Control. It is my friend, when I have it. When I don’t, my worst enemy. I like to be able to know what to expect. I like things to be fairly predictable. When things do not go as planned, I feel off balanced.
I am once again faced this semester with the challenge of convincing 15 graduate students taking my qualitative research methods course that control and prediction should not be in their vocabulary. Taking it out of their vocabulary is the easy part, though, Taking it out of their way of being… not so easy. But it is important to me as a qualitative methods teacher. It is important because I know I cannot do the method well when I hold tightly to my need to control. My need for predictability does not serve me well on a research site. My need for an unchanging plan limits my possibilities when working with people who (grumble, grumble) change. I cannot pretend to have the mindset and complete a good study. I have to authentically embrace the mindset. So I try to teach my students to do the same.
On the first day of my methods class, I write on the board:
As we talk about the qualitative mindset, I tell students they need to let go of these concepts. But sometimes, teaching it brings to the fore the need to believe it. And the times in which it is difficult to believe it.
As I ponder this now, in the first couple of weeks of class this semester, I am struck by some particular happenings in my life. A mentor from my undergraduate institution is in intensive care—having had a heart attack, pneumonia and a series of strokes. It is unclear the long term impact of the strokes and how and when he will become responsive again. A current colleague and friend is having open heart surgery next week. Another friend and her husband are expecting twins. As I type she is being induced –awaiting the arrival of two new and unpredictable little beings in their life. None of these events were in the script exactly as they have unfolded.
Script? There’s a script?
“How do you observe without directly influencing the culture?”
“Exactly how long do my observations need to be?”
“What if I don’t like my research question after I’ve gotten on site?”
Every week, my students write 1-minute questions about the topic of the day, their project or general questions about the method. Without fail, questions that emerge early in the semester reflect an anxiety about the unknown and unpredictable aspects of qualitative research. I tell them my responses will madden them over time because they often are quite general and do not fulfill their need for control and predictability:
“You can’t observe without influencing something.”
“It takes however long it takes to see what you are studying”
“If you find a better question to explore than your original one, then you can tinker with it”
They don’t like these answers. Those answers push up against their need for a cookie cutter, “one size fits all” answer. I give them strategies to deal with their challenges, but ultimately they need to learn to be the tool– to deal with people living real life– in an ethical and authentic way. And that can be messy.
“Things change.” I tell them. “You cannot control everything. And that is the good news.”
“Prepare for what you can prepare for and prepare for change.”
“When you let go, the qualitative world opens up.”
Easier said than done, right?
Eight months after I met my now husband, we had planned on attending an Indigo Girls concern with his two sons (who were then 9 and 6). This was going to be one of our first big outings together so I was a bit nervous. The afternoon of the concert, my husband came down with mono—serious mono. He was sick. Not moving. Flat on his back. Fever and all. It slowly became apparent to me, despite my hoping, wishing, and even begging a higher being–he was not going to the concert.
That left me with the boys. Two boys. Me—no kids. Terrified doesn’t capture what I was feeling. I don’t think there is a word in the English language that captures the fear that came over me. This was not my vision for how it was supposed to happen. This wasn’t even within the realm of possibility. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. This wasn’t what I expected. If I could have waved my magic wand and made Karl better, I would have in a heartbeat. I would have even taken the mono on myself—had I been in control.
But I went. I took $100 in hopes to buy their compliance and got in the car and went. And then it started raining. And then I realized the Indigo Girls didn’t start playing for two hours given the start up bands. I called Karl in a panic. He calmly said—”they’ll be fine.” “IT IS NOT THEM I’M WORRIED ABOUT!” I wanted to scream.
So we got trash bags and slid down a grassy hill in the rain. And we played every Pepsi challenge in order to win as many prizes as we could. And I spent all $100 on trinkets, candy, popcorn, and soda. If they spilled something, we just bought something else so they wouldn’t be upset. And we called Karl during the encore and sang to him the chorus of his favorite song. And we played “find Deanna’s car, I know it is here somewhere” in the large field that was the parking lot. And I survived.
The evening was nothing like I had planned.
The evening was exactly what I needed.
I could not have written a better script.
Had I been in control, none of that would have happened.