Research Statement of Purpose
In my first year of college, an English professor showed me an idea which she attributed to V.S. Ramachandran's on how people draw two synonyms differently. Ramachandran had people draw the contrast between ecstasy and rapture, which they frequently contrasted as a starburst and a swirl, respectively. The etymological origins of these synonyms are the purported reason for this association, yet this information is not part of the everyday use of these words, or even apparent in a dictionary. Still, as I replicated the findings with friends, it surprised me that proficient English speakers showed a sensitivity to these etymological origins without any capacity to explain why. I theorized that the process by which we all visualized the contrast between these similar abstract concepts was enculturation – the slow exposure to patterns of stimuli that establish the norms, concepts and values of a community. As I progressed through my undergraduate years, I developed an increasing fascination with complex mental representations that could not be acquired with one trial learning – what are the cognitive requirements and experiences necessary to correctly associate two abstract synonyms, on tasks like the "analogies" section of the SATs?
I do not yet have a word for this type of thinking, but for now I will refer to it as symbolic, pattern-based decision making. I see an undefined space for calculations in the mind, and to understand this space is to understand an important aspect of more complex thinking that will have important applications in education. For now, I will describe it as a "space" based on implicit memory where cultural and linguistic constructs are formed by the mind's extraction of patterns from repeated exposures to complex stimuli. These patterns may or may not be accessible to conscious thought and yet we are able to draw on these patterns to make decisions which represent some cohesive mental representations and are consistent across tasks. The experiences that shape these patterns in a person are created in their environment, which means that the affordances of that person's ecology along with the cultural behaviors exhibited by other people around them combine to shape the patterns they extract. This creates a tension between continuity and change in the patterns of behavior of members of a contextually framed group of people (i.e. who live in a particular place at a particular time and form a community). These patterns then form the substrate of types of thinking which allow us to make intuitive decisions while drawing on patterns from hundreds of thousands of memories and experiences.
Understanding the nature of symbolic pattern-based constructs, their role in human communities, and their cognitive underpinnings requires the study of several processes: a) exploring the way conceptual mental representations manifest in decision-making processes and behaviors, b) studying how people synthesize a pattern out of repeated exposures to infinitely variable stimuli, c) understanding whether intuitive problem solving and executive function connect in ways that are subject to voluntary control and awareness or not, d) identifying how our human cultures provide a framework that helps us to make sense of the extraordinary volume of experiences we process by establishing institutions of authority to triage information, and e) comparing the tendency to conserve the community's symbolic patterns with the tendency to adapt to new ecological contexts or demands made by competing identities.
These themes underly the projects I have worked on since before beginning my study of human development. I did my senior honors work as an undergraduate reviewing research and anecdotes comparing human abilities in language to the abilities of parrots, and human abilities in producing stone tools to the manual abilities of both crows and orangutans. My conclusions were that the processes underlying complex language skills like grammar and the production of an object like an Acheulian hand-axe (a type of stone tool produced by Homo erectus over a million years ago) are similar. Researchers have begun to study this hypothesis, finding support for my conjecture that Acheulian tools require a much more complex set of decisions, taking into account more judgments (e.g. angle, momentum, number of pieces that must be removed to produce a tool that will accomplish the purpose) and thus relying on the central executive is necessary for Acheulian tools but not Oldowan tools (an older, simpler typology that can be produced with fewer strokes; Stout, Hecht, Kreisheh, Bradley & Chaminade, 2015). The decisions required to produce the tool seemed to me, and now to others, as similar to the those that allow the production of a sentence, a parallel that could afford a small window into human evolution. Morgan et al. (2015) found a different parallel between language and flint-knapping: The transmission of Oldowan tool-making technology improves with explicit and intentional teaching, more so with language than with only gesture, but not with simple imitation or emulation. This finding adds another small window which raises the possibility that these two functions evolved in parallel and thus may rely on similar underlying functions and may also have co-evolved. Taken together, these findings support my undergraduate intuition that complex language abilities are connected to increasing sophistication in stone tool technologies and that both rely on the evolution of the ability to slowly accumulate the knowledge of patterns governing a series of actions so that appropriate decisions can be made to successfully achieve a complex goal.
My dissertation work was inspired by a project doing departmental assessment. I was tasked with assessing whether Introductory Psychology effectively taught students research ethics, a system of rules that they must learn to intuitively apply. After reading many brief open-ended responses where students attempted to explain the importance of institutional review boards in research conducted on human participants, I began to notice a pattern. Some students justified the need for research ethics with statements that were concerned with punishment while others were concerned with a person's need for protection from harm. At first I wondered whether this pattern of responses was tied to different levels of moral reasoning indicating individual differences in development, but then I began to wonder, given the uniquely diverse population of students at the College of Staten Island, whether the differences were associated with cultural patterns of reasoning. There was some limited initial evidence that this was so, as I identified a significant association between New Yorkers of Anglo-European heritage with the rationale of protection from harm and New Yorkers of East Asian heritage with the rationale of obedience and punishment. I began to wonder how heritage cultural values interacted with the cultural values underlying the system of ethical values being taught to them as part of training in academic psychology. The prevailing discourse about the myth of the "melting pot" of American culture claims that heritage cultures are eliminated in favor of a homogeneous "American" norm, but this would imply that education erases the values imbued in us by our families, which is problematic if true and implausible to me.
To further examine this finding, I used the context of the 2016 election to examine how predictors of voting preferences that had been identified in prior research, such as authoritarianism and sexism, contributed to voting preferences in an environment like the College of Staten Island, where there is a unique confluence of white, suburban conservatives with urban, multi-cultural New Yorkers from the other boroughs. I was interested in, for example, authoritarianism, because it provides a theoretical connection between the values of parenting practices and the values of political preferences, although it was surprisingly unrelated to any of the measures I used to evaluate cultural values. Similarly, I expected hostile sexism, another previously identified predictor of voting preferences, to be associated with cultural values. In line with prior research, I found that endorsement of hostile sexism significantly predicted a preference for Donald Trump but gender identity did not, contrary to the predictions made by prior research. This finding disassociates gender identity and hostile sexism, which I theorize stems from the fact that sexism is a cultural value based on how members of the community observe men and women being treated and portrayed as a systematic pattern. I am currently working with an undergraduate to pilot an intervention to see if observing female role models in positions of authority (such as being invited to speak at college commencements) can reduce implicit bias against women in leadership positions and reduce prejudice stemming from role incongruity (Eagly & Karau, 2002).
A new predictor I developed for my dissertation, heritage-culture individualism, significantly predicted participants' voting preference for Donald Trump over and above other validated scales measuring individual differences in endorsement of individualism and collectivism (Triandis & Gelfand, 1998; Singelis, 1994). Heritage-culture individualism can be defined as the predicted level of individualism based on the average of the levels identified in one's heritage culture(s) despite living in a community that is not in the geographical region where the heritage culture(s) emerged. The predictions were based on levels identified by Hofstede (1983). My findings suggest that the impact of heritage culture is a significant component that shapes voting decisions, and I hope they will lead other scholars to join me in investigating whether some of these predictors, such as authoritarianism and sexism, are cultural values rather than individual differences. I hope that this reframing will allow people to better understand the nature of prejudice and the challenges of changing people's attitudes towards disempowered groups.
I am currently working to develop vignettes to interrogate Americans' ideas, across specific regional cultures in the United States, about the circumstances that determine when they prioritize personal needs over the needs of a group, or over the precepts of an ideology. I regularly spend time identifying every resource I can to observe patterns in cultures, not only by reading academic findings but also by taking advantage of every opportunity I can find to interact with somebody from a different culture (including different flavors of American culture), trying to directly observe how different cultures operate in practice and constantly testing the hypotheses I have read about in the literature against these observations. Because of my dissertation, I began to wonder about some unusual patterns of differences that I have noticed between the cultural norms in communities that have been rated as high on individualism or low on individualism. Several new hypotheses are emerging from this reflection and observation, including that there are American collectivists, and that collectivism (and individualism) are poorly defined in terms of the strength of priority given to the group and the possible range in sizes of groups which collectivistic cultures prioritize. I also intend to design research to better understand if my findings regarding the lack of relationship between individualism and authoritarianism were simply inconclusive. The relationship between individualism/collectivism and authoritarianism seem likely to be linked in some way that I have not yet imagined, since the role of law and authority in cultural values concerning group organization seems inescapably important. Patricia Greenfield's ecological theory of social change and human development posits that ecological contexts will shift communities from being more individualistic to more collectivistic and vice versa. My own findings add to this theory by highlighting the resistance to change that cultural values can exhibit, as deeply embedded, implicit constructs. For example, I am curious about how different cultures across the United States negotiate the tension between America's strong individualism and the emphasis that some American communities place on the role of religion, or participation in sports teams, or the military. A recent historical/sociological book called American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (Woodard, 2011) identifies cultural regions within the United States that are tied to cultural heritages from different European cultures, and this research could provide a framework of hypotheses to test whether the cultural parameters of different communities may have connections to the heritage cultures of generations ago. Finally, my dissertation suggests that heritage values contribute to voting preferences, so an understanding of these 11 regions may help to clarify or suggest mechanisms to reduce current polarization in American politics.
The slow development of skills is one piece of this puzzle: I have been working on a project in the field of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning since 2015 to assess the values of graduate student teachers. Over the past three years, as part of the leadership of the Graduate Student Teaching Association, I have worked to find a way to capture how novice teachers' attitudes shape the behaviors and decisions they make in their teaching practice. This research is theoretically driven but with a clear application to better serve graduate students with professional development opportunities that will help them develop their teaching abilities as they enter the professoriate. In particular, we wanted to know how experience, coursework, and professional development altered graduate students' ideas of what makes a model teacher, and we found that graduate students with no experience expected to be challenged by effectively transmitting content, whereas more experienced graduate student teachers have become increasingly concerned with how to foster deeper learning and the development of skills such as critical thinking and effective organization of information for written communication (although not at the expense of ensuring the transmission of information). I think of this as studying the pedagogical enculturation of graduate students as they acquire the teaching norms of tertiary education. My role in this endeavor has been one of leadership, bringing together a team of like-minded graduate students who each brought an idea or a scale to include in the project, resulting in a more robust project than any one of us, alone, could have achieved.
This project has not only deepened my understanding of my program of research, but also deepened my reflection on my own teaching practice as I learn to develop curriculum materials on my own. I see a common thread in the way I approach my research and my pedagogy – a process of slow-mapping, carefully curating the ecology of the classroom to create circumstances which allow student's skills to unfurl, and to help them develop skills that will serve them throughout their lifespan, while at the same time, my experiences in the classroom slowly shape my pedagogical skills. As we write up our findings, we have already collected data for the second stage in this programmatic research: We have explored novice teachers endorsement of the importance of deep learning and begun to explore whether novice teachers consider students' motivations when designing educational materials, but our findings led us to wonder about teachers' attitudes towards fostering the development of autonomy and agency. I theorize autonomy and agency to be necessary components of individualism, and I wonder about teachers' roles in shaping students' autonomy in universities where the students are culturally diverse. Very little research has examined the role of teachers' values in shaping autonomy and agency in students in tertiary academic settings. Do some American college teachers focus more than others on scaffolding autonomy and agency? Do students in classes where teachers intentionally scaffold agency become more agentic, and if so, does it help them to succeed? Future work will tie these values to learning outcomes and students' awareness of the teachers' goals and intentions.
Education and voting are not the only important applications of my interest in researching how the slow development of implicit conceptual representations occurs across domains of human cognition – it is also applicable to the study of second language acquisition and adult development of language skills. Two years ago, I began working with an international team of researchers at NYU, CUNY and from the Turkish Board of Education to create digital "care-package" interventions to support Syrian refugees living in Turkey, including an immersive, scaffolded, computer-based program to help the Arabic-speaking children learn Turkish. Studying Persian (and a little bit of Arabic) helped me anticipate these teaching challenges because I had learned to read a different alphabet, and my experience learning Spanish in an immersive environment has also given me valuable experiential insights. These insights have been guiding me in helping to design a language-learning platform which is both an active tool for supporting a disadvantaged population who have little access to effective language-learning opportunities and one further step towards understanding the slow, deep, implicit conceptual development necessary for second language acquisition. The goal of the project is to helping learners of Turkish intuit agglutinative grammatical patterns implicitly by immersive exposure to examples paired with images but without having explicit explanations. My collaboration on this project has continued as we have refined the method and are utilizing more sophisticated tools, like PsychoPy, to program a language-learning platform to explore the role of executive functions and other cognitive individual differences in the ability of adults to acquire foreign language with very different structures than their own language, just from observing and intuiting the patterns of stimuli presented to them.
Taking these findings together, I am at the beginning of a program researching how people slowly form abstract concepts such as cultural values and how these values may resist alteration even when exposed to changing ecological pressures. I want to investigate the cultural and linguistic patterns which are so robust that they pass from generation to generation, and to explore where those transmissions maintain or lose fidelity in order to both help communities preserve their cultures in an increasingly globally connected world, and also to help communities (such as my own) that wish to reshape some of their cultural values in order to reduce prejudice and discrimination.