Where are we now?

Posted on  by John Hannah

SERT 2019-2020 – current state of play

This is the waiting part. Poised and ready to deploy, we await word from the ethics board, and it gives us time to discuss, reflect, collect our thoughts and remind ourselves of the good reasons for doing this work.

So where are we?

Well, we’ve become a bona-fide team now, a group who has formed a kind of micro-culture around ways of thinking and being together, around a set of ideas that have become important to us. And we rooted ourselves in the research traditions where we felt a kinship – a  naturalistic approach to social science, adopting critical perspectives, believing in not only the legitimacy, but the importance of using alternative arts-based approaches to understanding the lives of students, approaches driven by a desire to see things from a new angle, in ways that unearth new questions, that situate researchers inside the research, as participants, mitigating the relationships of power and orthodoxy. We acknowledge the complexity of the human experience and seek not to reduce it, believing that, as Muriel Rukeyser says, “…the universe is made up of stories, not atoms.” A strong foundation for scholarly inquiry with heart.

And we have immersed ourselves for months now in a certain sea of thought about the student experience – interrogating one of the academy’s most beloved concepts – “student engagement”. We’ve read the usual suspects –  Tinto and Kuh and Pascarella and Terrenzini, and we’ve looked at the National Survey of Student Engagement, that foundational tool of assessing how well things are going. And we’ve taken a dive into the more critical side of things by reading lesser knowns on the topic – Julie Wintrup, Peter Kahn, Bruce Macfarlane, and Nick Zepke. We’ve looked at the concept of student engagement from many different angels, studying its contours, resisting an all-out embrace of its virtues and asking if there are more critical ways to regard it all. And this critical perspective comes directly from the  SERT students, reflecting upon their own experience as students and the ways in which they dance awkwardly sometimes with this engagement imperative. To be engaged, to be active in one’s learning seems not to be in dispute. No quarrel with that. It’s a good solid idea. But is there another side? Engagement as perpetuating hustle-culture? Engagement as performativity? Engagement as exclusionary? As amplifying the pressure cooker? As a tool of the neoliberal agenda? As, at best, a poorly understood concept? As a shallow marketing tool? There are thorns on that rose worth exploring. And so that’s where we went.

And in those machinations, we arrived at our own blurry concept that somehow held promise – the idea of student-desirability. What makes a desirable student? What characteristics does the institution deem desirable in students? What is the actual felt experience of students in this regard? Do they feel desired by the institution? Do they feel they possess attributes of desirability? Or are they pressured to perform those attributes? Is this a useful way of thinking about it – somehow more real than “engagement”, more penetrating than “belonging”? We’re not sure. It’s a slippery concept that we’re having difficulty articulating. But it’s worth exploring. And so that’s where we went.

So, how to inquire into these things? What will be our way of inquiry into these questions? That’s what we next dug our teeth into. Methods and methodology, the complex relationship between the observers and the observed, our purpose in all this, not objective truths but personal ones, focusing here, in this particular research context, on stories as the sense-making devices towards which we would focus  our scrutiny, motivated by a desire to simply talk with fellow students, to ask them something meaningful. A survey first. Traditional, yes, but we played with it and imagined some other, less traditional way of doing that, making the survey a kind of interactive event with art, and strange old-telephone technology, and quirky guerilla-marketing stickers, and a homemade audio booth. It’s next level diy-style survey. Who knows if any of it will do anything truly interesting or have the imagined effect of bringing researchers and participants closer somehow. But it doesn’t matter. It was in the making of these things, the imagining of these things that we deepened our thinking on the research process. The pondering of all those diy survey shenanigans gave us a way to talk about what it means to inquire in this way, to interrogate the virtues and limitations of traditional research methods, to just talk about research and what it means.

And then we decided also on “interviews” as our dig-deeper-device. It was the obvious choice – interviews, opportunities for deep, unstructured conversations with fellow students about their lived experiences, their thoughts on “engagement”, a way to test this idea of “student-desirability”.    And here again, we engaged in a kind of spontaneous improv, wondering what was possible, wondering what ways we could take the traditional interview idea and…make it better, make it real, make it ours. So…walking interviews, inviting the student participants to lead us to locations on campus that resonate with them, meeting them on their turf, walking with them, drawing on the promising work coming out of the counseling community exploring “walk and talk” therapy,  eliminating the confines of four walls, engaging the body, reducing formalities that curtail conversation. It’s worth exploring as a method for elicitation of genuine student stories. So that’s where we went.

And, as we wait for ethics approval, we are anxious to get started on all of this. And as we wait, we contemplate and begin designing our approach to analysis, finding our position on this in a way that coheres with our foundations and our approaches to “data collection”  just described. There’s an obvious path here towards narrative analysis, a preference for stories as the unit of scrutiny, stories in all their context and complexity, not reduced to codes or themes.  We are inspired by what for us is a kind of guiding work by Petra Munro Hendry, The Future of Narrative, in which she writes: Narrative research has held out the promise of providing a more complex and complete picture of social life. Furthermore, it highlights the ways in which culture and society shape and are shaped by individual lives. It also provides what seems like a more egalitarian research relationship that honors the intersubjective modes of knowledge production, but we share in her struggle about how we can represent the stories we hear, make sense of them in a way that does not reduce them to parts, and do it in a way that has some trustworthiness. And we’re also perturbed by her idea that, as narrative researchers, we can become …so busy capturing “experience” that we can’t listen. We have so many strategies for “getting it right” that the real experience is obscured. How will we represent what we hear from our student participants? We’re not sure yet, but we are predisposed to non-traditional forms of representation, forms based in art. So that’s where will likely go.

So, we will have these things in mind as we make our next moves, learning the modes, and philosophies and techniques of research, but also humbled by our responsibility to honour what Munro-Hendry describes as the “sacredness “of it all.

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