Recently I attended an EERA doctoral summer school in Trondheim at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) on ‘Educational Methodologies’. I can be, I have to admit, a little prone to exaggeration occasionally, but I feel that this was, perhaps, one of the most significant moves I have made in my PhD so far. It’s hard to explain why, but I am going to try to outline some of the reasons in this blog post…
The week was organised around a mixture of invited lectures, tutorial group sessions and, of course, social events (with a sprinkling of optional morning yoga…). The lectures were stimulating and encouraged us to think about objectivity, truth and the positioning of the researcher in the conduct, analysis and dissemination of their research. The main message for me was the importance of being transparent. This doesn’t just apply to our research methods or the meaning that we ascribe to key concepts such as ‘education’ or ‘learning’. We need to be transparent about ourselves as researchers – what are our values and why is it in our interests to conduct this research? We need to start to see ourselves as part of the research process and cannot assume that what we find is a realistic portrayal of the phenomena we are looking at. No matter how hard we try, we can never truly research something from the ‘outside’ and we need to be more upfront about this (but perhaps this is an issue for a different post).
It is hard to pin down what it was that really made this summer school such a positive experience. Perhaps it was the beautiful town of Trondheim and its happy, care-free, outdoor- pursuit loving residents… Maybe it was the tasty yet ridiculously expensive Norwegian beer and the novelty of eating pickled herring and knekkebrød for breakfast… Or maybe it was having a whole week to do nothing but think and talk about our research with people who were genuinely interested (geek alert). There was no teaching, no marking, no writing, no administration… We were able to work on our projects without the interference of every day conflicting demands; the entire week was a self-indulgent luxury. The other element which contributed to making it such a successful week was, without doubt, the people participating in the process. We met students from all over Europe and spoke about our research, methodologies and experiences in an out with tutorial sessions.
When I first discovered that our tutorials were planned to last for four hours, I was mildly concerned; however, as it turned out, this part of the day was the most beneficial and was always over too quickly. Each group comprised six or seven students with a tutor and each day we would discuss the main points from the lecture in relation to our research. It generally worked out that each student had half an hour to talk about some aspect of their methodology and receive feedback from the rest of the group and the tutor.
This usually involved an admixture of sweat, tears, frustration, laughing, an unhealthy consumption of coffee and biscuits and various dramatic scribblings of overly complex diagrams and concepts on oversized blackboards. In fact, towards the end of the week we began to refer to the tutorial sessions as our ‘support meetings’.
The amount of time we spent with each other in the tutorials allowed us to really get to know each others’ projects in depth, to the extent that there was almost a sense of shared ownership of each others’ projects. This enabled us to have the confidence to suggest and uncover potential pitfalls and problems in each others’ work and identify possible solutions. We interrogated and picked apart each others’ ideas and arguments. We identified the weak areas and we swooped in to attack. This may sound terrifying, but actually it was very effective. When you have to defend areas of your work you very quickly identify your vulnerabilities and what you need to work on. This also helped me to realise that by concentrating too much on the ins and outs of ANT, I had overlooked a lot of important and fundamental methodological issues. There isn’t room to list everything, but examples include: my position as a researcher, the driving forces behind the research and how I address these, and what I actually mean by concepts such as ‘partnership’ and ‘power’. If it wasn’t for the summer school, I could well have realised all of this too late.
In attempting to communicate my research, I found that I had to connect with it on a deeper level than hitherto. I had arrived at the summer school, hoping to have a good rant about Actor Network Theory, but actually I had to go much further back than this. I was forced out of my comfort zone and, consequently, had to think about my research in a completely different way. After spending two years discussing my research with people mostly in Scotland, I had made the false assumption that my audience will always understand what I mean when I talk about things like ‘the Scottish way of making policy’ or ‘typical Scottish conservatism’. Having to look hard at these precepts and explain them in a different way was difficult. This really challenged my thinking, and actually led to a lot of what some would refer to as ‘ah ha!’(no pun intended) moments.
So what is the point of these rambling reflections of my week in Norway? Well, I hope they have pointed out that we need more opportunities to talk with others about our research. And I don’t just mean in the traditional ways, such as: presenting at conferences or seminars, indulging in the odd and slightly awkward post-conference conversation, or grumbling to colleagues in the staff kitchen. We need to think outside the box on this and create opportunities where we feel that we can really talk about our research in depth, in different situations and to different people, away from the office. I don’t think we make enough space for this kind of peer support in UK academia.
Of course, I know some of you will be thinking ‘who has the time to sit around and listen to people talk about something which is completely unrelated to my work?’ But, it is amazing how much time you can save by deconstructing your own research problems with other people with shared interests. Now I have done this, I can really think clearly about some of the more complex issues involved in my PhD and hopefully discover and deal with those little ticking time bombs before they explode.
I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has had a similar experience, or perhaps does something like this in their own institution.