Reflections on learning with end of PhD coursework in sight

By the end of May, I hopefully will have completed my doctoral coursework and be ready to tackle the dissertation process as I continue to pursue my Ph.D. in Leadership Communication at Kansas State University

This keeps me on track to graduate in Spring 2022.1I’m a pretty transparent person, so if you are super interested, you can see my program of study that outlines what classes I am taking and when by clicking on this link. It gets updated from time to time, but, things are pretty locked in as I approach the end of the journey.

Though I haven’t written about this since I was preparing for my second semester, don’t misconstrue that as me having a less-than-ideal experience.

I’m actually loving the process, despite the inherent stress of managing coursework, my teaching duties, being present for my family, and handling my other activities. 

My favorite part has been developing relationships with some of the faculty members. I’m getting to work with some exceptional folks, and, as was a goal outlined in my last post on this subject, I’ve been lucky enough to get three faculty members to agree to be on my dissertation committee, which is crucial. These people, and one player yet to be named, will decide if the work I do meets the standards for me to earn my degree.

Of late, I’ve been having bi-weekly meetings with my chair to ensure I’m staying on top of things, and we appear to have a plan for my preliminary/qualifying exam process. I have to go through that to get approval to start my dissertation, and my goal is to have that done this semester. That way, once I complete the courses I’m enrolled in for the spring, I will be off to the dissertation races. 

A dissertation is, of course, a book-length research paper written after conducting original research. I haven’t nailed down my specific topic yet. I need to and am starting to feel a little of that pressure, but I know the general idea I want to research, which is tentatively the exploration of community journalism’s impact on social capital and democracy. Having a background in community journalism, I want to investigate how community journalism builds community through the reporting local outlets provide, especially in the face of a pandemic, assertions of “fake news,” changing business models, and the growth of digital technologies. 

Before I can do that, though, I need to draft a proposal for my preliminary/qualifying exam, and then I will need to more formally propose my dissertation. All of that will take a fair amount of writing, and the dissertation will be writing intensive. 

That’s OK, though. I love to write.

And I’ve been getting a lot of academic writing practice. 

Each semester comprises about 16 weeks. In both the Spring 2021 and Fall 2021 semesters, I took at least one class that required weekly writing assignments that each ended up being at least 600 words long. 

Also, in three of the courses over the two semesters, I wrote three literature reviews. These are papers that explore current research by analyzing published works. Therefore, “the focus of a literature review is to summarize and synthesize the arguments and ideas of others.”2Clay, R. (2021, April 6). Research Guides: What is a Literature Review? Library Services for Undergraduate Research; Washington University in St. Louis. https://libguides.wustl.edu/our?p=302677#:~:text=A%20literature%20review%20is%20a These papers equated to more than a combined 105 pages of written work. 

I also did some original research and wrote a journal article. In one class, I did a qualitative research project. Qualitative research is “a method of research that produces descriptive (non-numerical) data, such as observations of behavior or personal accounts of experiences.”3APA Dictionary of Psychology. (2014). Qualitative Research. APA Dictionary of Psychology; American Psychological Association. https://dictionary.apa.org/qualitative-research For my project, I interviewed community journalists in Kansas about how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted their work. Hopefully, I can get my article published soon.

Another research project I did also consisted of qualitative methods, except this time I focused on Facebook posts and explored how community journalism organizations in Kansas use the social media platform to report local news and engage audiences. I used the research method of discourse analysis, which looks at how language is used and seeks to uncover themes and content of the words being used.4Gee, J. P. (2014). An introduction to discourse analysis: theory and method (4th ed.). Routledge. It did not particularly please me how this project turned out, but I was able to submit an extended abstract (a long summary of the project) to a conference, hoping to get to present my research to the conference attendees. However, my project was not accepted. That’s OK. It’s probably for the best.

I took a couple of summer courses that were helpful but not as intensive as some of my other courses.

I also took a course during the Fall 2021 semester that felt different from some of my other coursework. It straddled the line of academic and practical and real-world work. It was an online course, so there was work due each week. However, the work wasn’t purely written in nature. One of the primary modes of assignment submission was the creation of podcast episodes. We also got to write a few papers and do a few other assignments that I hope to use as the basis for future research projects. Maybe it’s my recency bias, but I really liked the variety of work we did in this class.

Of course, to accomplish any of this, there was a lot of reading that had to be done. And I mean a lot. One course in the Spring 2020 semester required at least eight books. 

Then, in addition to any and all assigned books, there were countless journal articles and book excerpts provided too. 

It felt overwhelming at times, but it was all in service of the greater good of the program’s goals. Also, thanks to the suggestion of one of my professors that I get EndNote for research material and citation management, every reading becomes part of my literature file.

Perhaps the most important aspect of my studies these past semesters was that I found my place within the program.

I’d be lying if I said I started my studies knowing I was in the right place. With the program’s focus on leadership, I worried my interests in journalism wouldn’t completely mesh with the emphasis areas of the courses I had to take. In my heart of hearts, I knew the connection had to be there because of journalism’s connection with democracy, but struggled to find the intersection.

Then the clouds parted, and the light shone brightly.

I saw the connection. Democracy is about people working together to tackle leadership issues that impact society. Journalism plays a role in this as it covers such events, provides a forum for the exchange of ideas, and provides leadership within communities by urging action and acting as connective tissue for those communities. Also, we exist within the public sphere, in which the media “provide communication among members of the public.”5Habermas, J. (1991). The structural transformation of the public sphere : an inquiry into a category of bourgeois society (T. Burger & F. Lawrence, Trans.). Massachusetts Institute Of Technology. 

The connection became clear while learning about deliberative democracy, which serves as a more inclusive and responsive decision-making process.6Curato, N., Dryzek, J. S., Ercan, S. A., Hendriks, C. M., & Niemeyer, S. (2017). Twelve Key Findings in Deliberative Democracy Research. Daedalus, 146(3), 28-38.

Journalism exists as a cornerstone of the way democracy works in the United States. It holds those in power accountable for their actions, and it keeps the citizenry informed so decisions can be made. “Information is readily accessible with the spread of the Internet, yet our public life remains polarized and divisive.”7Barker, D. W. M. (2019). Deliberative Civic Engagement: Toward a Public Politics in Higher Education. In N. V. Longo & T. J. Shaffer (Eds.), Creating Space for Democracy: A Primer on Dialogue and Deliberation in Higher Education (pp. 57-68). Stylus. This is why political actors have successfully been able to use the term “fake news” as a cudgel to attack journalism that isn’t favorable to their stances and perspectives. Portions of the populace buy into this idea and join in on negative discourses aim at the press. This demonstrates the cleavage found in our society. Despite such separation seeming to be at odds with democracy, it fits rather well. This is due to the fact that “[d]eliberative democracy applies to deeply divided societies” because it “can promote recognition, mutual understanding, social learning about the other side, and even solidarity across deep differences.”8Curato, N., Dryzek, J. S., Ercan, S. A., Hendriks, C. M., & Niemeyer, S. (2017). Twelve Key Findings in Deliberative Democracy Research. Daedalus, 146(3), 28-38. 

This is important because even in times of division, the citizens need to be engaged in the decision-making processes happening around them. As has been noted, “deliberative democracy sees enough commonality among citizens that they can engage in communication with one another,”9Barker, D. W. M. (2019). Deliberative Civic Engagement: Toward a Public Politics in Higher Education. In N. V. Longo & T. J. Shaffer (Eds.), Creating Space for Democracy: A Primer on Dialogue and Deliberation in Higher Education (pp. 57-68). Stylus. so this process can useful. Of course, even the best-laid plans can result in less-than-desirable outcomes. “Engagement among citizens, it should be noted, also too often contributes to the polarization threatening American democracy as echo chambers provide content that reinforces existing beliefs, isolating us even further from contrasting views.”10Longo, N. V., & Shaffer, T. J. (2019). Discussing Democracy: Learning to Talk Together. In N. V. Longo & T. J. Shaffer (Eds.), Creating Space for Democracy: A Primer on Dialogue and Deliberation in Higher Education (pp. 13-38). Stylus.

Combating echo chambers and “fake news” as divisive discourse is what journalism does on a daily, or even hourly, basis. Regardless of what people may think, the goal of journalism — not prime-time talk shows on the major cable news networks where the hosts opine about the news — is to report true and neutral news that informs individuals so they are equipped to exist in their communities and society. In this way, we can view journalism as an educator for society. 

Therefore, the concept of deliberative democracy seems well-suited to be useful in my intended area of research. More exciting, though, is the idea of deliberative civic engagement. This can be defined as “civic engagement practices that incorporate a specifically deliberative concept of democracy [. . .] Most approaches use a discussion-centered format with a neutral moderator to facilitate the dialogue. Unlike debate formats, which consist of adversarial argumentation for one side versus the other, deliberation emphasizes constructive exchanges and a nonadversarial tone, with the assumption that various perspectives add value to the dialogue.”11Barker, D. W. M. (2019). Deliberative Civic Engagement: Toward a Public Politics in Higher Education. In N. V. Longo & T. J. Shaffer (Eds.), Creating Space for Democracy: A Primer on Dialogue and Deliberation in Higher Education (pp. 57-68). Stylus. Similarly, this is the goal of journalism — serving as a neutral space for information exchange and discussion that gives voice to all communities and persons. 

Though journalism as part of society and democracy isn’t new, how it can be utilized could transform and become innovative in the democratic space by seeking to engage all citizens in democratic issues.12Elstub, S., & Escobar, O. (2019). Defining and typologising democratic innovations. In S. Elstub & O. Escobar (Eds.), Handbook of Democratic Innovation and Governance (pp. 11-31). Edward Elgar. Such issues can be referred to as “wicked problems” because they are “complex social and public policy issues.”13Longo, N. V., & Shaffer, T. J. (2019). Discussing Democracy: Learning to Talk Together. In N. V. Longo & T. J. Shaffer (Eds.), Creating Space for Democracy: A Primer on Dialogue and Deliberation in Higher Education (pp. 13-38). Stylus. For small-town, community journalism, this type of work is part of the everyday routine. A newspaper serves as a binding agent that brings the community together by recording the history of the area and providing coverage of important issues residents might be facing. After all, journalism exists in the realm of communication, and deliberation requires communication. “The more deliberative the communication, the better democracy works.”14Curato, N., Dryzek, J. S., Ercan, S. A., Hendriks, C. M., & Niemeyer, S. (2017). Twelve Key Findings in Deliberative Democracy Research. Daedalus, 146(3), 28-38. Local media provides a vehicle for this to occur. 

This discussion of deliberative civic engagement and the role journalism can plan in that process reminds me of my thesis for my master’s degree. I conducted a case study of a small Kansas high school journalism program, seeking to understand how student involvement in scholastic journalism affected social and civic engagement. The results showed they were more aware of what was going on around them in their community and in the country, and several students indicated it caused them to want to be more engaged, especially once they were old enough to vote.

Because of this, I see deliberative civic engagement as a viable option for my research. This is especially true considering that the discussions inherent in this type of engagement “typically feature personal experiences, storytelling, passion, and conflict, in addition to fully formed and ‘reasoned’ arguments.”15Leighninger, M. (2012). Mapping Deliberative Civic Engagement: Pictures from a (R)evolution. In T. Nabatchi, J. Gastil, M. Leighninger & G. M. Weiksner (Eds.), Democracy in Motion: Evaluating the Practice and Impact of Deliberative Civic Engagement (pp. 19-39). New York: Oxford University Press. Most of this description aligns nearly perfectly with aspects of good journalism. Journalism tells stories of passion and conflict through the lens of individuals’ personal experiences. 

In this way, journalism builds community, which fits within the idea of “cocreative, asset-based learning” as “empowering; it needs to be the touchstone for learning in our networked society, where information is no longer the exclusive purview of experts and gatekeepers. We all have something to contribute. This means that learning and knowledge creation take place within an ecosystem that extends beyond the professor and students to include those in the larger community affected by an issue. Most significantly, through these participatory processes, learning becomes the foundation for a democratic society.”16Longo, N. V., & Shaffer, T. J. (2019). Discussing Democracy: Learning to Talk Together. In N. V. Longo & T. J. Shaffer (Eds.), Creating Space for Democracy: A Primer on Dialogue and Deliberation in Higher Education (pp. 13-38). Stylus.

Again, this relates to journalism in many ways, especially if you consider the idea of gatekeepers, or individuals and entities that determine what news and information are disseminated. That’s part of what journalism does through agenda-setting and framing.

Furthermore, journalism can help individuals be more than “passive consumers of knowledge.”17Longo, N. V., & Shaffer, T. J. (2019). Discussing Democracy: Learning to Talk Together. In N. V. Longo & T. J. Shaffer (Eds.), Creating Space for Democracy: A Primer on Dialogue and Deliberation in Higher Education (pp. 13-38). Stylus This gives them autonomy and a voice.

Based upon this, I no longer felt so much like an imposter. I still battled imposter syndrome, which is “a deep-seated insecurity that one is not sufficiently capable of carrying out the task at hand, often masking their anxiety of being exposed as intellectual frauds.”18McAllum, K. (2016). Managing imposter syndrome among the “Trophy Kids”: creating teaching practices that develop independence in millennial students. In (Vol. 65, pp. 363-365): Taylor & Francis Ltd. Now, though, I am a bit more confident in the path I’m on, and that’s a tremendous improvement and benefit to my learning.

What’s interesting is, once I found this direction, more and more connections became illuminated. I suppose they were always there, but they only became clear to me when I started looking for them, which is the way of things I suppose. 

One book helped greatly in seeing those things that were right in front of me. That is “News for US: Citizen-Center Journalism” by Paula Lynn Ellis, Paul S. Voakes, and Lori Bergen. I owe this book, and one of my professors for recommending it, a lot. It helped me come closer to formulating my final dissertation focus.

Of course, as I said, I still need to finalize my dissertation topic. I’ve got time, though, and thanks to the past few semesters I feel like I have a foundation taking shape.

The road to this point has not been easy. It has been stressful and pushed me to what I thought my limits were at times, especially in terms of being able to get everything done without becoming so overwhelmed I ended up huddled in the corner blubbering like a baby. 

I owe that to the supportive faculty and, most importantly, my family. They have been incredibly helpful. When I’ve needed it, my wife has set me straight. One time, when I whined that I felt like I couldn’t get it all done, she just looked at me and asked if I wanted to earn the degree or not. I said I did, and she said, essentially, that I needed to suck it up and get it done then.

I needed that, and I’m grateful.

Hopefully, during the rest of my journey to becoming Dr. Vogts, my wife won’t have to whip me in shape, but if she does, I know she can handle it. 

So until the next update, which I will try to do before almost another year passes, I hope everyone reading this experiences success in their own endeavors. Anything worth having shouldn’t come easy. It needs to be earned through effort and dedication. 

If I can survive this process so far, you can get through your tribulations. We’ve got this.

Now go read a local newspaper and stay tuned for more from me as I complete more coursework and achieve new milestones.

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Notes & References

  • 1
    I’m a pretty transparent person, so if you are super interested, you can see my program of study that outlines what classes I am taking and when by clicking on this link. It gets updated from time to time, but, things are pretty locked in as I approach the end of the journey.
  • 2
    Clay, R. (2021, April 6). Research Guides: What is a Literature Review? Library Services for Undergraduate Research; Washington University in St. Louis. https://libguides.wustl.edu/our?p=302677#:~:text=A%20literature%20review%20is%20a
  • 3
    APA Dictionary of Psychology. (2014). Qualitative Research. APA Dictionary of Psychology; American Psychological Association. https://dictionary.apa.org/qualitative-research
  • 4
    Gee, J. P. (2014). An introduction to discourse analysis: theory and method (4th ed.). Routledge.
  • 5
    Habermas, J. (1991). The structural transformation of the public sphere : an inquiry into a category of bourgeois society (T. Burger & F. Lawrence, Trans.). Massachusetts Institute Of Technology.
  • 6
    Curato, N., Dryzek, J. S., Ercan, S. A., Hendriks, C. M., & Niemeyer, S. (2017). Twelve Key Findings in Deliberative Democracy Research. Daedalus, 146(3), 28-38.
  • 7
    Barker, D. W. M. (2019). Deliberative Civic Engagement: Toward a Public Politics in Higher Education. In N. V. Longo & T. J. Shaffer (Eds.), Creating Space for Democracy: A Primer on Dialogue and Deliberation in Higher Education (pp. 57-68). Stylus.
  • 8
    Curato, N., Dryzek, J. S., Ercan, S. A., Hendriks, C. M., & Niemeyer, S. (2017). Twelve Key Findings in Deliberative Democracy Research. Daedalus, 146(3), 28-38.
  • 9
    Barker, D. W. M. (2019). Deliberative Civic Engagement: Toward a Public Politics in Higher Education. In N. V. Longo & T. J. Shaffer (Eds.), Creating Space for Democracy: A Primer on Dialogue and Deliberation in Higher Education (pp. 57-68). Stylus.
  • 10
    Longo, N. V., & Shaffer, T. J. (2019). Discussing Democracy: Learning to Talk Together. In N. V. Longo & T. J. Shaffer (Eds.), Creating Space for Democracy: A Primer on Dialogue and Deliberation in Higher Education (pp. 13-38). Stylus.
  • 11
    Barker, D. W. M. (2019). Deliberative Civic Engagement: Toward a Public Politics in Higher Education. In N. V. Longo & T. J. Shaffer (Eds.), Creating Space for Democracy: A Primer on Dialogue and Deliberation in Higher Education (pp. 57-68). Stylus.
  • 12
    Elstub, S., & Escobar, O. (2019). Defining and typologising democratic innovations. In S. Elstub & O. Escobar (Eds.), Handbook of Democratic Innovation and Governance (pp. 11-31). Edward Elgar.
  • 13
    Longo, N. V., & Shaffer, T. J. (2019). Discussing Democracy: Learning to Talk Together. In N. V. Longo & T. J. Shaffer (Eds.), Creating Space for Democracy: A Primer on Dialogue and Deliberation in Higher Education (pp. 13-38). Stylus.
  • 14
    Curato, N., Dryzek, J. S., Ercan, S. A., Hendriks, C. M., & Niemeyer, S. (2017). Twelve Key Findings in Deliberative Democracy Research. Daedalus, 146(3), 28-38.
  • 15
    Leighninger, M. (2012). Mapping Deliberative Civic Engagement: Pictures from a (R)evolution. In T. Nabatchi, J. Gastil, M. Leighninger & G. M. Weiksner (Eds.), Democracy in Motion: Evaluating the Practice and Impact of Deliberative Civic Engagement (pp. 19-39). New York: Oxford University Press.
  • 16
    Longo, N. V., & Shaffer, T. J. (2019). Discussing Democracy: Learning to Talk Together. In N. V. Longo & T. J. Shaffer (Eds.), Creating Space for Democracy: A Primer on Dialogue and Deliberation in Higher Education (pp. 13-38). Stylus.
  • 17
    Longo, N. V., & Shaffer, T. J. (2019). Discussing Democracy: Learning to Talk Together. In N. V. Longo & T. J. Shaffer (Eds.), Creating Space for Democracy: A Primer on Dialogue and Deliberation in Higher Education (pp. 13-38). Stylus
  • 18
    McAllum, K. (2016). Managing imposter syndrome among the “Trophy Kids”: creating teaching practices that develop independence in millennial students. In (Vol. 65, pp. 363-365): Taylor & Francis Ltd.
About toddvogts 782 Articles
My name is Todd Vogts. I am an assistant professor of media. I like the color green, riding my motorcycle, and being with my family and friends. A good book is a perfect companion for me any time, and I'm a published author and journalist. Visit my website at www.toddvogts.com and follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/toddvogts.