Balance against the giant waves

2015-10-12

This method of teaching is shown in the movie when Daniel and Mr. Miyagi drive out to the seaside shortly before the tournament. Mr. Miyagi tells Daniel to go stand in the freezing water and try to balance against the giant waves that are crashing against the shore. Daniel thinks this is impossible, but he throws back his shoulders, faces the sea, and walks out up to his chest. He is tossed about by the waves, desperately trying to stand up, to keep his balance, to learn how to face the opposition without being knocked over, but it is hard.

He manages to stand upright, but ‘balanced’ would be an overstatement. The shot shows him wobbling alone and cold in a roaring sea that extends out to the horizon. Then, slowly, the camera pans to the right and we are shown Mr. Miyagi balancing on top of a wooden pile two meters off the ground, gracefully crane-kicking on one foot as effortlessly as if he were picking pebbles on the beach. Daniel can barely stand in the sea. Mr. Miyagi can stand on a thin pole above the sea and crane kick.

Watching Mr. Miyagi crane kick in the ocean is pretty much exactly like reading a text from one’s supervisor. A draft of a book chapter from the supervisor, even if it is supposed to be a simple literature review, can make one realize one not only has to stand against the waves, one really ought to be able to crane kick at the same time. A doctoral student can realize she’s been trying to learn, write and teach about a subject for the last five years, but there was no way her knowledge on the field could even come close to what was written in her supervisor’s short, basic literature review.

The professor can effortlessly do summersaults around her work. She could balance on a pile and do crane kicks like Mr. Miyagi. When this happens, a doctoral student becomes convinced that the professor can do anything. Including, perhaps, her most amazing maneuver: to get doctoral students to write a decent dissertation and make it look effortless from the outside. This is not an easy task. And it involves many steps.

(Blog post 5 of 8 about being a PhD student in Sweden. Adapted from: Johnson, E. (2005) ‘Learning Karate, a metaphor for Ph.D. training’ in Mellström, Ulf (ed.) Kunskapens vägar och forskningens praktik Lund: Arkiv pp.87-96)