Introducing Ruth Martinez

Ruth Martinez is a community organizer who lives in the small town of Ducor in the San Joaquin Valley. I interviewed her several years ago for my Master’s thesis and wrote the story below based on what she told me about how she came to be an activist. I stopped by her house this morning to get her permission to share her story.  Ruth was keeping off her feet after having broken her foot on a recent United Farm Workers of America (UFW) march to Sacramento.  Besides her involvement with the UFW, Ruth is also active with the Center on Race Poverty and the Environment, the Community Water Center, and the Asociación de Gente Unida por el Agua

Ruth’s story begins with her marriage at 15.  Her husband was a farm worker who was active in the UFW.  She joined him on the marches and political campaigns that were connected with his work.  Ruth had always wanted to be a nurse, but from a young age she had epileptic seizures.  As she told me, “César Chávez never said, ‘No, you can’t.’  That’s why his slogan was ‘Si, se puede,’ because yes, you can.”  Ruth’s husband took her to a UFW meeting at 40 Acres in Delano, which had a clinic for farm workers at that time.  Ruth saw the nurses and said, “Oh, I always wanted to be a nurse.”  César heard her and said “Well, why aren’t you?” Ruth said, “Because I can’t.  I get seizures and everybody’s told me I’d never be able to be a nurse because of my seizures.”  César said, “You can be anything you want to,” and helped her go to nurse’s aide training.  Ruth worked as a nurse’s aide until she finished college and received her nursing degree.  She was a nurse for 30 years before retiring.  After one month of retirement she became tired of not doing anything and went back to work.  Now she works at a unionized (UFW) rose farm, taking out the thorns that get stuck in the farm workers hands, face and eyes and seeing to other health problems as well.

During her years as a nurse Ruth would go on the UFW marches to take care of people who got sick or who had too many blisters on their feet from marching.  She remembers one march from Delano to Sacramento in particular.  She got upset because the organizers put her in a van to tend to the sick but she wanted to be out marching.  She describes the impact of starting with about 20 people in Delano and ending in Sacramento with thousands.  She remembers how the Teamsters and just about everyone else worked against them on that march, and how different it was from a march from Merced to Sacramento that they did around 1990 or 2000.  This time the Teamster’s lent them their hall in Sacramento to sleep in; the police provided an escort; and truckers stopped to get them sodas and water to drink as they marched.

Ruth and her family moved from a home surrounded by a grape orchard to the small town where she still lives.  Her family, and many of the neighbors, had “self-help” houses built for them because of their low-income status.  Early on there were problems with the water supply in town, and residents were told not to flush their toilets at certain hours, and to only take showers at other hours.  Ruth felt this wasn’t right and asked her sister, who worked at a regional non-profit, to send a legal assistant over to help resolve the problem.  Ruth began collecting signatures in town to replace the private water company with a community service district that the whole town would co-own.  The campaign was successful and very personally meaningful to Ruth, who years later ended up on the water board for the town.

For a time the water system worked well and provided them with clean water, albeit sometimes at low pressure.  But later the town began having problems with their water again.  This time it smelled terrible and in many houses came out looking brown and muddy.  Ruth had already been introduced to the environmental justice organization nearby, and began working on the water problem with one of their organizers.  They formed a committee for people in the San Joaquin Valley with water problems, and went to Sacramento, Fresno and San Francisco to attend various water board meetings in an attempt to resolve their problem.  Ruth faced strong opposition from her local board when she brought bottles of the smelly brown water collected from neighbors’ homes as examples of what they had to live with.  Ruth and the other neighbors still had to pay for the poor-quality water that they were receiving. She used bottled water to cook with but bathed in the tap water, although she used bottled water to wash her hair so it would not retain the sewage smell of the tap water.  Ruth’s grandchildren would come to visit and Ruth would bathe them, but then her daughter would find rashes on the children, which they decided must have been caused by the water.  During this time several of Ruth’s old UFW friends joined the nearby environmental justice group, and began inviting her to meetings that they were organizing on pesticide buffer zones and the possibility of receiving a grant to put in sewage lines in her town.

Ruth’s father died when she was young.  Her mother spoke little English, and Ruth credits her with very little influence in terms of her own work as an activist. Somehow she and her sister ended up being the only ones in their family who were “a little pushy”, and tried to fix things when they thought something was wrong.  She thinks the female movement must have had a lot to do with it.

Toward the end of our interview I asked Ruth if she has any children, and she told me that she has four.  Ruth’s first child is the healthiest, and she was born before Ruth and her husband moved to a home in the middle of a grape orchard.  Of the second two children born on the ranch, one was born with only one kidney* and one has high blood pressure and diabetes.  The fourth child has a serious case of asthma.  Ruth attributes the child born with one kidney and the other child’s asthma to the pesticides to which they were exposed.

Now, at 65 or a little older, Ruth is still working as a nurse.  She works on local and regional water issues, and continues to support political campaigns that are backed by the UFW.  Most recently, she went to Los Angeles to support Antonio Villaraigosa’s campaign to be the first Latino mayor.  She walked the streets and talked to the voters on election day.  She also works with Catholic Charities registering new people to become citizens.  Her husband died 12 years ago of a heart attack and diabetes.

* Ruth’s daughter passed away in November of 2010.

Academics and the creative process

Mike commenting on a finished work.

This week I got a personal tour through New Mexico artist Mike Bell’s paintings. Now, artists and academics are usually depicted as two entirely different types of people.  Artists are free-thinking, soulful and sometimes a little wild, while academics are uber-rational eggheads who delight in flow-charts, facts and logic (right?!).

Nonetheless, I think academics have a lot to learn from artists.  We don’t usually talk about our work as a creative endeavor, but the process of shaping our own ideas, making unexpected connections between events and ideas, and writing about the social world involves a touch of mystery that artists seem much better equipped to think about than academics are.

The more I hear Mike and other writers, sculptors and creative types talk about their work process, the more I learn about my own.  We all need to find ways to keep our creative juices flowing in spite of other, often more pressing, demands on our time.  We struggle to value our ideas enough to try to realize them, to learn who is helpful to discuss early-stage ideas with and whose commentary will have toxic impacts on our work, to navigate the pressure to be our own best publicist with competing instincts to be humble.  Sometimes we think our creations are terrible as we are making them and then come back later and realize they aren’t half bad.

Beginning scholars in particular need all the help we can get in navigating the creative terrain of our work.  I’d love to find ways to bring us more formally into conversation with artists! In that spirit, please send in any of your own creative practices and tips!

My creative process involves lots of post-its…

Write a literature review, practice innovation

Convincing students of the value of writing a literature review as part of a research proposal can be a hard sell. They must research a huge body of academic scholarship on their topic and adjust their own research question so that it meaningfully builds on what has already been done.  Especially for the many students not planning a career in academia, I think it can feel like an exercise they do just to satisfy the course requirements rather than because they think they’ll get much out of it.  We talk about it helping them develop their critical thinking skills, but I suspect that isn’t particularly motivating, since all their other classes and assignments are supposed to be doing the same thing.

However, the process of writing a literature review is also good practice in innovation.  Knowing what has already been done in your field makes it much more likely that you’ll be able to recognize and develop ideas that are unique and interesting, and learning this process is a valuable skill.  For example, I sometimes talk to students who want to create whole new organizations to address social problems they care about.  I usually encourage them to first research the existing organizations in that field and learn from what they’ve done before striking out on their own.  Nonprofits need to know what their partners and competitors are doing and be able to describe how their work is different to be able to find funding.  I imagine it is the same in other fields.  Businesses that offer new, useful products not offered elsewhere have an edge over other businesses.  Journalists who have found a new angle on an old problem are more likely to get published and read than those that write things similar to what has been written before.  Lawyers do a “document review” process to help them understand how similar cases have been litigated before putting together their own cases.

Drawing these parallels between the process of writing a literature review and shaping a research project around it and it’s equivalent in other fields could also lead to some interesting discussions about scholarship and innovation.  For example:

  • Is a new research project/product/organization always better than old one?
  • What are the similarities and differences between innovation in academia and in other fields?
  • Is innovation always rewarded?  What are its risks?
  • Can anyone innovate?
Certainly innovation isn’t all about hard work.  There’s a certain amount of luck and historical timing involved too.  But I suspect that broadening the discussion of writing a literature review to include similar tasks in other fields may make the process more concrete and valuable for students.

Action research syllabus collection

Although all academics hope their research makes an impact in the real world, some take extra steps to make that outcome more likely.  This small but vibrant sector of academia talks about their work with terms like action research, participatory action research, public sociology, engaged scholarship, activist scholarship, applied research and more. I’ve recently acquired three fascinating syllabi in this genre and added them to my collection.  Two are intended for graduate students and one for undergrads.

I must say blogging is a great way to share my various little treasure chests of these sorts of things.  I hope you enjoy them too!

This collection also has a permanent home under the “Teaching” tab on the menu at the top of this site.

Teaching research methods – lab curriculum

With the click of a button I’ve just uploaded all of my students’ final grades and am officially done teaching for the 2010-2011 school year!  The class I just wrapped up was my department’s undergraduate research methods class, and I’ve posted what I’ve been doing with them below for others who teach similar classes.  You’ll find a basic overview of everything I did, some online resources, and some things I wish I had done.

I’ve worked as a teaching assistant for this class twice now, and it is the class I’ve enjoyed the most so far.  By the end of the class the students have picked a research question to answer, found out what work has already been done on it and modified their question accordingly to make it improve on what has already been done, written a basic literature review, chosen research methods to answer their question, designed their research tools (survey, interview questions, etc), pre-tested and modified their research tools, and speculated on where the research might take them if they were to actually pursue the rest of it.

It’s a difficult task but some of the students get really excited about their projects, and learn a lot about scholarship in the process.  The “Big Assignments” listed below were assigned by the professor leading the class, Gabby Sandoval, and appear here with my edits.  Some of the “lab assignments” listed below I adapted from the research design class I took with Katherine Masyn when I was a masters student at UC Davis.  The important thing is to help the students break down what can be an overwhelming project into manageable weekly tasks, especially during the first half of the class as they are getting started with their projects.

The lab plan below was designed around a teaching workload that involved students going to lecture twice a week with the professor, and then attending a 2 hour lab once a week with me.  I was responsible for two labs of twenty students each.  Students each sat at their own computer, enabling me to combine lectures, group-work, and time for students to work on their projects individually while I moved around the room to consult with them.  During individual work time, I made an effort to check in with each student instead of only those that sought my help, which helped nip problems with their projects in the bud.

Week 1: No Lab

Week 2 Lab

  1. Students bring first draft of their research question to lab
  2. Mini-lecture: Research methods are cool!
  3. Mini-lecture: What is the difference between a research proposal and a term paper?
  4. Go over handout: Common Problems With Research Questions and How to Fix Them
  5. Peer review of draft research questions
  6. Introduce Lab Assignment 1: 5 new and improved versions of their research question
  7. Individual and partner work on Lab Assignment 1
  8. Turn in first draft of research question and peer-review sheet

Week 3 Lab

  1. Students get back the first draft of their research question with my feedback on it
  2. Mini lecture: Operationalizing research questions
  3. Demo: Read aloud my first and final drafts of “key terms” for my thesis research, discuss significance of the changes made on my findings
  4. Demo: 2-3 students volunteer their research questions and we work on operationalizing them as a group
  5. Lab Activity: Individual and partner work to revise and operationalize research questions
  6. Mini-lecture: review literature review assignment
  7. Introduce Lab Assignments 2 and 3: find 20 sources and fill out one article summary table
  8. Hand back lab assignment 1
  9. Individual work and student-TA check-ins
  10. Students turn in lab activity and lab assignment 1

Week 4 Lab

  1. Hand back lab assignment 1 and week 3 lab activity – review operationalization
  2. Literature Review Quiz
  3. Check in on progress on lab assignments 2 and 3 – discuss common problems with finding sources
  4. Introduce Lab Assignments 4 and 5: literature review outline and more article review tables
  5. Workshop literature review outlines for 1-2 student research questions
  6. Individual work and student-TA check-ins
  7. Students turn in lab assignments 2 and 3

Week 5 Lab

  1. Mini lecture: Review Big Assignment #1 – Literature Review
  2. Guided discussion: trouble-shoot literature review problems
  3. Mini lecture: In-text citations
  4. Individual work and student-TA check-ins: Hand back and discuss lab assignments 2 and 3 while students work on literature reviews
  5. Students turn in lab assignments 4 and 5

Week 6 Lab

  1. Students hand in Big Assignment #1: Literature Review
  2. Peer review: literature review drafts
  3. Review requirements for Big Assignment #2: Methods Section
  4. Review class calendar
  5. Introduce Lab Activity: methods worksheet
  6. Introduce Lab Assignment 6: research tool
  7. Workshop methods that could be used to answer research questions for several students
  8. Groupwork: divide by method students plan to use, and discuss how they could design research to answer their question

Week 7 Lab

  1. Methods Quiz
  2. Workshop: discuss ways to pre-test the methods of several students’ research questions
  3. Mini lecture: filling out Institutional Review Board forms
  4. Mini lecture: assessing the ethical implications of your proposed research
  5. Students get back graded literature reviews
  6. Individual work and student-TA check-ins: students work on methods section

Week 8 Lab

  1. Students hand in Big Assignment #2: Methods section
  2. Mini-lecture: Pre-testing
  3. Individual work and student-TA check-ins

Week 9 Lab

  1. Review requirements for Big Assignment #3: Final Research Proposal
  2. Hand back graded methods sections and research tools
  3. Individual work and student-TA check-ins: Students work on revising literature reviews, methods sections, or research tool as needed

Week 10 Lab

  1. Students conducting surveys as their pre-test of their research tools conduct surveys in class and get feedback from the rest of the students
  2. Hand out and review Editing check-list
  3. Individual work and student-TA check-ins

Finals Week

  1. Students turn in Big Assignment #3: Final Research Proposal


Other resources for students:

To do list for next time:

  • Create a handout that shows one basic research question reformulated in many different ways.  For example, a quantitative version of the question and a qualitative version.  Versions that would require different methods to answer:  in-depth interviews, textual analysis, participant observation, survey, etc.  The students often have a hard time imagining all the different ways that their topical interest could play out in a research project, so I think seeing one question that has been developed in many different directions will give them a sense of the array of options they have.
  • Prepare some materials to teach different approaches to writing a literature review. In particular, I’m interested in helping the students explore the slightly different role of  the literature review for an applied research project as compared to a theoretical research project.
  • Create “Areas for Improvement” feedback forms.  The form lists common errors that many students need to improve on in their papers.  As I read a paper, I circle all the items that apply to that particular paper, add a few hand-written comments and then staple it on the back.  This has worked reasonably well when I’ve used it for other classes.
  • Mark up the model research proposal that I shared with the students. The proposal I shared was written by one of my students when I taught this class last year.  It seems like it was very helpful for the students to see a model written by a peer to meet the same requirements they had instead of looking at models written by established scholars for other purposes.  It was an excellent proposal, but still had some flaws and areas for improvement that confused the students since it was being held up as a model.  I think I’ll just make a few comments on it in ‘track changes’ and share that version instead in the future.  I’ll also add a few more models that I requested from my students this year, so future students get a sense of the range of research questions and methods that they can tackle.
  • In the future I’d also like to spend more time helping the students understand examples of research projects that have had real world outcomes so they can make better links between their own research ideas and the changes they would like to see in the world.

Tech tools for graduate students

I seem to spend half my time keeping up with my computer.  It updates itself, deals with its own viruses, and is generally a miracle of the modern world.  Still, each update means some new twists to the programs I use, and figuring out how to make use of its massive capabilities feels like a full-time job.  Here’s a list of some of the tricks and tools I’ve been trying to master.

  • Backup your work!  Who hasn’t heard a horror story of the student who lost all their work in the final stages of writing their dissertation?  I double up.  My Mac uses Time Machine to automatically back itself up to an external hard drive.  I also use Carbonite for automatic online backup to a remote site (in case my house burns down and said hard drives become a gooey mess).
  • Accessing documents on my computer when you’re not actually at your computer (you know, in case inspiration hits while you’re on vacation or otherwise enjoying a perfectly good day away from your desk): Carbonite
  • Creating a virtual library to house all the crazy pdfs that would otherwise suffocate my desktop: Zotero.  I used to use End Note, but just switched over to Zotero.  So far it seems a lot easier to use.  Plus, it’s free!  They both also automatically format your citations and bibliographies in the style of you choice.  Wow!  Can they do my laundry too?
  • Finding things on the rabbit’s warren that is my computer: Google Desktop.  I just downloaded this yesterday so I haven’t used it much yet, but my friend Bernie assures me it does the trick.  It searches not only file names, but also what’s INSIDE the files.  Crazy!
  • Sharing massive documents and syncing e-mail accounts and other information across computers.  I use Mobile Me, but I hear Google does this pretty well too.
  • For when you go back to your desk and realize that although you thought you understood it at the time, you actually have no idea what your advisor was talking about:  Recorder app on a smart phone.  Record the conversation now, make sense of it later. Kind of like interviewing.
  • For organizing and analyzing interview transcripts: NVivo.  NVivo is designed for PC’s, so using it on a Mac also requires using Bootcamp or Parallels.
  • For recording and calculating student grades: Excel or Numbers.  They both work but I like Numbers because it has a pre-fab grading worksheet that automatically transforms number grades (92%) into letter grades (A-).
  • For staying up to date with the outside world: Google ReaderTweet Deck, and that old fashioned thing called the phone
  • Task management software (otherwise known as to-do lists): OmniFocus.  I was thrilled with this when I first got it, now I’m closer to lukewarm.  I’m back to using my whiteboard for day-to-day to-do lists, but I still like it for storing my longer term to-do lists.
  • One of my writing buddies uses Foxit Reader to read pdfs online and highlight and take notes on them, but it doesn’t look like it works for Macs. Plus, I don’t like reading things online.  Still, I may snoop around and see what’s out there for Macs and give it a go.

And that marks the end of my tech savvy.