Handbook for Doctoral Students in Education/Why do dissertations always include a lit review?

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A doctoral dissertation is both a piece of original scholarship, and an assessment tool. In other words, your committee must make sure that anyone who receives a doctoral degree from our program, is a competent scholar. A competent scholar not only knows the literature in her or his field, but also can "read up" on any subject or topic that becomes of interest. These are not trivial skills, and take years to learn. "Reading up" on a subject should be efficient, reasonably quick, but still thorough and not shallow. However, your undergraduate and masters-level training have probably provided you with a good foundation.

In some fields, literature reviews look very differently, or are not distinguishable from the rest of the work. This applies to theoretical work in fields such as Philosophy of education, or Curriculum Theory. Most of empirical research projects will include a lit review of one sort or another, usually in chapter II, immediately following the chapter on conceptual framework and hypothesis.

If you tend to think in analogies, consider this one which could be applied to any writing (or art) endeavor. In this case we'll use this as applied to writing a dissertation. First, picture the cross section of an apple.

  • The seeds will represent the ideas/purpose for the dissertation, which of course should be the research question(s).
  • The area immediately around the seeds, the core, should be the form. This form is relatively set in stone by your university, usually explained in some kind of graduate student handbook. Basically, the form consists of a number of chapters delineated for specific purposes. Often the literature review is the second chapter of your dissertation.
  • Beyond the form is the idiom, meaning the general style. In the case of the dissertation, the expectation is that this is a formal and academic style, though there is much debate regarding whether first or third person is used. The debate about this seems to be influenced by the methodology used (qualitative=first person, quantitative=third person), though this is not consistent, and may be more influenced by the recommendations from your committee more than anything else.
  • Next is the structure of the piece, where this is all put together. Your research questions and methodology determine a lot of the expected structure due to particular ways that the statistics must be written up, and/or the descriptive language used in the write-up of qualitative research.
  • Very closely related to your structure, is the craft of your writing. Whether you write in first or third person, your writing should hold the interest of your readers throughout all sections of the dissertation.
  • Finally, we've reached the skin of the apple, the surface. This is the wordsmithing, the refining of eloquent language, the grammatical correctness, the scrupulous editing that is essential for the professionalism expected of the dissertation.

Okay, now to the focus of this chapter, the why. The literature review is the shell encompassing the seed of the dissertation. Although your study topic is your own, it is contained within the great and not so great works of your field. Without these works, your study does not have the sustainability to take on a form and progress to idiom, structure, or craft. At the surface (the wordsmithing, eloquent prose, etc.) your research study may appear to be similar to the masters', those researchers that have published their work in journals, book chapters, etc. (Picture an apple, ripe, heavy with juice, providing sustenance to the body of research read and used by many to understand the field.) But, without the literature review, your dissertation would remain hollow in essence, thus unable to feed the field so-to-speak. Therefore, what purpose, if any, would it really serve?

(The analogy used for this section was adapted from Scott McCloud's book, Understanding Comics, copyright 1993, HarperCollins Publishers.)