Part 7: Learning Through Teaching

Despite the fact that I have been deep in schoolwork for a little over a month, my honors thesis has been making progress, albeit a little slower than I had hoped (something I’m sure all the fellows here can relate to). Ideally, I had hoped to start my study by the first or second week, but piloting and setting up the study took a little longer than I thought, and it took more like three to four weeks to actually start oops. On the plus side, as of writing this post, I have recruited three couples 😀 Again, I would’ve liked to have recruited more couples at this point in time, but I would rather have everything carefully prepared than rush into things. I also still have until March to recruit all my participants, so anything (good or bad or unexpected) can happen until then.

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Some of my TA notes that also apply to my own research

Another plus side to school starting is that my TA job has started. And no, I’m not just happy because I’m earning money. I’m TA’ing for a research methods class in social psychology, where students learn about research methodology in the classroom and also by running their own studies. I not only do the typical grading job but also help out students with their research projects. In a weird way, now I get to be a mentor for these students. Much like how my advisor helped me over the summer with polishing my ideas and offering methodological advice, now I get to help my students figure out how to best conduct their research to study a topic they’re interested in. Of course, I’m not an expert, but hopefully I’ll be able provide some insight since I’ve gone through the research methodology process this past summer.

This role reversal will also help me out in my research because I’ll have more exposure to others conducting research. Just because this is in a class setting doesn’t mean that I won’t experience similar issues that my students are going through now. Deciding how to measure constructs, coming up with study designs, and creating a study procedure is something all researchers deal with no matter how experienced they are. In a sense, I’m really lucky that I get to run my study for my thesis along with guiding my students with their own research because these two experiences play off of each other and provide a unique experience for me to learn from and to continue improving.

Working with Unanticipated Elements That Become a Part of My Own Narrative

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Fall 2014 FORGE semester outing with our refugee family

Each week, I open up the thesis proposal I wrote in March to re-evaluate my research goals and scroll down to the timetable that I’d created with my adviser.

Looking at it, I’m realizing that I need to adjust the deadlines I’d set for myself. There were several unanticipated bumps along the road that had kept me from completing the bulk of my fieldwork for my research by the end of September.

I felt disappointed and frustrated. Now that I had classes Monday through Friday, I wondered whether or not I could make up for a few months of fieldwork. For days, I contemplated over how I would reallocate my timetable and it proved to be extremely difficult. Without any data, I struggled to imagine the extent of my abilities to conduct interviews while juggling classes. It’s easy to schedule in time where I work on my literature review and put together my poster for a presentation for a Dietrich College Family Weekend event, but the interviews will require a few hours that include commute time, the actual duration of the interview and the time it will take for me to transcribe the recorded interview and reflect on the interviews as part of the analysis.

The longer I wait for the IRB to approve of my study, the more anxious I am. Whenever anyone asks me how my research is going, I feel a knot in my stomach because all I’ve accomplished in the last week is adding a few more articles to my annotated bibliography.

I still see my FORGE family on the weekends and it’s amazing how a few hours with them helps me relax. I relax because the conversations I have with them are not about my research. I relax because I can sit on their couch with them and watch Hindi movies without subtitles. I relax because they’re looking forward to celebrating the upcoming Nepali holiday. I relax because being present with them reminds me why I was motivated in the first place to pursue my thesis.

I’m looking forward to my weekends as soon as my IRB proposal is approved, because I will be having conversations with a community that reminds me of the importance of the present.

It’s ironic to me that as I constantly think about narrative inquiry, one of the methods I am using for my research, I realize that it’s much easier to talk the talk than walk the walk. Narrative inquiry is a methodology that encourages researchers to value the lived experiences of their subjects.

Lekkie Hopkins, who advocates using narrative inquiry in refugee research, wrote, “Researchers must understand that if storying is to grapple with the richness and complexity of lived experience, it will probably be chaotic and messy, as well as clear and straightforward. Researchers wanting to investigate the sociology of refugee experiences might be well advised to ensure that the stories they gather from research participants are not too neat, too straightforward, too much reduced to bare essentials in their telling, lest the chance to allow the stories to become personally and politically resonant be lost.”

I remember reading Lekkie Hopkins in March of this year and interestingly, I’m looking back at her abstract and making a connection to my own narrative as well as the narratives of the refugees I hope to hear soon. My own narrative, or my own lived experience, will be messy and chaotic at times and that’s how it should be.

I know that this sounds cliché, but it really is important to live in the present. Too much time is spent organizing, and reorganizing, my Google calendar. I’ve adjusted my timetable, come to terms with it and moved on.

Alternate Tunings

With school coming back into session, I’m reminded that it’s time to get back into the grind of my thesis.

The tail-end of the summer and these first few weeks of school have brought my mind back to focusing on my work, and also questioning some of the ideas I’ve had about the final form my project will take.

A quick TL;DR of my life: my band released an album, I played a lobster festival in Chicago, and I’ve been accepted as an Andrew Carnegie Society Scholar, which I hope will fund a trip to SXSW to meet industry executives and leaders in March.

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All of these experiences have led me to question what the final form of my thesis project will take.

Initially, I wanted my project to be presented as a film, more specifically a documentary. This film would be 30-45 minutes, and more or less be a traditional linear narrative that puts forth my argument about the Pittsburgh music scene.

However, I find myself now questioning myself. After finishing my research this past summer and limiting my scope, I now worry about almost being too argumentative and having tunnel vision with my film.

My music experiences and interactions with individuals have taught me that, if anything, the developments in the music scene are inextricably tied to huge other cultural factors locally, nationally and regionally. It’s no surprise that with huge amounts of money coming in from the tech boom and with younger, more affluent people moving into the city there has been a shift in the live music scene.

Also, I’m quickly realizing that the notion of making a large film has a learning curve, and even with a team to help, could lead to us getting mired in production aspects rather than focusing on content.

As a result, I’ve been debating using an online, interactive method of conveying my narrative as opposed to a traditional film.

Businessman pressing virtual icons

This narrative would be less “linear” and act more as a timeline that displays information with firsthand videos and documents accessed by the reader. As a result, the reader can move around more and create their own personalized experience in learning about changes in the music scene. Also, as the music scene continues to develop and change, more people could post and add to this narrative.

The one weakness of this change would be that my ability to convey an argument would be weakened. My ability to control how the narrative functions and is followed is hindered by the increased interactivity and responsibility of the user/reader.

Ultimately, I think that this hurdle of deciding the final form of my project is the next challenge for me to tackle (and fast!)

Beginning fall semester

 

My collection of fragile animals. They'll never move.

My collection of fragile animals. They’ll never move.

I’ve begun work on another story. This story is about a world with only one difference from our own: every person is part of a pair. You recognize this person immediately and get along with him or her better than you get along with anyone else. This kind of setting might sound wonderful, but there are seven billion people in the world. For all you know, you’ll never meet the other half of your pair.

My particular story about this world begins when Weston sees Felicity across a graveyard. He’s visiting his father’s grave. Her mom was just buried. He knows immediately that they’re a pair so he approaches her. Felicity talks to him, but Weston feels as if she’s very unresponsive. Here’s a short excerpt from after Weston moves in with Felicity:

There was that expectation that because we were a pair we would also be in love with each other at first sight. I liked her, but I didn’t love her and I didn’t think that I ever would. There was something too sterile and robotic about her. She cleaned other people’s houses all day then came back and cleaned her house. The vacuum was always on when she was home. Her arm was always going back and forth.

I don’t think she ate in that house. There was no food on the shelves or in the fridge besides what I put there. When I put milk and eggs in the fridge it felt as if I was violating some rule that she had never told me.

I was asked over the summer by a friend why the main characters in this story don’t immediately get together. He said, “I’d get together right quick with my soulmate if I found her.” I told him that my story isn’t about soulmates. It’s about people who have the potential to mean a lot to you. Weston and Felicity aren’t meant to become a couple. They’re just a pair of people who help each other through difficult times.

Here is what Felicity’s perspective might be like:

When both of your housemates are gone, you don’t know what to do but run a sponge over the kitchen counter. You like the way the granite gleams when there’s a residue of water on its surface. You vacuum the floors. Dust the windowsills. You scrub dirt off the molding. Pour bleach in the sinks and toilets. While you move, you feel the same size as your body. When you stop moving, you sink back. Your vision becomes small and surrounded by black.

Your body is a cocoon. It protects you from the harshness of the outside. You think of yourself as different from it. There’s you, then there’s your body. When you don’t want to feel anymore, you loosen up on the controls for your body.

Learn more about my project.

Adjusting to Change (pt. 2)

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When I started my research over the summer, I wrote about how difficult it was to adjust to a new schedule of doing research full time. Now, a week and a half into the school year, I find myself adjusting (again) to a new schedule – one that involves classes, campus activities and working on my senior thesis. Initially, the prospect of writing a thesis in addition to my schoolwork seemed daunting and overwhelming.

I decided to give myself at least two weeks off from researching and found this to be very beneficial. I was able to figure out what days I had more free time, so I could more easily schedule time to work on my thesis. I am immensely grateful that I participated in the Dietrich Honors Fellowship Program over the past summer – I feel a lot more comfortable going into my senior year knowing that I have a good foundation for moving forward with my research this semester.

Earlier this week, I met with my adviser to see what I was missing. Moving forward, I will work primarily on my survey about La Loi Toubon and La Charte de La Langue Française. This survey will be sent out to participants based in France and Quebec, and will ask general questions about language use, the importance of speaking French in the public sphere and knowledge about La Loi Toubon and La Charte de La Langue Française. I am primarily interested in better gauging contemporary opinion about language use and identity, and am looking forward to evaluating and analyzing my results later this semester.

The calm before the semester

Makal - calm before semesterOver the past three weeks, I have done almost no work on my research project. Though it was always in the back of my mind, I was relieved to have the opportunity to take some time off after working on my project for 10 weeks of my precious, far too short summer. As stated in my last post, during my time off I was able to something I’ve never done before: go to the west coast.

The first stop on my west coast journey was in St. George, Utah, a city surrounded by mountains and inhabited by Mormons. My family and I went to St. George to see my uncle in a series of musicals, including “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Peter Pan” and “Tarzan”. As expected, my uncle was amazing. But what I wasn’t quite prepared for is how beautiful the scenery would be. We were surrounded by mountains of red rock as far as the eye could see – good for climbing, hiking and even jumping off of. My days in Utah were filled with breathtaking views of different national or state parks, and my nights were filled with breathtaking performances.

From Utah, my family took a quick one day trip to Las Vegas, Nevada. Though most people enjoy Las Vegas because of the gambling and the night life, I was plenty happy to just sit by the pool and soak up the sun after walking for miles on miles every day in Utah. Because we were only there for one day and night, I wouldn’t really say I got to experience all that Las Vegas had to offer. However, I was able to leave the city with all of the money that I showed up with, so I’d call it a success.

In Las Vegas, my family and I went our separate ways – they flew home, and I flew to San Fransisco, California to visit my boyfriend and his family. As this was my first time in California, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. However, I can tell you for sure that it was not what I had pictured! There were beautiful trees and grassy hills all over the town in which my boyfriend lives, no sand or palm trees to be seen, and, most shocking of all, the city of San Fransisco was absolutely FREEZING. Going from 100-degree weather in Utah to 60-degree weather in San Fransisco was quite a shock, but it was a beautiful city nonetheless. We explored all around the city, my boyfriend’s home town, and, most importantly, the many wineries in Napa.

Over the past three weeks, I have visited three new states, and had countless unforgettable experiences. Now, with just a week left before classes start, it is time for me to get ready to get back into research mode. Once classes begin, so too does the rest of my research (as well as campus jobs, grad school applications and more). I am truly lucky to have been able to spend the last few weeks of my summer exploring with the people that I care about, but it is now time for me to focus on myself, my school work and my research.

Curtain Call

As the summer draws to a close, I’ve been thinking more about my successes, failures and overall experience with the Dietrich Honors Fellowship Program.

Overall, I think my biggest success this past summer was being able to narrow my topic down to a narrative that I was truly interested in. At the beginning of the summer, I was somewhat lost in what I wanted my final film to be about. I was pulling at various threads without getting any real leads. Now, I’m happy to say I have finalized my narrative: I will focus on how Pittsburgh serves as a microcosm to study the effects of technological innovations on the overall democratization of the music industry.

Some of my other successes were more personal goals of mine. For example, I learned that I was able to complete an independent study and create my own research syllabus for the summer. Another goal of mine was meeting and learning about key individuals in the field, such as Dr. Kathryn Metz of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, reading books by David Byrne and getting in contact with executives at record labels.

With that being said, I think I also hit a few bumps and fell short along the way. One aspect of my thesis that I definitely have to work on is aggregating and going through more sources, and faster. One of my weaknesses is getting bogged down in reading and over-analyzing each source instead of finding the information that’s pertinent to my research. However, I think this will become easier because I have a more set narrative in place to follow.

Another failure of mine would be the amount of writing and synthesis I have done. Moving forward, I definitely need to write more about my project and its progress. Beyond using this a tool to keep relevant parties informed of my work, it also helps me realize where the gaps in my research are, and where I need to focus on.

Krishna - tumblr_mssdoqtN1E1sh4s8jo1_500-2

Moving forward, the next step for me will be working on the film. This includes creating a  storyboard, finding a videographer and editor and beginning production on the film.

Overall, I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity given to me by Dietrich College through this fellowship. I would like to thank the fellows, the Dean’s Office staff, my advisers and the countless others who have supported me throughout the summer with my work. Thanks again!

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Summer Wrap-up

Time for some leisure reading!

Time for some leisure reading!

It’s the end so I thought that I’d share an excerpt from one of my essays to show that this not truly an end. Things will keep spinning and churning.

Here’s the excerpt:

In 2012 the Mayan calendar ended. Some believed that the end of this calendar meant that the world would also end. One night in 2012, an electrical powering station exploded near where I live. The whole sky lit up and started flashing. People ran through the streets screaming that the world was ending. My father and I thought that the light outside was lightning, but it wasn’t storming. We went outside. I felt as if the sky was going to turn, revealing gears. There would be a clunking noise as our reality and the truth welded themselves together. I had this feeling that our world was a small piece of what truly existed. We were ants who didn’t know what being an ant meant.

Moving forward, I’ll be writing more, more and more! More poetry, more stories, more essays. Not only will my semester include lots of writing, it will also include lots of revision. And I’ll be considering how to put what I’ve written this summer into one manuscript.

I have to say that I really enjoyed this summer and the fellowship program. It was a great opportunity that I’m really grateful to have been accepted to. I liked being in Pittsburgh for the summer and meeting my fellow fellows. I think that I was able to look at my project in a different light because I was able to consider how students from different departments look at it.

 

August Reflections

Sternstein - August Reflections
The Fourth of July is usually the day that sets me into a panic that the summer is over. In reality, though, at this point the summer is still at its early stages; New York’s beach water has yet to warm by the stored sun, my August birthdate hasn’t reached my radar and my mother has yet to plan the last hurrah family vacation. On the Fourth of July, I remind myself to focus on the present days, that August is sprawled out somewhere far ahead.

But here we are: past the midway point of August, perhaps my favorite month (I mentioned the birthday part, right?), but also a month that feels like one long Sunday. As I soak up some of the final moments, I also reflect on all that I learned while working on my honors fellowship and how I can use the momentum to carry on in the midst of my challenging fall semester course load. Here are a few things that I came up with:

  1. Schedule in daily writing time. Even when I feel bogged down by homework assignments and exams, I need to schedule in my writing time as if it were a class I wouldn’t dare miss.
  1. Tune everything out. Find a quiet space where people won’t be coming in and out, power off my cell phone and tuck it away somewhere out of sight. 
  1. Give a story a chance. I have so many ideas of what I want to write about that sometimes, in the very early stages, I have trouble sticking to a story. Write down those ideas, save them for later. But an idea is not yet a story, and I need to remember to stick it out before swapping out. Usually, once I get three to four pages in, I won’t want to switch anymore.
  1. Ask “What if?” If my characters feel stuck, asking some questions can help me figure out their next moves.
  1. Pick up a book. And if all else fails, reading a little bit of a really well-written story or novel (For example, I recently finished “Half an Inch of Water” by Percival Everett – recommended by my adviser, Kevin González) always inspires me and makes me want to sit down and write again.

Weeks 9 & 10

Cox - door

My original idea for my essays was to write about people who I’m close to, but who I don’t see in person. I reconsidered this idea and decided to write about a couple different topics instead. The topics include vegetarianism, inability to change/death, love, dream of change and doors. I wrote some of the essays as letters. They are addressed to you which makes it feel as if I’m addressing every person who reads them, connecting me to you. They’re also letters because they retain some of the ideas and emotions that they might have if I had remained with my original topic.

This is the essay on doors:

Dear You,

Closed doors barely stop the dogs that I know. They all kick at the doors until they pop out of their jambs. They don’t look at the doors. Their faces say: It’s only natural that the door would make way for me. Just like how closed doors don’t stop the kicking legs of dogs, they also don’t stop people from walking in on these two friends that I have.

These two friends don’t understand that a closed door is not a locked door. They see a closed door and they think they should proceed to make out. This means that people walk in all happy, see them completely involved and then back out feeling sad about their own singular natures. This same couple thinks that closed doors are soundproof doors, which means that those around this couple have invested their money in good headphones.

Some might say that doors are lies. A door that is a lie is a blank space that looks like what a person imagines a door to be. Every door is different for every person. Doors being lies would explain why the dogs get through so easily. It would also explain why people always walk in on that couple. No door exists for anyone to knock on.

Doors separate people with their false nature. But if doors are lies then dogs have more abilities than we know. It would mean that they can see what is and isn’t a lie. On the other hand, if doors aren’t lies and they’re not really doors then they could only be dirty cheats secretly cackling at our human woes. They hear a giggle and they say, “My oh my, wouldn’t it be lovely if everyone could hear this beautiful giggle?”

Then they release through the door what is an unnatural giggle. Everyone you know hears that giggle. Your life comes crashing down on you. You become known as The Giggler. People warn their children to stay away from you. Supermarkets stop selling tomatoes to you. You retreat into the woods to commune with cicadas.

As you sit on what remains of a tree that was cut down years ago, you shrink. You don’t notice at first. Leaves and bark are all that you can see. Then you notice that you’re getting smaller. The dirt is getting closer and closer to your face. When you sleep at night, you smell the dirt. You wonder if it will swallow you in a natural coffin. It eventually does, but you shrink a lot more before that happens.

While you’re shrinking you grow wings. Skin sloughs off your main body. Your new skin is shiny and tough. You’re very small now. The grass is taller than you. The noises of the night frighten you. It sounds like there are hyenas out there.

There are no hyenas. There are a couple of people telling jokes while they camp. A vague thought crosses your head about how hyenas sound like they’re crashing apart with laughter. You dig into the dirt. You want to escape those kinds of thoughts.

You dig deep enough that you can’t hear the hyena laughter anymore. Your awareness drifts until you’re no longer you. You’re the earth and the water flowing through the soil. Then you’re nothing but darkness over a never-ending night. Someone far away tells another person that it was never you who giggled. You never know. You sleep down where they will one day find dinosaur bones.

Truly,
Me