The Role of Gratitude in Research

Research, as most things in life, is best approached with gratitude. In this post, I’ll share a bit about what I’m grateful for, an exercise in gratitude, and some food for thought about the role of gratitude in research.

First, here is a window into what I’m feeling grateful for.

Grateful for the challenge of research

Research can provide a challenging career. While it is possible to find positions in research that are more repetitive, most positions afford many opportunities for learning about new subject matter and new methods. Each new research question provides fresh challenges to implement. And with the body of literature and informal sources available, there is always the ability to read more deeply about the work that others have done. I am grateful for the perpetual learning experiences that research has brought.

Grateful for the versatility of research

One of my favorite aspects of a career in research is the versatility. I’ve been able to work in neuropsychology, physics education, sociolinguistics, social media research, media measurement and in public health using a great variety of research methods.

Grateful for my colleagues

Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of working with people that I respect, learn from and genuinely enjoy. I’m grateful for their help, their wisdom, their curiosity, their enthusiasm, their support, their friendship, and their comforting awkwardness.

Gratitude for the research opportunities

I am grateful for the opportunity to study people. I am grateful for the people who agree to participate in research and who honestly share what is in their hearts or on their minds. Some opinions and experiences are easier to share than others. I am grateful for all of it. The qualitative work that I am currently involved with is often built on individual and group interviews that can be a powerful experience for the participant and the interviewer, and I am so grateful to the participants and the process for bringing this to fruition.

 

Now, let’s take a minute to Go Beyond the Gush. It is easy to get swept up in the everyday grind of research, whether because the research approval process seems unnecessarily repetitive or cumbersome, or data needs more wrangling than predicted, or the meetings seem endless and the emails, texts and phone calls seem constant, or the people working on a project are particularly difficult to corral, or the behavior that you need to observe in your research is particularly difficult to isolate, or… We can all get caught in the slog of research. But gratitude can help.

Here is an exercise:

Let’s take a minute to get very basic with this. First, think of the reasons why you enjoy your work. Then let’s take it back even further.

  • Be grateful to have a topic to research or to have the ability to find one. Be grateful for the ability to be curious and to find unanswered questions.
  • Be grateful to have the support to pursue this topic as a professional or as a student. Research costs time, money and many other resources.
  • Be grateful to have the skills to approach the topic. Think of all of the training that provided these skills. Think of the resources that are available to you to help you learn what you need.
  • Be grateful for your strength. You have the ability to tackle what comes your way.
  • Be grateful for the people who must come together to make this work happen. Sometimes we get stuck thinking of one person’s habits or quirks or in finding fault with the people around us. Some groups are more cohesive than others, and each person brings a different set of skills. Take a step back from that. Let go of it for a minute and take a fresh look. First see yourself as someone with strengths and weaknesses. Then see your colleagues in this light as well. Allow yourself to forgive yourself and others.
  • Be grateful for the challenges your work brings. Sometimes it seems to bring too many challenges. But those challenges are keeping you sharp. And in some way, they will offer you the opportunity to learn and grow.
  • Be grateful for research participants. These are the people who make our work possible by letting us into their world in some way. That is a privilege.

 

What do exercises like this gain you? A few things, really. Peace of mind. A break from the stress and an opportunity to just feel grateful. Perspective. A chance to put challenges that seem constant or insurmountable into a smaller box. The opportunity to see the people around us from a fresh perspective and hear them more clearly. A better insulation against the instability that affects us all. And an opportunity to see our research in context and think more broadly about the affect it has. The work we do affects peoples’ lives, but these basic mechanisms can become lost to us when we lose perspective. With fresh perspective and gratitude, we can better see these mechanisms in action and produce work that better respects all involved. No research exists in a vacuum, and the better we can understand the role our research plays in a wider context the better stewards we can be over this tremendous privilege we’ve been granted.

Thanks for listening.

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The future doesn’t belong to big or small data. It belongs to the disruptors.

Research is evolving fast. There is less support and more doubt for traditional methods, a fast- changing set of expectations from end-users, and a fast-evolving field of nontraditional methods and approaches. The future of research does not belong to big data or small data. It belongs to the disruptors. It belongs to those that can recognize and challenge the assumptions underlying their methodologies. The future belongs to creative approaches, connected data, and collaboration.

 

Research requires listening and understanding.

In order to create research that is useful, there needs to be a deep understanding of end-users, clients, and the context of the products we create. This requires listening, understanding, and creating opportunities to learn more, both by representing end users and clients more directly in the development process and by qualitative research methods. Qualitative research provides methods of collecting and analyzing information about people, in-person, virtually and through behavioral data sources, and it must provide a vitally important role in evolving research methods.

 

Research requires ever-changing analytic capabilities and creative, open minds.

We live in an era when data is plentiful. But the data looks different from what we saw in the past. We need capable and versatile technical workers who are able to process data. And we need the creativity to put the data to use in ways that benefit end-users.

 

Research must embrace diversity.

Creative strategy and good user-focus can’t spring from echo chambers. We need to connect to divergent experiences and views early and often in order to create good products. People with divergent views can raise questions earlier in the development process and allow us to integrate holistic solutions for problems we could not have thought of alone. Diverse experiences allow us to be more creative because they provide more material to inspire us. And diversity is crucial for us to successfully compete in the global marketplace.

 

Research design must be iterative.

If we want to create new ways of analyzing and connecting data, we have to be free to experiment with new methods, test new methods, and allow end-users to test proposed solutions. Often what we create doesn’t function the way that we expect it to. In an era where data does not need to be designed and collected, we have the flexibility to find creative ideas (“ugly babies”), nurture them, test them out, and tweak what doesn’t work.

 

Silos no longer make sense in research

It no longer makes sense to separate end users from developers or quantitative from qualitative. The best disruptive, creative potential lies in the mingling of methods and people. The most useful products are the ones that can be created collaboratively.

 

Research can be agile.

Agile development has become standard practice in much of the software development world, but it makes sense for research as well. Agile teams can involve end-users, UX researchers, quantitative methodologists and qualitative methodologists. Research can be built by agile, creative teams that feel free to question and inspire each other.

 

Creating high performing teams has never mattered more.

There is a growing body of great research about what makes a highly effective team. Effective teams are empathetic and open. They consider each other’s interests. They are practical and focused on the end product. They are comfortable asking questions and brainstorming solutions. They work collaboratively, and they celebrate their accomplishments.

 

The future of research is bigger than any one person or silo. It requires us to come together in new ways. I already see some firms moving in this direction- kudos to them. A new era is here, and I’m excited for us all!

Academic register: Are we smarter than a 5th grader?

Another important area of study in Linguistics is register. Among other things, register refers to the degree of formality with which we communicate. We speak differently with our friends and family than we do at work. We speak differently in a courtroom than in a courtroom lobby. And we speak differently in academia than we do elsewhere.

In an interview about Betty Friedan’s ‘The Feminine Mystique,’ Naomi Wolf discusses the groundbreaking impact of Friedan’s classic work. She praises Friedan for having the courage to release countless hours of research to a wider audience, rather than an academic audience. To do this, Friedan sacrificed the academic recognition that could have accompanied her work in order to reach a broader population who could potentially benefit from her work. The choice to write in a less respected register opened Friedan to criticism from academics, but led to a broad, longstanding appeal.

Wolf takes this point a step further by suggesting that academics write in such a way that we don’t even understand each other (!!).

This was a surprising admission to see from an academic. Academics often really embrace the large words and complicated nature of their findings. They manage to encode large amounts of information and complicated ideas in relatively small amounts of space. But are the conclusions and information that we publish limited in their usefulness by the academic register itself?

I’ve mentioned before that Linguistics is a very broad area of study. Coming to the field with absolutely no prior background, I was really struck by the different definitions of terms I used regularly in my profession, like reliability, validity, sampling, representative sample, … It took a while for me to adjust to the different context of those terms, and to the different lexicon and areas of focus in linguistics. And the more areas of linguistics I study, the more I find words and concepts from fields I have little experience with. I remember reading and rereading papers in my conversation analysis class, trying to understand what they were doing and why- and it took the whole semester for me to be able to imitate that academic genre and understand its power.

Clearly, the more experience we have with specific words and methods, the more easily we can understand a specific genre of academic writing. This is the academic genre at its best, and it enables us to reach complicated conclusions that we might not be able to make otherwise. But it is also quite restrictive. Nobody can be an expert in all fields, and research could potentially benefit from feedback from a much wider variety of fields than it often receives. This enforces a linguistic segregation represents is the academic genre at its worst.

Yesterday I attended a talk that involved areas and methods of study that I had never encountered before. I heard a talk about textual features that evoke emotion. The talk was heady, showing logical expressions and cognitive space diagrams, and involving some of what I believe is called semantic formalism. The text examples were mostly poems, which naturally add to the complexity of the analysis. The main points were that the use of complexity and negation in text add to the emotional wallop of a body of text. He used hypotheticals as an example of constructed negation that evokes emotion. After trying and trying to wrap my head around his points and their wider applicability, I thought of funerals and memorial services. I thought of how we use hypotheticals to make us cry and help the grieving process. I mentioned to the speaker that, as difficult as it is to wrap my head around his talk, I realized that we use these devices as tools to evoke emotion regularly in those situations.

In my mind, research is of the best quality when it is anchored in something palpable or readily accessible. As a poet, I have a distinct sense of trying to create contrasts and develop layers of complication as poetic devices. But that sense isn’t as visceral or accessible as grieving communication is.

I wonder what his research would have gained by borrowing from other registers. In my own research, I believe that explaining my work to my family or friends is a critical part of my research process. It helps me to make grounded conclusions, and it guides my research questions and methods. For yesterday’s speaker, surely it would help him to generate better, more wide ranging feedback from a wider variety of people?

At the end of the day, I went out for dinner with my kids. I mentioned the talk to my 10 year old, who loves to discuss emotions. I was surprised to see that not only did she ‘get it’ in one or two sentences of explanation, but she was able to generate some really excellent examples of these devices in a 5th grade register.

Calling Respondents Stupid

From a Politico article titled “How much do voters know?” by Alexander
Burns:

“The first lesson you learn as a pollster is that people are stupid,”
said Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling, a Democratic polling firm. “I
tell a client trying to make sense of numbers on a poll that are
inherently contradictory that at least once a week.”

Full article at:

http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0312/73947.html

Message to Tom Jenson:
It’s not so much that people are stupid as it is that Tom Jenson is ignorant of the cognitive underpinnings of response methodology and filling in his gaps with unnecessary condescension. Truly, all survey researchers deal with these contradictions. We might be able to garner more consistency in our response sets if we could instead survey computers or robots, but, alas, that’s not why we conduct surveys.