- written by Chris Register, SURF 2014 Recipient
My research experience has helped me grow tremendously. Not only have I learned a great deal about the content of my research, but I have also learned about what it is like to perform independent research in a graduate or post-graduate atmosphere. First-hand research is a different experience entirely from the classroom because it allows for much more freedom to explore and grow.
For my project on Bayesian Models of Cognition, I met with Professor David Danks at Carnegie-Mellon University. As a leading scholar in the philosophy of cognitive models, Professor Danks provided invaluable feedback on the results of my research project. In my last meeting with Professor Danks, I told him about how much I had learned by being immersed in a research environment as opposed to a classroom. Perhaps the contrast is a difference in kind; a research experience, as an immersive and “hands-on” activity, teaches you to know-how, whereas classroom learning is primarily teaching you to know-that. In research, one gains a robust knowledge of very fine-grained differences in the various practices and ideas of one’s field. Professor Danks and I considered the possibility that the difference is immersion; complete involvement in a field lets one see every dimension, practical and theoretical. In this way, we can see that learning about a field—whether philosophy, psychology or any other specialized discipline—is very much like learning a new language: the hands-on experience really makes a world of difference in one’s understanding.
As a philosophy student, I was not sure if there would be a great difference between my undergraduate and graduate studies – after all, reading, contemplating, discussing and writing are all activities that will continue to graduate-level courses. And yet, Professor Danks stressed the difference to me. In undergraduate philosophy, one primarily explains others’ ideas or grapples with them on the other’s terms. In graduate philosophy, one begins to develop and express one’s own ideas. It is a difference of degree: as one pursues research more independently, moving further afield from the beaten path, the language becomes less well-defined. The questions become more exploratory. In independent research, one sets out the domain of inquiry; you are free to define the problem, and hence, to choose your own practice. The difference stressed by Professor Danks is that in this sort of research, there is more freedom. Correspondingly, there is more demand on the researcher. When one creates one’s own questions about the world, the “correct” answers do not yet exist. That is the nature of novel research: to create the answers to new questions. In this way, research is a kind of art—it is creative and exploration is encouraged.
The language of a discipline is the canvas for research. It is a language that one must come to know in order to produce beautiful works in that domain of human knowledge. Over the course of my research, I developed a more nuanced understanding of the Philosophy of Cognitive Science and of the language of Bayesian models of cognition. Only after undertaking an immersive investigation of Bayesian models was I able to produce something interesting. And while the product of my research—a paper—is simply a fruit from the tree, it is the growth of the tree which carries over into the coming academic seasons.
On that note, I would like to thank my advisor, Professor Laurie Paul, for encouraging me to pursue this project in a highly independent fashion. She knew that the experience and growth over the course of the project would be more important for me than the particular questions I investigated.