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.

Cross-Cultural Research Ethics

cross-culturalLast week I presented at a seminar at the University of Nottingham hosted by BAICE, aka the British Association for International and Comparative Education. Like the UK and Ireland Social Research Association (SRA), on whose Board I sit, BAICE is a learned society and an organisational member of the UK’s Academy of Social Sciences (AcSS). I was presenting, in my SRA role, on behalf of the AcSS. This always makes me slightly uncomfortable as I’m not a Fellow of the AcSS and don’t really feel qualified to speak for the Academy. Luckily another of my SRA colleagues, who is a Fellow, was at the seminar and was able to help me out.

The seminar was on ‘cross-cultural research ethics in international and comparative education’. Presenting for the AcSS on this topic was an interesting exercise, as the Academy is not a very cross-cultural organisation: the Fellows are 93% professors, 69% male, and my contacts with them suggest that the white middle classes are in a massive majority. My presentation focused on the five generic ethical principles the AcSS has developed for its member societies to use. I’ve been working on a redraft of the SRA’s ethical guidelines based around these principles, and had already registered that they are focused around concepts which are not culturally neutral, such as democracy and inclusivity. There are cultures that despise democracy, seeing it as a discredited belief system, and others that either do not practise inclusivity or practise a very different version from that which the UK educational and social research culture espouses.

Perhaps because BAICE is focused on international matters, ‘culture’ was in danger of being conflated with ‘nationality’, so I argued that it is a much wider issue. The previous day I had been in a workshop for a piece of evaluation research that had included service users, volunteers, staff, partners, and evaluators. That’s five different cultures, right there. Then of course those professionally defined cultures intersect with people’s race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc, to create a whole world of cultural complexity.

The other presentations covered a wide range of related questions. How should we manage cultural conflicts within and beyond academic departments? How ethical is it to use RCTs in educational or social research when you know that members of control groups will be disadvantaged? How can we be inclusive as researchers in situations where including marginalised people, or those living in difficult circumstances, may put them at risk? How can we support researchers and teachers who are operating in a global environment, whether physical or virtual, to work in ethical ways?

Then we were asked to discuss whether we thought it would be possible to formulate generic ethical principles for cross-cultural research. We didn’t reach firm conclusions, but we did agree that if such principles were to be devised, the fundamental value should be respect, and the key process would be dialogue. Any generic principles would need to be broad, neither prescriptive nor vacuous, and should be tested in a variety of locations. Generic principles will always be open to interpretation, and may in some contexts conflict with each other, so they would need to be constantly negotiated. But generic principles could be useful in overturning the current myth of cultural neutrality in some academic mechanisms such as anonymous peer review.

We also agreed that ethical research is not, and should not be, only or predominantly about data collection; it is relevant to all stages of the research process. And we agreed that it is not only students, researchers, and teachers who need educating in ethics, but also funders and members of ethical review committees.

As researchers and educators, we have an ethical duty to keep educating ourselves, because ethical approaches to research change as the world changes. It is essential to take a reflexive approach to this, including locating ourselves culturally. It helps to realise that the same ethical issues arise in lots of different types of work in different disciplines and locations, so if you look beyond your professional and geographic boundaries, you can often learn from others rather than re-inventing the ethical wheel.

We concluded that, from an ethical perspective, the quality of human interactions should be fundamental to the quality of research and teaching. This is especially the case in cross-cultural work, where people may be operating with very different assumptions. However, this is not considered relevant by the current arbitrators of quality in research or teaching. Our view, though, is that it would be more ethical all round to shift the focus away from regulations and bureaucracy and towards human well-being.

While I am, generally speaking, irrepressibly optimistic, I do wonder whether that will happen in my lifetime.

Teaching Writing to Doctoral Students

just me teachingI spent last weekend teaching writing to doctoral students at Staffordshire University, and enjoyed it enormously. It was an experiential course that I had devised with input from Dr Katy Vigurs, who hosted the course. We included creative exercises on drafting and redrafting, getting unstuck, the relationship between writing and thinking, and how to find your voice. There was also a short talk from me and several discussion/Q&A sessions. In between these were a dozen half-hour ‘shut up and write’ sessions for students to work on their own writing.

This course demonstrated to the students, very thoroughly, that they can achieve a meaningful amount of writing in just half an hour. And we taught them how to do that, through discussion, example, practice, and review. They had seen the course programme beforehand and planned what they would work on. The half-hour discipline was difficult for them at first; they found it hard to ‘get in’ and ‘get out’, but by the Sunday they were switching between ‘work’ and ‘break’ modes like doctoral ninjas. Several students commented on their evaluation forms that they had achieved more than they had planned.

Before the course, I asked students to complete a form telling me which aspects of academic writing they were good at, and which they wanted to work on. I also asked for a 500-word sample of academic writing from each student. This was partly so I could give individual feedback, and partly so I could get a sense of the individual and overall standard. Generally, the standard was good, particularly as I was seeing excerpts from work in draft. But the students evidently thought they were not good at writing.

This made for a very satisfying moment for me. It went like this:

Me: “I’d like to know who, in this room, thinks they struggle with academic writing because they’re not very good at it. Put your hands up please.”

[Most hands went up, most faces looked miserable]

Me: “I’ve seen examples of your writing, so I can tell you, with some authority, that you’re wrong. You are good at it. The reason you struggle with academic writing is because it’s hard.”

Then I stood in front of the class for a quiet moment, enjoying the war of expressions on people’s faces, as the message began to sink in. It was such a delight to see incredulous smiles break through.

It was also a delight, as always when teaching, to witness students having ‘light bulb’ moments. One woman said to me, with an expression of pure joy, ‘I’ve got it! I just have to write! That’s all I have to do! And if I keep writing, I’ll get my thesis done!’ It’s the kind of statement that can seem obvious after the fact, but it was a huge learning point for her, and I was thrilled to see her happiness.

Of course the true test will come when the students are back in their everyday lives. I think and hope we did enough to embed the practice and motivate the students, and the evaluation forms certainly suggest that we did. But I’ve been involved in training and teaching for far too long to take that for granted. We encouraged the students to form peer networks for support, and suggested that they might set up their own ‘shut up and write’ sessions, whether virtually or in real life. Early signs are that mutual support is growing within the group, and that can only help.

Talking of the virtual dimension, some students from Staffordshire University who couldn’t make the whole weekend, and some from other universities, joined in with our ‘shut up and write’ sessions via the #StaffsAcWri hashtag on Twitter. There are regular ‘shut up and write’ sessions on Twitter (check the #stuw hashtag) which you could join if this interests you – or you could even start your own. It’s amazing how much you can get done in half an hour: one student wrote over 800 words in just one of the half-hours, and most produced several thousand words in the course of the weekend.

My favourite comment from the evaluation forms was: ‘I never drifted off! I have only 2 relevant doodles and have produced work I will be proud to share with my supervisors!’ Further to last week’s post, this is why I think writing can be taught. Not everything about writing, and not to everyone – but those who are engaging with the process, and willing to learn, can certainly be taught the skills and the craft of writing.

On Teaching Writing

quill pen writing womanI love to teach writing. I have taught writing for research in various contexts: to voluntary sector practitioners, statutory sector managers, and postgraduate students. Next weekend, for the first time, I will be running a writing course for doctoral students with Katy Vigurs at Staffordshire University. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to this – I’ve had so much fun already, just doing the preparation.

There is a school of thought that considers writing can’t be taught. I’m afraid I think that’s utter rubbish. For sure, there’s an element of ‘you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink’, as the saying goes. Ultimately, however much teaching someone has, there comes a point where they have to get on with the writing for themselves – and there are people who continually struggle at that point. Writing is particularly hard, I think, for people who don’t like writing but have to do it anyway. I’m lucky that I like writing, and I’m confident I can pass on some ways to make it less onerous and more fun – or at least more productive.

Writing isn’t easy to teach, and it’s difficult to learn, but there are lots of tricks of the trade which the more experienced writer can pass on. Some people can learn from written advice, whether on blogs like that of the estimable Pat Thomson, or in books by people like Pat or Rowena Murray. But for many, there is no substitute for time in a classroom with a group of other learners and a skilful tutor or two.

I learned a lot, years ago, from attending courses myself. I went on three Arvon courses, and a doctoral writing workshop at the University of the West of England (UWE). Two of the Arvon courses focused on novel writing and were useful for my fiction work. The other Arvon course, and the workshop at UWE, both focused on the permeability of the boundary between fiction and non-fiction, and the way some writing techniques can be used for both.

I attended these two courses during my doctoral studies and they were inspirational. I’d already been grappling with ideas around truth versus authenticity, the function of creativity in research, and the role of storytelling in human communication. I had read Sol Stein’s book Solutions for Writers: Practical Craft Techniques for Fiction and Non-Fiction which also suggests that fiction writing techniques can benefit non-fiction writing, and vice versa. This concept has been a huge influence on my work ever since. I have written about it in academic journals and books, and now I’m going to teach it, properly, for the first time.

Among the learning outcomes I’ve set for my students are: writing non-fiction is a creative process, writing is hard even when you’re skilled and experienced, and thinking and writing are inextricably linked. I have also promised them that they will come away from the weekend with between 1,000 and 5,000 new words of their thesis, depending on how far advanced they are in the process. The group includes students at every stage, from those who have only recently begun to those in their final months. I would expect students to write more slowly at first, more quickly in the later stages.

They will be doing creative writing exercises. Not just for fun, though I hope there will be some of that too. The exercises are designed to teach students about overcoming resistance to writing, the purpose of rewriting, how writing helps thinking, and voice. There will also be a number of ‘shut up and write’ sessions where we will all write together, as well as plenty of time for questions and discussion, not to mention cake. And in the evenings we will, as writers often do, patronise a nearby hostelry.

It may be a working one – but I am so looking forward to the weekend!