Posts Tagged 'research'

Setting Intentions for Research: Integrity, Utility, Humility and Social Justice

When a person first sits down to meditate, it’s a common practice to consciously set an intention for that sitting. It might simply to be present with the breath, or to be kind to oneself during the meditation, or to work to notice certain kinds of thoughts. It’s a practice I’ve used before, and found it to be pretty powerful. And so as I enter my work and role as a researcher, I figured it could be useful to do the same.

Setting my intentions as a researcher for me provides a touchstone I can come back to, that others can remind me of, and that I can build upon and revisit as I learn more about what it means to be conducting this sort of work in the world.

After getting my toes wet this past month both reading research reports and engaging in the practice of research itself more intensively than I had in my last position, I thought I’d share some initial intentions that have been developing for me as I’ve considered how I want to do research in the coming years:

  1. Integrity. I want to conduct research that lines up with the way that reality actually is, rather than how I would like it to be. This means first being curious and honest with myself about my own biases, agendas and hopes as I engage in research. After that, it means representing my findings in a way that is truthful and accurate. There’s no shortage of misleading or downright false research out there, I want to practice research that is faithful to the principles that are at the heart this profession.
  2. Utility. As I spend time reviewing literature, I’ve come across articles of all sorts. I read one, though, that really caught my eye. The content of it was quite interesting, and the analysis it made was insightful. At the same time, it was entirely inaccessible due its density and jargon, and worse, made absolutely no recommendations for practically applying its findings, or even any directions for future research. After I read it, I vowed that to the best that I can, I want to make decisions to research things that will have real applicability for people trying to solve actual problems in the world, and I want to report on these usable findings in a way that is accessible both rhetorically and conceptually.
  3. Humility. This one can sometimes be a challenge for me, as I rarely find myself without an opinion on something. But I know being a good researcher means to come first from a place of not knowing, rather than of presuming one knows what one is seeing and analyzing, or worse, making judgments for how something should be done without deeply understanding its context. Also, I believe it’s important to voice how difficult it often is to live by ourĀ  stated values and good intentions, and want to be humble in the face of my own inevitable, but hopefully small and rectifiable, failings to conduct research that holds to the intentions I’m stating here.
  4. Social Justice. Someone wise once explained this concept to middle schoolers in a way that I love: “You know bullying & being mean to people? It’s the exact opposite of that.” It’s that simple. At the same time, the question of what it means to have a just society, better the world, reduce suffering and a million other variations on doing well by others is no doubt a complicated one. And so I intend my research to come from a place of not presuming “the answer” to this question, but rather of presuming that it may need to be answered again and again, always from a place of kindness and compassion towards others.

By giving voice to these intentions, it’s my hope that I give them power to inform the work I do as a researcher. I’m sure as I delve deeply into this practice that’s so new to me I’ll have more to add, but for now this seems like a good place to start.

Delfest, Participatory Culture, and Life as Data

Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Photo from Magic Hat BreweryI spent this past weekend with a great group of friends in the Cumberland Water Gap, a rural area in Western Maryland where we were attending a Bluegrass music festival called Delfest. I’ve never actually been to a music festival of any sort (crazy it’s taken me this long!), so I didn’t have a lot of expectations coming into the weekend save having a good time and spending time outdoors.

The festival, in short, rocked, totally going beyond the pretty basic things I’d hoped for. It was pure summertime goodness; we saw great music, camped out at the foot of a mountain, went tubing down a river that looped around the grounds, made friends with strangers, and lost our sense of time for two days. (The answer to “What time is it?” was invariably: “it’s Del o’clock.”, or, every so often “ten to Del.”, and occasionally, “half past Del.”) And so a big part of being there was just about enjoying myself – getting some space from an increasingly busy, stressful and packed upcoming month, spending time with friends, soaking in the good vibes and remembering the spontaneity and adventure that can come with arriving in an open space with no real plans.

At the same time, the budding learning scientist in me was having a whole other experience of the festival. As someone planning on studying the learning that happens in informal environments, those outside of school and not traditionally thought of as ‘educational’, I was also viewing the event as part of what media scholar Henry Jenkins would call a Participatory Culture, and as what learning theorist Jim Gee calls a Semiotic Domain with an associated Affinity Space. All pretty high concepts for sure, each with their own useful nuances, but in the most basic sense I was seeing an open community of people dedicated to a particular idea or practice, in this case Bluegrass music, come together to do their thing, share and learn from each other (though likely not framing it as such) and in doing so define and redefine what that space means both in terms of its core practices as well as its broader culture and associated quirks.

Photo from Magic Hat BreweryI saw amateurs working with experts – small jam circles of musicians with varied levels of talent playing around campfires with assorted string instruments where anybody could come and join in, contributing whatever they could even if it was just singing along or playing some simple chords, along with main-stage shows featuring artists recognized as being at the top of their trade, setting a (perhaps contested) standard for what good practice looks like in the community.

I saw plenty of things not immediately related to the musical practice itself but that emerged around it; the throwing of small, soft glowsticks amongst a concert-going crowd, each landing and then getting hurled up into the air again, fans dancing with wanton abandon in varied styles, substance use and perhaps abuse, and a do-it-yourself camping culture where people constructed elaborate tents, fires and meals. These are the sorts of things that give nuance, character and attitude to these kinds of informal spaces, and are an expression of the underlying values of the community – each points to a certain ethos or narrative endemic to the larger whole.

I noted various demographic groups as they became visible; low income local white folks from Appalachia that I’d associate with NASCAR and country music, “hippy” types in tie-die and dreadlocks, young professionals from DC, New York and other metropolitan areas, often working in politics, journalism or education (forgive the heuristics here) – as well as noticing those that were absent. I counted about 15 people of color and no one that was easily identifiable to me as queer while I was there out of what was easily over a thousand people.

And I reflected on what it meant for me to be doing pretty much all of this observation and analysis automatically, remembering a line that references Rilke from a great short piece by Mark Federman called The Tao of Thesis [pdf], about how one engages in thesis-level work:

“You will view the world and your entire existence through research-coloured glasses. The thesis process becomes less an effort to find answers, and more a vehicle through which you can live your question.”

My time at Delfest is interesting because it is one of several experiences that I’ve had as I near the beginning of my doctoral work where I started to consistently notice the world as data parsed by a particular lens, and it’s prompting me to wonder what it will be like to put on these glasses full time when I enter graduate school – what’s gained, what’s lost, and what the edges are to look out for when doing this strange exercise while still trying to live an integral life, one viewed through many lenses and that acknowledges the limitations of a singular viewpoint. I’m excited to find out.

Hi there.

Rafi in thailand, smiling

If you're reading this, then you've reached the web log of Rafi Santo. This is my little slice of the internet where I can share my passion (or whatever) with the world.

Research. Meditation. Learning theory. Spirituality. Activism. Cooking. New Media. Pedagogy. Photography. It's all fair game, and will likely coalesce into some unholy mixture thereof. But hey, that's the integral life.