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Speculative Diction

Down the research rabbit hole


“Everyone loves to identify things that have not been identified.
The rabbit hole, where ever I find it, symbolizes solitude.”
–Terrance Hayes, For Crying Out Loud

Recently I’ve been finding it much harder to blog because I’ve been homing in on certain aspects of my dissertation, which has taken up an ever-larger chunk of my focus and thinking time. This is a good thing of course, but it means I’ve also been more impressed than ever at how others are able to write excellent and timely article and blog posts on the latest issues, while I can barely keep up with the higher ed news.

Part of the problem right now is that I’m immersed in a couple of specific data-gathering tasks and it’s almost impossible to avoid thinking about it when I’m “swimming” in so much information. For example, one of the tasks involves news articles, thousands of them. I’ve mastered the art of combing through the lists of articles generated by my searches, then skimming the articles themselves for search terms, to make judgement calls about their relevance based on how many times a word is mentioned and in what particular contexts, the topic of the article in relation to my study, or what the article tells me about the organization that is the focus of my project. At the same time I’m trying to piece together a bigger picture through combining these articles with what I’ve already collected from other sources. Initially I wasn’t sure I wanted to do this kind of news search for my project, because of the time it would take; but once I realized it was generating useful information, I knew it was the right move.

Each of these decisions about relevance is important, because it contributes to a research project that in turn makes claims about what is or can be “known” about my topic. If the goal of research is to expand knowledge, then we have to think carefully about what we use to build the scaffolding on which our claims rest.

In my own experience there hasn’t been nearly enough emphasis on the fact that this process is not (just) about “producing a dissertation” or “doing a PhD” but also about creating knowledge. Each decision we make about research is rooted in this. Epistemology isn’t just a branch of philosophy, it’s something we should know about in relation to the most mundane aspects of research tasks at every level: why choose a particular source for information? Why use more than one source? What assumptions inform your analysis of that source? How does it contribute to “knowing” something about the subject of your study?

My research materials have been somewhat overwhelming from the start; there was no clear path to a structure, even though I had built in boundaries. Since my project is partly about pulling together multiple versions of events to create a kind of multifaceted account of organizational change, it was hard to figure out where to begin. If there isn’t one “true” and essential story, what’s the first story or piece of information that you’re going to build on? I sometimes think about how this is like making a rope by twisting together fine shreds of fibre – you start with something thin and impractical, and gradually, you add more and more, using the initial thread as a guide, until there’s a recognizable form.

That’s one of the things that drives me to keep investigating – realizing I’m stringing together a lot of information that’s never been collected and organized in this way, and that there are probably implications that I can’t yet “see” (but eventually they’ll be visible). Of course, all I “see” right now is each individual tiny piece that must be brought into coherence with other pieces in a complex image that’s not yet clear to me. It often becomes more evident through immersion in the material, as I’ve discovered in the process of transcribing interviews.

I think part of what researchers, academics, and others doing intellectual work learn through working is to have a kind of split-focus. Each task requires a lot of focus, but there are many tasks to accomplish and you can’t allow them all to crowd into your mind at the same time. The distractions, even within the scope of a particular task, are plentiful and it’s pleasurable to indulge in a ramble through these curious little backwoods paths through data that keep emerging. I often think of tribbles, from the original Star Trek series: you have one, and then it just keeps multiplying. An article comes up with content that relates to half a dozen other articles, or to other issues that might be relevant so you think you should probably check them out – just in case. Sometimes I end up with 5 browser windows and who-knows-how-many tabs open, along with Word files full of notes, PDFs of journal articles, news items, institutional documents, and whatever else seems helpful for the tangent being followed in the moment. If I don’t at least set things aside when they spring to mind (as opposed to ignoring them completely), then I can’t focus enough to get any single task finished. This is why I have about 40 draft blog post “ideas” sitting in a folder, waiting for later. I’ve had to learn how to keep the scraps organized.

I’m not alone in this experience of going “down the research rabbit hole”, as fellow dissertators on Twitter remind me on a regular basis, thankfully. I expect (and hope) that over time this need for focus becomes easier to manage, as does the uncertainty about each decision along the research path. In the meantime, I have a lot of news articles to sift through.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. kelly / October 9, 2013 at 06:59

    Enjoy your ability to go down that rabbit hole. It’ll probably be the last time in your life that you have the time and mental space to do that!

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