Before starting the Brackenridge this summer, during the past spring semester I completed philosophy research in a directed study for a different topic in the field of metaethics. (The focus, similarly to my initial plan in the Brackenridge, was trained on a specific position in the field of metaethics, this one called neo-Aristotelian ethical naturalism. Although my work in this directed study did not affect the proposal I submitted for the Brackenridge in February, it fascinates me how much my strategy and course of study throughout the summer have shifted to incorporate arguments from this position to contrast and build on the position I’m pursuing now, Constructivism – obviously the nature of cumulative research over time, I’m sure!) This experience was my first real crack at independent work, but it was still more transitional than a full-on project of my own design since the study was framed similarly to the class the professor was teaching by following most of the course readings until I decided to continue on a topic of my own choosing. The structure was consequently much more class-like with scheduled meetings and a steady pace.
Diving into the Brackenridge, on the other hand, was full-on independence. Completing my own research at my own pace has been a drastically different journey from following the guidance of my past instructor. To my mind, the three most salient changes involved their own corresponding struggles and rewards: for one, my project’s structure was completely up to me; for another, the topic I pursued this summer was much more open-ended and I devoted almost all of my time to it as opposed to conducting the directed study research while juggling my spring course load; and finally, I was given free range to see where my interests lead me so that my topic area could change drastically (whereas during my directed study, I had to make sure I didn’t stray too far afield from a certain subject area).
The struggles and rewards are as interconnected as they are manifest. Firstly, self-motivation turned out to be a much more difficult and persistent problem than I anticipated. Abiding by your own structure is extremely difficult – especially at the very beginning and middle point of a project – since there are no expectations besides your own desire to get as much done as possible within an overarching timeframe. I suspect having a more determinate path through conducting research isn’t as pressing for STEM and social sciences where there are clear lab procedures or conventional methods for data analysis, but taking stock of the literature landscape is a daunting task of its own regardless of the field you’re in. Likewise, the uncertainty for having an open-ended research question (again perhaps more particular to the humanities or social sciences) is both liberating and nerve-wracking. On the one hand, I did not have to confine my analysis to yes-or-no, confirming-or-disconfirming results; on the other hand, having a blurry vision for where I saw my project heading sometimes made me nervous I wouldn’t “produce” anything substantial by the end of the program. I’ve come to believe research shouldn’t have to adhere to a strict model of “production” in the sense that your end goal should be as clear cut as answering every single question you started out with, not to mention all of the new questions you encounter on the way. The pursuit of understanding deep research problems is a worthwhile challenge in its own right, especially for abstract, philosophical issues. I think the thing to strive for during independent research is being “productive” in the sense that you are making progress on your problem.
Finally, the independence involved with independent research is truly amazing. By setting yourself onto a topic area that interests you, your interests truly guide your passion to follow every thread and do your due scholarly diligence to compelling questions. The contrast to following a course instructor’s predetermined syllabus could not be starker. I remember in a meeting with one of my advisors I once asked how one could realize whether they enjoyed conducting their own research. The self-knowledge needed to gauge your own interest seems like it can be pretty fallible if you tell yourself it’s just another job that needs completing, and then you get washed up in the routine. I believe my advisor’s response was apt: if you continue finding new avenues or dimensions on the topic you’re following (in addition to related areas, both of which are inevitable in the research process), and you find yourself excited to consider them as new prospects, then you know you’re really enjoying yourself.
That seems to be the biggest takeaway from the summer as well, namely that the ideas I find interesting are sources of excitement that can turn into work which is truly my own.
Featured image is Edward Hopper’s Cape Cod Morning, 1950.