Am I Doing My PhD In The Open?

Yesterday I clicked on a JSTOR link, and a full text PDF popped up – it wasn’t an Aaron Schwarz liberation plan. I was in the academy reading closed access research. I’m in the academy, and I’m on the precipice of taking it for granted.

Last November I asked if I should do my PhD in the open and answered in the affirmative, but at that point I hadn’t even been accepted by any PhD-granting institutions. Only one month into ensconcing myself in the GroupLens lab, at the Univ. of Minnesota, I somehow forgot about the my commitment to openness. It is time to right that.

Dropping onto the conveyor belt of academia has been surprisingly strengthening. The factor that I expected to aid my moonshot research goals – being in a group of like-minded peers – is working just as planned. I wasn’t even put off by the PhD “retreat” this week, a Chipotle-catered 4 hour meeting, wherein they told us that the name of the game was publish or perish, to work hard to aggrandize the legacies of our advisors, and that we had to keep up with CMU. I believed the faculty when they said that our success was their success and vice-versa. Perhaps I’m absorbing the Minnesota nice, or maybe it’s just that reassuring to finally be part of a team. While the scare-tactics are minimal and the amiability and cooperative nature of the group remains as authentically high as it is – I’ve found what I was looking for in a cohort.

The knock-on factor that I didn’t anticipate being as useful as it is, is being taught. Since my last employment in 2013, I’ve dedicated my efforts to self-learning teacherless autodidacticism. But now I’m re-exploring the benefits, and detriments of external tutelage. My few courses, Human-Computer Interaction Methods, Machine Learning, and Introduction to Research, and spanning the gamut of how a classroom affects knowledge.

The HCI Methods course is precisely the high-level, just-a-bit-of-guidance I was anticipating from graduate study. It has been eye-opening to receive a systematic overview of ‘methods’, of the many “Ways of Knowing in HCI,” as our textbook is titled. I’m shown exactly how to start walking, as a crawling being.

Particularly in realm of so-called qualitative research, the questions I didn’t know I had about how to do it well are rising and getting answered. One pain point is is for me to treat a quality-focus as an intellectually rigorous path. I am having difficulty with the challenge of unlearning the hard/soft, hard/easy, good/bad, false spectra and associations. I must overcome my bias, and I think that just might happen in time because if I look at empirical evidence, in the lab there is no disparaging of anyone’s work, only louder and louder applauding.

On the other hand this Machine Learning class is a curse of recidivist pedagogy. All of a sudden the pointless constructs of midterms, final exams and grace days return. The content the class is supposed to teach is perfectly delicious. The way it’s brought to the table is all the wrong parts of the confusion of education and schooling. I’m not too old for it, simply have lost all my appetite for people-pleasing. My advisor reminds that I must only appease to the minimum degree. I less and less see the point in even playing the game half-heartedly.

Upon turning in my first homework I remarked inwardly that I hadn’t cared so little about a program I’d written since I quit computer science in undergrad studies. And then I saw a theme recurring. It goes deep. I failed Math in high school, but it became my major in college. I failed computer science in college, but it became my the subject of my graduate studies. Well that’s what an administrator would say. I prefer the frame that in both cases I didn’t fail the subject, but failed to be subjected by the schooling. Today I’m facing that conundrum once again, and hope to develop a better coping mechanism than my previous pyrrhic stalemates.

My third class, which I might rename “Learn You a Research”, is a seminar of sorts, emphasising my independence as a researcher. It has the right aims of assistance, and solidifying fundamentals. The semester-long project is to write a literature review to be proud of, and that’s something that (a) I would be doing anyway, and (b) am pleased to think a bit more intentionally about. In fact, the topic of that review is due today, and I shall be submitting, in the name of an Open PhD is:

Survey Topic: Trust and Discrimination in the Sharing Economy.

Focus: My goal is to review online systems and mechanisms used for establishing trust, and using the lens of design, consider how they effect discrimination.

That needs a bit of work in it’s precise formulation, but it correctly surfaces my personal fascinations with implicit bias and peer-to-peer technologies. It is also meant to marry those ideas with those of my advisor, Haiyi Zhu, who is intriguing with the new-to-me domain of the sharing economy and a more formalized notion of trust.

Pursuing her and collaborator Mako Hill’s very simpatico agenda, we’ve set out on a project that I wouldn’t have considered on my own. It is an interview-based inquiry into hosts and guests that use both AirBnB and CouchSurfing (and other “network hospitality” sites); about when they would use one and not the other, and what that means for the co-existence of the sites, and their underlying ideologies.

This project has me hyped and nervous at the same time. Hyped because it hones on interrogating this “Capitalism kills love” lens to which I’ve been inculcated – and I’m addicted to inspecting my own assumptions. Nervous because it represents the start of my doing purely “qualitative” work (if you believe binary). The world is fresh and new – I am filing my first IRB request – which has involved learning what an IRB even is. It’s got me saying “I’ve never done that before, but I’ll do my best,” a very good phrase to be saying at this juncture.

Moreso, it has me nervous on another level, trying to conduct this research in the open. As much as I have been enjoying my new comrades, I have not heard much discussion of Open Access research. Conducting this one with one of the co-founders of Ubuntu, we will use a private git repo for collaboration – which is a start. I’m still embarrassed to make a fuss in my lab, but at the same time I want to be clear to with I’m as open-source, as open-data, open-access as possible. I still feel a fear of being a nagging, naïve newbie. That I suppose is just baby step #2, of doing my PhD in the open.

So there you have it, all I have done in my PhD so far – just my thoughts – opened. While I’m being confessional, there is one more thing. I wrote a letter which lives in my desk draw that’s titled “Failure Plan”. It says to go on a long walk, and then reinvestigate ways to try again.

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