Taking Chantelle back to basics

By stevewertheim, 4 July, 2012

My friend, Chantelle, is a Professional Nurse, who heads one of the largest and busiest township trauma units in South Africa. She's a formidable person, who thrives on challenges most people spend their lives trying to avoid. Completely unafraid and with not a single bashful bone in her body, the world truly would be a better place if she were in charge.

Nonetheless, she has been in charge of this particular Trauma Unit for the last four years, and during this time she has "turned around" the survival rate of patients from 20-something percent to something like 98%. It's obvious that she is not easily cowed. When something needs to be done, Chantelle will get it done..."no matter what the obstacles"..."no probz"...pronto!

Then a challenge came that suddenly turned her into a work-shy procrastinator; she started writing her Master's thesis.

The topic was fascinating: the thesis was going to provide an account of the process she used to transform the Trauma Unit. She could "just see how important this thesis was going to be;" it would "become a model that would be used all over to transform the healthcare system."

Just one problem... she didn't start writing...for one year, two years, R65,000, three years...another R40,000, and so on. Eventually, there was an ultimatum. It's not clear if it was a personal ultimatum or whether it came from the University. Suddenly, she produced a proposal and a "synopsis" of the proposal in quick succession. Some VIP Board reviewed her texts and returned the incoherent sort of feedback that often comes from a heterogeneous group of people.

Now Chantelle did what she does best: she turned to her friends and tried to bully them into overwriting the proposal and synopsis for her. After one refusal too many, her friend Robyn, a medical doctor, sat her down and helped her out of the quagmire this thesis had become. She described the process he'd used afterwards: it was exquisite in its simplicity. He'd basically walked her through the fundamentals of preparing a text:

  • First, they clarified the topic/main idea of the dissertation/thesis-the transformation of this particular Trauma Unit/health care facility.
  • Then, they described how the writer would approach the topic. They decided that a qualitative study using interviews with specific groups of subjects would be the best way to uncover the required information/gather the data.
  • Afterwards, they identified the main ideas that needed to be dealt with in order to deal with the topic comprehensively: they identified various elements that would have had to be addressed in order to change the survival outcomes at this health facility in this remarkable way.
  • Finally, Robyn helped Chantelle to pull all these elements together in the format and process of a Master's thesis. Together, they clarified a plan of action for her to complete the task. It was as if the lights had suddenly gone on for Chantelle. She was back on track and completed the first draft of the thesis in three months. The successful completion of the final draft and everything else was relatively uneventful.

What I found astounding was that neither Chantelle's supervisor, nor her peer review group, nor the VIP Board helped her prepare for writing her dissertation by doing this essential preparatory work; I'm not sure whose job exactly it should have been. I wonder how much time, frustration, and money may have been saved. Can we assume that Master's-level students already "know these writing basics?" Obviously we cannot, if Chantelle is anything to go by. South Africans have had a very uneven access to education. A good strategy may be to always check whether the basics need to be addressed. Frequently we assume that student writers know how they are supposed to complete specific writing tasks; the truth is that they may not. The neglect of this issue could be quite devastating for students who after much effort and expense end up without completing their degrees.


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