Eaten up with Curiosity
The motto of all of the mongoose family is “Run and find out,” and Rikki-Tikki was a true mongoose.
We find ourselves in the midst of a new academic semester, with the variety of challenges that face us in terms of schedules, task demands, and burdens both voluntarily and involuntarily shouldered. In one sense, it is as it always has been; but for each individual, it may be the very first time of an experience that defines and influences the remainder of one’s life. I have been thinking about this with the current configuration of GROUPER, and the need to help students make progress on existing dissertation topics or create new ones. This is not always an easy task, and though I have gone through this process over 50 times (with over 30 MS students and 14 PhD students advised, plus the students whom I have assisted in various less formal ways) on this side of the desk, there are always elements worth learning and improving.
Maybe it is simply the number of times that an issue presents itself within the period of a few weeks that it becomes more salient, and the gap between what is and what could be becomes more evident. Let’s assume that it may be no more than that, although a friend of mine was just mentioning today how there can be periods when one becomes much more open to insight and jumps in one’s self-learning. But there has been something about the question, “What should I do for my research?” that has struck me in very different ways this fall than in the past. I am asking myself different questions about my own research and career pathways; I am reminded of writings and insights from when I first arrived at Purdue. And of course, in the senior project design course, there is always the sense of importance to get the students—so used to textbook problem configurations and well-organized linkages between the information given and the equation to use—to start creating for themselves a system definition and sense of their own active participation in defining the problem to solve as a necessary part of being an engineer. And as an engineer myself, such gaps between what is and what could be are always met in my head with, “What do we do about it?”
And yet, there was something that I couldn’t quite bridge on my own in the conversations with the members of the lab. Where does one go to get ideas? How does one start the organization of facts and methods and tasks that gets one from classroom student to nascent researcher? Over the past month, I began to see that it was not just as simple as a statement in our “1:1 meetings” (as the nearly weekly individual meetings I have with all of members of the lab are known) to go figure out an interesting question. Interestingly enough, this recognition for me comes from a couple of sources, as I am again reminded that I don’t seem to approach the world in a way that is like most of those around me. Apparently, there are graduate seminars taking place in departments around the country (not just engineering departments, but bench sciences, literature, philosophy, sociology…) where students are encouraged and instructed to read through a bunch of journal papers or monographs or book chapters and determine which questions still required further study. (For the record, I took such seminars myself: it’s how I first learned, in 1985 and 1986, of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s work on cognitive strategies or the cultural specificity of the fundamental attribution error. I loved those papers. I just didn’t define my dissertation that way.)
Benson Snyder, in the 1960s and 1970s, discussed a critical issue affecting higher education, one that has come to be known as “the hidden curriculum”. (The “hidden curriculum” of the book’s title and premise is the informal sociological and socialization process of how and when to learn, not just what to learn.) This book seems to have had a very significant effect on me—not just because I have read through it multiple times (I still own a copy of the 1973 edition of the book), but because I can now see that much of the curriculum I experienced at MIT was shaped in part by the studies Snyder reports of students there 20 years prior. As I am teaching undergraduate statistics again after several years away from teaching it (but never far away from using it), I am also freshly sensitized to the processes of how to learn, and not just what. And this is how I started to recognize some of what I was finding vaguely concerning in the lab.
As an undergrad, one of the most telling philosophies of innovation and excellence I ever heard was one that was directly told to me as to why I had so much latitude in organizing my activities for my work-study job. “I’ve found that it’s best to give good people resources, and then get out of their way.” For me, that was an excellent and empowering approach, since I was never at a loss for ideas or novel approaches or unusual ways of thinking (at least ways deemed unusual by teachers or professors). In fact, I recently came to think about this as something I found exceptionally compelling in a cartoon I saw as an adolescent: Chuck Jones’ animated version of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, narrated by Orson Welles. Rikki is perpetually curious, and fiercely protective, and powerful in ways that are belied by his small size and friendly interactions. But isn’t everyone curious in this way of mongooses? Isn’t everyone driven to “run and find out”? Isn’t that part of the essential “inside” of every researcher?
No, says the hidden curriculum. Students are socialized to learn which questions are the “right” questions, and these questions are “best” defined in an outside-in way. The existing corpus defines the way the field is configured, and thus how new questions should be approached. But wait… 60 years ago, we didn’t have plate tectonics or the cognitive revolution—just working from existing papers published in 1953 wouldn’t have gotten you there, and certainly wouldn’t have gotten you accepted within the “standard” configuration. The same is true with statistical process analysis or scientific project management 100 years ago, or pharmacy or aerodynamics 150 years ago, or electrical and thermodynamic processes 250 years ago. And yet, my learning and research now derives from all of those innovations. Someone has to move beyond the standard, outside-in framework, and be ready to do the new work and meet the new challenges (and face the inevitable questions and criticisms that such an approach will engender).
It’s obvious to me now that it takes a lot more than a brief instruction to a graduate student to think in terms of the problems in the world of task environments, and interacting with people who live in those task environments. (Although an introvert, I find it natural and obvious to talk to someone about the challenges of their work. It’s easier for me than making other types of small talk.) I begin to wonder, though—have I been assuming that, just by osmosis or creating a supportive environment, anyone and everyone will be “eaten up from nose to tail with curiosity,” as Kipling put it? Might they need more help than that?
If you were expecting an answer to these questions… sadly, you will have to wait with me for that. I’ve asked the lab to help me understand what I’m doing that’s different, and how the hidden curriculum has affected and shaped them up to this point (although I didn’t ask it of them quite that way). But at the very least, asking the question is an important part of the process, and an essential element of making progress. There are cobras threatening the bungalow of higher education… bringing in and raising a mongoose is not a bad idea.
August 18, 2016
With a flourish and frenzy of activity, the cycle has completed itself and begun once more. This week, of course, was particularly hectic. On Tuesday, we in GROUPER were pleased to celebrate Liang’s successful defense of her dissertation (now to finish the writing!), and after a 2-hour lab meeting, I went home and got some pleasure reading in. Wednesday was a travel day, with challenges of unstable weather leading to one canceled flight, and ground stops due to ramp closures at both the start and finish of the second leg of the trip. Hours late, but with the air cooled from the rain, I finally finished the trip and got home for a good night’s sleep.
“Hold it. You were at home, then you got stuck during thunderstorms, and finished the trip, and went home? Did you not get to your destination? Was your trip canceled?”
Even as I write this entry, there is a type of surrealism about this week. I’m sitting in one of the chairs I have had for over five years, with Amber on my lap, looking at her cat tree and food and a bunch of other items I clearly recognize. The window still faces east, but the image is different: instead of an empty parking lot across the street, I see a tall tree and an office building. In other words, the shift has now occurred. Amber and I have moved to Washington, DC to start my position as a Jefferson Science Fellow. My first day is next Monday, and I have begun enjoying the exploration of the neighborhoods of McPherson Square and Thomas Circle, and picking up coffee and pastry and fruit at the White House Street Market.
Amber exploring the new window view
My world is changing significantly, and yet some things remain consistent. I am still an engineering faculty member, but I am thinking about a completely different set of issues this August compared to last August. Our lab meeting addressed a very interesting topic based on students’ recent experiences, and one that I will be considering very hard in the coming months. Academia, government, and industry are considered vastly different places, and representing wildly divergent career paths for those with PhDs. And yet, we’re taught (and have first hand experience) that a variety of people all craft their actions, decisions, and processing of information based on perceived risks, costs, and outcome benefits. There’s only one challenge. The benefits that drive most industry teams (profit—hey, I hear the new Aston Martins are really nice) don’t come into play at all for most academic or government folks, and the primary risk keeping academic folks up at night (someone already published my idea in that journal I love!) don’t seem to bother industry or government people much. A government employee may complain bitterly about the costs of having to work 5-10 hours of overtime one week; many academics and industry research folks take a 60-70 hour average work week as pretty much standard.
You may notice that the website (http://www.grouperlab.org) looks very different than a few months ago; that took us a while to work through. Elliott, our wonder-undergrad, did a pretty thorough redesign and architecture job, but what was more important was not just the scripting language or tab sequences. We went back to a very basic question: who comes to our lab’s website? Three different types of groups (yes, it’s that “use case” thing) want distinct types of information, at varying grain sizes. Even our own GROUPER alums represent different types of interaction profiles. We’ve got government employees seeing how our work can inform improvements for federal agencies. GROUPERs are also rising up the ranks in industry, and may be in a position to hire a new or recent grad (in this sense, GROUPER is definitely a distinct and valued brand). With the lab’s traditional gender mix (somewhere approaching 2/3 female), it’s not surprising that a number of alumnae list their primary function right now as “Mom”. I see no reason to hide that, or feel guilty or ashamed to highlight such life pathways. If everything is a system, and GROUPERs look at information everywhere, can’t those skills be applied to everything from medical information use for family members, to understanding the daily experiences of neurodiversity, to getting a front-row seat to the miracles of how humans develop broad processes of learning and skill development sets in ways that still challenge our most sophisticated machine learning algorithms.
Over the next few months, the GROUPER blog will be more active again, but it won’t be focusing as much just on our current lab research. We’re still researching, of course, but we have other stories to tell, and other forms of impact and effect to consider for how we get, share, and use the information we’ve been gathering and lessons we’ve been learning. Thanks for visiting us again after our quiet period. Hey, it gets busy learning how to be in multiple places at once.