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How do you do your research: Emer Emily Neenan

Research, for me, often has the activity pattern of a big cat; long stretches of waiting, interspersed with flurries of furious activity. Never was this more true for me than earlier this year when, after waiting months to get started on school visits for my PhD research (wait for supervisors to sign-off, wait for ethical approval, wait for schools to reply to enquiries, wait for the day the school can fit a researcher visit in…), I rushed down a platform and dived onto the train less than a minute before the doors closed. Months of slow, step-by-step progress, followed by a frantic sprint. It’s taken me a while to realise that this kind of activity pattern is normal. Or one of many normal patterns. Or maybe that there’s no such thing as normal at all in research. I used to blame myself for not getting more done in advance, for working to deadlines, for my “stroll and sprint” method of crossing the finish line. The important thing, of course, is simply to get there, mental and physical health intact, whatever route you take. This is why it’s so important not only to share the results of our research, but to share our experiences and our processes with other researchers, especially research students and early career researchers. I love hearing about how other researchers faced challenges or obstacles, how they figured out some solution, how that solution is often the equivalent of duct tape; imperfect and a little sloppy, but working. (And, of course, how sometimes the solution is literally duct tape.) We should tell each other about the boring parts and the panicky parts and the hilarious parts. When we finish a project, we look back and we naturally construct a smooth narrative about the path we took, focusing on the final decisions, the results, and the outcomes. We package this narrative as a thesis, or a paper, or a seminar, and it becomes the official version of the research. But this streamlined, official version doesn’t have to be the only story we tell.

Sharing the other kind of information - the meandering route, the false starts, the nitty-gritty details, the messages left on school answering machines, the scrapped pilot, the hilariously inaccurate Gantt chart - is relegated to the fringes, usually in-person conversations (not infrequently taking place in the pub). It makes sense that no one’s going to write their paper or thesis focusing on the moments where they got lost in the weeds of the research, or went for a stroll through a few enticing alternative theories, or rearranged their schedule four times to accommodate meeting participants for interviews. Or sprinted down a train platform. But we can still talk about those moments.

The school visit, after that panicked start, was very successful. My research - on Irish secondary school students’ engagement with Earth Science - uses a children’s rights based methodology. As a key part of this, I convene Children’s Research Advisory Groups (CRAGs) to act as expert co-researchers on key aspects of the research project. These are groups of between 6 and 8 representative students, who meet with me several times over the course of the project and give input and feedback on the research questions, the research instruments, the results, etc. They are experts on the lived experience of current Irish secondary school students, and they act as experts; they ask questions, they sign off on the notes taken at our meetings, and their input is incorporated. For their participation as co-researchers to be meaningful, they need to be given Space, Voice, Audience, and Influence (according to Laura Lundy’s work on conceptualising and implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Child). They have to be given the opportunity and time to give their input. That’s no good if they aren’t given the tools and vocabulary to address the complexities of the research they’re advising on. Someone has to actually listen to what they say. And then that person or group of people has to actually incorporate their opinions and feedback into the project.

The reason I’m using this methodology is because it fit with my own personal ontological and epistemological approach to education research, and with my principles as a feminist researcher. It also has the great side-effect of making the research better. An additional perspective - or several highly opinionated meme-literate perspectives - is a huge advantage. The CRAGs take me off the beaten track, intentionally and unintentionally. We don’t always stay off the beaten track, sometimes we decide to go back to the “standard” way of doing things, but now we know exactly why that way is the best way. They were also able to tell me exactly how to present the survey (quickly renamed a “questionnaire” by the CRAGs, who pointed out that secondary school students are all sick of TY project “surveys” that “no one takes seriously”) to their peers.

In return for their expertise, they’re getting an opportunity to learn something new in a very different way than what they’re used to in school. (They are also - and this is vitally important - getting to skip the occasional unpopular class to participate in the CRAGs. I won’t perpetuate the stereotypes by telling you which classes are the ones they want to skip. If you went to school in Ireland, you can guess, and if you didn’t, you can ask anyone who did!) The kids in the CRAGs are getting to learn about research methodology the way PhD and research Masters students learn about research methodology; with one sometimes-confused senior researcher (me in the CRAGs, a supervisor for research students) telling them specific information as it becomes relevant, and otherwise, trial and error. Research students also, of course, might attend a research methodology class, and are probably reading a variety of books and papers on the subject. Although, in fairness, the former can sometimes feel a bit like one confused senior researcher doing their best, and the latter can often feel like trial and error.

As PhD or research Masters students, we are both researchers and students. We’re learning, and we’re paying our fees in order to learn. And no one learns in isolation. Trial and error is a pretty effective way to learn, but it’s impossible for a PhD student to make all the errors necessary to learn everything. We don’t have time, and honestly, our collective mental health is precarious enough without having to deal with making literally every possible mistake. Sometimes it might feel like I’m making literally every possible mistake, totally lost in the weeds off the beaten track, until I fall into conversation with another PhD student or early career researcher, and hear about their meandering journey, their stops and starts, their thrill at stumbling across some treasure in an unexpected archive or on their day off, their stack of rejected theories, their new blue-sky idea. All the little twists and turns that won’t make the official story, but do make the research.

Working with the CRAGs, who don’t have the same preconceived notions of academia or the traditional paths research is supposed to travel along, helps me see getting lost in the weeds as something different; getting to explore in a meadow. A stroll-and-sprint gives you time to take things in, and time to make lots of progress. A meandering route is a scenic route. The right path is the one that gets you there. And all the better if you stop along the way and share your stories - not just the official one - with your fellow explorers.

 

Emer Emily Neenan

Emer Emily Neenan is a PhD candidate at the School of Education, Trinity College Dublin, studying Earth Science education in Irish schools, funded by an Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholarship. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Geology from Trinity College Dublin, and a MSc in Geology (Seismology) undertaken at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies Geophysics Section. She enjoys exploring alternative ways of expressing science and research, including poetry, creative non-fiction, graphic design, and painting.