welcome to the archive of lost literatures papers

Ah, you’ve arrived.  So good to see you. We don’t get nearly enough visitors.. We’ll start here. Over here in the corner. Yes, here. It’s a bit dark, but never mind. We always start here… with this filing cabinet of rejected papers. All of them written about literatures –  papers based on the reading that their writers did for their doctorates. Sent out with great hope. Alas. Rejected, out of hand. Their writers crushed and bewildered by reviewer comments.


The first drawer is labelled So What. All the reviewers thought that these papers simply reiterated what they already knew to be the case. The reading had done its job in the PhD mind you. The examiners were reassured by seeing familiar contents – it helped them to decide that the writer did understand their field, its history and development. And you mustn’t think that these are bad papers. They might be just what Wikipedia and its ilk need. But journal reviewers want something more than a recount of what everyone in the field takes for granted and sees as their starting point.

The test of a publishable journal article is whether it makes a contribution to knowledge, a point that these hopeful writers didn’t get. They just didn’t think about the So What when they were writing. But I doubt that they’d all understand that the lack of So What was the problem. Here, leaf through a few papers. Look at the reviewers’ comments – some are really trying to be helpful with suggestions about additional reading and possible interpretations. But many of the reviewers are pretty terse – and look here! Some reviewer has just written So What. We know this already. Where is this going? So sad. The writers in the So What drawer just hadn’t cottoned onto the fact that they needed to argue for something a bit different, they had to take an angle that was less obvious and established.

Yes, you’re seeing correctly. The drawer underneath is labelled Keep Out. Why? Well it doesn’t mean us of course. Let me tell you a little story about the first paper here. In the envelope. It’s OK to get it out.

This paper was written by a young scholar studying in a health discipline. They were really critical of the ways in which their field ignored its own history and wider social questions about  – well –  health policy, class, race and gender and alternative ways of doing research. bound-book-envelope-bIn their thesis literatures chapter the PhDer had put together a very persuasive reframing, it was a very critical review of the history of the field. The examiners, chosen because they were sympathetic to this view, had praised this literatures work and suggested it be turned into a publication. One of them even said that it should be sent to the most prestigious and mainstream journal in the field. So the newly minted Dr did just that. And the paper was rejected out of hand. The reviewers’ comments ranged from disputing his interpretation, to suggesting more things he should read since he clearly didn’t understand, to simply saying that the paper wasn’t suitable for the journal.

Territorial I hear you say? Closed minds? Gated journal community? Well, you might say that, I couldn’t possibly.

But this is not the only paper to fall foul of reviewers on this count. Just look at the number of papers in this drawer. Why, you ask,  if they were well argued papers? Well, sending a critical – or even experimental – paper into potentially very hostile territory can easily end up with an outright dismissal. See what this reviewer has scrawled across the paper, Who does this person think they are? I’m afraid that some disciplinary communities are resistant to critique and to change. When they read something new, their first response is to critique back. The way to get a field to change is usually through a more sustained, sideways and collective effort, not via a lone charge by one of the most vulnerable members of the community. Unfair I hear you mutter? Well, probably.

But you know it’s all very well for examiners to suggest that critical papers from PhDs be sent off to big mainstream journals – when actually this may be something that they should be doing themselves. At the very least examiners need to warn a new Dr about the possible consequences.  It may well be better for sanguine early career writers who want to avoid ending up in the Keep Out drawer to send their  critical literatures review paper to a journal which is likely to be receptive – one which is already building up a body of work broadly reframing the disciplinary establishment.

The third drawer? Incomplete. These are papers whose writers said they were offering a comprehensive survey of the field but in fact didn’t. There are two reasons why they couldn’t – or didn’t.

(1) The writers confused the PhD literatures review and a journal article. These are not the same. A literatures paper isn’t establishing a case for a specific research project, it’s establishing something that the field more generally ought to be aware of – and perhaps even do something about (that depends on the type of paper). So the reviews that these writers did  for their PhDs actually weren’t yet ready for this bigger – and different – task.

grungy_paper_texture_v_12_by_bashcorpo(2) The writers actually hadn’t read enough. Yes, really. They needed to do more.  Yes they’d read a lot. However, it’s hard for a time-limited PhDer to have enough weeks in the year to get on top of fields with long and complex histories, with lots of side-streams and debates and a complicated sets of influences. Some people can do this of course, it’s not impossible. But it’s a big ask in a three or four year PhD. The writers in this drawer didn’t realise that just because  their literature reviews got through their examinations it didn’t automatically mean they would cut it with reviewers – particularly if the papers promised something comprehensive. These Incomplete paper writers may just have needed more time to get through the material in order to produce a paper that really had coverage and traction. That’s why state of the art papers are more likely to be written by more senior scholars in the field, given as presidential addresses and so on … These people have had just had more time to read. Sad but true.

You’ll see that reviewers have made a range of comments on these two types of incomplete papers – all of them go to coverage of material. Some reviewers make suggestions of books and papers to be read, and these would probably be pretty useful next steps for the writers, if they can get over their initial disappointment at rejection.

The fourth drawer. An old target –  Laundry Lists.  Well you know about those I’m sure. They aren’t any good in the thesis and they work even less well for a publishable paper. These writers simply bundled summaries of vaguely related materials together under headings. Let’s not bother with those. The reviewers didn’t waste their time saying much either, as you can see. They just said no.

Yes, it’s a depressing little archive. I agree. A cabinet of crushed hopes and wasted time, a collection of lost opportunities.  But your paper doesn’t have to end up here in the dark, unread by all but negative reviewers. Look into the next room. That big row of filing cabinets? Walk over there into the light. Those are the living papers. They’re in here, preserved, sure, but they’re also out in the world. They’re the papers whose writers knew how to avoid the traps I’ve just  told you about. Their writers weren’t just writing a literatures paper because they saw the reading they’d done for the PhD as a waste if it wasn’t published. (Hey, it got them through the PhD, that’s hardly a waste of time).

Those published literatures papers writers chose the right journal.They were clear about what kind of paper they were writing, to whom and why.  They had an angle. They had a ‘voice‘ and something to say. They had a point, an argument.

Time’s up now. That’s our little tour over. Just before you go I do need to say, again, that it’s obviously perfectly possible and do-able to write a  literatures paper and get it published.  Don’t be put off by the rejected examples I’ve shown you. Just remember the titles of the drawers and make sure you don’t end up here in the dark, unread, in the archive of lost papers.

Go well. Write away now.


Posted in academic writing, academic writing voice, journal article, list, literature review, literatures paper | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

recruiting participants for research – do we need a public participation research panel?

Salma Patel is a doctoral researcher in the International Digital Laboratory at the  University of Warwick,. Her website is www.salmapatel.co.uk and she tweets as @salma_patel.

The data collection for my PhD thesis is almost complete now. Two qualitative studies, and the validation of a quantitative measure, have meant that in total I have personally recruited just over 80 people to take part in my research. I immensely enjoyed the part of the data collection stage where I had the opportunity meet people, talk to them and interview them. I love learning about people’s experiences, background and life stories. I suppose it gives me a legitimate excuse and chance to be ‘nosey’, and I have learnt a lot about life by meeting all these participants!

My first study was with GPs, and it was on a rather controversial topic of online patient feedback and ratings. Before I started the study, I was told GPs may not be willing to talk to me, and I was also told that ‘GPs are rather obnoxious’, and therefore I may be better off focusing on other healthcare professionals. However my experience of communicating with GPs on Twitter clearly suggested otherwise, although my own personal face to face experience with GPs was a mixed one. I decided to take the leap, and although recruiting GPs was painfully difficult (I have written an unpublished paper about that which I should publish online soon), interviewing them was such an enjoyable experience, and the GPs that I met were absolutely wonderful – friendly, helpful, kind and generous with their time and thoughts. Some of the GPs welcomed me into their homes; others refused to take payment for their interview. The experience challenged my misconceptions and assumptions about GPs, and I realised that it is only by meeting people and talking to people can one tackle ones prejudices about a group of people or community.

My second and third study was with members of the public. They were conducted about a year after we had moved to London from Cambridge. Living in London was daunting and isolating at first, especially because we had moved into a brand new village (which was the village built for the Olympic athletes), and had less than 50 residents living here when we moved in. However, over time more residents moved in. When I started my data collection, I put up “recruitment ads” locally (for example at our local café and library) and on the village Facebook group too. This way, as I interviewed residents, I also got to meet my neighbours, make friends, and the experience has meant that I now know many more people around the village, and there are lots more people I can now say hello to! The experience of collecting data gave me more personal benefits than I had anticipated at the start.

sending out invitations to members of the public to participate in research...

Sending out invitations to members of the public to participate in research…

However, I must admit, that recruiting participants to take part in research has been challenging and at times a very anxiety driven experience, because I was dependent on participants for the research to move forward; and as a PhD student, I was experiencing that difficulty alone. In my research, GPs were the most difficult group to recruit (and that is understandable to some extent), but I found recruiting members of the public for interviews difficult too. I know that my PhD peers who used members of the public in research resorted to using others students and academics at the university. I did not want to resort that strategy, because I wanted to ensure that my participants were diverse and reflected the public at large as far as possible. My interviews with the public were only 20-30 minutes long; but even then recruiting took long and required using multiple strategies such as local adverts, online adverts, snowballing, offering incentives etc.

This made me ponder that there should be and must be an easier and less anxious way to recruit members of the public to research. I wondered why there isn’t an online public research panel for example where people can register on to show or commit their interest in participating in research and researchers can then find these public volunteer participants? I know that in the UK specific health areas like dementia or cancer have this type of panel, but I could not find an open public research panel that was not run by a market research company. I imagine an online public research panel to be a website where members of the public can sign up (with their postal address and basic demographics) to register their interest in taking part in research, and researchers (who must be registered at a university) can then search using their own postcode to see who in their area according to their criteria is willing to take part in research, and can then contact them directly to see if they are willing to take part in their specific research. The problem with being an online only panel (and thus excluding non-online users) could be mitigated by recruiting members to the panel through the post or other non-digital mechanisms.

Although an online public panel would not be suitable for studies that require random samples, I believe it would be advantageous for research that requires convenience or purposive sampling, because it could help reduce the time and difficulties that researchers face when attempting to recruit members of the public to participate in research. I am surprised that most universities do not have a list/database of members of public interested in taking part in research. Or do they?

How do you recruit members of the public to research? Would you like to see a public participation research panel for academic/research use? Would it be of any use to you? And how could one be developed that would be ethically and methodologically sound and robust?

Posted in participants in research, PhD, recruiting participants, Salma Patel | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

writing a publishable literature review paper – four options

After you’ve spent loads of time reading, summarising and synthesising the literatures for your research, it’s hardly surprising that you might wonder whether all of this work can be turned into something publishable. I certainly encounter many doctoral researchers who want to do just this. I was a bit surprised to see that while there is a lot of material around about how to do different kinds of literature reviews – for example this,  this and this – there is actually very little around about how to write a publishable paper afterwards – a paper based solely on ‘the literatures’.

Surely the tome is not all there is...

Surely writing The Tome is not all I can do with all that reading?

I do need to clarify here what I mean by literatures. I don’t mean literature as in fiction/non fiction/poetry and plays but rather, the books and papers that are written by researchers about them. I don’t mean archival materials, but the books and papers that are written by researchers about them.  (Of course there is a grey muddy bit in the middle of what might be called primary and secondary sources and I take lots of words dealing with all of that, but for the sake of getting to the point of a necessarily brief blog post, I will stick with the binary I’ve created. It’s a heuristic right?)

And by literatures work I do mean the kind of work that you do when you begin a research project or the doctorate – you read a lot in order to find out what is already out there and what is ‘known’ about your topic and its wider framing/context/location. So, to recap, now you are wondering whether this work can become a paper.

Now, not all literatures papers are the same. There are different types of literatures papers and it’s worth understanding some of the differences. Here are four key variations on a literatures paper theme:

  • the what works or meta analysis

The what works, systematic review or meta analysis paper is typically generated out of a wide search and then the application of strict methodological criteria to select a small number of ‘valid’ empirical studies. While the two methods of producing these papers are different, the common intended result is to tell readers about ‘reliable evidence’ in the chosen field.  The literatures review paper that results from this kind of work goes like this… it usually begins with a warrant in a policy or practice problem; the writer argues that it is necessary to establish ‘reliable evidence’ as the basis for action/further thinking or research. The search criteria and process used is described, with the major exclusions noted. The search is followed by a report of the criteria that were used to select a smaller group of papers from the larger corpus. The results of the selection are then presented, usually accompanied by a table or list of the final group of papers in the body of the paper or presented as an appendix. Or if there has been  statistical work undertaken, this is explained and the results reported. The results make up the largest section of the paper. A conclusion spells out the implications for policy/practice of the synthesis/meta analysis.

So the paper structure is: warrant, search, selection, statistical analysis (optional), report, (perhaps a) discussion and conclusion.

  • the history of the field

The history of the field attempts to provide a definitive and comprehensive view of a particular area of scholarship. The field is defined at the outset. The paper may then take a chronological perspective, tracing the development of particular ideas and agreed ‘truths’, noting debates, influences and key thinkers. Another option is for the paper to identify dominant themes and their interconnections. Chronology and themes are however very often combined to examine how a field has changed its concerns over time.

History of the field papers are interpretive in nature and generally do not engage in a great deal of discussion about the process of selection and analysis; they may  locate the writer as someone with authority and standing in the field eminently suited to this kind of overview.

Once upon a time we used to think about this topic in this way....

Once upon a time you fellows used to think about the world in this way…

History of the field papers take two forms – they are either a report, that is they purport simply to tell the reader about the field – or they make an argument about the field and its strengths and weaknesses. The report is usually found in encyclopaedia entries (see Wikipedia for instance) although it may also appear in handbooks, edited collections and monographs. A history of the field argument usually has a so -what section at the end,

So the paper structure is:  definition and the a series of sections which are either major themes or chronological stages – the subheadings do major analytic work in naming each one. A report may have no conclusion, but further readings may well be provided at the end. An argument will have a strong conclusion.

  • the state of the art

A state of the art paper is a variation on the history of the field. It is always an argument; it takes a particular – and arguably new – angle on what has been written. A state of the art paper is usually generated through a narrative or thematic review, and is usually very explicitly selective. The paper suggests deficiencies, new approaches or particular challenges to the field. The state of the art review might be given as a presidential address to a learned society, or may appear in journals or handbooks with the specific goal of providing directions for other scholars. While the writer might define the field, and canvass its history and major themes as in a history paper, this is framed by an argument. The argument is generally flagged at the start by a warrant about the field needing to be re-examined, or by outlining a policy or practice problem.

So the paper structure is generally: warrant; definition; sections which are major themes or chronological sections, with either a separate discussion or the discussion integrated into the sections and flagged by the subheadings; and a strong conclusion.

  • the reframing

Like the state of the art review, the reframing of literatures review has an agenda and an argument to make. Reframing papers often bring literatures from other fields to an established area of scholarship to address a particular topic of interest/ongoing concern/new challenge. The writer establishes the warrant for the paper through presenting some kind of challenge or deficiency in the field – this might be a policy or practice problem, or it might be derived from an analysis of the literatures within the field via a deconstruction of a way of thinking or an identification of a blank or blind spot. After the warrant, the reframing is presented as a series of moves which show the new opportunities/advantages of taking up the approach being advocated. The paper may introduce literatures from other disciplines as one or more of the moves. The writer concludes with some next steps, perhaps an assessment of obstacles, and a final plug for the importance of taking up their reframing. Reframings are published in journals, edited collections, handbooks and monographs.

So the paper structure is generally: the warrant, the reframing established in several steps, some critical assessment of the new approach and a reinforcement of the need to change (as per the initial warrant).

So what, I hear you ask?

Well, if you are thinking about whether you can get a paper from your literatures review, the first step is to consider which of these four types of papers your work might suits. Knowing the type of paper you might write also tells you something about how it might be structured and where it might be published.

However, knowing the type of paper is not all that matters in a literatures paper, as I’ll go on to explain in the next instalment, next week.

Posted in academic writing, journal, literature review, literatures paper | Tagged , , , , , , | 9 Comments

things to do during the PhD – publish articles on the side

Marianne Hem Eriksen is an archaeologist at the University of Oslo, Norway. She recently won a mobility grant from the Research Council of Norway/Marie SkłodowskaCurie Actions, and is excitedly planning her move to Cambridge, UK, for two years. Marianne completed her PhD in a hair short of three years, and wrote and published a small number of articles while writing her doctoral dissertation. In this post, she outlines why this is a useful strategy also for people writing “the big book”. Marianne can be found on uio.academia.edu/MarianneHemEriksen and www.mariannehemeriksen.com.

To be honest, it was completely random that I ended up publishing papers while writing my dissertation. It started like this: I was taking a course through the excellent Nordic PhD school for candidates in archaeology called Dialogues with the Past. As a requirement, all doctoral candidates attending courses with this school prepare papers based on their on-going research.

I attended a course a few months into the PhD where incidentally, one of the convenors was an editor for a prestigious archaeological journal. My paper was in rough form – I had only been working with my PhD for four or five months – but it did contain a core of preliminary ideas that would grow into a main set of findings from my PhD.

I will never forget the moment when this particular professor took me aside, fished out her wallet and from it, a business card. While pulling out her card, she said something along the lines of: – ‘You know, I really enjoyed your paper, and I think you should think about publishing it as an article’.

A publication? - An offer you can't refuse.

A publication? It’s an offer you can’t refuse.

Before that moment it hadn’t even struck me as possible to publish articles while writing a dissertation. However, I took the editor at her word, using the following summer months to flesh out a (to be honest, quite poor) first attempt at a journal article, which I promptly submitted after running it past my supervisor.

Naturally, it was an uphill battle from there. Probably, the editor hadn’t really expected an article quite so soon. I can imagine that the editorial board gave me some wiggle room knowing that I was a very early career researcher. In any case, the article did go through to peer review. I still cringe thinking about some of the comments from reviewers on that article. Yet, after much hard work and tough revisions, I was able to publish this particular piece in the second year of my PhD.

And in retrospect, that may have been the single most important thing I did during the PhD. Getting published provided a boost of confidence that can be sorely needed in the longwinded, lonely journey of thesis-writing. Not to mention the vast amounts I learned from the experience, and the incremental rewards.

Two years of saying ‘yes’

Really, the publications sprang out of the same principle that I applied to every other aspect of my PhD research: say yes to all opportunities.

Of course, this is profoundly dangerous advice. You need to know your own limits, and know where your strengths and weaknesses lie, to be able to take this advice. You also need to be able to distinguish between a genuine opportunity and a scam/exploitation.

However, for the first two years of my PhD, I tried saying yes to every genuine opportunity that arose. This means that I organised an international conference, wrote and submitted a book proposal based on the conference proceedings, was first editor of this book, went to a number of national and international conferences, organising sessions, participated in a TV series on archaeology, etc, etc….

… and one year of saying no

It's No, DR No.

It’s No. Dr No.

And of course, an important point of saying yes is also learning how to say no.

The final year, I cut anything non-essential to carve out time and space to finish writing. I consequently said ‘no’. And after completing the PhD, I have also been more picky about what I say yes to, because I have gained a base of experience and can afford not to jump on every passing train. I know more about what I am good at and what I stink at, what’s worth doing and not least, what I enjoy doing.

I really appreciated this recent blog post on establishing a ‘NO committee’, a set of trusted advisors that can help you decide which opportunities you should pursue and which you should decline.

 Incremental benefits

Ultimately, I wrote five articles alongside the PhD, publishing three of them. (One is still in press almost three years after submission (!), and another is still in draft form in a drawer, waiting to be resuscitated).

Among the most important lessons I learned were these:

  • How to deal with criticism
  • How peer review works
  • How to restructure text from scratch
  • How to respond to referee reports
  • How to be strategic about writing: I tried to plan ahead, writing only about topics that were significant to the PhD, where I would be able to reuse the texts as chapters, paragraphs or “chunks” of the dissertation.

And the incremental benefits were these:

  • Visibility of my project
  • New opportunities to publish
  • Invitations to conferences and workshops (still ongoing!)
  • Quality check of my research before submitting the PhD
  • Learning how to present and enhance my arguments
  • Ultimately, my publishing record made me eligible for post docs and grants

 Realising privilege

I will be the first to admit that this strategy will not be easy for everyone. There are a number of structural factors that made this possible: Coming from Scandinavia, there is significant privilege in PhD students being regarded not as students, but hired as part of the staff. This entails not only an on average, decent salary, but also other forms of material and immaterial support, e.g. administrative support, financial possibilities, and I argue, psychological benefits, knowing that you having been hired to do your doctoral research.

Additionally, my institution allows PhD candidates to reuse text from their publications in their theses. Different universities have different rules for this, so make sure you check if your university will allow you to self-plagiarise in this manner. (I once met a PhD student from a UK institution who was not allowed to publish anything related to the PhD, yet was expected to publish a few articles alongside the doctorate. She felt justly overwhelmed at the task at hand.)

However, privilege can also be a comfort cushion – a lack of incentive to work hard and set bold goals.


Ultimately doing a PhD is, to me anyway, about genuine enthusiasm and drive. I think it’s nearly impossible to undertake such a project without being profoundly interested in the topic as well as finding pleasure in what you do.

To say yes to all opportunities is to dare to move outside the comfort zone, to challenge yourself and to take chances.

Not everything will succeed. Your article may be rejected. Your conference paper may have been a bust. Yet, those who take no chances at all will surely not get anywhere.

After all, what have you got to lose?



Posted in journal article, PhD, publishing | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

imagination and “the interview”

Many of you may well now be starting your field work. And at least some of you will be conducting interviews.


That’s an interesting word – “conduct”. One definition of conduct is simply “to organise and carry out”, so to organise and carry out an interview – and that’s probably what research methods texts mean when they say, “conduct” an interview. Another meaning of conduct is “ to lead or guide” someone – as in to conduct a guided tour. And this meaning often applies to the research interview because you want to guide the person through a set of topics, perhaps even questions, that you have already determined. The other meaning of “conduct” – the way in which you behave yourself – also features in interviews. You do have to focus on your own conduct – how to choose the place and time of interview, how to introduce yourself, how to make the interviewee feel relaxed and comfortable and so on.

These conduct matters are all important considerations in interviewing. You do have to think about them. I say that they are necessary –  but hardly sufficient. I reckon that too much focus on technique and on all the precautions around interviews means that sometimes the fact that the interview is a conversation between two people just slips by.

An interview is so much more than a set of technical and ethical considerations.  An interview is an opportunity for a researcher to listen –  and to imagine. Maxine Greene sums up the starting place for the interviewer:

If others are willing to give us clues, we can look in some manner through strangers’ eyes and hear through their ears. That is because of our cognitive capacities. Imagination is the one that permits us to give credence to alternative realities. (Greene, 1995, p 3)

So, according to Greene, an  interview is an opportunity to imagine the realities and experiences of another person. How it is to be them, to have their life, their opinions, their beliefs and understandings? What is the logic that underpins what they are saying and have done? How does what they say extend and challenge what you already ‘know’ ?

Greene points out that the exercise of imagination in interviews doesn’t just happen post hoc – in the analysis. It happens in the here and now of human interaction. It’s in the moment and in-between the interviewer and interviewee that meaning is first made. An interview is therefore above all about listening very carefully, and responding to three things – what’s said, what’s not said and the silences.

So here’s the danger. If you go into an interview with a list of questions that you must cover, and then focus really hard on trying to remember the order of the questions and what can’t be left out, then the interview will proceed as a Q and A sequence. You will be so focused on what your interviewee has to answer next, that you may well fail to hear something that is actually really important.

(You might also be blind and deaf to the ways in which you are steering the conversation – the ways you guide and lead– rather than allowing the conversation itself to carve out a trajectory through your agenda.  Unfortunately, when you lead too much, it is only after, when you examine the transcript, that you can see the ways in which you shut off and closed down areas of conversation that might have been important.)

Indulge me here. Let me get a bit empirical about what a beyond-technique approach to interviewing means.

Here is a small extract of a focus group interview with ten year olds. The interview was about an art project they’d been involved in. However, the conversation wandered around a bit. The two adult interviewers – I was one and my long-term co-researcher Chris the other – let this wandering go on, we didn’t intervene. And then this happened…

Child 1: When it’s crowded and it’s quiet, it feels more spacious really but when it’s crowded and it’s noisy you feel uncomfortable.

Child 2: It’s hard to get your own ideas onto your paper because people are shouting out their ideas and it’s hard to like think yourself….

Child 3: And you might think of something like, say something like Autumn, and you put your hand up and then someone else will say “leaves” and you’ll be thinking of leaves and thinking and you go to put your hand up again and someone will say like “flowers” and they’d come to you and say “Why haven’t you put your hand up and said anything?” and I’m like “I was going to say leaves but they’ve already said leaves”.

Child 1: If someone likes it quiet so they feel more spacious and like when it gets dead noisy and things and you’re like in a corner like in a corner and it’s all loud and noisy, I don’t like it.

Child 3: I like it when you can just escape to wherever you want to go…

Because the two of us had been listening carefully, we were able to imagine, as the children spoke, what it must be like to be in class wanting to speak, but not having anything left to say when it came to your turn. We were able to imagine the feeling of being crowded in by the noise, peers, by the teacher’s questioning. We were able to imagine the more relaxed and focused sensation that accompanies an activity shared with others similarly focused and working.

Because we were listening carefully, we were able follow these comments up at the time. We gently pursued the children’s experiences simply by asking for further examples. This led to a lively discussion about different kinds of lessons. The conversation then looped back to the art project, which, as it transpired, was a prime example for these children of a “spacious” classroom experience. It is unlikely we would have heard any of this if we had stuck to a set list of questions and got anxious when it seemed that our focus group had gone off piste. Instead, by listening and being in the moment of the conversation,  and imagining as we listened, we heard something that was really important to us – the equation of communal and very focused work with a sense of openness and spaciousness.

Because we were listening carefully we were also able to imagine some of the larger social processes that produced these experiences. We could consider the kinds of teaching methods that routinely produced feelings of being left out, voice-less, and hemmed in. We could, and did, pursue connections between teaching practices and the senses and bodies in classrooms –  partly by focusing on openness and partly by looking for instances where children felt physically hemmed in and silenced in the question-and-answer format of the conventional lesson. This was really important for us to generate new understandings of the ways in which’ inclusion/exclusion’ is produced by fairly standard teaching approaches.

So – what does this example mean for the practice of interviewing? Well this. Good interviewers open a conversation and then follow a thread almost seamlessly, using their imaginations and empathy. You can see this kind of effortless interview sometimes on television and hear it on radio. If you watch more experienced researchers at work you will see them get the information that they want – and more besides – with apparent ease, with minimum difficulty. This surface easiness belies the actual intellectual and imaginative, affective work that is going on.

But this kind of empathetic imaginative interviewing is not something that comes naturally. It takes practice. Concentrating on what is being said – at the same time as retaining the important issues that you want to cover, and responding to what is said – is something to be learnt, over time. It doesn’t come straight away.

This is a scary thought if you are new to interviewing and if the interviews are high stakes, crucial for your research. Well, despair not. There’s a solution. If you are about to head off for a set of interviews, do try them out first on your loved ones and friends, several times if possible, in order to make sure that you know your agenda and it doesn’t get in the way of responding to the person you are interviewing with your mind, senses and emotions.

Remember. Your interviewees are not upright, breathing data-in-the-making. Treat the interview as a conversation and an opportunity to imagine and you never know what will eventuate.

Posted in empathy, imagination, interview, listening, Maxine Greene | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments