What is Research? A Personal Statement

Research is a creative process, a messy enterprise that culminates in what appears to be a systematic and straightforward endeavor, the published report.  What the reader does not see are the meetings over coffee; the shaping and reshaping of central, driving questions; the frustrations when something does not go just right and the exhilaration when a new discovery is born; not to mention the writing and re-writing of a single sentence until callouses form.  As an undergraduate I was intrigued by how knowledge was “created,” so I went to graduate school to figure this out.  Much to my surprise I found that knowledge creation is often clumsy and chaotic.  Though I believe all good research is systematic in some ways, so too is it imaginative work. 

I primarily use my imagination to answer questions about listening as a complex affective, cognitive, and behavioral phenomenon.  Like many academics, this interest was born long before I declared Communication as my major.  In high school I worked in a garage, pumping gasoline and changing oil for a man named Lynn Dossett.  He was a linguistic.  Though not formally trained, he had a knack for correcting my (and everyone else’s) language choices.  Suppose for example a driver entered the store asking “Which way to I-65?” I might respond by saying:

“Well, you go up there, take a right at the red light, and continue until you see the Episcopal school. About 2 miles later, there’s a traffic light, and you’ll see the interstate above you. Hang an immediate left, and you’re on the service road.”

After the customer leaves, Lynn is likely to say, “What if the light is green?” I learned to be careful in how I use language but even more careful in how I attend to others.  There’s a mysterious power in language and even more power in being a “good listener” (or so we are told).

When I finally declared Communication as my undergraduate major, I remembered Lynn’s influence.  Partly because of the interactions with him and his way of listening (he was also highly supportive and analytical, much needed traits for a teenage boy), I am intimately curious about how it is that we come to understand people with whom we interact.  This curiosity peaked in the context of supportive communication because of my training at Purdue under Brant Burleson.  At times when it is so desperately needed, why don’t we listen?  And what does that even mean, to be a “good” listener?  Popular press books and magazine articles seem to have easy answers to questions like these, questions that communication scholars can struggle with for decades and still not have total understanding.  The inherent curiosity that sparked me as a 15 year old garage technician abounds in our social world.  What we do as scholars matters, and I hope that my research can begin to answer some of the important questions so often asked. 

 Answering important questions about human communication is made easier and exorbitantly more enjoyable in a team environment.  Good colleagues and students are invaluable, and those who can question fundamental assumptions and otherwise cause me to rethink how to answer a particular question are the best.  I believe that my research is made stronger by reading widely and by surrounding myself with intelligent people who can assist in my interpretation of how human communication seems to work.  I hope that my future scholarly endeavors lead me to more participatory forms of engaged scholarship, to interacting with various publics to learn about the questions they have, and to co-narrate the answers in a mutually beneficial fashion.

Overall, I have the most gratifying job in the world – simply put, I do what I love, and I see vast practical utility in my labor.  Along the way I hope to inspire others to be passionate about discovering “truths” about human communication, listening, and close relationships.  This interest was born in me before formal education, and my case is not unique –the questions we ask are inherent to the human condition.  Perhaps that is why they are so easy to ask yet so difficult to answer; why it takes vast imagination and creativity to get to the bottom of the mysteries defining our field.  

To see more on my approach to research, you can go here. There, you will see two videos called Thinking Like a Researchers and Acting Like a Researcher.