QI 2012 Here I come!

I am delighted to be returning to the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry in Champaign-Urbana this year, where I shall be participating in a panel reflecting on the process of ‘becoming’ a scholar. The idea for the panel came from a special issue of the Emotion, Space and Society journal being edited by the panel chair (Sophie Tamas), and all the contributions are of necessity  autoethnographic in nature.

Panel abstract:

Losing it: Learning in the ruins

This panel explores what happens to our knowing when we, as scholars and students, enter academic spaces: physical, discursive, emotional, and/or relational. These spaces tend to foster uncertainty, which is valourized as the stressful but generative precondition for learning and change. Many of us enter the academy from knowable worlds, understood through cultural, familial, and religious frameworks within which our identity and morality have been built. Unsettling these structures may open up room for new possibilities but it also involves risk and loss. Rather than asking if this is good for us, this panel examines the ambivalent emotional, spiritual, and somatic experiences we encounter in becoming scholars: the apostasy, break-ups, betrayals, and breakdowns that may come along with our breakthroughs.

And this is my abstract:

From Passionate Pedagogue to Pain-in-the-Ass: A Teacher Goes Back to School

A passionate pedagogue and ardent activist for women’s education in impoverished, conservative and segregated Yemen, I was secure in, and attached to, my professional identity as I embarked upon a PhD in the UK, only to be confronted with an almost total erasure of that ‘self’ in an institution that defined doctoral candidates as manqué. Alienated by the muscular humanist language and the essentialist mind/body split which dominated much of the discourse and dis-allowed female ways of knowing, I was considered suspect by some because of the openly partisan and gendered nature of my studies. Turning to feminism for succour, I discovered that the sisterhood was fractious and fragmented, and that as a white, middle class woman I was often positioned as the enemy. Having lost a number of my anchors, the desire to situate myself remains strong, but I am learning to love the perennially shifting nature of the sands beneath my feet…



  • Richard Fay

    Maybe it’s just as well that – fingers crossed, toes too ! – you are soon to exit the formal researcher competence developing doctoral zone then !

  • Magdalena De Stefani

    Thanks, Richard 🙂 You may be right about these epiphanies and the significance of their role against that of formal training. I have to say though, that both of them, the epiphanies and the training, were valuable for me. In a way, the research training opened my eyes to what I liked and didn’t, what I felt most comfortable doing, it was a sort of menu i could choose from, that’s how I see it now. But I suppose it could be a point of conflict if you had very strong feelings for or against certain approaches, which I did not have at the time. Maybe if I had to go into research training now, I would feel the need to assert my views more strongly?

  • Richard Fay

    Thanks Made.

    During my own doctoral studies, I did not experience (having to take) research methods training courses, so my experience of developing researcher identity came through the happenstance finding of a methodological home with which I felt affinity, ie narrative – indeed, in my opening chapter I wrote about, narrated in fact, this epiphany. It really was an epiphanous moment when I realised that I wanted to work narratively despite having had no introduction to such an approach nor even realising that there were such traditions to be reviewed and potentially followed. Back then, there was no institutional or supervisory support in place for such an approach, so yuo can say that I was in the lucky (unlucky? exposed?) position of having to find my own way, to ‘concoct’ (cf Czarniawska) my own approach so to speak.

    I wonder if such epiphanies in researcher identity and competence are more common than we think, and also whether they can play a more significant role in that development than more formal research training?

  • Magdalena De Stefani

    Hi Tanya, Achilleas and Richard,
    Fascinating discussion! I have not read the Ravelli article yet but will definitely check it out.
    I have to say I remember the research training courses as having a very positive effect on the construction of my identity as a researcher. I have said all this before somewhere, so apologies if I’m repeating myself… The difference in my case might have been that I was not as passionate as you were Tanya, about any approach in particular. I was fascinated by the idea of research itself, but my experience mostly came from helping my father anayse his purely quantitative data on cancer epidemiology and prevention. When the time came to do my MEd dissertation, doing quantitative research was the only available storyline to me. And it went reasonably well. But once I started my research training I fell in love with everything qualitative, especially that book by Richards (2003), and so on. When I started to learn more about the narrative and reflexive angles, it was then that I started to have trouble remembering why I ever did numbers, so to speak. But to be completely honest, I think I can still understand why people would choose quantitative approaches. What I am sure of, is that it doesn’t work for me, because now I am really sure of my identity as a researcher. Well, maybe ‘really sure’ is going too far 😛

  • Tanya Halldórsdóttir

    Well the Starfield and Ravelli (2006) article certainly has something for everyone in this community, fans of discourse analysis, academic literacies, those concerned with the construction of academic identities and the performance of reflexivity! Plenty of interesting references to follow up too. Highly recommended 🙂

  • Tanya Halldórsdóttir

    Thanks Richard, I have not come across this particular article – I will check it out 🙂

  • Richard Fay

    BTW, I rediscovered Sue Starfield & Louise J Ravelli’s 2006 piece in Journal of English for Academic Purposes (vol 5, 222-243) on “The writing of this thesis was a process that I could not explore with the positivistic detachment of the classical sociologist . … maybe of some interest?

  • Richard Fay

    Aha, now I can read more common ground into your talk Tanya. 🙂

    What I suppose surprises me – given your semi-detached attendance mode, and your membership of LTE – is that these School-level research training courses had such an impact on your well-being as a developing doctoral researcher. Of course, my connections with these courses and the discourses they involve, is very much 2nd hand. So, I would find it interesting to know from others in our community how they managed this relationship between messages from within LTE and within the School and within the broader research communities that we partucipate in, messages about being a researcher and about research …. in other words, how do other members of this doctoral community negotiate these different communicational flows and what they seem to embody?

  • Tanya Halldórsdóttir

    Achilleas, you are right, this one could run and run! The discourse within ‘our’ LTE doctoral group, whilst diverse and often informed by apparently conflicting theories, is inclusive, as is the ethos of the group itself – and always has been, hence my decision to continue from my MEd to a PhD within the department. The cold water came at School level, with the strongly quantitative bent of the researcher ‘prep’ courses that my cohort attended, where ‘other’ ways of knowing were not acknowledged and when proposed were poo-pooed! So I have always felt strongly affiliated to, and proud of being part of our LTE community (place of safety) but somewhat on a limb beyond it…

  • Richard Fay

    Yes, this kind of thinking (Tierney) is persuasive for me.

    Re angst and action, from my own doctoral experience and also experience of watching and supervising others’ doctoral experiences, a key observation (i.e. my current storyline for these experiences!) is that we all tend to overdo the angst at the expense of the action. When we are more obviously in our competence comfort zone (e.g, when we are teaching and involved in teacher education), we manage the action-angst dynamic so much better. I mean, for sure we endlessly worry about how we might do x, and for what reason, and how our students might benefit from this, and …. and …. and …. but somehow we manage to make these worries useful most of the time, an aspect of our praxis rather than a precursor to it. Yes, I know that the time we are ready to do a thesis is just after we have submittted it, so it is unfair to apply a post-thesis sensibility on a pre-viva experience but …..

  • Thanks Richard. I was thinking that my own research does have a conceptual outlook, and my informing theory (complexity) is still a bit in the fringe of TESOL / Education / Social Sciences, so I can imagine that my thesis will likely share many characteristics with work produced at that era of ‘competing approaches’. I guess that there’s enough potential in this discussion to fuel a topic on its own, but I wouldn’t want to derail this thread 😀

    Tanya, that’s a very interesting question, all the more so because I was not consciously positioning myself. In fact, it was only after you pointed out the use of ‘our’, that I began to reflect on what it might encode.

    I think that what I was trying to do was establish common ground with you in relation to the comments you made. It was, I suppose, a subconscious process of constructing emergent groups that included at minimum myself and you, and were delineated along the terms that you seemed to be using. So in the context of your comments about the ‘muscular humanist discourse’, I was broadly thinking of ‘researchers working within a broadly humanist tradition’, and in the context of your comments about researchers manqué, I was thinking specifically of ‘people affiliated to this University’. Does that make any sense?

  • Tanya Halldórsdóttir

    Hi Richard,
    The missing strapline from your post is ‘Less Angst, More Action!’ methinks…

    One of the advantages of a constructed notion of reality, is that it can not only be de-constructed in the Derridean sense, but also re-constructed, as our understandings change and perspectives shift, so while the initial impact of an event or experience might be fixed or ‘frozen’ as Conle would have it, it can be the catalyst for a new storyline for ‘to seek new epistemological and methodological avenues demands that we chart new paths rather than constantly return to well-worn roads and point out that they will not take us where we want to go’ (Tierney 1998: 68).

  • Tanya Halldórsdóttir

    Hi Achilleas,
    Thanks for pitching in – I am reminded of the old saying about Arabic, that every word means itself, its opposite, and something completely different! I wonder though in turn about your use of ‘our discourse’ above – which group/s are you asserting membership of?

  • Richard Fay

    Thanks Achilleas. When I was at colleage in the early 1980s, studying English literature, it was a time of the competing approaches, so much so, that we had to indicate on our essays what kind of examniner we wanted, i.e. one supportive of a Marxist, or Feminist, or Post-Structuralist, or Leavisite or whatever persuasion. Looking back now, I recognise that we spent as much (if not more) time arguing about the validity (and that probably was the word we used) of our approach as we did using it, to the extent that an essay might be 75% meta-argumentation about our approach and only 25% actual engagement with the literature in question. Towards the end, one wise old tutor said to me, “it’s not really about what you do (i.e. which approach you argue for) but the way you do it (i.e. te quality of how you use whatever approach you choose).”

    When I began my own doctoral studies in the mid-1990s, there was a similar kind of battle of approaches in research discourse and, for those of us more qualitatively-minded, it was very tempting to spend a great deal of time defending that choice of qualitative research approach. I tended to follow my old tutor’s advice and assume that a qualitative approach was just fine as long as I executed it well. However, I confess that later in a mock viva I made one researcher cry but suggesting that her 40pp about the pros and cons of qualitative and quantative approaches was over the top and what examiners really wanted to see was competent use of whatever approach one had chosen. In her actual viva, the examiners complimented her on her expert 40pp discussion of the pros and cons of the qual / quant aapproaches, so what did I know? Huh!

    However, I still believe that my college tutor’s words have relevance in this arena of battling research approaches, i.e. we need to not overdo our argumnetation for a particular approach and make sure we spend sufficient time doing it well, otherwise we can easily end up with theses which are more meta-argumentation that actual thesis.

    I am reminded of all this now by this discussion Tanya has started for us. I have been post-modern-ly drawn more or less since I started out, but my experience of being a post-modernly oriented developing researcher does not share much with Tanya’s experience. Sure, there are voices in the community that speak to a different orientation but whenever I have done what I do well, there has been no problem excpt once when I submitted a post-modern paper to Language Testing journal which was somewhat brutally rejected by the reviewers but, my mistake was not being a post modern voice but rather in not choosing my audience better or in not matching my text for the audience I had chosen (in that particular journal).

    So, I too am curious about these Panel papers and about these experiences of the research space which differ so from my own experiences. As you say Achilleas, it all goes to prove the point about reality 🙂

  • Just chiming in to say that I am very intrigued by the space that this panel explores and by the specific contribution that your paper makes, Tanya.

    Part of what I find so interesting is that – for better or for worse – I seem to be happily oblivious of the issues you are describing, such as the deficit-oriented construction of doctoral candidates, or the dualist mind-and-matter dinstiction that you perceive to underlie our discourse. I guess this goes to prove the point you are making about the nature of ‘reality’.

  • Tanya Halldórsdóttir

    Yes, the panel focus is more on the personal epiphanies and pitfalls that accompany and are causally linked to developing new skill sets in an environment that at once familiar and apparently benign, can become alien and threatening once the terms of engagement with that environment change. I think that the liminal nature of the PhD process, whilst potentially generative can also be seriously dis-orientating, particularly for those who subscribe to Po Mo understandings of reality as text – subject to multiple interpretations, readings and uses – and recognize the intertextuality of all knowledge construction (in the social sciences at least). If there is no truth, there are no facts, no certainty, so there can be no comfort, and what then of knowledge? How can you say ‘I know…’? Where is your warrant? What can you know, and how? For those of us who understand our ‘knowledge’ to be embodied, such concerns cannot be contained within professional and academic spaces, because we carry those spaces within us, and the questions don’t respect the 9-5 so to speak, but continually hound us, admonish us, mock us – Maxine Greene urges us to ‘love the questions’ but it is hard!

  • Richard Fay

    So, in comparison with the work / thinking that Juup and I are working with, here it seems that researcher identity tranformation (for better or worse) seems more foregrounded whereas in ours it is perhaps researcher understanding of the technical aspects of doing research which is more foregrounded?

  • Tanya Halldórsdóttir

    Several of the panel contributions relate to a broad understanding of developing researcher competence, certainly. Most specifically that of Michele McIntosh (Trent University, ON) entitled “Losing Certainty: The ethical stance of unknowing in nursing practice” in which she examines ‘the lived experience of clinical nursing students losing, or experiencing the threat of loss, of positivist commitments to knowledge and nursing practice…the implications in their personal and professional lives of this loss and the revisions and new perspectives that emerge’.

    Sophie Tamas’ (Queen’s University, ON) paper “Subject to loss” reflects on ‘how the academy has changed my voice and subjectivity, by sifting my own stories through theories drawn from geography, trauma studies, neuropsychology, disability studies, Derrida and Deleuze’.

  • Richard Fay

    …. does the panel topic in some ways relate to our interests in ‘developing researcher competence’ (albeit from another angle)?

    Also, could you add the relevant title details etc into our accumulating list?