This post may well be incredibly vague, but I’d like to write it anyway for a few reasons – hopefully something I write might be of use to other people doing research in the same kind of area as me, people might have helpful suggestions, and I feel a bit of pressure (probably all from myself) to write something to keep this blog remotely up to date and have something in it about what I’m doing. So. This is a sort of ‘things I’ve learnt from fieldwork’ post, but I have to keep things vague for obvious reasons. I’ve applied the general idea that if someone involved in my research reads this post, it won’t give anything away, or cause upset, or influence the data I’m collecting.
I’m three weeks into a twelve week stint of fieldwork for my PhD. I’m in a secondary school with 1,000 students or so, from age 11 to 18 (years 7 to 13 in England). I’m focusing most of my research on people aged 14-16. For those who don’t already know, my research is about critical information literacy and political agency or, less elegantly, how young people form opinions and make decisions about political issues based on the information they encounter in all its forms, and whether they’d be in a better position to participate in political processes if libraries and educators taught them about how culture promotes certain views and approaches above other ones, and how they can use an awareness of this to address various forms of social injustice. I’m doing this because I want to address how librarianship needs to be more critical in its approach to information literacy, because we can help with a lot of the issues and need to stop perpetuating some of them.
I’m three weeks in and still finding my feet. I’ve written down some very general and quite specific things I’m learning, most of which is probably blatantly obvious, but I hope it might be at least a little bit useful to someone if they come across it when they’re in a blind panic about their research.
Some Things I Am Learning:
1) It’s nigh on impossible to describe your research
I’ve done elevator pitches at numerous training events, I’ve presented my work at conferences, I’ve written abstracts with incredibly limited word counts, I’ve bored the ears off my boyfriend’s friends at work parties, I’ve even, I’m fairly sure, managed to squeeze the gist of my research topic into a couple of tweets. I’ve done a fair amount of media interviews that have required me to discuss complex issues about libraries, local politics, and public services in a way that’s comprehensible and at least a little bit interesting and engaging. Put me in front of a year group, however, and I lose the ability to describe what I’m doing and what I want to find out about completely. I’ve written information sheets to go out with the consent forms and these seem to make sense on paper, but don’t translate well in speech for some reason. I’m fairly sure at one point last week I found myself describing it as “if people are thinking about stuff when they think about stuff”, or something along those lines. This is for a few reasons, one of which is that I really have been immersed in the academic language for a long time and what makes sense to me doesn’t make sense to people who haven’t been reading about critical theory. This is actually a problem that’s raised by Rex Gibson in Critical Theory and Education (1986) – critical theorists are buggers for using long words that are difficult to think about in an everyday context. Library theory’s similar – information literacy isn’t a concept that all teachers have necessarily heard of even though it’s (arguably) a central concept for librarians. On top of that, I’m using an ‘out there’ method as part of my research – repertory grids. It’s a faff to explain and is very much one of those ‘you’ll get it when you sit down and do it’ things that works fine when you actually do it but involves several stages that are hard to describe in words. And of course, when I’m describing it, one of my usual approaches is to give “for examples”, which I don’t want to do because it might alter the responses I’d get from participants.
2) Good luck getting consent forms back
When it’s difficult to explain your research and methods, it’s difficult to explain why participation would be great and valuable and not that time-consuming and so on. As I said, my research is based in a school, where paper forms are circulated regularly and get left and lost as a matter of course. I’ve tried several approaches to urging people to bring consent forms back because I literally cannot do anything other than observe if I don’t have permission from a legal guardian because they’re under 18. There are very good ethical reasons for this, especially because although my research carries few risks and is in no way dangerous and of course participants will be anonymised, it’s about political views and where people get information from, which is potentially something that guardians don’t want their children to be involved in, and that’s entirely fair enough. I’m taking the active consent approach rather than the passive consent approach because I think it’s really important for guardians to know about what I’m doing beforehand – and if the consent forms aren’t being brought back, I can assume that the information sheets aren’t making their way into the hands of guardians.
I’ve got a handful of returned forms and I’m still trying. That makes me worry about the time I’ve got left – I’d wondered about getting someone to circulate them before I got here, but they wouldn’t have been able to answer questions that people might have and I don’t think it would have helped. However, establishing and negotiating consent is an ongoing process, and as I have to alter my methods, I’ll keep talking to participants about what I’m doing and why. Kay et al. (Eds.) (2009) Researching with Children and Young People: Research Design, Methods and Analysis has been a really great source of recommendations for issues to take into consideration, like making sure potential participants don’t feel coerced into doing the research. It’s also encouraged me to do things like just ask the participants how they’d like to do something – would they prefer to have a chat as a group, or would they rather do it alone? Is this sort of thing hard to talk about, or is it fine? Would they rather stay after school or meet at lunchtime? These are decisions I’d had to make during the methodology design that don’t necessarily meet what the participants would prefer, and it’s no great shakes for me to change my plans. After all, what I want is lots of rich data, and that comes from the participants feeling comfortable and happy to take part, especially when part of what I want to know is what are the political issues that they feel most passionately about and see how they construct their world of political information.
3) It’s about quality over quantity
At least, that’s my argument and I’m sticking with it. For the type of research I’m doing, a small sample isn’t the end of the world. Given my issues with consent forms, I won’t have a huge sample. I think this will be okay – I’m not trying to identify trends or to make generalisations across a large group. I’m trying to get a sense of individuals’ perceptions and how that connects to information literacy, and the majority of the data collection is qualitative. As long as I record my field notes and observations in great detail and write about my methodology transparently, hurdles and all, I’m hoping it’ll be acceptable. If I don’t have enough data from the fieldwork, I’ve written a couple of backup plans into my methodology and can bring one of those out if it’s needed.
4) Organisation is key
Key to a) keeping on track and b) keeping you on the rails. I’ve got a spreadsheet with a page for a Gantt chart, a page with daily timetables, all kinds of things. This helps me make sure I’m getting stuff done, reorganise my schedule when I need to so that I still have time to record what I need to, and also make me feel like I’m vaguely on top of things. I also have a page where I’ve got a chart in which I record all my activities on a lesson by lesson basis. It’s easy for a day to slip by without feeling like you’ve achieved anything even though actually you have got stuff done and you don’t need to be so hard on yourself, and it’s also easy to miss opportunities for getting hold of pupils when you’ve often only got a 20 minute window per day during registration period. Google Calendar continues to be a godsend, because it reminds me about things I need to do that aren’t fieldwork. Keeping track is helpful.
I’m finding NVivo really useful not only for typing up observations (and soon I’ll be transcribing interviews), it’s also really useful for daily memos and reflections on what I’m doing and how things are changing based on circumstances and the decisions I’m making. I can imagine this will be helpful when I’ve forgotten what I was thinking when I decided to alter a way of going about something and I need to write about it.
5) No, no, flexibility. Flexibility is key.
I’ve had to make so many amendments to my planned research methods for practical reasons that I’m quite glad I don’t have anything too set in stone. Being organised (in theory) helps me work out how I can reorganise, but being flexible makes it possible. Even in terms of a research approach, I’ve found that the way I think about things is changing as I learn more about the research environment and the participants. Sometimes, no amount of theory can prepare you for reality. (I promised you I’d be vague…)
6) School life is really tiring!
This is a bit whinge whinge moan but also practical. It’s important to look after yourself and pace yourself! I’m not a late riser so I thought I’d be fine, but good grief 6:30am starts are kicking my ass. There’s something especially draining about strip lighting and the way air circulates around school buildings that I’d forgotten about. It’s also really hard to regulate your temperature (increasingly so as the weather gets warmer) and really easy to forget about lunch (or as happens more often for me, eat your lunch at 10am because 7am is no time to put food in yourself). I get home shattered and I’m good for nothing, which is not great because I could really do with putting another couple of hours in in the evening. Early nights are my friends. As is tea.
7) Doing something creative and/or destressy is really important
I’m worried about not collecting enough data. I’m worried about not collecting the right data. I’m worried about running out of time. I’m worried about doing something wrong. I’m worried about not being able to talk to the participants well. I’m worried about technical issues. I’m worried that I still haven’t got a proper neat and tidy literature review let alone a well-written methodology. I’m worried that I haven’t even started writing a conference paper that’s due in less than a fortnight (even if I do have a detailed plan carved out of the last productive anxiety streak). I’m worried about my cats in Glasgow even though I know they’re being very well looked after by my incredible friend. I’m worried that all of my friends have forgotten me and never liked me anyway. Inwardly, I’m a knot of anxiety. I really don’t know what I’d be like if I didn’t have knitting and spinning to come home to.
I’ve made about 70 projects since last February, from facecloths to cardigans and elaborate shawls. I’ve tried as wide a variety of techniques as I’ve felt brave enough for (not onto steeking just yet…). I’ve also taken up spinning, which I swore I Would Not Do until I was a Grownup and had the time and money to devote to another craft. I was also a bit reluctant to go Full Yarny I think. However.
This is my Joy. It’s from a second hand shop and is the victim of a terrible stain-job. It needed a bit of doing up, which helped me get to know how it works and what it needs. It’s very helpful when I’m feeling too shattered to do anything complicated. I can’t tell you how theraputic spinning is. It can be the complete opposite of course when you’re learning, but although I’m not very good yet, I have got to the stage where I can spend a couple of hours spinning merrily away making consistent yarn and drafting (badly) without it breaking and having to stop to set things back up again. I’ve started taking my drop spindle on train journeys for when my brain’s too fried for reading or knitting. It’s relaxing and the source of some interesting chats with passengers. Spreading the fibre love! (Yeah…I’m one of those now.)
As well as really enjoying the process, I also really enjoy the feeling of having made something. When I feel like everything’s going wrong, to be able to wrap myself up in a shawl that was a pile of fluff not very long ago, and feel like I’ve created something beautiful makes all the difference.
I guess all I’ve really said in quite a lot of words is that I’m finding it helpful to work hard but keep a sense of perspective. I’d love to know how other people are finding or found their first few weeks of fieldwork, because it can be quite an isolated and detached experience.