Experiencing education as a cultural other: Qatari students on an English preparatory course for US/UK universities
I propose to undertake a study of Qatari students’ educational experiences on the English language course in an American-accredited institution, the Academic Bridge Program (ABP), Education City, Doha, Qatar, which prepares local students for entry into English-medium universities in Qatar, the US and UK. Given the contextual complexity of the educational processes in which Qatari students are involved while studying in the ABP, I want to explore one cohort’s experience of these processes over the course of an academic year, and to do so using a blend of methods and data types, including scheduled, formal observations; relevant document analysis; teacher and researcher diaries, focus groups and semi-structured interviews with volunteering participants (students and colleagues).
My Panel took place on Thursday, the 26th of January, 2012. I would like to share a few thoughts on how it went and what it meant to me and my study. I don’t think I can compete with Paul Breen’s 2010 extensive and comprehensive report on his Panel experience, but I will try my best to add a few honest and practical remarks.
In his very interesting and informative post, Paul quotes Richard’s comment comparing the panel to a medical consultation. Its purpose is to assess the state of health of the proposal. Mine proved to be somewhat ailing and, although it did not need to be put on life support, some treatment had to be applied.
Amputation: one of my weaknesses was that I tried to pack too much into it, despite Richard’s advice that “small is beautiful”. I was advised to remove references to teacher identity research and reflective practitioner ethnography and limit my research questions to reflect only the main topic of my study instead of going in multiple directions at the same time.
Tummy tuck: I also initially proposed an excessive range of data collection/generation activities which needed to be trimmed to include only structured and formal events.
Diet: The most important element of the overall therapy, however, turned out to be the issue of how to “feed” my study and with what kind of data. This metaphor may be a little stretched, so I would like to explain that it refers to research ethics.
I admit that my main oversight was to take too much for granted on the ethics front. For clarity, transparency and viability of research, every detail referring to its ethical aspect needs to be explicitly stated in the proposal and accurately reflected in the RREA and School of Education Approval forms. Unfortunately, upon my January submission, I omitted several crucial ethics-related points. As a result, I had to articulate and include them in the revised proposal before I could resubmit it.
Also, I originally proposed to work with my own students and felt that exploring the personal element so firmly present in my professional dealings with them would add an extra dimension to my study. After the Panel discussion and subsequent consultations with Richard and Charlotte as well as my colleagues, I began to see that the idea had the potential to complicate my research quite significantly. As a result, I decided to recruit other teachers’ students instead of working with mine. This should:
b) reduce potentially sensitive areas of my research related to my position as a teacher researcher conducting my study at my work place;
c) eliminate the issue of working with “people in a particularly dependable relation with me” such as my own students would be;
d) reduce data collection/generation activities to pre-arranged and agreed events only thus eliminating the danger of excessive data gathering;
e) allow me to explore the experiences of students in English courses and levels different from the one I usually teach;
f) provide me with a comfortable distance to data collecting.
Having considered and addressed the Panel’s concerns, I resubmitted my proposal in March and it has now been approved. Attention to ethical details, awareness of ethical pitfalls and transparency about ethical procedures are now a very significant part of my research thinking and planning. But that is not the only outcome of my Panel experience. I also learned something more personal and not very flattering about my ability (or inability rather) to accept constructive criticism. It was quite ironic since I go on about it all the time in my own classroom. But, when I was formally asked to resubmit my proposal taking into consideration the Panel’s suggestions, I went into a state of semi-paralysis or some kind of mental hibernation. I had negative thoughts, felt discouraged and buried myself in work as I couldn’t quite face rethinking and rewriting the proposal. Richard and Charlotte were very supportive, but it was a brief comment made by a Polish friend of mine, who teaches English at Cornell in Qatar, that helped me finally to get a grip. She simply observed how lucky I was that the weaknesses in my study were caught early on in the research process so the actual re-writing only concerned the proposal and not the dissertation.
Sharing positive and negative sides of our research progress with others (colleagues, friends) can be very helpful in recognising flaws in our thinking. Things often take on a better shape or direction when presented from another angle by someone else – the key, however, is to be able to accept that view and use it for improvement. With hindsight, my Panel experience was a major academic and personal milestone and I learned a lot from it.
So, here is one final remark: as a result of the Panel medical consultation (they were really all doctors :)), I feel that my proposed research has now acquired a more robust framework, more methodological coherence, is ethically much more solid and more doable – as it comes with a vastly improved health record.