d i g i t a l   a d v i s o r . . .

Taking Hold of Your Field

Your main task while taking courses here is to master the content in your field. This means you do more than simply take courses, write term papers and pass exams. Here are some of the things you need to consider.

a. Assume that everything you read is an hypothesis, not an absolute fact. Regardless of how compelling an article may seem, you should assume that it could be wrong. This is true of the things your professors tell you also. Of course, in a class you are in a bit of a bind when your prof tells you that he has found Truth, and you have to sit there biting your tongue because you know better. But KNOW BETTER. That is the first step toward mastering your field.

b. Assume that everything you read is an argument. That is, even though it is not God-given Truth, the author will present it to persuade you of his idea. Even though it is an hypothesis, the author will present it to you as persuasively as possible. Therefore, one of the things you need to learn as you master your field is how to evaluate these arguments. Here are a few of the strategies people use to make their arguments. You have to learn to recognize these and to evaluate their merits for yourself.

Argument by reference to an authority. Some authors will argue for their position by pointing out that some other people also hold this view. I might say, for instance, that pedagogical content knowledge is important because Lee Shulman says so. Or I might say something else is try because Dewey said so. The thing to realize when you get this argument is that even very famous people are sometimes wrong. What you want is not simply the fact that someone else says so, but on what basis does that person say so? What sort of argument does he or she use? That is what you need to know in order to be persuaded. Don't fall for an idea just because someone important subscribes to it. This is especially true of your professors. They all hold views and they will try to persuade you of their views. Don't assume they are right just because they are professors. Look for the basis of their views.

Argument by analogy. Often people make an argument by using an analogy. For instance, I might argue that democracy has proved to be a good way of running our country, so it would also be a good way to run classrooms. Analogies can be very helpful in understanding a new concept, but you shouldn't be persuaded by them because every analogy blurs important differences. for example, a critic of this argument would quickly begin to list all the ways in which classrooms and nations are different (children vs adults, etc), for these differences suggest reasons why the analogy might not hold up.

Argument by evidence. Many writers support their arguments with evidence, and the varieties of evidence they use are tremendously various. One scholar might use a case study of a single teacher, another may compare thousands of teachers across a wide range of settings. One of the most difficult tasks you will have in grad school is learning how to evaluate evidence. If you need help with this, try looking at some of my human caretaker's articles on evidence. Here are a few possibilities:

The problem of evidence in teacher education. This paper describes five main strategies for studying Teacher Education and key features of each.

Approximations to indicators of student learning. this paper examines different types of outcomes people use in research and sorts them according to what they really tell you.

Primary research genres in education. This chart summarizes main genres and variations of each theme, the types of questions each approach asks, and some examples of studies using each genres.

c. Assume that someone disagrees with whatever you are reading. Scholarly fields are in continual flux as scholars try to understand and depict the particular things they are studying. Different people interpret evidence differently, apply different standards to events, and draw different inferences from evidence. EVERYTHING you read can be disputed, and it is reasonable to assume that at least someone in this field has done so. Your task is to read skeptically and to try to imagine what a critic would say. Look for flaws and weaknesses in the argument or in the evidence. Make a note of these so that you can better assess how strong each argument is.

Because there are always more than one point of view, you need to learn how to evaluate the arguments supporting each point of view. Instead of assuming one set of scholars has it right, assume that there is at least some merit to both sides in a dispute, and that your task is not blindly select one side and reject the other. Instead, your task is to find a way to weigh the arguments on each side, and figure out where the stronger and weaker arguments are.

d. Make sure you have accumulated literature on all the relevant topics in your field and on all the points of view within each topic. One way to do this is to examine the Essential Content handout on the page about Comprehensive Exams. This handout lists all the topics and issues you should know by the time you finish. Make sure you've learned about each topic and make sure you have access to all the points of view on each topic. Use EndNote to keep track of what you have read and of what literature exists in the field, even if you have not read it yourself.

© Mary Kennedy, 2006


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