A Tale of Three Cities
2003: Chicago, IL
It was 5 p.m., happy hour time in Chicago. We had just gotten out of school and were at Omega Cafe, the local coffee shop for teens and college students. “What do you have on your mind?” I heard my friend ask. I was staring at a lamp affixed to the wall near our table. “Okay, stay with me here,” I replied, priming my friends for a hypothetical. “If we shrink the lamp, its size approaches a limit of 0 – it will just keep getting infinitely smaller, but it will never disappear. But what if it crossed that limit by turning inside-out and then growing in inverse, just like a negative number? Is that still shrinking?” That conversation kept us busy for an hour, discussing derivatives, lamps, and later on the tennis court, inverted tennis balls.
2014: Washington, D.C.
It was 5 p.m., happy hour time in D.C. We had just gotten off of work and were at a 7 Locks Brewing, a short detour as we walked from the office to our metro stop. “What do you have on your mind?” I heard my colleague ask. I was staring at my glass for an inordinately long time. “Okay, stay with me here,” I replied, priming them for a hypothetical. “Uh oh, here we go.” “Is it about statistics?” “Drink up buddy, we’re not at work any more.” Just like that, my hypothetical was over.
2018: Minneapolis, MN
It was 5 p.m., happy hour time in the Twin Cities. We had just gotten out of class and were plopped down on a comfy sofa in a dimly lit corner at the Kitty Kat Club, the local watering hole for graduate students. There was someone I didn’t know. We started talking about what we each study – he studies counseling psychology, and I study statistics education. Searching for a link, I said, “You know, statistics anxiety is one of the biggest problems facing graduate students in psychology.” He replied, “Have you heard of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)?” Our conversation slowly grew, and we had the same conversation at many other happy hours with other individuals interested in these ideas. A year later, we presented a study proposal at a symposium, and we are still working on this project to this day.
I had just stumbled upon a home for my curiosity and discovered my approach to scholarship – it all starts with a comfy sofa and a good question.
In 2016, I chose to leave my job in part because I felt alone – I had always enjoyed asking questions and then pursuing answers. At work, people had to listen to me, in part because my questions were relevant to our projects, and partly because I was the senior statistician. But whether they were about statistics, or inverted lamps, asking questions is just what I did, and I was tired of having to come up with answers on my own.
I suspected grad school might be for me – after all, isn’t academia built on asking questions and searching for answers? I spent the first few months of 2017 scoping out potential programs to join and advisors to study with. I found a paper by Dr. Joan Garfield, the founder of the graduate program in Statistics Education at the University of Minnesota, in which she described collaboration as a way of life and extolled the value of sharing and discussing questions – “I cannot imagine being a sole researcher on any project or keeping ideas to myself. I would much rather walk next door to Bob’s or Andy’s offices to run these ideas by them and get their input” (Garfield, 2013, p. 6). She was speaking directly to my soul. I wanted to walk over to Bob’s or Andy’s offices and run ideas by them. I felt alone at my job because I didn’t have a Bob or Andy. Maybe Minnesota could be the place for me.
During my first campus visit in fall 2017, I got to meet Bob and Andy, and I asked them what they look for in a prospective student. Their answer couldn’t have been better – “Curiosity.” I knew right then I wanted to come to the U – I’d be able to walk next door to Bob’s or Andy’s office and run ideas by them, just like Dr. Garfield.
I took my first class on campus in Spring 2018, and quickly became enthralled with meeting as many other students as I could. Every person I met had such a unique background, such fascinating interests, and such insightful perspectives that captured my curiosity. But compared to Omega cafe, where simply asking questions sufficed for high school students, the sofa in the Kitty Kat Club required graduate students to find answers.
The novelty of our statistics and CBT question was exciting, and just like Dr. Garfield, I couldn’t imagine keeping this idea to myself. I didn’t know who would even be interested in tackling this problem with me, nor where their offices were to be able to walk over to and run ideas by them. So I began bringing up the topic any time a friend or classmate expressed a related interest – walking between buildings, on the bus, at a coffee shop or bar.
Before long, there were six of us interested in thinking about the problem, sharing our knowledge with each other, and committed to trying to work towards an answer. Our team included students studying counseling psychology, human factors, social and developmental processes, learning and cognition, and statistics education. We held our meetings out in the open so any interested student walking by could join us, even if it was just for five minutes. We started by simply sharing our ideas with each other about the general phenomenon of how anxiety manifested in the statistics classroom and how ideas borrowed from CBT might help statistics instructors and tutors help students.
Coming from different backgrounds, the early days of the project presented many difficulties, the biggest of which is that we didn’t know how to talk to each other. We each had different expertise, and with that came different jargon and different ways to approach a problem. We were six pieces of a whole fighting against each other – we needed to be one entity operating in harmony. I had found people to share my ideas with, but I didn’t know how to communicate my ideas with them. We needed to create a common language so we could share our knowledge and ideas.
It took almost six months for us to finally learn how to speak to one another. Sometimes it felt like we were spinning our wheels, re-discussing the problem and re-explaining our thoughts. We re-read the same core background papers, and every time the discussion went a different direction. We even had to start a new notes document, because no one could decipher what our early ideas were and how they were related to our more recent thinking. It was frustrating, and I began asking myself whether we would ever produce an answer to our question. We met at the office, we met at coffee shops, we met at parks, and we met at bars. But it was that same corner sofa, the same sofa on which I first heard “CBT”, that we had a breakthrough.
Sitting on that sofa, there was no pressure. Compared to the hard plastic of the chairs and tables in the office, the sofa embraced us with its warmth and cushioned us with soft fabric. When we failed to communicate at the office, it felt like a waste of everyone’s time. On the sofa, it was just kind of funny that we weren’t able to communicate. One day, perhaps enabled by the sofa, one of my friends successfully expressed exactly the idea I had tried to explain at a meeting earlier that day, and took it even further. I tried to do the same, and failed. But a few trips later to a sofa, and yes, I too could re-express their ideas. From then on, each time we re-hashed a topic, we were slowly calibrating, teaching each other words from our separate languages of research. I began learning ideas and words like cognitive restructuring and single-case design, while I started teaching my colleagues ideas and words like informal inferential reasoning and model eliciting activities. We soon found that we had co-constructed a common vocabulary with which to share our ideas and expertise.
Using our sofa-talk, we were able to form a clear conceptualization of the problem and produce a novel insight. Our ideas began to coalesce into a project that would not have been possible without such a diverse group of individuals working together. I believe this project will make an interesting and important contribution to the literature on statistics anxiety, and all from an idea sparked by a question on a sofa in a dark corner of a bar.
As I cross the half-way mark of my graduate program, I’ve begun to reflect on my experiences as I prepare my research philosophy. How can I describe my process? What’s my way of doing research? What’s unique about it?
My research questions are really our questions, and my research process is our process. My research starts over coffee, or a beer, or at the water fountain, or over tea. It starts with a casual chat, with friends getting to know each other, with people sharing things they’re thinking about and asking questions out loud.
Researching my way starts with a comfy sofa and a good question.
When I think about graduating and applying for faculty positions, I think of the research home I’ve found here at the U. My research home is a community. It’s a community of scholars interested in sharing ideas and asking questions. It’s a community that seeks diversity in experience and expertise, and actively builds a shared language to communicate. It’s a community where everyone shares their ideas and questions, whether they are thorny problems, controversial methods, or pie-in-the-sky dreams. It’s not only an academic community that meets at the office, but also a social community that meets on a sofa. For me, these informal social collaborations are a breeding ground for research ideas and future academic collaborations, where a curiously inspired question such as “Have you heard of CBT?” can lead to an entire research project.
Special thanks to my research community, especially the Link Tank. If you are interested in learning more about our community and connecting with other graduate students, please visit our website at z.umn.edu/TheLinkTank.
The Link Tank. (2020, February). A cognitive behavioural therapy lesson design for statistics anxiety. Poster presented at the Department of Educational Psychology Graduate Student Research Day, Minneapolis, Minnesota.