How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.
Penelope Trunk trots out one of her regularly visited themes: why grad school is a bad idea. It rankled me a bit but I do have to remember that she’s talking to twenty-somethings and I’m a forty-odder. Her advice would be right-on to my 23-year-old self: I had very little direction, a graduate degree would have been wasted on me, and my next 25 years or so would be spent working (or not), gathering experience. and developing as a person.
The comments to her post are as opinionated, so she succeeded in stirring up some thoughts and opinions (much of it taking her to task–rightly–for her crack about the military.) Though I kind of understand her point – if you don’t have a direction, then entering grad school or the military could lead down paths that may not be right for you – it was a carelessly thought out remark.
As many of the commenters note, a graduate degree can bump up your pay grade (that’s what my employer does) and, after years of job-hopping, it can be useful to get a degree that tells the world – your bosses, your peers – that you do in fact know what you’re doing.
My manager is getting an MBA through NCSU and it’s been a transformative experience for him: he’s made great local contacts, he’s extended his skillset, and he now has a degree that qualifies him for bigger and better-paying jobs. Had he simply read the books and gone to local networking meet-ups, he would never have received the validation that he gets when he meets with his managers and with local executives in meetings set up by his school.
For myself, I have enjoyed my master’s experience tremendously. One of the most important things I learned was that I can apply my odd agglomeration of skills and abilities to more than the narrow band of activities I’ve grown accustomed to. The other important thing was that it awoke my intellectual side, which the last 25 years of work has rather successfully smothered (except when it was useful to the project, of course). And I’ve found my professors to be up to date on what’s happening in the big ol’ world outside of Manning and to be very generous with introductions to people they know in academe and industry, thus extending my personal network.
Still, her article is one of those goads that my reticular activating system has been sending my way as I contemplate the PhD. Does it make sense to leave a guaranteed paycheck to go to school full-time in this economy? Will I be able to find work as a 50-something PhD when I graduate? What, really, do I want to do with my life and will grad school help me get there?
That’s the real question I think Penelope means for her readers to ask themselves.
Financiers tell their not-for-attribution account of the mortgage crisis like this: Americans undersaved and overspent for decades, relying on rising property values to bankroll their lifestyles. But nobody on Wall Street forced United States homeowners to take out loans on houses they couldn’t afford, or refinance mortgages to spend money on cars they shouldn’t have bought.
Since our 780 Research Methods class doesn’t have a Blackboard site for the class, I’ll post my various links and thoughts to the blog, tagged with “780.”
What I admire about Seth Roberts is his abundant idea-generation and his zeal for measurement and record-keeping. His goal is to experiment on himself first, then if his data indicates that there are possibly interesting results, then he proceeds with more methodical testing and inquiry, possibly leading to more formalized studies (or not).
When I’ve been thinking about possible studies I might like to try, I remember this quote from one of his blog posts:
SR: Tell me something you’ve learned about research design.
BW: When I was a graduate student [at the Stanford Business School], I would jog on the school track. One day on the track I met a professor who had recently gotten tenure. He had only published three articles (maybe he had 700 in the pipeline), so his getting tenure surprised me. I asked him: What’s the secret? What was so great about those three papers? His answer was two words: “Cool data.” Ever since then I’ve tried to collect cool data. Not attitude surveys, which are really common in my area. Cool data is not always the easiest data to collect but it is data that gets buzz, that people talk about.
Thinking about what “cool data” might mean in a digital curation or archival or info-science context can be tough. I think the social networks are certainly perceived as cool and you can do cool stuff with them, certainly, but I’m not that curious about them. I feel like, were I to study one of them, I’d just be chasing a parade that’s got a five-mile headstart. Better to find my own parade. :)
Curiosity is probably what drives me. Certainly, one of the itches that a researcher must scratch is his or her own personal obsession with some nagging question or detail that no one has really addressed or answered to their satisfaction. (The same way most writers have to write their own poems, stories, and plays, because no one else is publishing what they want to read.)
Instead of this negative critical thinking, I like his suggested questions to ask instead, especially the simplicity of his fifth question: “What’s interesting or enjoyable about it?” Even if I find the writing of an article stilted or atrocious, I think it should be possible to at least admire a piece’s energy, its intent, its point of view, its ability to stir thoughts in me, etc. Saying something constructive is not about becoming a positive-thinking ninny; it’s about seeing more sides of the issue than only one.
Even for a piece (Mabry’s “Reference Interview as Partnership”) that didn’t really touch me, I appreciated that this was the author’s distillation of a career’s worth of lessons that she wanted to impart. In my summary of the piece, I said I could see it being used to start a conversation about one’s own personal manifesto for serving at a reference desk. We’re not often asked to reflect on our larger purpose or philosophy when it comes to our jobs, or even our career, so I saw the Mabry piece as a terrific starting point for such a conversation.
Those whom history has judged as great often came from less and strived for more than wealth. High compensation doesn’t attract the very best. It attracts the greediest.
But forced idleness is a good thing, especially for a workaholic like I, and while I feel as if the knowledge I used to use at work, such as my ability to distinguish Jenson and Caslon (or Sunday and Monday), or the keystroke commands for Flash MX, are seriously diminished, it’s been replaced by the weird farrago of art-making skills, writing skills, arcane interests (nuclear explosions, gnosticism, mycology) and stuff I read, not entirely a bad thing, but I’ve all but ceased to be professionally useful, and as someone said recently, happiness consists of knowing that one is safe, loved and useful.
For the last couple of months, I've had an incredibly annoying problem in Firefox, when entering text into text boxes: the cursor would disappear, the text box would appear to lock up, and I'd have to click inside the text box to resume typing. Often, too, I'd hit the Backspace key and this would jump me back to a previous page, causing me to lose what I'd been writing. I did several searches on this problem and finally located the answer here. I had set several bookmarks in my beloved Speed Dial extension to automatically update every hour or every four hours, etc. For my Gmail, I had it ping my inbox every few minutes. It was these dial-outs that robbed the focus from the text boxes: as I typed, Speed Dial was checking a web site and updating the thumbanil, and Firefox -- unable to serve two masters -- left me bereft.
Not wanting to disable Speed Dial, I instead set the bookmark updates to Never, and this seems to be working.
Dying is a matter of slapstick and pratfalls,” he wrote in “The Summer of a Dormouse: A Year of Growing Old Disgracefully” (2000). “The aging process is not gradual or gentle. It rushes up, pushes you over and runs off laughing. No one should grow old who isn’t ready to appear ridiculous.
Lecturing in 26-100, she said, she could only look out at the sea of faces and hope the students were getting it.
“They might be looking intently at you, understanding everything,” Professor Sciolla said. “Or they might be thinking, ‘What am I going to do when I get out of this bloody class?’ ”
What I learned when working in the White House decades ago is that blunder, misunderstanding, or miscalculation is usually the explanation for things, as opposed to hyper-sophisticated secret plans.
Inspired by Rani’s post about her upcoming work (hope that’s going well for you, Rani), it’s probably a good idea for me to look at the months ahead.
While browsing around the site, I found that the Milk and Cheese vinyl toy set has been knocked down $10 to $59.95. Something to think about when that stimulus package kicks in and we’re all going crazy saving the economy. Think about it, baby. Alcohol, coffee and groceries disappear. Poof, they’re gone. Ethereal nonsense, you’ve just wasted your money, dude. These toys, however, will stand by you, remain with you, from one economic tragedy to another. You can even take them to the shelter to keep you company when things really tumble into the toilet. I’m pretty sure you can. And nobody will steal them, whereas they’d take so many other things you could waste your money on.
Okay, then. I think I’ve made my case. I think you know what to do.
Good taste is really just a kind of aesthetic vegetarianism.
I think the way to “solve” the problem of procrastination is to let delight pull you instead of making a to-do list push you. Work on an ambitious project you really enjoy, and sail as close to the wind as you can, and you’ll leave the right things undone.
One of the books I read over the Christmas vacation was Writing the Mind Alive, which one Amazon reviewer tags as the book to go to after freewriting has taken you as far it can. I used to write morning pages and still enjoy journaling, but I’m always open to new approaches and methods (the Topics du Jour approach being one that has most impressed me recently). The method was created by two ex-academics, who lead workshops on the method. Their web site is here.
The book is an easy and breezy read, and I appreciated the inclusion of students’ “Writes” (as the authors call them). The method is straightforward and, as some of the Amazon reviewers notes, not all of the ritual surrounding the Write–which includes lighting a candle and playing Baroque music–are really necessary. Also, the book (as one would expect) sings the praises of its “proprioceptive method,” affording it real and affecting emotional benefits to its practitioners.
What most separates the method, for me, is its direction to use what the authors call the “proprioceptive question” or PQ. As one transcribes one’s inner monologue and writes, “I hate it when my mother does that,” the method directs one to listen to the voice and then ask, “What do I mean by ___?” In this case, “what do I mean by hate?” or “what do I mean by that?” And then write out what you mean.
The goal, as the authors explain, is to dig out those details that are glossed over by the wallpaper words we use to not look too closely at the things that bother us. What do I mean by things? Remembered events, memories, assumptions, images, long-buried hurts, and the like.
I usually count a technical book a success if I can get at least one good idea out of it. I consider the PQ a good idea and one I’m going to start using in my own journaling. As I’ve found in my coaching and in monitoring my own self-talk, I will often make a blanket statement as if to say. “Of course, what I’ve said is true and inviolable and not to be questioned.” But as I’ve gotten rid of various blocks and taken risks and experienced successes, I’m seeing more and more the value of exercising some healthy skepticism by making my assumptions explicit and bringing them out into the open where they can be dealt with.
The whole idea of defining one’s terms hove into my view first due to an email newsletter by Laurie Taylor, host of BBC4 Radio’s Thinking Allowed. I admire the way Taylor always attempts to connect that week’s program to a personal anecdote and his lighthearted style is welcome. Here’s his 21-Dec-2008 newsletter:
I had a university tutor in psychology who was popularly known as Doctor Dit. For a couple of terms I assumed along with my fellow students that this was an innocent nickname. But then one day I was told by a postgraduate that it was really an acronym. It was not DIT but DYT and the letters stood for Define Your Terms.
It was a very appropriate designation. Whereas other tutors would positively encourage some debate in their seminars, the man known as DYT would immediately bring any such discussion to a halt by a demand for definitions. It was not unlike being repeatedly hit over the head ‘Right. Taylor, what is value of optical illusions in the study of perception?’ ‘Well,’ one would begin, ‘When your eyes are deceived it could be that the deception is the inappropriate application…’ ‘Not so fast, Taylor. You said ‘deception?’ ‘That’s right’ ‘Define your terms. Define your terms.’
Over coffee in the basement canteen we’d wonder about the nature of Dyt’s home life. We’d construct scenarios in which Mrs Dyt turned to him over breakfast coffee one morning and announced her dissatisfaction with the sexual side of their marriage. ‘We don’t make love any more.’ That would really get Dyt going. ‘Make love? Make love? Define your terms. Define your terms.’
Now that I look back on my time with Doctor Dyt, I feel more sympathetic to his intellectual crusade. What he wanted to do was purge the world of all ambiguity and ambivalences. He envisaged a time when people only used terms with precise definitions, a time when every flower in his intellectual garden would be precisely labelled.
Only when we reached that happy state, when the undergrowth of uncertainty had been cleared away, would we be able to arrive at hard and fast truths about the world.
But, of course, Dr Dyt’s enterprise was doomed to failure. Words simply won’t sit still and have precise definitions hung around their necks. Their meaning slips and slides: it is determined as Wittgenstein maintained by their many uses:
“Think of the tools in a toolbox: there is a hammer, pliers, a saw, a screwdriver, a rule, a glue-pot, glue, nails and screws. The functions of words are as diverse as the functions of these objects. (And in both cases there are similarities.) Of course, what confuses us is the uniform appearance of words when we hear them spoken or meet them in script or print. For their application is not presented to us so clearly.”
I’ve plucked that quotation from the introduction to Key Concepts in Education, a new book by Fred Inglis and Lesley Aers which doesn’t so much offer clear-cut definitions of such familiar educational terms as Assessment, Citizenship, Curriculum, Literacy and Pedagogy, as show how such terms have been variously used by people with different material and philosophical interests. Dr Dyt would not have approved.
I think Taylor heightens his professor’s point of view and his own reaction for comic effect and to make a better point for the newsletter. But as I read about Dr. Dyt’s approach, I was thinking, “Yep, yep, good for you. That’s the way to do it. Don’t lecture. Let the student teach themselves.” When working with my coach or talking with one of my mentors at school, I find I do often have to say my assumptions out loud. I frequently find that the other person has a different assumption or interpretation of the term or concept; because I’m open about what I think I mean, they’re able to either set me straight or give me new information I wasn’t aware of.
A very simple tool, and easily dismissed because of its simplicity. But I think it has great potential, particularly in school, where I’m asking questions to associate new knowledge to old mental structures so as to create new structures. Defining one’s terms also helps thicken those endless essays and papers. And as I prepare to move into a potential role as teacher, I’m wondering how best to deploy this tool for good educational effect.
The key is to not become Dr. Dyt (if he was ever like that). Don’t ask the question endlessly of every word or idea that comes your way. Set boundaries so you don’t distract yourself. In the proprioceptive writing method, the Write is limited to 25 minutes, with specific follow-up questions to help the writer link the new information from the Write into a larger mental frame.
Michael Lewis, in a remarkable article on the end of the Wall Street boom he documented in his book Liar’s Poker, offered up this choice anecdote on the value of getting specific:
Both Daniel and Moses enjoyed, immensely, working with Steve Eisman. He put a fine point on the absurdity they saw everywhere around them. “Steve’s fun to take to any Wall Street meeting,” Daniel says. “Because he’ll say ‘Explain that to me’ 30 different times. Or ‘Could you explain that more, in English?’ Because once you do that, there’s a few things you learn. For a start, you figure out if they even know what they’re talking about. And a lot of times, they don’t!”
This also reminds me of the five whys method, used to find root causes of problems–stop at five. No need to burrow further down the rabbit hole (or your navel) to find the ultimate cause; after a certain point, you have to stop and put that information into action. Otherwise, the questioning becomes an exercise in itself, rather than a means to an end.
There’s a famous story of Confucius from the Analects:
Chi Wen Tzu always thought three times before acting. When Confucius heard of this, he said: “Twice is enough.”
I was not terribly interested in the spring courses being offered, and The Ineluctable Cassidy suggested an independent study might be an option.
I poked around and discovered that another friend, Carolyn, could supervise it. Because Carolyn is a doc student of some years standing in the school’s digital curation discipline, knowledgeable, energetic, and incredibly savvy about making the most of opportunities, this is a tremendous way to jump-start an academic career. I hope to learn as much about how she looks at life and work as I do about digital curation.
Anyway, she is an excellent guide to this strange new world of academe and to this field. We decided to work on a research study and she sent me several links to follow up on, read, and think about; suggested I start a research journal; and asked me to suggest some possible areas of interest where we could do some work. The output will be an article, or paper, or poster, or something that can be put on a CV.
This research was, in fact, another drain on my attention as I tried to finish up my fall assignments. I barfed out some ideas an in email to Carolyn but they struck me as too big, too vague--showing, no doubt, my unfamiliarity with the field. No matter. That’s why I’m doing the research.
When January comes, I’ll be taking the Research Methods course and the independent study. We decided the indie study should count for 3 hours credit, which means about 9 hours/wk of work. Because I’m not having to travel to campus for this extra class, I expect that should fit into my schedule OK.
Update, 11-Jan-2008: All reference letters were submitted. All transcripts have been sent to the gradschool and the SILS office. All over now, but the waiting.
Follow-up to my fall break posting.