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Reflections and Applications: Using Critical Approaches to Questions in Qualitative Research in Teaching and Learning: Two Perspectives.

As doctoral candidate (Shameen Sandhu) and supervisor (Naomi Norquay), we offer our reflection on the text, Critical Approaches to Questions in Qualitative Research (2017) by Raji Swaminathan and Thalia Mulvihill. In this reflection, Naomi explains how she used this book in her qualitative methods course and Shameen, who read the book for an independent study course, explores how this book helped her come to understand the value of implementing qualitative methods for her doctoral research.

Using Critical Approaches to Questions in Qualitative Research in Teaching

Naomi:

In August 2017, the Associate Dean of Academic Programs called me and asked me if I would teach our graduate program's qualitative research methods course in the upcoming fall term. I had two days to mull over this last-minute request. For what seems like ages, 1 have taught a course in life history research methods in our graduate program. The qualitative methods course covered some of the same terrain as that of my life history course but would require a more "generalizable" approach. In our graduate program in education, many of our students embark on research projects demanding a range of qualitative methods: ethnography, autoethnography participatory action research, life writing, etc.

As it so happened, I had attended the International Society of Educational Biography's annual conference the previous April. There I learned about two new books, published simultaneously in 2017 by two society members: Critical Approaches to Questions in Qualitative Research by Raji Swaminathan and Thalia Mulvihill and Critical Approaches to Life Writing in Qualitative Research by Thalia Mulvihill and Raji Swaminathan. (1) The two books had both just arrived a day or two before I got the call from the associate dean.

I spent an afternoon skimming through Critical Approaches to Questions in Qualitative Research while ruminating about the request. At first glance, the book was appealing because it was "slim," and, at 111 pages, a relatively quick read. I liked that it focused on crafting questions for the research process, that it had clear examples of questions and that it included exercises clearly delineated in "Try it Out: Research Journal Exercise" boxes placed thoughtfully throughout.

Organized into four chapters, the book starts in Chapter 1 with some good background information about the importance of questions and critical lenses in qualitative research. Here it sets a welcoming tone, inviting "students of qualitative research and academic scholars who may want to use it as a companion book in their courses." (2) Chapter 2 is the most substantive chapter. It explores the importance of questions and questioning to all stages of the research journey: finding and framing a research question; crafting data collection and interview questions; questions to ask during data analysis; and using a critical friend approach to accessing and addressing feedback. These various stages of questioning are nicely framed by the chapter's opening consideration of epistemological and theoretical frameworks. Chapter 3 explores what questions and questioning might look like within different methodological approaches: phenomenology, ethnography, life writing, feminist research and participatory research. The last chapter -the shortest of the four-considers the important role of critical reflexive questioning in data interpretation and writing up research findings.

Compared to other qualitative methods texts that always seemed to contain more than I would want to cover in a three-credit course, (3) I felt I could justify asking students to purchase this text because I would use all of it in my course - cover to cover. (4) Book in hand, I called my associate dean and agreed to teach Qualitative Research Methods. And then I got down to the nitty-gritty work of crafting a course that would be centred around the text. My initial question was, "Is this text too advanced for the many students enrolled, for whom this course will be an introduction to qualitative research methods?" In our graduate program, we currently offer seven different methods courses, none of which is a prerequisite for any of the others. (5) Methods courses tend to attract quite a mix of students with differing needs. My class list included a handful of doctoral and master's students who were at the proposal-writing stage, but also master's-level students who were curious about research methods but who had not reached the point of working through their thesis research question. My challenge was to avoid overwhelming these novice students and underwhelming the ones ready to embark on proposal writing. In what follows here, I describe how my use of the text unfolded in the course.

Before reading the first chapter of the book, we read J. Amos Hatch's chapter, "Deciding to Do a Qualitative Research Study," from his book Doing Qualitative Research in Education Settings. (6) This chapter, the introduction to a much larger text on qualitative research methods, provided a general overview to qualitative research. Hatch's chapter also addresses the centrality of epistemological and theoretical frameworks and introduces several qualitative methods. I knew that these were also taken up in Chapters 2 and 3, respectively, in the Swaminathan and Mulvihill text, but as these are challenging ideas for students to get their heads around, I felt that having more time with them was a good strategy. I paired this with Ivor Goodson's chapter in The Routledge International Handbook on Narrative and Life History, which gives a nice background summary of the origins of research into people's lives. (7)

After this quick introduction, we dove into Swaminathan and Mulvihill's first chapter. Students loved the opportunity to immediately think about their own research. In one of the "Try it Out" exercises, students were asked to consider: their topic of interest, how they think they might be able to learn more about their topic, where they might look, the topic's history, their reasons for engagement, the role their background, identity and values might play, and their levels of comfort and discomfort in relation to their topic and prospective participants. While the text invited students to write their responses to these prompts in their journals, we, instead, discussed them in small groups in class. I organized the students as best I could into groups with overlapping and /or compatible research topics, hoping that these groupings would generate lots of sharing and cross-pollination.

The second chapter in the book is the key chapter. Here, the authors focus on four categories of questions: research questions, data collection questions, analysis questions and questions for writing up the research. I decided to hold off assigning this chapter, until we had read Chapter 3, which discusses different approaches to qualitative research, specifically phenomenology, ethnography, life writing, feminist research and participatory action research. Given the number of novice researchers in the class, I felt my students needed more time to think about different approaches to research, before taking up the detailed examination of questions that was presented in Chapter 2. Reading Chapter 3 helped to solidify students' understanding of these approaches and their similarities and differences. It also helped them to begin to think about which approach might best suit their research topic. Assigning Chapter 3 before Chapter 2 was a hunch on my part, which proved to be correct: By the time we began studying Chapter 2 (almost halfway into the course), the students were thinking broadly about what research approach might be a good fit.

I learned something else by switching around the ordering of the chapters: I learned that there is always a lot of back-and-forth between research approach and research questions. The questions help to determine the approach and the approach helps to refine the questions. Students who began the course confident of their research interests and questions reconsidered these once they were given an opportunity to think about differing research approaches. When we started exploring Chapter 2, I asked my students to regard the research process as one of juggling. Matching an appropriate research question with an appropriate research approach took time and a willingness to keep several balls in the air before choosing the right ones.

I split Chapter 2 (which amounts to more than half of the entire book) over three classes: pairing the first section on finding a topic and constructing a research question with Mark McCaslin and Karen Wilson's article, "The Five-question Method for Framing a Qualitative Research Study."(8) I paired the second section on data collection questions with Kathryn Anderson and Dana Jack's chapter, "Learning to Listen: Interview Techniques and Analyses," from The Oral History Reader. (9)I paired the last two sections of the chapter on questions for analysis and questions for writing with Catherine Kohler Riessman's chapter on thematic analysis of research data from Narrative Methods for the Human Sciences.[TM] These pairings brought other researchers and qualitative methods discussions into dialogue with the text and introduced the students to research projects that used qualitative research methods.

In class, we worked through many of the "Try it Out" exercises that appeared throughout the book. They provided an opportunity for students at various stages and levels to come together and share, question, and learn from each other. This class activity soon became something to look forward to each week. The students enjoyed engaging with the various topics addressed in the exercises and, at times, it was challenging to pull them away from their discussions.

Probably the most rewarding result of using this text is that students are using it in the actual writing of their proposals. I sit on our faculty's ethics review committee and have recently had the pleasure of reading proposals by four students who were in my class. In all four instances, the students made good use of Swaminathan and Mulvihill's text, quoting and referencing in substantive ways. And while my sense of their work is only anecdotal, the proposals I have seen to date are stronger methodologically and stronger in terms of the research questions they are asking. As I now prepare this same course for the upcoming term, I am delighted to have the opportunity to deepen my engagement with this book with a new batch of students.

Using Critical Approaches to Questions in Qualitative Research in Learning

Shameen:

My research interest lies in studying the resilience of Black male youth as they navigate through their educational journeys. As a South Asian social worker working with expelled and suspended students in education, I have utilized a critical race lens in my work, as many of the youth 1 work with are Black. Swaminathan and Mulvihill's text is situated within a critical paradigm aligned with how I would like to conduct my research. Prior to undertaking doctoral studies, my experience with research has mainly involved quantitative methods that are in stark contrast to qualitative methods wherein researchers attend to and value the intimacy of participants' narratives. The novelty of embarking on a qualitative research project has created some anxiety for me, as a flood of questions enter my thoughts about how I want to execute my research. The text curtails some of these feelings. I feel better prepared about beginning my research journey having read their text. In my experience, many research texts have not challenged me to look at the research process critically.

My comfort with quantitative research has made it difficulty for me to imagine the responsibility researchers have when working with qualitative data. In qualitative research, we gather personal narratives and stories and we are summoned to ensure the words and intentions of our participants are ethically respected and validated. In the "Try it Out" exercises, researchers are asked to consider ethics, the importance of maintaining a critical lens and understanding one's positionality in relation to the research. For example I found the "Try it Out" exercise in Chapter 1 very helpful (11) as it prompts the researcher to not only consider what their research project is about, but to also probe their investments and social locations in relation to their topic. The very straightforward question, "What is your topic about?" was followed by questions that challenged my assumptions and biases about my topic. For example, their question, "How does your background and identity (cultural, family, class, race, gender) predispose you towards viewing the phenomenon you are investigating and the participants?" caught me off guard, summoning me to consider my intentions, to contemplate, consider and reflect on why I-a South Asian female-was interested in researching the experiences of Black males in education. Writing about my assumptions in my research journal allowed me to deliberately think about my biases and assumptions, what I expected from this study, and what I expected to hear from participants.

I, too, adore that this book is brief, allowing for easy navigation, enhanced by a well organized index. I appreciate that, unlike other methods textbooks, this text is not cumbersome, and is easy to carry and access. (12) I also appreciate that the text follows the research process with a critical lens from finding a research question all the way through the research process to, finally, thinking about questions in order to write up the final report. Furthermore, I appreciate the many concrete examples of other people's qualitative research projects. These studies illustrate novice and seasoned researchers' need to be continuously reflective throughout their research journeys. The "Try it Out" exercises are strategically placed throughout each chapter, permitting the reader to take a hiatus from the text to participate, ponder, reflect, and unpack the information in the chapter in relation to their research interests. These exercises also allow the reader to critically reflect on why they chose their research topic by questioning their motives, ideas and assumptions.

Swaminathan and Mulivihill advocate for the implementation of critical thinking, encouraging researchers to develop a critical lens when thinking of their research and research questions. By "critical lens," the authors suggest we use questions as a tool for critique. They encourage the reader to not only unpack their assumptions and biases about their research, their participants and the power relations therein, but also, they posit critical approaches as "... a way to release imagination." (13) They suggest journal writing as a means to critically examine and unpack thematic questions but they also encourage readers to be open to the unexpected. For me one of the unexpected outcomes was that my identity as a Brown female became more apparent. In the "Try it Out" exercises that place the research participant in the centre of the inquiry, I found myself wanting to consider such things as how would I respond to and interpret my participants' use of everyday slang rather than the standard English that I might expect them to use. I appreciated the authors' encouragement make a space for the unknown. My priority when conducting my research is to maintain an enhanced critical lens as I become the storyteller of my research participants' narratives.

Chapter 2 took great effort on my part to get through. The first time I read it, while I found the content to be very important, I felt the information was too dense. Having now read it a few times, I see that this chapter is essential as it encourages the reader/researcher to think about "how we think" and "how we know what we know" (14) in relation to social phenomena. In this chapter, the authors emphasize the epistemological and theoretical frameworks we use to develop our research topic, data collection, and analysis and, hence, our crafting of questions for our entire research journey. The information in this chapter was overwhelming and, for me, it would have been better delivered if broken into smaller chapters. As a result, I often found myself getting lost in this chapter with the amount of information prompting me to re-read sections. For a short book, this chapter was too lengthy. I would have preferred reading Chapter 4 after Chapter 1 as the contents of both chapters coincided and would have built a great foundation for me to tackle the important, but also onerous, contents of Chapter 2.

Chapter 4 emphasizes reflexivity and its use when determining and asking questions. I loved that the authors encourage readers to embrace "practical dreaming" by using their creativity and imagination and, again, understanding their positionality in relation to their research. The intention is not to answer the question of identity but to be aware of it, its impact on how I hear, understand, and analyze and what I choose to highlight in my conversations with the participants. I have been made aware that, as a Brown female, some of my experiences of educational exclusion may parallel those of my prospective Black male participants, while others will not.

Chapter 3 discusses mapping the various pathways towards qualitative research. The authors use strong research examples showcasing feminist, phenomenological, life writing, participatory action and ethnographic research. These examples are scaffolded with discussions of research validity and credibility in qualitative research. The examples and the exercises encouraged me to implement a methodology that ensures my research participants are genuinely represented. In effect, what I choose to consider in the research should ground the words of my participants as their truths. I never considered how much power I had as a listener, or as a chooser of what is determined important, quotable, necessary, not necessary and discarded in the research process.

Conclusion

Naomi:

Witnessing Shameen successfully navigate her way through Critical Approaches to Questions in Qualitative Research with scant guidance from me (as the course director for her independent study), seems praise enough for the fine attributes of this delightful text. While we differ slightly in our preferences for how the text was ordered, we both benefitted from the focus on critical questioning throughout the research journey. As I move forward into a new research project of my own, this slight volume will accompany me, tucked into a pocket in my backpack for easy access. And I am thrilled with how Shameen's experience reading this important book has shifted her research focus from "the deviant other" to the yet unrealized promise of the Black male youth with whom she works.

Shameen:

This text challenged the area of my study interest. As I navigated through this text, my imagination was ignited. I now know I do not want to contribute to studies that posit Black male youth within a deficit light. It became clearer, through the use of this text, that what I want to study is their resilience and strengths. Further to this, I am beginning to think through the efficacy of including not only Black male youth, but also Black male teachers and administrators, to broaden and deepen my understanding of the context in which I work as a social worker, "with an eye toward social change." (15)

Notes

(1) Raji Swaminathan and Thalia Mulvihill, Critical Approaches to Questions in Qualitative Research (New York and London: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2017); Thalia Mulvihill and Raji Swaminathan, Critical Approaches to Life Writing in Qualitative Research (New York and London: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2017).

(1) Swaminathan and Mulvihill, Critical Approaches, 2.

(3) The two texts most commonly used in other iterations of this course are: Robert C. Bogdan and Sari Knopp Biklen, Qualitative Research for Education: An Introduction to Theory and Methods, Fifth Edition (Boston: Pearson, 2007); J. Amos Hatch, Doing Qualitative Research in Education Settings (New York: S.U.N.Y. Press, 2006).

(4) At York University, graduate courses are typically one semester in length and consist of 12 3-hour seminars.

(5) Our course offerings in methods include: Qualitative Research Methods in Education; Narrative Inquiry; Life History Research-Methods and Applications; Mixed Methods Research in Education; Seminar in In-depth Interviewing; Ethnography of Education; and Quantitative Research Methods in Education, although not all courses are offered every year.

(6) J. Amos Hatch, "Deciding to Do a Qualitative Study," in Doing Qualitative Research in Education Settings (New York: S.U.N.Y. Press, 2002), 1-35.

(7) Ivor Goodson, "The Story of Life History," in The Routledge International Handbook on Narrative and Life History, ed. Ivor Goodson (London and New York: Routledge/Taylor Francis Group), 23-33.

(8) Mark Mc Clasin and Karen Wilson Scott "The Five-question Method for Framing a Qualitative Research Study," The Qualitative Report 8, no. 3 (2003).

(9) Kathryn Anderson and Dana Jack, "Learning to Listen: Interview Techniques and Analyses," in The Oral History Reader, eds. Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson (London: Routledge, 1991/1998), 157-171.

(10) Catherine Kohler Riessman, "Thematic Analysis," in Narrative Methods for the Human Sciences (Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2008), 53-76.

(11) Swaminathan and Mulvihill, Critical Approaches, 13.

(12) Graduate students rarely have sufficient work space and York University's campus is vast. Therefore, any text that is small and easy to carry makes student life while on campus that much easier.

(13) Swaminathan and Mulvihill, Critical Approaches, 4.

(14) Swaminathan and Mulvihill, Critical Approaches, 18.

(15) Swaminathan and Mulvihill, Critical Approaches, 5.

Naomi Norquay & Shameen Sandhu

York University, Toronto Canada
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Author:Norquay, Naomi; Sandhu, Shameen
Publication:Vitae Scholasticae
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2018
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