Thursday, November 18, 2010

Exploring Research Questions

Having effectively joined the ranks of the unemployed following my resignation as Director of NALU Studies, I have begun not only looking at other jobs - which is lots of fun in the current market - but also looking at PhD programs.  In the case of the former, my range is fairly narrow.  I'm looking, basically, for work with schools that want to do technology integration in their curricula because, after all, that's what I got my Master's in.  In the latter case, the angle is much more obtuse.

Pursuing a PhD is something that makes sense to me, as an avid writer, reader, and thinker.  While the politics of the University world are somewhat abhorrent, the intellectual community is appealing nonetheless, and a doctoral degree hardly means that I'd have to stay in academia if I found it too distasteful.  On the other hand, the real challenge here is not navigating politics or soft money, but rather defining an area of interest sufficiently narrow to ensure finding a fitting advisor and, ultimately, a fruitful dissertation.

For a generalist, however, that is a difficulty that cannot and should not be overlooked.  Part of the appeal, indeed, of the specialized job of instructional technology and curriculum support is that it is, in reality, a generalists job.  I would be the expert on what tools are available for classroom use, and good implementation practices, but I would (at least in theory) have the opportunity to work with teachers of English, history, science, math, music, foreign language, and anything else a given school offers.  In short, I'd be a specialist who nevertheless gets to work across fields, who gets to talk to people who know, between them, know a lot about almost any subject you'd want to know about.  Contrast that with most Universities, where the world is more insular, where conversations don't frequently happen across departments, and you'll see the appeal to a generalist and a learner of being able to span multiple disciplines.

So the challenge, given the fast approaching deadlines of many PhD programs, is defining not only a question, but even an area of study.  Hence this post, which is more for me than my readers, as I try to explore the implications of a few ideas and, hopefully, get some ideas back in return.


One of my first thoughts in my current exploration of graduate programs was, "Why not return to music?"  I do love music, as the title of the blog suggests.  The biggest challenge is that, though I am a marginally competent pianist, I am no expert, certainly not at the level that PhD programs expect.  In the last two years, especially, my practice has been limited, and while I have more or less maintained my skills, I am no better at the piano now than I was as an undergraduate.

Nevertheless, my Senior Thesis at St. John's was a musicology paper, I was an assistant in music courses for three years, and I conducted a chamber orchestra.  I don't think selling a program on my background would be easy, but it would be far from impossible.  Which leaves the bigger issue of what part of music I'd like to study.

Regardless of the field of study I pursue, integrating some of my Stanford LDT knowledge is a no-brainer.  And, ultimately, I'm still passionate about education.  So the angle from which studying music is most appealing is the musical-cognition angle.  That is, how do people learn to understand music?  Perhaps there's a cultural and anthropological bent to that question: how does culture and language effect the learning of music?  How, for example, does classical music differ from jazz harmonically, melodically, and rhythmically, and how would a classical musician describe those differences relative to a jazz musician?  Beneath all of that, how does learning the music from one or the other perspective (and we could throw in many others, from pop music to modern rock to Hindu chants) influence the comprehension of the others?

It seems to me that there are two chief ways to explore those questions.  The first involves neuroscience, studying cognition using brain waves and such.  But that science is still in its infancy, and the more interesting angle (though probably the less fund-able one) is the anthropological one.  The ethnography necessary to do research into any of those questions would be fascinating and enjoyable.

Another angle, here, is strict musicology, but that seems a little bland and self-serving.  At least the above has implications for education, assuming schools ever teach music again, anyway.  On the other hand, musicology could also be a curricular focus.  Is there a way to teach music to students that combines theory, history, and appreciation.  As it is, those are all usually separate classes (as the college level, of course).  Why not make a single class that incorporates all of those?  The question, I guess, is does that effort even belong in a PhD program, or is it more of a professional deal?

Fellow Johnnies will point out that St. John's does indeed combine those three points, which leads to a possible research project: how do students of St. John's music program compare to students who take music classes at other colleges?  But that's a can of worms that leads to a different area of study, as well.


Working towards a PhD in education makes some sense given my Master's in education, and I certainly feel I can ask a more sophisticated and specialized research question in this area than in any other.  Of course, the question I'm most fascinated by brings with it certain challenges: St. John's and research are not always friends.

What I mean is, I'd love to study the differences between a St. John's education, a different liberal arts education, and normal University education, and a parochial education.  I of course know that the curricula and pedagogy are wildly different, and I more or less know in what way and why.  But the question is deeper than that: how do students in those various settings differ?  What is the culture of St. John's compared to Williams College, compared to the University of Michigan, compared to a Community College?  How much of that owes to geography, how much to pedagogy, how much to some other factor?  Of course, the outcome piece is important, too: which graduates are more "successful," and in what ways?

I'm not convinced, however, that St. John's buys the kinds of processes that go into that kind of research project.  I'm not sure I do, either.  Try as they might, even the most objective education researchers usually have an axe to grind, and have biases built mostly (or even exclusively) on their own educational experiences.  "Best practice," in that cynical world view, is "what worked for me."  And, without a doubt, that's the challenge I would face.  St. John's is, to me, one of the best colleges in the country, if not the best.  Could I really overcome that bias and look at it objectively?  Would St. John's even want me to?  Do they care if they are "effective" in any modern, researchable sense?

Which leads me to narrower questions that might be more researchable, and still fit under education.  For example, do students do better working from original source material alone, or do they do better working with secondary sources and interpretations?  This question comes from a conversation I had at Stanford with a Professor there, and it still is fascinating to me.  It captures a piece of St. John's, without a doubt (since Johnnies are discouraged from using secondary sources and interpretations, so much so that we're often asked not even to consider context).  But it also captures high school English, where Hamlet is usually read without any accompanying documents.

The linchpin here is "better."  What exactly constitutes "better?"  Do secondary sources improve comprehension, interpretation, analysis?  Do they improve creativity?  Do they improve the level of conversation in the classroom?  What's more, is there even a good way, pedagogically, to introduce them without being boring?

There are other rich angles here, as well, such as the differences between high school and college level students (which benefits more from secondary source material).  Moreover, we might ask about the cultures of the schools and classrooms involved.  Perhaps a lecture class is much better with secondary sources, but a discussion one is not.  Or maybe it's the other way around?  Who knows?

Needless to say, I could probably generate a good dozen questions that fit under the heading of education, but the underlying theme to all of them is the same: I want to know about the components of a St. John's education, and what makes it work (assuming it does).  Discussion versus lecture is the key here, and that's a cultural question, which leads to a whole other kind of thought.


I have never taken a single anthropology class in my life, though the Alienation and Deprivation in Fiction and Education course at Stanford was close.  I don't know the language, I don't know the research, and I don't know the questions.  Nevertheless, the concepts keep hitting me again and again.  Cultural anthropology is the kind of research I keep coming up with, even if it's in music, or education, or literature, or anything else.

Now there's no question that I am a math person, and I don't know what place math has in anthropological research.  I'm wary of numbers, because too often we let them stand in for real meanings and real people.  That said, mere anecdote does not knowledge make, and so the best bet is to combine the two.  I'm sure that anthropology does this, but I simply don't know enough about it.

So what questions do I even have?  Well, I don't have archaeological questions.  That's not totally true, but I don't want to get a PhD in them.  My questions are more about modern cultures, and especially the Internet.  Ironically, though I do not use Facebook or Twitter, I'm fascinated by the cultural implications of both.  A study of how social networking is effecting people's understanding of self and culture would be extremely interesting to me.  And I'm sure it's already happening.

Anyway, that's just one of many questions in the anthropology world that appeals to me.  Some of the questions from my music and education sections could probably fall under this heading as well.  And that's the rub.  How and where can I bring subjects together?  What school is cross-disciplinary enough, what advisor enough of a generalist to help lead me through not only doing research, but narrowing my focus enough to be effective without gimping my generalist tendencies overmuch?

The truth is, I'm leaving off disciplines, even here.  I've explored Stanford's Modern Thought and Literature program, which runs out of their English department.  I've considered Linguistics.  I won't rule out Neuroscience, even if I'd have a lot of catching up to do.  I'd even consider Statistics!

The trick, to me, is not finding the right field, it's finding the right school and the right advisor, and then breaking the rules.  My academic success has always been built upon stretching the limits of what is acceptable, whether that means turning in a poem instead of an essay (but a poem that is still an essay), or taking courses that don't fit into a degree but using them to inform projects, or purposefully trying to break rubrics.

Which is all well and good once I'm in a structured, academic environment, but I'm smart enough to realize that I need that structured environment, too.  The rebel has to rebel against something.  The innovator is only innovative relative to his surroundings.  Finding a good environment, then, is the real key, and the truth of the matter is, I don't know what I'm looking for.  Or, rather, I know exactly what I'm looking for, but I don't have the slightest clue how to find it.

But maybe that, more than anything else, suggests to me that I'm ready to work towards a doctorate.

No comments:

Post a Comment