I just came back from a conference last weekend. The Academy of Management is probably the biggest conference in my field, with over 10,000 participants. Going through the 500-page program and deciding which sessions to attend was almost as hard as writing a paper. However, one thing in common among most presentations was their last slide: “Questions?”. Sometimes it was disguised as “Q&A” or even as a more timid “Debate” or “Discussion”, but it was always meant to be an invitation that the presenter is opening up for questions. Isn’t it curious that questions should mark the end of an academic presentation? Aren’t we there to find answers in the first place?Well, not exactly. Research is, by definition, something we search. And part of the search is also looking for the right questions. And in my (so far short) experience in academia, I am convinced that most interesting (and relevant) research usually comes from great questions – and not only for great ways of answering them. If in the end researchers manage to raise more questions than they answer, the more enlightening it can be for themselves and for their readers.
If you think of it, it is natural for us to ask questions. We all went through the “why phase” when we were kids (some seem to have never gotten over it – which is not necessarily bad). In academia, we ask questions to each other, as illustrated in the Q&A example at the beginning of this text, but more often a researcher asks questions introspectively.
Questions have the power to make us challenge well established assumptions; they allow us to see the world from different angles, construct new realities, make thought experiments and what-if scenarios. By questioning yourself, your theories, your methods, you’re building this sophisticated and yet cheap lab for failed answers in your head so you can emerge with a stronger, more mature view of the problem at hand.
Many scholars with whom I have discussed this matter have pointed that actually defining a good starting question is what makes a research project interesting. Social sciences in particular have a knack for questioning everything. As John Horgan – writing for the Scientific American blog – brilliantly puts it: “the humanities (…) give you uncertainty, doubt and skepticism.” Having a background on the “exact sciences”, it was hard for me at the beginning to deal with all the subjectivity and ambiguity that humanities entail. Promoting uncertainty and doubt sounded too counterintuitive if we wanted to talk about “doing science”.
Perhaps because I was confused between these contradictory logics two years ago I sought refuge here at the Grad Life blog, both as a contributor and an avid reader of what my colleagues were writing about their own experiences. Now for my last post, it is time to look back at what I have done.
Writing for the Grad Life Blog was quite challenging, but it was an enriching experience. I started with a precise list of my goals for the academic life and then talked about amenities, such as playing sports, outdoor movie screenings, growing a moustache for charity, hanging out with expats in Montreal or even about exciting TV shows. But then I started to talk about activities that were closer to what we do in academia, such as how you read papers and books (and how I read papers and books), how you can make grad life more fun, how you store your research, how fieldwork can take different forms, how you should backup your stuff, matters of digital library ownership, testing a reference manager app (and re-testing it) and the advent of MOOCs.
It was also very interesting and fun to get to know and interact with other bloggers (even though we met fewer times than I would have liked). We are a truly multi-disciplinary group; yet, it is amazing to see how our academic experience can be quite similar sometimes.
However, this experience hasn’t been all roses. First of all, one can ask the question of “why invest the time?” I know scholars who would certainly tell me that the time I am doing this is time that I’m not spending writing academic papers. Bloggers also have a commitment to write in average two posts per month, which doesn’t look much at the beginning, but it can be very time consuming.
So why adding one more stuff to our already busy schedules? Why feel bad when we fail to accomplish the goal of two posts per month (which in my case happened quite frequently)? And what if no one comments? Was the post too insignificant? Did I fail to provoke a reaction? Was all this effort for nothing?
Questions, questions, questions…
The list could go on forever, but that would force us into a “paralysis by analysis”, which happens when you over-think a situation and question too much, failing to take action or make a decision. Sounds familiar? Let’s not hide it, I am not talking about writing for the blog anymore. This is about what we do as researchers as well. It is our job to over-think, to over-analyze… At least more than the non-researchers. But when enough is enough? When should we stop analyzing 10,000 different perspectives and take action?
Not only I sometimes find myself immersed in such questions, but I also feel that often I am not asking the right questions. We have become quite skillful in finding answers and solutions, but are we equally capable of defining good questions? Answering ’42’ is easy, but what is the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything? What has been the underlying question all these years?
“Too broad. Also: too late.”
Not all is lost! Asking these kind of questions can also be healthy sometimes. They force us to focus on what is really important. They remove us from a “processing mode” and bring to bear our most fundamental human qualities. They also make us look back and reflect on what we have accomplished. Back to the subject of writing for this blog, I am happy with the evolution of my own writing over these two years, even though the actual quality of it is for the reader to judge.
But now my time with the Grad Life Blog is over and I really appreciate that I have been given this opportunity by the GPS. I will continue as a reader and comment other people’s posts from time to time. The most interesting feature in a blog is that it allows a very direct contact between writers and readers, and the original text becomes simply a conversation starter.
So that’s it, that’s all I had to say! Unless…
Do you have any questions?