Sunday, April 27, 2008

A is for Anny, Ants, & Adventure

What is really going on in my head . . .

A is for Anny

A is for Anny. What else did a person need to know? It seemed perfectly logical that once you understood that letters corresponded to sounds, that clumps of letters made words, and that words carried meaning . . . your powers were only limited by your own imagination. Her imagination was prolific, so writing had always made her feel powerful, and she had been told that her writing was powerful.

She'd been writing since before she went to Kindergarten. As a three-year-old, she could remember approaching her mother with a pen and a piece of paper and the intense concentration she had poured into making letters, spelling her name, and spelling words. Watching the ink magically appear on the paper and seeing the shape of herself emerge from within it was so satisfying! So she wrote more--which didn't mean she hadn't experienced her share of writer's block, that she hadn't produced work of less than publishable quality, or that such events hadn't frustrated her. Still, somehow, she innately understood that this was not unusual, and accepted it simply as a part of the process. Even when she viewed her writing with her most critical eye (which was often), she was generally quite comfortable with her efforts (a rather unheard of state of affairs from someone afflicted with a rather severe case of Perfectionism). She loved to write.

"Unliiiiiimited . . . unlimiiiiiited!" That is how she thought the song went, until graduate school taught her that she had simply misunderstood the lyrics. She knew better now. The song really began, "I'm liiiiiimited. I'm liiiiiimited!" And she had learned the lesson well. Her powers were limited, and her imagination was nothing more than a distraction at best, and more often, a tremendous liability. As to writing itself, it was definitely a process, but not at all a simple one. And it certainly wasn't natural. Writing words was a powerful act, and therefore, a process to be labored over. It was the writers who understood this who were able to demonstrate that A was for Arduous, or Autoethnography, or Activist Research, or Audience, but certainly not something so trivial as A is for Ants.

A is for Anny's Ants

Part I: The Ants Are Coming! The Ants Are Coming!


I just returned from a week-long research conference in Chicago (AERA)--my mind electrified by sparks catalyzed by the unexpected convergence of cognitive load theory, self-efficacy, mirror neurons, motivation, play, and split attention. So, I find it particularly amusing that what captivated my attention today was a simple clan of virtual ants, and that in some ways, I learned more about research from my engagement with them than I did from the conference!

I happened to be chatting on the phone with a friend when she suddenly expressed with dismay that a group of ants had suddenly materialized in her kitchen. Since they weren't in MY kitchen, I wasn't particularly disturbed. Besides, unless they bite, ants don't seem particularly distressing to me.

My friend explained that all of the ants seemed to be focusing their attention on a rather large crumb of bread. Although we continued to chat, as our conversation progressed, she interrupted it periodically with news flashes regarding the progress of the ants (which, upon reflection, makes me wonder how engaged she was in our conversation!)

First Rule of Research: If it disturbs your research partner, it WILL affect your work!

"This is amazing!" she exclaimed. "They are picking up this giant crumb of bread. It would be the equivalent of me and a group of my friends trying to pick up a skyscraper!" The periodic news flashes (I could almost hear the urgent music and the "We interrupt our regular programming to bring you this special news update!") soon turned to play-by-play descriptions of the ants' efforts. (She would make a great sportscaster!)

Second Rule of Research: It is just as important to observe the interaction between the subject and the researcher as it is to observe the subject and/or the interaction between the subject and the context.

I should have pondered why she was so completely enthralled by the ants. I should have posited alternative hypotheses . . . perhaps it was the immediacy of the ant phenomenon by contrast with the more physically remote phenomenon of our disembodied conversation? Perhaps our conversation was boring her, and this was a useful way to divert the course of the conversation?

Third Rule of Research: Sometimes, the most important questions are buried beneath comments that seem to require no interrogation.

Eventually, our conversation turned to the best way to help the ant visitors to understand that they were no longer welcome to remain as guests in her kitchen. After determining that stepping on them was a little harsh, she decided to pick up the crumb of bread, put it on a plate, wait for them to converge on the plate, and then transport them to a new location outside of her apartment. After several minutes, she decided that they weren't very good at recognizing implied invitations, and gave up on that approach.

Literature Review

I explained the manner in which pheromones help ants to create and follow trails to their food sources. I remembered my mom telling me that sprinkling baby powder (or something) on the floor would keep them away (either because they couldn't smell the pheromones to cross it, wouldn't cross it, or because it would make them sick and kill them. However, I couldn't remember exactly what the substance was or what effect it was supposed to have).

Fourth Rule of Research: A thorough literature review must include adequate documentation of the information encountered.

Meanwhile, I did recall a site I'd come across recently about getting rid of stuff (including pests). After reading various potential remedies from the site to my friend over the phone, we decided to conduct our own mini-investigation. :-)


We began with cinnamon. (I suppose she thought that would be especially humane and might add to the ambience of her kitchen?) Her exclamations certainly captured my attention, but did not contain sufficient data regarding the results of the experiment for me to make an informed decision regarding the next step in the research.

Fifth Rule of Research: It is important for the researcher to take good field notes and to share them with the other members of the research team. It is also useful to include a descriptive analysis of the data in the write-up of the research, and not just merely the conclusions it supports.

After additional queries on my part, I finally learned that the ants walked right into the cinnamon and didn't seem remotely disturbed. Next came the bay leaf. The experience my colleague had gained during the first intervention positioned her to report much richer data based on the field notes that she "streamed" to me during the course of this second intervention, "They are congregating around it." "One little guy is perched on top of it." "Now they are all flocking to it." Check. Scratch the bay leaf off as a potential remedy. Perhaps baby powder would work?

Sixth Rule of Research: It is much easier to state the Rules of Research than it is to adhere to them.

After a few of the ants coated themselves in it with minimal effects, we decided that perhaps we should move on to other sources. I began reading the comments that other readers had posted on the pest removal page. We spent quite a bit of time giggling at the mental images of little ants trying to cross detergent-filled moats, exploding from eating instant grits or molasses, or being sucked up by the "roomba" vacuum that the descriptions evoked. We finally decided that chili powder made a lot of sense, so it became our last experiment before my friend went to find her shoe and her vacuum.

Data Collection & Analysis


"Ohhhh! The chili powder!" "Well, wait, they're coming toward it." "Hmmm." "Well, one is walking through it." "Hmmm. They don't seem to, well . . . no . . . now that one is acting a little crazy. They are all leaving the cinnamon except the one little guy who seems to like it, but they are all fleeing the chili powder. They seem to like the bay leaf though."


Ants seem to have an aversion to chili powder that, with sufficient exposure, can become a fatal allergy.


Doctoral students who have too much to do, are not getting enough sleep, and are looking for distractions can find "research" quite fascinating if you pick the right topics!

Anny's Ants - Part 2: The Ants Go Marching

Research Journal

I went over to my friend's house for a marathon work session. We were in the middle of a scintillating philosophical conversation when all of a sudden, she exclaimed, "Aggggh! Those ANTS! They're BACK!

"Not the ants again!" I thought to myself as I mentally rolled my eyes in exasperation. What DOES this girl have against philosophy?! Nonetheless, I walked around to the other side of the counter, knelt on the floor, and began observing. I determined that this particular convenience sample was too convenient to pass up.

"Do you have any more of that chili powder left?" I asked, hoping to verify in person the results of the previous experiment I had witnessed only vicariously through the telephone. We quickly identified the opening through which they seemed to be coming and sprinkled it liberally with chili powder.

Field Notes

Do you see them? The first thing I learned is that red, grainy-looking little ants are difficult to distinguish from red, grainy-looking chili powder! Can you find them in this photo?

Ohhhh, they don't LIKE the chili powder. Look at how they are traveling underneath or on top of the carpet strip in order to avoid the chili powder. So now that I'm in the same room with the research participants (a.k.a. the ants), were they REALLY able to move that piece of bread?

Perhaps the cookie fragment is too dense (by comparison with the bread). What will happen if we break it apart for them?

Oh my! Ants alive! They are rallying the troops, and ants really DO go marching one-by-one! (But we couldn't confirm that they actually shout, "Hurrah! Hurrah!")

This particular group of ants has clearly studied with top notch military minds (perhaps Scott Webb?) because their system of supply chain management was quite efficient, as was their decision to attack on multiple flanks.

After completely encrusting the cookie crumb, the ants began pushing it back and forth, eventually dragging it much closer to the opening to their nest.

Preliminary Data Analysis

The researchers were unable to determine the purpose that the ants perched on top of the crumb served, given that it seemed that they must only be adding to its weight for their compatriots. Nonetheless, the cookie did move, and at that point, the researchers became uncomfortable with the possibility that the research subjects might become overly dependent on them, and so, in the interest of ethics, they regretfully terminated the study. The most significant finding was that ants are especially vulnerable to the military tactic often called the Trojan Horse (or, in this case, the Trojan Cookie). We believe that this result carries strong implications for military contexts involving ants.

A is for Anny's Adventure

Her first clue that her friend had descended into the depths of madness should have been the ball point pen lying on the sink in the bathroom. It certainly wouldn't have qualified as one of the "top ten answers on the board" in answer to the prompt, "You have 30 seconds to name as many things that you would expect to find in a bathroom as you can."

How does one stop the madness? Perhaps it isn't possible, but today, we did manage to discover a "pause" button. Strangely, you have to push the "A" button twice to make it work (once for Aversion and then again for Adventure).

Teeter Totter

"I want to try!"

This is pretty fun!

Anny's Treacherous Crossing

Anny's Pole Vault

THIS is the place!



Life as Curious George wouldn't be so bad!

Conclusion: Maybe we CAN do this if we do it together, and learn a few more big A words, like allusivity. "Big A, little A, what begins with A? Anny's Amazing Adventures! A, a, a." . . . the rest is still Unwritten. (My new theme song! ;-)

A Very Happy Day

Friday was graduation day for my student
teachers. (Don't they look like true professionals?! :-) I was so proud of them!

Although it was the very last class session I would teach at MSU before graduating with my Ph.D., it it was still a day filled with little happinesses for me. Dr. Fendler began the morning by giving a nice speech to the class about the importance of developing "generosity of spirit" in our teaching careers. (Hmmm, I think I need to do some serious improving in that area). She then presented me with a bouquet of flowers as a token of appreciation for my service to the world language program at Michigan State.

One of my student teachers created a parody about their internship experience this year that was based on the One Semester of Spanish Love Song. (You have to watch the video first in order to fully appreciate the parody!)

Several other students had prepared "paper plate awards" for everyone in class, including me! Someone captured my reaction when they read it aloud:

Here is the award they gave me:

I was surprised and humbled by the allusion.

In order to fully understand the remainder of this post, you first need to take the True Colors Survey. (It is only 5 questions long. Wait for all the flashing to quit, then drag the numbers into the circles.)

Mouse over the bar graph that will appear at the end in order to see a very basic interpretation of the results. If you want more details, take a few minutes to read through Jennifer Niskanen's True Colors Pages. For those of you who REALLY want the information to be "all about you, and only about you" scroll to the bottom of the page and click on the colors that apply to you.

My student teachers took the True Colors survey at the beginning of the year. It gave us some new perspectives on our relationships with one another (and why our relationships with certain people sometimes break down). It also provided us with quick language we could use to help us describe problems and sketch out potential solutions. It influenced our interactions deeply.

(This is their visual representation of some of the key characteristics of the various colors.)

Consequently, it was incredibly amusing to me to see them appear in my class on the last day wearing these shirts, and, because I am definitely part blue, it was also very touching to be presented with my very own t-shirt. It captured our journey together very poignantly!

My class even gave me a standing ovation when I was introduced as their instructor at Convocation!

(Team Advanced Low refers to the fact that student teachers are now required to demonstrate that they have achieved Advanced Low Proficiency in the language they intended to teach in order to be certified.)

Meanwhile, a student who was not even in my class stopped me in the hallway to express his appreciation for my work on our class wiki, explaining that the materials on the Getting a Job page had been helpful to him in constructing his portfolio and preparing for interviews.

I could go on and on about the surprise e-mails I received from former student teachers, as well as several professional invitations that also coincidentally appeared on that same day . . . not to mention an impromptu invitation to dine with friends that evening.

It was a wonderful day--one that restored a lot of confidence, one that reminded me that it is really true that you grow to love those you serve, one that suggested that the Lord is intervening in my life more than I might suspect, and one that encouraged me to believe that maybe I am making more of a difference than I realize.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Slave Labor

Isn't it requisite that every person participate in at least one protest on campus before they can legitimately claim the title of "graduate student?" Well, if so, then I now officially qualify!

The Graduate Employees Union (GEU) has been diligently trying to negotiate a reasonable contract for graduate research and teaching assistants for several months. Their efforts have been repeatedly met with what one might call "less than satisfactory" responses from the administration.

Among other things, the administration sent out notices explaining that they had a "responsibility" to MSU students to staff their classes and report their grades in a timely fashion. Therefore, we were expected to provide a report to our immediate supervisors containing a current list of grades for our students, due no later than midnight on the day prior to when a walkout was scheduled to take place.

This was really the last straw for me because it demonstrated such a complete lack of consideration for us. Although we are expected to function as staff, we are seldom recognized, appreciated, or respected for the contributions we make as such. This particular demand demonstrated a complete disregard for our dual role as students who are already staying up into the wee hours of the morning for days on end in order to fulfill our responsibilities to our assistantships while simultaneously attempting to make progress in our programs.

So, although I don't consider myself a particularly political person, I actually dragged myself out of bed BEFORE 8 a.m. on a Friday morning when I did NOT have to be on campus for any other reason in order to participate in an "informational picket" (a job action that is NOT a strike) in protest of the administration's actions. Why? One of the chants we shouted for two hours outside the administration building, on our way up the stairs of the administration building, and into the hallway outside the Board of Trustees meeting pretty much sums it all up:

"Who does the research?" WE do the research.
"Who teaches the classes?" WE teach the classes.
"Who are the students?" WE are the students.

For me, it was less about standard issues like salary and benefits (although those would certainly be nice) and more about the absolute and total LACK of respect and appreciation accorded graduate students for the quantity and quality of service they render. Although it didn't bother me that the administration sent the campus police to keep an eye on things, I was disgusted by the fact that instead of parking in the parking lot through which the picketers had to march in order to make their periodic circles around the building, the car positioned itself in the middle of the grass where no one could miss their presence. We were an orderly group (we didn't even take signs into the building and got quiet immediately when it was explained to us that while it was within our rights to be present, we could not disrupt the meeting in any way). We filtered quietly into the meeting room until the available seats were taken, and when we were told there was no more room, the remaining members of the group stood quietly in the hallway.

The administration's response? To call the campus fire marshal. He and his assistant came and dutifully counted the number of people, but to his credit (and with a kind smile and a twinkle in his eye), he informed one of the administrators that although the room was at capacity, people were leaving and the group was behaving itself so he didn't see any problem. He advised her to simply be prudent about maintaining a balance between those entering the room and those leaving it.

Meanwhile, it was amazing to listen to the Board spend 2 hours approving all kinds of extremely expensive facilities projects, and to conclude the meeting listening to graduate students make requests such as: Pleeeeease don't take away our parking! Unbelievable. (And just to ensure that there is NO confusion, I am applying that adjective to the administration, not to the graduate students!) In then end, it made me suspect that at their very core, few strikes are really about money and more about the degree to which employees feel valued.

It also gave me cause to ponder that there truly is strength in numbers, and yet that it is incredibly difficult to get people to support even those causes that will result in direct, long-term benefits to themselves. (After all, I am ashamed to admit that I didn't do much more than read the bargaining updates with non-committal interest until I was personally contacted by several colleagues and enthusiastically encouraged to participate.) After participating in the informational picket, it was impressive to receive phone calls several days later from two different "picket captains" outlining the plans for the walkout. They indicated the locations that had been identified as picket sites around campus, the procedures for participating in picketing shifts, and explained how important news and other communications would be conveyed. I suddenly realized how much of their very precious (and practically non-existent) personal time they had been investing for months on my behalf.

I thought about how often I have benefited from the committed action and long-term perseverance of very small groups of people whose individual actions and sacrifices improve my circumstances. I hope that as a result of this experience, I will be more willing to blaze trails regarding issues about which I am passionate even when others are slow to follow, recognizing that I have been abundantly blessed because of the similar efforts of others regarding issues I am not particularly passionate about myself. I wonder if there will ever come a day when the contract negotiation process will be approached from the perspective of members of a single community coming together to decide what is best for the community instead of divided factions doing the best they can to ensure that they don't "lose" anything in the process?

In any case, the experience was educative, and a reasonable contract was negotiated on the day the walkout was scheduled to occur, just a few hours before my 8 a.m. shift on the picket lines was supposed to begin. Ironic that a similar scenario seems to play out in a similar way every year . . . just before a walkout is scheduled to begin.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Of Assumptions, Expectations, & Surprises

I ran across this video on Julies Pictures. I thought it was adorable and that those of you who are parents would get a kick out of it.

On a more philosophical note, it caused me to ponder how deeply our expectations influence our behavior (not to mention what surprises us). It was interesting to note the assumptions that that even small children make about the rationality of others, and to observe the way they view language--as a powerful tool for shaping the behavior of others.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Making Things Better

"Because I want things to work out the way they do when Bach is in charge. Or Paganini. Or Jane Austen. Or even Yeats. Because I'm desperate for a nice, tidy ending, maybe with a pleasant rhyme or two, or that wonderful last burst of symphonic harmony that makes me want to shout "yes!" But it's not happening that way" (Clements, 2006, p. 153).

Have you ever had a conversation with someone that made whatever you were struggling with feel worse instead of better? I had that experience this week, and it hurt. A lot. Although it was thoroughly unpleasant, as I have reflected on it for the last several days, there are a few salient points that I intend to try to make rules of thumb in my own future interactions with others:

1) ASK for more information about the situation, about what the person has tried so far, and about how the person is feeling (even if you think you already know), then REALLY listen for as long as it takes.

2) ACKNOWLEDGE that the situation is hard/complex.

3) AFFIRM (validate) that the situation hurts/feels bad. (Don't try to talk the person out of their feelings. Instead, give the person permission to feel.)

4) ENCOURAGE by reminding the person of the unique qualities you see in them that indicate to you they have the capacity to manage the situation.

5) EXPAND the person's vision by helping them to see the answers within themselves, asking them to think about next steps, and pointing out that they do not have to endure it alone because you, others, and Christ will help.

6) AVOID giving "answers." If you cannot contain yourself, then at least offer them as questions instead of statements.

7) REMEMBER that the nice things the person does for others may very well be an indication of the things that most help them feel loved, served, and encouraged.

Note to audience: Feel free to print this on cardstock, laminate it, and whip it out when you need a handy reference for what to do with me (or your two-year-old) the next time either one of us are upset about something! ;-) For those of you who prefer more authoritative sources than self-appointed psychologists like me, read Gary & Joy Lundberg's excellent book, "I Don't Have to Make Everything All Better." When I first read it, I thought, "Duh." However, applying the principles is not as easy as it might first appear, and they really do work on people ages 1 to 101.

Note to self: Remember not to choose to take offense when you are having a conversation with a well-intentioned person who is obviously a bit behind on their blog reading and didn't get this handy-dandy reference card printed!

Brainteaser: Can you turn those E words in #4 and #5 into A words! (I love alliteration!)


Clements, Andrew. (2006). Things hoped for. NY: Philomel Books.