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Developing a Research Proposal, and contemplating the life of Einstein

Updated: Nov 5, 2023


Towards the end of his life, Einstein noted his intense curiousity about the world and a sense of awe for the mysteries of the universe were probably what helped him acccomplish what he did. He was also stubborn, non-conformist, irreverent, and passionate about life and how we lead a 'moral' life according to biographer Isaacson (2007).


He wasn't just a scientist. He cared deeply about not only understanding the universe and our place in it, but also how we might survive the advent of a nuclear age. Imagine what he might have said today about what we've done to the planet and how we are treating each other.


As I've been continuing to work on my research proposal for my PhD, I've also been listening to a biography of Einstein (Isaacson, 2007). It has helped me think about what I have always been very curious about. What is driving my work and school life right now? What is the 'rock in my shoe' that bugs me?


I didn't think about adult education and community development when I was a child, but I am the daughter of two teachers, and my parents were always active in our community. I think their approach to life just kind of rubbed off on me. In Grade 12, I discovered a journalism class and became active writing some pieces for the local newspaper, including some interviews of local political candidates.


Something clicked. I don't know if I was really aware of this when I applied to journalism school at the University of King's College, but I did see journalism as an opportunity to 'educate' people at large so they would have a better understanding of their world and to be able to make more informed decisions in public life.


Journalism led to working in film and television, and then to developing learning opportunities for people working in film and television in Atlantic Canada. This led to a curiosity about adult education and nonprofit leadership. Both of which I did certificate programs for through Dalhousie University, and then eventually went on to doing a Masters in Adult Education specializing in Community Development at St. Francis Xavier University.


While I was at St. FX, I was always interested in how we could create better communities and societies more effectively. By better, I would say I was thinking about less suffering and more wellbeing, even flourishing, for human beings and the planet. This concept has grown more distinct and explicit since my exposure to more philosophical and theory during the work of doing my PhD, especially in newer areas like posthumanism and agential realism. My PhD is in educational studies, but also focused on lifelong learning and what Hall (2006) said was one of the most one of the most important forms of learning, social movement learning.


For me, this translated into continuing to be curious about how big ideas about the world could help inform how people learn in community, and how they could use their learning in ways to reduce suffering and improve wellbeing, for everyone in our communities and societies. Community development then has also always been a field of interest, and practice, that I've been interested in as well. Lately, I've also been mulling over the question of how we do this 'together' more.


I've done a lot of teaching and coaching in community development, but I find myself becoming disillusioned as I've gotten older in what community development seems to be about. Admittedly, it is a young field. The International Association for Community Development (IACD, which I'm also a Trustee of) is only 70 years old. Their International Standards for Community Development Practice were only ratifed globally in 2018. My concern is the strong focus on community-based economic development (CED) in Canada, and more recently social enterprise development and social finance. I wonder if we're focusing too much on the economic sphere of public life and overlooking other important areas of learning related to how community development work is done in other places around the world.


In Canada, the main national organization for community development we have is the Canadian Community Economic Development Network (CCEDNet, which I was president of for a time). Since I've joined the IACD and been able to learn about and reflect on community development practice around the world, I been starting to reflect and 'meditate' on what community development practice is all about, who I am as a community development practitioner and educator, and what the role of lifelong learning in community development work is for both professionals in this new field but also the many volunteers active in community development work.


I've also been thinking about how meditative inquiry as an approach to learning (pioneered by a professor of mine, Dr. Ashwani Kumar) could be used to enhance learning in the practice of community development. I think meditative inquiry resonated very strongly with my in the first year of my PhD because I live with a mental 'illness' called bipolar disorder, and I've done a lot of therapy in my life; cognitive therapy, dialectical therapy, mindfulness and more recently forms of psychoanalytical therapy. In the language of adult education theorists Mezirow (2000) and Daloz (2000), the exposure to meditative inquiry fit well with the 'meaning schemes' in my brain that inform how I see the world.


I also really appreciated the non-prescriptive nature of Dr. Kumar's ideas of meditative inquiry. For an assignment in class, we were asked to find some form of relaxing activity, to practice it, and to document what we felt and experienced while doing this practice on a regular basis. The results for me are part of an article co-written by myself, Dr. Kumar and a couple other students called Holistic Ways of Leading an Academic Life (2023).


In addition to exploring ways I thought meditative inquiry could help me as an academic though, I was even more curious about how it could be used as an approach to learning in community that could help enhance community development practice. To date, neither myself or Dr. Kumar are aware of any application of meditative inquiry to the field of community development. To date, application of Dr. Kumar's work has mainly been within the context of learning and curriculum development within elementary, secondary and post-secondary educational contexts.


Through various presentations (including one for the Researchers Forum for the IACD, 2023) I've been exploring how meditative inquiry could enhance self-directed learning and reflection for professionals working in community development, how it could help engage diverse stakeholders and how it help address the nature of conflict itself, within groups and at large.


This brings me back to Einstein who was very prophetic in his predictions about the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Thoughout his life, Einstein was not just a reknown physicist but also a pacifist, except when confronted with the horror of Nazi Germany and their systematic efforts to eliminate Jewish people and anyone else they felt did not fit with their vision of the 'perfect' Aryan race.


Beyond his scientific discoveries, Einstein was also intrinsically concerned with ethics and what it meant to live a moral life. He revered nature, and famously said there was no God for him but Spinoza's God. In this, Einstein did not believe in a god that concerned itself with the fates and actions of human beings, but rather he believed that the simplicity and power of the natural world, the cosmos, must have some underlying 'force' guiding its awe-inspiring structure and being.


It was this admiration for all of existence itself that inspired Einstein in both his scientific work and as a citizen of the world. This, in turn, has helped me to think more about why I seem to care so much about this question of creating better communities, a better world. Einstein famously said his pursuit of a unified theory, even though it seemed impossible, was a responsibility all 'intellectuals' or scholars must pursue. What he meant was even though the challenge of finding an answer to a question might seem impossible, the nature of the work to strive to find an answer was still worthwhile and even critically necessary to the nature of learning and discovery.


Thus, while I will never be like Einstein, I I do feel I have a responsibility in my own work, my own fields of interest, to do what I can to make the world a better place. Given the range of existential challenges we are facing, this work seems more critical than ever and everyone's contributions are important. In community development, some people value practice much more than theory: 'We don't need theory, we just need to do the work.' But what if the theory, including the wide range of new philosophical 'paradigms,' could help us to do the work better?


This is the context then for the work I will look to do in my PhD, but also in my practice as an adult educator and as a community development practitioner. As part of this work, I will use auto-ethnography as a methodology and as methods, I will journal, present, blog, discuss, and write. I have chosen this approach because I believe in the power of personal stories and how they can resonate beyond an individual to connect with others to reveal broader 'truths' about the world. To this end, my research will include an exploration of my own lived experience as a community development practitioner, educator and now scholar. I hope it will not only help me answer some questions I've been wrestling with, but also serve others interested in these fields in terms of both practice and theory.


References


Daloz, L. A. (2000) Transformative learning for the common good. In Jack Mezirow & Associates, Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress. Jossey-Bass Inc: San Francisco.


Hall, B. (2006). Social Movement Learning: Theorizing a Canadian tradition. Contexts of Adult Education: Canadian contexts.


Issacson, W. (2007). Einstein: His life and universe. Simon & Schuster.


Mezirow, (Ed.) (2000). Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress. Jossey-Bass Inc: San Francisco.

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