Teaching a hands-on methods class has been quite a challenge. There are so many moving parts to a course of this nature. Finding the right balance between methodological training, attention to subject area literature, and academic writing is a constant juggling act. Everyday we make real progress, yet also hit serious roadblocks in our journey towards analytic brilliance.
Personally, I’ve enjoyed the challenge. My research and writing process will definitely benefit, and I think I’ve learned some valuable teaching skills this semester.
Things I’ve learned in the trenches:
Learning how to do research takes twice as long as anticipated. Spend a significant amount of time on the intricacies of analysis using the actual materials of interest to students—their own data and research memos—to elucidate concepts and explain the analytic process.
I unwittingly approached teaching methods in a manner that I personally can’t stand. When I was taking classes (at both the undergraduate and a graduate level), I hated when professors assumed all students possessed a base-level grasp of difficult or new concepts, ideas, and approaches. It made me feel dumb, behind, and ultimately hesitant to actually ask for the clarification and detail that I needed. In my lofty goals for this class, I sort of forgot that my students were new to this.
I know how to do research, since I’ve done it, but teaching that process requires a hyper-focus on the basics of each individual step. At first, I just glossed over these steps because I assumed (since I do it regularly) these steps didn’t need any further explanation. I found it incredibly difficult to discuss qualitative methods with that level of precision and reflexivity because some steps just seem incredibly intuitive to me and are therefore hard to explain. This is where having a TA is crucial. There are only so many ways I can think of to explain a concept. Having another voice with a different perspective does a world of good. Sometimes a different explanation is the difference between comprehension and confusion.
I initially just explained each step, using multiple textbooks to shape my lectures, then sent them out in the wilderness, believing they now had the knowledge to tackle these assignments. Of course they came back confused and anxious (more about this later). What worked best though, was slowing down, and allotting more class time to seminar-style discussions using their first drafts for further clarification.
For example, I kept stressing going “deep” into the data, or moving “up” from the data in order to substantiate larger claims and arguments. Yet, until I provided the class with a structured exercise based on the data they provided in their original attempts at the assignment, the close reading necessary to provide a “thick” description was really lost on them.
The hardest feature to explain to students was the open-ended nature of this class. There is only so much control one has when working with human subjects and the qualitative process demands reflexive and iterative thinking and engagement. Therefore, the entire structure of the course must be flexible in order to handle unforeseen challenges and individual growth. However, students need benchmarks in order to chart their progress.
A course like this is something rarely encountered by undergraduates. I wanted to create a classroom environment where students were encouraged and expected to explore concepts and take risks, ultimately being graded on their development. This was difficult for students to understand, and made for a very different grading process. For example, if the syllabus states students will be graded on 3 completed and transcribed interviews, yet as a class we hover around 2, I can’t fault them for the lack of interest among our subjects.
I didn’t want students to focus their attention only on the assignments that could be graded easily or worry about the things they couldn’t accomplish. I wanted to stress the benefits of iterative thinking. To do this, I omitted grades from assignments and gave extensive and detailed feedback in order to encourage critical thinking.
However, this did not work as well as I envisioned. Students had a hard time letting go of evaluative metrics. I sort of forgot that students rely upon grades to chart their success—the critical, positive and encouraging feedback did little to soothe their rattled nerves, especially considering how different this course was in its expectations and engagement.
Looking back though, there were definitely places where grades could have been given without wholly destroying my vision. This was a total fail on my part. Since I truly believe in the iterative process of qualitative research, I wanted them to invest the same time in their memos as their short papers. Now I know that this didn’t work well. Next time I teach this course, I’ll differentiate between memos and graded assignments, thus providing sign posts throughout the semester so students don’t develop anxiety disorders.
Feeling overwhelmed and inept does not signal failure. Unpacking anxieties, worries, and concerns are teachable moments. Spend class time discussing the areas that concern students (writing, analysis, engagement and subjectivity, rhetoric and language, etc.). The most perceptive analysis comes from deep explorations of sticking points.
While I believe anxiety and contemplative thinking signals success, students struggled with open-ended expectations, unexpected challenges, and the uncertain endpoints endemic to qualitative research. I leave this problem for last since I’m still trying to figure out how to manage all of the emotional triggers in such an unwieldy course. I’m also unsure I want to buffer all of these possible contentious moments.
Now, anyone who has done qualitative research knows this is not a linear process, but at every stage my students seemed to resist moving forward and putting any sort of framework or organization on the transcripts. There was a point in the semester, around the time when we moved from data collection to interpretation, where everyone seemed to exist in this heightened state of fear and confusion. They were definitely comfortable making larger claims and discussing the details of their interviews informally. They walked into class excited each day, and unless I actively corralled their discussions, they could spend the entire class time discussing their data, making generalizations and providing nuance.
Yet, when we shifted gears and went into “learning mode”, they refused to budge. General conversations seemed to have lower stakes. They were concerned and worried about their codes, unwilling to just “trust fall” into the exercise and then adjust once they got moving. I kept returning to the tenets of grounded theory to calm fears—“See, our reading shows us that an entire subsection of social science research is based upon this very process!” Completed research projects, finished journal articles, and published ethnographies did not calm nerves. Their faith in the process (and me) was at an all time low. They questioned every detail and worried that any attempt to manage and organize the data would ultimately misrepresent their subjects and fail to answer their research question, nor could they envision completing something with any impact.
I’ll admit, at some of these moments, I probably wasn’t the most helpful. They wanted precise answers and directions that I just couldn’t give. They needed to take ownership of their analysis and make the critical decisions regarding the meanings and significance behind their codes.
While I’m sure I gave many of them high blood pressure, this made me extremely happy! They were truly becoming critical thinkers!
We’re still struggling with close analytical readings (quotes do not speak for themselves), mustering the boldness and sometimes arrogance to make larger claims (passive, muddled and unending run-on sentences), and presenting that linear walk from evidence to interpretation that ultimately ends with an argument and a thesis statement. But we’re getting there, and I am truly excited to read the final reports.
I set up this course in order to foster learning and engagement and show students the rigor, challenges, and beauty of qualitative research. There are places where I could have done things differently, but without seeing the kinks, I couldn’t address them. I now feel I have a handle on teaching methods and fielding student concerns and sticking points. I still however, do not have an answer to the student who thinks iterative assignments are busy work—tough, you’re just going to have to do it and deal with it.