Sunday, October 30, 2011

Sin Boldly (A Navel-Gazing Interlude)

I'm in no position to be giving advice about how to do research. I've long considered it my weakest academic skill. I've always thought that being an academic consisted of chiefly these four things: reading, writing, teaching, and doing research. Here's how I'd rank myself in terms of level of confidence in each of those:

1. Writing
2. Reading
3. Teaching
4. Doing research

Actually, bump those all down a notch and add:

1. Obnoxiously inserting my opinion about what I study into every possible conversation while deriding non-specialists' views, even though my only point is usually "well, it's complicated"

Which is also something academics are known for.

I sometimes think that I've made it this far (through -- dear God -- eight and a half years of postsecondary education now) based almost solely my ability to put together a readable compound-complex sentence, and while that may not be entirely true, a lifetime of reading widely has, I think, afforded me a certain facility with language, if I can say so without being arrogant. (I can write stupid sentences, too, of course.) I have a long way to go as a teacher, but if I get going about something I really know, I can do pretty well with it (I'm psyched to be teaching two sections of world Englishes next term -- kind of a dream come true). But research -- even after writing a 40-page paper on methods, taking courses on ethnography, surveys, and interviews, and having my dissertation proposal passed by my committee -- still fills me with dread.

I know that research never pans out exactly the way one hopes (I've had to lower my sights quite a bit on this project) -- but I have so little experience with data collection and analysis that I'm constantly fearful that each step I take is further in the wrong direction. And getting derailed by a lack of confidence at this stage has proven even more debilitating than the "oh-crap-I-don't-know-what-I'm-talking-about" anxiety of writing 100 pages worth of comps this summer. I spent the last month hemming and hawing about getting Ethics Review Board approval for my study (which I finally got last week, 2-4 weeks later than I'd hoped), and during that time I could have been analyzing my pilot data (which I've barely looked at), learning NVivo, doing other writing and reading, making contact with more potential participants, and so on. Instead, as best I can tell, most days I woke up at noon, felt sorry for myself that I had a broken arm and no BREB approval and was in China away from my friends and family, sent a few emails, read a few articles, and watched 6 hours of television.

I'm not proud of any of this. But as I look back on the last month, I can see how (and I can still feel how, every time something goes wrong) my main malady has been a constant fear that I'm somehow doing something horribly wrong and irrevocably ruining my chances to do a good project and actually finish my PhD. (My brilliant defense mechanism, apparently: avoid thinking about the work.)

Rationally, I know this is silly. My university grades (since an unfortunate incident involving sophomore year physics) have been impeccable. I was accepted by the top PhD programs in my field. I've had book reviews published in well-known academic journals. I've presented at the top local, national, and international conferences in my field.  I wrote and published a book just for fun. Yet now, more than ever, I hear a nagging voice saying you're doing this wrong.

What's the remedy?  Well, as Martin Luther once wrote, "sin boldly." When I was looking up the context of that phrase, I came across a college writing guide of the same title by David Williams, which I'd like to quote here:

One important point about your adopted voice and its argument: you have at least to pretend to believe it. Like Solomon and all great minds that ever contemplated the human condition, Martin Luther was right when he said that all of humankind are sinners and sin in every thought and deed and must necessarily sin, so far are we removed from God. His response was, he declared, to "sin boldly." Do not hide quivering under the bed. Do not shuffle shamefully onto the stage full of abject apologies. Be assertive, be bold, adopt a self-confident voice. Fake it if you have to. The cynics may be right. Our worldly institutions and values may all be relative and artificial constructs like the money in our wallets, paper with ink on it and not anything of real value at all. But few of those who believe this line can be found burning the ten dollar bills in their wallets. We live in the world "as if." To some that "if" is a constantly looming threat; to others it's a challenge.

Williams is writing about writing, but the same is true of research. Here I am; I'm in this. I'm doing what I came here to do. I'm definitely going to screw some things up. And then I've got eighteen more months to diagnose what happened, make sense of it all, and head back to point #1 above -- my ability to write sentences -- to tie it all together.

So, to conclude this pep talk to myself, here are some mantras for the next three weeks:

1. It's all data. Things that go right, things that go wrong, ever time I set foot on a campus, every newspaper article I come across about English education in China, every photograph I take, every student I talk to, every class I teach, every instant messenger conversation I have with a student or a colleague -- it's not all going to be rigorously analyzed, but it's all a part of the story of this dissertation. Really, the last four years, and the next two also, are part of it -- from the day we got off the plane in Shanghai to the day we moved to Vancouver to the day I arrived in Ningbo, to do the day we touch Canadian soil again in January. My job, what I'm doing right now, is writing a long-ass manuscript about what's going on with English in China, albeit with a particular focus on a certain research project.

2. Sin boldly. I haven't done a project like this before, and this methodology is, for the most part, unique. Nobody else has done it this way, so I get to make it up. The project isn't going to get better if I keep sitting down to do some work on it and I feel so depressed by my lack of progress that I abandon it.

3. Get out. Every day, meet with people, talk to people, email people, interview people. Check in with participants. Politely assert myself when I don't hear back. Get used to explaining it confidently.

4. If there's not enough data this time, it's possible to get more later. Sure, it won't be easy, but making contacts now could possibly lead to more and better help getting more data in the future if it's deemed necessary.

That's it for now.

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