Tuesday, February 7, 2012

What constitutes sufficient knowledge?

I was inspired by a comment that my colleague Bonnie left on her facebook today. It read (if I may, Bonnie, even though you are not here) "Research = good. Researching the heck out of a topic you feel less competent in however leads to a rather staggering amount of info/papers to winnow down into 2 50 min lesson plans. Sigh...."

There is a general sentiment that she captured here that I've often encountered in doing a google search for research related to my own work. If I find a couple of recent articles that are strongly related to my topic, I can usually navigate to other research by searching through their references. However, when exactly does one know when to stop? If there is an active theoretical debate related to the topic, then you can easily find articles in each camp and talk about the relative merits of each in the introduction to an article that you're writing or for a class you're teaching. If there is no big debate, or if your work does not directly test someone's hypothesis, then it isn't so clear how much background information you need to research.

This is one of the reasons why google searches for articles related to my research always cause me to feel depressed. What constitutes "knowing something" enough to discuss it? For the more esoteric topics that I work on (Oto-Manguean languages, phonation type), the literature is relatively sparse and controlled. I feel like I have a command of it because I've read the major findings. But for a topic that is new, it is difficult to get a sense that you have the right perspective. Having read the 5 out of 7 articles for one topic makes you an informed academic. Having read only 5 out of 100 articles on a different topic makes you seem like an amateur. It's simply more likely that you've missed something important. How do you know when you have enough mojo to actually talk about something authoritatively?

This ends up being only part of the problem that I have when I write about a new topic. The other, perhaps more major, issue is language. If you are deeply embedded in a certain realm of research, it becomes easier to use its associated technical jargon comfortably. When you are just trying to publish in a new area though, the language barrier seems insurmountable. It's not that I don't understand the language that is being used, it's just that my memory doesn't think about things in the argot that is used to describe them. When it comes to a new area of research, I often feel like I am describing it with a 10 word lexicon. "Ba ba ba, um, perceptual integration, der, hum, hum, blech."

About a year ago, I just started, out of the blue, to write up all my notes on Trique morphophonology. The pages just kept flowing and flowing. When I finished, I had a 40 page manuscript which really summed up lots of what I knew about the language. I was proud of myself. It felt easy to write. I probably felt this way because I was academically-raised speaking "linguistics" but my work over the past couple years requires me to speak "psychologist." This still feels like an L2 (second language), like I am an imposter striving to put simple phrases together. This is why writing becomes so difficult for me. I can write a nice intro, but then when I have to describe the literature on a topic, I feel dumb.

If there were a book "How to talk like a cognitive psychologist", I would certainly buy it. Yet, there is just a screen with a half-written article and groups of random pdfs in front of me, laying like a few pieces to a 500 piece jigsaw puzzle whose main image I may never glimpse at. I know that all academic work requires that you have some background. I just wish that there was a better way to translate comprehension into intelligent prose. And with that, a way to know that you know enough to translate in the first place.