised premise pattern is very familiar to you. This pattern mir-

rors the identification of hypotheses, collection and analysis of data or

sources, and then the acceptance or rejection of the hypotheses. Even if

you use a constructivist approach to research, you still follow this same

pattern. Your premise influences your recruitment of participants and

development of an interview protocol. Or it influences your choice of

sources to examine, theory to apply (if there is a decision to be made

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INTERACTIVE READING AND NOTE TAKING 63

regarding theories), and focus that you bring to the research. The con-

structivist approach certainly addresses the analytic methods you use.

Whether you use a positivistic or a constructionist approach, this simple

pattern guides the vast majority of academic writing.

Taking something seemingly complex and breaking it down into its

essential elements can help you quickly grasp the important aspects of an

article or book. Although I contend that the premise, examine data/

sources, support or revise premise pattern is widely applied across fields,

I do not mean to imply that the history or education examples I use are

representative of all the humanities or social science fields or even of their

own fields.

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