Tempering Our “So What”

One of the most difficult questions that a researcher has to answer is, “So what?” An interesting question is worth nothing if it makes no impact on the world. This is doubly true in an applied field such as music education. I’m nearing the end of my dissertation proposal right now, and have recently had to wrestle with “So what?” I have watched my “so what” get smaller and smaller, from a sweeping gesture encompassing all of music education to a narrower focus on one rather tiny element of the ethical process of music teaching. I wonder what the pre-grad school me—the me who taught 6 separate preps every day, who had to write his own marching drill, who ate lunch walking around while working with students—would think of the current me with this small “so what.”

We hear over and over about the disconnect between research and practice. In one particularly egregious example of this disconnect, our national organization decided that researchers and practitioners didn’t even need to meet together at the same time, buffering the respective conferences by about 5 months and about 300 miles. I worry that one of the causes of this perceived disconnect is a misunderstanding of the “so what” problem. Practitioners, so we are told, want clear answers and practical solutions. The underlying question is supposedly, “How does this help me do my job?” Its a good question, but I think there’s more to this issue. Sometimes clear and practical misses the point. On occasion I also worry that some researchers underestimate and speak down to practitioners in their attempts to bridge the perceived disconnect. At the very least, I’m not certain that we have a broad enough imagination for what counts as “help,” nor do I think we should all be so quick to assume we mean the same thing when we say “job.”  Sometimes the “so what” is simply a provocation to change our thinking.

I can’t necessarily speak for others, but I can relay my own experience and hope it resonates. As a young teacher I thought “help” meant advice about choosing repertoire and “tool belt” pedagogical tips and tricks. My “job,” as I saw it then, was to take those kids and make them musical. The longer I taught the more my attention turned to the kids who I could not reach, especially those who were so clearly musical yet found no home in school music. At that point “help” meant learning how to incorporate forms of musicianship and pedagogy that were unfamiliar to me, that I had previously been told were a waste of time. “Help” meant rethinking the very nature of my “job” to fit those students who were left out. I didn’t make nearly the headway into that part of my job as I would have liked to before life took me off to graduate school. But I haven’t stopped learning, and I still think I can do some good in the world.

Others will have a different story. Their “help” and “job” will be different than mine. Thus the “so what” that matters to them and their students will look different than mine. Researchers have to accept that following their “so what” with passion and burning curiosity will be a “help” to someone. Researchers and practitioners also need to recognize that the barrier between those two professions is mostly illusion. We are all researchers. Research is inquiry. Research is curiosity. Research is care and attention— systematically and imaginatively looking into some important part of the world: observing it closely, thinking about it deeply, asking questions of it, seeking to understand it, sometimes trying to change or improve it, always letting it change and improve us in the process. We are all also practitioners, living a life shaped by the practices we hold dear, caring enough to subject those practices to our researching and scrutiny.

The hammer and anvil at the top of this post are tools for shaping raw materials. In the hands of one craftsperson they can make a sturdy and useful tool. In the hands of another they can make a beautiful sculpture that challenges our understanding of the material itself. The most skilled artisans can accomplish both in the same piece. But developing such skill is the process of a lifetime of work. Improving practice through research, improving research through practice, it takes all forms of effort; tiny adjustments with precision instruments and small “so whats,”  great showers of sparks and ash from white-hot questions that threaten to reshape us, and sometimes a cooling bath to temper the heat, perhaps shrinking the scope of the “so what,” yet making it that much more durable and useful. But nothing happens if we leave the tools sitting on the bench.

At the end I suppose my point is that both researchers and practitioners have to temper their expectations of research. Not to engage with less of it, but to seek out more and more. No single study is likely to have a huge impact on the lives of students and teachers. But small acts of curiosity, undertaken by caring and dedicated individuals working together, can add up to something useful and beautiful. Read, listen, ask questions, change, be changed.

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