What is the role of a researcher?–Juanjuan Zhao

I attended a dissertation defense on language learning in the Literacy program at the University of Cincinnati last Thursday. For almost an hour, the doctoral candidate talked about how useful a linguistic theory is in helping sixth graders’ literacy in academic English. The BNIFs (big names in the field) were all discussed as the theoretical framework. All of sudden, I felt like I was brought into my master’s with the ongoing discussion of major theories from the ancient to the contemporary linguists. Am I really in a doctoral program? Although listening very carefully to her presentation, I was a bit confused at the end. The doctoral candidate observed students in a classroom setting by taking notes and recording their classroom discussions. It seemed that she was trying hard to be an invisible ethnographer. Then she had to analyze the data, of course. There is nothing wrong with the research procedure as a qualitative study. The question that came to my mind toward the end of her defense was, so the purpose of her study is to prove that systematic functional linguistics is helpful to sixth graders? Is this a dissertation? Because in my mind, a dissertation in the social sciences should be based on real projects in which researchers and the participants work together to apply theories. I guess I have seen too many dissertations with actions, on the one hand. On the other hand, I am biased because I did not read her paper yet.

In the implications for teaching and research, she mentioned using action research. Interestingly, there were two faculty members asking about how action research might be implemented in her future practice and research. One cannot deny that people are really interested in the applications of theories to practice. So after the defense, I asked one faculty member about the research method of the dissertation. She thinks I am totally wrong about the role of a researcher. To her, a researcher is to discover issues rather than fix problems.

Looking around me, I can see thousands of issues needing to be addressed such as improving public infrastructure, addressing educational inequality, and insuring economic opportunity for all, etc. Do I fulfill my role as a researcher if I am just proving to people the existence and seriousness of a social or economic issue? I know that one dissertation will not save the world, but I doubt the benefits of a dissertation if it is only to help myself get a deeper understanding of a theory or just to tell people something is useful without saying how.