Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Research: Process, Ethics, Validation, and Technicianship?

Derby Wharf, Salem, MA - Jan 2015 (Storm: Juno)
I am sure that last one is a word I just made up on the spot. It's been a slow week in 802.  I was reading Lisa's reflection on Lurking in 802 (she is in last year's cohort, so she is two courses ahead of us in Cohort 7), and how she viewed 802 at the time as a make or break experience for the Ed.D. program.  While 801 last semester was a whirlwind tour of Online and Distance Education, this semester is a whirlwind tour (or boot-camp perhaps) on the topic of Research and how to go about doing it.  The textbook, by Cohen and the gang, is something that I have read before (a few year ago), but this doesn't help a ton ;-)  There is a lot to unpack, and this book is dense.  Even if one could memorize everything (not a good way to learn, by the way), it's like going to philosophy course - you are there essentially to argue for and support your stance. You are also called upon to explain your underlying frameworks, or mental constructs and assumptions, for what you want to do.  To some extent this is a bit like therapy where you are called upon to reflect on why you hold those views and unpack your own biases and unspoken, but held, beliefs.

While this is something that friends and colleagues, and I, have been doing for a while, especially with our group in #rhizo14, vis-a-vis online research ethics (hey remember #massiveteaching courseraGate of 2014 and the discussions on ethics there?) being in class feel different.  In an online environment, while you may engage in these discussions, at some point if you feel like you've had your fill of the discussion you can choose to take a break and not engage any more.  In a course, however, you don't necessarily have that luxury.  You may take a small break from the discussion, and perhaps wait for other cohort-mates to step in, but you can't necessarily stay out of the arena for too long. Even if you could avoid thinking about such heavy subjects for the live seminars, or the asynchronous discussions, you still have homework to complete, which ensures that you will be thinking and articulating something about such weighty subjects.

Even though we are only about to complete week 4 (what? week 4? that's like 1/3 of the semester! Holy cow!), thus far this is a humbling experience on two levels.  First the readings make my brain hurt (figuratively). I haven't experienced this since Fall of 2010 when I was taking a course on psycholinguistics (which was also a primer on second language acquisition). Even though I had read all of the books and articles over the summer, and I had reviewed them just prior to each class session I still felt a bit lost with the majority of the readings.  It's not that I didn't get them, it's more like they all meshed in my head and only a small amount of distilled knowledge remained on the surface. It took discussion to really get those "a-ha" moments and really make connections with readings that remained beneath the surface. The second reason why this is humbling is that in the live sessions I'm don't feel adequately prepared.  This is connected to the first reason (the overwhelming amount of information that is taken in). I usually have something up my sleeve in live sessions (asynchronous discussions allow you to look things up and present your arguments), but I am now in a position (again) to consult my notes, to consult my highlighted text and articles, and the things I scribbled in the margins, and then still say "huh???" It's a bit of an academic rush, but it's humbling.

And now for a change in topic, but it's still related to 802.  A little while back I received this notification from LinkedIn for a new discussion.  The discussion is about PhD graduates being just technicians - so how can we help them improve? I suspect that by technicians the original poster means that their research is very mechanical in nature and that it follows a cookie cutter approach.  If the overall tone of the AU EdD program is like 802 I suspect that none of us will be cookie cutter researchers.  That said, I think that cookie cutter researchers exists because the overall environment supports them in some sense.  Some in the thread support Post-Doc work as a way to combat this technician mentality, but I think that this, too, is one way that higher education is prolonging academic adolescence amongst learners. In my view PostDoc positions are really temporary holding cells where people go to do more research because jobs aren't open. Those of you in higher education, if you think I am wrong in this assertion please let me know.  The PostDoc solution is sort of along the same lines of making doctoral students do more coursework before they have an opportunity to submit a proposal for research.  This is completely wrong in my view.

First proposed solution: If a student has completed an MA in the field that they are pursuing a doctorate in, then they shouldn't need 12-20 additional courses in order to get to that stage where your proposal is put forth and ready for comment by more seasoned academics. Students should have the most minimal of formal coursework which will have the effect of getting everyone on the same page and having people gel as a group of co-learners.  Courses should not be about content.  They should be about ways of thinking and more "brainy" stuff (a more proper word escapes me).  Courses contribute to mechanistic view of education and research because as learners we are seeking the path that will get us those good marks and high achievements (that the original posted wrote about), but they won't necessarily push us in the ways we need to be pushed to grow.  Students should go out and learn what they need to learn on their own, or with a group of co-learners, under the guidance of someone more seasoned. A class might be better for scheduling purposes (I am still an admin at my day-job), but this isn't necessarily what is best for learners.

Second proposed solution: In lieu of coursework, how about some qualifying papers? One of the pieces of advice that I've received from those who already have their degree is to think of my dissertation in chunks that I can pull out an publish separately with little editing.  I think that this is probably the making of a bad dissertation (or bad articles).  The instances of dissertation topics that can reasonably be transformed from 1 dissertation to multiple articles are probably few and far between.  It seems that the underlying idea is that new PhDs (I am using this as generic for "doctor" - EdDs and others Ds would fall into this category too) need publications and the way to get them is through the dissertation.  This, in my mind, contributes to the mechanization of research because, again, people are looking to get the most bang for the work that they put in.  If in lieu of courses students got their hands dirty with smaller research projects, things that culminated in publishable quality papers, then not only would those PhD students get to experience different research methods and ways of approaching knowledge generations, they would also have articles that they can submit for publication. This means that the dissertation could stand on its own without pulling double duty.

Third proposed solution: This may invite the ire of some recently minted PhD I know, but it need to be said: Newly minted PhDs (or EdDs for that matters) should not supervise students or teach in Doctoral programs until they have more experience under their belt.  I think that this is really important.  I don't think that I will know everything I ought to know once I finish my doctorate at AU.  This is not to say that I don't think that the AU is a quality program, quite the contrary!  What I mean by this is that it's impossible to have certain knowledge without the benefit of more experiences under my belt.  Learning is life-long, and the four (or five) years spent in a doctoral program is not sufficient to then turn around and mentor those who are just beginning their doctoral journey. I think that newly minted PhDs do need more time-on-task, and more intellectual brain-teasing in order to continue to hone their skills and expand their horizons. It is only through greater experience, and an open mind, that we are able to mentor others. Otherwise we fall into methodological  and disciplinary traps of our making. We are contributing to the echo chamber that we are in, instead of busting through those walls. After a period of mentorship by more experienced faculty, additional training, and greater time-on-task, in teaching, in service, and in research, should newly minted PhDs supervise new doctoral students (at that point they won't be newly minted any more).

Fourth proposed solution: Alt-Ac Careers! I know people who've gone into PhD programs, they completed them, but then the flame, the spark, the passion, the je ne sais quoi, just isn't there any more for research.  Don't belabor the point.  If someone earned their PhD but they don't do research, or they do it mechanistically because they have to produce something, then help them figure out an alternative to the academic career if that's not what they like to do.  Sometimes mechanistic application is due to lack of training (addressed through points 1-3) and sometimes it's because it's not what motivates people any longer.  It's perfectly fine if people's interests change.  The important thing is to figure out what you can do with your shiny PhD once you are done if you don't like doing research.  I don't think that teaching is the solution.  I think that those who do mechanistic research might have issues with sniffing out bad research, and this is a problem for teaching.  Teaching and Research are two sides of the same coin as far as I am concerned.  Your research (or review of the recent research!) points you to things you should be doing in the classroom in helping learners pick up new things and bridging that research and practice gap. If you can't do research well, you might not be able to evaluate it well.  It's not a rule, but something to keep an eye out for.

Well, that's all I have for that.  Your thoughts on this? How would you respond to this LinkedIn thread?

Post-script: We've had snow days the past few days, so I've had time to think about this for a while - hence the photo ;-)

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