Slicing my Research without cutting myself in the process

Posted: November 1, 2007 in Brainstorm, Discount Peer Response, List, meta, School

In order to figure out what to write this paper on, I had to consider the list that I made. But I had to consider other things as well.

I had to consider the outside constraints of the paper. It is meant to be a representation of my research, of my writing ability, in the hopes that it will impress several PhD programs enough that they will fall all over themselves in a desperate desire to recruit me into their program. But it is also a final paper assignment for a class. The class, Computers and Writing, focuses on many things. The biggest issues I have seen thus far, though, are Usability, its close partner Accessibility, Iterative Development, and technology’s involvement in the field of writing studies.

I also had to consider the inner constraints of the paper. In particular, how busy I am and how little time I actually have to work on this paper. As much as I would like to devote all my time to it, I just can’t. Classes, both those I take and those I teach, get in my way, as does a “misguided” desire to remain sane and happily married.

Given those constraints, then, what can I write about? It has to relate to one of the themes from class and it has to involve relatively little new research on my part (though I am reading “The Psychology of Everyday Things,” among other books).

My first thought, guided by my adviser, was to come up with a second list, ways to write about user-centered design and about writing pedagogy, ways they can be combined. This would necessarily be a big list. Here is a taste of what will be on that list:

  • Awareness of Audience vs. Awareness of User
  • Peer Editing vs. User Testing
  • Grading vs. End User evaluations
  • Plagiarism vs. Open Source

But I found that in those four items on the list (which I imagine could/should be quite a bit longer) I had something that really caught my attention.

I cannot take full credit/blame for this. I was talking to my wife about how I teach my students to respond to one another’s papers, and she talked about how many people she encountered who had no real idea how to handle peer editing, but that she had learned a lot about it from the way that I talk about it.

This led me to look at “Writing from Private Spaces to Public Places,” the textbook that I contributed to and edited over the summer. I looked at all the things I had contributed. While there was quite a bit of general advice (how to handle tone, how to contextualize quotes, fallacies, etc), there was also a surprising amount about how to deal with someone else’s work. I had a lot of suggestions for “walking in someone else’s shoes” or “respecting the opposition.” And, after a little more thought, I realized that I was very good at, and very interested in, peer responding.

Now, is Peer Response the same thing as User Testing? Probably not. Certainly that question is far too big for me to tackle. I need to pick a very specific thing to examine.

Maybe what I should ask is how Peer Response can be informed by and improved by User Testing. That would allow me to expound a bit about what I think Peer Response ought to be, and how referring analogously to User Testing might be a good way to show students how to properly respond to the papers of their peers.

To this end, then, I need to read up about User Testing. I know how to Peer Respond. I’ve been doing and teaching that for a long time. Hopefully Norman’s book will help with that, as will “User-Centered Technology” and “Usability Engineering,” the other books at the top of my ‘to-read’ list.

  1. cbdilger says:

    Another complexity is personal statements… figuring out how to represent your research interests there as well as in the writing sample, etc. Of these, the least important is the framework of the course. Your topic should fit the other needs first; if you want to flex it as far as 480G is concerned, no big deal.

    But the focus you’re setting out here works well; it’s not obvious and it merges the two “sides” of your interests effectively. I should give you Carol Barnum’s usability testing textbook. It’s a quick read, as are the other books I’ve suggested. I’ll suggest some articles and web sites ready for you as well.

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