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! ;-)

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