Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right

pexels-photo-48566.jpegAt a recent coffee meet-up at a local café, a friend began talking with great animation about a book she had just purchased and was in the middle of reading that was giving her great insight into why the Tea Party thought the way it did. I wrote down the title and bought it on Kindle later that day. I read half the book before I went to bed…I couldn’t stop, it was so good. Here it is:

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild, published in 2016 by The New Press.

Hochschild is a sociology at the University of California Berkeley who undertook a five-year study into understanding the “deep story” of the world where the Tea Party emerged—the Louisiana bayou country. It’s a story of the divisions between rich and poor that exist in our country, underscored by the divisions between black, immigrant, and white, and the histories of the different regions in our country and their unique experiences of the history we have passed through as a nation.

While I was extremely interested in the book for the topic and content, I can’t help it, I also approached it as a qualitative researcher, reading to learn how the author would address the methodological issues of the study. Strangers in Their Own Land is an excellent book I think for helping students see how methodology can be explained in a way that makes sense to a wide swath of readers. In other words, methodology doesn’t have to be jargony and distancing—it can be conversational and sense making!! Thank you Dr. Hochschild for demonstrating this so well.

I was particularly intrigued with the way she handled being the outsider (a University of California professor) working with the insiders (long time Southerners dwelling in this neighborhood they love so strongly). She treats her “participants” with deep respect, acknowledging their shared humanity, despite the differences in perspectives. At the close of the book she describes the process she went through sharing the text with those whom she had interviewed, receiving their feedback, and making revisions.

While the opening chapter provides many methodological details, the formal methodological discussion is left to the end of the book (an increasingly popular way to address methodology in a book designed for a more popular audience). But in both locations—Hochschild pays careful attention to readability.

I look forward to being able to read and discuss this text in a class with doctoral students with methodological interests. I think this is a great exemplar for how to write a readable book based on a strong study making use of qualitative research.


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.

Dissertation Committees: Making More Transparent

I call this my third act as a qualitative researcher working in academia. In my first act, I was part of a Leadership in Education program; in my second I was a methodologist serving all programs; and in my third act I am part of a new Ph.D. in Research and Evaluation in Education (REE). In my first act I served as chair for multiple Ed.D. dissertations, primarily in Leadership in Education, as well as serving as a committee member on Leadership and other Ed.D. dissertations. In my second act, I served as a member, not a chair of Ed.D. committees. Now, in my third act, I am serving as a chair of Ph.D. dissertations in REE, as well as a member of REE dissertations and other Ph.D. and Ed.D. dissertations. I include all this detail to let the reader know that, as far as dissertations go, this is not my first rodeo.

In my first act as a dissertation chair or member, I felt like I was trying to learn the form, as it existed in my institution, which resembled the classic social scientific, American Psychological Association expectations. Along with learning the form I had to figure out how in the heck this form was going to fit the qualitative dissertations with which I was working. It was always an awkward fit.

In my second act, as a committee member I was a supporting actor, offering my best advice and letting the chair do the heavy lifting in regard to form.

Now, in my third act, I know what has been the accepted form, and I have seen it from many angles. There are some things I like about it—like the clean, sharp logic of setting up a good argument, or the rush I get when I read a literature review that is thoughtful and shows real deep digging. However, there is a lot I don’t like—the formulaic expectations and the lack of personalization to name a few.

Despite all this experience with dissertations, I was recently surprised to realize I had never questioned the way the dissertation committee is rhetorically positioned vis-à-vis the dissertation. The position of the committee was like a black box that I never unpacked. We signed a membership pact as the dissertation got started. We pulled the strings in the background. Then at the end we signed-off, as it is called. We probably got a line in the acknowledgements, but the dissertation itself was supposed to be the student’s independent work, whatever that means.

As I thought more about the comparison to the notion of project, this suddenly seemed like a very strange way to approach a complex project. When one applies for a grant, you assemble a good team, and you share their credentials with the funder. You describe the individual in the narrative, include a biography in the appendices, and give them a percent as a line item in the budget! This information helps the funder make the decision about the goodness or fit of the team to doing this project.

In doing a dissertation proposal, on the other hand, the fit of the credentials, the expected contribution of the committee members, the role of the chair, and the way they will work together with the individual doing the dissertation is not declared.

Thinking about this got me to imaging a different scenario. What if when a dissertation committee is formed, in addition to the proposal as it currently stands, the dissertation committee and the individual conducting the dissertation came together to craft a kind of work agreement that would include:

  • Timeline for the components of the dissertation
  • Information on the special contributions for which each member was selected (with brief bio included
  • Expectations for the workload of each member
  • Procedures for interacting, reviewing, etc.

This would be attached to the proposal as an addendum.

Not sure how it would be worked into the dissertation—but it could be useful information.

I encounter many doctoral students who are baffled about how to get started on the final stage of their work—the dissertation. They have never done it before (conducted a dissertation) and don’t really know what a dissertation committee is and how they are supposed to work with it. Are we purposefully leaving them in the dark by not making this process more transparent?

As things stand today—how do they know what to expect of their dissertation chair…or the committee members? How do they know if they are holding up to their side of the bargain?

Perhaps it is time to let go of the medieval apprenticeship model (think of Mickey Mouse and the Sorcer’s Apprentice!) and move into a more business-like approach.

Japanese painting and calligraphy–from Wikipedia Commons

What is a dissertation? What is a project?

Japanese Calligraphy–from Wikipedia Commons

What is a dissertation? You’ve got me, and I’ve been at this for some time. Almost 20 years into helping people write their dissertations and I feel like I am more confused than ever. So, as I often do when facing confusion—I turned to Wikipedia, which defines it as:


[A dissertation is…] a document submitted in support of candidature for an academic degree or professional qualification presenting the author’s research and findings…

They also say that a dissertation is a research monograph and is generally in the form of a research monograph.

An ordinary monograph has a title page, an abstract, a table of contents, comprising the various chapters (e.g., introduction, literature review, methodology, results, discussion), and a bibliography or (more usually) a references section.

Yes, it’s true, I was right—this is the form the world accepts as the dissertation. I love the logic of a good argument, but I am less and less in love with this form and the language in which it is presented.

When I graduated from my doctoral program in 1995 from the University of Illinois, I thought that the rigid form and writing style of the classic dissertation would be of short duration. Little did I know I would still be teaching it in 2017.

Recently in working on my “complex teams in qualitative research project”, I had cause to look up the definition of project. I had worked on many projects, but now I needed a formal definition, which I found at the Project Management Institute, the guru of organizations on the topic.

“…[a] temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result. A project is temporary in that it has a defined beginning and end in time, and therefore defined scope and resources. And a project is unique in that it is not a routine operation, but a specific set of operations designed to accomplish a singular goal. So a project team often includes people who don’t usually work together – sometimes from different organizations and across multiple geographies.” (Inserted from

Reviewing this definition made me realize that one reason I don’t like the way we use the term “dissertation” is that we conflate everything into that one word—the process, the product, the committee, the rising researcher. Everything is symbolized by that one little research monograph.

What would happen, I have been asking myself, if we stopped calling it a dissertation and started calling it a project…and adhered to the appropriate definition of project?  What are the implications of making that one change in wording? Here are some ideas:

-it might shift the style of the proposal

-it could lead to a description of the dissertation committee within the document; and accountability for the committee work as opposed to focusing accountability of the student

-it would allow doctoral students to practice writing an up-to-date document, rather than a more archaic writing form

-it would allow for the inclusion of multiple products as part of the dissertation outcome, not just the one research monograph

In future posts I am going to follow up on some of these ideas.

Preparing Qualitative Researchers at the Doctoral Level

For today’s qualitative researchers, nothing is more important than reconstructing the pathways we provide to expertise. It is critical we reshape the ways one becomes this thing—a qualitative researcher–with the new assumptions we have developed about what it is, how to practice it, and how to insure it brings good value to society.

Much has changed in the years since qualitative research officially came onto the academic scene, but our preparation does not reflect these new perspectives. Here are my ideas about what must be done (in no particular order):

  • Integrate digital tools throughout the students’ experience—in a digital world all components of research will benefit…faculty and students need to adapt to technology fluidly. Create a mind set to support a digital tool kit perspective.
  • Provide students with opportunities to learn to conduct research as it is conducted in the real world—as team-based and interdisciplinary. Don’t drop this stance in the dissertation phase. How can all parts of the program develop collaborative skills?
  • Include students in all levels of program planning and community organization. Doctoral students need to learn what program is and how to build it, and as faculty we need to continually mentor them in these perspectives. Where ever they go next they will need to contribute to program, not just their own agenda.
  • Spend significant time with them reading and writing,—Integrate different forms of writing/expression into their/your experience. TEACH writing, break it down, explain it, create worksheets and templates if needed. Honor scholarly logic but bring academic writing into the current century.
  • Spend significant time with graduate students on oral communication. Show them how people at the next stage talk through a methodological argument and present it in a professional setting.
  • Deal with feelings (particularly if you want to diversify the student body!). Don’t be afraid of anger or frustration—they go along with learning hard things. Affirm students, help them to find ways out of the quandary they find themselves in.
  • Help students come to grips with the role of “the literature” in a digital era where there is massive amounts of stuff to sift through. Elevate literature to data and demonstrate the dynamic ways that literature (extant data) plays in developing thinking through an idea.
  • Introduce students to the conundrums qualitative research currently faces—what are the struggles and arguments? How are they historically situated? Why do qualitative researchers care? What are the implications?
  • Introduce your students—to people in the department, to people on campus, to people in the field. Introductions and invitations are key to mentorship. Expand their world and help them to develop independence, not dependence.
  • The dissertation as currently conceived is an anachronism. In today’s world we work with projects (write grants) Approach the dissertation like a project, not a dissertation—in fact, get rid of that word. As a project, sit down and work out roles, % of commitment. Consider, what are the important products that this project can create? What media is appropriate for expressing the knowledge? What knowledge objects will be created?
  • Insure that the data and products from these major projects conducted by students have an archiving plan and the materials are appropriately and professionally archived so they can continue to give value beyond the student experience—on many, not just one narrative level.
  • Recognize that the working world available to students is much bigger than just academia, assist them to develop career paths that allow them to develop their talents to the best of their abilities, wherever that is.
  • As the leaders of educational programs it behooves us to figure out how best to maximize resources, increase positive achievement and positive results, and meet key goals. This may mean learning to organize in new or different ways, investigating options, or changing long held traditions (whether they belong to this organization or another). Our world is rapidly changing and we face increasing challenges in this area—but we’re it. We have to lead, not look around in astonishment waiting for help to arrive.
  • As qualitative researchers can we say what we feel our students should know and be able to do? Do we know if we are hitting that mark? Have we educated our academic significant others to understand what we value and why?


Thoughts on the Stages of Doctoral Life:

Induction: Deciding to come, applying, entering the program

Initiation: Beginning Stages, Confronting the Academic World, Creating an initial identity, identifying key areas of interest, understanding how they are understood in this new world.

Intermediate: Confirming one’s identity, exploring key areas of interest, consolidating old and new knowledge

Demonstrating Independence: Expanding and Experimenting

Transitioning into professional work roles.

Each of these stages have special challenges for qualitative researchers—

In summary, we need to treat doctoral students as valued colleagues-in-process not cheap teaching and research labor. Student numbers are decreasing. Cherish what you have and bring out the best in each individual. They reflect your cherishing…they are not there to reflect you to the world. Pay attention to the professional and the personal; meet often, debrief, and be available to support integration to this new world.