Wednesday, 25 April 2012

A room of one's own

Posted by Stephanie Clutterbuck

I have never read "A room of one's own". But I thought it made a snappy title for a blog post so I did what any self-respecting early career researcher does when she wants to make sure she is not talking complete nonsense- I Wikipedia-ed it. Turns out it fits quite nicely. You see Virginia Woolf believed that "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction". And although I have no interest in writing fiction I can see her point, a woman must have participants and a room of her own if she is to do science.

Virginia Woolf, by Frederico Novaro

There I was, March 2012, a bright-eyed PhD student confident in my experimental design, armed only with some predictions and a dream. Against my better judgment I believed that data collection in schools would be easy and as long as I asked nicely for ‘a quiet room’ my wish would be granted leaving my data collection to roll merrily along, untainted by extraneous factors.

Fast-forward two months, seven schools and 200 participants later and I have learned an invaluable lesson: schools have very different definitions of ‘a quiet room’.

At my first school I was shown to an open corridor where I was told I would run my experiment. Admittedly, I had to suppress my inner toddler from stamping her feet and screaming ‘This is NOT a quiet room!!’, but I made do. And in fact it would have worked well if the corridor wasn’t simultaneously being used as a makeshift studio for yearbook photos. And then as a meeting place for all the Year 5 boys to earnestly discuss the moral implications of stealing the Year 6’s football during break. To be fair it was a lively debate and I could see their point, why should the older boys get the ball - isn’t that ageism?

Still, data collection continues to roll along in various schools and I have become adept at managing my inner meltdowns regarding the unreality of tightly controlled experimental conditions outside of the lab. I was able to force a smile when a teacher barged into my quiet room (which happened to also be a kitchen) and rattled the contents of every drawer and cupboard in search of a knife to cut cake. And I have learned to tune out repeated renditions of ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ and ‘Heart and Soul’ sung by jubilant five year olds in nearby music rooms.

Fortunately, for my sanity, I feel data collection enlightenment is within reach. The other day I unflinchingly accepted that there was nothing I could do about the man in muddy overalls wielding a shovel and walking through my quiet room. Twice.

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