Part 1: The Realization
“There is no way this is possible in 4 days,” I declared, pacing up and down the living room, “No way!”
First, a series of gigantic quizzes were due in 4 days in this statistics course that I was taking. Although this was just one homework due this week, the amount of time you had to put in to reach the level of proficiency to successfully make it “bite the dust” was overwhelming. Second, several summer work assignments, including teaching and grading a course, consumed almost a quarter of my day, every day. Third, and above all, a conference deadline approached, for which I had to write a paper that I had not even started. Oh wait, funny story, I had not even started analyzing the data… no wait, I didn’t even have the data, so to speak.
In coming 4 days, I were to download, watch, and analyze 13 episodes of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, and then write a paper on it for the coming AERA conference. Watching 13 episodes in 4 days was not the troubling part. To be honest, I was looking forward to it, besides writing it. It is the analysis part that daunted me.
Being a first year, going on second year, doctoral student in Educational Psychology, and coming from an engineering background, had had mixed effects on me in my first year. Where my confidence to write had increased, I still lacked the flair to approach qualitative research with necessary poise that I observed in the professional people around me. My approach was imbalanced and entangled with my other responsibilities. I was now looking at 4 days of stats, grading, and watching and coding Cosmos. The Game was On!
Part 2: The Game is On
This story starts on Thursday night. The deadline to submit the article was Monday night. Not that you care, but the stats homework was due Monday morning. I divided my days based on tasks. I assigned Saturday evening and night for stats homework. This was exactly as absurd as it reads. Sunday morning and afternoon went to grading. I left Sunday evening and night to writing the paper. This gave me Monday to review and rewrite the article with the two co-authors (which includes my advisor). I must acknowledge that my planning depended solely on my assumption that my co-authors will be available on Monday. You should know that this was the time when my advisor (a) was actually the busiest I had seen him in my first year at MSU, (b) was not in East Lansing, and (c) had no idea this was coming his way. Also, the second author was way busier than I pretend here to be. This arrangement was going down, I was certain.
With Thursday night through Saturday afternoon for me to watch the 13 episodes and analyze them, I put the episodes on download without hesitation. The second thing I did was send an email to my co-authors, informing them of my devious plan. Third, I kissed my wife goodbye, checked my parachute, and jumped off the plane.
Did I mention that at this stage I did not have a qualitative research software? Well, I could not afford one, and it was too late, I was mid-air, looking for a haystack to land. “A spreadsheet it is then,” I confirmed to myself.
Watching, pausing, coding, playing, watching, and pausing. There was a lot of this going on when I got an email from my co-author.
“You don’t have to finish the study by this deadline. When (and if) this paper is accepted, then you will have to submit the final study.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I think you should check the AERA website.”
She was right. I was an idiot. This changed everything. We were now looking at preliminary coding and writing. The first deadline needed a study in progress, which still needed some analyzed data. A proposal wouldn’t have done. The good news was that what I was doing was not a total waste of time, and I had more time on my hands than I had imagined. My eyes twinkled as I realized what this meant: a better conference paper.
The only thing between me and this paper was the fact that I had to write one.
Part 3: The Evolution
As I finished coding a few episodes, I had what I needed to write a paper about a study in progress. I had coded enough data to observe a pattern and write about what we expected to see.
The first draft had everything the conference paper asked for. All sections were covered but the results. It was academic without being dull. The language was straightforward and easy to understand. I was all set. But, like every doctoral student, I knew this was definitely not the final draft. I expected some changes and input from the co-author and my advisor. “I don’t think there will be drastic changes this time,” I thought.
In a couple of hours, I got the second draft back from the co-author. There were some significant changes in language and a lot of rearrangements that I did not expect. To be honest, the paper looked a lot better. It had a voice. My first draft looked dull now.
Alright, this must be it then. “I should ask my advisor if we are good to submit,” I thought as I wrote him an email asking the same. I got some suggestions back in return. As I worked on the suggestions in the third draft, I could see the paper getting better. I had no concept of ego when I brutally chopped off what I had written to make way for better ideas. This time I knew it was over. We were ready to submit. I emailed a copy to both my co-author and my advisor. You can see where this is going, can’t you?
Hours later, I get a similar email from both of them. Talking about the same things in different ways, they pointed out what they felt was missing. They drafted, I drafted. They agreed, I disagreed. They wrote, I edited. He wrote something, she edited it out, I waited. This went on for several drafts. All I can say is, the end result was not close to where we started, but you could still see how it may have evolved from the first draft.
The evolution of this research paper was significant. It evolved from an acceptable run-of-the-mill conference paper, to something that is interesting and meaningful. It was written under the usual pressure and amidst busy schedules, but collaboration and absence of ego took it to a stage where it would never have gone if I had written it alone. Paraphrasing what my advisor said, the lesson to take from here for every graduate student is:
(a) Not to lose your voice trying to be academic or scholarly (which fortunately returned in this paper through collaboration)
(b) Every paper is an attempt at convincing your colleagues why what you do is important.
We often miss these key points trying to meet the criteria before deadlines. Being scholarly is important, but so is not losing yourself in the process. I understand that this one experience will not be enough for me to gain that confidence, but this is one cobble on the road that we are building.
I will keep writing. The Game is so On.