The iterative process

by | October 28, 2010

During the August doctoral hooding ceremony in Minneapolis, one of the speakers referred to the soon-to-be graduates’ search for truth during the doctoral journey. He told the audience that they had been going step-by-step to piece together their vision with their reality.

And he used this quote to reinforce his point:
“There are very few human beings who receive the truth, complete and staggering, by instant illumination. Most of them acquire it fragment by fragment, on a small scale, by successive developments, cellularly, like a laborious mosaic.” From a Fall 1943 entry of The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 3 (1939-1944).

When I heard that quote, I knew I had to get my hands on it because it is the perfect description of the iterative process.

And, my advisees know that I will remind them of that quote when they call to complain about the fact that their mentor keeps asking for more changes and more fixes and more detail. They will ask: “Why can’t the mentor just find everything at once so I can just fix it once and be done?”

Before I had the mosaic quote to use, I had struggled to find an analogy that could work. I am not a painter at all, but I came up with this one about oil painting:

Think of your dissertation as a master painting. It starts out with a blank canvas. You begin to sketch, and then you fix the sketch until you decide you are pleased with the image and you are ready to paint. I presume everyone paints quite a bit differently, but I would guess that many artists start at one point and then keep building from there. But they probably keep coming back to their starting point to keep tweaking and keep re-working. Meanwhile, they spread across the canvas in layer after layer after layer. And, I bet the artist keeps going back to tweak and improve the neighboring sections as s/he moves across the canvas. The artist adds more layers and tweaks some more, then adds more layers and tweaks some more. Sometimes an artist might step back and look at one section and decide the color is all wrong or the proportion is all off, and that section might be completely overhauled.

The iterative process of the dissertation is every bit like that. You build in layers. And each layer is going to be examined carefully and reworked until it is pretty darned good. Part of the iterative nature should be driven by your mentor, who works with you to move your project from an idea to a complete dissertation. But you should also be driving part of the iterative process. By that, I mean that you might reflect upon something your mentor has suggested and you might have an “aha” moment. At that instant you know that you will take a mentor suggestion and run with it – far beyond where you thought you could go.

That is the iterative process.