Through the Eye of a Potato:
Undertaking A CHE Thesis
address by Alastair McIntosh delivered in absentia to Centre for Human Ecology
students, CHE Thesis Day, 11 February 2005.
With extra notes on undertaking a thesis with me, added March 2007.
am not with you in person because, as those on the Spiritual Activism module
will know, I have been hit by the Curse of St Theresa, and both Vérène and I
have got problems with sending email. This prevented me from getting much of my
work done over the past couple of days, and rather than spend 4 hours travelling
to speak here for 10 minutes today, I hoped you might understand if Vérène
steps in for me. In any case, I already have a cohort of students and am not
seeking more, unless there are exceptional reasons that necessitate it.
just like to share a few words about what, in my experience, is important in a
are here to do a Master’s degree, and your thesis, in the old model of
apprenticeship learning, is your “master piece.” It is that with which you
can show the world that you are a competent human ecologist. For this reason,
choose something that is useful – something that you can do things with –
like publishing it for others’ edification, or helping an organisation, or
whatever. Your work may well serve personal intellectual or even therapeutic
interests, but if it is constrained to that it will be a very narcissistic
piece, which is not really why we are all here. So, please, my suggestion would
be to set yourselves a fundamental framework of operation by asking yourselves,
“Is it going to be of service to either the poor or the broken in nature?”
If the answer happens to be “no”, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re
off the track, but I would urge careful discernment – careful sifting of your
own motives – as to what track you are on.
your master piece, try and integrate the fullness of human ecology into the
wider framework. Ensure it is relevant to human ecology as the integration of
the social and the natural environments. Strive to convey the passion of the
heart, guided by the reason of the head, applied with the practicality and sheer
hard work of the hand.
and it is a huge “but”, in holding everything in a framework that is nothing
less than your worldview – your cosmic experience of being alive on this
planet – develop a sharp focus. If you don’t, you’ll be all over the
place, and get into a horrible flap and be a considerable pain in the flapping
parts of the anatomy for your poor supervisor!
a stone mason doesn’t start with the whole mountain, or with the cathedral she
is to build. She chooses a small part from the mountain, and contributes to the
pattern of a whole that is greater than she herself.
do we do this? My suggestion is to think of your thesis in terms of story. Ask
yourself, “What is the beginning, middle and end?” Find a small question, a
very small question, and ask that but ask it well. As a 1965 Ned Miller hit put
it, “Do what you do do well.” For example, don’t focus on saying, “I
want to examine nutrition in Scotland.” Run with a small question like, “I
want to study who’s buying organic potatoes in Edinburgh,” and then you’ve
got something you can research and handle easily. Then you can go round all the
shops – I guess maybe only 20 or so – and interview the shopkeepers or the
customers, analyse your data, set it in the context of the relevant literature,
and end up with a concluding chapter that only then reflects on the relevance of
your well-grounded findings for your wider interest in nutrition in Scotland.
you see from this small example how easy it is to think in terms of telling a
story? Your story would go like this: “I was interested in this big picture,
and I spent a couple of weeks thinking and reading around it. I then refined it
down to one (or at most, two or three) little questions, and over another couple
of weeks, while still doing my literature review, I developed a robust
methodology for how I was going to explore those questions. I tested my
methodology on a few friends, tweaked it a little, and was satisfied with the
result. I then spent a couple of weeks going and doing the interviewing (or
whatever), and then allowed four weeks for analysing what I’d done and writing
draft chapters. This left me two weeks at the end in which to write up a
polished version, and I was able proudly to deliver it to my supervisor along
with a large bottle of organic malt whisky … (no…. only kidding!).
you are. Total job finished in 12 weeks, which is roughly what you need to be
looking at if you’re going to manage your lives and work well, and allow a
little slack time for possible technical problems, sickness, a broken heart, too
much whisky, or whatever.
And notice in all this how you have never deviated from following the silver “faerie path” of your passion. The discipline you have had to apply in following that passion has all been for the greater passionate expression of what you’re called to – your vocation - leaving you with a great story to tell, and a very practical one, and something that is, above all, useful for a cause that you believe in. Neither will your wider interests have been frustrated by choosing such a specific focus. Indeed, my bet is that you’ll end up finding that you can see the whole world through the eye of a potato!
And you can see how such a thesis as our example here could easily be published – for example, in a journal of Scottish agriculture, or permaculture, or a greengrocer’s trade magazine. And, by the way, in practice many of you will find yourselves working with people from the grassroots up. A useful body of social research methodological thinking on how to do this is called “grounded theory”. Check it out, along with other methodologies, in a qualitative social research text.
One last thought … my friend Ralph Metzner of the original Leary-Metzner-Alpert Harvard trio of 60’s fame (which is when the best of human ecology all began, “stardust” and “golden”) has a wonderful saying. It is: “Stories are what tell us of the past: visions tell us about the future.” Enjoy your thesis, and create solidly grounded stories that open people to visionary possibilities.
Added Note on Undertaking a Thesis with me as Supervisor
Here are some thoughts that might be useful if you are considering taking a thesis with me.
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Thanks, folks, and enjoy, enjoy, enjoy!
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18 May 2005