The Teaching I Do

Not many people know this, but I spent my first four years of full-time employment, after my first degree, working as a training administrator in the City of London, first for a merchant bank and then for a law firm. (Neither is still in business. I am not taking that personally.) My work involved conducting training needs analyses (research!), commissioning and evaluating training (more research!), and designing and running training courses. I went on a ‘train the trainer’ course to learn to structure and present a course; I remember it was held in a room at The Guardian newspaper office, which was in Farringdon Road at the time. And then I put my learning into practice, over and over again.

After a while, when I had paid off my post-university overdraft and done enough voluntary work to gain experience, I left the City and became a residential social worker. I didn’t think I would use my training skills again. Fast forward a dozen or so years to 2003 by which time I am a researcher with an MSc in Social Research Methods and a PhD underway, and a client asks if I can train her staff in evaluation research. I say ‘yes’ and the whole thing snowballs from there.

Now I teach short courses in research methods and ethics worldwide, mostly to postgraduate researchers and early career staff at universities, as well as open courses via organisations such as the National Centre for Research Methods and Methods@Manchester. Of course, this has all been online for the last couple of years, and some was online long before that, but I now have in-person bookings for 2022–23 which I very much hope can go ahead. My most popular courses are on creative research methods (1–4 days), creative and productive academic writing (1–4 days), radical research ethics (1 day), and documents as data (1 day). Each of these courses is highly interactive, with short presentations, discussions, practical exercises and lots of time for questions. I also offer bespoke training for clients who want specific courses for their students and/or staff.

I enjoy this kind of teaching very much, but I can’t do it all the time because it is quite demanding, and I also like doing research and keynote speeches and writing books. So I have taken the decision to restrict my teaching to 40 days per year. One-fifth of these days are taken up by the Methods@Manchester summer school, where I teach two four-day courses, one on creative and productive academic writing and – this year for the first time – one on qualitative research for quantitative researchers. Most of the rest are taken up by universities that book me each year for a regular day or two. This academic year is almost fully booked, and the next academic year is booking up fast.

One of the things I love most about teaching is, paradoxically, how much I learn from my students. This year alone I have learned to use the term ‘geopolitical North/South’ rather than ‘global North/South’, and about Effin Birds (content warning: many many swears) which provided an excellent birthday present for a good friend with a robust sense of humour. Students bring all sorts of useful knowledge to my courses and share it for everyone’s benefit. They give me lovely compliments about my teaching (and from time to time some helpful constructive criticism) but they forget to notice or mention how much they themselves contribute to the course, and how very valuable that is.

I think I am so lucky to be able to teach in this way. I hope I will be able to travel for work again soon – in January 2020 I was planning teaching trips to South Africa and Aus/NZ – but I know just how lucky I am to have been able to continue with this most rewarding part of my work throughout the pandemic. If you have been on one of my courses, remember: everyone is creative!

This blog, the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and the videos on my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved Patrons. Patrons receive exclusive content and various rewards, depending on their level of support, such as access to my special private Patreon-only blog posts, bi-monthly Q&A sessions on Zoom, free e-book downloads and signed copies of my books. Patrons can also suggest topics for my blogs and videos. If you want to support me by becoming a Patron click here. Whilst ongoing support would be fantastic you can make a one-time donation instead, through the PayPal button on this blog, if that works better for you. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

The Research Trajectory

I have been talking about the research trajectory with my students for years. I describe my conception of this trajectory, which I call ‘The Helen Kara Inverted Bell Curve Of Research’. I often use this conception to help me explain why it is usually not a good idea, when data analysis is challenging, to decide that all problems will be solved by throwing in a few extra methods – gathering more data, reading a new body of literature, and so on.

It occurred to me that manifesting the image I see in my head might be entertaining for me (it was!) and perhaps useful for others. So I made a graphic. Here it is. Does it resonate with you?

The Helen Kara Inverted Bell Curve Of Research

This blog, the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and the videos on my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved Patrons. Patrons receive exclusive content and various rewards, depending on their level of support, such as access to my special private Patreon-only blog posts, bi-monthly Q&A sessions on Zoom, free e-book downloads and signed copies of my books. Patrons can also suggest topics for my blogs and videos. If you want to support me by becoming a Patron click here. Whilst ongoing support would be fantastic you can make a one-time donation instead, through the PayPal button on this blog, if that works better for you. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Teaching Research Methods And Ethics

My first proper job after my first degree was as a training administrator for a big firm in the City of London. I attended a ‘train the trainer’ course and learned to design and provide training courses myself, which I did for the next four years. That experience has proved invaluable in my research career. Now I talk of the research methods/ethics training I offer as ‘teaching’ because I mostly do it in universities and that is the term they use. But, as I teach short courses as an external expert rather than full modules as a university lecturer, designing and delivering those courses involves more-or-less the same process as the training I used to provide in London.

I have been teaching research methods and ethics for universities and research organisations since 2008. I teach around the UK and overseas: so far in Europe, Australia, Canada, the Middle East, Latin America and Asia. I often teach international groups online and am humbled by students who attend my courses in the middle of the night, their time. (I do not teach in the middle of the night, my time. I am too old for that!) In pre-pandemic times I did most of my teaching in person. For the last 18 months it has all been online, but now I am beginning to receive invitations to go back to the classroom, albeit with Covid precautions in place. I suspect in the future it will be part online and part in person. Teaching online has some advantages: nobody has to travel, which reduces stress and cost and environmental impact, and makes it possible for some people to attend who couldn’t if it was in person. However, it has some disadvantages too, primarily (from my point of view) that I won’t know if someone is struggling unless they tell me, whereas in the classroom I can see if a student is puzzled and wander over to get them unstuck. So I will be glad when I can do more in-person teaching again, though I have learned a lot about teaching online and will be happy to offer that too.  

The courses I offer routinely are Creative Research Methods (1 or 2 days), Creative Academic Writing aka Creative and Productive Thesis Writing (1–4 days), Radical Research Ethics (1 day) and Documents as Data (1 day). The first three are based on books I have written or co-written, the fourth is based on books by other people. I can also run courses on other topics, adapt my existing courses, and teach in other ways. In 2018 I ran two of my existing courses for Coventry University’s graduate school, and also courses on qualitative data coding/analysis and qualitative interviewing. Next month I am running my Creative Academic Writing course, adapted to meet the needs of The Anthropocene and More-Than-Human World Writing Workshop Series funded by the British Academy. And I am currently in discussion with Liverpool John Moores University about a data analysis course for postgraduate researchers, and with Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in Singapore about facilitating a monthly ‘reading circle’ on autoethnography and arts-based research, with a view to helping participants work towards writing for publication. Both LJMU and NAFA are existing clients. I am glad to say my teaching clients usually book me again; there are a number of universities and other organisations who I teach for every year, sometimes several times in a year.

I don’t do much teaching for less than a day at a time, though that can be split into two half-days if we’re working online. I will do the occasional webinar or shorter seminar, though my minimum charge is my half-day rate (because, as regular readers know, an hour is not an hour even when working online). What my day rate is depends on the country where I will be working, whether in person or virtually. The resources of countries around the world vary greatly, as do those of organisations. So I aim to charge the standard rate for each country and type of institution I am working with. I should also add that if I design a new course for a client, I charge an extra half-day per day of training for design and preparation. This means that I would cost a new one-day course at 1.5 x my day rate.

I am glad to say my teaching is becoming increasingly popular. So much so that I am needing to restrict the number of teaching assignments I take on, because otherwise I don’t have enough time for my client work and writing. I have decided to teach for no more than four days in any one month, or 36 days in any one year. On this basis, I have a couple of teaching days still available in 2021. In 2022, January, February and July are already full, and I have several bookings in other months. So if you’re thinking about asking me to teach at your institution, don’t drag your feet!

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me more than one working day per month to post here each week, run the Twitter chat and produce content for YouTube. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $87 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $87 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Knowing And Remembering

Creative research methods in the social sciences [FC]Over the next three weeks I will be doing eight presentations about creative research methods, in Edinburgh, London, and Calgary, to audiences of practitioners, postgraduate students, and academics. I like doing presentations, once I get going, but this is a little daunting because each presentation is slightly different from the others. For example, one is for evaluation practitioners at the NSPCC, so they will want to know how to use creative methods in evaluation research focusing on children and families. Another is for MA students at the University of Calgary, who need to know about arts-based methods and research using technology. A third is for the Social Research Association in Edinburgh, which is likely to generate a mixed audience of practitioners and postgraduate students with a variety of learning needs.

Although I’ll be the one doing the teaching, the prospect of giving these presentations feels rather like the prospect of doing a bunch of exams. This is partly because I’ve had to do a whole load of revision. Although creative methods have always been part of my practice, I finished writing the book a year ago, and I seem to have forgotten a surprisingly large proportion of its contents. I feel rather as though I need to learn it off by heart – including the 500+ references – before I do the first presentation. Which is tomorrow morning. So that’s not going to happen, particularly as I already have rather a lot of work to do on the train to Edinburgh today.

Luckily I’ve had time to refresh my memory to some extent. When I re-read the book I wrote, I remember some parts vividly, while others almost feel like new information. I find myself thinking ‘Ooh, that’s a good point’, as if it had been written by someone else, and ‘Did I really write this?’ because I don’t remember.

This is a strange phenomenon, and I wonder whether other authors have similar experiences. I suspect at least some of them do. It’s not entirely new for me, either. I’ve never been one for hanging on to old papers, but some years ago I came across an essay I’d written for A level geography, all about fluvio-glaciation and peri-glaciation. I couldn’t remember ever knowing those words, let alone what they meant.

So I’ve been thinking about the difference between knowing and remembering. Sometimes I know I know something, such as the name of a tune I am hearing on the radio, but I can’t bring it to mind – we say, ‘It’s on the tip of my tongue’. Sometimes I don’t know I ever knew something, such as the geographic terminology above. Some things I know fairly indelibly, such as how to drive my car, make a veggie chilli, or write an email. Yet there must be lots of things I’ll never know I ever knew, which is a strange thought.

I did remember some things about exams which made me feel a bit better about my forthcoming ordeal-by-presentation. I remembered that I used to have the same feeling, that I needed to memorise everything in my schoolbooks, and the same lurching internal near-panic because I knew I couldn’t. And I remembered that I had actually been quite good at exams, and one thing I’d learned from doing exams that was still applicable now is that I don’t need to remember everything, but to remember enough, and to know what to do with what I remember. In fact, to be creative.

I can do that.