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Observe the Larger Picture

One of the lesser-known job requirements in academia is reviewing conference and journal submissions. I've read some highly intellectual pieces that offer a ton not only to the discipline, but also to the average media consumer.

Not all pieces are great. The smaller the conference or journal, the lower the quality of submissions. One requirement I've always stuck to over the years is the contribution to the body of research. In other words, does this research point to a larger perspective?

Here's an example. One paper I rejected was an analysis of "Barney" from the sitcom How I Met Your Mother. It reviewed his role as a hyper masculine, which is common in gender studies research. The paper recalled several scenes where this was most evident.

However, the paper didn't tie this research to the overarching view of the trends of masculinity on television. It didn't put the research in line with masculinity in society. It just focused on the one show and character.

It's up to the reader to perhaps tie this character analysis with others, which might be appropriate in English literature classes. Maybe another researcher could use this analysis in his or her collection of hyper masculine characters on television. I rejected the paper because the author didn't make the tie.

Of course, other reviewers liked the paper because they loved the show, even if the show had been off the air for several years. Is that what research is about? Hardly.

Reputable research often does follow trends, but it also remembers its mission to the overarching body of knowledge. It looks at one thing up close, the way you'd look at a Monet, but then it steps back and relates it to the overall picture.

This is how we make sense of things. Rather than see life as one unrelated episode after another, we make note of it, particularly the attributes that resonate most strongly with us. Then we step back and ask ourselves--what does this mean?

Our experiences color our perspective. Although academic research aims to see beyond personal perspective to extract overarching themes and patterns, we don't often do this with our experiences.

Instead, we react. We use our first, heuristic assumption--which is often incorrect--to judge what we see. If we experience a strong emotion as a result, we feel the need to tell everyone. We vent our emotions without really asking this critical question: "What is it about me that is reacting so strongly?"

Without adequate reflection, we tuck this episode into our memory, filing it with related episodes that fuel our perspective. We later use that episode as an example of "proving" that our perspective is the right one.

Yet we fail to see that perhaps a small fraction of this episode was taken out of context, and now we're using it to fuel more drama in our lives. We continue to do this, fueling our bias and further clouding our perspectives of reality. We're just focused on few brush strokes of several paintings of our lives rather than stepping back and looking at the large picture, considering other people's perspectives.

Returning to the How I Met Your Mother paper, I noticed that the writer didn't consider the differing interpretations of Barney. In other words, the author only focused on her interpretation of Barney as a hyper masculine, even though he might have been received as a caricature. Some might see him as a personal hero--as a way to attract women.

Perhaps this also speaks to my own criticism of critical studies. It tends to feed its own perspective rather than consider multiple interpretations--which is what it's supposed to do.

Even so, we can learn a little something about how we perceive things. We can remember that other people can interpret the exact same episode in a completely different way. We might even stir up controversy about it, declaring that our perspective is the "right one."

Ultimately, it's up to us to step back and take a look at the larger picture. We might even see that the small brush stroke we thought was the devil might actually be the wheel on a cart or the hoof of a horse.

Reflect rather than react.

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