a little worry about methods ‘assignments’

In the last two weeks I’ve spoken to three doctoral researchers about writing on methodology and methods. They were in the social sciences, and this post is written from that perspective, although I suspect it may apply to some humanities areas too.

The first doctoral researcher – let’s call her A – was writing an assignment for one of those compulsory ‘training’ modules that everyone in their first full time year in the UK now has to do. The course was about philosophy and the entirely reasonable assignment question was to outline the philosophical position she would take in her proposed research. A had read a lot, and her draft paper went through this reading, starting with epistemology, and then going on to methodology, and then ended with a discussion of some possible methods.

The problem was that there was no sense in the draft text of a researcher explaining their own thinking, reasoning why she might take a particular set of decisions, arguing on what basis she would make ‘truth’ claims, arguing why anyone should think her research trustworthy.

A had written an assignment, answering somebody else’s question, rather than writing about her own concerns. It was written for marks and for official approval, rather than being an articulation of a positioning that would be the foundation for her own research. Because A had been successful in her taught postgraduate work, this was what she thought she had to do.

A classic essayist assignment genre, typical of under and taught postgraduate writing, is performative. It is intended to demonstrate not only a certain amount of knowledge but also the capacity to write clearly, to marshall evidence in logical order, to show coverage of particular reading, to use appropriate terminology. It is intended to convince the marker that the writer knows their stuff. It enacts ‘good student’. That’s what A had understood to be the task of this assignment, and there seemed to be nothing in the written handouts to suggest this wasn’t what she should do.

The second two doctoral researchers – let’s call them B and C – were in their third year. They’d both completed their field work and analysis, and started writing the actual thesis. B had started her ‘methods chapter’, and said she didn’t like doing it. It was somehow going through the motions. C hadn’t yet started on hers, but said it was the chapter she least wanted to write. Dreading it, was the actual phrase used. I asked both of them if it was because this chapter felt like the kind of assignment they had written before for a research methods course, and they both agreed that this was the case.

Now this seems a worry. I’m worried that in instituting doctoral ‘training’ courses, we might have extended the under and taught postgraduate assignment genre, and everything it means, into doctoral research. I’m even more concerned if there is any chance that this means that methodological discussions in ‘training’ and in the thesis are seen as something that has to be done, as wading through treacle simply to get a lecturer’s or examiner’s approval.

Getting a tick is certainly part of what is at stake in methodological discussions in the doctoral thesis. An unconvincing methods chapter with inadequate discussion will cause examiners to question what’s understood about researching, and they will often ask for corrections in order to make sure the research is textually grounded.

But I think more is at stake in thesis discussions of methodologies. Becoming a researcher is ontological, as well as epistemological. It’s about who we are and the ways in which we are oriented to the world and our practice. It’s about how we understand what we do, why, and how. We need not only to spell that out for others, but also for ourselves. What do we think we are doing when we do research… on what basis can we reasonably justify what we’ve done as research, as knowledge, as some kind of ‘truth’… we need to own the methodologies we use, and write about them from our own point of view.

If we do write as researchers, and not as students answering a question, then both the philosophy essay and the methods chapter become much less a trawl through a mandatory set of other people’s views. They become much more a careful explication of the premises we researchers make about what we are doing in our own research. We argue our case, not present a version of a selected reading of a set of research methods textbooks and lectures. We write as researchers. That’s the rub.

I just wonder in all this ‘training’ how and where this shift from student and assignment to researcher and explaining our practice and its premises is actually discussed and dealt with.

Maybe my anecdotes are just aberrations. Any experiences or opinions to offer?

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About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in argument, assignment, methods chapter, research methods, thesis and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to a little worry about methods ‘assignments’

  1. Interesting post. As a former Phd student in social sciences I also had to complete a pgdip in social research methods, I had already completed a research methods module on a previous MA and at first was reluctant to go through it again. I’m glad I did as I found the approach made me explore more methodologies in a more philosophical manner and debate appraoches. Perhaps I was lucky but I was never made to feel as though I was a student answering an assignment, my research was reflexive. I have seen the fear that you speak of and worry that it is seen as going through the motions as opposed to the adventure discovery of methods can be.

  2. Simon Bailey says:

    A subject close to my heart as you know. The issue for me is that attempting to step outside that performative might represent quite a degree of risk on the part of the student according to the expectations of those who regulate them!

  3. Catherine Burke says:

    Very helpful post Pat. It puts into words my frustrations and feelings when reading multiple essays or parts of theses which as you point out seem to treat method and ethics as hurdles to encounter and pass over often with little imagination or engagement. The problem is risk aversion and the pressure we are all under to ‘complete’. Thanks – your thoughts will probably change the way I deal with this in future.

  4. M-H says:

    Oh, you have touched a nerve here with me. It would take more than a comment to explain why, but, in short, you’re right. Research is supposed to be about taking risks to find out and articulate something that hasn’t been known before; it’s messy and unpredictable. Taking courses is about increasing skills in a known and understood area; it’s neat and tidy and has ‘learning outcomes’. Yes, you need certain skills in order to be able to undertake the risky stuff. but there are other ways to get those. Unless the coursework is presented as a way to think about the messiness and how to think your way through it, it’s dangerously reductive. I’d like to see research methods courses with a learning outcome of ‘learning to cope with and articulate the messiness and unpredictability of your research”.

  5. Christopher says:

    I was lucky in my postgraduate level qualitative methods course as the professor teaching it edited a journal on the topic and was very keen to share experiences and get us to reflect on method and methodology, which is about as much as might be done in classroom setting – method I think by definition must be practiced to really grasp the -ology of it. I was not so lucky in my quantitative course, which I felt was poorly formulated. But your blog post touches on some other things:

    I’m in Canada and completed my social sciences BA and MSc here, but I’m also in the process of organizing a PhD overseas. I’ve faced criticism from academics here for wanting to do a PhD outside the North American systems because the general absence of courses (“modules”) and comprehensive exams that define the Canadian and US apparently make for a ‘lesser’ doctorate. From conversations, I sense that including courses thought to create a more difficult experience, and that difficulty is uncritically equated to rigour and quality (and makes me think of austerity polices to address economic crises, harder = more beneficial). Yet I found in my six (4 theory + 1 quant and 1 qual methods) required postgraduate courses which were shared with PhD students, the emphasis rested largely on performance. It seemed as if I was required to demonstrate – yet again – that I could critically engage with a selection of the literature and write a competent paper. I can barely remember what I might have written about for the essays or read in the 12 to 20 articles and books I read each week, but I did finish with an excellent GPA (was this the point?). Creatively speaking, it was an incredibly exhausting and stifling experience.

    Were I to do a PhD on this continent, I would have to repeat the same types of courses (they don’t really do postgrad level transfer credit), when at this point all I might want is a list of a few key papers or scholars, and even then only in the event that I am unfamiliar with a particular topic. Not until I completed the same courses for a second time, and then did a set of comprehensive exams, would I be allowed to go near my actual research. I wonder if this speaks to a paternalism or audit culture that ignores any skills a student might have acquired in the previous years of expensive training and/or employment? Or a move to an industrial model of research training where quality is measured by check-boxes?

    Anyway, I dont mean to ramble! Thanks for your informative post!

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