Eaten up with Curiosity

The motto of all of the mongoose family is “Run and find out,” and Rikki-Tikki was a true mongoose.

–Rudyard Kipling

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.

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