By Rachel Bloom-Pojar
“Wherever we end up in May is exactly where we should be at that point.”
These are the words I repeated to the graduate students in my research methods class throughout the spring 2019 semester. We set out in January to design, implement, and conduct a preliminary analysis of a qualitative research project on the linguistic resources of students at UW-Milwaukee (UWM). We took an asset-approach to exploring what innovative ways UWM students write and speak in their daily lives. The course included assigned readings about research methods and methodologies about qualitative research in communication and rhetorical studies. They learned about collaboration, developing research questions, ethical considerations, and more. If you want to read more about how the course was set up, you can read about that here.
So, now that the month of May has come and gone, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on what happened throughout our research process. There is so much I could say about the amazing things that this class wrote, worked through, analyzed, and developed in our time together. Since much of my course design was centered on “learning by doing,” I thought I’d reflect on a few major takeaways that we could only learn by doing.
1) Qualitative research is messy
I said this a number of times, but the experiences the team had this semester confirmed that qualitative research is messy, nonlinear, and spectacularly human in all of its challenges and triumphs. Although I made several revisions to the course schedule and we didn’t have as much time to discuss readings as I would have liked, the group still moved across the stages of project design, IRB proposal and acceptance, data collection, and preliminary analysis at an impressive pace. That may have been helped, in part, by the ways that I facilitated the process. I placed limits on how long we would spend with any one activity, synthesized ideas for moving more quickly toward consensus, and encouraged specific ways of dividing up tasks.
It didn’t feel like an impressive pace to most of the team members, though. Many shared anxieties in their field notes and comments after class about how long everything was taking, how "unstructured" the process was, and how they didn’t think we would ever get to the data collection stage. As much as I wanted to ease their discomfort, I knew this was a natural part of qualitative research and the unpredictability that comes with collaborative work. Through navigating this process, the researchers had to figure out how to handle ambiguity, change, and the nuances of qualitative research.
2) You have to rely on other people for qualitative research
Whether you are conducting interviews, focus groups, surveys, or another form of data collection in qualitative research, the data are not just data...they are words, thoughts, experiences, and contributions from people. From working with research participants to co-researchers to IRB reviewers and more, the process of qualitative research is never a solo act. Traditionally, graduate courses in English studies are structured in similar ways that emphasize collective learning through discussion and peer review, but ultimately place the highest value (through grades) on individual performances and products. So, students become accustomed to that structure and way of evaluating how “well” they are doing in class. That structure does not reflect qualitative research nor does it emphasize the ways we need to rely on others to “do well” with community-engaged work.
At the start of the course, I quoted a phrase from a community group that Professor Steven Alvarez writes about in Brokering Tareas: “Muchos manos hacen ligero el trabajo. Many hands make light work.” That was our motto for the semester--to work together so that it would make the work lighter. And it did. With engagement from all team members, we were able to accomplish a lot more than any individual could have in the same amount of time. The group conducted and transcribed 14 interviews and 10 artifact descriptions with corresponding artifacts that were created by participants in our collaborative composing workshop. That is a great start for any qualitative study.
3) Qualitative research will challenge your notions of objectivity and the “truth”
At its heart, the reason why qualitative research challenges notions of objectivity and the “truth” are not, as many assume, because it is “less rigorous” than quantitative research. Conducting rigorous qualitative research takes hard work, care, and patience as you navigate the messiness of working with people, interpreting their words and experiences, and constantly checking your own biases and assumptions in the process. Coming to terms with how our perspectives, biases, and interpretations impact research--any kind of research--is something I hoped the students would take away from this course. Once we start to challenge notions of a single “truth” that we’re searching for, and instead we welcome and wade through the complexity of literacy, rhetoric, and communication...well, that’s where we might discover innovative approaches to advancing knowledge, theory, and practice together.
I am so grateful to this group of students for trusting me and trusting the process of this class. Reading their final reports, field notes, and evaluations confirmed that they learned a lot about themselves, qualitative research, and collaboration. While I took a huge risk designing the course this way, I’m glad that I did. It wasn’t always easy, comfortable, or fun, but we all (myself included) learned a lot along the way.
I want to end by sharing some recommended readings since the team requested it. These are only a few suggestions, and I welcome others in the comments below or on Twitter with the hashtag #writingmke. Stay tuned for more information about new developments at Writing & Rhetoric MKE this summer, and as always, thanks for reading!
The books we read this semester included:
Writing Studies Research in Practice edited by Lee Nickoson & Mary P. Sheridan
Methodologies for the Rhetoric of Health & Medicine edited by Lisa Meloncon & J. Blake Scott
Field Rhetoric: Ethnography, Ecology, and Engagement in Places of Persuasion edited by Candice Rai & Caroline Gottschalk Druschke
Qualitative Communication Research Methods (3rd ed) by Thomas R. Lindlof & Bryan C. Taylor
Other books the research team and other readers might be interested in include:
Rhetorica in Motion: Feminist Rhetoric Methods and Methodologies edited by Eileen E. Schell & K.J. Rawson
Humanizing Research: Decolonizing Qualitative Inquiry with Youth and Communities edited by Django Paris & Maisha T. Winn
Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing Among Five Approaches by John W. Creswell & Cheryl N. Poth
Lots of great books available online at WAC Clearinghouse: https://wac.colostate.edu/books/