Faculty of Arts
Identifying a dissertation topic for a student with dyslexia
Hamish Forbes (School of Humanities).
A dyslexic archaeology student. She came to me as her tutor for advice on a dissertation topic. She wished to undertake a dissertation on a topic involving her home area. Initial research on the possibility of a general archaeological overview of the immediate area indicated difficulties with archaeological source material and likely problems with organising what there was into a satisfactory dissertation. An alternative topic involving the broader region also proved unsuitable, again largely because of the difficulty of organising a coherent body of work.
Dissertations can be a particular source of difficulties for dyslexic students. In our department they represent 40 credits: one third of the Finals year's marks. As much as it is possible to generalise, a "typical" humanities dissertation generally entails a large amount of reading, the understanding of a mass of complex and technical knowledge and data, and the employment of abstract concepts. The format of the dissertation also demands the production of a substantial piece of text, some 12-14,000 words long, in which a complex reasoned argument is usually developed.
Many dyslexic students read slowly and have difficulties assimilating large amounts of written information. They also frequently have difficulties with abstract concepts. Organising large and complex bodies of information into a logical framework is likewise frequently a problem. The challenge was to identify a suitable dissertation topic which could be related to the student's home area and would also minimise those problems which are common for people with dyslexia.
Processes and feelings experienced
The student's home was on Merseyside, close to where I had lived prior to teaching at Nottingham. This provided an immediate bond: we were both very positive about an area which tends to have negative connotations for outsiders, particularly those from the Midlands and South of England. As a result of a tutorial discussion about learning and assessment problems, I had sent the student to Academic Support for them to ascertain if she was dyslexic. When Study Support confirmed to her that she was indeed dyslexic, she had a very negative reaction, relating to the way she had been educationally "written off" in school because of her undiagnosed dyslexic problems. We spent some time talking through these feelings and problems.
As a result of this background, the student was far more than "just another student". She was a particular person, with needs specific to herself.
The need for this student was to identify a topic which would not require large amounts of reading and the generation of a complex reasoned argument in a dissertation. I therefore suggested two types of topic which were relevant to archaeology and which would broadly fulfill these criteria. One possibility was a standing building: in particular later 19th century industrial buildings were plentiful in the area and were quite acceptable as industrial archaeology.
The alternative was a churchyard survey: the student chose this option, obtaining permission from ecclesiastical authorities to study a churchyard close to her home village. Gravestones are ideal artefacts for study, since they contain historical information and frequently iconographic information. They are also dated, making them highly suitable for the study of change and developments over time. In addition, the documentation of the layout of a graveyard involves application of draughting and surveying/mapping skills learned in the compulsory Practical modules of course. Documentation of individual graves involves other skills learned in compulsory Portfolio modules: photography and rubbings especially. Finally, analysis of the information in large numbers of graves involves the application of IT skills learned in other core archaeology modules. Understanding and analysing the iconography of gravestones involves necessary library research, but many of the different aspects of graves-as-artefacts can be discussed in a dissertation under a series of topic headings, without resort to complex interconnected arguments. Finally, the student must pull all the different threads of the research together in a conclusion.
These were minor.
Outcome for the student
The student received support and guidance both from Academic Support and from her dissertation supervisor. No major difficulties were experienced in putting the research project into effect. The final dissertation mark was a mid II:i, in the middle of the range of the marks for her other Finals year modules. The student was especially heartened (as was I) by the fact that her overall degree class of II:i was the same as that achieved by her non-dyslexic twin sister, whom she had grown up to think of as the family's genius.
What the member of staff learned from the student
My initial reason for choosing the particular topic was as a result of analysing why the two previous suggestions had been unsuccessful. The prime considerations at the outset were that it could relate to the student's local interests, that many churchyards have enough graves to allow a statistically significant data-base, that there was a strictly limited amount of reading involved, and that there was little need to develop a complex abstract argument. Many of my observations above on the suitability of churchyard survey for dyslexic students were therefore developed partly after the completion of the dissertation, trying to analyse why it was so successful.
Thoughts on future practice
As a result of this experience I now try to steer dyslexic students who request guidance on dissertation topics towards comparable topics. Churchyard surveys and standing building surveys are unquestionably "archaeological", but also suit dyslexic students for the reasons given. Artefact collections would fulfill almost all of the same criteria, though I have not yet been in the position of being able to suggest such a topic to a dyslexic student.