Wednesday, March 4

empirical epiphanies

why were we talking about shoe-hats in Postmodernism class the other week? can anyone remember?

I have been blogging perhaps too much about Postmodernism class. this week's meeting was our second very neat paper day. a prospective new grad student was visiting for the last little chunk of class, during which I stood in the window to read my short essay of the day. welcome to Purdue, prospective grad student.

but enough about Postmodernism for now.

Empirical Research, my other grad seminar this semester, is a very different class. it's much less up-my-alley, let's say. its readings are not quite so exciting or inventive as those in Postmodernism--or at least not as amelia-exciting, anyway. so I struggle, and I resist, and I ask no really what's the point? with a far more serious and dejected tone than I usually do.

I woke up the other morning, after a somewhat frustrating Empirical class meeting, with some not-really-new but not-really-familiar ideas congealing in my head. I imagine they had gradually been distilling themselves from all the many, many things Dr. Sullivan is trying to teach us this semester. oh we've been reading research report after research report, designing our own small-scale research studies, and talking endlessly about the strengths and weaknesses of this method, that paradigm, these analytical tools...

it's not fun... but it's important, right? I guess?

the thoughts in my head the other morning congealed around two different (opposite?) ways of wrangling with the overarching research goal of finding things out about the world.

1. look carefully and dedicatedly at as much stuff as you need to until you can figure out what it tells you about itself.

2. think of a specific thing you want to know. figure out what questions or experiments or tests you need to set up and what you need to look at in order to learn that thing.

I am much more happy in the first of these schemes. there seems to be less planning that way. more freedom. less fiddly things that could go all wrong.

but as I pondered both of these approaches, I found myself tripping over one of the threads between them. the matching meta-question underneath the opposite surfaces:

how do you define what exactly will count as the stuff you're looking at and what won't? and why?

my realization that these decisions are at the core of any kind of so-called 'good' research isn't all that huge. but it feels momentous in my little head.

I struggle and I resist the importance of methodology and research design, in part, I think, because I have for so long been taught that there is rarely a perfect or 'right' way of doing anything we do in the humanities. there is no proven solution, no near-flawless button. and so as long as we can justify whatever imperfect choice we make, all is well.

suitable justification, as you may suspect, means different things to different people. and this makes the whole process feel a little bit pretend. a performance, or sorts, meant for pleasing an audience. what we write up in our research report might come down to what sounds good, or what meets expectations, or what makes for decently manageable data.

so many of these questions about how to best explain the best ways of claiming to know anything about any piece of that world seem to go in circles. it's a circle of biases, chasing each others' tails.

but despite all the flaws and the ignorance and holes in every sort of research, we can't just give it up, can we?

we are thankfully too curious.

and please, let us hope my curiosity will get me through this not-quite-my-cup-of-tea research class in a useful manner.


Chris said...

I like how irrelevant the shoe hats are.

Not that shoe hats can ever truly be irrelevant.

Nic S said...

How have I never seen or heard of a shoe hat? What a notion.