Linking the spiritual with the intellectual quest

In her post, “An epistemological mid-life crisis“, my master’s degree colleague, Donna Sparkes, expressed a feeling that probably anyone with both a brain and a sense of wonder grapples with at least once in their life: the spiritual crisis.  Here it is, in her words:

Over the past few years I have been going through a major personal challenge in my spiritual life as I’ve been questioning what it is I truly believe. I know I am not the first person to experience this, but I’m not concerned about the commonality of this experience; I’m just concerned about me. I have many questions, many doubts, more questions and more doubts, and I feel stuck. The thing with a question is that it opens the door to not knowing. Actually, not know is exactly where a question starts, and that leaves me feeling torn. I am homesick for the truth I once knew as I look for the truth I seek.

I especially like that last sentence – “I am homesick for the truth I once knew”. Certainty feels so great – so safe, comfortable, simple, and I left it behind, too. I spent my teens and early twenties as an evangelical Christian, and thought seriously about becoming a minister. Then I took an amazing course on “The Bible as Literature”, where we applied critical thinking to everything I held dear. At the same time, I started reading liberal biblical scholars, hung out with people who weren’t afraid to ask difficult questions, or to hear me ask them, and spent many hours in reflection.  Prayer, even.  It didn’t happen overnight, but 1987 was a watershed year for me where I gave myself permission to keep asking the questions.  One sunny summer afternoon, it came to me that “If God can’t handle me kicking at the tires of my faith like this, then it probably isn’t much of a faith, and my version of God is probably wrong.”

Thus started a search for spiritual bedrock that continues to this day. I don’t know anything spiritual for sure except that I still have my sense of wonder.  Despite all evidence to the contrary, I can’t shake the belief that maybe god is the energy that holds all things together, that love probably IS the answer (to what question?) and that purpose is a good thing to have.  

I believe these squishy, feel-good principles strongly enough that I want to explore how widely-dispersed religious communities use online media to communicate, learn from each other, and move forward in a spiritual community. Somehow, I plan to build a research topic around this, despite my own questions about the fundamentals of faith. If the spiritual quest is important to enough people (like me) that they continue to meet in person to get to the next level of their faith (whatever that may be), then what are they doing online?  Can a spiritual community transcend physical boundaries and find either truth or joy?  

This topic needs refining, and as the Quakers say when presented with a new idea, “it needs seasoning”… which usually means pulling it apart and putting it back together word by word, until everyone is satisfied or it falls apart. I’d appreciate the help of anyone who has gone on a spiritual quest which has involved looking at spiritual communities online for the answers.


Day 6 of Sick

If you haven’t been ill lately, you probably have forgotten what it feels like. I say that only because I had certainly forgotten. Mostly, my immune system is iron-clad, and if a germ manages to get through my outer defences, I’ve got a crack team of white blood cells that usually show the bugs the door in a day or two. But this week I have struggled with ongoing fever, headaches, nasty wet cough, fatigue, and nothing is touching it. Yuck. And yes, I’ll be seeing my doctor in a couple of hours.

I mention this lousy business here, because I wonder how illness might affect my studies. I’m very glad to be enrolled in a program where most of the instruction is through distance education, and I’m not expected to show up in class at a particular time. I managed to hand in an assignment on time, even though I was too sick to leave the house. The assignment took me longer than I had thought, in part because I am finding my thinking a bit foggy, but I got through it.

The hard part will come if this drags on much longer. Already, I have missed three days of work, and it’s difficult to make appointments with people as I continue my job search. It’s tough to watch life carry on when I can’t keep up, but for now, at least my studies haven’t been affected much, yet.

Ugh, this sucks

Pouting childLet’s be perfectly clear here.  I have drawn the line under my work as of my last post, and this one does not count for any self-evaluation except the one that I am doing right now, as I type.  And frankly, I would have titled the post “I suck”, except that I am trying to be a bit kind to myself.

I want to and need to get my blog self-evaluation asssignment done and handed in two days early, so I can head off to Portland (Portlandia!!) with a clear conscience and one less thing on my plate. Now it is 8:34 pm. I have an outline, and I have some notes.  I *don’t* have printer ink, which is hindering me, and think that I may need to hop in the car and drive to campus if I intend to get much done tonight.

Do I stay and soldier on through at home, keeping my 12-year-old silent company and letting the empty coke cans from last weekend attract the fruit-flies?  Or do I ship out for a more intense and studious atmosphere?

What really sucks is that I have 23 more months of self-discipline ahead.  I am NOT on a boat.  I am taking two classes that I borrowed lots of money for.

For what it’s worth, just writing my little hissy fit down seems to have stiffened my resolve. I think after this self-pep talk, I’ll be ok tonight.

Through the research lens

One more post before I draw a line under my work and prepare my self-assessment assignment.  I feel that this record of reflection would not be complete without blogging about how our two weeks of learning about research have now coloured how I look at all manner of new information, particularly the news.

In the Victoria News from Friday (August 3, 2012) I read about a U.Vic researcher who is looking for participants in her study on the effects of moderate exercise in the cognitive functioning of seniors.  As I read through the article, I was looking at her methodology, a topic that would have made my eyes glaze over just three weeks ago.  Sample size? 100 participants.  Selection criteria? The research is selecting her participants according to screening criteria, e.g. they can’t already be active for 150 minutes per week.  What kind of research? Mixed method, featuring quantitative testing and interviews.  Researcher bias? She has an interesting background in neuroscience and kinesiology.  Is that going to colour her interpretation of the results?  We’ll see.

And that’s just one article!  How will I cope with Dr. Art Hister on the Global Morning News, with his daily look at the latest health research?  I’m sure I’ll be running to the internet to look up the journal, or emailing Dr. Art myself to say, “What are your sources?”

I’m even planning to read one of my favourite books with my research cap on.  That would be Now you see it: The brain science of attention and how it will transform the way we live, work and learn, by Cathy N. Davidson (2011).  As the chair of English and interdisciplinary studies at Duke University, she *should* have some very solid research behind her claims.  I haven’t examined them with my research hat on yet, but it’s on my to-do list for the month of August.

Yes, this program has changed me already.  I hope Paul and my kids get used to seeing me with my nose in a book or in my laptop… Reference: Davidson, C.N. Now you see it: The brain science of attention and how it will transform the way we live, work and learn. (2011) New York, NY: Penguin.

A bit of applied research in our final days on campus

Which way should we go?It was Charmaine’s idea to get Bill and Lisa a gift. Very thoughtfully, she emailed the whole cohort for ideas… not realizing that Bill and Lisa were on the cohort list (sneaky of them!).  We had not even really decided on a present when Charmaine got a note back from Bill saying that he “couldn’t accept gifts from students”.  Was this the truth, or just a handy bit of “truthiness” created as a deflection?

About the same time, as we were discussing at my table what we might choose as a thank-you gift, John Dallas raised a similar point. “Do you think it might look like we are trying to buy their favour?  Maybe it’s a conflict of interest.”  Smart guy – that had never occurred to me.

What could we do?  Should we take Bill at his word and forgo any thank-you gift?  Should we go with our intuition (most of us are Ns, after all) and get something nice?  I decided to research the matter. I put together a quick question for an expert in the field of ethical process in post-secondary institutions, Colleen Hoppins.  I guess this would be a Delphi study of very limited scope and narrow focus.

My question was, “Our cohort would like to present Bill and Lisa with a gift tonight to show our appreciation.  Are they allowed to accept? Should we specify that it should in no way affect our marks? 😉 ” (Novak, C., personal communication, August 2, 2012)

She answered very quickly.  The feedback I received from my question was as follows:

Thanks, Catherine! 🙂

Yes, quite right, small gifts of appreciation when transparently given from the group as a token of appreciate [sic] are fine.

It was a pleasure to meet with the class and I so appreciated all the great questions and energy.

Best wishes.

Colleen (Hoppins, C., personal communication, August 2, 2012)

I had the answer within 30 minutes, proving that it needn’t take long to design a question, nor does the research period need to be lengthy or the cost expensive.  It’s not Master’s level in scope, but my conscience was clear as I went to Purdy’s for two boxes of assorted chocolates.

I hope you enjoyed them, Bill and Lisa!

Research ruminations

Photo image creative commons attribution to Stephen Harris on FlickrTwo weeks of residency are done.  I’m back at home, and flipping back and forth in my mind between looking back on my experience in residency at Royal Roads, and looking ahead to the next 23 months with more courses, assignments… and research.

Last week, Bill gave us an introduction to research, going over both qualitative and quantitative methods. Quantitative research is what most people think of when they imagine graduate studies.  It has the hypothesis, carefully-controlled experiments, objective data, and lots of statistical analysis.  When I imagine what quantitative research must be like, I can almost see people running around with clipboards and lab coats.  It has always felt like an unfamiliar world to me, though I am sure I could like it if I knew the rules.

Qualitative research, however, trades in the clipboard for careful listening and questioning.  Qualitative research is all about the interview, probing the participant for rich layers on information, and getting to the core of the story.  It’s what good journalists and storystellers do.  Coming from the humanities end of things as I do, it feels like “home” to me.

I wasn’t expecting to feel this way about qualitative research; years back, a good friend of mine did qualitative research, interviewing seven divorced fathers on how they felt their divorce had affected their relationship with their children.  My reaction at the time was, “Interesting stories – but surely it’s bad science.”  Where was the hypothesis?  The large sample size?  What could you derive about cause and effect from this study ?  I literally didn’t know what I didn’t know.

Now I know that depending on the question you ask (and it ALL depends upon your question – make sure you are asking what you mean to ask!), you can design your research in many ways.  It’s not all about causation.  Sometimes the question is, “What is it?”  Sometimes it’s, “What is more effective?”  Sometimes it’s, “Tell me about your experience.”  These are all valid questions that research can answer – provided the methodology addresses the question.

Thanks, Bill, and thanks to Bickman and Rog (2009), for giving me a solid foundation on research methods!


Bickman, L. &  Rog, D. Eds. (2009). The Sage handbook of applied social research methods, 2nd ed. Los Angeles, CA: 2009. pp. 3 – 44.

Looking ahead to changes

The fork for Wernfigin on the road to Pentre'r-felin

© Copyright Bonelli and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Today is certainly an emotionally up-and-down sort of day for me.  I had been waiting for a phone call for a job interview, and it never came.  Here I am, in a room full of people with fascinating jobs in teaching, distributed learning and educational technology, and I haven’t had a job interview since May. I should have worked way harder on my entrance bursary application. I should be out interviewing potential employers and asking, “What ideas would you like to see implemented at your workplace in the next few years?” (thanks, Chris Brown).

While others in my cohort will be going back to their workplace, eager to share what they have learned with their colleagues and implementing it in their practice, I will be… well, I’ll be selling colostomy pouches and applying for work.  Bummer.

But – David Porter, executive director of BCCampus, came and spoke to our cohort this afternoon.  His message to us covered the massive changes expected in education over the next ten years.  A billion potential learners are approaching adulthood.  Major funders are looking at open models of distributed learning to fill the need. Those changes will require changes in instructional design and delivery. Those changes are exactly what we are being trained for.  I am treading on some very fertile ground!

I may not get to my target job right away; after all, I am only four weeks into a two-year course.  But I am certainly on the right path, and pointed in the right direction.