Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Lessons Learned | Interdisciplinary Graduate Seminar Exposes All

In graduate school, I took a geography seminar on industrial ecology. It not only sounded cool, I had been tired of writing papers that were weighed down with philosophy. I wanted to work with numbers and do some quantitative analysis.  

The professor was an economics geographer and had a Scottish accent – a well educated one. The seminar was about seven graduate students, some working on masters degrees in environmental philosophy, while others were working on interdisciplinary studies. 

We read articles for homework, prepared positions, and discussed the concepts from the articles while exploring different cases. Most of the analysis focused on the extent to which the case established a symbiotic relationship among its firms.

I write about foundry sand waste streams and the logistical issue of reusing the sands in construction aggregates. It was fun because it was what I consider very concrete scholarship. Additionally, I learned that I could apply the research skills I was developing as an anthropology student to almost any discipline. 

More importantly, I learned how to engage in an interdisciplinary setting, which can be highly critical. What's particularly challenging is the lack of confirmation bias. When scholars of the same discipline are making observations with similarly trained lenses, it's easy to feel more confident in assumptions when new evidence is presented. Scholars without investment in an area of study sometimes offer a fresh look at the data and offer alternatives to the analysis commonly found in the discourse. This is a bit oversimplified for the purpose of this post, especially considering literature and peer reviews often look for alternatives to the published theory to avoid this issue.  

If you've read my blog, then you know that I am a classroom teacher. I am surrounded by colleagues who are not working on publishing their work. They are grading papers and planning a crazy amount of lesson material. They are managing behavior and trying to keep up appearances to avoid too many troubles ending up in the principal's inbox. This is not a scholarly situation. It's a learning factory.

Why write about it? Why even bring it up? 

Experiences like the one described above gave me the opportunity to grow as a scholar because I had to find objectivity wherever possible, just to survive. These days, this blog is my catharsis that enables new looks at common routines, avoiding falling into too many routines and patterns that become toxic in the long run (homework because we've always done it, for example).

Objectivity, unfortunately, is not something I see a lot in a high school. People do things the way they do them for 20 years and get frustrated when they have to change. I don't mind changing because I always change. If you are observing the world right now, it's changing more rapidly than ever. In fact, change is inherent in my efforts to stay relevant. I don't know any other way. 

I guess if I were told to stop changing, it may make me feel like the 20-year veterans do when they have to change. Regardless of which side of this spectrum you are on, the changing world will make you vulnerable and exposed. I embrace it, no matter how much trouble it gets me into.