How Our “Experience Windows” Both Enable and Constrain Our Vision


windowI just started an exploratory study this week, conducting qualitative research on undergraduate students who grew up with one or both parents in the military.  My first interview was bonkers (in the best way).  The young women I spoke to was articulate and introspective, and the connections she made between her experiences as a military kid and her literacy practices gave me a series of lightbulb moments into my own experience growing up in the military.  For one thing, I didn’t realize the possible connections between my love of reading and my frequent relocations.  When you move to a new place and you don’t know anyone yet, books are your friends and your escape from stress.

My background as a military kid is a great benefit in this research project–I know some of the lingo, I know what questions to ask, and I am able to mirror my participants’ sentiments back to them with true empathy.  I know how many ranks there are between second lieutenant and lieutenant colonel.  I know the difference between TDY and PCS, and I spent a good chunk of my childhood in base housing.

We are usually well attuned to the ways in which our experience is an asset.  We are quick to think of ourselves as insiders and experts, quick to offer a definitive interpretation on what something means because of what something meant for us.

However, as one of my professors pointed out during the first week of classes, our experiences are both an asset and a liability.  Experience is a window open to a piece the world.  While we easily attend to and analyze what we can see through our windows, we often don’t think about the limitations the window puts on our perspective.

My experience as a military kid gave me a set of expectations that I carry into my research, which makes it tough to avoid a confirmation bias.  I tend to interpret what my participants say in light of my own experiences, instead of letting their stories be their own.  Sometimes my background will give me a false confidence that I know more about a person than I really do.  It makes it harder for me to be surprised by what I learn in these interviews, and good qualitative research is supposed to be surprising.  My window onto military life, created by my own experiences, allows me to see some things and prevents me from seeing other things.

The idea that experience both enables and constrains our vision is true in other areas of life besides research.  We’re inclined to think of our experience as a benefit–which it most definitely is–and then overlook the ways it limits us.

In relationships, we sometimes expect a friend or loved one to behave a certain way because we think we’ve know someone like them in the past.  We interpret (or more often misinterpret) their actions because we are viewing them through the window of our experience.  What often see what we expect to see.  Have you ever felt that someone was responding to a fictional version of you rather than the real you?

In those wonderful, uplifting political arguments on Facebook, do you ever get the feeling that not only is no one changing their mind, but people are actually getting even MORE entrenched in their own views?  New information alone is insufficient to persuade us, because it comes to us through our windows.  Changing our minds often involves changing the window frame, and that happens over time, as a result of efforts to engage the mind, emotions, memory, and will.

There is no way around this conundrum.  You can’t step outside the house, and you can’t knock down walls.  The trick is to recognize your own position.  Be aware of the ways that your experience constrains you; examine your expectations and interpretations carefully.  In this project, I’m trying to continually reflect and ask myself, “What am I not seeing?”  I’m talking through my interview protocol with my writing group, having them help me refine my process, because they all have different windows.  I think it would benefit me in life as well, when I’m frustrated by a person’s words or actions to ask again, “What am I not seeing?”

I hope that this exploratory study (as well as the pilot study and dissertation to follow) becomes an experience in itself that broadens my window onto the world of military life.  I want to be challenged and surprised by my research, not have my pre-existing theories confirmed.  And I hope that through this process I glean insights not only into military life and students and literacy practices and pedagogy, but also into the way we humans see things, the way we know things, and the way we learn.



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