I had a conversation with Zeno yesterday about the project that he is going to do this semester. He is one of my mentees (Name changed, for obvious reasons.) I would like to share with you what I think are the most salient learning outcomes of that conversation (learning outcomes for Zeno as well as learning outcomes for me.). I think this may be useful for those who are officially registered as research students, but I think it might also be interesting for those doing research without any institutional affiliation, and those interested in inquiry without bothering about research as such.
A) Green Room Activities vs. Stage Performance.
When a research student has a meeting/conversation with a mentor, or is writing up something to be submitted to a mentor, (s)he is in a Green Room which is a private space with his/her mentor. But when (s)he submits the final product for a research degree or for publication, she is on the stage which is a public space where (s)he is 'performing' in front of an audience. This is an extremely, extremely, extremely important distinction.
[Note: I am talking about mentors, not thesis supervisors/advisors. I am aware that many thesis supervisors/advisors are not mentors, and many mentors are not thesis supervisors/mentors.]
In the Green Room, it is okay for a research apprentice to make a mess, or make idiotic mistakes. The Green Room is a space for learning, and learning cannot happen without making a mess. But mess/mistakes are costly on the stage, because that is not a learning space, it is a space for assessment.
This is one of the reasons why I have systematically discouraged research students from seeking me as a supervisor/advisor. I don't like assessing people (though I am perfectly okay with assessing ideas or work), and I think any student who works with me as his/her supervisor/advisor runs the risk of having an irrecoverable nervous breakdown, an outcome that SPCA would sue me for. Why take that risk?
I had been throwing admonishing Zeno for not submitting promised write ups, and I was actually beginning to get worried about the breach of promises. As it turns out, this happened because he confused the Green Room with the stage, and was trying to produce a document which I would 'approve'.
He was also worried about my ‘adversarial’ questions and objections, and was trying to get it as 'perfect' as possible to defend himself. That was ridiculous, because I hardly ever 'approve' anything, even if it is produced by Noam Chomsky, and it is to be expected that I will use martial arts style questions and objections in the Green Room. But such use of martial arts is in the learning space, not assessment space, so there is no need for being afraid (even the victim gets bruised all over.)
[Note: Trying to defend oneself against a martial arts trainer is a good thing, because the learner learns from that activity (and so does the mentor.) What is counterproductive is delaying the entry to the dodo because of the fear that (s)he would get mangled by the trainer, no matter how temporarily distressing that mangling is.]
B) Methodological Strategies for Theory Construction
One of the reasons Zeno was not submitting any written work was because he was trying to bite into too much information. When you are at the starting point, it is crucial that you begin with a small range of most interesting data, and not try to drink up the whole ocean. (The nose to figure out what data is most interesting is just a matter of five decades of experience.) I think this got sorted out yesterday, by setting an arbitrary limit of not more than four or five thingies.
One of the difficulties that Zeno was experiencing was with respect to the construction of a hierarchical structure of categories, subcategories, sub-sub categories, and so on, until reaching atomic units. He was stuck because he was trying to work it out in his head and was lost in a dark forest.
Now, what is needed in this case is the attitude that one is learning, and not performing for assessment. So it is okay to come up with a classificatory system that is guaranteed to be rejected in a few hours/days/weeks.
One learns tricks of the trade not only by thinking about it on one's own, but also by putting down the ideas in writing. Writing clarifies one's thinking: if you don't write at least five pages a day, you will remain ignorant until you die. [Sweeping generalisation, but so what?]
And one learns more by presenting the written work in the Green Room and getting bashed up by your friends and mentors, and revising what you have written. The deadliest sin that a research apprentice commits is that of not producing written documents at a pace that equals breathing. Fear of breathing through written words causes serious problems of ill health.
So, research apprentices of the world, write! You have nothing to lose but your fears and mental blocks!
C) Anticipating what you are going to do five or ten years from now
I have noticed that my comments on a written draft are not about what needs to be done for an official submission or a thesis or paper for publication. I don't care about what is officially submitted. That is between the victim and the supervisor or between the victim and the pre-publication reviewer. [Needless to say, when it is about time to submit, I might offer some advice on how to manipulate the supervisor or journal reviewer using rhetorical tricks or saying what the Sup/reviewer wants to hear. (e.g., most supervisors and prepublication reviewers are thrilled when the candidate cites their work. And when they are pleased, they approve without reading what you have written. There is nothing unethical about gulling the gullible if the gulled are in a position of power.)]
My comments are usually about what the novice needs to do during his/her life time, before (s)he dies. And I am occasionally aware that this habit is quite disconcerting for the victim who thinks that (s)he needs to 'obey' me to get my 'approval'. Bad idea to be disconcerted.
What that means is that I expect the victims to have some kind of expectation of what (s)he is going to do ten years or twenty years from now. So, if you are doing a two month project on a theory of the structure of skulls, you must have an eye on what you are going to do as soon as it is submitted. namely, a theory of the structure of the skeleton, and later, a theory of the evolution of the skeleton, and still later, a theory of the evolution of species, of organs, of tissues, of cells, and molecules.
That means that one must have an eye on the causal mechanisms of evolution even when looking at the correlations between the mouth hole and the ear holes in the skull.
I think that my statement about what Zeno needs to do before he is sixty years old kind of bewildered him, but I hope he would be okay when he wakes up and sees this posting.