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Sally's Journal
December 12th, 2005
10:40 am


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Learning styles, and the fallibility of grown ups

Me and my data get on. Sometimes it doesn't make much sense, so I poke it a bit, and stroke it a bit, and go through it with a fine toothed comb, and eventually it rolls over onto its stomach and things all click into place in my brain. Sometimes even quite subtle things.

But it's a very private relationship. (This is going to sound like a load of excuses for "why I am clever but failed my PhD anyway". Maybe it is. But I thought it was insightful, so I thought I'd say it anyway). I get everything straight and tidy and balenced in my head, and then I go along to my supervisor and...

First of all, I don't like saying things straight. (This probably makes me one of griffens awful pleasent people). Or at least, I very seldom feel certain about anything*, I hate being told I'm stupid, and I hate coming across as arrogant. A good method of dealing with both these problems is to politely, and somewhat timidly, say things I believe are true but would like confirmation on as questions, or tentative statements. "Do you think the flow reverses at this point? I was wondering if that might be what happens".

And this does not come across as "I have thought about this for several hours and am convinced it's what's happening, but I need you to rubber stamp it because you're older and wiser, and I might have got completely the wrong end of the stick". I mean, rationally, it isn't going to, is it. I feel quite dumb that I've only managed to see that in black and white this morning.

The other point that should have been obvious but wasn't, is that the matter at hand isn't as blindingly obvious to the "grown up" as it used to be. The technique worked well at school, and in supervisions, because people would see that my point was correct instantly. If I timidly said to the teacher "I was wondering if I ought to use a different value of g because this problem's set on the moon" they would immediately know that yes, I should use a different value of g because the problem is set on the moon and tell me so. They might think I was dim for having to ask**, but they wouldn't think I was half as dim as all the people who hadn't thought of it in the first place and were all using 9.81. So I would ask timid question, and get a confident and right answer.

At university level, this all breaks down. I timidly ask "Is this the point where the tangential flow changes direction" and expect if I am right to hear a "Doh, of course it is!". Instead I hear a barrage of questions back, which triggers my "He didn't say yes! I must have got completely the wrong end of the stick!" panic. So now I think I am wrong, and am desperately trying to shift perspective to see what on earth this data must be doing if the thing I was convinced was right isn't. And desperately trying to pull in extra information from his questions to do this, as after all, if he is the keeper of the "right answer" then these must be leading questions for my enlightenment, and if I could only fit it all together I'd see what was wrong.

This causes me to get very very flustered, and immediately start making stupid mistakes / saying stupidly wrong things. Which starts to make me look wrong, because now I really am talking rubbish. It was alright when it was just me and my data, but now there's a man, and he's asking questions, and poking things, and I don't get what his point is, and I can't think when people are talking to me, I need to be alone with a pen and paper and my data, and I must be so thick...

This is why I burst into tears in vivas.

This morning, in the middle of becoming stupidly flustered, I thought "what if I just go back to what I did know about and ignore all these questions? That way he can answer things that I am now confused about, instead of confusing me even further", and started to explain to him why I thought what I thought, and in the end I think he agreed with me that I was right. It took him a long time to, and he hedged his conclusion with "I think you should look at all this $dull-stuff before you get worked up about this" (which is also wrong, because $dull stuff will not be correct if I haven't got my head round this rather fundamental thorn) but at the end of the meeting, we were both pretty much in agreement that the tangential flow did indeed change direction where I'd said it did 20 minutes earlier.

So I have now had the blindingly obvious insight that he didn't refrain from saying yes to my rubber-stamping question because he knew I was wrong and had to explain it to me, he was refraining from saying yes because he didn't know. And the reason his questions were confused and didn't match the issue at hand was because he didn't get the point I was making, and hadn't worked it out himself. I could even go as far as to accuse him of saying almost-wrong things confidently.

Hmm. I fear it has taken me far too long in my life to notice all this. And possibly cost me the PhD. If instead of trusting him when he'd said things-I-didn't-believe far more confidently than I said things-I-practically-believe I'd realised that he wasn't spending all his time thinking about the things I was and was probably just trotting out swiftly thought out plausable sounding platitudes, I might have argued my case a little better, and we might have found the right answers sooner. But I like being on the student side of the equation. I like to be questioning, learning, finding things out from clever people. I like spending ages puzzling something out, and then going to wise old people and trusting them to tell me when I'm right, and when there's actually more to be thought about. I don't like telling people they've said a wrong thing, because with all my hang-ups about how awful it is to say a wrong thing confidently accusing people of doing that is a terrible thing.

In fact, I hate the whole idea of acdemia as a debate, an arguement, with lots of people claiming lots of things are right and then fighting to see which can survive the arena. What I want is to curl up with my data and then gently publish "I was wondering if this might be right because it all makes sense if you look at it like this, but there are a few holes here and here that I haven't managed to patch yet", and get back "Ooh, I'd never thought of that! It does fit together nicely when you put it like that (except for this bit that I don't think I've got my head round). And that hole isn't really a hole because of this. But it doesn't quite agree with this thing that I did last year.."

I could almost go out on a limb and wonder if this is in some way linked to the different types of learning that people like to lable "male" and "female". But maybe the aggressive style is actually more productive than the nurturing style, and while my dreams and ideals might be "nicer" they'd make for slower scientific progress. I don't think so though, acting like you're always right and trying to hide the bits you have difficulty with under the carpet can't help people progress.

I am sad today.

*I think I'm right more often than a lot of people, but I think a lot of people are wrong an awful lot of the time. One of the things that still confuses me is whether all the people who seem more certain than me are just using their certaincy as a kind of shorthand, and if I prodded them they'd go "of course we can't know this, this is just my gut feeling at the moment, but there's no point prefixing everything with perhaps and maybe" or whether they really think they're right.

**Dear reader, you may think this is contradictory with not wanting to be told I'm stupid. At least in the doublethink of my brain it's not. Saying certainly something that is wrong is something that I feel is really rather henious, because it meant I came to a conclusion too quickly, I didn't think things out thoroughly, and I might be corrupting even more people into thinking a wrong thing just because I said it confidently. Saying wrong things is terrible. Having people tell you that you've said a wrong thing is even more embarressing, especially people you want to respect you. But asking stupid questions I am behind all the way. Asking stupid questions is a very important part of making sure you don't accidently say wrong things, and so is an essential part to being a good person. Being prepaired to take the mild embarressment of being the one who asks the questions that feel stupid but that you just don't get is a vital sign of being a person of charactor prepaired to suffer in pursuit of not saying Wrong Things. (It is worth noting that some of the most stupid sounding questions I've ever asked it took me months to find a convincing answer to. Sometimes the things everyone knows are actually just things everyone assumes)

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[User Picture]
Date:December 12th, 2005 11:45 am (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:December 12th, 2005 11:45 am (UTC)
That *was* enlightening wasn't it. *hugs* The really scary thing is the that the answer you get from the clever people is very dependant on the way you present to them. Really really good people ask really clever questions and reach out to you to find your level of understanding before prodding you a little further on. Quite clever people (i imagine the level that get to be supervisors) are trying hard to hold on to their cleverness over you and prefer you to stand up to their robust examination.

Confusing isn't it?
[User Picture]
Date:December 12th, 2005 11:57 am (UTC)
Hello, are you me?

Well, OK, I'm not doing a Phud, but I've only recently realised that this is why one particular bloke in work *really* rubs me up the wrong way. He's officially above me in the project hierarchy, but nevertheless there are bits that are MY area of expertise that I've thought about a lot and have a much better idea about than he does. However I do feel the need for him to rubber stamp a lot of my stuff and the way I present it tends to lead to him saying things like "No, do it $this_way instead". (Even though $this_way is clearly (to me) inferior because of a whole load of reasons that I can't articulate to him because I'm feeling put on the spot and made to feel small and stupid and Arrrrrrrrrrrrrgh.)

The good news is that having recognised this in myself a few months ago, the simple act of changing the way I phrase things has helped a LOT. And you've recognised it much earlier than I did, so good for you!
[User Picture]
Date:December 12th, 2005 12:02 pm (UTC)
But I don't want to change the way I phrase things. Because I still believe that I'm fundamentally right, that the world would work better if people didn't pretend to be certain when they're not certain, and becoming another person who pretends they're certain doesn't make the problem any better.

Still, swallowing principles for self advancement is a good step on the way to becoming a Proper Grown Up. < /cynic > Become powerful, and then change the world ;-)

Date:December 12th, 2005 12:00 pm (UTC)
I tend to use the hesitant approach but with enough extra backup to show that I'm not guessing: The data goes a bit weird here. I think that might be because of x, because when I looked at factor y, it showed z pattern.

Fortunately, my manager is quite conversant with that style, so it's not a disadvantage to me, though his manager is far more direct (partly because it's his job to be interested in conclusions, rather than the process by which they are arrived at); so I have to be more prepared before I discuss things with him - I tend to spend some time beforehand making sure things are very clear in my head, and that I have answers to the questions I think he might ask about them. I'm still not wholly satisfied with my performance in that situation though; I like having space to think things through and double check them - I don't trust myself to come out with definitive answers on the spur of the moment, but neither do I like answering every question with "erm, I'll check that out and get back to you".
[User Picture]
Date:December 12th, 2005 12:01 pm (UTC)
Was me.
Date:December 12th, 2005 12:06 pm (UTC)
[hugs] I relate to a lot of that myself, although I have a hatred of asked stupid questions so deal with that point differently (and live in terror of being wrong).

The other point that should have been obvious but wasn't, is that the matter at hand isn't as blindingly obvious to the "grown up" as it used to be.

Indeed. You are supposed to be becoming the expert on the area. This is a big shift from even undergrad life, although I think more for mathmos than for other subjects. I wrote an 8-10,000 word dissertation in my fourth year as an undergraduate which was beginning to be that I knew more about it than my supervisor, I then had the 10-15,000 word MPhil dissertation which was even more then case so I've had a bit more of a chance to get used to it. Though I'm still (secretly) terrified of having to back up my answers. Other subjects seem to have similar things (for example Engineers have 4th year projects to do), but Mathmos get to the end of Part 3 with very little experience of it; the optional Essay which is basically a lit review is their only real non-taught element as far as I can tell. This seems to be because there is an awful lot of really complicated stuff you need to know before you have a chance of doing anything original. This means that the shift to PhD is much bigger for them. I suspect that Maths supervisors are aware of this and hope that this enables them to support their students better. But because you switched to engineering, you missed out on this support because engineers have been doing independent stuff for a while and so are expected to know how it works. It's worked particularly badly for you because you lack the self-confidence to believe that you are right. TBH, your supervisor should have worked this out in order to give you better support, but he too is a frail human being!

Date:December 12th, 2005 12:11 pm (UTC)

I know what you mean about the different approaches - it's true no just in academia but in industry as well. Where I work it's often eat or be eaten (so to speak). Some people tend not to say anything at all whereas a few (and I tend to be one of the few) speak rather loudly with absolute iron clad certainty about everything.

I know I'm predisposed to be like that, but over time I grew to be more sensitive and nice about how I presented things - sadly though that doesn't work in the office environment I've found as there are those out there with big teeth (I'm thinking mainly of managers) and you have to play by their rules or be eaten.

I don't know if it's true in academia as much as in industry (although I suspect so) but people often want to guard their little bit of ground. So if someone is seen as the 'Cisco router guy' or the 'Javascript guy' he will act like he knows everything about that, and if anyone questions that position they will be dealt with rather harshly. For what would that person be if they couldn't claim ownership of that topic?

To be honest I think all of this is like the idyllic situation we would have if we were all anarchists. Everything would be great, we'd need no armies and could live in peace and harmony unless one person ruined it all in which case we'd all have to follow suit. Being nice just doesn't seem to be a stable strategy in most situations.

On the other hand - I know you're brilliantly clever Sally, so you really should be more assertive as I'm sure you're right most of the time ;-)
Date:December 12th, 2005 12:12 pm (UTC)
I think the non-agressive way to do things has to be the quickest way to arrive at good knowledge. If science is like going on an expedition to Coton, then there are two ways to do it:
1) Some pushy idiot grabs the map and does the navigating and whenever anybody else points out that we're actually not facing west at the moment and maybe we should be, he shouts at them and calls them a useless girl with no spatial awareness who should just shut up and follow everbody else, and we end up very quickly and efficiently in Aberdeen and have to go all the way back on the train with sweaty people eating smelly food
2) Everybody reasons it out calmly, and we set off in the right direction and just about get there with a couple of minor mistakes along the way, although we don't quite get there in time to catch the shop and buy some teabags.

I also think that people who come across as aggressive don't always know it. I thought that supervisor #1 really thought I was stupid at first, but now I think he just doesn't think about what he's saying. I decided that supervisor #1 was like a border collie, jumps around and barks and barks, and gets to the end of the obstacle course and EVERYBODY KNOWS ABOUT IT BECAUSE HE'S BARKING VERY LOUDLY, and supervisor #2 is like a cat and just gets on with it with small gaps for running away whenever people come in and try to endear themselves by making stupid noises. And sure enough, whenever they're both in front of the same microscope, cat-supervisor stands quietly by the door while dog-supervisor tries to get the technique to work with a lot of joking around and drawing big diagrams on bits of paper, then dog-supervisor goes out for a pee, and cat-supervisor sits down, draws a small diagram, and makes it work before he comes back. Dog-supervisor is much more ept in front of a large group of people than cat-supervisor or in front of other doggy people, but when there's only a small group and you need to concentrate, dog-supervisor is too easily distracted by there being people to show off to. I think I like cat-supervisor better, and the other first year PhD student in the group seems to have been taken under dog-supervisor's protection, being certain, male and more ready to make silly mistakes in front of him.
Date:December 12th, 2005 12:23 pm (UTC)
Sorry. I will at some point actually phrase this so it says what I mean it to say...

In that last sentence, I mean "being male" in that he's been taught since birth to be more confident and less scared of the consequences of doing something wrong, and been taught that his main good feature is his intelligence and not some part of his body. Obviously there's the usual disclaimer there about it not applying to 100% of the population because there are some people who were brought up in a television- and teacher-less cottage in the middle of the Yorkshire moors and taught that people should all be taken just as they are, but I've never met them.
[User Picture]
Date:December 12th, 2005 12:19 pm (UTC)
Surely the very title of this posting suggests the fundamental issue?

You're talking about "learning styles", and a PhD isn't a qualification in learning. Having a PhD is supposed to show that someone can come up with brand new ideas and express them in a crisp, clear and concise way that's readily accessible and persuasive to others in the field.

It sounds to some extent as though you dislike doing precisely what a PhD is about.

Research doesn't have to be about blinkered prejudice in favour of one's own pet theories, massaging the facts to fit. On the other hand, it doesn't have to be about tremulously making a suggestion and being afraid to sponsor it and highlight its good points for fear of being wrong, either. Surely it's best to steer a path between the two extremes?

On the other hand, I may have completely the wrong end of the stick about PhDs, since I don't have one. (-8
[User Picture]
Date:December 12th, 2005 12:55 pm (UTC)
A PhD isn't a qualification in learning, but (in science at least) you need to do a lot of learning, both about bits of your subject that you don't know and about how to do research, before you get to the point of having original ideas. (Unless you're a genius, and I have yet to meet one of those.) And of course one important way of learning this stuff, particularly the facts, is to go to your supervisor and ask. The problem is that you can then get into the habit of believing your supervisor knows more about everything than you do. I've seen plenty of people, including students I've supervised, fall into the trap of believing what their supervisor says when (s)he comes out with something superfically plausible but wrong. It is actually pretty hard to get right. In fact, you could even argue that gaining some intuition about how much reliance to place on information fed to you, not by the data but by other people, the literature and so on, is one of the key skills that you need to gain in the process of getting a (science) PhD.
[User Picture]
Date:December 12th, 2005 12:19 pm (UTC)

From what I can gather, PhDs are mostly about confidence(/arrogance) and procedural issues, rather than actual research, which it sounds like you've discovered the hard way.

Certainly by the end of the course, you should be the expert on your research and your supervisor should take your word as gospel. That doesn't apply nearer the start, though, and your supervisor needs to coax you out of uncertainty/expecting to be given the answers and into evaluating your own answers (e.g. if this is true then that must be true and it is, so that supports my conclusion).
Date:December 12th, 2005 12:29 pm (UTC)
If my supervisor ever took anything I said as gospel, I'd think he'd been sitting in a dark room looking at a little light for too long and needed to drink some water and walk about in the sunlight until he was back to his usual, sceptical self.
[User Picture]
Date:December 12th, 2005 12:27 pm (UTC)
A PhD is very different to undergrad and school education. Instead of being taught by an expert, you ARE the expert. If your supervisor knew the correct answer, he wouldn't be asking you about it, but would already have written a paper himself about it. Assuming nobody else knows the correct answer is the only way.
[User Picture]
Date:December 12th, 2005 12:33 pm (UTC)
I think when doing science, you have to say "This is how I've analysed this data, and so I think [something]"; it's unambiguous. The problem with approaching things the way you describe is you're not having the right conversation.

I don't find science as aggressive as you describe, although it can be (because some academics love to belittle others). If I present some work and say "I think this.", then people may say "ah, but have you considered [this other thing]?", and we can talk about that, and I can refine my theory, or maybe say "Yes, and it's wrong because".

The downside is this means you have to be prepared to nail your colours to the mast, knowing that you might be wrong. It's a risky process, being honest in this manner, and is hard if your supervisor isn't someone you can trust; trust to be honest back, but not destructive if you're mistaken.

Err, I'm waffling, sorry.
Date:December 12th, 2005 03:13 pm (UTC)
Another downside is the entanglement of ego with idea, which all too easily leads to lifelong antagonism between otherwise intelligent and smart researchers, with a corresponding detriment to the research, because someone attacked the ideas, but the person felt under attack.
[User Picture]
Date:December 12th, 2005 01:11 pm (UTC)
Have you read Surely you're joking, Mr Feynmann? He has a very interesting view on this sort of thing.

I'm hoping to make it to the LSM curry thing, although I have not put my name on pieces of paper. So I may see you there.
Date:December 12th, 2005 03:44 pm (UTC)
That is a fantastic book.
[User Picture]
Date:December 12th, 2005 01:19 pm (UTC)
Yes, I know exactly what you mean.

Sometimes I've spent about ten minutes hammering away at a friend, asking how he knows something, and trying to get him to listen to what I think, because I don't at all know I'm right, but know I have more experience than him, and need him to at least repudiate if not agree with my evidence. This is mainly with friends though, it hasn't come up in work, though I can see where it would.

It's most difficult when you don't know how certain either person is, which as several people say is a particular problem here because some supervisors will have a fair idea of what you're supposed to find, and some won't, depending on the problem (and the supervisor) so you *don't* know how to pitch it.

It would be good to present the evidence with the question, even if you still phrase it as a "does this sound right?" I don't know how much difference it would make to your PhD though. It sounds like a problem, but then, it sounds like your supervisors, etc, were rather a mess in general, would anything have saved it?
[User Picture]
Date:December 12th, 2005 01:21 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:December 12th, 2005 01:53 pm (UTC)
Yes, you are me.

I think it was partly this conversational dynamic that lost me the PhD; the chief examiner in the viva was very much in the loudly hostile school, and I just curl up silently under that. I want an intelligent constructive conversation, FCOL, not a shouting match.

Can you get as far as "I think the flow reverses here" rather than "Do you think the flow reverses here?"? You're labelling it as a thought rather than a substantiated truth, but you're keeping ownership of it rather than passing all the conversational momentum to the other guy.
Date:December 12th, 2005 03:57 pm (UTC)
This would be a good start. At the PhD level you're expected to know what you're talking about; as someone above said, you're assumed to be the expert.

Phrasing does matter, and it does help, in academia, to be a bit more direct than you're probably comfortable with being.
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