Monday, December 11, 2006

Ever tried writing a dissertation without thinking?

I think I need to stop letting this guy's comments about other grad students irritate me. But first I'm going to have me a little rant.

The background: It's a few minutes before a(nother) seminar by another grad student. This student is working in an area of linguistics that I am going to pseudonymify by pretending it is the sort of field research where you go spend a year in a mud hut in a small village, study a language no one has ever studied before, and then write up a grammar and dictionary of it. This isn't what this student does at all, but the descriptive purpose of the project and type of data used are similar enough that it will do for the purpose of this rant.

So Irritating Older Academic (IOA) says, as we walk to the seminar, "You know, I went to a seminar by this student last year and I wasn't very impressed at all. It was almost all background and no clear argument. I told her she needed a hypothesis, a design for her study, a methodology and a strong argument from the evidence. That's what a thesis is."

Me: "But at her last year's seminar, she had only just started her PhD. She hadn't even collected her data yet, so she couldn't know what she was going to find."

IOA: "You can't design a study unless you have clear hypotheses."

Me: "She's writing a grammar of an undescribed language. It's not a 'study' in the same sense as the sort you do."

IOA: "Hmph. Well, it just doesn't seem very scientific to me. I was so disturbed, in fact, that I approached her supervisor with my concerns. And you'll never guess what she told me. She said that that's how they do things in that area of linguistics. That they just look at the data and 'see what falls out'."

Me: "That's the method that makes sense for what they do."

IOA: "Anyway, I'm not sorry I spoke to the student about this issue. It is, after all, my responsibility as a scholar [clears throat self-importantly] to get grad students to think—to really think—about their projects."

Me (under my breath after he walked away): "Because without your generous input we'd never actually *think* about our projects at all."


Gorgeous Nicko said...

I'll bet this irritating academic has never been to a party to have a good time - always to get laid, or make 4.7 new contacts, or something measurable. Guy shoulda been an accountant, like I used to be before I discovered the excitement was simply too much.

Seriously though, what's wrong with exploring something to see how it works?!! Where IOA has a point is that the investigation ought to be constructed in such a way as to promote the drawing of wider-ranging conclusions (or, at least, formulation of hypotheses for further investigation) with implications for language, or whatever, at large.

Anonymous said...

oh gosh. this guy sounds so old school, pompous and annoying.

ZaPaper said...

And not just pompous and annoying... I don't know about you, but my field is one where there's also a methodological dispute between top-down and bottom-up styles. After thinking about it for a long time I have decided I'm firmly on the side of the bottom-uppers, even though it's harder and a lot more frustrating. Because I think top-downers have a strong temptation to impose their ideas on their data, and consequently have a tendency to distort things. Having methodological ideas is important (so is being willing to alter them as you go), but that's only because you have to know what data you're going to go look at. As for what you'll find, you not only can't decide that in advance, but you shouldn't even try, should you??

Breena Ronan said...

Some people think that the only way to be "scientific" is to create an experiment. The problem is most things can't be made into experiments. Luckily that student's advisor understands the situation, even if that other professor doesn't.

StyleyGeek said...

Yeah, Zapaper, the thing is, in most of linguistics, there isn't even a debate about it. Certain subareas use top-down methods, others use bottom-up ones, because that's what works. In some areas both are possible and then there is debate. But this isn't one of those areas.

This guy thought he was criticising the student, but actually he was showing he had no idea about a whole area of the field.

Gorgeous nicko: the funny thing is that this guy DID used to be an accountant!

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

This is like the dispute in hubby's field between the quantitative studies and qualitative studies. Hubby is qualitative and his new uni seems to think that only quantitiative is actually rigorous... of course, when he used qualitiative methods to question every senior thesis project (to the profs, not the students) they started to get the picture...

saxifraga said...

While I see his point would apply to many fields and many studies, it obviously does not apply to this one. He reminds me of all the old-school guys who think graduate students don't know anything about their own fields. What do these people think. That they know more about a subfield they are not in, than the people who are actually in it?