How hobbies boost academic research skills

When I was a kid, I read all the time and I still do. Reading is the first hobby I remember from my childhood. The connection between this and my scholarly work is obvious, but until I started writing this article, I rarely stopped to consider the myriad ways in which my other hobbies – from mandolin to wrestling going through woodworking – also had an impact on my research.

I have many hobbies. I feel like I collect them like some people collect stamps or Pokémon.

Certainly, everything we do, and a lot of things we don’t do, shape us as people. Yet I rarely stop to reflect on what shapes me and how. Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. Sounds a little harsh, but I think it’s a good draw. I welcome the opportunity to examine a facet of my life – my scholarship – through the prism of my hobbies. Or maybe what I do is the opposite of that: examining my hobbies through the prism of scholarship.

Notes on Music Mastery

I have been involved in music since I was a child. I sang in high school and college choirs and played guitar for nearly 40 years. During the pandemic, I learned to play the mandolin, while honing my skills with the banjo and bass. Thinking musically gives me a different way of approaching a problem – a unique way of knowing. Embracing different epistemologies allows for more creativity in research. Having multiple frames of thought on a problem provides a broader set of solutions.

Music also teaches me patience. I learned to accept being bad at something long enough to become good at it. When I pick up a new instrument, it may seem difficult or frustrating at first. But after a few years of trying, I often notice that eventually, somewhere along the way, I learned to play the instrument that was frustrating me.

In the same way, good scholarship takes time and requires faith that you are making progress even if it is not always the case.

Sport: from fundamentals to strategy

I study learning and instruction and am interested in learning in the psychomotor domain, which is how we learn physical skills. It is often overlooked in the academic literature in favor of the cognitive domain, which is how we learn mental skills and includes most of what we do in school.

I have always loved sports. I wrestled in high school and college and practiced martial arts for decades. These days, I mainly play tennis.

When I learn a sport, I pay attention to how I learn the moves and how I am taught. In doing so, I gain insight into a branch of my field of study. More generally, however, sport helps me see the benefits of mastering the fundamentals. When I first learn a sport, the emphasis is on being able to perform certain movements correctly and automatically. Once I’ve mastered the basic moves, I focus on strategy and tactics.

Now, when I play tennis, I’m more concerned with the mental aspects than the physical ones. There is a strong parallel with research. You should have basic research skills developed to the point of automaticity, so you can focus on the more creative aspects of your studies.

Woodworking as a research workshop

I have a carpentry shop in my basement; I guess you could call it more of a makerspace. There are dozens, if not hundreds of tools and techniques that can be combined in different ways to accomplish a task.

Recently I purchased a new sander and found that the design had changed from five holes in the sanding pad to eight. This is an improvement as it allows for better dust collection. However, I have stacks of five-hole sandpaper. So I had to find a way to convert my old sandpaper to a new design. I ended up building some sort of hole-punching machine that would put the new pattern of holes in the old paper. This kind of creative problem solving happens all the time in woodworking, just as it happens in research and scholarship.

The more ways you can think of ways to approach a problem, the better. The more familiar you are with research tools and techniques, the more creative you can be in designing your research. As I have improved my woodworking over the years, I have also learned to value precision. Where I might have initially been okay with a quarter inch in my design, I’m now unhappy if I’m even a few thousandths away. Projects look better and work better when everything fits. And it’s amazing the number of ways to go wrong!

The same goes for scholarships. It’s important to be precise, and it helps to understand the factors that can lead to inaccurate searches. For example, a poorly worded question in a survey can lead to ambiguous or misleading results. You could spend a lot of time analyzing those results only to find that you weren’t measuring what you thought you were measuring.

What I learn by learning

I guess my real hobby, if I had to narrow it down to one, is learning. I like to learn. And I’m not picky about what. I am curious by nature, but I am not sure that this curiosity is simply innate to my personality. Learning begets learning. The more I know, the more I want to know. It’s kind of the opposite of Dunning–Kruger effectwhich is well documented in the psychology literature and basically says that the less you know, the more you think you know.

I also enjoy making or seeing connections between unrelated things (eg how my hobbies influence my scholarship). I firmly believe that there is always a lesson to be learned, from any person or any event. The trick is to realize this and seek out this lesson.

Stephen W. Harmon is interim executive director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at Georgia Tech, associate dean for research at Georgia Tech Professional Education, and professor at the College of Design.

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Paul N. Strickland