Teleri (telerib) wrote,

On Research

High-level goals are necessary for keeping your "eyes on the prize." If you're a naturally curious person (and if you're doing independent research, you probably are), it's very easy to go bounding over hill and dale, chasing shiny new ideas and projects. That's okay and a whole lot of fun, but if you make a habit out of it, you're not going to have the time to reach those high-level goals that you set for yourself.

(And if you find that you'd rather bounce around from one topic to another, maybe you should revisit those high-level goals? It is okay if your goal is to indulge your intellectual curiosity at whim! But it is not really compatible, in a world with finite time and resources, with moving from beyond "beginner/intermediate" to "intermediate/expert" in a field. Sad but true.)

But high-level goals often don't have the detail needed to get you from where you are to where you want to go. You need to set some low-level goals, which we'll call your research plan. They don't have to take you to that envisioned end point (your "what" from the previous post) all in one step, but they should move you towards it. They are the "how" you will achieve your "what."

First: Banish the words "better" and "more" from your goal-setting vocabulary. They are vague and unhelpful. "I will learn more songs" or "I will practice my calligraphy more" or "I will get better at spinning" - how do you know when you've achieved those goals? When is "more" enough? What does "better" mean?

Goals must be measurable. Consider these: "I will learn six new songs." "I will write out a calligraphic alphabet once a day, five days a week, for three months." "I will practice spinning until I can make ten feet of yarn without the thread breaking." You know when you've reached those goals.

And once you've reached them, you can consider what comes next. You can spin ten feet of yarn without it breaking; maybe next you want to improve your control over the thickness of the yarn. Your spinning is getting "better" but you are being specific about how it is getting better, which lets you actually focus on particular issues and improve them.

Goals should be challenging but not impossible. If your goals are too easy, you're not really growing much. If your goals are too hard, you will always fail to achieve them and that's discouraging.

Consider practicing. Many arts have techniques that are improved by frequent, repetitive practice. Most of us don't enjoy practicing all that much, but we know we should do it. In an effort to improve our work, we set a goal: To practice every day for thirty minutes.

But for most of us, that's an invitation to failure. Most weeks, something will come up. There will be overtime at work, or you will get sick, or spend all day driving to Thanksgiving dinner at your aunt's in Ohio. Accept this as your reality. Decide to practice N days a week, where N is probably more than 1 but is less than 7.

Goals should have a time limit on them. Deadlines are motivators. The SCA gives a wonderful array of possible deadlines - different events, competitions, classes, exhibitions. Write down your deadlines, or tell someone about them, so you have a feeling of accountability.

Goals should be "right sized". You want to break your research plan down into chunks that you can actually handle in the now timeframe, not the someday timeframe. Keep setting smaller and smaller goals until you find one that you feel comfortable committing to finishing by, say, the end of the week. This week.

The exact selection of your subgoals is going to depend on your field, your resources, and your "why." You may have:

  • An Internet search
  • A literature search. This is what most people think of as "research."
  • A trip to a museum to view physical artifacts
  • Conversations with other researchers (Scadian and mundane!)
  • A period of practice where you perfect a new technique
  • A period of synthesis where you bring several kinds of techniques or knowledge together. This is what most people think of as "an A&S project."
  • Writing up your results, also known as documentation.
  • Sharing your results, in an A&S competition, in a newsletter article, or as a class

Let's take an extended example using one of my high-level goals for Anglo-Saxon performance: I envision that I will have an improved word-hoard with more kennings and stock phrases. Unstated is the desire to use these in my poetry.

I can continue improving my word-hoard until they light my floating funeral pyre. Let's make this measurable:

I will learn five kennings and ten stock phrases that I can use in poems.

That's a lot if I need to learn them by tomorrow, and very little if I have to learn them by next year. To be challenging but possible, when should I have these by? I look at my new house and new baby and guess: two weeks from now.

Where will I learn these from? The best place would be from the Anglo-Saxon poems themselves, especially for the kennings. That means I'll need to read through a good bit of poetry and take notes. Maybe two weeks isn't long enough after all! Mmmm... nah. We'll keep it.

For the stock phrases, I want to see if there are any patterns in the poetry I've already written. Technically, those might count as my existing word-hoard, except that I'm not really conscious of them. I want these available to my brain as tools.

The point of a better word-hoard is to make better poetry, so I'd better require that I write something using my new fifteen phrases. Not all at once, though. Since verbal improvisation is another of my high-level "what" goals, I want to work on applying them there, too. I won't really considered the phrases "learned" until I can use them as I want to use them. (And now I'm really wondering if two weeks is long enough!)

So, my research plan for the goal:
In two weeks, I will become poetically fluent in five kennings and ten stock phrases.

  • Reread my current poetry and note any common phrases to add to the "ten stock phrases." (Do tomorrow.)
  • Do an Internet search for "kennings" to see what turns up. Cross-check anything with one of the printed editions of the poems that I own. (Saturday if I skip Coronation; Sunday if I go.)
  • Read and take notes on "The Wanderer," "The Sea-Farer," and "The Dream of the Rood" on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.
  • If I still don't have my fifteen, start scanning "Beowulf" for twenty minutes a day on Thursday and Friday. (While feeding the baby, perhaps?)
  • One week mark: reassess progress. If I've read everything listed and am still coming up short, this is going to take longer than two weeks.
  • Second week: ad lib one short poem to the baby during each feed-n-cuddle session, using one or two of the new phrases each time. Can skip if baby is crying/cranky.
  • Write down two of these poems and check their stress patterns to see how I'm doing with observing the forms

Notice that I've paired some of the work with other activities that I'm doing every day. I don't have time to babble to my baby and also practice Anglo-Saxon poetry, but I can babble Anglo-Saxon poetry at my baby. I could do my reading while on a treadmill (although note-taking would be difficult - maybe sticky notes for bookmarks?).
Tags: research, sca
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