Archive for February 28th, 2011

A Piece of Independent Study

February 28th, 2011

In this post, I will share part of my last chapter of Independent Study. I will have to edit this heavily before I turn it in because my tutor at the writing center told me this section was too blog-like. That gave me the brilliant idea of posting it right here. Enjoy!

Final Thoughts

There are four final thoughts about this study that I would like to share. First, I found myself wishing that people were mice that you can lock in cages when I was recruiting for participants. Optimistically, I initially invited 160 students that I had randomly selected to participate in my study. The response rate was .006 percent. Yes, one individual signed up for my study. In my second attempt, I was not taking half-measures: I invited about 1,800 students to participate in my study. Out of these 1,800, 41 ended up completing the study; a response rate of .023 percent. That is almost four times as good as the initial response rate, but still a little disappointing. About 55 students signed up for my study but not all of them showed up.  I could go on and on about my difficulties getting people to participate, citing stories about snow days shutting the college down, but I will not go into that. The point should be clear: getting human participants at a college campus without any financial incentives is hard.

Second, things always take longer than you expect. Outside of the difficulties with participants, there are numerous details that you do not foresee and that will eat up your time. One of those little details is that for 41 participants, I had 82 audio recordings that I needed to transcribe. This work took about ten hours resulting in a total of 15,000 transcribed words. Other examples of details that take more time than you expect are: proper formatting of tables, proper formatting of references, editing, editing, editing, learning how to use new software, entering data into SPSS, organizing data in SPSS, and reporting all the correct statistics.

Third, I am convinced that the people in my study used far fewer discourse particles than they do in all the interactions that I observe in my everyday college life. When I overhear people describing the events of the past weekend, when I hear people talk in class, or when I stand in line for the cafeteria, I hear um/uh, you know, and like very frequently. Of course, the fact that my Independent Study was devoted to these utterances made me notice every instance of a discourse particle.  As mentioned in my discussion section, the lower number of discourse particles in my study may have had to do with the formal setting, with the type of controversial topics that students talked about, or with the fact that they were being audio recorded. I do not know the exact reason but I am convinced that people reduced their discourse particle use strongly during my study.

Fourth, my opinion on discourse particles is very mild as a result of completing this study. I went into this process with a slight negative bias towards these utterances, but now I am very much in the middle of the harmful vs. helpful debate. I believe that these utterances are a natural part of language and that they can be helpful when used in moderation, but that they can also harm communication when they are used too frequently.  I have witnessed how my participants started struggling to form proper sentences when they thought they had to reduce their use of discourse particles and I have experienced losing focus on someone message because of an overabundance of discourse particles.

Senior Independent Study at the College of Wooster is a rich academic journey that provides students with the opportunity to experience the joy of learning through a one-year research experience with the one-on-one guidance of a faculty advisor. It is probably not hard to find words similar to those in the admissions materials of my college, and although this one sentence description of our capstone project is probably how I will explain what I did to other people after I graduate in May or ten years from now, the experience of completing an Independent Study cannot be described in words. At times, it feels like you are never going to complete it. At other times, it feels like the level of difficulty of this project is overrated. Then, suddenly, you only have a few weeks left to complete it and it seems that there is too little time between the present moment and the deadline to do what you need to do. And then, finally, when you are writing the last words, it feels like it was not that bad after all. When you realize that you are going to finish this project, you look back at what you learned and you face the future with confidence that you can finish any challenging task that will be assigned to you.