Learning to fail

I have a habit of trying to convince myself (and the world) that I have everything all figured out. At this point in my life it’s almost funny watching the roller coaster that is my emotions and determination. When I first came to Essex, I thought I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to do for my dissertation. I had an idea, I had a plan, and I was going to be the miracle child and write the best Master’s dissertation to have ever been written (read: I was going to write a dissertation worthy of passing).

Fast forward a few months and try to imagine for a few moments that you are me: a 23 year old grad student. You’re a bit overenthusiastic about your research, but that’s a good thing because you know what you want to study. But you also know that you need a good dissertation supervisor because you have a heck of a lot to learn.

Imagine you find a great potential supervisor, someone you can look up to. Someone who encourages your crazy questions and ideas but helps you focus them on something useful. Someone who is as excited as you are about your research but can give you the stability and wisdom that you need.

Now imagine that awesome potential supervisor tells you they aren’t supervising dissertations this year. You’re disappointed, but you understand. You seek advice on other potential supervisors, and start talking to those other perfectly capable people.

Now imagine you walk into an office. The professor who occupies it has been in your field for decades. They know what they are doing and it would be great to have them supervise your first major research endeavour. So you come to them with a list of well thought-out ideas, research questions, variables to consider, the works. And as you end your mini speech and look at them with hope in your eyes, the only words they have to offer is “Huh. That’s. Interesting.”

You thank them for their time and walk away feeling defeated.

That was my day yesterday. I tried to get work done after the meeting, but I just kept going back to my brainstorm notebook and trying to figure out what I did wrong.

Were my research questions clear enough? Did I have too many variables? Not enough variables? Was there something wrong with the communities I was looking at? Maybe I was just too focused on the social aspects and not the linguistic aspects.

Next thing you know I’m Facebook messaging my best friend in Nashville, questioning first my ability to pick a dissertation topic and then my place in the academic world altogether. Instead of going home after work and getting more work done, I went for a drink with a friend then came home and cooked before going to bed early. I think at one point I let out something between and grunt and a growl at my pile of library books. Let’s just say it wasn’t exactly my best day.

And I want to be very clear that the professor I spoke with is awesome. They know a lot about a theory I want to work with in my dissertation, but the communities I want to look at are unfamiliar to them. Which is understandable. Not many sociolinguists have studied the type of community I want to study. Actually not many academics in general have studied the type of community I’m looking at, at least not as a social entity.

I’m interested in a very new and complex area of research, and even though that is exciting it also means that no one is really an expert in that area yet. It means that I have to be, more than ever, okay with other people questioning my research. I have to be okay with people challenging my approach, my intentions, my purpose. I have to be okay with getting things wrong. I have to learn to fail. And as much as I want to kick back against that reality, I just keep trying to remember the wise words of William Labov:

With the pleasure of being first goes the certainty of being wrong.

And if it takes being wrong to move towards understanding, then I think I can be okay with not being right for a while.

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