Jumping Through the Dissertation Hoop

jumping through hoops
"Jumping through hoops at Arabian Nights" by Experience Kissimmee, Florida is licensed under CC BY 2.0 CC BY 2.0

Ah, the dissertation. That mammoth writing task that a student needs to complete in order to get that terminal degree. ("Terminal" - interesting term to use)

If you work in higher education, then you have stories to tell about people trying to jump through that academic hoop. I have lots of tales of friends and colleagues who struggled to write, finish and make it through their defense. (Isn't "defense" an interesting word to use for that part of the process?)

One friend of mine was being pushed to extend his writing for an additional semester because his supervising professor needed him to justify not teaching an additional class. The professor actually told him that. When he reacted negatively, the prof replied that "We had to jump through these hoops to get our doctorate, so now we get to make you jump."  Wow. It's the academic equivalent of fraternity hazing.

I could also write a post on "NOT Writing the Dissertation" since that was my own experience. I enrolled in a Ed.D program in "pedagogy" but lost interest when I was required to take courses on topics such as "school law." I continued to take classes - just not the right ones. Since at that time I was teaching in a public school, when I had amassed 32 credits beyond my MA degree, I "advanced" on the salary guide. Not as far as if I had the Ed.D, but pretty close.

So, I was close to being ABD (All But Dissertation) but really closer to being ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder).

Through my LLC with my wife, we have done editing for academic writing, including some dissertations. When I saw an article by Leonard Cassuto in The Chronicle of Higher Education about the "Value of Dissertation-Writing Groups," it was a good reminder that although we seem to value the solitary work of writing a dissertation, it is - and should be - more of a collaborative writing task.

Cassuto says, "The glorification of solitary labor permeates the imaginary ideal of scholarship in the humanities and humanistic social sciences. Your dissertation is your own work of expertise, your own plot in the great intellectual firmament. And you write it by yourself. Here’s the trouble: It just ain’t so."

The dissertation is supposed to be part of the process of making a student into a scholar and getting research out into the world. Scholarly and academic writing outside of dissertations is especially collaborative. As the article says: "Academic writing done by those who already have the doctorate is very collaborative, as is obvious if you look at all those acknowledgements in scholarly books. There are other academics, librarians, archivists, proofreaders, but also — and crucially — the people who have been reading drafts all along, making suggestions, editing, shaping. The person whose name is on the spine does the largest part of the work, but others share in the labor."

It seems to me that working with graduate students who are doing writing (dissertation or otherwise), you should certainly address the collaborative element. One way to do that is to have a dissertation group. The students we worked with on dissertations all had formed a group on their own with classmates, mostly ones who were on a similar path. That is a part of the process that should be formalized, encouraged and - perhaps most importantly - accepted by academia. 

Your Personal Learning Network, Environment and Operating System

networkI didn't get to attend a workshop on personal learning networks (PLNs) led by Helen Blunden in Ghent, Belgium at Learning Tech Day. I would have loved to travel to Belgium, but thankfully, someone who did attend posted about it. (I keep reading that blogging is dead. I disagree. And the post I found and I am passing along is some evidence of blog usefulness.)

When I first heard about a Personal Learning Network, I thought "Well, most of us already have a PLN." What I was thinking of was the informal network of people and sites that we use to do our work. Keyword: informal. 

I discovered that PLNs were more formalized. The authors define a PLN as "a trusted network of current and former colleagues or other people that are valuable to you as a professional or in other areas of your life," and Rajagopal, Verjans, and Sloep (2012) refer to it as “the network of people a self-directed learner connects with for the specific purpose of supporting their learning”

I'm editing a dissertation about "Knowledge Broker Teachers" (KBTs). They are those teachers that other teachers go to for help because of their extensive knowledge. The subjects in the dissertation are technology KBTs, but in any type of knowledge work this tends to be more cross-disciplinary. A network that involves people with different skills working together is a good way to add novelty to problem solving.

Not all PLNs are professional. People naturally create them around common interests or practices, to exchange ideas, and give or receive support to others. Blunden is interested in the professional variety. 

PLN plan

Her workshop explored "elements of your personal profile; build trust online; building reputation and credibility; curating learning and experiences; reflecting and sharing your work and projects; working out loud, and then also learning how to use social tools and media for the purposes of building trust, sharing your expertise and building a personal learning community."

Back in 2007, I was noticing that people were talking about Facebook as a PLE (Personal Learning Environment) which was another term that emerged for me about the same time as PLN. Facebook did not become a true Personal Learning Environment though people seemed to think that after MySpace it might be such a thing. 

I was reading in the "Jargon Watch" section of Wired magazine and came across the term "Social Operating System" (SOS) which they defined as "a social network site like Facebook or MySpace that seamlessly integrates activities, including entertainment and shopping, to become a platform for online living."

You can put the PLE and the PLN (and the SOS) under the heading Personalized Learning

In 2013, I was changing jobs and started get more serious about trying to build a more formal network and wrote about creating your own PLN. I did that, but within a larger professional organization. Now, that PLN has formally disbanded because the larger organization decided to no longer support it after a reorganization.

I still maintain many of the personal connections I made in that PLN, but it is again informal. How has the network changed for me? It is weaker. We meet - online and in person - a lot less than we used to connect. Formal is better.

You Don't Need a College Degree: New Edition

graduateThe argument that a college degree is or isn't the path to a job surfaces regularly. Many studies show that having a degree ultimately leads to greater earnings in a lifetime, and colleges love to see that research out there. But in the past few decades, you find more stories in the news about people succeeding in the workplace without degrees.

This year, I am seeing two trends: more vocational training in high schools, and companies not requiring degrees for some jobs that once did require a degree.

An article on wsj.com discusses the direct ties between some big companies and local high schools to prepare students for jobs. Volkswagen is working with schools in Tennessee to modernize their engineering programs. Tesla is partnering with Nevada schools on an advanced manufacturing curriculum. Fisheries in Louisiana have created courses for students to train for jobs in “sustainability.”

There have long been high school career education programs, and the U.S.. has had specialized vocational schools for a century, but this is a shift. The idea that not all students need a degree (and especially not a liberal-arts degree) in order to get a good job is gaining strength through relationships and changes with employers.

The outlier examples of the billionaires like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg who never finished college are anomalies. Students - and parents - were not convinced that skipping college was the right path. When I was an undergrad back in the 1970s, we all knew that with good grades from a decent college in almost anything you could get some kind of job. I had art history friends who ended up in banking, education majors who went into publishing etc. It was an early enough time in computers that you could get in on the ground floor of that area without a degree. I knew people who got training in network administration at post-secondary vocational schools and did very well.

But there was also a time a bit later when if you wanted a job at Google you had better have a degree, and really a doctorate from Stanford. That is less true today.

The job-search site Glassdoor compiledlist of 15 top employers that have said they no longer require applicants to have a college degree that includes companies like Google, Apple and IBM. 

These companies are not saying they don't want any college graduates and this doesn't apply to all their positions, but it does apply to many more than before. Passing on college degree requirements for some positions is probably a reaction in part to the tight labor market and mounting concerns surrounding student debt.

For example, Apple is considering and hiring people without degrees for positions such as Genius (in their stores), Design Verification Engineer, Engineering Project Manager, iPhone Buyer, Apple Technical Specialist, AppleCare at Home Team Manager, Apple TV Product Design Internship, Business Traveler Specialist, and Part Time Reseller Specialist.

Google lists these positions as open to non-graduates: Product Manager, Recruiter, Software Engineer, Product Marketing Manager, Research Scientist, Mechanical Engineer, Developer Relations Intern, UX Engineer, SAP Cloud Consultant, Administrative Business Partner.

Do these companies penalize someone with a computer science or marketing degree who applies? That would be foolish. But they do seriously consider people without degrees who would not have made the first round of interviews ten years ago.

Threats to the college degree in the past 30 years have been many: tuition costs, online learning, MOOCs, and OER have all been viewed as things that would take down the traditional degree and perhaps the traditional college itself. We would have Education 2.0 as we had Web 2.0. Still, students still apply, take courses, study, party, attend sporting events and graduate. But do they get jobs in their field of study? Sometimes. Do they discover when they get a job that much of those 120 credits seem to play no constructive role in their work? Sometimes.

Technical Writing

Technical Writers are often the link between engineers, marketing associates, developers and external users of a product or service.

When I have taught undergraduate classes in technical writing, something I have to address with students right away is their definition of technical writing. In many people's minds, writing that is "technical" is complicated, full of jargon and difficult to read. But in fact, the goal of the technical writer is exactly the opposite. It is usually to make technical subject matter less complicated and easier to understand and use.

In my undergraduate technical writing classes (which are considered advanced writing courses) we combines current theory with actual practice to prepare students as technical writers. They analyze complex communication situations and then design appropriate responses through tasks that involve problem solving, rhetorical theory, document design, oral presentations, writing teams, audience awareness, ethical considerations and ethical issues.

When I teach at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), my students are engineers, computer scientists, architects and scientists who often dislike writing and are used to only academic writing. Unfortunately, much academic writing is students demonstrating their learning to a professor who already knows the subject. In most real technical communication, the writer is the expert and the readers are the learners. In professional life, you may be writing for supervisors, colleagues or customers. You might be explaining a problem, a product, an experiment, or a project, and the format may be a proposal, abstract, report, email or manual.

When I teach technical writing at a more comprehensive university, such as Montclair State University, the students are more comfortable with writing, but less comfortable with the technical part.  That is because they don't think of technical writing as being a part of every field. For education, biology, art, music, and other science and liberal arts students, they need to rethink the technical aspects of their studies. For example, I have had art history majors who wrote technical documentation on art restoration.

My graduate students in professional technical communication are often dealing with social media, documentation, video presentations and a variety of real world tasks. NJIT offers a Technical Communications Certificate that attracts primarily professionals who intend to learn/expand their careers as technical writers, editors, trainers, website designers, and documentation specialists.

I don't know that being a technical writer at Google is typical of that job, but this video gives you a little taste of technical writing and life at Google.