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.
June 4, 2014
After two days at the IIE Annual Conference in Montréal, I was heading to Atlanta early Tuesday morning for the FAA PEGASAS Center of Excellence Annual Meeting. The FAA meeting is for briefing our program managers about our recent progress and technical results; the IIE meeting is about much more. It’s about catching up with old colleagues, prior students, and interesting ideas. I found myself presenting some of Liang’s work in a technical session chaired by one of my academic grandchildren (one of Sandra Garrett’s advisees at Clemson), and becoming an impromptu moderator at Siobhan’s presentation. But, in a dinner discussion with Siobhan and Jake, and two students from Clemson, we also discussed what seems to be another big element of the IIE Meeting: the polo shirts.
I have spoken and written before about GROUPER as brand, as an iconic representation and embodiment of the lab and our topics and style of applied human factors engineering and human-systems integration research / development. We have GROUPER pins, but sometimes I wonder if we need a GROUPER logo shirt. It’s always a good idea to talk to people when you get creative ideas, because I heard some interesting views over dinner. Let’s be clear: IIE Meetings are in part about branding, and presenting and highlighting particular brand is important for many of the attendees. Far from being immune, Purdue IE is one of the prime examples of blatant name recognition and placement. Since 2011, we have sponsored the badge holders for the conference, which means it looks like everyone at IIE is from Purdue. (The badge holders are actually quite nice for those of us who really are from Purdue, as they work well for carrying passports and travel documents. The name-themed, school-color holders are perhaps not quite so enjoyable for those from Ohio State or North Carolina State—whose logo has been emblazoned on hotel key cards longer than we’ve done the badge holders.) We are the home of “Rethink IE,” which is a call to consider the evolution of the profession. But there seems to be something else, and something that is not always seen as good, in pushing one’s brand too far.
Because I had to go directly to the FAA briefing after I get off the plane, I decided to wear my Purdue Industrial Engineering polo shirt this morning. I also wore it at the Saturday night reception. Yes, I wore black and gold colors, and my GROUPER and Rethink IE pins (both pinned to the badge holder, on the other days of the conference. But a number of students at the IIE meeting do something I have never seen anywhere else in my conference experience. Several times I have found myself walking down the hall to a technical session, only to see a cluster of identically-clad students. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m not going to fixate on particular rivalries or comparisons. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about the scarlet shirts with the O and buckeye leaves (Ohio State), or the white shirts with the Puerto Rican flag (University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez), or white shirts with a red stylized boar (Arkansas). They are proud and pleased to represent their “team” in a coherent and unitary manner. (And, as I have previously written, I get it when you talk about who’s your team.)
Several of the comments over dinner expressed wonder and potential worry over this form of team representation. Would it be seen as a positive sign of camaraderie to have all of the lab appear in identical shirts, or would it be considered a demonstration of excessive conformity? Both Siobhan and Liang are working in the area of healthcare (which we describe as PERCH), but even though they both have the same advisor, they’re not using the same approaches or even addressing the same types of methods. This summer, we’re also making progress on DOLPHIN and CORAL elements of information visualization and sonification (Jake’s presentation at the IIE meeting). What I didn’t expect to hear is that this is something of a recruiting advantage for a subset of people, especially those who have a set of diverse interests and unique perspectives on the changing world of humans, engineering systems, and coordinated / distributed information and expertise in teams. While the lab has grown to a size and capability that active recruiting is not a priority for us, several of our current students started out as interesting conference conversations. GROUPER is not just a recognized brand in our community, but one to which our current students and alumni/ae are very loyal. Ours is not just a university level brand highlighting Purdue, but a unique brand at the level of the individual laboratory. What increases the value of the brand is exciting and transformative research, with excellent and compelling presentations, and not just fancy polo shirts worn in unison. We do have the logos on the slides, and we do wear our GROUPER pins with pride. (However, if you really want a polo shirt anyway, do let me know.)