‘Dissertating’ is a verb I know well  

After almost six years, I am finishing my dissertation. It’s true, this week I wrote page 102 and entered triple digits. It’s not about the page numbers, committee members remind me, or the “quant” — in research circles short for “quantitative analysis” —  something that can be measured by the quantity rather than its quality. 

It’s not about the years it has taken me to get here, or the miles (kilometers, even!) from Guatemala to here, the places I’ve lived since immigrating to this country, the number of books unpacked, or how many times I’ve moved since starting my Ph.D. program. It’s not about the people who are no longer with me, ended friendships or relationships, or the ultimate subtracting number: death or passing. It’s not that at all.

It’s about integration. The integration, in research, happens when you bring together the qualitative, or the “qual” — the nonnumerical — and the “quant” to understand concepts, opinions or experiences. The mixed-methods approach is inductive and deductive thinking, things aren’t seen separately. They are interdependent.

This happens outside of academics, too. It’s been four years and one month since I moved back to North Carolina so that I could be 50 miles from my grandmother, to care for her and be with her at least 120 times before she passed. Each visit, let’s call it a unit, brought a feeling of love and gratitude, which I imagine could generate some keywords for analysis. There is deeper insight to be gained when both truths — the measurable and immeasurable — are held and seen in their entirety.

Education was my religion, and I maintained a clear boundary between my school and my life, the former more orderly and predictable, and the latter less so. I dreaded the moments I would return from elementary school and sit across from my grandmother, who’d begged her father to go middle school in rural Guatemala and share with her what I had learned that day. I never felt up to the task of explaining to her how I understood things so that she could understand them. I felt words would never be enough. Eventually, we’d make a story together. Stories, Bible parables and moving plastic action figures on the kitchen table worked well when I was younger.  

I moved away in 1992, and when I got older, I worked and went to school full time. I kept doing it all of my higher education years. Things remained quite modular and clearly set out between the measurable and immeasurable. The number of scholarships, the number of pages to complete for the citizenship application, my paycheck amount to pay for the rest of tuition.

Each time I returned to see my grandmother she’d ask what I’d learned, how I understood those things I’d learned and then the “so what now?”  Once again, I didn’t feel up to the task. Even so, we’d make a story together.

I can’t remember when it happened. It was a series of data points incrementally, I imagine, but the boundary between the quant and the qual got thinner and more porous. The  combination of different types of data, sources and ways of analyzing things was everywhere, all at once and nothing like the two parallel paths that seldom met in my head. I no longer had valid ways of making sense of my lived experience. I had reached the limitations, as it’s referred to in dissertations, of my inquiry. I had to find a way to set those out and delimit what I could and couldn’t understand at any given point of my life.

“I have never let schooling interfere with my education,” said science writer Grant Allen, a quote attributed to Mark Twain more than a decade later. I was a fan of this quote for much of my high school years, as probably many teenagers were. I just turned it over in my head, over and over, like a shiny penny or a perfect round stone you polish before making it skip on the surface of the river. It was my “go-to” when I made decisions in life that generated outcomes that higher ed could not help me explain.

Now I’m writing my methodology chapter, and it’s taken me, unexpectedly, more days than I anticipated. This chapter is supposed to present the strategy and steps taken to investigate an overarching research question. It is the road map for others after me embarking upon the journey with a similar overarching question. 

In the methodology section, there’s that balance of being prescriptive versus discovery. This is the knowledge transfer, the bridge for someone who doesn’t know the path ahead from someone who has traversed a similar path and can tell you what to expect. While they can’t give their wisdom, the road map they share makes it possible for you to use the knowledge and gain the wisdom for yourself. 

I understand mixed methods in a different way now. It is how you develop an understanding of the interdependent nature of things and how they mutually inform one another. There is no word count here. It’s in the process and in the result of bringing these ways of thinking and being together where you gain in-depth insights into your life — the decisions you make, the events that make you, and your common purpose.

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