Saturday, 9 August 2008

Academic story

With the James Hargest High School reunion back in March, I decided that I needed to do some exploration of my school records. Not surprisingly, the school reports say that I would do better if I applied myself consistently. Now as I struggle to complete the writing of a PhD, I really wish that I had learnt to apply myself better at things that I didn't really like. One of those things is writing and now, I am working on a major writing effort. Back in my recollections on 29 March, I talked mainly of my involvement in sport. Except for involvement in motor sport, that died when I went to university but I didn't really focus on the academic work unless it inspired me or was of interest to me. That is how I ended up in computer science.

Not doing particularly well in my first year at university other than in the labs, I wasn't allowed to progress with my planned course in mechanical engineering. Having passed two maths papers, I took options that would allow me to progress toward the completion of a B.Sc. Computer science needed only two first year maths papers and I had those so I enrolled. The practical nature of the course with a focus on programming caught my interest and since the programming exercises supported the theory, I applied myself. The result was a B.Sc. and work in the computer industry.

As I reflect back, I realise that most of the subjects that I applied myself to involved some form of learning by doing. At high school, I focussed on maths because there were lots of interesting practical problems to solve such as plotting the path for an aircraft to get from one place to another in a cross wind.

Maths turned to theory at university but computer science had some interesting practical problems to solve and it drew on some of that maths knowledge built up through practical exercises. Theory for the sake of theory is a meaningless exercise for me so if I want to examine theory, I need to look for practical applications.

Now, after spending a number of years teaching in tertiary organisations, I argue that students need a conceptual foundation if they are to be able to be life long learners. Their conceptual framework lays the foundation from which they expand and develop new ideas. This leads to my current exploration of the ways that practitioners express their understanding of object-oriented programming. If I want to teach students to be good programmers then I need to know the possible conceptions that will help them to be good programmers and my learning exercises need to help them develop the appropriate conceptual frameworks in a way that grabs their attention and helps them to learn by doing.

But... and its a big but, I struggle with the academic writing. If I apply myself, I can write but I don't enjoy the exercise. I would prefer to be taking what I have learnt and applying it in a classroom. Yes, I would gather data that would help show that the teaching was effective but do I need to publish the results? To stay within the academic community, publishing is a requirement but publishing also serves another purpose. It puts your ideas out there for others to critique and provide their input. Again, I am not interested in critique that simply aims to pull apart. I am interested in critique that aims to suggest improvements that is it adds to what is being done in a productive way.

In 2006, I attended a pattern writing workshops at the OOPSLA conference in Portland, Oregon. What interested me was their approach to looking at what someone had written. The approach isn't particularly new but they apply it consistently. Richard Gabriel (2002) outlines their process including the submission, shepherding, and the sessions at the workshops. There are some key things that happen in the workshop sessions that I think need promoting in dealing with academic work everywhere.

First, the author reads a short portion of the paper that is the heart of what they would like the workshop to examine. The writer then sits back and listens to the conversations. The conversations start with summarising the work and then presenting some positive feedback. The reviewers, the other participants in the workshop, then make suggestions for improvement. This isn't pulling the work apart but are intended as pointers for improving the quality of the work. Once that is over, the author can re-enter the discussion seeking clarification of any of the suggestions for improvement. In effect, this is a learning opportunity for the author so that they can learn from others in the workshop and improve the quality of their work.

I would have love such support as I learn this academic writing process and struggle to complete my thesis. So much of the feedback that I am getting simply appears to be negative. It tells me what is wrong and leaves me guessing at what I need to do to improve. I struggle to find any positives in the comments and as a result, I wonder whether the task will ever be completed. Is anyone prepared to offer their encouragement?


Gabriel, R. P. (2002). Writers' workshops and the work of making things: Patterns, Poetry ... Boston: Addison Wesley.

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