The ever present risk of getting it wrong

I really have not had to write anything substantial so far this year, and I worry that when I come to having to write something I will be paralysed. One of my main concerns is getting it wrong, not because I will look silly, but because what happens if I get it wrong and I never realise?

On the weekend I was speaking with a fellow student from last year. I have gone on to further studies, she has not at the moment. Last year we read a lot of each others’ work, which was helpful for me and very interesting. Every sentence I wrote would set me off on a frenzy of literature searches, which would of course lead to new sentences and an exponential explosion of further searches. My friend’s work seemed to come out of a careful reading and consideration of key work on a core topic. I was so concerned about missing something while she seemed to be concerned with having a solid understanding. The result was we took very different risks.

Aside from the risk that my work was completely unreadable, I always felt that I might be getting it completely wrong. Perhaps there is something written somewhere that explains why these two bodies of work use the same word to mean something completely different? Perhaps there is a paper somewhere which explains why this researcher develops their explanation without reference to this body of theoretical work that seems very similar? Perhaps the reason that this debate suddenly disappears out of the literature is that it really did not matter in the first place?

However, deadlines and ‘it is all a learning exercise’ are a wonderful source of justification for an undergraduate student. My work got handed in and I eagerly waited for its return to pour over the marked copies to find out whether any of my more shaky conclusions warranted a response. With one exception, my claims received no comment. Many students publish something from their honours year and I know that at least one of the students from my school is working on a paper at the moment. I cannot help but wonder if they say that a piece of work is very interesting, but do not suggest that I can do anything with it, that perhaps ‘interesting’ stands for me getting it wrong?

Taking risks is not necessarily a bad thing, and it is not like I want to be right all of the time, but I am feeling particularly anxious now that I am supposed to be heading towards having enough skills to be a junior member of an academic community. I feel deeply unsettled when I ask a question and the response is, ‘Clearly you have read a lot about this and so you know more than me.’ Will confirmation or completion instil in me an ability to get things right? Will I always be left wondering if I am right or wrong and have nobody to ask?

I have come across a short editorial titled, ‘Getting it right’ which concludes,

“Critique encompasses understanding; in the absence of understanding, critique can never be scholarly.

Foundational to excellent scholarship is getting it right. No postmodern, reader-response, or other theory, and no desire to create positive learning climates, should ever be used as excuses for getting it wrong.”

Sandelowski, M. J. 2010. Getting it right. Research in Nursing & Health 33:1-3.

Perhaps I just need to read more, keep better notes and start writing?


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