AR+ Waking: Liberating The Ivory Tower

On our journey to Learning Futures, with our first f2f AR+ gathering at Chalmers, March 8, 2019, Hilary is talking with key stakeholders about the future of higher education. Here she talks with “Stu,” a PhD student in Northern Europe. His university is pretty typical, it’s pretty conventional. And he feels called to do Action Research…

Hilary writes: What does transforming academia mean for you? I’m curious what’s your experience as a doctoral student. We’re on our way to gathering in a conversation-for-action space for “liberating the Ivory Tower.” Action researchers can feel a bit, um, weird in conventional universities. Do we have to “come out” as transformational learning and developmental types?

Stu writes: I got really interested in Action Research while working in schools as a psychologist with young and mature students. My experience got me asking how to create sustainable change for those at the periphery, the students who find traditional learning  difficult. The focus in my PhD program today is how to transcend the “deficit models” of conventional pedagogy. We need to design and enact new learning pathways. So I am asking, how to support educators beyond being overly focused on identifying disability and testing it (though that can be useful too!).

Hilary: So your training as an educational psychologist shows you that a different orientation is needed. And Action research seems appropriate to your question – how can it be useful for experimenting with increasingly diverse cohorts of students so they feel included…?

Stu: I both work with students at the periphery of universities, and now as a doctoral student I am in one of those universities. I like that Action Research gives space to doing our inquiry work inside our own institutions. So I have two big roles to consider. On the one hand, I’m a PhD student, aspiring to work with and contribute to the action research orientation. And on the other I am a Practitioner, an educational psychologist working in universities. I hope that my doctoral work will enrich me, my work and my students.

Hilary: Are you finding the support you need as an action researching doctoral student?

Stu: I see that institutions are perfectly designed to create the results they produce. For me, and for the students I work with right now, that means there is a ton of stuff that just isn’t working. I look at it through the lens of adult development.

Hilary: Yikes, sounds like the short answer is no, that you don’t have the support you need. But I admire that you’re being creative and, in a way, creating your own path. Can you treat your own inquiry as a kind of microcosm for the new learning pathway that will support you and the students you work with?

Stu: What my students and I have in common, in my experience, is we’re learning inside spaces that feel too ‘expert’. As in we’ve got all the answers kiddo! So sit down and be quiet because you don’t!

Hilary: Isn’t this “expert stage” the stage of development Piaget called “formal operations”? In other words conventional institutions of learning have been designed to reproduce precisely such distanced-from-student-experience “expertise.” I hear echoes of Paolo Freire in what you’re saying. And I hear the constructivist adult developmental psychologists saying that today average people are in over their heads. I think that is Bob Kegan’s term. It’s as though our norms of education are no longer preparing us for the task of being good citizens.

Stu: Conventional learning is all about the expert model. It’s so monological. Often with standardized tests and processes to channel behavior. This shows up in my PhD program in gaining ethics approval. It’s still early days but I do wonder if the ethics committees even understand the synergy between practice and research.

Hilary: Expert means being trained toward black/white, right/wrong responses. And gaining mastery in that translates easily into gaining mastery over others too! If we extrapolate – I do like to do that, I see the influence of patriarchy here (laughter) – I fear that this translates to citizen behaviors in which we feel happy with authoritarians telling us the “right” answer. You see that rising in Europe, right? Say with Brexit in the UK. And we have Mr. Trump making us all great again in the USA.

Stu: Learning to take an attitude of inquiry is really important for learning and life. It’s not the same as doing conventional, expert social science research. A practical frustration has been, how to learn the skills and practices needed to produce high quality action research. Big planning up front and identifying research questions from the literature can be very useful. Certainly, filling out the ethics forms has started to focus my initial reflections and surfacing interesting themes for reflection and future action. But it’s not what I hear is critical when you talk about Action Research Hilary. You’re talking about leaning in to a change agenda, co-creating research questions, engaging those who will enact the change agenda. Maybe this is where I’m bumping into the boundary between conventional expert social science and contemporary Action Research. For me, and I think I’m hearing this from you Hilary, we’re also called to liberate how we do knowledge creation. That’s a pretty vital part of transformational research.

Hilary: You put it well. In a nutshell, thank you for clarifying key differences. And I get a tad nervous as I listen to you. After all you’re a successful professional but a novice social scientist. Maybe it’s best if I encourage you to do good old conventional study first. That’s what professors would say. Stu, do the conventional study first! Later on you can become an action researcher. But, honestly, I think that’s crappy advice. I must admit I never took it myself, though I did get very grounded in statistics, loved network analysis which can be very useful in action research. I’m thinking I ought to give you better advice! But anyway it’s never really about methods. We make too much out of the difference between qualitative and quantitative research. It’s a red herring. For action researchers, the point is to do good action research. So we use whatever methods , quantitative and qualitative, that help with that.

Stu: So thanks for giving me the real scoop on what you think! I may fail a a social scientist because of you! Of course I want to do good action research. Here is the issue for me right now. Choicefulness and reflexivity and learning – all the stuff you talk about in action research – seems to be inextricably tied up with power, epistemology, ontology. Consciousness. How to talk about this? Talking about this is just, weird, right?!

Hilary: Stu, your weird is good weird! And I know what you mean. When I published Eros/Power (co-inquiring into power in the domain of gender and sexuality) people told me my career was over. Then #MeToo exploded and I thought – hey, we ALL need to practice relational action inquiry. I’d say all good action research loosens up power relations, but care-fully! You seem to care about another taboo topic: consciousness.  If we say the dominant structure of consciousness inside academia is “formal operations,” AKA black/white logic, we can understand that there is no room for reflexivity.   I am a fan of Bill Torbert’s work. I like his call to interweave personal and interpersonal or second and first person inquiry with more objective or third person knowledge.  I’d say our universities need to scaffold structures that permit this kind of interweaving, or knowledge integration.  It provides a structure for more post conventional students like you to do good action research in your own domain. For the time being, though, you may need to create the structures you need for yourself.

Stu: Now I am totally overwhelmed. Like its not enough to see years of study ahead, but I have to “build the road I am walking on.”

Hilary – Yea, something like that. But you’re not alone. And think of what’s working already: you’re asking the right questions. You’re being persistent, you’re turning the pushback into learning opportunities. You’re bringing subjectivity and objectivity together. Welcome to the work of action research. You’ll do just fine. More important you’ll be proud of what you do. And it will help many others. The AR+ community exists to help you. One of our key projects in Learning Futures  – the Ficino project  – is about building this road with, and for, many future students and educators.

Stu: So do you have advice on how to write a proposal for the ethics board of my university?

Hilary: That happens to be one of my very favorite topics of conversation.

Stu: I guess you don’t get out so much? We’ll talk again, let’s continue the dialogue!