Friday, May 30, 2014

4 Things I've Learned from My Dissertation:

That Don't Actually Have to Do with My Research Question

I've been working on my dissertation for two full academic years (plus one long summer), and if you've read my earlier posts, you know it hasn't been all rainbows and butterflies. Now that the struggle of the recruitment process has eased up a bit, though, I'm able to finally enjoy my research.

So far, I've held four full sets of interviews and five half-sets with undergraduates and recent graduates. I feel incredibly lucky to have had such great participants who were willing to share so much of their lives, identities, and experiences with me. What I'm learning, beyond the stuff that I'm supposed to be learning about my research question, is also pretty awesome and exciting for me.

1. Undergraduates are incredibly articulate. 

This is the one that really stood out to me. I spend a lot of time with undergraduates, and I hear them talk about their ideas, but it's usually when they're struggling that they come to me, not when they're feeling confident or accomplished. I was wowed by the way these undergraduates talked about complex theories and hands-on approaches to tough problems. I was also impressed by the way they interacted with me and how they thought about my research project. As I spoke to these undergraduates, I was reminded how incredibly sharp and articulate undergraduates can be when they take pride in what they have done. 

2. The art of response is definitely still an art.

One of my biggest challenges as an interviewer has been responding to students, especially those who are incredibly articulate, and especially when I'm focused on listening and absorbing what they're saying. Sometimes, they get way ahead of my thought process. Sometimes, they say so much more than I can take in. At times, I am so awestruck that I have a hard time finding my next thought. It's no different than I feel in class when discussion takes an unexpected turn. Responding on the fly is definitely still a skill that I need to further develop. Though most people think questions shape the interview, I am learning that responses can also have a large impact on the direction of the conversation. They direct the conversation and either put the subject at ease or do the opposite.

3. People from the Midwest talk a lot faster than I thought they would-- and other ways that my own biases have been revealed to me. 

I've been lucky to travel more than many people, but I admit still have preconceived notions of how things are that sometimes colors my judgment of things. It's a been a "check your privilege" kind of moment for me. At the same time, it's also been a little bit of a "your privilege is made up in your head" moment. Being from the NYC metropolitan area, I've experienced New York City and all the diversity of life it has to offer, including Broadway plays, knowing people of many races and religions on a personal level, and living in an environment that supports professional women rather than pulling them back to home and religious spaces. That has definitely colored my experienced, and I realize that I am privileged to have access to all of that. On the other hand, I've always been told my life that I was "privileged" because others didn't have those experiences in a way that made their experiences seem lesser. Different is not lesser, though; it is only different. Interviewing people from across the country has made me acknowledge some of my biases and really think about how they influence my decision-making and communicating.

4. We're all human.  

Talking to people I have never met before has really reminded me that we're all just human. We typically enjoy sharing experiences, storytelling, and helping one another out. Despite our differences-- age, region, ethnicity, etc--, at the core, I've found that we are more alike than different. We all just want to achieve our goals and find our purpose in this world. 

I've been really lucky to have these experiences. At this point, I've spoken with 9 different students/alumi, and they are all incredible. They have done amazing things spurred by their own volition. I'm looking forward to analyzing their experiences and writing in more depth and using what they've taught me to help teach others about constructing positive learning environments.

Even if you're not doing formal research, I really encourage everyone to reach across the table and talk to others about their experiences-- whether that's faculty talking to students, talking to people who come from a region of the world you've never been to, or talking to someone who has lived through things you have little experience with. What you learn from narratives and from conversation affect you in ways that books and research may never be able to. They remind you that we all have a journey to fulfill, and even if we're thousands of miles apart, we're all in this world together.

Friday, May 9, 2014

A Wizard's Words of Wisdom

"Think of the solution, not the problem."

That is a line from one of my favorite books, The Wizard's First Rule by Terry Goodkind. The book is mostly about Richard Cypher, a woodsman who faces enormous tragedy and learns that he is a wizard--- I think of the Sword of Truth Series as an adult version of the Harry Potter series (and highly recommend it to everyone!). In this moment, as Richard agonizes over all the way things could go wrong while trying to pretty much save the world, Zedd (Richard's mentor) tells Richard  he must "think of the solution, not the problem." This line stuck with me from the first time I read it nearly ten years ago.

This year, I've really tried to make this my mantra, and I thought that, in the midst of the chaos of the end of the semester/academic year, it was worth sharing with all of my educator and student friends out there.

In many ways, this mantra stands against a lot of what I've learned as a graduate student, where I've constantly been encouraged to problematize everything. Problematizing isn't a bad strategy for getting started, recognizing what's not working, but when it leaks into all facets of life, including your ability to complete tasks, problematizing can become a problem. I think many of us spend way too much time focusing on what's wrong instead of how to fix what's wrong, and all it does it give us things to fret about, to complain about, to write Facebook rants about.

But when it comes to practicality over intellectualizing, action over hypothesizing, sometimes, we just need to stop problematizing and focus on simplifying. This is especially true during finals season when things tend to pile up in sometimes conflicting ways. Sometimes, agonizing over all the ways that these problems can negatively impact you can actually prevent you from being able to take action, simply resulting in more stress.

When I stop thinking about everything on my plate or all the ways things could not work out, I become a better person. I focus in on my strategy and deal with problems as they come instead of panicking about problems that I may never face. I am less edgy and more productive (hey, look, even got a blog post done in the middle of conferencing and grading) because I have less floating around in my head to clog up my problem-solving abilities. I am nicer to the people around me. Even though I'm stressed and there are 600 things that need to be done at any given moment and a bunch of life-altering decisions to be made, the struggle is actually mostly internal.

I know some people will argue, "well, I can't do that," and I am sometimes one of them--I am not an ideal being and fall into traps sometimes too- but I promise you, you are capable of applying this philosophy. It takes a commitment to yourself. We have to remember we are strong, we are resilient, and we can take whatever comes our way, as long as we focus on our strategies and our abilities to tackle these issues rather than focus on the problem itself and how terrible it is. We can do this by not only telling ourselves to "think of the solution, not the problem," but by breaking things down into manageable tasks instead of focusing on everything as a whole. We can also ask for help when help is needed. Things will or will not get done regardless of how much anxiety we make ourselves feel. The key is to focus on what is within our control and let go of that which is not if we are to be our best selves.