It’s not uncommon to hear academics (and others) whine that no one reads dissertations. Indeed, many complain that one spends years preparing for the dissertation conducting lit reviews, writing the dissertation prospectus, preparing for oral exams, conducting research on an obscure topic, and ultimately spending extraordinary amounts of time writing a book that only a few (primarily the members on the dissertation defense committee) will ever read. While I’m certain that this is the case for many dissertations, I’m thrilled to discover that a LOT of people are reading mine! Indeed, while my dissertation was published in two places (ProQuest and eScholarship.org) just five months ago, I accidentally discovered earlier today that it appears on ProQuest’s “list of the top 25 Most-Accessed Dissertations and Theses across all subjects, based upon total PDF downloads” for the month of July 2014! I’m stunned, flabbergasted, and very honored! Currently, Proquest has approximately 3 million dissertations and theses in their online archives and yet mine was one of the most downloaded last month. How or why my dissertation made it to their list is simply a thrill! Furthermore, it’s the only dissertation published this year on ProQuest’s list for July. Hopefully, this is also a sign of good things to come – I just submitted the first article (of potentially several) based on my research to a peer-reviewed journal. Whether or not that will get published remains to be seen.
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 . . .