The SERT Approach: Community As Curriculum
SERT begins its inquiry with a blank slate, making our first priority the formation of community in our research group, one grounded in a spirit of risk-taking, tolerance for ambiguity, and the notion of interconnectedness. It is critical that we articulate our biases, our non-neutrality, and the connection between the researchers and the researched, a principle well-expressed by some Indigenous research frameworks that root inquiry in the formation of community (Lavalee, 2009). And we do this with a kind of unfolding intention towards art as a way of seeing things, of jarring ourselves, of vexing us, of helping us notice, and notice our noticing. Considerable time is spent on this community-formation, facilitated through regular meetings in which we engage in arts-based learning exercises informed by the work of Lynda Barry (2014) and Ivan Brunetti (2011). These in-person meetings are augmented by various field trips to art galleries, and other installations of art-as-research, and the building of our SERT blog in which we explore required readings, create visual literature reviews, and assign various other “homework” and reflection assignments. In this way, SERT becomes a kind of seminar on research methods in student affairs, focusing especially on non-traditional arts-based approaches. The team uses this foundation, and their own personal experience as students, to then begin a more focused exploration of the Student Affairs literature to find questions about student experience that could become subject to meaningful inquiry by them.
An important part of the design and methodology of this project involves the ways in which we operate as a collective, with an emphasis on community over curriculum. The approach is decidedly non-hierarchical, non-managerial so that design and methodological considerations are emergent rather than proclaimed. This is primarily a teaching and learning principle, a pedagogical approach that provides a particular kind of learning experience for the undergraduate researchers of SERT – learning through immersion, discovery, problem-solving, not restricted by any particular curricular requirements that might be present in a for-credit research seminar. The creators of SERT have written about our method, what we call “the student as artist”, in a publication available from About Campus (About Campus, 2018, Vol. 23, Issue 2). The path of learning is very much built as we walk it. There are dual outcomes here – ones related to the research itself, the experience of the research participants, and others related to the researchers and their experience of researching. So, our group process is itself a form of inquiry and we employ emergent, arts-based approaches to that inquiry to ground our weekly meetings together. We use these sessions, guided only by loose agendas, to articulate our purpose, to build a team “manifesto”; we consider research questions, what or whom will be the subjects of our inquiry, what methodology will be employed, what kind of data will be necessary, how it will be gathered, how we will assess its validity, etc. So, we dig in. Reading. Lots of reading. Writing and reflection. Lots of it. And we start really exploring and using and understanding arts-based methods of inquiry to ground our SERT sessions, to facilitate our conversations and insights. We practice this. And, through these processes, gnarly, and complex, and meandering, we arrive at our research questions.
Why Student Affairs, Why Undergraduate Research Assistants
The findings are quite clear about the value of meaningful research experiences for undergraduate students (Wolf, 2018). These experiences are said to lead to the development of critical thinking skills and a huge range of other professional and academic competencies including increased student confidence, greater persistence and retention rates, stronger graduate school applications, deeper learning and cognitive growth, more focused career considerations, etc. The provision of these experiences inside academic units and departments is a growing practice but it is relatively unexplored territory in the context of Student Affairs in Canada. Given the ongoing need for research and inquiry into the work of Student Affairs and the student experience, and our decided focus in Student Affairs on providing meaningful experiences for students, this seems an obvious gap. The SERT project is an attempt to address this gap by providing a research opportunity in our field, one in which the students will receive a working wage, rather than an academic credit.
The other gap to be filled by this project is an expansion of our modes of inquiry into Student Affairs questions about the student experience, often understood according to some pretty narrow and dominant narratives – transition theory, student development theory, student engagement theory. These foundations have added significantly to our understanding of things, and have shaped our approaches to the work, but, surely, they don’t tell the whole story. In fact, it is likely that our preoccupation with these good but narrow perspectives has obscured from view other possibilities. Most research in Student Affairs focuses on either a very traditional quantitative analysis of some causal relationship between a program and an outcome, or a traditional qualitative account of student feedback about some aspect of their experience with a program. (Naturally, there is some range here). This is, of course, natural and good, but it also shows a hesitancy to explore other forms of inquiry. So, in our pursuit of better understanding the varieties of student experience, with student researchers as our partners, we declare, in this project, our greater attentiveness to and preference for the “context of discovery” over the context of certainty, causality and justification. And we commit here to incorporating more non-traditional ways of knowing, or modes of inquiry, into our work as a way of making a meaningful contribution to the field of Student Affairs research in Canada.
A central and underlying feature of our approach is deliberate slowness – to meet regularly, make room for shifting direction, for reading, for writing, for reflecting, for endless, free-style discussion, for getting to know and support each other, for team-building. This is contrary to most work in Student Affairs which is generally characterized by speediness. We could easily lapse into the more common, full-tilt rhythm of a project. And that could also produced, no doubt, something worthwhile. But we suspect that, in the pursuit of speed, we may be propelled onto old tried and true paths, the most direct routes between A and B. And we would deprive ourselves of savoring what is in the moment as we go, noticing more, gaining insight through a deliberate and leisurely pace. What that slowness does, above all, is give us time to better know each other, to trust each other, to support each other, to understand each other’s particular strengths, and to make space for all of it. It’s not revolutionary. It’s just a choice. Go slow.
Research with, not upon
Students have found themselves to be the objects of much study, but are not often invited to actively participate in the inquiry and knowledge production process. This project, led as it was by undergraduate student researchers, is committed to an approach that disrupts this inherent power imbalance between the researcher and the researched, and seeks a more participatory approach. We subscribe to the idea, articulated by Karen Ross (2017, para. 2), that “… methodological choices at various moments across the research process hold potential for creating empowering dynamics within a given research context.” SERT is attentive and attuned to this idea of collapsing power dynamics at all stages of the research design and its execution, inviting student participants in the research to be active in the process as it unfolds.
Make conspicuous our biases
We are generally inclined towards the critical side of educational thinking, our ilk being folks like John Dewey, bell hooks, Maxine Green, Elliot Eisner, Paulo Friere, Sara Ahmed, Linda Darling-Hammond, James Baldwin, Henry Giroux – you know, smart, lefty shit-disturbers. And we’re inclined by the prospect, not of certainty or objectivity, but by ambiguity, and exploration, and the emotional aspects of social life. This is mostly in keeping with our Student Affairs colleagues who seem generally to swim in that pool, driven by a desire to understand the peculiarities of students’ lives. And we’re inclined, not by the strictly scientific, but by the artistic as the form of expression that moves us most deeply. And so these inclinations present themselves as we contemplate “doing research” in Student Affairs. How to be productive, thoughtful shit-disturbers in this endeavour? Now, this is not at all a rejection of traditional, positivist, quantitative approaches to research. As we say, we are hospitable to all forms of inquiry that serve us well and ethically. We see no need for hostility here and believe that the method should simply be chosen according to its fitness for purpose, and that the researcher should offer some open acknowledgement of their inclinations and biases, as we do here. This can go a long way towards loosening some of the oppressiveness that can be inherent to methods dogmatically conceived. We believe, not in the righteousness of only one true method, but in a research continuum, that the contours of the human experience are most usefully illuminated by seeing them from a variety of perspectives. So, towards our goal of better understanding the varieties of student experience, arts-based research approaches are suitably fit.
“knowledge . . . never arrives . . . it is always on the brink”LorRi Neilsen