Does the work ever end?

Wow, I’m tired! I’ve had an extremely busy summer. After completing data collection for my dissertation, I immediately launched into teaching a course at UCR – EDUC 280L: Foundations of Education. The topic (advanced theories of learning) is fascinating and I had a great group of students. Of course, I also spent every moment not preparing for that, working on my dissertation.

I ran into a few snags with the dissertation, particularly a problem where I did something previously unthinkable – I bought a Mac. Really. Although I’ve been a longtime computer geek and have a ton of experience with PCs, I never thought I’d end up needing a Mac. The problem I ran into is that Microsoft Excel literally cannot generate the graphs I need for my dissertation! After spending many weeks trying to figure out what to do, I finally had several “clues” that made me realize that the only way to get on with life was to get a Mac. Specifically, I first wrote to my advisor and told her of my problems. She, in turn, referred met to a recent Ph.D. graduate from UCR who she believes is a computer whiz (I’m not bad, myself). That individual knew I’m a PC guy and suggested I try out a Mac. I immediately went to an Apple store and within five minutes, generated a graph similar to what I needed – even though I haven’t a clue as to what I’m doing on a Mac!

At the same time, I had spent weeks searching for a solution and only hit countless dead ends. In one case, I found a retired chemistry professor on a Microsoft forum who has written several books on Excel. It took him several days but he finally figured out how to do a partial workaround but that simply wasn’t sufficient, not to mention that the process was extremely complicated and time consuming.

After trying the above, I also waltzed into a Microsoft Store and told them I had to buy a Mac. They laughed at me (never a wise thing to do) and told me that they could solve the problem. Of course, I told them it was impossible and challenged them to show me, especially since I have long been able to get around on PCs and am quite proficient with Excel. Needless to say, an hour later their “Excel Expert” gave up and told me that I had to buy the Mac (really). Unbelievable but absolutely true!

I’ve since generated a bazzillion or more graphs and have been writing endlessly for weeks. I’m just about done with the results section on my dissertation and after that, all I have left is the discussion and conclusion. I don’t anticipate that will take me nearly as long as what I’ve been doing. At this time, I just want to be done with the dissertation! I’m tired!

Data Collection is Almost Done & the Score is Now: Jeff = 1, Microsoft Excel = 0

Data collection for my dissertation is nearly done – I’ve been at it, nearly full-time, since mid-January. Although the participants are great, I’m simply exhausted. Fortunately, essentially all of my data collection will be done this week. As a result, I will now be entering the final stage of the program – writing up the “Results” and “Discussion” sections of my dissertation (the lit review and methods sections were completed and approved last Fall). Although this final stage should be the most “fun,” I’m engaged in yet another battle with Microsoft Excel. It always amazes me as to how clueless programmers are to the needs of real users. I’ve now spent days/weeks fighting with Excel in order to create graphs for my multiple-baseline across-participants single-case research and finally conquered the last hurdle, thanks to a response to a question I asked on an Excel Forum. Here’s a sample:

Sample Graph from Actual Data
This is a sample graph that is very close to what I’m going to be creating from the mountains of data I’ve collected.

I’ve also created an “instruction guide” (for me) so I won’t forget how to create the graph. Here’s the link to: Jeff’s Single Case Design Graph Instructions. Please note that I did not proofread it – it was created only for my use but I’m posting it here, just in case someone else is interested in “how I done did it.” Enjoy!



Dissertate, dissertate, dissertate . . .

Although “dissertate” and “dissertating” are not real words (even though “Merriam-Webster” claims they are), I’m in the midst of being a dissertator (another Merriam-Webster term) so I can be forgiven. I’ve been putting in 18-hour days for weeks now and I’m fully immersed in the data collection process. As of today, nearly all of my “participants” (according to the APA, this is the new politically correct word for “subjects”) have completed more than 50 percent of the intervention process and I’m thrilled! I’ve been truly blessed to make it this far. The school I’m dissertating at is exceptional and my participants are a joy to work with!

Although I was originally supposed to defend my completed dissertation about this time (and I should have been able to “walk” in June), my research was delayed by nearly three months due to a bureaucratic problem. As a result, I will have gathered nearly all of my data by very early June, will write up my results and discussion sections over the summer, and should defend by late September or early October. Currently, I have just 21 days of data collection remaining (excluding post-intervention and follow-up assessments) but who’s counting?!

Additionally, I presented a paper on my early findings at the American Educational Research Association Meeting in San Francisco, earlier this week. At the moment, I’m very, very tired and am looking forward to crunching more numbers over the weekend.

Looking back at the first year. . .

Perhaps I’ll recount some of the highlights of my experiences at UCR, especially since I took a 4-year hiatus from this blog! The first year was, without question, one of the most grueling experiences of my life. The courses at UCR were extremely challenging and enlightening. If that was all that I had on my plate, I probably would have enjoyed it immensely. However, the personal matters I had to deal with (esp. those related to the extreme family emergency I’ve mentioned previously) were part of the darkest moments of my life. Again, I will not go into the details other than to say that I honestly don’t  know how I survived that first year.

Essentially no one at UCR is, even now, aware of the issues I faced. I was forced to drop one class (which I’ve mentioned before) in order to deal with matters. In hindsight, I still wonder if it would have been best for me to just have taken a quarter off to deal with things. Regardless, I survived! That alone, is an accomplishment that I’m proud of. Under no circumstances would I ever want to relive that year.

Many times over the years, I have regretted not pursuing a doctorate immediately following the attainment of a master’s degree, back in 1988. My advisor at Cal State San Bernardino strongly encouraged me to continue with my studies. Instead, I wanted to focus on “settling down” and having a family.  It would have been far easier for me to continue with my education then. However, I most certainly would have not been interested in a Ph.D. in special education. Little did I know that many of my experiences over the next twenty years would lead me down this path. That is not to say that I didn’t have a lot of meaningful experiences. I had many wonderful times as both a classroom teacher and later a music specialist. I became involved in higher education very early on in my career too – I’ve taught innumerable graduate level courses as well as a six-year stint as an adjunct instructor at a community college (which I found to be very rewarding). In addition, I was very active with a number of professional organizations.

Prior to the time I became a music specialist, I observed school districts doing heinous things to children with special needs. That was the beginning of my current career path although I certainly was not aware that my experiences would ultimately lead to enrolling in a Ph.D. program in special education. Early on, I spent one summer as a teacher for special needs kids. At the time, I believe those kids were labeled “educable mentally retarded.” Although I was not prepared to be a special education teacher, I did enjoy the experience despite the fact that it was a very difficult position.

I would later do a considerable amount of work as an advocate for kids who were being denied services by the very school districts that were required, under Federal law, to help them. Briefly, I observed, first hand, school districts denying services to children with very severe special needs (not to mention higher functioning children who also needed assistance). I was appalled that such things could happen in our schools. Just as appalling were the  schizophrenic responses of the very governmental agencies that are obligated to enforce education laws that are supposed to protect the educational rights of children. Although I have prevailed in large number of state and Federal cases, I’m also disgusted with the fact that helping these children is entirely dependent upon the whims of obviously incompetent government “investigators.” Over the years, the incompetence has only grown and I’ve become increasingly cynical.

My first year at UCR was clearly an outgrowth of the previous twenty. It was a cathartic experience that seemed to launch me down a new path were I could put my skills to use in a new, meaningful way. Although I find educational law to be fascinating, my disgust for most of those in the “legal professions” is absolute. I do not believe that our courts and law enforcement agencies are capable (or willing) to protect our children. I do, however, believe that a more positive path can make a difference – specifically research into educational practices. Laws can be altered and changed by lawyers and courts who twist both their meaning and intent. Research, on the other hand, cannot be altered in the same way. Sure, there can be very heated debates about research but scientific inquiry has one advantage over the games played by lawyers and governmental agencies. Specifically, research must be objectively based and must be replicable. Genuine scientific facts cannot be altered – only denied by those who are either ignorant or malevolent (and yes, plenty of lawyers and governmental agencies do ignore research findings). Just the same, research provides an venue to explore positive things in order to promote change. That made pursuit of a Ph.D. particularly attractive.

In summary, my first year at UCR was painful (although much of it was not related to my scholarly pursuits). Arguably, the most difficult academic challenge for me was dealing with the development of research-based writing skills. I’ve lovingly referred to this style as “academic BS”  because, in many ways, it’s so pretentious. Having now read a few million (or more) research articles, I’m amazed at how some can say so little while pretending they have a lot to contribute. On the other hand, good research-based writing is also an art. True experts (to borrow a phrase attributed to one of my professors), “can make the data sing.”

Interacting with my professors has  been a wonderful (and humbling) experience. One of my professors has had more then 350 articles published in peer-reviewed journals – he’s absolutely amazing! My advisor is a brilliant scholar. Her research skills are impeccable and are only exceeded by her ability as an editor.

Mentioning editing . . . I still laugh about an experience I had many years ago when I first started teaching for the child development department at a community college. It was reported to me that several students in my class were overheard stating, at the beginning the semester, that “Mr. La Marca thinks he’s a damn English teacher.” Of course, I thought that was hilarious and was actually delighted to be accused of such a thing (not that I have ever had a desire to be a real English teacher). I’m pleased to say that I persisted and soon the rest of the instructors in the department were demanding that their students write in complete sentences (with correct grammar, punctuation, spelling, and syntax – gasp)!!! Over time, we observed a distinct improvement in student writing. I suspect that learning to write as a true academic has been equally painful for me – I especially have a penchant for using superlatives and inserting loaded terms. Not that such things are bad except that in academic writing, all subjectivity must be removed. It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks but my professors were finally able to break me from my old habits. Oh well . . . obviously they didn’t break me entirely as this post is already far too long. Good thing this isn’t my dissertation! I’ll write more later . . .

Yes, it really has been four years!

I was going over some old sites and tidying things up a bit and realized it’s been ages since I last posted here. In fact, it has been slightly more than four years since my last entry! While I am now approaching the end of the Ph.D. program (more on that in a moment), so much else has happened that I don’t know where to begin.

In my last post, I mentioned I had to deal with a sudden family emergency. While I will not go into the details surrounding that, there is no question that that event was one of many extremely serious matters I’ve dealt with since I enrolled at UCR. The life challenges I’ve faced during that time have been extraordinary and under no circumstances would I ever want to go through those challenges again. Even now, many of those issues have yet to be resolved. Personally, I believe that degrees that are given for “life experience” are bogus. Just the same, I would be eligible for multiple such “degrees” if such thing were really given!

However, despite those challenges, I am now dissertating! My experience at UCR have been very positive – the level of scholarship is nothing less than phenomenal. It’s been an honor to study with so many brilliant individuals – the professors are highly respected and recognized experts within their fields. The quality of the doctoral students in my program is also what one would expect at a tier one research institution – “bad apples” simply aren’t admitted, and nearly all make it through the program.

Unlike degrees-for-dollars schools (and diploma mills) that crank out Ph.D.s faster than McDonald’s flips burgers, UCR only permits a very small number of students to enter the program each year (generally no more than two students). Yes, it’s a very select group and students are expected to perform at very high levels from the beginning. I’m loathe to use the term “rigorous” to describe the program (although that is an accurate descriptor) simply because I’ve seen the term bantered about by so many degrees-for-dollars school and their customers (note, I didn’t use the term “students”) who serve as “ambassadors” to suck more souls into their systems. At the University of California, there is an unquestionable emphasis on quality, not quantity.  That, of course has many advantages in that we work very closely with our professors and class sizes are very small – often containing no more than four to eight students.

Well, this is enough for now. Perhaps I’ll write more in the near future to discuss some of the things I’ve experienced as a Ph.D. student. Hopefully, that won’t take another four years!

Oh, what a life. . .

It seems like a million or more years since I last posted here. I’ve had an extreme family emergency that erupted a few weeks ago that has severely interfered with the rest of my life. Unfortunately, I’ve had to drop one of my classes at UCR as a result (which was very hard for me to do because all of my courses have been fantastic). Family must come first though so I’m just hoping and praying that I’ll get through my other two courses. I’ll write more later but I’ve got to get back to dealing with life.

Read, read, read, read

But I’m not complaining – my classes are simply fascinating! The only problem  is that there simply are not enough hours in the day to get everything done. At the moment, we’re now entering the fourth week of the quarter and I’m frantically trying to get my reading done (only nine books and a million or so research articles). Just the same, not only are my courses and their respective professors fascinating but so are the materials. My biggest problem is trying to digest everything.

Unlike everything else in my life (which remains a veritable whirlwind of utter chaos and ceaseless personal crises), my studies are about the only thing that I’m enjoying. I’m very grateful that I’m in this program and continue to pray that it will lead to good things. Time to get back to my reading 🙂

A new quarter

Last quarter nearly killed me (due to a lot of personal things unrelated to UCR) and this one looked like it might be even worse – far worse. One of those personal matters disappeared yesterday and has now given me quite a bit more breathing room (there are still several very stressful things going on). Hopefully, I’ll be able to rid my plate of several of those in the future.

Tonight began our second week of courses and, once again, I’ve got a simply brilliant set of professors (they’re all absolutely wonderful). While I’m already behind (especially due to the personal crises that have been going on), I’m sure I’ll now be able to catch up before it’s too late. Fortunately, I ordered my books for this quarter very early and already have a head start with a couple of them. With luck, I’ll get caught up on my reading this weekend (only nine books, so far and a few million journal articles).

All of my classes appear to be very interesting and I’m looking forward to cramming my feeble brain with a lot of new material. Unlike last quarter, where most of my courses helped to bring me up to speed on some of the latest research and current pedagogical practices, my courses this quarter seem as if I’ll be covering a lot of material that will be completely new to me – something I’m sure I’ll enjoy (as long as I can keep up).  Topics include a course on autism (an area that I have only a limited understanding), qualitative research, and multicultural education. In two of my courses, I already know that I’ll get to focus on policy – a matter which I hold very near and dear to my own heart (well, that’s a bit of an understatement).

It’s already late and I haven’t slept in weeks so I’ll try to write a bit more within the next few days. Off to bed. . . 🙂

On to part 2 . . .

Well, I’ve had a few days of sleep (still need more) and I’ve already ordered and received my first set of books for next quarter from Amazon. So far, there are only nine books on my list (for three classes) and I’m going to start reading one tonight. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to make a dent in them before classes begin in three weeks. After last quarter, which I hit running, I get a bit of a head start and am very grateful for that.

In addition, I’ve got to spend some time before the next quarter learning how to use MS Word and a couple of other programs a bit better (I was a whiz with Office 2003 but Office 2007 is another animal). Off to read a bit before calling a night!

Whew! I’ve finished my first quarter!

It’s been awhile since I was last able to post here (I had originally hoped I’d be able to do that once a week) but I’ve just been too busy. In fact, I’m absolutely EXHAUSTED but I survived (I hope) my first quarter. The amount of reading, writing, calculation, writing, reading, calculating, reading, calculating, writing,  (did I mention calculating, reading, writing?), that I’ve done over the past couple of months has been absolutely incredible. Oh, did I mention I’m EXHAUSTED?

In case I’m not coherent (in other words, no synapses are currently firing) it’s because my brain (what’s left of it) is currently dripping out of my ears. My last class/final was two days ago – on Monday, and I was so tired by the time I arrived home that I slept for twenty (20) hours yesterday!

Am I complaining? Absolutely not (well, maybe just a little bit). All of my classes were fascinating, my professors were extremely intelligent, the work challenging (now that’s an understatement), and I learned a lot. Was it easy? Again, absolutely not! If finger tips could get callouses from typing, mine would be eight inches thick and bleeding. One of my classes was especially grueling (statistics) – at least for me. I intend to keep working on the material I’ve learned so that I can, hopefully, retain it.

Things would have been a bit easier if other matters in my personal life weren’t so chaotic – the amount of endless stress has been unbearable. There were many times when taking my classes at UCR was a pleasurable relief from the other messes. I’m just hoping that things will settle down, a LOT, next quarter but there are some matters (not related to UCR) that have to potential to cause more havoc. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a good New Year.