Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Coding, coding, coding ....

Starting today -- until Friday -- our guest speaker is Dr Cheryl Geisler who penned a hard-to-read-and-understand-book called Analyzing Streams of Language (love the title, though! And you are welcome to click on the link just in case you want your own copy!).  Basically, she talks about breaking down language until smaller components:  t-units, clauses, phrases, sentence, paragraph, etc.  The huge assumption behind coding verbal data is that what people say and write (or even fail to say or write) can tell us something about underlying phenomena.  This underlying phenomena can occur in multiple dimensions.  Geisler used the "tip of the iceberg"/ Titanic metaphor with us this morning -- my  goal as a researcher is to figure out what is "below" the language.  Can I "see" what is going on?  My huge confusion had to do with my data -- am I trying to code for how well the student essays reflect the goals of a "good" essay or am I trying to code for how the students saw themselves in terms of racial hierarchies?

After freaking out this morning about how to interpret this data (14 students, two sections of ENG 101, 5 essays each), I ran over to the local Subway (so far the cheapest eat in this expensive town) and bumped into Chuck Bazerman (one of the central facilitators and thinkers here at the seminar).  We ended up having this great discussion on a bench on the sidewalk about my actual intent/ research question (all the while, though, I was kicking myself that I didn't have anything to write notes on!).  I am not sure how to describe this sensation I experienced for just a moment or so but I had this intense moment of clarification where I could "see" the end of my project, sort of like one of those cinematic moments where a protagonist sees herself somewhere in the future.  Perhaps my call in this life is to be the compositionist guru of all things theme-related!

But I am getting a little head of myself!  Chuck asked me, as we sat on that bench, what it was that I wanted to discover with my research.  I explained the dilemma I outlined above and then Chuck asked me what would happen if those two questions "got married"?  What would their child look like?

Aha!  So now I have a revised research question:  What happens to student writing when the topic is something complicated and "touchy" like race?

The next struggle, then, is how do I go about coding?  I just finished my private meeting with Dr Geisler a few minutes ago and I walked away with one concrete "fact."  She suggested that I look at "claims" -- since I am coding an introductory paragraph from an early essay and then a later essay, can I detect how students are struggling with "claims"?  Are they self-attributing claims or shifting that attribution to others or not reflecting any attribution at all?  This would represent one category that I could code for.  In addition, I have made of list of some "movements" that I have noticed already in the two students I am focusing on -- confidence in word choice, sentence and punctuation length/ variety, and audience awareness.  My confusion now is what categories I should run with ... and Dr Geisler wants me to do this for 6 students by tomorrow.  And somehow master Excel in the process.  Eeek!

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