Last night I spoke about my research to the RSA Newcastle crowd at one of our monthly get-togethers. It was the first time I had spoken to an eclectic crowd — previous talks had been to audiences in either HCI or digital religion — and it went over very well. Preparing the slides also helped me clarify some thinking about two of my thesis chapters. (I’ll post the slides AFTER I submit my thesis.)
All good stuff.
I received an email today from my primary supervisor saying that my “mock viva” has been scheduled for the 17th of October and that I’ll need to get a reviewable draft of all my chapters to the panel no later than the 8th. The mock viva panel are the two people who have done my annual progress reviews, so I’m pleased they could both do this. They know my work and give good feedback.
A mock viva is like a test run of the viva voce exam in which the examiners ask questions about the final submitted thesis and decide on your fate. The mock has two purposes: to give you experience in answering questions of the sort the examiners are likely to ask, and to give you feedback so you can make changes in your thesis to ensure the examiners get your best work. I have been reassured that for the mock the thesis doesn’t have to be polished (or even quite finished), so I will do the best I can by the 8th. I must get my literature review finished this weekend and then write drafts of the discussion and conclusions chapters, which I’ve not started yet (except for notes). Polishing the analysis chapters (of which there are three) can wait until I’ve got some meaningful content in every chapter.
My thesis has to be 75,000-85,000 words long. I’m at about 73,000 now, so it’s going to be tight. As I write, I’m identifying bits I can move into footnotes, endnotes, or appendices, if need be.
Thanks for all your good wishes!
I should have waited until today before posting the abstract, but I was too excited about it to let it go any longer. Today I had a meeting with my second supervisor, who explained the feedback he had emailed me and told me I didn’t have to stick to 300 words. So here’s the revised version. (I’m leaving the original version up because I did say it was the original version. <smile>)
Design Strategies for Transcendent User Experiences
This thesis presents a study of spiritual and transcendent experiences (STXs) — experiences of connection with something greater than oneself — focusing on what they are, how artefacts support them, and how design can contribute to that support. People often find such experiences transformative, and artefacts do support them — but the literature rarely addresses artefact support for STXs. This thesis provides a step toward filling that gap.
The first phase of research involved the conduct and analysis of 24 interviews with adults of diverse spiritual perspectives, using constructivist Grounded Theory methods informed by relevant literature and by studies performed earlier in the PhD research programme. Analysis found that STXs proceed in three stages — creating the context, living the experience, integrating the experience — and that artefacts support at least two stages and people desire enhancements to all three. This STX framework supports and extends experience structures from the literature: it recognises the top-level categories as stages in a cycle where integration alters future contexts, and it extends the structure of STX by incorporating the relationships of artefacts and of enhancement desires to the stages of these experiences. This extended structure constitutes a grounded theory of transcendent user experiences.
The second phase involved the design and conduct of three “Transcendhance” workshops for enhancing transcendence, which aimed to elicit speculative design ideas in an atmosphere of fun and play. By playing a game that incorporated themes from the grounded theory of transcendent user experiences, workshop participants sketched 69 design ideas for techno-spiritual artefacts. Analysis mapped the ideas to the stages of STX and drew on relevant research to inspire possible extensions to the workshop-generated ideas. By far the largest number of ideas mapped to the STX stage Creating the Context, with very few mapping to Living the Experience, which suggests that context may be easier than lived experience to understand and address directly. This point is especially important for experiences such as STX that are tricky to define, impossible to arrange or anticipate, and thus unsuitable for straight-forward “classic” user experience methods. Transcendhance workshops approach techno-spiritual design peripherally, “sneaking up” on the lived experience by addressing the context.
This thesis combines the grounded theory of transcendent user experience with the Transcendhance workshop process, presenting peripheral design as a promising strategy for facilitating design to enhance spiritual and transcendent experiences.
My supervisor says it’s OK for me to post my abstract here. What you see below isn’t what actually went into the Assignment of Examiners form, because after I wrote it I learned that the committee that reviews that form is very picky about language, so although there is precedent in my faculty for writing a thesis in the first person, I changed it for the form. (Man, I hate passive voice.) So what I’m posting here is what I originally wrote, before I revised it to use the third person. I may revise and/or expand it a little for the thesis itself, but this accurately conveys the gist.
This thesis presents a study of spiritual and transcendent experiences (STX) — experiences of connection with something greater than oneself — focusing on designing to enhance them. Such experiences can be ineffable and transformative and artefacts can support them, but the literature rarely addresses the connection between artefacts and these experiences. This thesis provides a step toward filling that gap.
I conducted and analysed 24 interviews with adults of diverse spiritual perspectives, using constructivist Grounded Theory methods as informed by relevant literature and by studies conducted earlier in my programme. I found that STX proceed in three stages — creating the context, living the experience, integrating the experience — with artefact support and desires for enhancement applying to all stages. My theory supports and extends experience structures from the literature: it recognises the top-level categories as stages in a cycle where integration alters future contexts, and it adds artefacts and desires to the structure of these experiences.
I designed and conducted “Transcendhance” workshops for enhancing transcendence, employing play to stimulate design ideas. Using themes from the grounded theory, workshop participants sketched 69 ideas for techno-spiritual artefacts. I mapped the ideas to the stages of STX, building a framework to guide techno-spiritual design. Living the Experience and Creating the Context showed a large disparity in mappings, suggesting that context may be easier than lived experience to understand and address directly, especially for ineffable experiences that are tricky to define, impossible to predict, and thus unsuitable for straight-forward “classic” user experience methods. The workshops approach techno-spiritual design peripherally, essentially “sneaking up” on the lived experience by addressing the context. Even fanciful ideas provided insights for techno-spiritual design.
Combining the grounded theory of transcendent user experience with the Transcendhance workshops, I developed peripheral design as a promising strategy for facilitating design to enhance spiritual and transcendent experiences.
On Wednesday I met with my primary supervisor to discuss the draft of my Methodology chapter. In his written comments he described the chapter as “a thorough and meticulous account of your research process with an [enviable] attention to detail and rigor in argument” and “a fantastic first draft”. More specifically, he said, “It provides a very robust defense of the methods chosen and makes a strong case for a coherent and theoretically informed approach. It is well structured, clear about claims and superbly well referenced.”
He wanted to see more discussion of a couple of things, he said, and we talked about those. But on the whole that chapter is in great shape and I have agreed to send him the final draft on Tuesday. Day after tomorrow.
I have drafted a timetable for finishing the drafts of all my chapters over the summer, and I’ve got my work cut out for me. Good thing I had already decided to forgo my usual holidays — a week of singing Renaissance polyphony in the East Midlands in July and a couple of weeks in Italy in September. I may take a weekend or two and go somewhere, but basically it’s The Summer of Writing Up.
Wish me focus and persistence!
Last night I received an email from another graduate student doing research in techno-spirituality. This woman is in a different university, in a different country, and in a different area of techno-spirituality — her research involves Islamic applications, mainly for helping elderly people conduct their spiritual and religious practices. She has asked my input from time to time, and now she’s finishing her thesis. She wrote me last night that the alt.chi paper that my supervisor and I published three years ago — “Spirituality – There’s an App for That (but not a lot of research)” was the primary motivation for her study.
It’s a nice feeling of accomplishment to be considered and cited as an expert in my field. I find it far more gratifying, though, to know that my work inspires and motivates others.
I love this work.
In my last post I wrote that I had submitted a thing to the Late-Breaking Work venue of the CHI 2016 conference. For some reason I neglected to add a post saying that my submission was accepted. Odd that I would forget something like that.
Anyhow, it was accepted. LBWs are presented as posters, and I’ve just finished preparing mine. You can find the “paper” on the “Papers” page of this blog and you can see a larger version of the poster (one where the text is actually legible) by clicking on the smaller version on this page. (I put “paper” in quotation marks because it’s not considered a paper in the CHI sense of a full research paper that gives quasi-maximum kudos and counts toward academic tenure.)
I’m on the schedule for the Wednesday and Thurssday, so if you’re at CHI I hope you’ll stop by and talk to me during the conference reception or one of the relevant coffee breaks. See you there!
Earlier this week I completed and sent off a submission to the late-breaking work venue of the CHI 2016 conference. (I got it in about an hour later than I had hoped, but a good 45 minutes before the deadline.) I’ll find out in about three weeks whether it’s accepted and I’ll be presenting it as a poster in San Jose, but my supervisor says it’s “brilliant” and “cracking” and I am optimistic. I know it’s good work and provides a contribution to knowledge.
Even if my submission is not accepted, though, writing those six pages has given me a sudden clarity on what my thesis must contain, and I can now see my way clear to moving ahead with that. I still have a little analysis to do, but I’ve finally finished data collection (shortly before Christmas) and now my task is to write it up.
I’ve put “I hope” in the title of this post because there’s always the possibility that the writing-up process will reveal things that I still need to clarify. But I do now, finally, have confidence on what my main contribution will be to knowledge in the human-computer interaction field. That’s a good feeling.
An aside: For a thesis, they call it “writing up”. I find myself wondering what the difference might be between “writing up” and “writing down”. :-)
My research involves (among many other things, of course) reading literature on spiritual emotions such as awe. One of the first studies of awe came out a dozen years ago, conducted by psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt (Keltner & Haidt, 2003). These researchers concluded that awe involves two main components: the perception of vastness and the need for accommodation of that vastness into the person’s existing mental model of the world — or of the universe, as the case may be. (They didn’t frame it in terms of mental models, but as a good HCI person I use that highly appropriate term from my field.) I find this a valuable model for my research.
What concerns me about the treatment of awe in most of the literature — at least, in the literature on awe in spiritual experience — is that it tends to associate feelings of awe with feelings of being small and insignificant. Now, Keltner & Haidt themselves didn’t say that feeling awe necessarily involves our feeling ourselves to be small, just that we perceive vastness in whatever evokes awe in us. (NB: They also emphasize that “vastness” isn’t limited to size alone but could also refer to beauty, goodness, or any of several other characteristics.) Other researchers, however, have taken this to mean that a feeling of awe must necessarily involve a feeling of oneself being small.
And so does Neil Tyson, it would seem.
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, PhD, directs the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Tyson, a strong promoter of science and an outspoken atheist, describes with passion and eloquence the spiritual feeling that his knowledge of his physical connection with the vast Universe evokes in him. In what has been called his “Greatest Sermon“, Tyson explains his view. “It’s quite literally true”, Tyson says, “that we are star dust, in the highest exalted way one can use that phrase. …I bask in the majesty of the cosmos. I use words, compose sentences that sound like the sentences I hear out of people that had revelation of Jesus, who go on their pilgrimages to Mecca.” He goes on to stress: “Not only are we in the universe, the universe is in us. I don’t know of any deeper spiritual feeling than what that brings upon me.”
Tyson also says in the “sermon” that he had received a communication from a psychologist studying “things that make people feel small”, and he commented what a bummer of a job that must be. (Tyson doesn’t name the psychologist, only the university, but I can’t help wondering if it was someone studying awe and taking the approach that it necessarily involved feelings of being small or inadequate.) Donna Burdzy, in her master’s thesis completed just last year (Burdzy, 2014), created the “Sacred Emotions Scale” to tease out the components of the emotions that people feel when they perceive themselves to be in the presence of the sacred. Basing her scale mainly on Rudolf Otto’s framework of mysterium tremendum and mysterium fascinans (Otto, 1923), Burdzy divides her emotions into those of awe and those of fascination (with which I have no quarrel), and from my first reading of her thesis I’d say her method and statistical analysis seem sound. But here’s the rub: Burdzy defines awe as almost exclusively negative. The factor of “Sacred Awe” in the original SES includes sixteen “I felt” statements, and almost every one of them is unequivocally a statement of negative feeling. Examples include
- “I felt like I could cease to exist”
- “I felt worried”
- “I felt unworthy of being in the presence of something so great”
- “I felt insignificant”
- “I felt concerned that I would be found wanting or at fault”
(Burdzy, 2014, p. 85)
I see in the list of sixteen statements only two that might allow for neutral or perhaps even positive interpretation — “I was filled with awe” and “I felt humble” — but the Awe factor in this instrument is overwhelmingly negative and focused on feelings of smallness.
This aspect of research on awe and other emotions evoked by the sacred distresses me, and I refuse to accept it. I take comfort in Tyson’s comments to Bill Moyers Tyson’s comments to Bill Moyers, who asked him about some people’s concerns that astronomy makes them feel small. “It depends on what your ego is, going into the conversation,” Tyson replied, explaining that the atoms that constitute our bodies came from out there in the Universe. “I look up at the night sky;” he observed; “I don’t feel small, I feel large. I feel connected to the universe.” Contemplating the Universe, urges Tyson, “should not make you feel small; that should make you feel large.”
So. If I were a psychologist, I would consider doing more in-depth study of the emotions involved in spiritual experiences. To be fair, my interviews do support the claim that feeling small or humble can be associated with awe. But I don’t like the declaration of “always” in this context, and my data do not support that extreme position. Nor does my individual experience (or Tyson’s, as best I can tell). For now, all I can say to the claim that awe always involves feeling small and insignificant is this:
What about those of us who feel connected to the vastness that evokes our awe? What if we feel inspired by it?
It is not a requirement, I maintain, that to recognize and appreciate the vastness in something else, we ourselves must feel small or inadequate.
Do we really want to take a win-lose approach to spirituality?
Burdzy, D. C. (2014). Sacred emotions scale. Bowling Green State University.
Keltner, D., & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition & Emotion, 17 (2), 297–314.
Otto, R. (1923). The Idea of the Holy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
In fairness, I must make this update to point out that during her analysis Burdzy ended up recognizing the positive position of awe in the experience. Not only did she rename her subscales — i.e., “Sacred Awe” and “Sacred Fascination” (initially named à la Rudolf Otto) became “Sacred Dread” and “Sacred Exuberance” because of how the items fell together — but she moved “I was filled with awe” from the negative group where she had initially placed it to the positive group that she ended up calling “Sacred Exuberance”. Kudos to Donna Burdzy for recognizing and honoring the need for this change.
I’m coming into the home stretch with the first pass of coding the interviews that I have transcribed (I still have 4-5 left to transcribe), and I’m struck by how different they are. Some interviews yield relatively few codes, with multiple paragraphs going into a single excerpt coded with one tag. Other interviews yield a crapload of codes, with a single paragraph generating several excerpts — even overlapping excerpts — some of them being tagged with two and even three codes.
When I have finished the first pass, I will need to make a second pass. Often, I realize that a code I have applied to a later interview needs to be applied to an earlier one. Or I notice that I have created a new code that’s essentially a duplicate of one I had done earlier, and I have to go back and merge them. Yesterday after the AR-2 meeting I read my list of codes to my primary supervisor and he didn’t notice anything that sounded inappropriate or irrelevant, but he wants me to get the list down to about 40 (I now have something like 70). This can be done partly by grouping the codes and using the group name as the main code while still retaining the detail in case I need it.
Then I will need to do “axial coding”. But first, I need to get my head around what exactly that is. Good thing I have a book or two on Grounded Theory. :-)
I adore my topic. I love how inspiring and moving the interviews are for me. No matter how many times I go over them, I always feel closer to my interviewees and I feel my spirits lifted by what they say. Even when I don’t share their beliefs.