Anchor Articles and Advanced Topics in Qualitative Research

people-woman-coffee-meeting.jpgOver the last two years, I have been developing a concept I refer to as “anchor articles”. These are an article (or a very few selected articles) a doctoral student identifies as anchors for their impending dissertation work. An anchor article can be about the method or substance of what you want to do, and for some reason you identify it is key knowledge related to what you want to do with your dissertation.

I idea of the anchor article grew out of my EDUC 7101 class: Advanced Topics in Qualitative Research. For the purposes of this class, the anchor article must be relate-able to qualitative research methodology. However, every student’s topic is unique and the qualitative research issues they want to address differ widely depending on their study and their needs. Each student presents an anchor article that we read ahead of time and they then facilitate the discussion on the article. We give each article 45 minutes to an hour of discussion time, and quite frankly we could usually go on much longer.

In the Spring 2018 semester, several people want to understand the scope of qualitative research that has been conducted in their particular area of interest. This lead Sharifa to identify and present Keith Richards’ piece, Trends in qualitative research in language teaching since 2000, published in a 2009 issue of Language Teacher (42:2, 147-180). Although many of the group were not in the area of language study, it gave us a good comparison point for thinking about the development of qualitative research in a particular educational area during that specific period.

Amanda also helped us to think about qualitative research in a defined field by sharing the ERIC brief, Qualitative Research in Adult, Career, and Career-Technical Education Practitioner File (2002). This gave us the opportunity to think about the writing styles of these sorts of guides versus the peer-reviewed journal article, as we compared the way language researchers and those in adult education came to incorporate qualitative research.

Students also approach the selection of the anchor article with specific methodological issues in mind. Thus, Rosie brought us an article by Timothy Guetterman—Descriptions of sampling practices within five approaches to qualitative research in education and the health sciences—that was published in Forum: Qualitative Social Research (16: 2, Art 25, May 2015). The issue of sampling in qualitative research has long plagued her, as I knew, and this gave her the opportunity to get her arms around the problem.

Like Rosie, Kathleen was also concerned with a special methodological issue, and that led her to the article titled “Positionality and the Pen: Reflections on the Process of Becoming a Feminist Researcher and Writer” by Nancy Deutsch (published in Qualitative Inquiry, 10:6, 2004, 885-902). This piece was autoethnographic and theory rich and gave the researchers-in-training much to think about in regard to their own upcoming dissertation adventure.

“Educational Micropolitics and Distributed Leadership” by Joseph Flessa from the Peabody Journal of Education (84: 331-349, 2009) was the article Laurie shared. A school leader with many years of experience she was well acquainted with theories about distributed leadership, but this was one of the few pieces she found that combined these ideas with notions of micropolitics. This piece challenged us to think about the emphasis on consensus in school leadership literature and why this might be problematic for understanding the dynamic of conflict in schools.

Elizabeth has long been engaged in understanding maker spaces in higher education, a new phenomenon in universities. She found “Using the Design Thinking Cycle to Tell the Story of Innovative Learning Spaces” by Heather Tillberg-Webb and Ned Collier to be a provocative piece to aid her thinking (in B. Hokanson et al. (eds), Educational Technology and Narrative, 141-153). Thinking about the different cases of innovative learning spaces presented raised many questions about issues of spatial observation in qualitative research.

Finally, Roi showed up with an article after my own heart (how to conduct qualitative research with complex teams!)—Methodological challenges in multi-investigator multi-institutional research in higher education—by Kinzie, Magolda, Kezar, Kuh, Hinkle, and Whitt (published in Higher Education, 2007, 54: 469-482). This paper describes a mammoth study of 20 colleges and universities that was carried out by a 24 member team. We debated the research design and thought hard about how much data is enough!

As you can see, every anchor article brings something rich to the class. Part of the richness is certainly in what the different authors present in regard to their study or theories, but part of the richness is also in the individual students’ need for the selected piece. They weave the story of the search for, identification of, and selection of the anchor article into the story of their own journey as a doctoral student, and we can learn from both—article and individual.

Tawakkol Karman and Peace and Conflict in the Middle East: What Meaning for a Qualitative Researcher?

Tawakkol Karman explains that her name means “work hard and God will aid you”.  A small phonetic shift in her name–Tawaakkol instead of Tawakkol–would signify the opposite, “laze about and call for God to help”.  As one of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winners for her role in bringing about the Arab Peace and instigating the non-violent movement for human rights in Yemen, she lives up to her name, and is pleased her father named her as he did.

Karman, the 2018 Greeley Scholar for Peace Studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, spoke this morning (4/5/2018) at a meeting sponsored by the Greater Lowell Interfaith Council held at the Dracut United Church of Christ, where she shared her experiences standing up to dictatorship and fighting for the rights of women.  She described her beginnings in the peace movement as a solitary journalist whose stories were published by a small socialist newspaper in Yemen, which launched her involvement in what became the Arab Spring movement, continuing to this day, post-Nobel Prize, to address the counter-revolution that has swept over the Middle East.

Everyone can take action to injustice and disparities, she emphasized, describing how the women’s movement in her country had started with small groups focusing on discrete goals.  A national transformation occurred as smaller groups coalesced and goals moved from small to large.  In the next stage, small goals were enacted under the umbrella of a new constitution, guaranteeing new rights for women.

I was struck by her passion and determination to address the issues women (and children) face in conflict torn nations.  As part of her mission, she had visited refugee camps throughout the region talking to refugees from different areas, learning first-hand of the ways systematic violence is perpetrated on women (rape) and their families (killing, maiming, and desecration of the dead).

I was also struck by her political savvy and capacity for determined political action.  I admire people who can bring together coalitions, knitting together different views with some relationship or goal to each other, hanging on through the tensions and divisions to stay the course.  I bow to their stamina for the everyday conflict that can be so wearing.

Qualitative research, like most forms of research practiced in academic contexts, presents itself–teaches and replicates itself–in relationship to a master narrative of objectivity, meaning claims about facts, truth, avoidance of conflict-of-interest situations, and neutral stances.  This proclaimed world of objectivity makes it difficult to utter the word subjectivity, much less claim it as a resource.  So, imagine what it would be like to take up strong political positions in such an environment?  When you hear the words of a witness like Tawakkol Karman, I began to wonder at my silence.

I am over generalizing of course, as there has been an important counter movement in our field–one that calls for critical methodologies and participant action research.  Many researchers pick their topics–the study of human trafficking, school inequity, and food scarcity, etc.–on the basis of their passions and desire to address inequality in civil, economic, and social spheres.  Social justice is a call that qualitative researchers have heeded in numerous ways.

As I thought more about Karman’s message, I wondered, how do we (I) raise up a new generation of qualitative researchers with the skills and knowledge to address the objectivity/subjectivity/social justice continuum with greater strength and assurance?  What am I doing to make this happen in my small corner of the world?


Entrepreneur-ship and Qualitative Research: Lessons from Desh Deshpande

Entrepreneur and philanthropist Desh Deshpande visited our campus yesterday to give a “Parker Lecture” on social entrepreneurship.  He has a long connection with University Massachusetts Lowell and was an important voice in supporting the development of our extensive undergraduate entrepreneurship program–Difference Makers.


I went with my own agenda:  How might doctoral students in our Research Methods and Evaluation Ph.D. program take advantage of this thinking about social entrepreneurship?  This was my opportunity to learn something significant about this topic that I could bring back to the program.

Here are some “think abouts” in my “take away” category of items:

  • The world can be divided into two categories–those with disposable income and those with no disposable income.  The second category is the arena for the social entrepreneur.
  • There is a big difference between individuals who do good works as professionals (librarians, social workers, teachers…) and a social entrepreneur–someone who wants to make a big difference in a systematic way that can be scaled up.
  • The most important lesson for an entrepreneur is to stay focused–don’t over-reach, don’t hedge.  Do the thing you can do best.
  • The biggest problem to success is EGO!  Egocentric organizations (such as universities) are highly focused on authorship, which will get in the way of creativity.

I left the event with Deshpande’s little orange book of wisdon–On Entrepreneurship and Impact–which I plan to review and share with students in the program.  I am encouraged that for Ph.D. students with the highest level of skills in social science research methodology and program evaluation there are an infinite number of exciting possibilities that they could bring into being…and now to start that conversation.

Celebrating the Life of Mark Hines: Thinking about universities growing and changing


Today I attended a celebration for the life of Mark Hines, a colleague from the Biology Department, most recently the Dean of the College of Sciences. I knew him only in passing, but his wife, Elaine Major, who has been the driving force behind the development of our Institutional Review Board (IRB) for the last 15 years is someone I work with frequently.

It was a memorable celebration for many reasons. The ballroom of the Inn and Conference Center was filled with people from across campus. Behind the podium, a wonderful montage of photographs from Mark and Elaine’s life rolled before our eyes. Children, grandchildren, in-laws and others shared memories of the pieces of life they had shared with Mark.

It gave me pause to think about two things:

1) How much our university (like many others) has changed and grown over the last ten plus years; and,

2) The massive growth and change in the IRB processes over the same period.

Universities Growing and Changing

I looked around the room and saw some familiar faces (admittedly more gray…and some limping), but also many, many new faces. University of Massachusetts Lowell is one of the fastest growing institutions of higher education in the United States (if our statistics are to be believed) and the proof is in the growing number of new faces.

As several speakers pointed out, Mark had been important to bringing new people to campus, faculty who are interested and eager, excited about their field and concerned about students. What a legacy!

Institutional Review Board Growth

Elaine Major has been the parent of the current IRB processes we now have in place. They are really a model of what things should be. I just helped two doctoral students navigate the process for their dissertation studies, and I was amazed with the care Elaine’s office took with each item. I remember the days when (at least for qualitative researchers) IRB was an afterthought. That’s no longer true, and much as I groan when I have to get my human subjects certification or fill out another form, I do think that we are conducting research with others in ways that are more safe for them and for us, more ethical, and more just.

Today, as I think about Elaine, her family, and their loss—I see them situated within an amazingly thick and rich context, of which both Elaine and Mark have contributed so much.