Murky Methods

by

INTRODUCING THE DARK SIDE OF RESEARCH

I‘m Janus. I‘m a PhD student. This is my attempt to show you just how messy, weird and illogical research as an activity can be. In this collage, I’ll try to carve open my research process by showing you various visual and textual expressions that are linked to or have had an impression on my research process in the past almost two years. Some of it is colourful and whimsical, some of it beautiful, an a lot of it is gritty, messy, and in some instances a little sad or depressing. But every step of this has led me to where I am now. Which is a place, where I finally sort of know what it is I might be doing. I’m not saying that my process necessarily has been more messy than other researchers’. But I really feel there is a need to bring the weirdness into the open and acknowledge it. And that is what I am doing in this piece.

I’m currently on the second year of a three year scholarship at the Centre for Teaching Development and Digital Media. My research is concerned with what I call the dark side of the student experience and the link between student experience and ICT-based educational design.

My research process has not been logical and linear path to academic enlightenment. Far from it. In fact, I doubt that any learning processes truly are. On the contrary, the past two years have also been weird, manic, mind numbing, frustrating, chaotic and at times even depressing and horrible. Not as a byproduct of my journey towards knowledge, but deeply entangled in it. Some of the biggest leaps forward for me have not just happened through rigorous studying and accumulation of knowledge, but also through experiences of randomness, love, friendship, failure, disappointment, frustration or indifference.

Inspired by my co-worker Søren Smedegaard Bengtsen and his work based on philosophers like Nietzsche and Levinas, I have been tinkering with the notion of the dark side of research. The darkness here does not denote merely the negative or bad things about being a researcher. Rather, it focusses on the things on which we usually do not focus. The things that – in the context of research – might appear illogical, serendipitous, random, inexplicable or irregular. In my opinion, research is too often conceived and disseminated by scholars as a logical, linear, rigorous, firm and predictable activity – even when people are doing qualitative research, which at its core (let’s be honest) is a terrible mess. Roughly put, what we are doing as qualitative scholars is more or less a kind of reflected guesswork.

I really don’t think that any serious professionals within the humanities would contest me in this. Well, maybe they would, when I call it guesswork. We could call it interpretation or even hermeneutics, perhaps? In any case, everybody knows that there are countless factors beyond our control that influence our choices, our interpretations, and in the end our results. But when the time comes for dissemination, all of that is lost in a heartbeat. Rather than reflecting on all the randomness and weirdness, we pretend we are a pastiche of laboratory workers who presume they can control and account for all influences on their research. We pretend (rhetorically) that our qualitative methods are comparable to measuring devices. And we pretend to have ‘findings’ as if the results we communicate were out there to be unveiled before we endeavoured into the field. Even though we know they weren’t. Maybe this is due to a crisis in qualitative research where scholars struggle to be taken seriously beyond the humanities. After all, who would fund a bunch of stuck-up intellectuals who have lost touch with reality while rigorously claiming that their ‘weird guessing’ has actual value for anyone else than themselves?

I really don’t know how to solve this issue. But I’m convinced that the solution is not to pretend that humanities in any meaningful way could adhere to the same standards of research as seen within natural sciences.

This visual documentation of my research process attempts to give readers a glimpse inside the dark side of the research process. I will try to peek behind the veil and bring forth some of the wondrous, quirky and weird things that you wouldn’t find in the methodology-section of a journal paper. This is the closest I can come to showing you what it means to me to be a researcher. Happy reading!

BEING INSPIRED

Much of the content in this blogpost revolves around trying to identify things that have influenced or inspired me as a researcher. I will naturally point towards people, academic literature and events. But very importantly, I have become very aware of the influence of cultural artefacts like internet memes, street art, slogans, movies and especially music and music videos on my research. I am an amateur musician, so this naturally means a lot to me. Throughout the blogpost, I’ll embed music and music videos and I urge the reader to listen to them while reading. Just to kind of get into the groove of my PhD project 🙂 There are, however, things that have proven to be more than just a background to my work. In the course of an ordinary day like anyone else, I am bombarded with impressions. Most of them appear quite mundane and offer no productive insights for my research. But every now and again something sticks that directly or indirectly may have influenced my process. I not claiming to have had actual heureka moments, but below some of the things that come to mind are represented. Firstly, there is this amazingly beautiful Bowie video. In the beginning of my time as a PhD student, I was preoccupied with the influences of technology on human life and society. This video made me think about digital meet-ups as potentially embodied, and made me wonder how hanging out on digital media could be a more holistic experience than it is normally conceived of as being. This has been a recurring theme in my research publications and in my activities as an educator.

Secondly, I saw this sign outside a grocery store in town. It kind of provoked my thoughts. I don’t know if I totally understand or agree with the message, but it kind of just stuck with me when I was thinking about education (see the caption for translation).

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Text on grocery store sign: “Dear youth! When wrong becomes right, opposition becomes a duty. The grown-ups have forgotten this!”

Third up, there is “Ny Kynisme” (New Cynicism) by Den Fjerde Væg (The Fourth Wall). This video problematises the effect of the way of life in contemporary society on kids. The video has a message of revolution which neatly related to my own wish to overturn the educational system.
Finally, in this curated mini collection of inspiring cultural artefacts, there is the ever-flowing stream of education-related internet memes. At first, I found these funny, because they captured some of the themes I was thinking about in a quirky way. But as I continued to discover more and more of these, I realised that they were actually broadening my scope on the various emotions and experiences that students live through in the educational system. As such, they have become a catalyst for thinking creatively about what it means to be a student, and they have certainly helped me ask questions to my informants, that I might not have asked and see things in my empirical data that I wouldn’t have seen, had I not been influenced by these memes. At this point in my research process, I think of these silly pictures and gifs as an integrated part of my empirical data set, alongside observations, interviews, pictures, videos and audio recordings.

COLLEAGUES//FRIENDS//NETWORK

There is no doubt in my mind that my colleagues and the people in my personal research network have had a tremendous impact on my research process. How they have had an impact, however remains rather opaque to me. Sure enough, I have a main supervisor and a co-supervisor, who are both formally obliged to guide me through my PhD. But aside from them, there are so many people around me who have helped me, taken me seriously and inspired me. I have met a lot of wildly interesting and inspiring PhD students in the course of my project, but I have also established connections with quite a lot of senior researchers, who have been kind enough to treat me as their equal (kind of). And more importantly, the nature of the connections have in many cases shifted from strictly professional work relations to actual friendships (and even near romantic at one point). I have worked and lived in the middle of a group of people who didn’t go to great lengths to separate their private lives from their worklives and who didn’t treat me as an inferior, because because I was at a lower step on my career ladder. This has often made it very unclear to me when I was actually working and when I was just hanging out, having fun. In many instances, great ideas (maybe great, I don’t know) have emerged not out of hard work and focus, but rather as a result of semi-drunk people fabulating about desires and the urgency of being educational researchers. This might seem like a somewhat mundane insight – and the same could be said about the point about being friends with your colleagues. But it is interesting in this case because the personal, fabulating, random and social part of being a researcher is very rarely reflected upon when qualitative research – and qualitative research methodology – is disseminated within academia. And yes, I guess the same goes for research in natural sciences , but I really don’t know much about that. In my work, I think a lot about pushing the boundaries for how you can do research and what the role of research could or should be in the world. And I do not think that this striving for change is solely due to my educational background or which books I might have read on the matter. Rather, I sense a connection to the people I have surrounded myself with and their way of being academics and humans. The fact that I know these people not only affects my choice of books, but more fundamentally, it affects the way I read the books and what I take away from my reading. Hell, I wouldn’t trade the learning experiences I’ve had from engaging in dialogues with colleagues with book reading anytime. Again, this might seem obvious, but it is only very rarely taken into account when academics (also within the arts) write up their work. Instead, the work is often glossed over with pseudo-professionalism, performed social secludedness and a weird naturalistic notion of emotional detachment from academic influences. And yes, there are of course people out there doing research in enthralling, socially conscious, emotionally aware ways. Shoutout to you guys.

HARDSHIP & TURMOIL

I can’t deny that large parts of my research process has been characterised by the dissolvement and redefinition of my personal life. A few months after I begun my work as a researcher, my relationship with the mother of my children fell apart. This led on to a somewhat unstable periode for me, which negatively peaked with a depression, sick-leave and three months on part-time at work. The personal narrative I have built trying to explain what happened is as follows: The second time I met my co-supervisor, Annette Markham, was at Løve’s Bog & Vincafé in Aarhus. It was a cold day in March 2014, and the first meeting we had had went terrible. For me anyway. I was extremely nervous and couldn’t formulate my project to Annette at all. At the end of the first meeting Annette said: “Let’s meet again soon, but this time off campus. How about grabbing a glass of wine at this great café I know?” We met late in the afternoon, but ended up talking until the café closed at midnight. At some point during the evening after quite a few glasses of wine, the following conversation took place: Annette: “Did you ever watch Tomb Raider? You know, with Angelina Jolie?” Janus: “Uhmn sure, which one? Not sure if I can tell them apart…” Annette: “Can’t really remember either. But that doesn’t matter. Do you remember the scene where some sort of crystal explodes and time freezes leaving all the tiny crystal pieces hanging in the air?” Janus: “Uh-huh..” Annette: “Well, in that scene Lara Croft is able to pick the crystal pieces out of the air, examine them and return them to their place.” Janus: “Sure…” Annette: “This is what I think you should do. Explode your PhD-project, take a thorough look at all the pieces, evaluate what their role is in your project, trash the ones you don’t need and explore the depth in the ones you keep. Then reassemble your project in a new, more informed way.” Janus: “Really? But that’ll take forever. I only have three years, and the PhD committee must have thought that my project had some substance as it is…” Annette: “Well, sure, but this is your chance to go way beyond that. To do something important for you. Think about it, at least.” Janus: “Sure, OK, I’ll think about it. Don’t know if it’s worth it, though…” As it turns out, I most certainly exploded my project. I’ve actually done it a few times since then. But more importantly, the tendency to explode spread to the rest of my life. I examined all the pieces anew and found that some of them fit very poorly into the way I wanted to live my life. It was a horrible process, but a necessary one that I had postponed for way to long. The break-up took a long time to process, and for a while there I was sorta out there. Research-wise the entire fall of 2014 was a bust. I couldn’t remember the texts I read, I could only concentrate for short periods of time, I couldn’t sleep, and when I finally fell asleep I couldn’t get out of bed again. I fell into depression, was out sick for a while, but slowly I reassembled my life. I built a new home for me and my children, I began playing more music, I met a tremendous woman, and I even started doing yoga. All of this of course has had a huge effect on my project, albeit indirectly. My project has been reformulated and in my opinion it stands much stronger than before. And my brain works again, which allows me to read and understand even complex texts. So yay for me. The entanglement between my personal life and my work life is evident. It’s there, I have no doubt. You could call it both cross-pollination or metastasis, but to deny the importance of personal life in research is in my honest opinion preposterous. The entanglement is dark and hazy, in the sense that the connections are unclear, the relation underexposed. I can stumble around it, fall over it and into it, catch fleeting glimpses with my flashlight. But never drag it all the way into the light.

PROJECT MAPS

From the very beginning of my PhD, I have been drawing maps and visualisations of my research process – even though I’m absolutely terrible at drawing (see evidence below). I guess that it helps me create some sort of feeling of an overview of my project. None of these maps have proven to accurately predict my process – far from it, actually – but each of them helped me get at little further. Well, most of them. When I look at some of them now, I can actually see that some of the progress they brought about, have regressed again. I’ll take this chance to revisit, I suppose.

PERFORMING ETHNOGRAPHY

I ended up drawing on ethnography as a methodological outset for my research. This is apparently a dangerous thing to do. These days, the disciplin of anthropology is bleeding ethnography all over the arts & social sciences. It seems that this drainage and de-concentration of the life-force of anthropology is pissing people of. And I don’t blame them. Ethnography is (claimed to be) used in all kinds of more or less sound research designs. Especially the notion of “quick & dirty” ethnography has had a tendency to turn anthropologists quite bitter. So, to be blunt about it, I’m not trained in the art of ethnography. I have a background in media studies. We do interviews and focus groups and that’s about it. But when I got around to narrowing in on my area of interest, I realised that I could not come close to the depth I wanted without getting to know my informants. After all, how would you begin to understand the sensations, emotions and experiences of others without knowing them. I began reading basic books on ethnography, participant observation and online ethnography, but when I finally faced going into the field, I still felt like a had no idea what so ever what I was doing. The link between the literature and the praxis of fieldwork was weak for me, to say the least. And when I asked experienced ethnographers how to actually do field work, they often ended up talking about the art of ethnography in very abstract terms, in an almost religious way. All this meant that when I actually did enter the field, it was as though I was only trying to perform what I thoughtethnography might mean. I’m the only one who has seen myself in the field. I could easily have misunderstood the whole concept. I guess we’ll never know. I’m done with the empirical stage of my project now, and I have produced mountains of data, which I think makes it look a lot like I have been doing ethnography. I hope that people agree…

FINALE: CONSTRUCTING AN ANSWER

I am at a point now where things are beginning to come together. Yeah, It only took two years for that to happen 0__o I have done my empirical study, I have a strategy for analysis, I have talked to people about it, and they seem to buy it. I still often feel like I’m faking my way through it all. But sometimes – sometimes – I can fool even myself, when I explain my research to others. My problem now of course is that I have to write the damn dissertation. I face 250 pages of pure evil, and I don’t even know if my writing skills can live up to my own thoughts about how I want to write it.

THANK YOU FOR READING

I hope you feel like you have gotten a little peek into what it means to me to be a researcher. The experience is my own. I don’t pretend to know what’s going on behind the curtains in other research projects. But I’m confident that more is going on, than they’ll let you know. Something strange, something heavy, perhaps even something fun (God forbid it).