“The Big Idea” (My opening remarks at my dissertation proposal defense)

big ideaSo many of you have offered great support throughout my graduate studies, and have asked about details of my dissertation proposal defense last week.  The transcripts are long, but I thought I would share the opening comments, followed by the abstract of my proposal, should they be of interest.

After generous introductions of the committee by the dean, it began as follows:

[Dean Cordeiro]:  How this is going to proceed is that Nathaniel is going to have 20 minutes to present his proposal.  This is an oral examination.  It is very formal in the minds of the faculty. … After Nathaniel completes his 20 minutes, then the three committee members ask him questions until we have completed all the questions we’re going to ask, and then I will invite members of our audience—if you have any questions or comments. … Nathaniel, you’re on.

[Nathaniel]:  Thank you very much.  I appreciate the support of everyone in the room.  And I’m excited.  As I begin, I want to take a moment to recall why I am sitting here in the first place.  I’m not sure everyone in the room is aware of the fact that I was in Uganda full-time for nine years.  And the reason I left full-time life in Uganda and entered grad school was because of the conviction held by my Ugandan colleagues and myself that there was just so much we did not fully understand, and until we could come to a place of better understanding, we weren’t going to achieve the successes we wanted to achieve, and we weren’t as smart as we could be in our offerings of care.

Bob Kegan talks about what he calls his “big idea.”  And that is, in his research on adult development, he’s never identified a participant who has reached the fifth order of consciousness until what he calls “middle age,” or around 50 years old.  But as we as human beings are living longer and longer, his big idea is sort of a big wondering: are we going to achieve even higher levels of consciousness in the future?  And what will that look like as we engage with third order tribal tendencies, and fourth order pride issues?  And might we be able to achieve a place sometime where we have more understanding, more sympathy and empathy of one another, to where we can achieve conflict resolution in non-toxic, non-violent ways, and really achieve more peace?

Now, I did not have that language when I entered grad school, but now I do.  And I really like the idea of it, and I love being a part of this community here at SOLES [School of Leadership and Education Sciences] because I feel like so many of you are committed to that idea, too: that as we achieve small steps towards understanding Other better, I believe we can achieve so much.

And also as I begin, I want to be careful to be mindful of that fact that I am proposing a study that is going to ask men to share with me their lived experiences, the most joyous and most horrific parts of their lives, and I always want to be careful to honor that, including here at the beginning.

[And then I began the presentation summarized in the abstract below.]


In the study of both economic and human development, the men of the global South [sic] are often considered to be responsible for the lack of progress and for the lack of human flourishing.  An abundance of literature exists exploring how women and children make meaning in the global South with many clear indicators that the choices made by men in their lives have led to an overall sense of need and a lack of wellness.  Attempting to better understand how men of different cultures make sense of their world and navigate their life experiences can only enhance strategies in the process of change.

In the proposed study, I will narrow the questions of masculinities to Uganda and, when appropriate, to East Africa.  The Ugandan milieu is characterized by public health challenges, including but not limited to HIV, as well as poverty, strong cultural and family expectations, and a privileging of education.  While the dominant Ugandan story from a Western lens is HIV, partially due to the enormity of research focused on the virus, the nuances of meaning-making are many and varied.  HIV is just one piece of the lived experiences of men, women and children—and perhaps only one symptom of the larger ways of knowing—suggesting that research beyond the confines of the medical and public health implications of HIV/AIDS is in order. The purpose of this study is to investigate how masculinity is constructed for nine Ugandan male participants of three different generations through an exploration of their at-school lived experiences and of their sense of engagement with and responsibility to other generations.

I will employ a multi-phase design beginning with a text-message survey to a random sample of 600 cellphone subscribers.  The survey answers will inform the selection of nine participants for the qualitative phase of the study which will be guided by a life history design, and focus groups for triangulation.  Finally, narrative analysis will be used to report the findings.

New insights here could be used to create more informed pedagogy, public health strategies, and further research in the pursuit of change at scale.

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