Assorted links

  • "A comparison of the 2008 population — using data from a variety of sources — with the first census in 1881 shows that the number of Cocks has shrunk by 75 per cent..." Read the rest for the context.
  • How to e-mail a professor. They may not notice, but then again, they do notice.
  • Saaien Tist on processing research literature, a topic that is becoming of increasing interest to me and that everyone has a different solution for.
  • Wonderful poem by B.H. Fairchild about "On the Waterfront," a small-town movie theater, and waiting to come of age.
  • I've always liked Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies. (More here, here, and here.) Now someone has created a Twitter feed for them (I think with new or homemade ones added, too): Oblique_Chirps.
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Writing the Lit Review for Research Methods

Research. Olin Warner (completed by Herbert Ad...

I recently finished a pretty big, for me, literature review that totaled about 17 pages, including the title page and two pages of references. Here are some scattered thoughts and lessons learned, at my customarily hideous length:

  • I saw the wisdom of The Scholarly Cassidy's advice to begin the search haphazardly. I spent much early time floundering but tried various keywords that eventually led me to articles of interest. Have to get used to the feeling of confusion at beginning and make friends with it.
  • As with most of the work at SILS, what I did wasn't really hard so much as it was time consuming. The keys are starting early (a lesson I'm always re-learning) and letting the work marinate. Because I'm deeply into self-justification, I am obliged to tell you that I started late because I was finishing up a different assignment and dealing with my full-time job, of course, so my research was tucked into the margins of my daily schedule (i.e., at night before bedtime) or relegated to weekends.
  • I remembered advice to break the writing into three fairly equal time-sized chunks: a third searching, a third compiling and sifting, and a third writing. I altered that to make the writing take only one day, but this division let me know when to stop active searching and when to start writing. Although I did occasional follow-up searches, the bulk of my active searching had stopped days before I started writing.
  • I adapted Cal Newton's Newport's Excel-based research database. I added a worksheet to track the lists of keywords I searched against. I kept a list of all of my sources in the main tab, with their citation (if it was easy to get), a URL to the abstract or document, the year it was published, its abstract, a theme or category to which the article belonged (such as "Community Attachment" or "Personal Networks") and a link to a PDF of the full-text article I'd downloaded to my hard drive. I pretty quickly compiled about 125 sources (plus some duplicates). I started scanning for quotations, but discerned that precise quoting wasn't called for (though page references to specific ideas were). I didn't need quotes so much as synthesis. That said, I still had way too many quotes -- the old reporter habits of tucking the evidence into the story die hard.
  • I used the spreadsheet to scan the abstracts and judge immediately whether an article had relevance to me. (I kept reminding myself this was a short paper, not written to last 20 years.) Instead of deleting those rows, I colored the citation cell red. If I liked the abstract, I assigned a theme or category (and duplicated the row if the article fit into more than one category). This got me familiar with the breadth of my article grabs. Then I sorted on the Year Published column (earliest at the top), and auto-filtered by theme. I could then see this haphazard list snap into place: all the articles for the themes sorted from earliest to most recent, and the progression of thought visible in the abstracts. I'd already decided I only needed about 3-4 themes for this paper, so this process helped me identify weak themes (only one or two articles) and combine similar themes for later processing.
  • When it was clear that I had too many articles for a category (about 25 for the Sense of Community theme, for example), I reduced the number to 3-5, which forced me to generate selection criteria and think about how they would fit into the story I was telling. I then printed out only these articles and read them more closely since they would form the spine of the lit review.
  • I spent most of the days leading up to my writing in working this spreadsheet, finding new sources until I reached saturation (the same titles or authors cropping up), and in thinking about the story -- or as some may call it, "building an argument." Same thing, really. Set up the foundation with the themes you'll come back to, remind the reader of them as you go into the middle introducing new concepts, and by the end, you twine and braid the concepts, draw analogies, point out disagreement or overlap, and so on. As always, I found that these connections leapt out at me as I was writing or during my editing. They weren't there to start with.
  • I took a day of vacation to do the actual writing, and the day went smoothly, without much stress. (Had there been an emergency that had taken me away from my home office, though, I would have been doomed.) I suppose, though, that I had a secret weapon, which is that I've been writing in one form or another since 1984. Most of the lit review writing advice I researched struck me as assuming you don't have much writing experience. I, however, know my writing process pretty well. I figured that if I soaked myself in the literature, and could come up with a logical storyline, then the writing would take care of itself. And I'm relieved to say that is, indeed, what happened (to my satisfaction, anyway).
  • One section I left out of the first draft was the conclusion. I felt it was better to wait and do that after I had let the paper cool down and I had put in my edits. Having spent the day intensely with my chosen material, I was able to write a more coherent conclusion that reflected connections that developed during the first-draft writing.
  • Still, I was up till, oh, the wee small hours. After I finished my draft, I took a two-hour break to do a workout, eat, watch a TV show, and practice my banjo. I edited a hardcopy printout, made notes to myself, and then typed in the edits and my conclusion. Ensuring the paper adhered to the APA style guide (and formatting my citations accordingly) actually was more time-consuming or felt like it.
  • The night of the day I finished the assignment, still tired but unable to sleep, I started reading my assignments for the next week. Taking time to pause and rest was probably as much celebration as I could emotionally afford. The best thing to do, I'm learning, is to have another project or task to pour that nervous energy into. (And this has implications for the night of graduation day, whenever that will arrive.)
  • I realized afterward my brain can make the connections between ideas all on its own without me having to force them, and that's rather a relief to discover. If I've stated the problem correctly, I'm interested in the question, and I'm not in a hurry, then all goes well. I don't have to be an expert, but I can be a sense-maker.
  • Always interesting to reflect that any piece of writing is the tip of an iceberg hiding the hours and pages of thinking and drafts. Would be interesting to study the ratio of material/effort expended for a paper to the final page count, so you could calculate that a page of manuscript will require 12-24 hours of effort, or something like that. I imagine someone's already done that.
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Two projects, two fuzzy ideas, two lit review processes

The 696 independent study is starting out as a literature review of risk in institutional repositories -- where it's perceived to lie, and, what's interesting to me, who makes the actual decisions? The OAIS model defines the functions of an archival process but leaves the specifics of implementation to each institution. So, for various managerial functions within an archive (archival storage and data management, for example), those functions could be carried out by one person or teams of people. It depends on resources and staffing. Carolyn has advised me to contextualize the risks within the OAIS model and within institutional repositories, which provides me with a good basis from which to select my sources and also (we hope) prevent me from flying off in all sorts of different directions (such as defining risk, decision making algorithms, how risk is managed in other contexts, and so on). I've collected a mass of documents and web pages that I now need to sort through, skim/read, and decide what the current picture of the situation is like. She reminded me at today's meeting that the goal is not to solve a problem, just to describe the situation.

She liked my abstract and suggested headings/subheadings, so she's assured that I seem to be moving in the right direction. The precise path I'm still working out, but the direction is fine.

For the 780 Research Methods course, we received very good comments and annotations on our Problem Statements, which were intended to help us think through the research problem we're proposing, start looking for some literature to support it, and define the research questions that will drive our projects. The key here is to ask the right questions and make sure they're right-sized, so to speak.

As I was writing my statement, I could feel the question and underlying assumptions change under my fingers. That's OK, that's part of the process. (And the value of deadlines, it must be said, is that they focus one's mind powerfully. Damn them.) The professor started out liking my topic and then seemed to veer toward, well, maybe what you're really asking is this. And I have to agree with her.

So, I need to work on that section some more.

Upcoming is a literature review that has to include at least 8 pieces, at least 4 of which need to be empirical studies. Based on my 696 and problem statement experiences, I can tell that I'll need to review/download about 25-40 items to find references that inform what I want to do. The trick here is being sure in my mind what it is I want to do.

I spent this afternoon at the library and found 4 books on community networks that I hope will have either good info I can use or leads on studies. Generally, once you've found a good article or lit review on the topic, that's the mother lode that can lead to more and better items.

Must keep in mind, though, that the finished piece is due in about 10 days, which isn't much time, given the day job, doing our taxes, getting my car worked on, and other obligations. I've reluctantly realized that I'll never get a whole day to just sit and do this work, so I will have to find a way to fit what I have to do into the interstices of my day. Next weekend, though, will need to be devoted to the writing up of whatever I've found so I can discover whether what I've got will support my research ideas.

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Writing research papers

First in a (no doubt about it) ongoing series. When I had to do my first literature review, and my first big grad school paper, last fall, I asked my mentor, The Indomitable Cassidy, for her advice. Here's what she said:

  • I actually like starting with a "haphazard search," but I prefer to start in the e-research tools box, rather than the e-journals box. As you may already know, if you click on the Information and Library Science subject area, you will get various resources, such as LISA, Library Lit, and ACM Digital Lib.  It would be good to run a general search in each of those databases, just to see what is out there. Then you will have a better vocabulary to go back and do some more thorough searches.
  • I also like to do the "follow the citation trail" method, in which you find one good trusty generalist literature review on your subject area, then skim the citations for relevant articles. Go to that lit-review article, read its citation list, and keep following until you really hit a gold mine.
  • Also, if you are new to the subject area, it's worth it to grab someone's CV that you know is in that area (such as your professor) and see where she has published. Then you can go directly to that journal and skim for relevant articles.
  • Also, don't let yourself get carried away and start reading all the material you come across!  You have to be industrious about this--try to make a decision from the abstract on whether or not it will be useful.  Use the abstracts to develop a skeleton of your product.  Then go back and really read things to flesh out your literature review.  (I like to skim things and put a 3x5 card on them saying what topical/methodological area they cover, then put them in piles, then go back and only work on that pile to come up with a cohesive 2-3 paragraphs about that sub-topic or method in my lit. review. Then I work out all the transition material later on.)
  • [In answer to my question of her workflow and how she tracked the online pages she found] Actually, I print out all documents that I think might be relevant (from the abstract), then as I read/skim them I make the notes on 3X5s and then sort (so I am sorting the actual documents).  And then I write.  It's a bit of a tedious project, but it worked for my master's paper.  :)

My big fat learning experience

I started the fall semester a younger and more idealistic man than I am here at the halfway point (fall break). Still, I survived (and thrived) and things are looking up. September was my transition month from going to grad school to being a grad student: that is, I can say now that if the task or decision before me has nothing to do with 1) my job or 2) school, then its value is marginal and I have to consider whether to spend time/energy on it. (The beauteous Liz, of course, excepted.)

What was so different about this semester?

  • I started with one class that met twice a week, but when I added a second class (on the advice of my advisor), the extra class's workload was such a shock to my organizational systems and my schedule that my legs are still quivering.
  • Last spring, I had two two-hour classes: one met Tuesday morning, one met Monday evening. It was very easy to accommodate my work schedule, my writing group, and still get schoolwork done.
  • This fall, I have two morning classes, each one is 75 minutes. One meets on Mondays-Wednesdays at the relatively decent hour of 9:30 a.m., the other on Tuesdays-Thursdays at a tremendously inconvenient 11 a.m. The latter class means I don't get to work until after 2 p.m. Since I work a mandated 45-hour week (if I work less than 45 hrs, I get paid less), this means staying at the office till 9 or 10 p.m., meaning all that I can do when I get home is have a late supper, unwind, and go to bed. (Unless I have homework due the next morning, but that's another story.)
  • The extra class disrupted my usual commuting and parking habits. I missed one session driving around looking for a parking space. Lesson learned: as much as possible, reduce the randomness of finding a parking space. I was lucky early on in the semester, but the luck didn't hold. So, I was tipped to a park-and-ride lot halfway to Hillsborough, which is further out from campus, but there are always plenty of spaces. However, the extra distance means that I'm now commuting via bus and car about 8 hours a week.
  • The start of the fall semester coincided with the end of the federal fiscal year, and I had a stiff schedule of deliverables to meet with a hard deadline of September 30. Of course, a major 10-15 page paper was also due on September 25. Criminy. And the first half of October was spent helping my team recover from a major project meltdown. So I couldn't sneak any reading or research at the office--when I was at work, I worked. Big blocks of time for schoolwork can only happen on the weekend.
  • The paper was a literature review, which I'd never done before. I got some great advice from my friend and mentor Cassidy and some great tips (especially from Cal Newton's Study Hacks blog) on smart ways to research and write such a paper. The main thing is, it took a lot of time to learn how to manage the overall project, then it took time learning the subject matter, then it took time pulling it all together. I used a vacation day on Sept 24 (my 46th birthday, as it happened) to relax and go over the paper. I discovered to my horror that I'd written an annotated bibliography instead of a literature review. So I totally recast the paper that day and evening (a loverly way to spend a birthday) , got to bed at a decent hour, and succeeded in getting an excellent grade. Note to self: learn RefDesk or Zotero to format citations!
  • Along the way, I learned to make use of the interstices of time available to me. The posts on scheduling time by Cal and Proto-scholar helped me really leverage Google Calendar more and visualize my commitments. I decided to routineize my schedule as much as possible. So, even though my Tue/Thu classes happen later than my Mon/Wed classes, I still rise at the same time every day, get to the bus stop by 8:30 a.m. at the latest, and use the block of time spent on the bus and slurping coffee before class to do my readings for that day or that week. (I always print out the next week's readings on Thursday or Friday.)
  • During my lit review, I fell down the rabbit hole of technology by spending an afternoon messing with CiteULike, which, to be fair, did lead me to some articles that I used, but that I finally saw to be not as useful to me as I had expected. I also spent my first research afternoon tweaking my Windows setup, trying out various programs, etc. Total procrastination monkey. That's when I simplified my methods (remember the Extreme Programming motto, "Do the simplest thing that could possibly work"). I will be trying Cal's new method of using Excel as a research database (again, Proto-scholar adds to the conversation) for my current paper, whose themes have been pre-defined by the professor. I'm also trying out Zotero, to see how it does with citation export (though this may violate the "do the simplest thing" principle).

My manager, who's getting his MBA, had a teacher who often repeated the motto, "Don't wish it was easier--wish you were better." I thought of that often during my transition period--I can't change my deadlines, I'm not going to drop the classes, I can't make the buses run faster, I need to maintain my 45-hour work schedule so I can meet my financial obligations.

And so, at some point, I realized that all this meta-thinking and self-management is part of the learning experience. I've had to re-frame a typical workday from 8a-5pm to 12pm-9pm. I have to dedicate some portion of the weekend to making up time I miss from the office, which means getting better at scheduling. I had to drop my writing group and my banjo lessons, so I could focus my disposable time on school. Many of the habits and routines of my old life that I thought immovable I now see as malleable and, in many ways, optional. Liz has been great about taking on some of my old chores and agreeing that some chores (like yardwork) will have to wait for my attention until the semester is over.

I've also discovered that, even with this tough schedule, I like taking 2 classes at a time. I find that jamming together the class readings causes me to see connections that I would miss were I taking each class on its own. There's also the pressure of trying to meet my obligations that obliges me to make faster connections and discover new ways to re-frame current problems or speed up time.

When I eventually signed up for next semester's classes, I picked one 3-hr class that meets on Mondays, and then picked a Monday-Wednesday class that meets in the morning. I've cleared it with my manager that I will be out of the office on Monday but will make up the time on Saturday and throughout the week. It's an unconventional schedule, but I'm living an unconventional life right now, and that's also something I needed to learn.