Succeeding at school, after school?

I’ve just finished How Children Succeed by Paul Tough.  This has been on my reading list for a while now, and I finally got around to reading it.  It’s actually a quick read despite covering a lot of research on learning and success.  Tough covers a lot of the research having to do with ideas like grit, the growth mindset, persistence, etc.  The bottom line of the book is that interventions need to address the so-called “soft” skills to create success in students, not just in high school, but beyond.  I also listened to the NPR show “3 Miles” not too long ago and the message there is basically the same. It’s not kids’ intelligence or lack thereof that keeps them from succeeding, but their inability to stick with something when it gets hard, not understanding that you can and should ask for help, a lack of time management and organizational skills, a lack of understanding of social mores in different settings.

I liked that the book looked not just at underperforming public schools, but also a couple of private schools where kids are highly successful, at least in terms of getting into college and the traditional sense of that idea.  However, many of those students end up lost when they get to college or get out of college (for more on this, read Excellent Sheep).  These kids were less likely to be creative and innovative; they stuck with the safe route, even if it meant being not so happy.

This seems to be the trend in education, that what’s important is not “book learning” per se, but a certain strength of character.  More importantly, the idea is not that you either have that character or you don’t, but that those traits and skills can be taught.  Even though Tough showcases several success stories, he also mentions those that don’t make it, and the tiny, tiny number of those that do.  Too many kids in the public school system are not getting a good education in either the traditional book learning sense or in terms of building soft skills that lead to success.  And that I find utterly depressing.  And it’s not like this is news to me.  I think the depressing thing is that year after year, there is some solid research that shows how to address some of these problems, and year after year, we ignore that research.  Because it’s hard to implement. It costs money, etc.  It seems crucial to our success as a country that we fix this.  Sadly, I’m not seeing any movement on this in the near future.

Why I’m afraid to do research

Specifically, what I didn’t realize was how much my confidence in my ability to do research had been blown to smithereens and scattered to the four winds.

New Kid on the Hallway: Minor epiphany

I have no confidence when it comes to research. New Kid, thankfully, has regained hers, but me, not so much. And yet, I’m plugging away at my dissertation anyway, as if I had all the confidence in the world.  I mean, really, what else am I going to do?  But, I think my fear of research keeps me from even considering a faculty position. Because what if they ask me to do *real* research? Then what? They’ll know that I’m just talking out my butt.

I think there are lots of reasons for my fear. First, and foremost is that I’m now in a field, a very loose field, that I wasn’t formally trained in. My dissertation is in Composition and Rhetoric, but all my research training in literature. Even in literature, I found research somewhat overwhelming. What if I missed something? What if I’m just saying everything that everyone else has said for 100 years?  There’s just so much to read. 

I have kept up pretty well with comp/rhet research and of course, have read lots more since starting my dissertation. But I again often find myself feeling overwhelmed. I especially feel overwhelmed when I feel like I have to recap the entire research background on topic x before I can even begin to speak for myself. I hate that.  I find myself thinking sometimes as I’m writing, is there research on this particular point? Did I look?

And worse, there’s the quantitative part of my research, which I have *never* done, never had a class in.  I’ve read plenty of articles based on quantitative research, but never been trained in how to do it. So, I had to read a bunch of books about it instead, and thankfully, I had a colleage from the social sciences help me determine what kind of statistical analysis would be useful. Otherwise, I would have been screwed. I also didn’t know how to write that stuff up, so I struggled. I read models of papers or book chapters that had similar studies. I Googled. And then I forged ahead anyway.

Basically, I’m always worried that I’m doing something wrong, like the kid who isn’t sure what the rules are and goes ahead and plays around anyway, but with the nagging fear that she will be punished any minute and not be sure what for. It’s not a good feeling.

And then there’s the informality of my voice.  My writing is only slightly more formal in my dissertation than it is here. I don’t use big fancy words. I feel pretty confident about this most of the time, but then I’ll see a “dialogic” thrown in somewhere in something I’m reading and I think, man I don’t use that word. Am I gonna get dinged for that?

And then, there’s the practical bent of what I’m doing. I’m not a theory person. Although I’m defining a new approach in my dissertation, which is based on a theoretical foundation, my main intent is practical. I want people who read my dissertation to get some new ideas for teaching and to appreciate that they’re based on sound pedagogical principles, both from the realm of writing and from the realm of education more broadly.

So I feel like I’m always doing something wrong and that my research isn’t real because it’s practical and not theoretical and I present it too informally. And while I’d like to call myself a maverick for breaking down some kind of research hierarchy, the truth is, I just feel like a fraud.

I ignore this fear most of the time because if I didn’t, I’d never do anything, much less write a dissertation. But one day, I’m going to face this thing down. I just don’t know how right now.

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