Warning: this post contains pictures of spiders. Big ones. Please close this post now if this is going to totally freak you out.
One of the fun things about being Australian, especially when you travel overseas, is freaking out non Australians with stories of the huge spiders, lizards and snakes which occasionally wander into your house. Australians tend to affect casual un-concern at the gasps of horror which inevitably follow the telling of these stories to non-Australians, but don’t be fooled. Many of us are shit-scared of these creatures and react with fear and horror when confronted with them.
Interestingly, some of our wildlife that looks the most scary is actually not dangerous at all. Take the Huntsman spider:
He’s big right? Yep. Mostly harmless to humans apparently, but just imagine finding one of these creatures walking above your head while lying in bed. The most common method to get rid of the Huntsman is with a glass and a broom, out of respect for their size (killing them is hard and gruesome work). I make Mr Thesis Whisperer deal with spiders with his size 10 boot.
I was forced to confront and re-evaluate my relationship with spiders late last year, when I moved into our new Canberra home. The logistics of a 500km move being what they are, I ended up ‘camping’ on the floor in one of the bedrooms for 5 weeks. I had my work clothes, bits and pieces of crockery and utensils, but no fridge, microwave, chair or table. I had to eat standing up and work sitting on the floor. The rental house (which we have nicknamed ‘The McMansion’) felt very big and empty, kind of lifeless and distinctly spooky at night. I felt edgy and I didn’t sleep well.
This situation was not helped by the spiders.
Spiders had been treating the vacant house as some kind of Spider Hilton. This Facebook update, which I posted the first night I spent in The McMansion, was posted while feeling proud of myself for killing a small black spider without the benefit of Mr Thesis Whisperer’s size 10 boot:
While most of my friends laughed at my tale of spider-murder, some reacted with various degrees of outrage. Spiders, they claimed, are poor, misunderstood creatures. “Yeah, yeah, yeah” I thought to myself until my friend Dr Lynne Kelly chimed in.
Lynne is an expert on spiders (although her actual thesis is about pre-historic archeology) – she’s even written a book “Spiders, learning to love them” and blogs about their lives on the delightful, if somewhat freaky “Spiderblogger”, which she started as a cure for her own aracnaphobia. Lynne decided to re-educate me and out of respect for her I tried really hard to listen, but I still wasn’t convinced. Then next week, this happened:
Basically this huge spider camping by my door was my worst spider fear made manifest. While I had a glass, I had no broom – I’m not even sure I could have used it anyway. Lynne and my spider loving friends, bless their hearts, took this opportunity to help me deal with my fear through knowledge. The Huntsman, Lynne pointed out is an amazing creature. Its life is hard: this one had lost a leg in the process. Lynne informed me that he was in his mating period now and I should just leave him be, he would move on of his own accord when he finds a spider lady friend.
My friend Andrew Buntine joined in to point out the advantages of the situation. True to their name, he said, Hunstmans hunt and kill other bugs. Given that I had also encountered a large cockroach that morning, I suddenly saw there might be something in it for me to exercise tolerance. This whole situation might, I mused to myself, provide an excellent opportunity to experiment with ‘living with otherness’ and besides I didn’t really have a choice. I didn’t sleep well knowing he was near me, but the next morning this happened:
It seemed Lynne was right. Perhaps I had been unnecessarily freaking out about the Huntsman spider all these years? Maybe moving them on was a problem I didn’t need to own? But no such luck, as that very night…
Clearly Mr Huntsman was unlucky in love and had decided to retreat to the Mc Mansion, but this time he had taken up residence on the door jamb itself, which meant I was forced very close to him to get in and out of the house.
This is where my ‘living with otherness’ experiment got hard.
I was over my initial screaming repulsion, but I experienced a slew of other emotions that swung somewhere between mild fear, annoyance and growing wonder. I managed to go in and out of the door without breaking into a sweat a couple of times. The idea that maybe, just maybe, I might be able to actually live with Mr Huntsmen started to take hold of me. Could I let go of my fear and let in some other emotions, like, I don’t know – affection?
Lynne recommended I just observe, so I worked at capturing Mr Huntsman’s behaviour in photos. I noticed that sometimes he liked to lurk behind the doorframe. I wondered why he did that – was he stalking something? I started to post updates on Facebook, giving him human emotions:
I even briefly considered giving Mr Huntsman a Facebook profile so that he could start to ‘speak’ for himself. I started laughing to myself at some imaginary Mr Huntsman status updates about me (“human appears to have adjusted to my presence. I might not kill her after all.”).
Suddenly, mid laugh, I felt an odd kind of kinship with the spider.
Ok, you’ve stuck with my spider story for 1000 words now and are probably wondering: “where’s the thesis stuff Inger?!”. Well, this experience of living with otherness was a Threshold Moment for me. It made me really appreciate, viscerally, how the human urge to dominate, and drive out other species we don’t immediately see the value in, was entrenched in me, despite my pretentions to being tolerant and civilised.
I started to wonder in what other ways I might be kidding myself about my ability to deal with the Other. Let’s consider the phenonmenon of ‘confirmation bias’. Confirmation bias is the tendency psychologists have noticed for us to look for evidence which confirms what we already think. A good example of confirmation bias in action is politics: people will tend to attribute more negative motives to politicians that are on the ‘other side’.
Apparently most of us suffer from some degree of confirmation bias, even if we think we don’t think we are doing it. This is a real danger for researchers. Unless you are constantly alert to the possibility that you are seeking out evidence and information which confirms your opinions, you are not really researching at all, but writing a very long, thinly veiled opinion piece and Mullins and Kiley’s work reminds us that Examiners are quick to pick up on this.
Students who have come to their PhD after years in industry or public service can have a particular battle with confirmation bias. These students have encountered many problems in their work life and (rightly) see the PhD as a vehicle for a life’s work. Many have been ‘problem solvers’ all their working life and have trouble becoming ‘problem finders’. They think they KNOW what the problems are, and even some of the solutions, therefore they can get very frustrated with academics who suggest that the student might not know as much as they think they do, especially if those academics happen to be much younger.
The other variation of this problem in the humanities is people who get wedded to a particular theorist or theoretical approach, and pursue this, even if the data they are collecting and analysing might not be explained well using this theory. I get a bit hung up on using Actor Network Theory and I have trouble seeing my work as ‘really theoretical’ unless I use it. But sometimes it just doesn’t work. I’m not well equipped to know what the similar problem might be in the sciences, but I’m sure that the tendency to be comfortable with some techniques and methods at the expense of others must happen there too.
I sometimes get tearful emails from people who complain their supervisor has no respect for their opinion, or just doesn’t ‘get it’. I tell students who are feeling this way that it’s entirely possible that their supervisor IS wrong, but what if they aren’t? It’s difficult to confront the Other Opinion, the Other Theory or the Other method because it challenges us to put aside our confirmation bias and really attempt to reconcile ourselves with the Other. Professional researchers are, after all, professional doubters. We must doubt ourselves in order to do our jobs well – which leads to all kinds of other problems of course, which I have no time to deal with here unfortunately because I am WAY over my self imposed word limit and need to draw this to a close.
After my experience with this Huntsman I’ve started to think about Other Opinions and Other Theories as spiders. Sometimes we just have to live with the discomfort they cause us before we can start to appreciate what they might have to offer. Of course the temptation to fall back into our established ways of being is incredibly strong. Now the house is full of my family and my belongings, I have called on the power of Mr Thesis Whisperer’s boot many times. Mr huntsman never did return.
What do you think? Have Other Ideas and Other Opinions ever felt like spiders to you? Are you a student starting your PhD later in life – was it a challenge? What advice do you have for people about cultivating a tolerance for difference and new ideas which challenge our core values and assumptions?