Tag Archives: dissertation


I’ve been silent for a while. After spending the balance of the summer recovering from a mysterious virus that had lodged itself in my inner ear, I dove head-first into my data collection and analysis this fall for my dissertation, The New York City Teacher Voice Project. So in the last five months, that’s where I’ve been: collecting, analyzing, aggregating, and wrestling with my data. And I couldn’t be more excited about writing up my findings.

Motivated by my experience as a 5th-grade public school teacher in New York City, my dissertation takes up questions around policy and practice in public schooling and investigates the local knowledge teachers share in their blog posts. As a teacher, my colleagues and I confronted obstacles to our work as teachers on a daily basis — there was a revolving door of schedule changes, too few materials, generally insufficient resources and training, etc. — and found ways to adapt to or resist the circumstances in the name of consistency. And we went through the motions largely on our own. But as online spaces to communicate grew, teachers began blogging about their experiences. It is one assertion of my dissertation that policymakers have something to learn from what is shared in these blogs.

I was thinking the other day about why my work as an educational researcher is so closely tied to my experience. I’ve always been attracted to stories. I majored in anthropology as an undergraduate student, and worked on an oral history project during an internship the summer after I graduated from college. Ethnography, or some digital version of it, was an obvious choice for my work as a doctoral student, and I’m drawn in by the narratives shared by teachers who blog about their daily work in the classroom. The experiences they write about are so similar to mine — from a lack of stall doors in the girls’ bathroom and broken copy machines to insect infestations and faulty internet access — and I’m in the process of weaving together their experiences in a sort of kaleidoscopic word quilt.

So onward with the writing. Day in and day out till it’s done. In the meantime, I spent time before the holiday break printing out my data. Don’t laugh. Until I did this, I had no sense — and no tangible way of sharing — how “much” data I had. I’ve got quite a bit to work with. And this is the one and only time I’ll every have to do this. Now I have a sense of what a stack of roughly 400 blog posts looks like in the real world.

From Journal to Blog 2: Enter James C. Scott

Looking at some of my teaching journals stacked up, I can’t help but think about how the chronicling of time, events, and thoughts has shifted. I’m also thinking about how the value/power/purpose of these thoughts changes if they remain hidden or become public. I no longer keep a journal in the traditional sense; instead, electronic conversations help me keep track. But there was something methodical about keeping a personal, private, handwritten journal, and as I mentioned in this earlier post, I intend to periodically revisit entries about teaching, since so much of my research is inspired by what’s contained in these well-worn tomes.

This entry from a few years back, when I was a new-ish graduate student and adjuncting at the Hunter College School of Education, led me to consider using James C. Scott’s theory of the hidden transcript as part of the theoretical framework for my dissertation. Something shifted for me that afternoon while sitting on the floor of a Barnes & Noble in Brooklyn and gazing up at the stacks of books. There was (and still is) something wrong with this picture.

March 11, 2008

I found myself at a Barnes & Noble in downtown Brooklyn today, and wandered toward the education section, per usual.  I sat down amid the stacks, and looked up at the books.  These titles stared back at me: Discipline Survival Kit, Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire, Classroom Teacher’s Survival Guide, Whatever It Takes, Not In My Classroom, How to Handle Difficult Parents, Failure is Not an Option, and Fires in the Bathroom.  My jaw literally dropped – how had I missed this before?

Almost every book title suggests how to survive in the classroom. They point the finger at unruly children, hard-to-handle parents, unreasonable administrators, unknowing policy makers, or teachers themselves (these were my particular favorites, suggesting hot baths and essential oils, eating out a few times a week, and seeking grants to defray the unbelievably high cost of teaching materials).

So maybe it’s not that teachers’ experiences need to be inserted into the public transcript – it’s not a secret that teaching in urban schools can be a challenge, and movies, books, and articles paint a vivid picture – rather, we need a new paradigm for looking at why.

Bike Paths and the Policy-Practice Gap

I’ve been eager to get back on my bike, and have been carefully taking it out for a spin every now and again. I appreciate the time it gives me to think. And almost without fail my thoughts turn to my research and the internet. One morning last week, I stopped at a point on the Kent Avenue bike path along the East River in Brooklyn to look for a second. I remember the first time I’d stopped at the intersection, before there were bike paths or a waterfront to speak of, and couldn’t help but wonder, per usual, at how much has changed. I took a photo in each direction, and couldn’t stop thinking about the ‘policy’ of bike paths, and the enormous policy-practice gap when it comes to biking in New York City.

For anyone who has been a New Yorker for more than five years, the appearance of roads has changed dramatically. With the addition of many miles of bike paths throughout the five boroughs, bikers went from living dangerously at the very bottom of the transportation food chain (right next to rollerskating) to having a major (but marginally safer) road presence. As I gazed southward, and then northward, from my stopping point on the path, I wondered what policies determine the rules of the bike paths. Anyone who knows me as a cyclist knows I can’t stand it when another cyclist salmons (rides the wrong direction on a one-way path). Roads are already fairly narrow in New York, and adding an additional vehicle on a path that’s only wide enough for one bike just doesn’t seem smart. And yet it happens with regularity in New York City. (Don’t get me started about biking on the sidewalk.)

My curiosity led me to find this page on the Parks Department website. It clearly states that cyclists are never to ride on paths meant for pedestrians (i.e., sidewalks), and they are to ride in the direction of traffic. But we see the exact opposite all the time. It got me thinking: is there anything I can learn from comparing the policy-practice gaps that exist in education and cycling in New York?

Thinking about this reminds me of a conversation I had with a colleague about my dissertation a few years ago. I hadn’t yet decided to research blogs, but I knew I wanted to look at the gap between policy and practice in classrooms — that space between the way a policy exists on paper and the way it exists in reality. While thinking out loud about this concept, my colleague asked so what? I remember being floored, and thinking, how can the ‘so what’ of my question be any more obvious? But the question stuck with me. My colleague’s point was, though it is often unfair and unjust, it isn’t rare in our society to have policies that aren’t abided by. Take comparable worth laws, for instance. Men and women are to be paid the same amount of money for the same amount of work; however, it is a well-known statistic that women still make roughly 70 cents to the man’s dollar.

Okay. So. We know policy isn’t always followed or enforced. How does this both resist and reproduce business as usual? Bikers may choose to take a dangerous route when riding the wrong way on a bike path to get somewhere more quickly (and may get a ticket or become injured as a result), but students who don’t have appropriate learning materials in their classrooms aren’t making a choice.

I’m not sure this comparison will go further than this blog post, but there’s something to be said for thinking about why we have so many policies that don’t match up with reality.


Why meta? I am currently blogging about talking about blogging.

I was in Montreal for a few days and had the opportunity to speak in my colleague’s Qualitative Methods and Educational Psychology class at McGill University. I presented something similar to what I shared at the CUNY IT Conference this past fall, but I really tried to connect my thoughts on why I’ve developed this blog to my research via my methodology. The class has been discussing various qualitative research methods, such as photo voice and ethnography, and one of the readings they did for class focused on blogs as both a field for and method of data collection.

It’s so exciting to see more and more researchers take on the genre, and I was grateful to have the opportunity to chat with students in Montreal doing important research around education, counseling, health and sports psychology, medicine, etc.–some with big questions about digital data collection. Their feedback was insightful and thought-provoking, and I’m already thinking about how to further address some of what came up for discussion:

  • What about access to blogging? This question keeps coming up as I talk to people about my research, and understandably so. What am I saying (and not) by giving weight to what’s written in blogs, despite the fact that not everyone has regular access to the internet?
  • How do I negotiate being a part of the community I am researching? Where does autoethnography begin and end? Can you be too me-search-y?
  • How do I plan to code my data (both logistically [i.e., in hard-copy or digital] and methodologically)?

Here is a slightly edited version of the slides I used for my presentation. Some of it’s unclear without context, but:

Writing Process

Every semester of graduate school so far has been marked by some event.  For better or for worse, several of those events have been, for me, injuries.  I fractured my tailbone at the end of July (a swimming accident), and then broke my toe about a month ago (a less glamorous fall in the middle of the night).  So for much of the semester, my body has been broken. Literally.  It’s not been my favorite, but it has forced me to sit in one place a lot.  In the last month or so, as I have given more thought to how my dissertation will be shaped (and how I’ll actually get it done), I keep coming back to writing process.

I realize it isn’t an odd statement for any educator or aspiring academic to say they are thinking about writing process, but it’s not something that has always been so acutely on my radar.  The first time I can remember really paying attention to how I write (i.e., the process by which I actually sit down and start forming sentences into paragraphs) was when I was faced with the task of teaching a class of 32 fifth graders how to write a literary essay.  It was only through the exploration of my own writing process (in my mid-20s) that I was able to be a successful teacher of writing, and also, begin to understand what it means to have a writing process.

As a young student, I was taught that writing starts with a draft and ends with publishing, but I didn’t really understand what it meant to “edit” or “revise” something — that the process isn’t linear, but recursive, and good writers tend to go back and rework what they’ve written as they go. I tended to skip over these steps; I would start with a blank page, and write until I filled it.  I almost never wrote a paper before the night before it was due until my dissertation prospectus. It just wasn’t in my bones to spend time on writing craft, until I had to teach it (or the paper just got too long to write in one sitting!).

So something happened to me as a writer when I became a teacher of writing.  I found it was no longer acceptable to meander so much with words (though I’m admittedly still working on this), or be unable to create and utilize an outline or writing plan (especially if I had to teach how to do these things). I started going back to the beginning, dialoguing with myself about what makes sense and doesn’t as I crafted a piece, and using a set of answers to touchstone questions like “so what?,” “for whom?,” and “why?”

In recent years, I’ve begun to flex my fiber artist muscles again for the first time since high school.  As a child and teenager, I spent hours creating intricate designs of macrame and crochet, completely engaged in the processes of construction and problem-solving.  My mom would proudly announce to the proprietor at a shop that her daughter could figure out how to make any friendship bracelet, no matter how complicated, just by looking at it.  It would embarrass me, but there was something she was hitting on that I wouldn’t recognize for at least another twenty years: in order to be able to fully articulate something, I had to start from the end. (This isn’t unlike backward design, which Grant Wiggins and James McTighe suggest as a pedagogical approach to planning assessments. I relied heavily on this method of preparation as both a classroom teacher and teacher educator.)

I wouldn’t make this connection between my writing and crafting processes until a few months ago, when Shannon Mattern and I met to chat and she suggested I think about how (in my research) to connect the worlds I spend the most time in: academia and knitting.  Our conversation reminded me of a paper that Nabin Chae (a dear friend and colleague) delivered at the 2009 American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting in San Diego called “Finishing Techniques.”  Nabin is a skilled knitter and writer, and drew a parallel between finishing techniques in knitting and the use of theoretical frameworks in academic writing. The impact of her analogy stuck with me, but it wasn’t until my recent conversation with Shannon that I realized I had to start writing about this.

I started thinking about how I approach a project involving yarn, and noted that it depends on the technique.  If I’m knitting, I have to sit down and plan — knitting is all about numbers and measurements, increments and multiples; if I’m crocheting, I kind of just sit down and fly — even though I design my own patterns, I find it far more forgiving than knitting, and don’t often go into a project with an airtight plan but rather find myself writing the pattern down once the piece is complete.  In thinking about this further, I realized that my process for writing has often been like my traditional approach to crochet — spontaneous, hopeful, and without a plan; however, when my process for writing follows how I might approach a knitting project, I give myself time to consider, think, and rethink a plan of action. For my dissertation, the latter approach is going to be necessary.

So what do I make of this discovery? Is there a way to work it into my dissertation? Is it relevant to my teaching? I don’t know and I’m not sure yet.  But I know I like thinking about it.  There’s something very exciting about considering a way to theorize knitting and simultaneously concretize theory by looking for a channel that connects two worlds that mean, well, the world to me.

And the Search for Next Year Begins

When you’re starting to think about making the commitment to start a PhD program, you hear about how difficult/complex the academic job market is, but you don’t really get what that means till you’re staring down the barrel of your dissertation while simultaneously trying to make a livable wage, eat well, get enough sleep, and figure out what to do next year.  So far this school year, I’ve felt like a circus performer on most days, juggling more things than any person should.  And although I haven’t conducted a vast empirical study to test my hypothesis, it seems that most of my friends and colleagues are in the same exact boat.  I had a lengthy discussion yesterday with some classmates about how crazy (and a bit cruel) it seems that job and fellowship application deadlines are happening now for the next academic school year.

So how do people actually do it?  What does one do when they think they might finish their degree this academic year, but can’t fathom how the job search is supposed to happen right alongside the writing of the dissertation?  How do you know if you’re supposed to be applying for dissertation writing fellowships, jobs, or postdocs?  What if you’re not 100% sure you’ll be able to defend your dissertation by April in order to graduate by May?  What if you can’t have a lapse in healthcare?  What if you find a job but don’t graduate?  What if you graduate but have no job?  What if?

I have a lot of “what if” questions, and despite all the talking I might do with my mentors and colleagues, it ends up seeming like an arbitrary set of choices that may or may not work out in your favor when you’re trying to conceptualize what life might be like a year from now.  In an ideal world, I would either get funded for another year to write, or I would find a position in a school of education as a full-time professor, teaching a mixture of methods and foundations courses that draw on my experiences as a classroom teacher, literacy specialist, technologist, and artist.  I have yet to find a job listing that meets this criteria, but a grad student can dream, right?  In the meantime, I’ll keep at it with the job search on the Chronicle of Higher Education, keep poking around at various fellowships, and keep crossing my fingers that this all makes a little more sense come April.