On The Bus – Hello and Thanks!

It’s been some time since I’ve had to commute on the bus.  As a student, the bus was my main mode of getting around town (and the occasional trip home), but in my post-student days, I’ve been privledged to have a vehicle of my own to commute in.

A few weeks back, I carpooled to Hamilton with my wife so that I could attend an ethics workshop at McMaster University.  After my business was done on campus, I took the bus from campus to her place of work.

I greeted the driver as I embarked the bus, paid my fare, and took a seat.  Instead of getting lost in whatever was on my phone, I took the opportunity to watch the streets as we drove by and listen to the sounds of the bus.

I was startled when I realized that I had forgotten that regular bus-riders always thank the driver when disembarking.    It was something I did back in my student days, and I was glad to see that not much had changed in the 5-7 years since I regularly rode the bus.

Given that I had forgotten this little gesture of appreciation and kindness, I wanted to take a moment in this otherwise dull blog to commit it to memory and share the sentiment.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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The Value of Probing Assumptions

I was on a consultation call a few weeks ago about an ethics application.  The project was seeking feedback from participants about access to specific mental health information, and in my feedback to their application, I noted that their demographic question concerning the gender of the participant was probably too narrow.  The applicant asked for some advice how to address the comment.

On the one hand, they considered dropping the question as it a.) didn’t obviously connect to their research question, and b.) the literature supporting this branch of mental health was pretty well-studied in terms of incidence rates for the condition along the sex dimension, so they might not learn anything new by asking for the participant’s gender or sex.  On the other hand, if they left it in, they had to contend with whether they should use sex or gender as the focus of the question.  Since the mental health topic they were researching was a medical condition, it seemed like (biological) sex was the more salient feature, whereas my feedback suggested that if they chose gender, they would need to ensure it was inclusive.

While discussing the implications on the phone, I tried to tease out what the purpose of the study was.  Their study was collecting qualitative information about how people access information.  In the context of the demographic information, they weren’t seeking to know how a person’s sex/gender relates to the condition itself.  But, I wonder aloud, it seemed the purpose of the study was to understand how people seek information, which could arguably be influenced by one’s culture, behaviour, socialization, and experience of how the world treats them.  In that way, you would want to focus less on a person’s physiology and instead you might discover interesting differences in how a person seeks information based on their life-experiences.

The applicant noted that they started the phone call intending to drop the question from the survey, and through my line of questions and probes, was convinced to keep the question and modify it to be more inclusive.

I am not telling this story as a normative push on how we should conduct inquiry (though by reading through the lines, you should get a sense of how I feel about the topic).  Instead, I share this story as an example of why posing good questions is important to remove ambiguity and clarify thought.  One of the goals of our ethics board when we review applications is to make implied premises explicit so that we can be sure of what we take as a given when we set out to study a research question.  We often default to accepted practice and proceed with common tools, but sometimes we don’t think carefully through the implications of what using those tools means.  By leveraging my outsider status, I have an opportunity to get the applicants to explain concepts and lines of reason without assuming I share the same understanding of the material that they do.  This helps to spot those areas where the project is weakened by unsupported claims and assumptions.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Beware the Salesman

Podcast ads.

Hacks and routines.

Blogs that promote and sponsored content.

Look to the incentives and see if they align with your own.

What’s in their interest might not be in mine.

This might change over time.  Sources that don’t sell might eventually sell.  There is a future where I might try to sell you something or join my mailing list.

Beware the one who sells you solutions for problems they don’t have.

Beware the sponsored content coming from authorities you like.

Beware the salesman who makes universal the particular.  The one who puts everyone into a clearly defined box.  The one who makes money on your problems.  The one who charges to join their community.

I’m not saying these are all inherently bad things; merely that they merit many second thoughts.

Secret shortcuts don’t exist.  If they were valuable, they wouldn’t be secret and they wouldn’t be a shortcut – they would be the norm.

Everyone has to make a living.  Everyone has something to sell.  But not everyone has your best interest in mind.

Caveat emptor.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Office Cards

Until I started working in an office, I had never experienced the “office cards” thing myself.  I actually didn’t realize it was a thing until recently, either.  This is likely to be attributed to the gendered roles of emotional labour – I, as a man, don’t really think about these sorts of things because they aren’t expected of me.  But, in our office, cards are reliably circulated and initiated by the women of our office.  I’m not saying this is right or fair.  The truth is, I should take a more proactive role in these sorts of community-building activities because of my membership to the group.   In my personal life, I’ve taken the habit with a few friends to regularly send letters or thank-you cards for things that happen, but within a work context, I’ve yet to take the initiative.

Before I left the office for my wedding, my colleagues and bosses gathered around my cubicle to give me a card and wish me well for my upcoming nuptials.  The gave me a card with a gift inside.  The gift was thoughtful, but truthfully I appreciate the card more.  Everyone in the office had signed it without me knowing (as is protocol).  A part of me knows that taking a moment to sign a card (especially when everyone is doing it) is a fairly low-effort discharge of obligation; you sign it because someone puts it in front of you and you’d be rude to refuse.

Nevertheless, when I read over the card, and saw everyone’s signatures and well-wishes, it made me happy to be included.  I felt a surge of warmth that my colleagues took the time to do this for me.  I felt the same way when some of the faculty also signed a card to my wife and I.

And this morning, a card was circulated to celebrate one of our faculty members becoming a grandmother.  I felt joy to sign the card, to wish my colleague well and celebrate the birth of her grandchild.  It’s such a small but powerful gesture.

But it’s something I felt like I’ve lost until only recently.  I don’t know if it’s because it wasn’t as common with my family to give cards when I was growing up, or (the more likely case) that as a child I didn’t understand its significance.  That lack of understanding and awareness then was transformed during my transition to adulthood by my lack of care for these sorts of emotional efforts in general.  As I mentioned at the top of the post, men aren’t socialized or expected to perform these sorts of tasks, and I’m no exception to this.  It isn’t asked of me, nor am I expected to think of these things.  Further, no one would blame me for not thinking of this, and I would likely receive a lot of praise if I did.

Truthfully, I’m a lazy person, and I like that this kind of expectation isn’t placed on me.  It gives me a free pass to coast and disengage.  But, I also acknowledge two things: first, it’s not fair that I get a pass for being a guy while these tasks are expected of women; and second, that receiving signed cards brings me joy, which should motivate me to do the same for others in similar circumstances.

Card that express joy for others fortunes, or cards that acknowledge pain and grief in others are worth sending, because it’s a small, uncommon way to stay connected to others in personal ways.  It’s something I should do more often.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan