Repotting myself

A number of people have asked me what the new job is all about. Most of my co-workers know the parts of the story, but my social circle extends far beyond Menlo Park. Here’s the scoop.

After finishing my PhD in Education in 2001, I went to work at the American Institutes for Research (AIR) doing contract research in education. This is a job that most people don’t know anything about. Every time you hear of a government study of a new reading program, changes to teacher evaluation practices, technology use in the home, etc., the social scientists who did the actual investigation probably work either at a university or a research institute. In fact, large-scale studies are generally only done by research institutes, as they have large, permanent professional staffers who can take on these multi-year efforts. University professors do their share of this work, but their grants tend to be smaller, and their graduate student research assistants tend to, well, graduate shortly after they’re trained up to the job.

This was actually not my first choice of career path. I was aiming squarely at an academic position – teaching courses and starting up a research program of my own, investigating how to infuse reasoning and argumentation into the K-12 curriculum. But life intervened; my dissertation schedule slipped, such that it was going to be very hard to both finish and get on the job market those last six months of school. I’d also started a promising relationship as I was finishing up, so it seemed like a good idea to stay put for another year or two, get some writing done, and then venture out into the academic world.

Relationship led to marriage, which led to me withdrawing from consideration for an academic job at the University of Hawaii (I was told I was their top candidate at the time). The pace of the contract research work left little time for writing or thinking about my own research agenda, and I didn’t have the desire or fortitude to publish my dissertation work after-hours. I did move to another institute (SRI International) after a few years at AIR, and that is where I’ve been employed for just over eleven years.

At some point I essentially timed out as a viable assistant professor candidate. Ironically, my marriage dissolved around this point, so I was finally “free” to move anywhere in the country.  But I wasn’t publishing enough peer-reviewed work, and my research projects did not add up to a coherent program (that’s the nature of contract research – it’s wonderfully diverse, which keeps life interesting, but it’s not an easy way to build the focal specialties preferred by universities). So I made peace with that change of course, and got involved with some pretty interesting work over the years. My colleagues are both smart and kind (a rare combination!), and I applaud the leadership at SRI for maintaining such high standards of research quality and professionalism.

It’s hard to put a finger on any one thing that made me itch for a change. There were some dissapointments – projects that seemed promising but fell apart internally, or evaluations of hopeful innovations that turned out to not have much of an impact. At one point I found myself telling a colleague “I’m getting really tired of documenting failures.” If there was a turning point, it was probably that – I felt that I was a passive bystander documenting well-intentioned but poorly thought out innovations.

My thoughts turned back to my original intent – to more directly educate students and conduct research on critical reasoning (it’s probably not a coincidence that my interest in reasoning seems to intensify every election season, when I’m continually appalled at what passes for political discourse). To make a potentially long story short, I found a way back into a university setting, this time as a staff researcher.

Stanford University is beginning a process of intensive self-examination, asking it can do better to foster student learning. Here’s a sampling of the questions being asked in this “year of learning“.

  • How do we define “good teaching” and “good learning”? What does current research tell us is most effective?
  • What are “good studying” habits and skills? Which extracurricular factors influence learning outcomes and what does current research tell us to pay attention to?
  • How can faculty and departments recognize effective teaching and encourage it?
  • How and why do teaching and learning vary between disciplines and what is common among them?
  • How can we learn about best practices and diversity of goals in teaching from one another, across different schools?
  • What should we do to improve teaching and learning at Stanford in the future?

Stanford needs thoughtful education researchers to help carry out this mission, and in particular they need someone who can also help faculty interpret the results from a newly overhauled course evaluation system. This list of research questions that span philosophy of education, learning sciences, and data analysis seemed almost tailor-made for what I value and enjoy. It also turns out that a former SRI colleague and good friend is already at Stanford helping to move this inquiry forward. We had a special synergy when working together in the past, and when she alerted me to this job posting it seemed too good to be true.

I’ll be joining the Stanford team in December, and meanwhile am wrapping up some loose ends with on-going projects at SRI. That’s the story of my transition.

There will be lots more to write about, I’m sure, as the (academic) year progresses. I also want to use this interim time to reflect on other mid-life transitions; I feel like I’m in a very different place than when I wrote for NaBloPoMo last November. But that’s for future postings.

Here, have a cat.

Manele tracking the sun

Manele tracking the sun


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