By Rachel Bloom-Pojar
I am what academics might call a community-engaged researcher. Much of my research and writing involves telling people in positions of power (teachers, healthcare practitioners, health communicators) about how much they can learn from communities and their communication practices. I am interested in learning about ways that institutions can better invest their time and money toward building relationships and supporting the expertise that is already present in the community. It’s quite simple, really, but I think it’s important work. I don’t see myself as an expert, but rather, I try to leverage my privileges and resources to support and sustain the communities that I work with. Thanks to a Mellon/ACLS Scholars and Society Fellowship, I’m spending the 2020-2021 academic year working as a fellow at Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin (PPWI) with their Promotores de Salud Program. My role with this work is a bit like an intern and a resident researcher. Part of my time is spent in meetings and planning activities for ongoing educational programming with the promotores and the other part is spent with research activities (like interviews, focus groups, analyzing data, and writing) that are focused on highlighting the work of the promotores. So, while my colleagues are figuring out teaching online in a pandemic, I’m figuring out what it means to do community-engaged research remotely. A topic that is constantly on my mind is access.
Access and barriers to access have long been topics of interest for healthcare practitioners, researchers, and policy makers. They impact how healthy a community is and how well (or not) a healthcare system meets that community’s needs. Networks of access include many different aspects such as transportation, food security, housing, social services, family life, and more. Not only do people face barriers to accessing quality healthcare, but institutions often also face barriers to the ways they can access and connect with communities. Many of these barriers are inherent in the ways the healthcare system is set up to privilege spaces, professionals, and language practices that are separate from local communities—especially immigrant communities. One way that institutions try to “reach” Spanish-speaking immigrant communities is through promotores de salud (health promoters). Promotores de salud are often seen as lay people who can educate their communities about health information and transmit messages from institutions that are trying to reach the people where they live. Too often, the direction of information is top-down in the ways it moves from the healthcare institution to the community.
The hope is that improving access to information can lead to a decrease in health disparities and an increase in the utilization of healthcare services by these communities. But what about the information and education that can come from the community to inform and make positive changes to institutions? Part of my work this year is to lift up the stories, experiences, and expertise of the promotores de salud to help identify ways that the healthcare system might transform into something that is more just, equitable, and accessible.
So, what do these promotores de salud do? The specific role takes on different shapes depending on where they work and what institution they’re affiliated with. The promotores that I’m working with are experts in creating confianza (trust/confidence) and connecting people to resources. By building confianza with their communities, people open up to them about all sorts of things going on in their lives. They use a curriculum (CCmás) about sexual and reproductive health that was developed with input from the community. This curriculum is taught through conversations at Home Health Parties, or Fiestas Caseras, which were modeled after the Avon business model of gathering for a party in people’s homes and working as consultants. These fiestas caseras provide the space for the promotores to facilitate conversations about a range of topics on sexual health, reproductive justice, advocacy, and empowering the community. Through the support of various grants, the promotores also support non-partisan activities for civic participation by encouraging and assisting people with filling out the census and registering to vote. With the current pandemic, some of the promotores have turned to virtual gatherings to host Fiestas Caseras, and all of them continue to help connect people to resources available for legal issues, bill payments, health services, and more.
The promotores may work in similar roles with other organizations and many of them have other jobs in addition to their work with PPWI. They live within Latinx communities across the state of Wisconsin and they understand the daily challenges and injustices that immigrants from Latin America face while helping uphold essential businesses and our economy. With an understanding of the intersecting oppressions that their communities face, the promotores see their work as part of reproductive justice. By advocating for “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities” (SisterSong), they understand that the challenges immigrant communities face in reproductive healthcare is more than simply whether or not they have access to clinics and information about reproductive health. It is impacted by whether they can pay their bills, whether they have safe environments in their homes, whether they have been denied the option to choose whether or not to have more children, whether their children face danger in the U.S. or other countries, and so much more. This complex understanding of the realities that immigrant communities face in the U.S. could inform more holistic, equitable, and compassionate approaches to healthcare.
Health promoters are experts that researchers, administrators, and practitioners should learn from and compensate for their expertise. If their expertise and experience was valued as much as the credentials of our health providers, then we might see our community education models become more dynamic in the ways that institutions could be informed by communities and relationships between them could become more mutually beneficial.
Rachel Bloom-Pojar is an Associate Professor with the program in Public Rhetorics and Community Engagement at UW-Milwaukee and a Mellon/ACLS Scholars and Society fellow with Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin.
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/
On the 15th week, we started our class with reading the different interview transcriptions that were printed out previously for us to read. This was the first time we looked at the transcribed data and began our initial identifying themes and coding data. At first, we took about first 40-50 minutes of in-class time to read the transcripts. We were reading and also taking notes while marking up places in the transcripts that give rise to intriguing ideas that can eventually lead up to a theme or something. In other words, we were potentially looking for themes in the data for coding and categorizations.
After we read the transcripts, we were paired with the person next to us to share our findings if you will. Most of us had not been able to get beyond the first two transcripts we laid out hands on. From the transcripts we read, we all marked interesting information that were indicative of participants’ communication style, preference and methods. For example, my group-mate and I discussed the theme of “switch”, more like “rhetorical switch” that happens for interview participants in academic and non-academic setting in terms of communication styles. By “style”, I mean the stylistic choices that they make in terms of diction. For example, we both noticed that the participants choose to use simpler words in communicating with their inner-circle people such as friends and family. However, when it comes to communicating with outer-circle people, such as colleagues they tend to use more formal English. Switching of stylistic choice is then a conscious rhetorical decision they make depending on the places and spaces of communication.
Image 1: our reading notes on the board.
The rhetorical switch also happens on a conceptual level too as we both pointed out. For example, one of the participants mentioned he can talk about Foucault with his professional colleagues but not with family members. Other groups also shared their observations with the class. For example, one group mentioned the theme of self-monitoring that is part of language practices especially for the people with multilingual background. Another group mentioned the point about language-based persona—something our participants indicated to. Both these resonated with my personal languaging experiences being one with multilingual background. Other trends that we discussed were “self-perceptions” of language users and also labeling identity. Another trend in the data was “authenticity” of communication depending on people our participants interact with. For example, with inner circle people like family the communication tend to be more authentic whereas, with outer circle people, it may lack authenticity in some contexts. A few examples that we examined reminded me of Geisler's point on “context-appropriate vernacular or code”. To determine the integrity of interpretation, “Not all language data need to be analyzed as language. There are times when we need only concern ourselves with what language says rather than what it does.” (240).
After the discussion part, we all wrote some keywords that came up through our discussion. It was followed by class discussion of the trends we are noticing in our accumulated data. After that we took break for few minutes. When we came back, we went back to reading more transcripts to find out trends in the data. We looked the three main research questions to see how our current findings align with those questions for our project. At this stage we talked about coding and categorization of data—both of which are significant parts of research process. We also talked about data triangulation. Rachel, our professor made a nice visualization of data triangle on the white board:
Image 2: Visualization of Data Triangulation
She pointed out that we need to think about these three sources of data that we have in order to triangulate our findings. We all agreed that this is just the beginning of “data-surfing”—we did not use this exact term in particular. But I think that’s where we are at the moment. We also briefly discussed our to-dos for next week—writing rough analysis of the data. In next couple of weeks, one letter out of English alphabet is going to be important for our research methods class—"S”—with a lot of surfing (also scanning), sifting (of data) and solidifying our findings.
Our return to the group classroom discussion was a return to the familiar. We are all graduate students and the monochromatic classroom walls and functional furniture feels homey in its own sad way. At the tail end of our workshops, interviews, and hours of transcription, we were ready to settle into theory, something easier to understand sometimes than our own dispositions as novice researchers.
The thing is, we were not the same students who occupied these chairs at the start of the course or even weeks ago. The distance between us and the research theories we study from books had diminished. In our initial discussion we returned to an early conversation about digital technology and the ethical implications of using public discourse in research. The conversation was now less abstract and more personal.
One classmate reminded us of the Internal Review Board’s (IRB) somewhat lenient position on public discourse while we discussed Aaron Hess’ chapter titled “Rhetoric, Ethnography, and the Machine” in Field Rhetoric: Ethnography, Ecology, and Engagement in the Places of Persuasion. We then pondered our own positions on analyzing public technology:
One of our lively discussions was sparked by “Rhetorical Cartographies,” a chapter describing three geographical areas of Omaha and the associative discourse and impressions of each. The authors’ assert that places “are dynamic places-in-process, wherein embodied and emplaced performances select, reflect, and deflect place through the experiences of those who interact with the place” (Senda-Cook, et al 98). This resonated with us in our examination of UWM graduate students and how they contribute to and shape our dynamic campus.
One classmate mused about linguistic boundaries and how certain spaces impose language or linguistic boundaries. We had initially discussed place and even gentrification of places as physical, but she prompted us to think about gentrification of language, asking, “when we try to ‘clean up’ places physically, are we also ‘cleaning up’ language, and If so, at what cost?”
This colonization of language is something we even recognize in some of our interviewees’ contributions. It’s something that we as teachers, professional writers, and graduate scholars have sometimes experienced in our own self-censoring. One classmate stated, “I didn’t have the best education. I went into the military and then to college where I tried to shape my linguistic and community identity. Sometimes I think about what was lost in that process.”
Perhaps it is our own experiences that we see reflected back at us more clearly now. We talked about feeling attached to our participants when we transcribed the interviews. One classmate described her feelings of empathy as she slowed down the voices during the transcription process and heard inflection. “I heard insecurity and struggle in places,” she said. That connectedness made it hard to not jump in and share our own stories of triumph and struggle while interviewing participants. It made us grateful that we were privy to stories and cognizant of our own positionality as researchers. Our initial project idea elicited skepticism, confusion, frustration, and enthusiasm. Now, however messy and imperfect, it finally feels like our own. --WP
On April 8th, our research team held its first workshop focus group to gather visual data about the unique ways in which UWM grad students use language to communicate. We asked participants to come to the event prepared to craft visual pieces representing the ways in which they use language in the different settings and contexts of their lives. As you might imagine, this prompt and flexibility allowed for incredible creativity! Several members of our research team participated in the event and we welcomed two additional graduate students as well. Though this turnout might be on the smaller end, the event played out wonderfully in terms of the environment and creative data we collected.
During this first event, my primary role was as observer of behavior and the stages of the workshop activities. I’d like to share some of those details here to let you in on this component of our team’s research and as a means of hopefully encouraging other researchers to consider integrating this type of composing event into your own research endeavors.
Prior to the evening of our event, members of the team reached out to fellow graduate students via a standardized email invitation and through one-on-one personal contacts. We also created flyers and posted them around campus.
When the time for the workshop was approaching, the research team set up craft materials at our advertised location for participants to use in the construction of their visuals.
Once our start time rolled around, Rachel welcomed the participants and explain a bit about our purposes and what we expected – essentially, create a visual artifact using any materials available that represents your unique language use across various contexts. I observed most participants approach the table of crafts shortly after Rachel’s announcement and some start their work by taking notes on their own paper. Some grabbed scissors and construction paper to start, while others went for the printed maps of the campus, Milwaukee, or the United States.
What the participants were constructing ended up ranging from conceptual maps of things like foundational language use to geographical maps illustrating the differences in language use depending on the individual’s location. In their visuals, some distinguished between “internal” language versus language used to communicate with others and in different contexts. One participant used the visual metaphor of a “machine” that sorts and enhances language choices.
I found it interesting that participants did not appear to notice me observing them or to pay attention to much outside of the object they were creating, and I think this demonstrates that everyone was comfortable in the space and with the task. As the first participants began to finish up their projects, after about 35 minutes, they approached the indicated interviewers and I watched as the pairs comfortably settled in at the furthest back table in the room, speaking at a normal level.
Our two interviewers prompted with a basic question asking each participant to explain their piece, then listened and audio-recorded that explanation. During these explanations, most participants used some form of physical gesturing toward the visual pieces they created, which has some on the research team to consider video recording future interviews in order to capture these meaning-making gestures.
After the event, our team also discussed some of the barriers that may prevent more UWM graduate students from participating, most about logistics of location and convenience of scheduling. I also continue to ponder ways we might better entice graduate students who are unfamiliar with fields such as composition, translanguaging, and literacy studies; how might we word our recruitment materials to help them readily see the value of what we’re seeking? But, this is one of those important, ongoing questions about our field more generally!
Overall, the mood of the event and the fascinating creative pieces, no two alike, we collected are already exciting indicators of the data we will continue to gather and give people the space to create. If you’re a graduate student at UWM, we hope to see you at one of our future composing events!
During our last few classes, we focused heavily on designing portions of our research study for future IRB approval. However, after returning from a refreshing spring vacation, we put our project on hold to take a much-needed trip back in time, courtesy of an enlightening presentation by Dr. Shevaun Watson, Associate Professor of English at UWM.
Shevaun’s talk, supplemented by our other weekly readings, taught us how qualitative researchers can utilize historical archives, memories, and other artifacts to enrich their current understandings of past subjects or places. During America’s formational stages, Shevaun explained that many scholars in the 18th century were viewing rhetoric from an “enlightenment” perspective, prioritizing the elocution, taste, and correctness of language over historic archives and sources. Because of this focus on style, these scholars silenced many underrepresented groups from the time period by largely failing to examine their historical artifacts and accounts.
In her essay “Good Will Come of this Evil,” (published in the College Composition and Communication academic journal) Shevaun illuminates the plights of two African-American slaves turned schoolmasters in 18th century America, examining how a church organization used literacy as a tool to spread Christian ideologies to marginalized communities. Shevaun’s piece is powerful today because it challenges both the “heroic ideal” of literacy and American exceptionalism, digging up previously-silenced voices from the historical archive.
With Pen and Voice by Shirley Wilson Logan and Traces of a Stream by Jacqueline Jones Royster (both pictured above) were just some of the books that Shevaun mentioned during her talk with us. These works are valuable because they challenge traditional research values by giving needed representation to silenced voices from the past.
In the discussion following her talk, Shevaun focused on two main concepts: silences in the historical record and critical imagination. During her research for “Good Will Come,” Shevaun highlighted how difficult it was to find pre-19th century records of African-American literacy, as most historical artifacts of the time period were biased towards American colonialism and made little mention of other marginalized populations. Shevaun asserted that these factors helped form “historical silences”—a lack of personal accounts—from these obscured populations.
In order to give representation to those silenced within the historical record, Shevaun stated that she had to use critical imagination—a researcher’s interpretation of past events—in an attempt to “fill in” these historical gaps of silence. To ensure accuracy, Shevaun carefully grounded her assumptions in fact by recording details from the time period’s letters and diaries, historical archives previously unexamined by more traditional researchers. She even informed us of her plans to visit South Carolina this coming summer, seeking to closely examine modern retellings of colonial history while also immersing herself in the researched environment.
The takeaways from Shevaun’s presentation align with our modern-day qualitative research readings. For instance, the “silences” that Shevaun mentioned still exist in different forms, as evidenced by Susan Wells and Nathan Stormer’s piece in Methodologies for the Rhetoric of Health and Medicine. In their article, the authors assert that both HIPAA and institutional hesitance regarding PHI access create artificial barriers for researchers attempting to study past medical records. In Writing Studies: Research in Practice, Liz Rohan discusses the importance of inclusive historical rhetoric and critical imagination, stating that “connections between lived lives and the lives of deceased subjects can…produce useful knowledge about the past, the present and culture generally, even in not written in the conventional voice of academic discourse” (30). Echoing Shevaun and a previous reading on the value of emplaced research by Jennifer Edwell, Rohan also states that physically going to historic locations can help a researcher connect on a deeper level with their past subjects. In Field Rhetoric, Heather Brook Adams notes how studying memories from her research participants caused her to change her data collection methods (switching from individual interviews to focus groups) and made her pay closer attention to her participants’ emotions during questioning.
Following Shevaun’s visit, we devoted the rest of class time to the organization of responsibilities for our study, which was recently IRB-approved with exempt status! With the overall structure of our study now in place, the class split into two preliminary groups--interview and recruitment—for further planning and collaboration. As we prepared to move into the “data collection” phase of our study, Shevaun reminded us to keep an open mind towards our research results, because what we find may be surprising. Thanks to our new historical knowledge, we will value non-traditional artifacts, further accommodate the needs of our interview subjects, and—above all—remain adaptable as our research process continues. There’s no doubt that these lessons from the past will positively influence our own practices moving forward.
The hive mind that we are has an enormous creative potential but works slowly, and for weeks we had been negotiating interview questions, artifacts, and the idea of a focus group where participants would be part of an event where they could write/draw/create a visualization of the ways they navigate and communicate across spaces in their daily lives as UWM students. Before class, Rachel had synthesized our ideas, so we were ready for a strategic revision of the following documents to get them ready for IRB submission:
We were eager and buzzing but also, I sensed, anxious about getting the details right for the IRB review. It is interesting going from conceptualizing the project and understanding the broader goals well to trying to whip all the smaller pieces into place. Words – who knew they were so capricious? As a writing teacher who routinely discusses with students the importance of word choice and phrasing, I found it instructive to observe how we struggled to wield the words to represent our collective ideas. This was challenging because, with some of the work we were discussing, we were still conceiving those ideas, so each of us was simultaneously molding and assessing ideas as we negotiated them in the group.
One item that caused the most debate was the focus group protocol, particularly the prompts for the artifact and the artifact itself. We wanted some type of map to illustrate the spaces students move across on a daily basis and how they navigate rhetorically across the different contexts. We started discussing the artifact but rather quickly determined that the specifics regarding the artifact (will it be paper or computer? Will we provide paper and markers? etc.) could be decided on later. The prompts, on the other hand, sparked a lively discussion: should we cast a wider net with open-ended prompts that would lead to more exploratory responses, possibly combined with a set of follow-up interview questions for all participants at the end of the event? Or should we have more streamlined questions on the prompt to aim at more consistency which, some of us thought, would be more practical for analysis of the data. With lots of IRB balls way up in the air, we had to make a choice between following our class agenda and covering the readings, which really help ground and conceptualize the project, or if we wanted to push through and finish the IRB documents. We voted; we were all hot to trot to continue, and we slowly reached consensus on the materials.
There was some storming which, we learned, metaphorically describes the stage in group development when group members push against each other’s ideas and sometimes against each other, but as Rachel told us, “we are all too nice”, so the storming became no tempest but rather a refreshing wind with ideas that were floated, some of which took off and some of which stalled.
At the end, I think we were all exhausted but satisfied with the work we had produced in accordance with our goals and our collaboration contract, and also relieved we had sorted through a lot of “mess” and our IRB documents were largely reading for submission to the IRB board. As CL described in “We’re Climbing – and Getting Stronger Along the Way”, we are still climbing and still have to overcome obstacles of an intellectual or practical nature, but it felt like we had reached a comfortable plateau to rest at over Spring Break while the IRB board reviews our materials. Fingers crossed out there!
With mid-semester quickly approaching I would like to reflect on how I, as a grad student (and I think I speak for many of us in this course), feel about how this study has gone thus far. I commented a few weeks back in my notes on how the direction of this project seemed very vague at first, which, as you very well might know, is a graduate student's worst nightmare. We like structure. We like to know exactly what is expected of us. We love tackling challenges that are in front of us and knowing that what we are doing is the right thing.
Unsurprisingly, during the first few weeks of this course, I was experiencing frustrations in having to deal with the “What direction are we heading in?” and “What am I supposed to be doing?” questions. We’ve done a substantial amount of work since, and upon doing some reflection, I realized (as I’m sure many of my fellow students have) that those frustrations were nothing more than what I’m calling “growing pains,” or perhaps better put, “climbing pains” and are a sign of progress. I can’t help but liken our journey through this course together to that of climbing a mountain. We have our goal to reach the top and are figuring out – through painful trial and error at times – which route works and makes the most sense to take. As we climb this mountain, our research legs are getting stronger. We’re making better choices by studying and applying methods that other climbers (researchers) have done before us. We are progressing.
Qualitative research is hard work. It requires the courage to know that you might be heading in the wrong direction, and the humility to look at that possibility as a learning opportunity. Our prof knows this, and instead of explicitly telling us how this type of research goes, she let us figure some of this out on our own. Though painful, she knows that we’ll come out the other end as better, more informed and more diligent researchers. As is with most good things in life, the journey to getting to where you need and want to be can be tough and painful but is always worth it once you reach the top.
We are a smart group – very conscious about the choices that we are making, always considering the ethics of our study and always bearing in mind how we can create a sustainable framework for the future of this project.
We’re still climbing.
Now that we have our research questions in hand, our class has come to the part of the study design process where we need to seek Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval. Leah Stoiber, an administrator from UWM’s IRB, joined us for the first half of class last week to help us navigate the application process. While our small groups have already begun drafting materials for our IRB protocol form, Leah offered many helpful hints. She reminded us to keep our language simple and to submit all study materials for review.
As we’ve already discovered, human-subject research can be messy. While it’s the IRB’s ultimate goal to protect participants, we saw in this week’s reading and discussion that IRB approval is not always synonymous with ethical research practices. While IRB standards are an important place to begin, it is important to remember they are not the pinnacle of moral excellence (Edwell 166). To perform truly ethical research, researchers often need to exceed the expectations of the IRB.
Before our first official class meeting, we all completed mandatory IRB ethics and compliance training, so the Belmont Principles of respect for persons, beneficence, and justice are fresh in our minds. These principles are a great place to start when discussing ethical research practices.
Respect for Persons: One of the most important ways to show respect for persons is to show respect for personal decisions. This is why informed consent is imperative to any ethical study. As Leah pointed out, consent is more than just a form participants sign at the beginning; consent is a process that takes place throughout the entire study. As researchers, we need to be constantly re-evaluating our participants’ consent through rhetorical listening. One thing to be on the lookout for is what Kristin Marie Bivens calls microwithdrawals of consent. Bivens defines a microwithdrawal of consent as “the implied or partial halt of a person’s willingness to participate in one or more aspects of the research process and the researcher’s awareness of the withdrawal” (138-139). Microwithdrawals can often be subtle, such as a participant’s sudden lack of engagement. As researchers, we must honor our participants’ decisions to renegotiate their consent.
Beneficence: As we proceed, we need to design our study in a way that minimizes risk and protects our participants. We must also show our study to be beneficial, whether that be through immediate benefit to the students, potential for future benefit to the college, or simply the benefit of filling gaps of knowledge in our field. As Leah put it, the risks of a study must correlate with the benefits—high-risk studies need to exhibit greater benefits whereas low-risk studies, such as ours, can get by with fewer benefits. As researchers, we have a responsibility for making the risks and benefits clear to our participants. In this week’s reading, Laura Maria Pigozzi warned of the danger of therapeutic misconception, which occurs when a participant overestimates the benefits and misinterprets the degree to which the study will meet their individual needs. To combat this, we will need to be clear about the intent of our study.
Justice: When recruiting participants, individuals must receive fair treatment. We should not base recruitment only on factors of convenience; we must take care to allow fair access. We need to be aware of the multiple roles we hold as researchers, teachers, and students and recognize how these roles play into the power dynamic with our participants. It is also important for us not to impose unnecessary labels on participants and to avoid classifications that are irrelevant to the study. While our reading from Kelly E. Happe discussed this idea in regard to racial identity, I believe we can apply it more broadly to any kind of polarizing categorization. As we move forward in our research, we must ensure the selection and treatment of our participants is equitable.
While the goal of the IRB is to help us, as researchers, think through some of the ethical considerations of our study, our class agreed that it is also important to go beyond the minimum requirements. As Dawn S. Opel states, “IRB approval does not mean that a researcher has always acted ethically” (183). As we proceed, we must continually evaluate our research process to identify relevant ethical issues that might otherwise be overlooked. As one student put it, we must be ready to make ethical decisions “in the moment.”
Narrative. People who participate in research projects want their words and interactions to be seen as meaningful narratives that represent their experiences in the world. How can we create interviews that allow for authentic conversation, and through that conversation, mutual meaning-making? One classmate suggested focusing on less formal structure in our interview practices. We all agreed that we wanted to create interview environments that allowed for participants to genuinely share.
Everyday Literacies. We decided to include in our research the everyday literacies of UWM students. Haas, Takayoshi, and Carr (Ch. 4) argue for the importance of this in our readings for this week. They write that “understanding everyday literacy practices can, in turn, suggest ways that academic practices and writing instruction could be modified in order to better teach students the composition and communicative skills needed in an increasingly digital world” (p.53). Sheridan (Ch. 6) echoes this when she writes that “writing mediates the lives of everyday people” (p.75).
Ethics. McKnee and Porter (Ch. 19) give a heuristic for staying ethical in internet research by reflexively reviewing the rhetorical situation of the research, especially where the participants are considered. This should include the participants’ perspectives, expectations, and assumptions.
We discussed how this ethical guide translates to our own research. There is no one clear process (online or offline), but we can strive to have clear guidelines to maintain our ethical integrity, which is one of our group goals.
One ethical question that came up was if we could include ourselves as participants. There were hesitations about how objective we could be in analyzing ourselves. Triangulating data gathering and analysis is one way to complicate our findings and gain a fuller perspective of the people we will be trying to represent, especially if some of us will also be participants.
I think we all felt relieved to narrow down our research questions:
1. What experiences and literacies do UWM students utilize for communicating across contexts?
2. How might mapping the landscape of students’ linguistic, rhetorical, and composing practices inform and shape community engagement at UWM?
3. How do UWM students rhetorically navigate academic and nonacademic spaces?
Check in next week for new questions, considerations, and complexities as we learn what it means to do collaborative research and to engage with the community here at UWM!