Friday, March 30, 2012

The Emperor has no Epistemological Clothes: Or how I learned to stop worrying and embrace inductive reasoning

Most stories like mine refer back to early childhood—like the kid who knew deep down he was gay, or the friend who was a late talker that turned out to be partially deaf. A "diagnoses" would suddenly bring everything into clarity, long forgotten experiences suddenly strung out like a strand of awkward pearls of self wisdom that hinted all along at what was wrong.  There was the inability to deal with mathematical concepts which found me applying a semester's worth of tactics that fruitlessly led nowhere as I explored across the page, rather than systematically following the steps to solve a problem in a logical and deduced way.  My lack of a favorite movie, food, band,  The fact that every time I rewatched a film was like seeing it for the first time.  My interest in replaying the same experiences over and over again. My brain felt fuzzy, a feeling that didn’t go away until I had spent considerable time in my graduate program.  I would read accounts of students finally diagnosed with dyslexia decades after the start of their problems in school.  Their struggles of not being able to wrap their head around the problem, of their own brain getting in the way, and the marked differences in how they saw the world compared to their peers resonated with me in a deep way.  But I had no such label—and while their struggles were mine in many ways, they understood the origin of their difference and for that I was jealous.

For months I joked that I was going through an epistemological crisis, and unloaded such onto a poor, overwhelmed PhD in the counseling department.  I felt more removed from graduate school, and more frustrated.  There was even the misguided day I marched into a committee member's office and declared that I was no longer an empiricist, and that the only research worth doing involved socio historical qualitative case studies or ethnography.  This constituted blasphemy in my department, but was met with a chuckle and a hearty "no you're not."   I left amazed that anyone could drink the kool aid so completely that they would refuse to believe me. 

One night, late at work on a paper it suddenly dawned on me.  I started my research on the wheel of science in the inductive rather than the deductive portion of the wheel.  My sense of sickness lifted and I had a label: the reason for my ill fit wasn’t just epistemological, it came down to my starting point.  My “learning disability” wasn’t a disorder at all but simply a reflection of how I saw the world and approached my research—differently form my department., and it explained why I did not fit.  This was a process issue.

I had been accused my entire graduate career of being too interested in the context of what I studied, and not focused enough on the underlying phenomenon.  I wanted to take personal experiences and observations and work toward exploring larger level phenomena.  I had spent the first three years desperately scanning text books for a theory, any theory, I could accept and stake my entire research agenda around.  Or a concept even, that could underlie my research.  My program wanted me to think logically and theoretically about a phenomena, and reason out from there. 

"You do know you are not really an inductivist?"  My husband asked that night, after I had burst into the room to unload my newly found knowledge.  He protested.  "You ask empirical questions, you just don't buy into how restrictively your program embraces deductive research.  They need to be more flexible."

He was right.  It still gave me comfort to recognize the source of my frustration, but it also reinforced one of the most important lessons you learn in graduate school.  That the world is not black and white, but a thousand shades of gray, and everything is nuance.    

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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Why Permanent Head Damage?

When I was but a a wee one, sitting in an undergraduate intro course that I somehow ended up taking my senior year of college, a very wise Professor launched into "the talk."  This wasn't about the birds and the bees, or even the gentle conversation with struggling students about switching their major to something easier.  No, this was the graduate school talk.

"Take a good, hard look," my Professor warned, "at what graduate students coming out of your intended program look like, because graduate school is all about breaking you down and molding you into someone new.  You want to make certain that you want to be the sort of person that comes out on the other side."

Graduate school, he intoned, was a process of production. It did something to you, trained you to think a certain way, broke you down and built you back up.  And as a graduate student you needed to be intentional about that.

Graduate School is like a Bad Zombie Horror Film

The other day as I was riding up to campus on the bus with too little sleep at the end of a long semester.  Despite struggling to stay awake, I started fixating on all the ways that graduate school is like a bad zombie flick.

A scene from a bad zombie movie flashed before my eyes:

"Don't you get it!?  they are trying to eat our brains!  they are zombies!  Their definitional operation and epistemology might be better, but they are trying to accomplish the same thing.  well be like the living dead!"

"I don't know..."

"Remember John?  He was like the living dead when they finally passed him out of here with his dissertation!"

"Dissertation," he responds in monotone,  his eyes glazed over with a vacant look. 

"They got you too!  Dude we have to get out of here!"

Alas, like most things academic someone beat me to it. But the beauty of academia is that someone has almost always invariably gotten started on your idea, and you get to build off of their hard work.  So I am happy to reaffirm that some scholars have asserted surviving your first year of graduate school can be likened to surviving a Zombie Apocalypse(Meyers, 2011). 

And you know you are PhD when you search your computer files for the rest of that zombie screen play, and it returns the Zimbardo prison study.  SIGH.

Prepare to have your brain eaten, and your head PhDed (a.k.a. permanently head damaged).

Welcome to Permanent Head Damage

This blog is about all things PhD:
  • The debt
  • The drama
  • The training, process, and experience, all of which will leave you with lasting and