Writing and Research

“The “secret” (to write) is skill. If you haven’t learned how to do something, the people who have may seem to be magicians, possessors of mysterious secrets. In a fairly simple art, such as making pie crust, there are certain teachable “secrets” of method that lead almost infallibly to good results; but in any complex art, such as housekeeping, piano-playing, clothes-making, or story-writing, there are so many techniques, skills, choices of method, so many variables, so many “secrets,” some teachable and some not, that you can learn them only by methodical, repeated, long-continued practice — in other words, by work.”

Ursula K. Le Guin, from her essay “Where do you get your ideas from”, 1987

“Beware of finding what you’re looking for”, aphorism, unknown author

“Inquiry is fatal to certainty”, Will Durant, American Historian

English is my second language, social sciences and narrative are new subjects to me. A life writing as an engineer and a business person put me far, far away from scholar writing. The result? My writing is a mess. Once I am in front of a research paper, the muse don’t visit me! and my writing is at its best, convoluted and confusing. One course,  put my closer to a solution. Still, there is a lot of work to be done.

Not directly related to the courses I took was my astonishment when one of my classes  started. One of the few times that I felt like a complete minority. All my colleagues were Saudis (hence, muslims), mostly female and all of them taking a master in Education. Needless to say, I was captivated by how they related their learning to their own culture. A fine and enriching experience for me.

I learned how to construct my own writing from reading academic materials, an indispensable skill for a phD student. Now I know that I am familiar with “how to critique, and analyze, and organize research articles into a thematic understanding of a given topic”.

Let me start down the memory lane. I won -with my team-  a national prize when I was in seventh grade (by now, a little over 40 years ago) for a TV segment that we produced about the details of the scientific method, using a brand new TV “studio” that someone had donated to our school. It was in full color, an advanced feature in a country broadcasting in black and white.

Later during our Senior year, we had to turn in some sort of “thesis” or a more comprehensive work that must include research. Out of serendipity, we ended in the Experimental Medicine department of the main university of my country, Universidad Central de Venezuela.

We spent, under the mentoring of one fine doctor, days, weeks and months analyzing data, doing experiments and processing lab rats (let me keep the gore details out of this reflection). We even did the main experiment in ourselves, sans le guillotine!.

But after that, I didn’t much of anything related to research. My kind of engineering and my business experience wasn’t conductive to much experimentation.

To learn anew how to do research is then, a fascinating task for me. I learned and was captivated by how much care the university as an institution put in doing humane research within ethical parameters.

A very technical course, SPSS, came to enhance what I learned . To be honest, I came to this one with apprehension. My work and learning in finance and investing taught me that behind an excess of statistics, there is a lie lurking. On the contrary, Dr Kasraie presented a balanced view of statistical methods (and how to use SPSS to work with them) without a blind acceptance of normality or technical manipulation of data to conform with opinions. I am leaving the course at ease once again with statistical methods.

Last but not least. APA. How can I say it?. Candid and honest have worked wonders for me, so let me be: I don’t like APA. I abhor the thing. Outdated, imposing, asphyxiating. The main good thing about it is the importance of properly accrediting other people’s work in your own. But that’s it.

Most of the other specifications are a nuisance. Yes, I will write my paper very APA compliant, 12 points times new roman, double space, one color, headings and so on… (let’s forget here about all the restrictions on presenting data). I will need to prepare a new version for publication, and probably yet another one for a symposium or similar. We need to recognize that most of our work will be produced, archived, transmitted, consumed and referenced using electronic media, internet and screens. In that environment, most APA restrictions (I don’t see them as guidelines) are as old and quaint as a IBM Selectric.

It doesn’t escape me that APA is appearance and not substance. On the substance side, I’m learning a lot on how to find a gap on knowledge, establish a problem and look -from an experimental point of view – for a possible solution.

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