Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Right to Know: Failure, concealment and reasoning

Failure. Isn't failure expected in life?

For the past two decades, the world has diminished the sugar that makes coffee sweet. Even worst, I have had coffee being intentionally poured on my lap or have had a fresh cup of brew explode right before me. Yes guys, guess what? As Judge Claud Frollo from Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), which was inspired by Victor Hugo's 1831 novel, once sang, "The world is cruel, the world is wicked-". Maybe, Frollo was right, maybe he was the only person who could love Quasimodo. Although Frollo was every inch an abuser, horny, racist priest, his most fatal quality was his decision to conceal reality from Quasi, in the most obvious way, such as preventing Quasi from passing "a day, not above them, but part of them", as well as lying to him about how he had arrived at the church.

A: "Why don't you ever tell me why?"
B: "Because you never asked!"

Failure and concealment, at times, have been one of the most lethal combinations to my grit. In these situations, to know is better than to not know. A few weeks ago, after returning from an abysmal conference, where I got raved reviews, I received an email from my co-writer saying that our submission was rejected. After being peer-reviewed, a paper, which we proposed for publication, was deemed pertinent, yet methodologically flawed. The reviewers comments initially felt akin to a slap on the face, however slowly, as I read on, it calmed me in spirit and in my endeavors to become a published researcher. They laid out their reasons against accepting the proposal, unpacking salient details that would inspire the paper and study to grow.

By the end of the ordeal, I knew where we had gone wrong and understood how to amend my venture. Going from 100 to 0 might not have been as pleasant if it were not for the peer-reviewers transparency. Even though it was mandatory for them to provide some reasoning, I still appreciated it deeply.

Life is rarely as kind.

Break ups, social rejection and even, academic competitions are not as transparent. In some social dynamics, such as the first two I mentioned above, the relinquishing of data, in the form of reasoning, runs parallel to relinquishing power. By providing some clarity to one's social decision, he/she loses the power nestled in ambiguity, the power of "I know and you don't". Additionally, I have been in scientific competitions where the judges refrain from affording much-needed feedback. Even though, I do not intend to distill it as far as I have with the former two, I deem such behavior highly unprofessional, especially when it occurs in an academic setting.

Clarity in failure is imperative. Data precludes us from falling into the exact, same hole twice. Data much-needed information on our tendencies, our studies, and our future. Data inspires us to grow or prevents us from falling off a cliff. Basically, it allows us to weigh the benefits and risks of going further.

Yet, who has the right to release these data sets? Who has the liberty to explain a decision as commonplace as a break up or as perilous as a university acceptance letter? In general, the person who knows and are in the know have the prerogative to decide whether to disseminate or lock up the data. Even though these decisions might be deemed unethical in some fields, such as a reviewer withholding information on why he/she disapproved a paper, I fully accept it. Not all data sets should see the light of day and as human beings, as flawed as we might be, we have the right to decide.

You might be thinking that this liberal-know-it-all has lost her jewels, if you know what I mean. But, wait a sec, because I've got more to say. Yes, people have the liberty to lock away or provide reasoning. In some cases it is their responsibility to conduct either actions. However, on the other hand, those on the other side of the line have the right to ask.

For instance, in high school, I lost an English essay writing competition at Atma Jaya School of Medicine, a Catholic medical school in North Jakarta. Losing is fine by me, as long as it was justified. Usually, I'd fight back, but that day I was particularly lazy and exhausted to go further. A week later, the head of the English department trudged her way to Atma Jaya to demand some explanation for my failure. The committee, who were made of medical students (oh, the irony!), provided a copy of my essay and its edited version. Reviewing the manuscripts, the teacher went ballistic and I wondered why. After looking through it, my slight disappointment turned into a smile then a huge, bellowing laugh. I had no business attending such a competition, where my grammatically correct sentence were butchered by an amateur.

Some Cultures
Some cultures are more likely to ask and even demand an answer than others. As a child, I used to blush whenever I handed in a past exam paper that has been commented by my mother to the teachers. Many of the notes contained questions on why certain things were corrected and others weren't, or what were the reasons behind this score and that. Through the years, I have learned from certain people in my life that we have the right to demand an explanation, be it in academia, social situations, or the office.

However, I would say that experience has been the ultimate inspiration. Realizing that I have the right and even the gusto to fight, propelled me to become an inquisitive and critical person when it comes to feedback. Perhaps, that's why I prefer a school that gives out evaluations, in addition to grades. Perhaps, that's why it is imperative for me to create strong relationships with my boss and possible mentors. Perhaps, that's why I am guilty of writing lengthy articles or emails or facebook comments.

Believe me, a simple explanation can pave an entire yellow brick-road towards success.

*All the photos are provided by the author

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