December.2.2018

Doing my research work is like walking a city. How would you walk this city?

By Naomi Barnes

How do you feel about walking around a city? If you were in Sydney would you head down to the harbour? Join the throng of tourists and day-trippers taking in the sights? Or do you prefer to find the hidden gems? Perhaps you would insert yourself into a comfortable space that might have excellent coffee, interesting views, warmth: your place.

The well-known French scholar, Michel deDe Certeau, writes about walking in cities in his book The Practice of Everyday Life. Where we walk and how we walk determines the shape of the city. The places most people go receive the most planning attention. Some places are overcrowded so urban planners think about maximising the flow of humans and vehicles in those areas. Tourist attractions, like Sydney Harbour, are well attended to. The available infrastructure both shapes the nature of those who visit and those who visit shape the infrastructure. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

Other places in the city are shaped by the waves of movement. Once grand old buildings become dilapidated and then gentrified. Inner city public housing areas and places of ill repute become trendy boutiques, markets and air bnbs.

De Certeau says “The long poem of walking manipulates spatial organizations, no matter how panoptic they may be: it is neither foreign to them (it can take place only within them) nor in conformity with them (it does not receive its identity from them). It creates shadows and ambiguities within them.”

When you are a local you know what you like, the places that make you feel at home. Tourist destinations are not your regular haunts. You know exactly where to park at the shopping centre and your favourite café is where the proprietor knows your order. You practise your everyday life. It might not make as great an impression on the footpath, but the route is well worn by you.

For researchers our research work is like our local space. We know it well. We have found, or are in search of, the secret nooks and crannies of our field. We wander the streets of our research life every day. We are the local. We are shaping the space and that space is shaping us.

But what happens when something unexpected happens? Or the expected turns out to be different?

My research journey

For me it was having children during my candidacy. I had planned my study, forged out a little nook, but then the design became untenable, so I had to move. Moving from a space you find comfortable is painful but often necessary. We can try to force our circumstances into the original cranny, but it’s now stressful and unproductive.

Both the French philosopher, Michel Foucault and American feminist scholar, Donna Haraway write about irruptions ( a ‘sudden, violent or forcible entry: a rushing or bursting in’). They talk about how circumstances come together in such a way that there is a shift. Foucault might encourage us to have a look at the irruption and try and work out why the irruption occurred at that point. Haraway might encourage us to test the conditions that allowed the irruption, to find the chemical makeup. The irruptions in my research life have been ones I cannot ignore: a young baby, bills to pay, and difficulty in recruiting participants into my research project. It meant my research went in directions I could not anticipate.

I had a choice to work hard to bring it back on track, subjecting my research to delays, or to take a more scenic route and find a new place to settle. These are the Foucauldian irruptions.

I have no regrets about the products of my research. In fact, I am proud of my motley crew of weird and wonderful creations ( including my research into blogging and a longitudinal study of first year university students as they record their social integration on Facebook.)

People telling me my work is not good enough have populated my whole research career. Those people no longer get my time. My outputs are the way they are because they were forged in adversity, chance, brutal failure, consideration of what I believed was important, and privilege I didn’t know I had. These creatures, brewed in the irruptions of Haraway, are part of the history that got me to where I now stand.

There is no right way to finish a research project

Everyone has different irruptions in their research journey and everyone works with them or bulldozes over them for different reasons or in different ways. There is no right way to finish a research project. To researchers out there: anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.

It can be difficult to keep up with the rapid changes in our contemporary research landscape, for example cuts to research funding, the changing dimensions of altmetrics and measurement of ‘impact’, precarity, proposals for a national interest test, and increased pressures related to the balance between teaching, research and leadership. Researchers need to remember that the advice we are given was often developed in a different time under different circumstances. The key is to work out what you value and what your values are. Then the decisions you make will align with the path you find yourself walking.

It might take longer than you anticipate, but where you end up will feel satisfying. Research is about finding places no one has been. You become the expert in that space. Everyone else is a neighbour or tourist. But taking the time to get there also means you meet wonderful people along the way who support you and know you. That is much more valuable than the advice of people who do not take the time to find out who you are.

Returning to the metaphor of walking in the city. If you were to walk to the top of the tallest tower and look down on the network of roads and people, it might look planned, straight, considered. Plenty of people have taken that path and many know where to go. You can tell by the structures. But when you get down to ground level, the steps people are taking are not all in unison. They wander, stop, turn around, bump into things.

This is the practice of everyday life. As you choose where to walk, you shift the way things are done. Sure, there are certain structures in research work that cannot be ignored, but how you live within them or away from them is up to you. Endeavour to be considered and considerate and don’t let the tourists at your local tell you how to practice your research life.

 

I have the pleasure of delivering a pre-conference keynote for 2018 AARE Conference. The above is an abridged version of my presentation. The opportunity to share my own research journey (so far) is very exciting. I have blogged a lot about my experiences with learning the research trade. Trying to bring it all together for my presentation was trickier than I realised.

 

Naomi Barnes is a lecturer in Literacy in the Faculty of Education in the School of Teacher Education and Leadership at the Queensland University of Technology. She teaches in Curriculum and Pedagogy and Specialist Studies in Education. Naomi’s research is in digital rhetoric. She focuses on qualitative critical network analysis and how multiple modes of communication are at play in online human networking. She is interested in the relationships humans have with each other online, particularly in social media, and the socio-cultural theories and philosophical traditions which help us better understand how technology has changed the way we communicate. Naomi is also interested in the policy and pedagogical implications of these changes in communication.

 

Naomi is presenting her paper ‘Taking a road less travelled: Navigating irruptions in a research journey’ at the 2018 AARE Conference on Sunday 2nd December at 9:30 am

3 thoughts on “Doing my research work is like walking a city. How would you walk this city?

  1. Brian Cambourne says:

    Thanks for introducing me to the conceptual metaphor of research being similar to “walking a city”. Such metaphors help us think , understand, and frame complex ideas. I was especially taken by the way you expanded the metaphor to include “Once grand old buildings become dilapidated and then gentrified”. Over the last decade I’ve noticed a trend to ignore and reject these “grand old buildings” as “out of date” and research students are advised to only include “the most recent research and theory building” in their reviews of the literature.Framing older, seminal studies this way will help research students justify the inclusion of references to older seminal studies in both their research proposals and their final dissertations.

  2. Ania Lian says:

    Thanks. I often wonder (1) if research in education is truly as diverse as it is suggested by Naomi and (2) what would be a unifying question of education research at least as it relates to pedagogy? What is the theory that education is to create: a theory of what or whom? I tend to hear that education is not a real research field and that education studies are both irreproducible ,and idiosyncratic. What do others think?
    Ania Lian
    CDU

  3. Bernadette Mercieca says:

    Would have loved to have heard your presentation Naomi! Maybe we might meet up at #AARE tomorrow or the next day

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