A note on how I choose my projects

Quinn Norton, intrepid chronicler of our modern age, wrote A Note on How I Choose My Assignments. To summarize: she works as a freelance journalist so that she can be selective in what she writes about. Key quotes:

I see my work building towards a cohesive whole, a larger story, and I’m loyal to that story.

[I] choose stories based on my desire to understand and explain how the technology of this age is changing what it means to be human

(Of course, the whole piece is worth reading, and it’s not long.)

I think a lot about the similarities and differences between the cultures of different academic disciplines and professions. And like any good poststructuralist social scientist, I try to apply those observations to the doing of social science itself. The question here is, to what extent does Quinn’s approach apply in my case? Does my research “build towards a cohesive whole,” and if so, what is it?

To start, I had one question for Quinn. How did she arrive at her particular focus? Is it an a priori interest that inspired or predated her career in journalism? Is it a question that occurred to her one day, more or less fully formed, that has since gone on to form the primary focus of her work? Or is it something that emerged organically, a common thread that she came to identify in her work, and used thereafter to provide focus and cohesion? When I asked her about this, she told me that she had an existing interest in technology and society, and saw journalism as a role for herself in that developing story:

[I was] interested in how political movements and internet governance worked, and a lot of that informed the story arc of how people and technology are interacting in major ways at the moment … I had wanted to be a journalist since roughly the third grade [but thought that] I would probably be a technologist … I found my home as a journalist and a writer.

In my case, it’s just the opposite: I tend to jump in and see where things take me. To choose a major as an undergrad, I took a bunch of courses that looked interesting, and then I realized that I had basically started on the requirements of the comparative literature program, so I majored in comp lit. So what am I focusing on now? What’s the “larger story” of my two-year-old academic career, as far as I can see one? Well, here’s what I’ve done so far, defined as projects that worked well enough and that I pursued far enough to get them accepted as conference presentations. In the spirit of my bigger question here, I’ll phrase them as research questions:

  • How do participants in blog comment threads accomplish impolite language? How does that impoliteness play a role in identity construction online?
  • How do middle school math teachers orchestrate lessons that stand as cohesive texts? How are math content and classroom practice integrated into the lesson? What about multimodal aspects: charts, graphs, equations?
  • In face-to-face casual conversation, can we model conversational style as a feature of the interaction, rather than a feature of participants? That is, rather than talking about a person who tends to talk fast, interrupt, and otherwise show high involvement, can we find stretches of interaction that show more or less high involvement?

When I try to identify a common thread among these three projects, I can look at it in two different ways. One asks the question of what — the content that I’m interested in — and the other looks more closely at how — methodology.

All of these projects, in different ways, deal with the question of what makes a community. Cyclists and drivers have ways of showing their partisan affiliation in computer-mediated discourse; math teachers initiate their students into the classroom community of people who do math; the talk among friends at lunch creates and consolidates a group identity. But “community” means a lot of things. Why am I interested in these aspects but not as much in, say, the way I might show my Philadelphia roots by pronouncing “water” as “wooder” or by rhyming “radiator” with “bratty hater”? I guess it’s pronunciation, in this case, that isn’t as interesting to me. I’m more interested in a functional orientation to language, considering how speakers use pragmatics to create communities. Politeness/impoliteness and conversational style fall into this realm, as well as the characteristically academic or mathematical ways of organizing a definition or an explanation.

So, “larger story” number one: How do groups of people share and manipulate social uses of language in order to constitute communities?

As for the “how,” each of these projects began as a class term paper, and they all involved a combination of research methods that I had learned in different classes. The bike/blog project involved using corpora for sociolinguistic research, as well as an attempt to synthesize different theoretical approaches to politeness and impoliteness. (Not all that ambitious, in the grand scheme, but it was my first semester.) The math class project combined a functional grammar analysis based on Halliday with an interactional sociolinguistic analysis based on Erickson and Goffman. And the casual conversation project involved a representation of talk among friends as a Markov process, as well as an attempt to rethink what “style” means.

So maybe “larger story” number two is: What new insights can we obtain by combining methodological approaches?

Of course, now that I’ve articulated these two big questions, there’s a danger of reifying them, shutting myself off from projects that I would have been interested in because they don’t fit my newly consolidated research persona. I don’t think that’s so much of a danger as long as I continue to just follow my interests, and prepare to make plenty of mistakes. As Quinn puts it — and this is definitely something academics and journalists have in common —

I spend a lot of time being wrong, which is just part and parcel of spending a lot of time in unknown territory.

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Posted in Research process
5 comments on “A note on how I choose my projects
  1. 1- The methodology aspect of project choice seems to me to be mostly defined by academic inculturation or professional vision (Goodwin). “What are we learning, and how do we orient to it in the context of our prior knowledge and experiences?”

    2- I’ve been toying with a similar blog entry in a completely different direction, focusing on the power of *access to data.* What do we have access to? How does our access to the data influence our methods and conclusions?

    3- “Larger story” can also translate to “wider usefulness.” In our field, it does seem like the widest usefulness we can contribute is methodological. Because to what extent can our findings be generalized beyond the people involved in our interaction?

    …And yet, the usefulness that people outside of our fields seek is the usefulness of our findings, not our methodology…

    • Daniel says:

      Funny you should pick up on the methodology piece. I’ve been thinking a lot about methodology in this way, trying to get my thoughts in order enough to write a dedicated post on the subject. At ILA, Srikant Sarangi said to me, “What we do is methodology.” Maybe methodology is the main concern of backstage/intraprofessional discourses, while frontstage/public audiences want appliable results.

      Of course, the way I’ve articulated my “larger story #1” is in a very backstage/intraprofessional way. How can I phrase that to make it interesting to nonspecialists? Or should I focus on the project-by-project level – “I’m looking at why people are rude on the internet,”etc.?

  2. Well, of course, you can never answer the “why” question, just the “how” question. So the next step can be not “Why are people rude?” but “What is useful about knowing HOW people are rude?”

    …and there IS value to that. How often do we ask “Is it something I said?” or “Why was this interpreted as rude?” Maybe there is some value in creating a guide to civility… Of course, you run the risk of creating a didactic tool off of your own a priori coding structure…

    With your math project, there is a whole field of math education that focuses on how to effectively teach math, so the usefulness is more obvious. With your biking project, you run the risk of creating rules for a diplomacy that the people involved don’t necessarily want…

    • Daniel says:

      I *did* want to look into the question of “why.” There’s a lot of discussion of computer-mediated impoliteness that assumes that people are impolite because of the medium – that interacting through a screen dehumanizes the people you’re talking to, so you feel uninhibited by typical social controls and act more rudely than you might in a face-to-face setting. I was curious about other functions of impoliteness, specifically the way it’s used to make identity claims.

      “How” also came into it, but it’s hard to separate the two. I never dreamed of giving people tips on how to be polite. My assumption was that impoliteness is in the eye of the beholder, but that people have reasons for intentionally using aggressive face threats. When people write like this:

      if you can’t share the road, then walk or crawl or find yourselves some other planet where you won’t have to share as a member of a species numbering six thousand million.

      I don’t think they’re interested in civility.

      • Is “why” really a question that you can answer, though? You can do multimodal research, and see how the conversation varies in different forums. You could track participants and see whether their conversation is more determined by the mode or by their personal characteristics, but in the end, what can you do besides documenting variation? How could that ever become a “why?”

        (Sure, they’re not interested in civility. But they won’t find any resolution any time soon, either. Anyone looking to break out of the tense standoff will benefit from some mutual understanding or diplomacy.

        What else could you do with your data, methods or conclusions? Suggest a forum for policy discussions? Form recommendations of anonymity or not, f2f or not?


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