How do I do that?
Impossible questions to answer in life 1/3
I hate people ask me, " how did you do that?"
As a kid, I was rather enthusiastically showing anyone who cared to ask anything I think I might have answers for. Me? How can I possibly have anything to offer? Having answers belong to people who publish books, give lectures, appear in magazines, and hold clipboards for their jobs. Knowing how-to-do anything makes me feel important and 'adult'.
Back then, people asked me to how to do very simple things. A simple instructional demonstration would suffice. I was eager to please, or more precisely, to show off. Of course, sooner or later, I discovered that solving other people's simple questions is the summit for people not furnished with a penis. Not to mention, there is a tone of surprise hidden within that question that they did expect I could do they can't do. Inconveniently, I keep existing against these expectations everywhere. The more I refuse to answer 'how-to' questions, the more people call me 'difficult'.
The latest one was from one of my academic bosses telling me to stop dealing in 'theories' at lectures. It is utterly beyond my pretty little head to know what the actual fuck should a lecturer do at work. Maybe I shall try to go and clean my students' kitchens or be their PA? That's probably more 'practically helpful'. Perhaps I should wear an apron and a bikini while I am at it, shall I? I wouldn't want to be difficult now, would I?
I wasn't a top student from childhood. Far from it, I was a kid who got in trouble talking back to teachers. I only took it all seriously around 16 after clocking that I can't earn much without qualifications. I want to see who else I can become. I was too curious to give up. By the time I finally made to a university, people began to ask my opinions rather seriously on topics. Don't be fooled, though. They only asked out of assessment, not of genuine interest in what I can contribute. In all honesty, I couldn't contribute much.
I don't remember when I gave my permission to answer serious intellectual and business inquiries for a living. Somehow, here I am. No one has yet come and tapped on my shoulder and said: " Aha, gotcha!" I am not suggesting I acted without a plan, but I just don't remember making one.
I didn't have the vocabulary to talk about critical thinking until 2017. As part of my Masters' study in education, I encountered numerous academic practices and theories of critical thinking. I had finally wrapped my head around the methods, methodologies, epidemiology, and ontology in a research context. At least, I started making decent attempts, building on others' wisdom and challenging it through my lived experiences.
Gone are the days of taking pride in moving chunks of information from the Internet to a presentation side. I realised I was merely taking whatever information from any perceived authority wholesale. It is not that I have never been in a situation where I had to present an informed opinion or critical analysis before. I just did a bad job of often and parroted all the White men leading their fields. It is not the colour of their skin that is the problem. The lack of diversity of perspectives in their work makes it completely dull to me.
Sometimes, the people assessing my work are either none of the wiser the situation didn't require challenging conventions. So I get away with it. Gradually, in the pursuit of keeping myself engaged and interested, it was inevitable to learn to think critically. I also noticed that all the 'leaders' I admired had a habit of tearing others' arguments apart with their unique diligence and perspectives.
One of the things that shocked me the most about teaching at a university is how clueless students are about themselves. I somehow presumed everyone was as keen on breaking themselves down as I am. Of course, when presented with a stimulus, people often have an opinion around it one way or another, interesting or otherwise. Without a preselected stimulus, a lot of people are lost to finding something that occupies themselves. Then 'how to' questions would be flooding in. They would expect personalised silver bullet solutions when and where it suits their schedule and priorities. Everything becomes transactional and incredibly dry for all involved.
I suppose the uniqueness of a practice-based creative subject requires the practitioner to bring a body of self-knowledge and curiosity to the table. However, most people's educational experience doesn't promote habitual critical enquiry until the postgraduate-level study. Somehow one must just magically figure out immediately the new term starts. It is no wonder people are lost. Students through my doors are often very interesting people, but they just can't imagine bringing that into academia. That is not all their fault.
In all the university curriculum that I've studied, there is almost no time formally allocated to study skills required to research. As the plucky ducky that I am, I would just have a go and then receive feedback such as " lack of academic integrity" or "require deeper critical thinking." I was never quite clear what to do with these words. But I had a suspicion it just meant I was a bit thick and basic.
I was angry and frustrated, then resigned to self-pity. But then I thought maybe I could find a brave tutor (or stupid enough) to break it down to me. Eventually, that person came along and patiently explained to me that essentially I didn't quote people to demonstrate I have positioned my opinion amongst the foundation of other thinkers from a field wider than immediate expectations. If a journalist wrote about it already, you need to find at least one more degree wider than their work. It was then that I finally understood why I should really quote people. I absolutely should demonstrate the hard work I put into looking for a diverse range of sources to boost my understanding.
But then things got murky, even after the due diligence of referencing. I found it quite dangerous to challenge people who were clearly more qualified than me, even just in theory.
These experiences often drag me into long periods of despair. On the one hand, my teachers encouraged me to bring my authentic self-expression and lived experience into my arguments. On the other hand, if said arguments did challenge the institutional norm and ruffled the feathers of the bigwigs, then tell me I have no academic integrity. I didn't quite know how to reconcile the obvious contradiction and hypocrisy demanded by my curriculum.
Slowly but surely, I managed to find a few academic allies and opened up my concerns. Their frank and honest acknowledgement of the same experience really lifted me up. I decided that since it is not that I am stupid after all, then I must seek to change it, regardless of how impossible it feels.
It is not possible to conduct academic research without considering the positions of the researcher. It is also plain silly not to acknowledge the assessors' social, economic, and communal positions and their bias when looking at the grades given. Similarly, it is rather unhealthy to take unprocessed feedback from your boss, your client, or even your lovers as a definitive assessment of your self-worth. There is no such thing as a meritocracy.
Discovering the term "positionality" has really helped me academically and professionally. It gave me a theoretical framework to discuss subjectivity and objectivity in research work.
Often as teachers, we ask students to analyse the data collected by research methods. Or, to put it plainly, generate the overall insights gathered on the topic or on a mission. In tutorials, we asked questions to help students analyse the progress they've made (or the lack of progress made) to help them reach a direction. The point of education is to help people improve from wherever they started, rather than making sure everyone arrives at the same place. Schools is a space for the growth of people, not churning out production line robots.
One can google methods of analysis ( or indeed most things) and find much information. I suppose once you have done that, you must get on with it through trial and error after you selected a bunch that made sense to you initially. Yes! I do mean trying all of them if need be. How do anyone else bloody know what suits your thinking? As Britney Spears put it so eloquently, "you'd better work, bitch."
I'm wholly aware my recommendation aforementioned is not popular these days. The Internet is littered with how-to videos. In our contemporary lives, it's not common practice to question what is knowable. Many people firmly believe that if you look hard enough, you will find an answer to your every desire. We are all such well-trained consumers looking for affirmation and away from uncertainty.
Last week, the student asked me why I am so good at looking up resources quickly (I know, rude!) to share as feedbacks. I asked her whether she had considered that I am simply a very good thinker. I mean, what else should I say? Oh wait, here are the volumes of my episteme, teche, nous, phronesis, and my inherited social privileges. It might answer why I am "good at things".
It has always been my prerogative to be immensely interested in everything that surrounds me and how I change myself and my opinions in the process of understanding. There were times because of this, I ended up being penniless or very ill. These experiences taught me I have an idealist streak. For better or worse, I must work very hard to focus make myself the most useful to humanity, rather than serving my ego. It may be a cliché, but I firmly feel that the more I investigate, the less sensible it is for us to hold convictions too tightly. The only fight that is worth picking is with yourself.
I would like to end this with something my psycho-therapist said that grounded me in a world of uncertainty and helplessness every time:
That's all we have time for in this session.
‘Coghlan and Brydon-Miller - 2014 - The SAGE Encyclopedia of Action Research.pdf’ (no date). Available at: https://methods-sagepub-com.arts.idm.oclc.org/base/download/ReferenceEntry/encyclopedia-of-action-research/n254.xml (Accessed: 11 October 2021).
Coghlan, D. and Brydon-Miller, M. (2014) The SAGE Encyclopedia of Action Research. 2455 Teller Road, Thousand Oaks, California 91320: SAGE Publications Ltd. doi:10.4135/9781446294406.
van Eemeren, F.H. (2013) ‘Fallacies as derailments of argumentative discourse: Acceptance based on understanding and critical assessment’, Journal of Pragmatics, 59, pp. 141–152. doi:10.1016/j.pragma.2013.06.006.
Methods Map: Research Methods: SAGE Research Methods (no date). Available at: https://methods-sagepub-com.arts.idm.oclc.org/methods-map (Accessed: 11 October 2021).
Neuman, Y. and Weizman, E. (2003) ‘The role of text representation in students’ ability to identify fallacious arguments’, Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology: Section A, 56(5), pp. 849–864. doi:10.1080/02724980244000666.
Paglieri, F. (2013) ‘Choosing to argue: Towards a theory of argumentative decisions’, Journal of Pragmatics, 59, pp. 153–163. doi:10.1016/j.pragma.2013.07.010.
If you know someone who would love this, share away
Thank you for supporting “Whose Cat Is It Any Way?”, a sometimes-ly newsletter written by yours truly, musing on break-ups, break-downs, not breaking against all odds, and occasional deep dive on a topic (because why not, I read a book and I want to tell you about it, so you can sound smart on a Hinge date). Warning: may contain creative writing.