Conducting research in higher education: a workshop

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I recently attended a workshop by Professor Sue Clegg from Leeds Metropolitan University. The aim of the workshop was to provide support for staff who are conducting research in higher education. The workshop considered appropriate paradigms and methodologies, discussed strategies for data collection, data analysis, and interpretation.

Lots of literature bemoaning the fact that research in higher education lacks a theoretical base

Highlighted the anxiety behind using theory, but not clear what it means to use theory

As researchers, we often feel that we need to appeal to an authority to give our data a sense of legitimacy

“Intellectual craftmanship” – there isn’t a rulebook, research isn’t pure and it’s often “messy”

The movement from theory to data and back again isn’t linear

“Sometimes a theory just grabs you, and makes sense to you”, but you can also be “intellectually promiscuous”

Learn to use your life experience in your intellectual work…you are personally involved in every intellectual product you have worked on (Wright Mill, 1959)

There’s a lot of critical literature on the nature of reflection and it’s lack of transparency. There are things that can’t be articulated, or are not articulated well. Seemingly transparent, “good” processes (like reflection) are not self-evidently good

Anecdotally, students don’t know “how” to reflect. They often give back what they think they’re supposed to…what is the “right” answer, they write reflections according to a script. BUT practitioners in certain fields have reflection embedded into the professional consciousness (as in physiotherapy), and see it as a dominant path to development. “Science” as a field doesn’t allow much room for the self in research.

Evidence based research / practice in higher education and the social sciences is often procedurally rigorous, but not scientifically rigorous

Some things work in some circumstances, but we don’t know how or why

“Where” does something sit in the curriculum? Or is it deeply integrated and spread throughout with little to specify a location?

Introduced to the notion of the “kind” teacher

The future is not empty and open, it is already stratified. Black students in this country don’t have the same life options as white students. In the UK, working class students don’t have the same options as middle class students

Having said that theories are often messy, one also needs to pay attention to them

Research philosophy and paradigms

Having a philosophy and situating yourself within a paradigm tells your reader what your stance is, locates the research in a broader context, guides (but doesn’t determine) the approach or method, and brings a coherence to the legitimacy of the knowledge claims you make

The dominant form of realism has historically been positivism, which equates broadly to things that we can see and touch and hear, and a relationship between cause and effect. Positivism tends to “flatten the world”

BUT, often the cause of an effect can’t been observed e.g. positivism can’t explain the complex interaction between patient and therapist

Realism is important in the sense that it is falsifiable, i.e. the experiment can produce results that show the hypothesis to be wrong

Much research in South Africa is grounded in material reality and a desire for real social change

Speaking about philosophers being “interesting writers to think with

Experimentation maps onto positivist or critical realist assumptions. Interpretive approaches are more tricky

Pluralism at the Method level can be good thing, as the quantitative / qualitative dilemma is about having the argument at the wrong level. Have multiple perspectives at the Method level

It is important to have thought about the problem and make knowledge claims that are appropriate to the approach you’ve used in terms of validity, reliability, credibility

Where am I coming from, and what assumptions am I making about my knowledge claims?

Theories can be fashionable and used only to lend credibility to an argument i.e. inserted after the fact. Theories can be thought of as a framework to think with.

Writing for publication

We don’t always pay attention to the “obvious” things when it comes to writing

If teaching is immediate gratification, writing for publication is deferred gratification

Sharing your work with others is part of participating in a larger conversation

Writing doesn’t have to be empirical, can be new insights or new ways of framing issues. Think about writing short “thought” pieces. What are the alternative places to publish that can get ideas out quickly, to be widely read, to establish yourself in a field?

Much of writing is about defining and understanding your audience. Do I write for a discipline specific or interdisciplinary audience? Are there multiple audiences? Are they practitioner audiences?

How do you demonstrate the impact of your work?

Is there a moral obligation to publish results that are new and innovative? Writing and sharing can be a virtuous activity.

Research the journal you’d like to publish in BEFORE starting writing. It’s easier to target your writing for an audience / journal, than to write a generic paper and “massage” it to fit something after the fact.