La Profesora Abstraída

Weblog of Michelle Dion, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science, at McMaster University. My blog has moved to Visit my other website.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Plan to throw one away

I've been reading this book that combines a little history of computing with a discussion of the open source software movement. Brian has a stack of other books he's reading for a research paper that I'll probably wade through, too.

Among the several tidbits that struck me as interesting was the advice: "Plan to throw one away; you will, anyhow," which apparently first appeared in this book. You can read ESR's discussion of the advice here (halfway down the page at #3). In any event, the short version is that you should plan to throw out at least some of what you code because you'll end up doing so anyway.

This seemed particularly interesting to me last night just after I answered umpteen emails and class discussion board posts from my graduate students as they busily sought to finish the drafts of their first regression papers for my methods class. If I could get students to understand this principle, perhaps their research projects would be less stressful. Perhaps they would also really re-write rather than superficially edit their drafts before turning in their final papers.

In my experience, the paper I first write for a conference and the paper that ultimately gets published in a journal are often very different. Parts have been substantially re-written and even some of the data analysis re-done.

Students, however, seem to cling to their text and results and won't let go, even when they need to. They just can't bring themselves to delete a whole paragraph, even though it doesn't belong in their paper. I suspect that the paragraph may have been difficult to write in the first place, and that's why they are so attached to it. The same thing happens with their regression "models." They resist letting go of a bad model sometimes because they've gone to all the effort to write it up.

In my methods class, they turn in their projects in parts (first the lit review, then the data description, and then the data analysis) before they revise and complete the final product. In my experience, students seldom do the amount and type of re-writing necessary to turn very rough drafts into solid final papers. And, though I provide extensive comments, they still can't or won't re-write. My comments often ask them how a paragraph relates to their research question, or to explain how the critique they are making is important to their overall argument. I tell them that such questions are part of a dialogue we are having about their argument/paper and that they should work on making sure their papers are coherent wholes.

To many students, revise seems to mean, "fix the obvious grammatical errors." In some cases, it may be a question of time. In other cases, I suspect it's because they really don't understand that revise means substantially rewrite , or knowing when you write something the first time, you should plan to throw some of it out. So, how can we get our students to be less wedded to what they write and more willing to re-write, especially when they are learning a new method and way of writing? How can we convince them that it is to be expected that they'll "throw one away."

posted by Michelle @ 1:05 PM,


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