An Analytical person at the Nutcracker (or Research Methodology, Nutcracker Style)

Last night we attended a Russian Ballet performance of the Nutcracker. It was a great performance, and fun was had by all.

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Early in the performance I realized that although I have developed some understanding of the ballet, I hadn’t shared any of that knowledge with my kids. At this point, I started whispering to them quietly to explain what they were seeing. I whispered quick, helpful comments, such as “those are toys dancing” and “the kids have gone to sleep now, so this is just the adults dancing.” It wasn’t long into the performance that this dynamic began to change. I realized that their insights were much funnier than mine “wow, that guy should go on ‘So You Think You Can Dance!’ or ‘The Voice’ or something! “and that my comments were starting to be pretty off-base. My comments evolved into a mash-up of “The kids have gone to sleep now” “No, I guess the kids haven’t gone to sleep yet” “I really can’t tell if the kids are still up or not!” and “Those are the sugarplum fairies” “Wait, no, maybe these are the sugar plum fairies?” and “I don’t know, sweetie, just watch them dance!” By the end of the show I had no idea what was going on or why the Chuck.E.Cheese king was dancing around on stage (although one of the girls suspected this particular king was actually a bear?). The mom next to me told me she didn’t know what was going on either “and,” she added, “I go to the Nutcracker every year! Maybe that was what made it a Russian Nutcracker?” …And here I thought the Russian influences were the Matryoshka dolls and the Chinese dancers clothed in yellow (despite the awkward English conversation that the costumes prompted).

At the beginning of the show I was nervous to whisper with my kids, but I soon realized that there was a low hum all around me and throughout the concert hall of people whispering with their kids. This, I think, is what remix research methods should be all about- recording and interviewing many audience members to gain a picture of the many perspectives in their interpretations of the show. Here is a challenge question to my readers who are hipper to qualitative research methods: what research strategy could best capture many different interpretations of the same event?

Earlier this week I spoke with a qualitative researcher about the value of an outsider perspective when approaching a qualitative research project. Here is a good example of this dynamic at play: people clapped at various parts of the performance. I recognized that people were clapping at the end of solo or duo performances (like jazz). If I were to describe these dances, I would use the claps as a natural demarcation, but I probably would not think to make any note of the clapping itself. However, the kids in my crew hadn’t encountered clapping during a show before and assumed that clapping marked “something awesome or special.” Being preteens, the kids wanted to prove that they could clap before everyone else, and then revel in the wave of clapping that they seemingly started. At one point this went awry, and the preteens were the only audience members clapping. This awkward moment may have annoyed some of the people around us, but it really made the little sister’s day! From a research perspective, these kids would be more likely to thoroughly document and describe the clapping than I would, which would make for a much more thorough report. Similarly, from a kids-going-to-a-show perspective this was the first story they told to their Dad when they got home- and one that kicked off the rest of our report with uncontrollable laughter and tears.

As the show went on and appeared not to follow any of the recognizable plot points that I had expected (I expected a progressive journey through worlds experienced from the vantage of a sleigh but instead saw all of the worlds dancing together with some unrecognizable kids variously appearing on a sleigh and the main characters sometimes dancing in the mix or on their own), I began to search for other ways to make sense of the spectacle. I thought of a gymnast friend of mine and our dramatically different interpretations of gymnastics events (me: “Wow! Look what she did!” her: “Eh, she scratched the landing. There will be points off for that.” Which parts of the dancing should I be focusing on? I told my little one “Pay attention, so we can try these moves at home.” Barring any understanding of the technical competencies involved (but sure that laying your body at some of these amazing angles, or somehow spinning on one foot, or lifting another person into the air require tons of training, skills and knowledge) or any understanding of the plot as it was unfolding in front of me, I was left simply to marvel at it all. This is why research is an iterative process. In research, we may begin by marveling, but then we observe, note, and observe again. And who knows what amazing insights we will have developed once the process has run its course enough times for events to start making sense!

To be a researcher is not to understand, but rather to have the potential to understand- if you do the research.

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The holiday season and the post-degree process

I haven’t blogged much this month.

Yesterday I didn’t blog because I was wandering around my neighborhood with my kids and my winter boots, looking for the ultimate sledding hill that wasn’t just mud.

 

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I did get this cool shot of the snow melting:

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This past weekend I didn’t blog because I was trying to get some holiday shopping done. Holiday shopping is a mess of contradictions. The music and festive spirit are relaxing and wonderful, but the task at hand is to reckon with our wants. My goal lately has been exactly the opposite of this- to appreciate what abundance already constitutes my life and not to focus on needing or wanting more. This is an important part of my post degree process.

At the time of my graduation I joked with a close friend about expecting life to be like a musical, with the people around me singing and dancing my accomplishments and those of my classmates. For those of you still in school I hate to break your bubble, but there will likely not be a musical in your honor, as deserving as you may be.

Graduation is not the end of your work as a student. Your work will extend beyond graduation and in to what I’ve come to think of as an extra semester of undetermined length. This is the time when we try to make all of our hard work pay off. We learn that the world will not recognize our accomplishments unless we learn how to be our own best advocates, and we learn how difficult it is to advocate for ourselves across lines of field and areas of practice.

This process involves a reckoning between the idealized notions of our future that motivated us through late-nighters and all-nighters and the realities of our post degree lives. It also involves a surprisingly long transition from the frenetic pace of student life to the appreciative pace of real life. We learn how to channel the energy that is no longer focused on school work but free to roam across a wide range of interests and responsibilities. We forge a new set of priorities. We realize that we will not find jobs that are as well rounded as we are. We see that we are not frozen in place after our degrees but will continue the lifelong process of learning. We begin to find peace in the knowledge that what we have is enough. We may not have the yacht and the private plane, but we have food on our plates and in our bellies. And what we have is enough.

Graduates (especially in today’s employment market) have to wrestle with the responsibilities of post-degree life, the lack of recognition of their academic accomplishments, and the transition [back?] into the swing of daily work life. We have to transition from the big dreams of school life to the small rewards of real life. For me this process involves a compacting. It involves tightening the family budget and saving for bigger goals. It involves family challenges to see how long we can go between trips to the grocery store and the fun set of culinary challenges that rise from the emptier cupboards (Have you seen those cooking shows where the contestants are challenged to invent a meal based on a small number of random ingredients?). It involves decluttering my house to get rid of extra stuff, appreciate what we have and lessen our responsibilities (less stuff to clean!), and it involves spoiling my family with the time and attention I couldn’t give them before.

This all seems to directly contradict the goals of holiday shopping. I wandered through aisle after aisle of stuff that I couldn’t imagine needing or wanting, thinking of needs and wants as a kind of black hole where needing and wanting can simply lead to more needing and wanting. I’m not sure how my holiday shopping process will shake out this year, but I do know that my happiness and the happiness of those I love can’t be found on any store shelves.

For you students, recent graduates and professional researchers and other readers, I wish you all the peace and gratitude of the season. May the new year bless you with continued curiosity. May we never stop learning and growing. May the process and daily rituals of our lives be reward enough. We can’t anticipate the challenges 2014 will bring, but let us be grateful that we have the tools that we will need to greet them with.

And most of all, I want to thank those of you who read my blog posts. Thank you for your time and attention and for encouraging me to continue to explore. I hope to reward you soon with a rundown of some particularly great events I’ve attended lately!