Monday, July 08, 2013

Intellectual Environments

We've been having another successful season of research in the Lexomics Lab this summer: discoveries made, complex things figured out, methods invented, tools created.  And most of all, it has, once again, been really, really fun.  Much more fun, and much more intellectually exciting, than anything I ever did in grad school (or in undergrad or as a professor, for that matter).

I've been wondering why.

Probably the simplest reason is that English students don't naturally work in a lab environment. Our ideal seems to be lots of solitary time with books and a computer and then a quick chance to show off what we've written in a seminar or at a conference.  It's not that we're not social, but that our socialization comes after the fact, not during the research.  The daily give and take, the continuously social nature of the lab, isn't really part of our experience. So we get all the way through our studies never knowing that we're missing out on the most intellectual fun you can have. 

We were lucky to have the use of a single big room, with one wall of white-board, desks and monitors around the other walls, and moveable smaller tables, which we configured as a "library table" and a work table around which we put our laptops. Since we all worked together, we talked a lot, working through ideas out loud, overhearing the challenges various parts of the project faced (i.e., the Beowulf-focused people hearing the discussions of the Cynewulf-focused people and the Shakespeare-focused people and the Old Norse-focused people and the software people, etc.).

So it was all shared and cross-pollinated and social and fun.

But also there was another factor in play, I think. Because my students are undergraduates ranging from  freshmen to seniors and ranged in major from English to Computer Science to Chemistry to Philosophy, there was always more than one person in the audience who didn't know something. And so it was always ok to ask for more explanation.

We completely avoided that most damaging of statements a teacher or mentor can make: "What! You don't already know that!"

It's a damaging statement, because it encourages the student, in the future, to bluff, to hide ignorance or cover it up.  And when you do that, you never end up learning what you need to learn.

Intellectual bluff is such an important part of grad school, and the job market, and the tenure game, that it's absolutely ingrained throughout academic culture. And it's debilitating, because people aren't willing to ask questions that would expose their ignorance, and so they don't get answers or explanations that could enable them to solve particular problems and make real contributions.

But in a room with as many computer-scientists as medievalists, everybody is ignorant about lots of stuff and so, over the course of the summer, we've gotten to the point where we can confess that ignorance, get an explanation, and then learn more.  It's exhilarating.

Quick example: I was trying to derive some kind of measure of comparative vocabulary homogeneity for different segmentations of a text.  I had an elaborate formula that I thought made sense, but I couldn't get the numbers out that were consistent with what we thought we knew. Finally, my student research partner (the chemistry major) just plotted a bunch of data on a graph, and, uh-oh, it made a straight, diagonal line. I didn't have enough variables in my equation, so x+y always equalled one. So I was being a math doofus. But by doing so, in front of all my students and some colleagues and the computer science students, who were half listening in, I modeled, I think, the way to approach such a problem: take a stab at it, fail, take another stab, fail better, get some help (I dragged a physics professor in from the hallway), take another stab, fail even better, and maybe finally get somewhere.

And hopefully what the students learned--and their amazing contributions suggest that they did--was that being a scholar is about seeking the answers, not already having them (or pretending to).


Lisa Spangenberg said...

One of the things that has always struck me as odd about the humanities was the absence of collaboration. Scientists collaborate, and model collaboration for their students, but you don't see it much in the humanities; indeed, we often see professors put their name on work down by their graduate students.

It used to be odd to switch from humanities work on campus to my employment in IT and software development, where collaboration was key, even to the extent of two programmers writing code together at a single workstation.

Chang said...


Alexander Sorto G. said...

All I have to say with regards to the post about "Intellectual Environments" is that I agree. Throughout my academic career I have witnessed countless students assume or kind of just nod their heads when it came to understanding concepts they really didn’t. This always struck me with amazement because students would rather look like they knew what the teacher was explaining than ask a question, due to the fear or stigma of asking a question in front of a class and being judged. Like many say, “there is no such thing as a dumb question”. After all, asking questions is a part of life, because there will always be something you don’t know or do know, we cannot be afraid of not knowing. In the end, appreciate what we do know and look at those situations in which you do not as a new opportunity to enlarge your knowledge. Awesome post with a tremendous message.