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Conversations in the Disciplines


by Kamila Kinyon, PhD

The Conversations in the Disciplines panels hosted by the Writing Program give DU undergraduates a unique chance to talk to professors in different fields and to learn about their research methods and writing styles. The two panels taking place on April 16 and April 17, 2013, portrayed an intriguing cross-section of DU scholarship.

April 16th featured a lively interplay of approaches to research and writing as presented by American studies scholar Lindsey Feitz, psychologist Anne DePrince, and political scientist Peter Hanson. All three panelists discussed their subjects of interest, exemplifying research in their field through their current projects. Feitz described how she sorted through boxes and boxes of promotional material that could give her insight into the Avon company's marketing strategies. DePrince discussed how she combines extensive interviews with quantitative survey analysis in order to learn about traumatic stress symptoms in women and children. Hanson also explained how he combines quantitative and qualitative data when he studies the extent to which the majority party in the Senate can shape legislative outcomes in the chamber.Flying Geese

All three panelists made the point that the research and writing process in their fields is very extensive, with one academic publication taking months or even years to complete. After looking for patterns in multiple texts, interviews, or survey data, one must find the best way to present this to an audience. Feitz mentioned that she revises multiple times, even taping construction paper to the walls of her apartment to sort through initial ideas. She expects at least sixteen revisions and extensive feedback from peers to prepare work for an academic, peer reviewed journal. DePrince also discussed the difficulty of the revision process. She compared writing to a path through the forest, where you have to be aware of the beginning as well as the end. She commented: "The first draft is for me, to find that path through the forest; the other zillion drafts are for the reader." Hanson discussed a book length project which he started thinking about in 2004. During the later stages of writing, he stressed the importance of getting critical comments from peers: "You need a thick skin. Criticism will improve your work."

During the discussion that followed the initial presentations, panelists addressed how students could complete successful projects under the time constraints of university classes. Start by reading background research and seeing what other people have done. Also, keep your ideas in mind for further use. There are opportunities such as the senior thesis and undergraduate research projects where you have a longer time frame for doing original research. Here are some final words of advice that the panelists gave: "Don't be afraid to show your work and get criticism. Revise, and keep your eyes on the prize. Your writing can make a difference."

April 17th featured another set of panelists coming from diverse disciplines: biologist Robert Dores, writing studies scholar Juli Parrish, and sociologist Ophir Sefiha. Dores discussed his writing of a review article about melanocortin. The article took a number of months to complete, and involved the following sequence of events: drafting outlines, an unexpected conversation with another professor during a cab ride from Buenos Aires, the incorporation of more figures, a missed deadline, conversations with others during a meeting of the American Society of Cell Biology, three major drafts, the setting aside of the manuscript, feedback from peers, and a final submission.

The complexity of the research and writing process was also addressed by Parrish, who is in the midst of a research project analyzing the Merion Backsmoker Diaries, a collection of journals kept by Bryn Mawr College students. Parrish is looking for patterns and changes in the journal entries from the mid 1970's to the mid 1990's. She has a number of research questions. Why did students stop writing about books and start writing about other things? Why did the journals evolve from a rule bound compendium of knowledge to a site for arguments about race, class and gender? When and why did people stop talking to each other, resorting instead to separate journal entries? Text based interpretive research involves a long process of inquiry, and is interesting in the constant process of revision and reinterpretation that it sets into play.

Sefiha's social science research also involves a complex trajectory. He is interested in issues of deviance and social control and discussed his research on drug use among a Belgian biking team. Sefiha explained what it entails to conduct and complete an ethnography of this scale. First, he wrote a research proposal to get money for his research. Then he went to Belgium to observe and interview members of the biking team. Next, he sorted through his data, and hired some people to transcribe interviews. After taking several months to find patterns and themes, he read background literature, made an outline, wrote a text which was reviewed by colleagues, and finally sent this off for publication.

The question session highlighted some of the differences in research and writing between text based, qualitative, and quantitative traditions. Dores explained that in biology a paper must explain how a hypothesis was tested and must convince readers that your question is interesting. Sefiha reflected on the rule-bound and strict forms required by sociology journals. Social scientists study questions that many people find interesting, but must prove to the public that they are addressing these questions like scientists, with strict adherence to the scientific method. Parrish's research involves content analysis of terms, themes, and patterns in text. Whichever research tradition one comes from, all three panelists agreed that extensive feedback from peers is important for producing a quality final product.

Both of the Conversations in the Disciplines panels were well attended and elicited lively discussion. As audience members, we gained new insight into ongoing research projects of DU faculty, while gaining inspiration for our own work. The 2014 Conversations in the Disciplines Panels will be scheduled in April.