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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A Postcard from Japan

Hi all,

This week I returned from a 10 day trip to Japan, and I figured I would share some pictures with you.

The first pictures were taken on the plane ride over. We flew over the frozen Midwestern US and Canada and over the Bering Strait, and the view was breathtaking:

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And finally we were over Japan!

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Our home base in Japan was a place called Nobi, which is in the Muira peninsula, west of Yokohama and Yokosuka but not all the way to Muirakaigan:

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We spent some time exploring the Muira Peninsula, which included Yokosuka, home of the Japanese and American naval bases:

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and Yokohama, second largest city in Japan, home of a famously large Chinatown with a few nice temples inside:

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as well as many natural wonders, including Muirakaigan beach and Jogachima island:

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Kamakura is also on the Muira peninsula. Kamakura has many beautiful shrines, great shopping and food, and the third largest Buddha in Japan- which was hollow (we were able to step inside) .

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Tokyo is North of Muira and full of many kinds of wonders, from gardens, shrines and temples to buildings, nightlife and neighborhoods with very distinct characters. We explored many of the different areas of Tokyo:

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We also attended a drum festival in the town of Narita, which most people only know for the large international airport. This was a truly amazing experience! As we walked from the subway to the big temple we passed many shops, ate amazing street food and saw smaller drum performances. The main performance was on the steps of the big temple, and we were able to explore the grounds and gardens and return to see drumming by fire at sunset. Once the performance ended we followed the main road back to the city, but now it was dark outside, the shop lights were low, and the shopkeepers had set candles out to line the path.

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Truly an amazing experience- thank you for sharing!

 

 

Professional Identity: Who am I? And who are you?

Last night I acted as a mentor at the annual Career Exploration Expo sponsored by my graduate program. Many of the students had questions about developing a professional identity. This makes sense, of course, because graduate school is an important time for discovering and developing a professional identity.

People enter our program (and many others) With a wide variety of backgrounds and interests. They choose from a variety of classes that fit their interests and goals. And then they try to map their experience onto job categories. But boxes are difficult to climb into and out of, and students soon discover that none of the boxes is a perfect fit.

I experienced this myself. I entered the program with an extensive and unquestioned background in survey research. Early in my college years (while I was studying and working in neuropsychology) I began to manage a clinical dataset in SPSS. Working with patients and patient files was very interesting, but to my surprise working with data using statistical software felt right to me much in the way that Ethiopian meals include injera and Japanese meals include rice (IC 2006 (1997) Ohnuki Tierney Emiko). I was actually teased by my friends about my love of data! This affinity served me well, and I enjoyed working with a variety of data sets while moving across fields and statistical programming languages.

But my graduate program blew my mind. I felt like I had spent my life underwater and then discovered the sky and continents. I discovered many new kinds of data and analytic strategies, all of which were challenging and rewarding. These discoveries inspired me to start this blog and have inspired me to attend a wide variety of events and read some very interesting work that I never would have discovered on my own. Hopefully followers of this blog have enjoyed this journey as much as I have!

As a recent graduate, I sometimes feel torn between worlds. I still work as a survey researcher, but I’m inspired by research methods that are beyond the scope of my regular work. Another recent graduate of our program who is involved in market research framed her strategy in a way that really resonated with me: “I give my customers what they want and something else, and they grow to appreciate the ‘something else.'” That sums up my current strategy. I do the survey management and analysis that is expected of me in a timely, high quality way. But I am also using my newly acquired knowledge to incorporate text analysis into our data cleaning process in order to streamline it, increasing both the speed and the quality of the process and making it better equipped to handle the data from future surveys. I do the traditional quantitative analyses, but I supplement them  with analyses of the open ended responses that use more flexible text analytic strategies. These analyses spark more quantitative analyses and make for much better (richer, more readable and more inspired) reports.

Our goal as professionals should be to find a professional identity that best capitalizes on  our unique knowledge, skills and abilities. There is only one professional identity that does all of that, and it is the one you have already chosen and continue to choose every day. We are faced with countless choices about what classes to take, what to read, what to attend, what to become involved in, and what to prioritize, and we make countless assessments about each. Was it worthwhile? Did I enjoy it? Would I do it again? Each of these choices constitutes your own unique professional self, a self which you are continually manufacturing. You are composed of your past, your present, and your future, and your future will undoubtedly be a continuation of your past and present. The best career coach you have is inside of you.

Now your professional identity is much more uniquely or narrowly focused that the generic titles and fields that you see in the professional marketplace. Keep in mind that each job listing that you see represents a set of needs that a particular organization has. Is this a set of needs that you are ready to fill? Is this a set of needs that you would like to fill? You are the only one who knows the answers to these questions.

Because it turns out that you are your best career coach, and you have been all along.

Encouraging things I tell myself

Long time, no blog…

Life is currently kicked into overdrive, and I’m switching between coasting and gunning. I know that many of you are also working particularly hard, between the end of the school year, upcoming conferences, taxes, … I’ve thought about using this blog to vent or to catalog my stress (this works better as a to-do list than engaging narrative), to pay tribute to my mom (who passed away May 5, 2012, after spending April living it up on a cruise with her sister), or to wax poetic about my current research project (I will share about the research soon, because I’m really excited about the work I will soon be able to do. But I’m not ready yet.). Instead, I’ve decided to share the encouraging things I tell myself…

Microfocus. This is the true key to a busy lifestyle. Focus on as few things as possible and work to make them happen. Then keep it moving. Thinking big=stress. Thinking small=achievable goals.

Let go of what you can. Put the things that can wait aside. Doing everything all the time is foolish and unnecessary.

Look beyond yourself. Putting all of the burdens on your own shoulders helps no one. It’s not about you. Think to the bigger goal and share your burden.

Know stillness. All of this activity requires some inactivity. Somethings are better for this than others. Throwing caution to the wind and going to sleep when you’re tired is far more effective than reaching for a drink. For me, sleep, nature, exercise and art are the biggest sources of peace. I’ve even started going to church!

Stop fighting. This one really hit me over the head this week. Momentum can lead you to crazy places, where you’re working too hard on too many fronts. But if you take a minute to look around, you may see that all of that frenzy is unnecessary. You’ve been working hard. You’ve put your projects in motion. They have momentum, and they don’t need so much pushing. Getting a degree takes years. You’ve already put in a few. The wheels are already in motion. Don’t push, just follow.

Learning is not supposed to be a done deal. I am about to finish my graduate program next month, and I feel anxious about it. I’m aware of so much that I still don’t know. I catch myself reading Blommaert and worrying that as much as I dig it, I wouldn’t read it on my own. But learning is and has always been a process and a passion. Curiosity drives you to learn. Let that curiosity and passion continue to drive you to grow. The world is bigger than you. You will learn what you need to when you need to, and you will ask for help from the right places when you need to do that.

Be a little emotional. It’s ok to feel happy when things are finished, proud of the hard work you’ve put in, and sad that your mom’s not here to see things come together. And it’s not helpful to worry about feeling anxious!

In a little over a month, many of the pieces I am juggling will come together, and I will have less hanging over me than I’ve had in years. But that point is quite a few deadlines away. For now, I am at bat, focusing on the ball, connecting, and! Next. For those of you who are stressed, I wish you pockets of peace. For those of you who are graduating, “job well done! way to go!” (<– and put a congratulations in your pocket, for when you’re ready to hear it). For those of you who are grieving, I wish you all the ups and downs that go along with it. And for those of you dealing with all of the administrative headaches that accompany loss, I wish you a pat on the back, a quiet beach, a gentle breeze, a margarita, a memory that makes you smile, and some space to cry and scream a little! As they say “this too shall pass.”

Time moves through the jungle, and we swing between vines, focusing on the flowers. I wish you all flowers.

Flower market in Amsterdam

Flower market in Amsterdam

Time for some Research Zen

As the new semester kicks into gear and work deadlines loom, I find myself ready for a moment of research zen.

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Let’s take a minute to stand in a stream and think about the water. Feel the flow of the water over your feet and by your calves. Feel the pull of constant motion. Feel yourself sink against the current, rooting deeper to keep steady. Breathe the clean outdoor air. Observe the clouds and watch the way the sky reflects in the water in the stream. The stream is not constant. The water passing now is not the water that passed when you started, and the water that passes when you leave will be still different. And yet we call this a stream.

As I observe sources of social media, thinking about sampling, I’m faced with some of the same questions that the stream gives rise to. Although I would define my sources consistently from day to day, their content shifts constantly. The stream is not constant, but rather constantly forming and reforming at my feet.

For a moment, I saw the tide of social media start to turn in favor of taxi drivers. In that moment, I felt both a strong sense of relief from the negativity and a need to revisit my research methods. Today I see that the stream has again turned against the drivers. I could ignore the momentary shift, or I could use this as a moment to again revisit the wisdom of sampling.

If I sample the river at a given point, what should I collect and what does it represent? How, when the water is constantly moving around me, can I represent what I observe within a sample? Could my sampling ever represent a single point in the stream, the stream as a whole, or streams in general? Or will it always be moments in the life of a stream?

In the words of Henry Miller, “The world is not to be put in order. The world is in order. It is for us to put ourselves in unison with this order.” In order to understand this stream, I need to understand what lies beneath it, what gives it its shape and flow, and how it works within its ecosystem.

The ecosystem of public opinion around the taxi system in DC is not one that can be understood purely online. When I see the reflection of clouds on the stream, I need to find the sky. When I see phrases repeated over and over, I need to understand where they come from and how they came to be repeated. In the words of Blaise Pascal “contradiction is not a sign of falsity, nor the lack of contradiction a sign of truth.” No elements in this ecosystem exist independent of context. Each element has its base.

Good research involves a good deal of reflection. It involves digging in against currents and close observation. It involves finding a moment of stillness in the flow of the stream.

Breathe in. Observe carefully. Breathe out. Repeat, continue, focus, research.

Memory is incomplete experience

Today’s quote on my zen calendar is perfect.

“Memory is incomplete experience.” J. Krishnamurti

This is a great reminder for researchers and for people in general, because we all forget and keep forgetting how incomplete our memories and the memories of people we come into contact are. How many survey questions could be better written with this advice? How much better is ethnography when we base our observations on repeated viewings, rather than trying to reconstruct a vague memory? How many arguments could be avoided, if we could just remember that memories are incomplete?

I sometimes participate in a video discussion group. I am amazed that each viewing of a short segment of video brings a different set of interpretations, and I am amazed that the other participants continually notice different aspects of the video. This experience really drives the point home about how little we see in our everyday lives. We are so inundated with information that we simply couldn’t, and wouldn’t want to, process it all.

Research is the process of recovering and reconstructing. Of observing carefully. Of noticing things that we would never or could never have accessed through normal observation and we absolutely could never access through our memories. Being a researcher does not make us any more able to analyze that which we experience in a single pass- we’re still human. Being a researcher simply means that we have the capacity to observe and investigate things more closely.

Zen as a Research Ethic

I have a Zen calendar on my desk for 2012. It has such gems as: “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it” (Helen Keller)

The more I look at the calendar, the more it relates to everything I think about.

I read “To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees,” (Paul Valery) and I think of the Charles Goodwin paper I cited in a recent post about Professional Vision. He talks about ways of seeing as kind of coding structures, inculturation, or ways of foregrounding certain parts of what we see. Truly, being able to see deeper than that requires shedding that inculturation and observing more closely. As researchers, we often become so deeply incultured into our way of thinking, that we lose sight of our research goals. As survey researchers, we can easily fall into the pattern of first asking “who should we survey?” and “what should we ask?” before taking more time to consider whether a survey is even an appropriate methodology for the specific topic of focus. Of course, not this action based on praxis is not limited to survey researchers. Far from it! Every person, every field, every community of practice, every language has a way of thinking. And often instead of seeing or observing, we quickly begin to navigate our networks of inculturation.

These two are similarly meaningful in my interpretation:

Zen is not to confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes. Zen is just to peel the potatoes.” (Alan Watts)

If all beings are Buddha, why all this striving?” (Dogen)

These are a reminder to boil things down to what they simply are and not try to describe them as what you want them to be. In survey research, this comes up often in the process of reporting research results. If I know that I intended to measure something about Project Based Learning or STEM education, it is easily for me to begin to frame my findings by my intentions. But that is not true to my findings or my methodology, and it doesn’t make for good research. I can’t say that 10% of my respondents were using project based learning methods in the classroom if I asked about the number of group activities they conducted. I must simply say that 10% were using group activities (daily/monthly/occasionally- whatever the answer choices were)

In this way, my Zen calendar not only provides something to think about in a larger sense, but it keeps my research anchored.