Phd update: reflection and goals

Summer is coming to an end and as I wrap up both my own courses and the course I’ve assisted in this summer semester, I thought I would pause to reflect and identify places for moving forward on this journey.

I blogged a bit this summer about my own growth as a researcher, which was facilitated by two of the three  courses I took this summer. In one course, I developed a research proposal that will function as my practicum proposal. In my program, the practicum is part of the “Research Apprenticeship” which follows roughly the same process as the dissertation: proposal, oral presentation of proposal to get approval, carrying out research, writing up research, defending research.  In another course, we focused on developing a literature review: another essential skill for the dissertation process (and for being an academic in general).

At the end of this process, I feel like I’ve grown a lot as a writer, first and foremost. Academic writing is a tricky thing, and  the feedback and guidance of both my instructors and advisor were invaluable. Writing is thinking, and I know that my research brain has developed along with my prose. I am not ashamed to say that I am in love with my research proposal, and I am thrilled that I’ve been able to design a study that gets at research questions that I find interesting and sustaining. I spent a lot of this year seemingly unfocused (much to the worry of my mentors in the program: focus, Andrea, focus! was the most common thing I heard), but I find myself back at the same questions that I articulated in my application to school, but they are more focused as well as being functional (as in: a person could actually design a study to answer them).  After considering other questions and ideas, in the end I feel like the topics I am looking at now are ones I could stick with over the course of not only my practicum, but could develop into additional studies that could be the focus of my dissertation. To be frank, I don’t have time to change my mind, so I wanted to be sure that I really liked what I am doing. And I do. (Additionally, once I get IRB approval for what I am proposing, I plan to post everything here on the site).

If year one was about experiencing school, year two will be all about strategy.  Every decision must consider two things: first, is this decision going to help me finish faster? and secondly, does this decision help me get a job when I am finished?  Spring 2012 brings defending my practicum, completing comprehensive exams, and developing my dissertation proposal. I want all my ducks in a row to get moving as quickly as possible into dissertation mode.

So here are the goals:

  • move from exploration to professionalization
  • solidify my career goals: make appointment at Career Services, develop a non-academic resume and cover letter (just in case!), keep an eye out for job postings to understand what is out there for people with my eventual degree.
  • related to this, add a line to my CV every month (I know this sounds a little crazy, but I figure there is no harm in keeping this a focus every month, and wouldn’t it be awesome if I pulled it off? I heard this was something that folks on the tenure-track do, so it seemed like a good goal.)
  • identify something every month that gets me to graduation faster: read dissertations from graduates of the program, etc,
  • I also have a long list of brilliant people at my university that I have yet to meet. I am making it a priority to meet them this year.

Anything else?

Festival of Awkward: First Committee Meeting

According to my  handbook and my advisor, an initial gathering of my committee would have a few, relatively painless elements: I would discuss my career goals, talk about my research interests, and end up with a plan of courses I pledge to take over the duration of my program.  So in the past weeks, I have set about reading about, talking to, and cajoling various faculty members to be my wise guides to populate my guidance committee.  This whole process in and of itself felt like some bizarre speed-dating ritual.  In the end, I am thrilled about my choices and really couldn’t be happier. But the whole thing was quite time intensive and anxiety producing: what if they said no? what if they were too busy? what if we aren’t a good  match?

With all of my choices expressing willingness to serve, I sent out a doodle poll with about a million choices for times and dates. I sent this two weeks in advance of the earliest dates on the poll and the choices spanned three weeks.  (Seriously, how did anyone schedule anything before online calendars? Nightmare). I then prevailed upon a good friend to help me schedule a room.

As the date loomed, I set about triple-checking my CV, re-writing my research interests four or five times, and generally convincing myself that I am an idiot who probably should drop out. There is something about facing four people whose work and brilliance I so admire that basically made me feel like the whole conversation was going to be one long, excruciating game of middle school dodgeball.

After walking in and we got started, I realized a few things: my ambivalence about whether or not grad school is a good idea does not lend itself to confidence in these situations. This is something I need to work on.  Also, I am really excited about the research questions I am asking and love when every statement I make about them is ripped to shreds. It galvanizes me so much that I was writing at 6 am this morning.

The best analogy I can use to describe the experience is that it felt like jumping into a freezing cold lake. It was uncomfortable at first (as any new social situation is bound to be), but in the end it was exhilarating.  I may look like I am drowning, but it seems to be the only way to learn how to swim.

Social Needs and Learning

I have been reading up on theories about social needs, and my favorite one so far is Baumeister and Leary’s 1995 article” The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation.”  It is a tad long, so be forewarned.  What Baumeister and Leary do in this article is to survey the empirical research in the fields of psychology, sociology, and ethnography to provide evidence for the theory of what is known as belongingness. They state, “the belongingness hypothesis is that human beings have a pervasive drive to form and maintain at least a minimum quantity of lasting, positive, and significant interpersonal relationships (497).” They go on to describe that the ways that we fulfill these needs is through frequent, pleasant interactions with other people that are sustained over time. Additionally, these interactions should be with other people with which we have a mutual concern for one another’s welfare.

The evidence that the authors provide is interesting, varied, and compelling. They note instances where one or more aspects of the belongingness need is not met and the negative outcomes people endure on the emotional, physical, and cognitive level.  The reverse is noted when belongingness needs are met.

There are good many questions I have as a result of thinking through this. It seems to me that there are lots of ways that technology might meet belongingness needs, and the language around social networks as communities is intriguing to me as a possible place where these needs are being met.  But how often is enough to meet the beloningness need? What is the threshold for interactions? What about the quality of the interaction: is an @ reply on twitter enough? There are different levels of investment we have in one another on these spaces that are interesting.

I also can’t help but read this with my professional developer hat on. I have wondered in the past if part of the lack of technology integration by teachers might be because of a fear of taking the risk to change their practices. Would creating a community around quelling that fear help improve technology integration outcomes? Is it that teachers who routinely utilize technology in their practice have a community to which they belong that meets the needs that others don’t have? Practically, a community might be able to think through logistical issues or offer inspiration. More distantly, having a trusted community that fulfilled belongingness needs might reduce the stress of changing an established teaching practice to include more technology.

The article:

Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, L.R. (1995). The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal  Attachment as a Fundamental Human Motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497-539. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.117.3.497