The accidental Guerrilla researcher …

Rambling insights from trying to write up my research project—stumbling into Guerrilla research

Of being a sheep with style

The accidental Guerrilla research project—I think

We were tasked to conduct an action research project, exploring the impact or effect or benefits or outputs a new teaching strategy or method has on our students. This was the rough task provided within the framework of the PG Cert course. Another task set by senior management is to prove the impact the Learning Development Centre within which I work has on the overall performance and achievement of the students. Now a small project like mine cannot possibly establish the overall impact, a task, which in itself seems very unlikely to be fulfilled, due to the complexity of learning experiences. At most we can establish correlations and patterns that may (or may not) indicate our impact. The actuality of impact lies all within perception: our colleagues’ and students’ perception of their interaction and engagement with our pedagogies and us. Therein sits, in my opinion, our impact, the one we can at least to some degree measure and explore.

Now I aimed initially to explore the impact the first year integrated module has on the students. Alas, I cannot force my students to participate, most permitted me to use the activities and their products from the various sessions, but no one wanted to participate in interviews or group discussions. So according to the methods proposed for action research (i.e. focus groups, interviews, evaluation forms etc.) I had a meager amount of data, and to make the project worthwhile needed to explore more pathways. When I came across Guerrilla Research Methods, which are mostly ad hoc, imply participants’ co-creation of knowledge.

Guerrilla research approach, works under the remit of action research, the aim is change and improvement. Co-creation of knowledge as a key-focus aligns closely with the activities I undertook with my students throughout the sessions. Such as the students developing evaluation questions for the standard course evaluation, creating and feedbacking on balloon academy participants, exploring the meaning of fortune cookies, trying to analyse white plastic cups, and write reflective essays or blogs about their experiences. The data can be triangulated with standard evaluation forms and interviews from my colleagues who experienced the students’ feedback in their roles as module leaders. Guerrilla methods may not be rigorous and definitely cannot replace a comprehensive and thorough research project. However, they draw from the fluid nature of educational space and its participants. As researcher I place myself within the realm of participant who co-created knowledge about her own pedagogy in collaboration with the students and their formal as well as informal feedback. Guerrilla research methods contain ethnographic elements and so this project was not only focussing on my first year UG and first year PGT students but it also became a journey of becoming.

On the Quest for a Researcher Identity

Glenelg

The quest for my researcher identity is a challenge to say the least.

The following saccharine considerations sprang from a meeting I had today. I talked to the master of grants, exploring various options and I realised the worst question someone could possibly ask me is: So what do you want?

Look at the trees above. Unless you are well versed in trees, you might—like me—have to wait until spring to be able to give these trees a name, a label. Who are these trees? Will they spring lovely scented blossoms, will their leaves shine in all colours of the rainbow in the autumn sun, will they carry sweet or poisonous—or both—fruit in summer? Until the time of maturing and rest has passed and the trees come alive once again, I will keep guessing. (Well, or look up in one of my books.)

At the moment, suitable to the February snow, I feel like one of these trees. The potential lingering in the roots, waiting for the first rays of Maytime sun ready to show. Though what will be shown, I have yet to find out.

Not a Hard Core Researcher

He said that according to my LinkedIn profile I am not a ‘hard core’ researcher. Admittedly my first reaction was feeling miffed and somewhat offended, after all, I am rigorous in my research approaches, and analysis. Yet, this is not what he meant with ‘hard core researcher’. According to the master of grants a hardcore researcher is someone who lives of publishing, with impact as marginal apparition. I, according to him and my LinkedIn profile, am more practical, concerned about impact.

Becoming Defensive  

For I am only human, my next internal dialogue was all defensive:

Well, what do you expect? I lost a big chunk of my family, almost died in a car crash, had the physiotherapist telling me I won’t ever have a normal life again due to serious trauma of spinal nerves, proved her wrong, had always several—up to 6 at a time—and no, they are not all on LinkedIn—part-time jobs because my ‘full-time’ grant did not even cover rent, was member of several committees and research networks, research fellow, all of this next to my ‘full-time’ PhD. So somehow I was at capacity and I am not even running full disclosure here. I still have three co-authored (Oh do I hear your eyes rolling!) publications. I simply was at capacity.

And then I realised that none of that, matters. My value as researcher, and the judgement about my quality as researchers is established only by publication. Nothing else matters for employers and funders.

Hm

Understanding Secret Trepidations 

For the last one and a half years, I am having a very cushy job, so theoretically I have not excuse for not having published then. I also have 5 started papers in my ‘to write’ folder. I always get to a certain point and then stop. Discard. Procrastinate. Begin another paper. It took me until two weeks ago—when I wrote a conference abstract for a conference in Germany, in my mother tongue—to realise what the actual issue is. Confidence. After all this time, I still feel—and yes I know it is not justified, and my English is actually not THAT bad—that my writing in English is dilettantish, unprofessional, and clumsy. Harsh judgement you may say. If you are bilingual read my German versus my English writing and you will see they are worlds apart. But then I also realised that it can never be the same, because no language can ever translate in such way and my expectations are disproportionally high. I admit a dismissive side remark on a social media site from a native speaker about the quality in writing in different dissertations, did nothing to help my confidence.

So what do I do? Get over myself and just write anyhow?

The Researcher Identity

I know I want to conduct impact-focussed research but I also want to do ‘proper research’. Let’s just say impact focussed and action research are simply not the same. The issue that annoyed me most with my PhD was that all I could say was: “I contributed to the discourse in the field.” Okay, for the record, this was not the only thing I could say. Nevertheless, I want to influence policy development, improving the education system. Exploring and understanding why some young adults succeed and others not, even if they have the ‘same’ (if there ever is such a thing) background. I want to know how possibility thinking can be installed, and if this indeed is the most significant hindrance factor in young adults’ life expectations and trajectories. But I also want to run a proper research project. I am fed up with fiddly little spouts of evaluation. So there you go this is—I guess—my emerging researcher identity. Ask me again in a couple of months.

Conclusions

So I need to thank the master of research grants for asking his admittedly painful questions today. They coerced me to reinforce my identity negotiations as researcher. Throw excuses, no matter how justified at the time, over board, and focus on what’s next.

Connecting the Dots—Friday Thoughts

Connecting the Dots: Culture of Vulnerability, Possibility Thinking & Resilience

I am currently working on a couple of projects and research ideas. Some of the conceptual considerations came (more or less) together this morning. Mind you this post is the mind-mapping, ‘pre-storming the library’ draft.

The First Dot

A Culture of Vulnerability

The current edition of Times Higher Education runs an opinion piece ‘The feel-bad factor’ by Prof Ecclestone. This article highlights that the boundaries between actual vulnerability and ‘trivial’ vulnerability have become blurred. The author highlights, that education itself does not make vulnerable—yes! Thank you. True engagement with a learning process certainly has elements of risk taking (by both the learner and the teacher), because inevitably it impacts on identity negotiation and asks to leave comfort zones behind. However, should that be considered a vulnerability, if it takes place in a safe environment such as university?

I don’t want to go into the discussion about vulnerability, its definition and forms, in this post. However, the topic has bothered me for a while, maybe because I feel guilty when I put my foot down with my students and force them to take responsibility for their work—no I am not doing your work for you. And yes, I was asked: what then I am here for—because my students don’t know off Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development? Whatever the form, vulnerability is an issue that needs addressing.

The Second Dot

Resilience

This morning I watched a small report on resilience research in Germany. A key aspect of the research mentioned in this report was significance of establishing trust between a teacher and the children—having a reliable person in the teaching role. More about this research and other research into poverty and resilience by M. Zander here.

Resilienzförderung

My attention was drawn to the report when it described the pedagogy, and the significance of the teacher for the children was highlighted. There were strong links to my research, and this project seems to confirm the interpretation in my research that the refugee children due to life-trajectory and targeted support developed stronger resilience and advantages over children, who experienced socio-economic disadvantage without the targeted support.

The Third Dot

Possibility Thinking and Making Connections

Possibility thinking plays, in my opinion, a significant part in the vulnerability and resilience discussion. Possibility thinking is a literacy, that is crucial in making informed life-decisions, in taking ownership and control of one’s life. Possibility thinking can enable us to avoid simply reiterating life-decisions we experience within our narrow social environment, and help to cross boundaries.

I am currently involved in applying for funding with other stakeholders to extend the project I reported on earlier and establish it two-way. Bringing not only marginalised children from Germany to Scotland but also vice versa. We’ve been discussing a related research project and my first thought was to explore the impact the project has on possibility thinking and subsequently identity negotiations and/or life-trajectories. Reading the article about vulnerabilities, true ones and perceived ones (I am still playing with terminology. Is perceived vulnerability less true, than if it is defined by the ethics committee?), and watching the report on resilience, I began to wonder if researching the impact on developing resilience should be included.

 

HEA—A Monster Conference

and I cannot apply because Education within the HEA is under Social Sciences and not Humanities. But this post is not about wallowing in self-pity about having to miss a most interesting sounding conference, but about the unusual perspectives the conference theme offers lecturers in HEI.

Not quite the monster—or wolf in sheep's clothing?

Not quite the monster—or wolf in sheep’s clothing?

I pinched the conference introduction so you know what I am talking about:

Monsters dwell in the hinterlands of the known world, symbolic expressions of cultural unease. As inhabitants of an imagined realm adjunct to the everyday, monsters offer powerful tropes and tools for learning and teaching in the arts and humanities.

Our 3rd annual conference invites you to explore the everyday business of learning and teaching through metaphor and narrative, and so transfigure the ‘taken-for-grantedness’ of academic practice into fantastic tales of the unexpected.

This conference asks how monsters can unnerve and innervate those working in arts and humanities higher education today. We consider how monstrous pedagogies can disrupt the realities and habits of higher education in the arts and humanities, and articulate different ways of being for learners and teachers in the disciplines.

So if I could apply for the conference I would chose:

Shapeshifters and were creatures

The beauty of the arts and humanities often lies in ambiguity. Arts and humanities disciplines do not insist that things be simply one thing or another but enable them to be multivalent and multiplicitous. This strand celebrates complexity in arts and humanities teaching, and considers how we foster creative thinking in our students and graduates. Contributors to this strand might also consider how academic disciplines and their pedagogies shape-shift, morphing into new configurations and practices.

It all began with turning into PhDzilla during my PhD studies. The changes initially were subtle, unbeknownst to me until one day, I completed transmorphication fully and wholly. How did the idea of PhDzilla impact on my pedagogy? I began wondering how transferring creativity, the idea of added-on realities could be translated into experiences for my students. After all in early childhood education it is common to use ‘as if’ activities to enable children to learn via proxies and foster their creativity. Now I was wondering why should it not work with adult learners? This presentation explores the results from an ethnographic-action research project, in which I used creative writing, proxies and ‘as if’ activities as well as learning with objects (which is usually a strategy used in museums’ pedagogy) to work with undergraduate and postgraduate students in the school of health and life sciences in GCU.

The uncanny

The transformative power of the arts comes from an ability to reveal the unfamiliarity at the heart of the familiar, and the familiar at the heart of the unfamiliar. The uncanny makes strange the known world, and is a disturbing, destabilising, disquieting, disorienting force. It blurs boundaries and evokes liminal spaces. This strand invites contributions which consider uncanny pedagogies capable of disrupting certainties, and which shake habits, beliefs and assumptions about learning and teaching.

When the Golem arrived they expected we would open their heads, replacing the piece of instructional paper with one anew. They expect a piece of paper that promises functionality throughout the next four years, even beyond. I am task to retrieve the old instructions and make sense of the new. Every beginning academic year, I wonder if I can fulfil this task, take out the paper, and make the Golem change. My biggest challenge is to enable the Golem to live without instruction.

Such ambition necessitates for me to become uncanny. I am the practicing the craft of creative pedagogy. When working my magic, I disrupt habits, shake up believes and assumptions, and send them on the quest for ‘why’? and ‘so what?’. In this presentation I will take you with me on a broomstick ride; discussing results from an ethnographic action research about student perception of creative pedagogy. When I question my students realities and believes, I have to question my own, their reactions are challenging what I believe about myself, I in turn will make them see strange lands, realms of critical acclaim they’ve never ventured to before. And if my magic was strong enough the Golem may not need their paper.

The other themes offered on the conference website are equally challenging and interesting. Simply reading them entices the story-teller within, coaxes the narratives to emerge and reconsider my pedagogy and its implications.