Dissemination, Social Media, and Ethics

twitterstormI inadvertently caused a minor Twitterstorm last week, and am considering what I can learn from this.

I spotted a tweet from @exerciseworks reporting some research. It said “One in 12 deaths could be prevented with 30 minutes of exercise five times a week” (originally tweeted by @exerciseworks on 22 Sept, retweeted on the morning of 10 October). The tweet also included this link but I didn’t click through, I just responded directly to the content of the tweet.

Here’s their tweet and my reply:

 

The @exerciseworks account replied saying it wasn’t their headline. This was true; the article is in the prestigious British Medical Journal (BMJ) which should know better. And so should I: in retrospect, I should have checked the link, and overtly aimed my comment at the BMJ as well.

Then @exerciseworks blocked me on Twitter. Perhaps they felt I might damage their brand, or they just didn’t like the cut of my jib. It is of course their right to choose who to engage with on Twitter, though I’m a little disappointed that they weren’t up for debate.

I was surprised how many people picked up the tweet and retweeted it, sometimes with comment, such as this:

Rajat Chauhan tweet

and this:

Alan J Taylor tweet

which was ‘liked’ by the BMJ itself – presumably they are up for debate; I would certainly hope so. (It also led me to check out @AdamMeakins, a straight-talking sports physiotherapist who I was pleased to be bracketed with.)

Talking to people about this, the most common reaction was to describe @exerciseworks as a snowflake or similar, and say they should get over themselves. This is arguable, of course, though I think it is important to remember that we never know what – sometimes we don’t know who – is behind a Twitter account. Even with individual accounts where people disclose personal information, we should not assume that the struggles someone discloses are all the struggles they face. And with corporate or other collective accounts, we should remember that there is an individual person reading and responding to tweets, and that person has their own feelings and struggles.

Twitter is a fast-moving environment and it’s easy to make a point swiftly then move on. Being blocked has made me pause for thought, particularly as @exerciseworks is an account I’ve been following and interacting with for some time.

I stand by the point I made. It riles me when statistical research findings are reported as evidence that death is preventable. Yes, of course lives can be saved, and so death avoided at that particular time. Also, sensible life choices such as taking exercise are likely to help postpone death. But prevent death? No chance. To suggest that is inaccurate and therefore unethical. However, forgetting that there is an actual person behind each Twitter account is also unethical, so I’m going to try to take a little more time and care in future.

Crowdfunding For Academia

crowded-390840__340Crowdfunding is a way of raising money, from anyone you can persuade to give you money, for anything you like. You can crowdfund for personal needs, projects, charities, disaster appeals, creative endeavours – anything from pet food to space travel. Some projects that have been successfully funded through Kickstarter alone include combat cookware, amusing rap songs about the iconic television character Doctor Who, and bacon-scented soap.

There are quite a few crowdfunding sites now and they have different USPs. For example, Teespring was set up specifically for crowdfunding unique t-shirt designs, though it now also enables the design and creation of other products such as beach towels, phone cases, and mugs. Unbound is for publishing books (though not academic ones, sadly). GoFundMe is mostly used for medical, memorial, and charitable fundraising, though it is also used by a lot of doctoral students around the world to help fund part or all of their studies.

Kickstarter is for creative projects, including those related to academia. Indiegogo is for innovations in technology and design; its links with academia seem more tenuous, but nevertheless exist. However, unlike GoFundMe and Kickstarter, it does include quite a few research projects. All of these websites take a small percentage of any funds raised, to cover their costs.

Although people doing academic work are free to use any crowdfunding website, there one that seems particularly applicable is Patreon. This is for ‘creators’ who can crowdfund per ‘thing’ they create (song, podcast, etc), or per month (which is more predictable for donors). Patreon is increasingly being used by researchers, such as Brian Danielak who creates free open source software for research; Asia Murphy who researches wildlife in remote forests (with great photos and videos!); and Kylie Budge who is researching creativity in cities.

Crowdfunding is not a soft option. Yes, you can slap together a web page, sit back, and wait for the donations to roll in. But if you do that, they won’t. For any chance of success, you need an appealing offer, a well-made fundraising page, healthy personal and professional networks, and no shame at all about asking people for money, over and over again. On Patreon, your offer is made up of goals and rewards. Goals need to be intriguing and credible, and rewards need to be enticing (to potential fundraisers), achievable (for you), and ongoing rather than one-offs, with at least one reward per year even for people who fund you at the lowest level. This all takes a lot of thought and research. Then, once you have your page up, you need to promote, promote, promote.

Talking of which: I am launching my own Patreon page this very day! I am lucky to have a great mentor for this project, Jonathan O’Donnell of RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He is currently doing a PhD in academic crowdfunding, and will be producing a guide to this in due course. If you appreciate my blog, please consider supporting me for one dollar per month – or more, if you wish. Whether or not you think you might want to support me, I’d be grateful if you could take a look at my page. All feedback welcome, either here or there. Thank you.

Why Research Participants Rock

dancingI wrote last week about the creative methods Roxanne Persaud and I used in our research into diversity and inclusion at Queen Mary University of London last year. One of those was screenplay writing, which we thought would be particularly useful if it depicted an interaction between a student and a very inclusive lecturer, or between a student and a less inclusive lecturer.

I love to work with screenplay writing. I use play script writing too, sometimes, though less often. With play script writing, you’re bound by theatre rules, so everything has to happen in one room, with minimal special effects. This can be really helpful when you’re researching something that happens in a specific place such as a parent and toddler group or a team sport. Screenplay, though, is more flexible: you can cut from private to public space, or include an army of mermaids if you wish. Also, screenplay writing offers more scope for descriptions of settings and characters, which, from a researcher’s point of view, can provide very useful data.

Especially when participants do their own thing! Our screenplay-writing participants largely ignored our suggestions about interactions between students and lecturers. Instead, we learned about a south Asian woman, the first in her family to go to university, who was lonely, isolated, and struggling to cope. We found out about a non-binary student’s experience of homophobia, sexism and violence in different places on campus. We saw how difficult it can be for Muslim students to join in with student life when alcohol plays a central role. Scenes like these gave us a much richer picture of facets of student inclusion and exclusion than we would have had if our participants had kept to their brief.

Other researchers using creative techniques have found this too. For example, Shamser Sinha and Les Back did collaborative research with young migrants in London. One participant, who they call Dorothy, wanted to use a camera, but wasn’t sure what to capture. Sinha suggested exploring how her immigration status affected where she went and what she could buy. Instead, Dorothy went sightseeing, and took pictures of Buckingham Palace. The stories she told about what this place and experience meant to her enriched the researchers’ perceptions of migrant life, not just the ‘aggrieved’ life they were initially interested in, but ‘her free life’ (Sinha and Back 2013:483).

Katy Vigurs aimed to use photo-elicitation to explore different generations’ perceptions of the English village where they lived. She worked with a ladies’ choir, a running club, and a youth project. Vigurs asked her participants to take pictures that would show how they saw and experienced their community. The runners did as she asked. The singers, who were older, took a few photos and also, unprompted, provided old photographs of village events and landmarks, old and new newspaper cuttings, photocopied and hand-drawn maps of the area with added annotations, and long written narratives about their perceptions and experiences of the village. The young people also took some photos, mostly of each other, but then spent a couple of hours with a map of the village, tracing the routes they used and talking with the researcher about where and how they spent time. Rather than standard photo-elicitation, this became ‘co-created mixed-media elicitation’ as Vigurs puts it (Vigurs and Kara 2016:520) (yes, I am the second author of this article, but all the research and much of the writing is hers). Again, this provided insights for the researcher that she could not have found using the method she originally planned.

Research ethics committees might frown on this level of flexibility. I would argue that it is more ethical than the traditional prescriptive approach to research. Our participants have knowledge and ideas and creativity to share. They don’t need us to teach them how to interact and work with others. In fact, our participants have a great deal to teach us, if we are only willing to listen and learn.

Creative Research In Practice

like cloudIt’s not often I get to share an output from the commissioned research I do. Sometimes clients don’t want to share publicly for reasons of confidentiality, and sometimes there are other reasons they don’t publish. As a commissioned researcher, I can’t publish the work someone else has paid for without their agreement. But I’m glad to say that Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) has published the full report of the research I did for them last year with my colleague Roxanne Persaud.

The research question was: How can QMUL improve students’ experience with respect to the inclusivity of their teaching, learning, and curricula? The original brief focused on the protected characteristics covered by the UK Equality Act 2010: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion and belief, and sexual orientation. Roxanne and I advised QMUL to take a more holistic approach to inclusivity, as the protected characteristics don’t cover some factors that we know can lead to discrimination and disadvantage, such as socioeconomic status and caring responsibilities. We recommended Appreciative Inquiry as a methodological framework, because it doesn’t start from a deficit perspective emphasising problems and complaints, but focuses on what an organisation does well and what it could do better. (It doesn’t ignore or sideline problems and complaints, either; it simply starts from the standpoint that there are assets to build on.)  And of course we suggested creative techniques, particularly for data-gathering and sense-making, alongside more conventional methods.

Roxanne and I were both keen to do this piece of work because we share an interest in diversity and inclusion. Neither of us had worked with QMUL before and we weren’t sure whether they would appreciate our approach to their brief. Sometimes commissioners want to recruit people who will do exactly what they specify. Even so, I’d rather say how I think a piece of work needs to be done; if the commissioner doesn’t want it done that way, then I don’t want the job.

QMUL shortlisted six sets of applicants. The interview was rigorous. Roxanne and I came out feeling we’d done ourselves justice, but with no clue as to whether we might have got the work or not. But we did!

The research was overseen by a Task & Finish group, made up of staff from different departments, who approved the methods we had put forward. We conducted a targeted literature review to identify key issues and best practice for inclusivity in the UK and overseas, and set the research in an institutional, societal, and theoretical context. The theoretical perspectives we used began with the theory of intersectionality developed by the law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, which we then built on using the diffraction methodology of the physicist and social theorist Karen Barad. These two theories together provided a binocular lens for looking at a very complex phenomenon.

The timescale for the research was tight, and data gathering collided with Ramadan, exams, and the summer holidays. So, not surprisingly, we struggled with recruitment, despite strenuous efforts by us and by helpful colleagues at QMUL. We were able to involve 17 staff and 22 students from a wide range of departments. We conducted semi-structured telephone interviews with the staff, and gave students the option of participating in face-to-face interviews or group discussions using creative methods. These methods included:

  • The life-sized lecturer: an outline figure on a large sheet of paper, with a label indicating what kind of person they are e.g. ‘a typical QMUL lecturer’ and ‘an ideally inclusive lecturer’, which students could write and draw on.
  • Sticker maps: a map of organisational inclusivity, which we developed for QMUL, on which students could place small green stickers to indicate areas of good practice and small red stickers to indicate areas for further improvement.
  • Empathy maps: tools to help participants consider how other students or staff in different situations think and feel; what they might see, say, and do; and where they might experience ‘pain or gain’ with respect to inclusive learning.
  • Screenplay writing: a very short screenplay depicting an interaction between a student and a very inclusive lecturer, or between a student and a less inclusive lecturer. The screenplay will include dialogue and may also include information about characters’ attributes, the setting, and so on.

We generated over 50,000 words of data, which we imported into NVivo. Roxanne and I spent a day working together on emergent data coding, discussing excerpts from different interviews and group sessions, with the aim of extracting maximum richness. Then I finished the coding and carried out a thematic analysis while Roxanne finished the literature review.

We wrote a draft report, and then had two ‘review and refine’ meetings for sense-making, which were attended by 24 people. The first meeting was with members of the Task & Finish group, and the second was an open meeting, for participants and other interested people. We presented the draft findings, and put up sheets on the walls listing 37 key factors identified in the draft report. We gave participants three sticky stars to use to indicate their top priorities, and 10 sticky dots to use to indicate where they would allocate resources. People took the resource allocation incredibly seriously, and it was interesting to see how collaboratively they worked on this. I heard people saying things like, ‘That’s important, but it’s already got five dots on, so I’m going to put another one here.’ I wish I could have recorded all their conversations! We did collect some further data at these meetings, including touch-typed notes of group discussions and information about the relative frequency of occurrence, and importance, of the 37 key factors. All of this data was synthesised together with the previously collected data in the final report and its recommendations.

The comparatively small number of participants was a limitation, though we did include people from all faculties and most schools, and we certainly collected enough data for a solid qualitative study. We would have liked some quantitative data too, but the real limitation was that most of the people we reached were already concerned about inclusivity. We didn’t reach enough people to be able to say with certainty whether this was, or was not, the case more widely at QMUL. Also, while none of our participants disagreed unduly with our methodology or methods, others at QMUL may have done so. In a university including physicists, mathematicians, engineers, social scientists, artists, doctors, dentists and lawyers, among others, it seems highly unlikely that anyone could come up with an approach to research that would receive universal approval.

Yet I’m proud of this research. It’s not perfect – for example, I’ve realised, in the course of writing this blog post, that we didn’t explicitly include the research question in the research report! But its title is Inclusive Curricula, Teaching, and Learning: Adaptive Strategies for Inclusivity, which seems clear enough. I’m sure there are other ways it could be improved. But I’m really happy with the central features: the methodology, the methods, and the flexibility Roxanne and I offered to our client.

Evaluating excellence in arts-based research: a case study

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 16 June 2016 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.

peacock-536478__340I recently wrote on this topic citing the work of Sarah J Tracy from Arizona State University, who developed a set of eight criteria for assessing the quality of arts-based and other forms of qualitative and mixed-methods research. Now I propose to apply those criteria to an example of arts-based research, to find out how they can work in practice.

The research example I have chosen is by Jennifer Lapum and her colleagues from Toronto in Canada, who investigated 16 patients’ experiences of open-heart surgery. Their work is methodologically interesting because they used arts-based techniques, not only for data generation, but also for data analysis and dissemination. They published an account of their work in Qualitative Inquiry which I will interrogate here.

Lapum  gathered narrative data from two interviews with post-operative patients, one while they were still in hospital and the other some weeks after returning home. Also, journals were kept by patients between the two interviews. She then put together a multi-disciplinary team of people, including artists, researchers, designers, and medical staff, and they spent a year doing arts-based analysis of the patients’ stories. This included metaphor analysis, poetic inquiry, sketching, concept mapping, and construction of photographic images. The team then developed an installation, covering 1,739 square feet, with seven sections representing the seven stages of a patient’s journey. These sections were arranged along a labyrinthine route, with the operating room at the centre, all hung with textile compositions incorporating poems and photographic images that had been generated at the analytic stage. Further dissemination via a short video on YouTube gives some idea of how it would be to visit this installation.

So how does this research fit with Tracy’s eight criteria? First we ask: is the research topic worthy? I would argue that in this case the answer is yes. Open-heart surgery must be a daunting prospect, even though the rewards can be immense. Lapum’s work offers potential patients and carers some insight into the journey they may take, and offers medical and other relevant staff an increased understanding of patients’ experiences. This is likely to improve outcomes for patients.

Second, is this project richly rigorous? The sample size is small, but the data was carefully constructed. Also, the analytic process was extremely thorough, with a multi-disciplinary team spending a year working with the data. Therefore I would conclude that this criterion has been met.

Do we have sincerity? Is the research reflexive, honest, and transparent? The published article is quite explicit about the methods used, and credits several people who have been involved with the process. The article asserts that the research was reflective, though the article itself is not. Nor do the writers outline all the decisions they took in the course of analysis and dissemination. However, space in a journal article is limited – but there is no mention of what was left out and why. So the research as presented here is sincere up to a point, but there is scope for more reflexivity and transparency.

What about credibility? There is certainly thick description and multiplicity of voices and perspectives in this research. Also, while the research team did not include participants as such, contributions were made by ‘knowledge users’ including cardiovascular health practitioners and former heart surgery patients. So, in Tracy’s terms, this research is definitely credible.

The next criterion is resonance. The installation certainly had aesthetic merit. It was generalisable to some extent: certainly to heart surgery patients and practitioners from other geographic locations, and perhaps to patients and practitioners of other kinds of major organ surgery. And it was also transferable: ‘we found people of diverse backgrounds not only resonated with the work but were also able to consider the application of these ideas to their lives and/or professional field’ (Lapum et al 2012:221). So, yes, it was resonant.

Did this research make a significant contribution? It evidently extended the knowledge, and may have improved the practice, of the research team. The project was methodologically unusual, and explicitly aimed to engage the audience’s aesthetic and emotional faculties, as well as their intellectual abilities, in responding to the research findings. However, there is no report of the installation’s impact on its audience but, again, this may be due to lack of space. So I would argue that this criterion was met, and the research may in fact have made a more significant contribution than we can discern from one journal article.

How ethical was the research? The article does not mention ethics, though it seems inevitable that the research must have received formal ethical approval. The level of thought and care applied to the research suggests that it was ethical, though this is implicit rather than explicit. But, once again, this may be due to space constraints.

And finally, does the research have meaningful coherence? The article tells an engaging and comprehensible story, so yes, it does.

It is perhaps unfair to judge a long and complex research project on the basis of a single journal article of just a few thousand words. Lapum and her colleagues have published several articles about their research; to make a full judgement I should really read them all. However, if the authors had carried out an analysis of their article based on Tracy’s criteria, they might have chosen to add a sentence or two about what they left out, a paragraph or two on reflexivity, a short description of the impact of the installation on its audience, and some information about ethics. The article as it stands is excellent; with these amendments, it could have been outstanding. This demonstrates that Tracy’s criteria are useful for assessing not only research itself, but also reports of research.

How to evaluate excellence in arts-based research

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 19 May 2016 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.

judgementResearchers, research commissioners, and research funders all struggle with identifying good quality arts-based research. ‘I know it when I see it’ just doesn’t pass muster. Fortunately, Sarah J Tracy of Arizona State University has developed a helpful set of criteria that are now being used extensively to assess the quality of qualitative research, including arts-based and qualitative mixed-methods research.

Tracy’s conceptualisation includes eight criteria: worthy topic, rich rigour, sincerity, credibility, resonance, significant contribution, ethics, and meaningful coherence. Let’s look at each of those in a bit more detail.

A worthy topic is likely to be significant, meaningful, interesting, revealing, relevant, and timely. Such a topic may arise from contemporary social or personal phenomena, or from disciplinary priorities.

Rich rigour involves care and attention, particularly to sampling, data collection, and data analysis. It is the antithesis of the ‘quick and dirty’ research project, requiring diligence on the part of the researcher and leaving no room for short-cuts.

Sincerity involves honesty and transparency. Reflexivity is the key route to honesty, requiring researchers to interrogate and display their own impact on the research they conduct. Transparency focuses on the research process, and entails researchers disclosing their methods and decisions, the challenges they faced, any unexpected events that affected the research, and so on. It also involves crediting all those who have helped the researcher, such as funders, participants, or colleagues.

Credibility is a more complex criterion which, when achieved, produces research that can be perceived as trustworthy and on which people are willing to base decisions. Tracy suggests that there are four dimensions to achieving credibility: thick description, triangulation/crystallization, multiple voices, and participant input beyond data provision. Thick description means lots of detail and illustration to elucidate meanings which are clearly located in terms of theoretical, cultural, geographic, temporal, and other such location markers. Triangulation and crystallisation are both terms that refer to the use of multiplicity within research, such as through using multiple researchers, theories, methods, and/or data sources. The point of multiplicity is to consider the research question in a variety of ways, to enable the exploration of different facets of that question and thereby create deeper understanding. The use of multiple voices, particularly in research reporting, enables researchers more accurately to reflect the complexity of the research situation. Participant input beyond data provision provides opportunities for verification and elaboration of findings, and helps to ensure that research outputs are understandable and implementable.

Although all eight criteria are potentially relevant to arts-based research, resonance is perhaps the most directly relevant. It refers to the ability of research to have an emotional impact on its audiences or readers. Resonance has three aspects: aesthetic merit, generalisability, and transferability. Aesthetic merit means that style counts alongside, and works with, content, such that research is presented in a beautiful, evocative, artistic and accessible way. Generalisability refers to the potential for research to be valuable in a range of contexts, settings, or circumstances. Transferability is when an individual reader or audience member can take ideas from the research and apply them to their own situation.

Research can contribute to knowledge, policy, and/or practice, and will make a significant contribution if it extends knowledge or improves policy or practice. Research may also make a significant contribution to the development of methodology; there is a lot of scope for this with arts-based methods.

Several of the other criteria touch on ethical aspects of research. For example, many researchers would argue that reflexivity is an ethical necessity. However, ethics in research is so important that it also requires a criterion of its own. Tracy’s conceptualisation of ethics for research evaluation involves procedural, situational, relational, and exiting ethics. Procedural ethics refers to the system of research governance – or, for those whose research is not subject to formal ethical approval, the considerations therein such as participant welfare and data storage. Situational ethics requires consideration of the specific context for the research and how that might or should affect ethical decisions. Relational ethics involve treating others well during the research process: offering respect, extending compassion, keeping promises, and so on. And exiting ethics cover the ways in which researchers present and share findings, as well as aftercare for participants and others involved in the research.

Research that has meaningful coherence effectively does what it sets out to do. It will tell a clear story. That story may include paradox and contradiction, mess and disturbance. Nevertheless, it will bring together theory, literature, data and analysis in an interconnected and comprehensible way.

These criteria are not an unarguable rubric to which every qualitative researcher must adhere. Indeed there are times when they will conflict in practice. For example, you may have a delightfully resonant vignette, but be unable to use it because it would identify the participant concerned; participants may not be willing or able to be involved beyond data provision; and all the diligence in the world can’t guarantee a significant contribution. So, as always, researchers need to exercise their powers of thought, creativity, and improvisation in the service of good quality research, and use the criteria flexibly, as guidelines rather than rules. However, what these criteria do offer is a very helpful framework for assessing the likely quality of research at the design stage, and the actual quality of research on completion.

Next week I will post a case study demonstrating how these criteria can be used.

Working With Indigenous Literature

Indigenous methods booksI have been working with Indigenous literature on research methods and ethics for over a year now: reading, annotating, thinking, re-reading, and writing from this literature alongside Euro-Western literature on the same topics. During this process I have been reflecting on how I should, and how I do, work with Indigenous literature.

Working well with any literature requires careful and thorough reading and reflection. Beyond that, though, it seems to me there are some specific requirements for working with Indigenous literature.

To begin with, readers need to understand that although the current body of literature is small, it represents a much longer research tradition than that represented by Euro-Western methods/ethics literature. Indigenous researchers around the world, through their oral history, can trace their research tradition back over 40,000 years (Passingan 2013:361; Steere 2013:388-391). By contrast, in Euro-Western terms, anything over 6,000 years old is pre-history. However, there is also a translation problem. Although the first language of some Indigenous people these days may be English, the community and tribal languages of Indigenous peoples worldwide are very different. The complex concepts people develop when talking and thinking about research and its context may not translate directly between a community or tribal language and English, or vice versa. Even when words can be translated, the ideas those words describe may not be fully translatable to people with different world views. For example, some Indigenous peoples regard their ancestors as involved in the research they conduct. This is an unusual concept for most Euro-Western researchers and it is unlikely that we can understand fully what that involvement means to the Indigenous peoples concerned.

Then readers need an awareness that translating an oral tradition into writing is a big intellectual and emotional challenge. There is evidence within the Indigenous research literature that some of its authors are ambivalent about writing. For example, Shawn Wilson states that ‘A problem with writing down stories is that it makes it very difficult to change them as we gain new learning and insights.’ (2008:22) He solves this problem in his own work by writing, not in the Euro-Western linear style of introduction, methods, findings etc, but in ‘a more cyclical pattern that introduces ideas or themes, then returns to them at intervals with different levels of understanding’ (ibid:42). He also tries to write relationally, in accordance with Indigenous ethical principles, i.e. to build a relationship between himself as author, his readers, and the ideas he puts forward (ibid:6). With this aim in view, he uses a literary device of addressing his three children in sections of the book. He chose to do this because, unlike his unknown readers, he has an existing relationship with his children which enables him to use a more personal ‘voice’ in writing for them (ibid:9). Wilson’s hope is that these sections, alongside the more conventionally written ones, will help his readers to develop their own relationships with the ideas and themes in his book.

Wilson and others (e.g. Lambert 2014) also include stories from other named people in their books. This requires a change in citation practices, as simply citing the name of the person on the cover of the book does not adequately acknowledge the source of information. I have solved this problem by citing this way: ‘Lewis in Wilson 2008:110’ or ‘Leslie Camel in Lambert 2014:167’. (I have yet to find out whether my publisher regards this as OK or not, though I hope they will.)

It seems to me that Indigenous literature should be worked with in its own ethical terms. Indigenous research ethical principles are not the same as Euro-Western research ethical principles. While they are described differently by different writers, there are four key ethical principles that recur in the Indigenous literature: respect, accountability, relationality and reciprocity. For me, Indigenous literature should be treated with respect, such as by not dismissing concepts that seem unusual or even alien to me, but by giving them full consideration. If I can’t embrace a particular concept myself, at the very least I need to acknowledge and respect its significance for some Indigenous peoples.

Accountability comes with putting my name to my writing on these topics, making my views available on my blog and (next year) in a book, and giving anyone the right to comment or reply, whether or not they agree with me. Relationality involves careful reading and thinking and use of the literature, trying to understand the different works and authors in relation to me, and me in relation to them, as well as the relationships between the works and authors themselves. This is very much a work in progress and I hope one day to extend it into actual relationship with individual Indigenous researchers, though whether or not any Indigenous researcher would find value in that remains to be seen.

Reciprocity is the principle I find the most difficult when working only with literature. I hope I can achieve this by writing from the Indigenous literature in a way that its authors will value, and in a way that will enable other Euro-Western researchers and scholars to find and learn from that literature as I myself have done. I have been very concerned that working with the literature could be extractive, i.e. taking ideas and concepts and using them for my benefit alone. It is true that the books I write help me to earn a living, but I am not getting rich from them. Nobody pays me while I write, and my income from writing in 2016-17 was around £1,500 (I don’t have the exact figure yet, but will post it when I do). Also, I don’t write niche academic monographs, but textbooks that have proven to be of interest to postgraduate students and academics around the world. I found comfort in direct requests from some Indigenous writers to include their literature in Euro-Western works (Kovach 2009:13,25; Graham Smith in Kovach 2009:88-89; Chilisa 2012:56), and I hope that raising the profile of this literature within the Euro-Western research world will prove to be a positive act. If it backfires in some unforeseen way, on Indigenous individuals and communities who have already borne too much pain, all I will be able to do is acknowledge and own my responsibility for my part in that process, to remain accountable, learn, and do what I can to right any wrongs.

This post is a starting point rather than a conclusion. I have figured all this out myself, so I may be on the wrong track. If you are working with, or have an interest in, this body of literature, please contribute your views in the comments.

Self-Care And Privilege

France summer 2009 2 for Helen 137I wrote a post in December 2014 about the importance of self-care. I’m taking my own advice again and going on holiday for a fortnight. That means this blog will be quiet too, as the pre-holiday frenzy of client work and writing deadlines did not allow for preparing and scheduling posts.

There’s a lot of talk about self-care for researchers, the self-employed, and people who do scholarly work. Quite right, too; it’s important in these 24/7 professions. But it’s easy for us to forget that self-care is also a privilege.

I’ve been thinking a lot about privilege, partly because I’m writing about ethics and partly because of world affairs. There’s a lot of talk about white privilege, for good reasons, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. For me, privilege is intersectional, just like disadvantage. So some of my privilege is about being white, but I have other forms of privilege too. I have enough time, money, health, and support from others – and I need all of those privileges to be able to take this holiday. There are white people with no privilege beyond their whiteness; they still have privilege, but it does not help them much.

I have a lot of privilege other than my whiteness. For example, I haven’t had to ask anyone for permission to take time off, and I’m not using up a portion of precious annual leave. In fact, I can take as many holidays as I like, in theory, though in practice I have to prioritise working for a living. But that’s going OK because I also have enough money, not only to pay for a holiday (albeit a cheap one), but also to spend a couple of weeks not earning. I thought about my health privilege this morning, as I spoke to a family member, younger than me, who hasn’t had a holiday in years for health reasons. And I have the privilege of a loving partner, family, and friends, who support me.

There are even more forms of privilege in play here. For example, I will be thinking about my freedom-of-movement privilege as I travel through Calais, where so many refugees are suffering. And of course white privilege counts too: I will not experience racism at any point on this trip, and nobody is likely to harass or try to kill me because of the colour of my skin.

I have been reading articles about people living very different lives, dealing with monstrous injustice around the world. I have been reading about people in my own country who can’t afford to eat. Part of me thinks that, with all these horrors going on, I shouldn’t even have a holiday. But a bigger part of me refuses to feel guilty for taking this opportunity. I will, though, be aware of how very lucky I am.

On Being An Indigenous Ally

alliesI posted a book list earlier this month, and a surprisingly large number of people have shown interest. So I thought maybe I should explain myself, as best I can.

Most allies of Indigenous peoples seem to be non-Indigenous settlers in Indigenous lands. I am an indigenous British woman – the small ‘i’ denotes that I am a native of a colonising, not a colonised, country. I do not see Indigenous peoples on the streets of my country; I rarely read about them in my national newspapers, and when I do, they are in the international section that reports news from other countries.

So why am I an Indigenous ally?

Good question.

I wasn’t taught about colonisation at school. Our history lessons were all about British and European monarchs, mostly kings, and wars and conquests. People of colour didn’t feature (I wonder, now, how my school-friends of colour felt about our history lessons) and women played bit-parts.

I didn’t like history at school, I think mainly because I didn’t identify with the people it featured (not being royal, or a man). When I was in my 20s, more interesting history books began to be published, including Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking works Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain and Black People in the British Empire (and The Women’s History of the World by Rosalind Miles, but that’s a different blog post). These books taught me some things about the roles people of colour had played in the history of my people, and about how my people had oppressed and exploited others. Then ten years later, when I was doing my masters’ degree in social research methods, the first edition of Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s seminal work Decolonising Methodologies was published. That book taught me about the role of research in colonialism.

It horrifies me that a majority of my fellow Brits think we should be proud of our Imperial legacy, and that over three times as many people think colonised countries are better off as a result than think they are worse off. It seems to me, from all I have read, and heard, and seen online, that the opposite is true. Colonisation is also, usually, spoken of as something that is past. I don’t agree with that either. Professor Bagele Chilisa of Botswana expresses it beautifully:

Colonization can be described as an attempt by the Western world to order the whole world according to Western standards of culture, politics, economic structures, and policies. (2012:81).

This is still happening. For example, several UK honours, given to British people by our Queen for exceptional achievements or service, still reference the British Empire. More broadly, Western peoples are still getting richer from colonisation, e.g. through buying cheap clothes made, or cheap food grown, by people of colour who work in appalling conditions for very little money. There must be many other examples of the Western world dictating how other parts of the world can act. I haven’t been able to find any research quantifying the current benefits accruing to colonisers from colonisation – we need a political economist with skills equivalent to Peter Fryer’s – but I am certain they exist.

This is so wrong and so unjust that it needs bigger words than ‘wrong’ and ‘unjust’. It is evil and I want no part of it, but I am a white person from a colonising country so I have a part in it whether I want one or not. The question that remains for me, then, is how to play that part.

I’m still figuring that out. Some things I know to do, such as shop and bank as ethically as possible, and talk to other white people about our role in colonialism and oppression. I support Indigenous activism where I can. I am reading, citing, and promoting Indigenous literature in my field. I think, too, that I may be able to help with my own writing – particularly my next book, and the second edition of my last book which will follow in due course.

There are probably other things I could do and should do. If you have thoughts or ideas, please pass them on in the comments. There are also things I would like to do. Last year I was able to attend one 90-minute seminar presented by Indigenous researchers, and the year before I was able to help an Indigenous researcher plan a couple of research projects they wanted to do (I learned at least as much as they did). Apart from that, all I have learned has come from books. I would love to spend some time with one or more Indigenous communities, to learn some of the things that can’t be learned from books, such as: how to be a better ally.

Clare Land has written a very good book called Decolonizing Solidarity: Dilemmas and Directions for Supporters of Indigenous Struggles (2015). It is really useful, but as Land is an ‘Anglo-identified non-Aboriginal person living and working in south-east Australia’, it is inevitably focused on Australia. I wonder whether I could write something on how to be an ally for coloniser people who are not settlers. It would be different from Clare Land’s book, though I don’t know in what ways. I hope, over time, I may be able to find out.

Why I Love Reviewer 2

pencils and heartFeedback can feel like a very mixed blessing at times. Positive feedback is a delight to receive, while even the most constructive criticism can come as a crushing blow. Writers are particularly susceptible to this, especially novice writers who haven’t yet learned to separate critique of their writing from critique of themselves. I often meet doctoral students who are very reluctant to show their work to their supervisors, fearing criticism because they’re worried that it’s not very good. If it’s a first draft, of course it’s not very good, and a second draft will also contain problems that have to be fixed. Supervisors need to see this work so they can give feedback, which should include information about:

  1. what you’re doing well,
  2. what needs improvement, and
  3. how you can make those improvements.

If any of these elements is missing, ask them to include it in future feedback.

More experienced writers can also struggle with feedback. “Reviewer 2”, referring to an anonymous peer reviewer of an academic journal article, has become a standing joke on social media.

Roses are red, violets are blue, why are you so loathsome, Reviewer 2?

Even when you are really experienced, with a thesis or dissertation, several journal articles, book chapters, and even books to your name, feedback can pack an emotional punch. When you receive feedback (which should be in writing), read it through and give yourself time for emotional as well as cognitive digestion. If anything in the feedback annoys or upsets you, apply self-care: chocolate, a hug from a loved one, walking outdoors, meditation, gardening, exercise – whatever works for you. Then, when you’re ready, read it again and find the key messages.

Here’s some of the feedback from my book proposals:

  • The synopsis is quite antagonistic
  • This will provide insufficient information to be useful
  • The thrust of the book remains unclear
  • Chapters 1 and 8 seem to be somewhat repetitive
  • It is a bit thin and not complex enough to add anything new
  • The proposal covers a wide terrain and is unfocussed
  • I think this would be an excellent edited book… the author would benefit from the input… it’s a very broad aim otherwise and may not succeed
  • Far greater clarity is needed
  • The book will not make a very original contribution
  • The writing style is stiff

Luckily there was also a fair amount of positive feedback. Positive feedback is great: it provides much-needed encouragement, and lets you know what you can relax about. But it’s the “Reviewer 2” type comments that really help you improve.

There are three sensible ways to respond to constructive criticism. First, the no-brainer. Chapters 1 and 8 seem repetitive? That’s useful and specific, so I would definitely check those two chapters against each other and remove any unnecessary repetition.

Second, the no-thanks. An edited collection rather than a sole-authored book? I thought that could potentially make the aim even broader, with a bunch of authors jockeying for position. Luckily, my editor agreed.

Third, the oh-wait. The book will not make a very original contribution? I was sure it would, but what this comment told me, crucially, was that I had not communicated the originality of the contribution well enough in my proposal. It is so important to remember that reviewers can be wrong – though if they are, the fault probably lies in your writing. (Not always. Some good scholars are poor reviewers, especially those who are unable to distinguish the piece you are writing from the piece they would write if they addressed the same topic. But usually.) So when you are considering feedback on your writing, don’t always take it at face value. Think about it in the context of your work as a whole, and make a decision. You should certainly take notice if more than one reviewer says similar things. Another reviewer on the same proposal says more clarity is needed. The two comments, together, tell me I have not been clear enough about the contribution I think the book can and will make. That is very useful information because I need the book’s contribution to be perfectly clear by the time of publication, so I and my publisher can communicate it to potential readers. More work evidently needed.

This decision-making can be difficult, and sometimes a second opinion is helpful. Reviewers, too, can be unclear. If you don’t understand what a reviewer is trying to say, it’s tempting to jump to the conclusion that they’re cleverer than you and reach for the despair. However, it may well be that they haven’t articulated their point effectively, which unfortunately makes your job harder rather than easier. Sometimes you can go back to them for clarification; it’s fine to do this, even if you have to go through an intermediary such as a journal editor. But it is sensible to check with someone else first, to make sure it’s not a comparatively straightforward point that you’re just missing for some reason.

I always welcome feedback on my writing. I can’t write a book, or anything else for that matter, without feedback from a range of people. Critical feedback doesn’t discourage me, or at least not for long. The only time I’ve had a journal article rejected is when I wrote one for a client; I told them I would need feedback on a draft from a suitably experienced person, and they said someone from their organisation would provide this, but when the time came they said they couldn’t and I should just send in my draft. I was sure that wouldn’t work, and indeed it didn’t. After that I was able to persuade them to find me someone who could offer feedback; their input was very helpful, and the article was accepted by our second choice of journal.

I understand that some people struggle with feedback. I understand why some people struggle with feedback. But honestly, if you’re one of those people, and you want to succeed as a writer, you need to find a way over, through, past, or around that struggle. I hope this post will help, and that you will learn to love Reviewer 2 as much as I do.