Thursday, 6 September 2012

The value of being an imperfect research student

Posted by Heather Yoeli

In their posts of July 23 and 30, White and Adams provide a rigorously evidence-based summary of how to be the excellent research student. I found it a beautiful, if slightly disconcerting, read: carefully structured, convincingly argued, mindful of its chances of being published in the BMJ and (I assume) flawlessly citation-managed and submitted conveniently in advance of its deadline. In their two-part analysis, however, White and Adams neglect either to verify or to justify the imperative of their paradigmatic implication. Or, in less pretentious-sounding academic twaddle... they don’t really tell us what’s so brilliant about being the perfect research student.

And therefore, I would like to respond by proposing that the archetypal Perfect Research Student may not be doing any favours to him or herself or to his or her participants.

To begin with, I will critically evaluate the semiotics of the use made of their Lisa Simpson image. Lisa, as all fans of The Simpsons will know, is a perfect student; bright, attentive and thorough. Her brother Bart is, by contrast, somewhat imperfect; whilst no less intelligent and creative than his sister, he has a tendency to be impetuous, slapdash and prone to sending his supervisors things he is still working on.* And yet, outside of the classroom sphere, it is Bart rather than Lisa who displays the more competent social skills and interpersonal confidence; he has a relaxed, confident and slightly zany manner of engaging and communicating with others. He would make an excellent ethnographer or qualitative interviewer. Lisa, by contrast, has spent too much time at too tender an age seated with her laptop precariously balanced upon a pile of textbooks to know how to talk to anyone other than her laptop. 

And moving The Simpsons to the personal, I have learned through my ethnographically qualitative fieldwork that participants often respond more readily to imperfect than to perfect researchers. Ethnography is about regarding participants as real people, and about building relationships with real people, and real people are inherently imperfect.** I have been carrying out fieldwork on the Cowgate estate in Newcastle (glances distractedly up from laptop to wave to everyone she’s been chatting to) which is a community in which most thirty-something women possess more useful aspirations than to join the hierarchy of public health academia, and therefore a community which regards with confusion and cynicism the archetypal Perfect Research Student.*** I have therefore learned that participants find it easier to relate to me when I am imperfect; when, for example, I arrive at a meeting with half a bowl of my daughter’s porridge (or even half a tummy-full of my son’s puke) adhered to my leggings, or when I get halfway home with a participant’s gloves in my bag. Whereas most of my participants have had no personal experience of sitting in a postgraduate supervision session, many of them have experienced a stroppy toddler refusing her breakfast or a cheerfully regurgitant baby projecting his breakfast back towards the floor, and all of them will have done something as brainless and daft as walking off with someone else’s gloves because all people everywhere have done something similarly brainless and daft. 
Imperfection, therefore, is what connects us to our humanity. And our humanity as researchers is what connects us to other people. And being connected to others is a vital component of all qualitative research.

*Admittedly, the last bit isn’t true. It’s merely what I do on an almost monthly basis, and White and Adams tell me I shouldn’t.
**All of the clauses in this sentence should have been evidenced and referenced. I have neglected to do so merely to exemplify my own imperfection.
***Again, this statement should have been verified. It isn’t. As Bart Simpson might say, don’t have a cow about it, dude.

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