Research as a process of re-searching?

This last week, I found myself beneath an expansive monument of stone-carved men exploding with concrete muscle, fists thrust into the humid air, and trudging on a pool of cemented blood shed by U.S. soldiers during the war of 1812.

I was standing beneath the central monument in Indianapolis – truant, sweating and vainly attempting to advance my dwindling future. With 50 or so fellow University comrades, I marched forth to the annual National Conference on Undergraduate Research in Indianapolis.

As any other enthusiastic conference attendee, I prowled the roomful of posters, attempted to ask bitingly intellectual questions and avoided making the ritualistic rounds of alcohol consumption. Throughout all this festive activity, I was plagued by a few musings: What exactly is research? Linguistically speaking, doing research is to “re-search.” But are we searching for interpretations, explanations or truth? And why is a process of original research re-searching rather than simply searching?

With these questions in mind, I began to systematically go through my handy program booklet. I even forced myself to tango with the quagmire of math and science presentations. I found a fascinating juxtaposition of “re-search” that entertained my dulled senses and forced me to rip away at my tainted preconceptions in interpreting daily events.

Above all, I became overwhelmed at how knowledge divided into disciplines limited our perceptions and indoctrinated a sense of almost absurd patriotism to our “own” worldviews, which we do not “own” but acquire through reading authoritative texts in our respective fields. Let me illustrate a few presentations I graced with my pathetic presence.

My penchant for the fine arts led me to a talk titled “Antiphon: A Sung Response: A Series of Lithographs Combining Varied Media.” I had no idea what an antiphon, a lithograph or a sung response meant, but I felt a certain tingle when I saw soft colorings printed on stone, like the feeling one gets watching a calligraphy brush first dip onto translucent paper – dripping and pure.

This was juxtaposed with another presentation in the math department I had to kick myself to attend. It was titled “Equitable Labelings of Grids.” I almost leapt up mouthing profanities when three-quarters of the way into the presentation, the speakers were still making number patterns on a 6-by-6 grid. I kept obsessively critiquing their quantification of everything, as if the totality of one’s experiences could be captured by numbers.

Then I caught myself. I realized the source of my critique was not really my “own” but a direct result of my academic training in the liberal arts. I was blindfolded by my own discipline. My field of knowledge became my identity, a form of patriotism. It colored the way I interpreted how the sun moved, why cities were geometrical and when geese flocked across the horizon.

Essentially, subjects of different disciplines all look at the same phenomena. The scientist might look at flight pattern; the poet might connect geese flying to his uncontained heart; the social scientist might critique the phenomenon of natural geese flying over an urbanized city; the behavioral psychologist might try to condition the geese to flock every time they feel artificial warmth from a laboratory sun.

What do I mean? Simply that perhaps instead of training us to be overly critical thinkers bound to our disciplines, perhaps college education should teach us to be open, cross-disciplinary thinkers. Perhaps the writing of this very article is reflective of my own disciplinary bias to question the natural.

Diana Fu welcomes comments at “>[email protected]