Saturday, 29 December 2012

The shock of the new

One aspect of starting university that I have found both exciting and stressful in equal measure, was choosing and studying open units alongside the psychology material. I didn't realise just how stuck I was in one style of doing things, and in familiar subjects. Throwing yourself into new disciplines that want different things from you, have a whole new set of terminology and want different skills and a different way of thinking even, from you, is illuminating. I love having my ways of thinking challenged, but the past ten weeks have been a baptism of fire - due to my own perfectionist streak of course.

Now it's important to know firstly that psychology is actually quite a rigid discipline, "particularly in a Russell Group uni" as our lecturers keep reminding us. We have to write scientifically, we have to structure it a certain way, cite sources and critique them. Very little scope for any personal opinions in there. And while I'd read scientific papers written that way, writing in that style felt strange and unfamiliar at first.

But I got used to that style of essay writing pretty quickly, and the psych reading I've done over the last 13 years means I'm familiar with a lot of theory and famous studies, so I know where to look for things and have an idea of the arguments I'd like to make, and which studies support those arguments.
Because a lot of that familiarity has been built up gradually over so many years, I didn't even realise just how much it has helped me, until recently...

I chose anthropology as an open unit because I hadn't done any anthropology before, and I thought it would go nicely alongside psychology. So it does, but I didn't anticipate that a ten week course in a different discipline would stretch me so much!

It seems obvious, now, that it would be a huge amount of material to cover, and that I didn't have a grounding in that area to start with, but I was a bit naive about it!

The range of theories alone is staggering.  It covers all peoples, everywhere, and all aspects of human behaviour. AND has a very different academic approach.

I've found myself leaping in beyond my depth and desperately trying to cram my brain with theory and key figures.

It's all unfamiliar. I really, really want to understand and take it all in, and the only way to do that is to read A LOT, which has kinda knocked me sideways!

It's fascinating, but a lot to take in over a short space of time, even just at the introductory level. It's impossible to skim read at this stage, because of the unfamiliar terminology and key figures, and because each piece tends to be a 'case study' kind of affair.

I tried to explain to a friend how I felt about some of the new material, how I felt that I could almost grasp the concepts behind it, but that the detail was way above my head. Like viewing a room and being able to make out the shape and large pieces of furniture, but none of the detail and decor.
I'm a detail and decor kind of girl - I want to really get it, and see how it all fits together.
The reply was that getting the shape of the room was enough, at this stage, and sometimes the only thing possible! Keeping that in mind has helped.

We've reached the end of our ten week open unit, submitted our essays, and we have the exam after the holidays. My essay title was "Do language and culture provide in advance some basic categories for how people classify and experience their world?"

With a limit of 2000 words, that's a broad topic to cover, using a field I've only just begun to learn!
When I was drafting I found myself referring to psychological sources a couple of times. The way we break up the world into categories and how language works are fascinating areas of psychology, I found it impossible to tackle the subject without briefly delving into some psychological theory as a base to leap from. So I asked my tutor whether including some psych material would be okay. She was quite enthusiastic about it, said that as long as it was relevant, then a cross-disciplinary approach would be interesting to read.

Whether or not that will be reflected in the mark, or even be detrimental if it means that I don't have enough anthropology stuff in there, I've no idea. But it's a different academic style, most of the material is new to me, and I gave it my best shot. I personally like it, and the first year is probably the best time to try something like that, I only need a pass!

Anyway, the point is this. While I felt a bit lost and unsure how this essay would turn out, I found that relating it to the material I already knew and building from there really helped me. Not only to pull it together into a coherent argument, but now able to start skimming the anthropology pieces to see what would relate, and to finally start absorbing some of the theory and purpose behind the anthropological material.

Some of it has finally fallen into place, and that particular room now has enough light that I can just about make out the colour scheme, even while the details remain in shadow.

The grade is less important now. I enjoyed making the connections. I enjoyed finding that I had an idea of the material I wanted to use and how I wanted to fit it into the argument.

I learned a lot, particularly in terms of realising that intellectual laziness is something we all need to shake ourselves out of now and then, and the most fun way I can see to do that is to step out of our comfort zones and throw ourselves into something entirely new. That's good enough for me. :-) 


  1. Welcome back!!!

    Just in time for the new year :-)

  2. That is the very best way to explore a new area, Jazz: by bringing to bear the skills you already have in examination of territory you do not know.

    “...that particular room now has enough light that I can just about make out the colour scheme, even while the details remain in shadow.”

    That is a beautiful and apt metaphor - and beauty often associates with truth in intellectual perceptions.

    “The grade is less important now.”

    And that is the mark of a true explorer aof the unknown, a true seeker after truth, a true academic. Puruit of grades is a distraction ... the real traveller in unknown mental lands does it for the journey alone. High grades will not make you any more of a success than low ones ... but a successful journey may well bring high grades as an accidental side effect.

    May you find many more rooms, coming to perceive them in increasing fullness, depth and detail over time.

  3. It's a pleasure to watch you light up rooms with new discoveries in your academic studies and yourself.

  4. Gayle> It's a pleasure to watch you
    Gayle> light up rooms with new
    Gayle> discoveries in your academic
    Gayle> studies and yourself.

    Like Zainab, I found the room “a beautiful and apt metaphor” from the beginning ... but, like many beautiful and useful things, it is gaining added burnish and patina from being picked up and used in the way Gayle has.

  5. Darn. Thought Russell Group was something started by Lord Bertrand (is that Bertie? or does it have to be Lord Russell?). Instead, its a Hotel! Scales keep falling from my eyes (to the tune of raindrops falling on my head).

  6. [grin]

    Wrong Russell Group, Doc!

    "Russell group Universities" are a very vaguely approximate equivalent of your "Ivy League Universities" in the US. (What that actually means, in either case, depends of course on the worldview of whomsoever you happen to ask...)

    see here

  7. It's all a bit of snobbery. Well, there's more to it than that, but the snobbery is what I hear when we're reminded that "this is a Russell Group University". Although to be fair, we're hearing it a lot in relation to the nature of the scientific method, and that we need to learn to think and write in a scientific and research-based way. My working-class shoulder chip flinches at the implied snobbery, but I have to be fair and admit that when it's been used, the context has given it some validity.

    Kinda wishing I'd edited that part out of the post now! But enjoying discovering all these comments, and that you've all taken the time to read my ramblings!