Sally (atreic) wrote,

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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