ME AS A NOVICE RESEARCHER / Aina Tanaka

The other day, I found this quote which defines the term Ph.D. with some humor.  “Ph.D. [noun] an academic that has learned more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing.” The quote humorously describes an expert continuing pursuing their research to the extent they seem to target the focus that is too narrowed down. The quote sounds a little harsh, but I found myself laughing at how it is being sarcastic but still making a point.

I am a novice researcher who decided to continue my research in a Ph.D. program after completing the master thesis I’m currently working on. I gave myself a little time to think about what I want to do as a novice researcher. Of course, I do my research with dignity, and there has been always enthusiasm in me since the moment I made my decision to go for a Ph.D. Nevertheless, I often get the feeling of uneasiness and insecurity thinking about how long and winding the journey I chose will be.

So, the whole point of this essay may be justifying my own decision to make my career in academia and thinking about what I can do as a part of the society to contribute to this large community. I then concluded that is, for me, to add some good spice to make people’s lives happier and easier.

The other day, I was reading a Japanese novel, and I was so touched. I was so appealed by not only the story but also something that is too obvious to say – the fact it’s all written in text. That feeling you get, the insecurity all of a sudden at night; the feeling you get, the butterflies in your stomach being in front of your crush; some delicious scent that gets you to throwback to some memory; or a poetical scenery that makes you feel so nostalgic….

The novel turned all those abstract sense and emotion into the code of language. It was so fascinating to see how written language made the invisible visible and the internal external. It described a phenomenon or experience that was so natural to notice. I came to think that the act of describing a phenomenon is very similar to what people in academia do. They try to reify the phenomenon and define it by sometimes providing some names, codes or numbers, and make them more palpable.

I know it sounds like a little joke but let Okoge be an example. It often makes Japanese people happy when they scoop rice and find Okoge, the crispy or scorched part of cooked rice being stuck to the bottom of a rice cooker. But what if there is no such idea as Okoge in this world? If there is no such concept, you would not take your time to flip the rice just to check if there is any. That brown part of the rice would not be worthwhile. Giving the brown part of the rice the name, Okoge, is equivalent to giving it a certain value. The small fact makes your dinner time a little bit valuable.

The “giving the name” part is applicable to my own research of sociolinguistics / English. We all have some thoughts about English in the current world:

 

“I think English is necessary to acquire in this internationalized world”

“Well, we don’t really need English as long as we live in Japan, do we?”

“Isn’t English the language of only American and British people after all?”

“Nah I guess English belongs to other speakers in the world too…”

 

If all these thoughts are named as “language awareness”, that would make the individual thoughts sound a concrete independent opinion. Some people are so good at filling the blank on a grammar book or following the pronunciation from an audio textbook but somehow can’t turn the ability into real communication. Reversely, other people might not be good at grammar and pronunciation but can muddle through actual conversations.

If the former is called “linguistic competence” and the latter is called “linguistic capability”, that makes the two abilities as much capable as each other, but just for the different functions. Instead of reductionist thinking – what we can and can’t – we can focus on what we are better at.  Just like what we have seen here, people in academia make the invisible visible and the indescribable describable. If we can clearly visualize the ordinary phenomenon that has been always there but too natural to notice, we can build a new concept in our minds. It broadens our perspectives or realities and even extends to another reality.

If that brown and scorched part of the rice is named “Okoge”, the concept is now described, and Okoge would start giving us small happiness. Then the small happiness of Okoge connects to other ideas. For example, we will see “easy recipes for Okoge” on the internet, and rice cookers for Okoge will appear in the electronic-appliance market.

As we see here, the different realities are connected and extended.

At the beginning of this essay, I said what I want to do as a novice researcher was to add some good spice to people’s lives. We are surrounded by a myriad of objects, phenomena, and facts in our lives. Nevertheless, most of these realities are unnoticed because they are too natural and ordinal to even be realized. If we can describe these realities that we are just looking at without thinking, our normal lives could become a little more vivid. The description of the reality would become a good spice to make our lives a little more colorful.

That “spice” is what I want to produce, and how I can contribute to this society.

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