Sunday, 30 September 2012

Special concerns (and reflecting on the SSHRC proposal sample from last class)

I was rather excited about finally getting into real methods that I can potentially use for my own research project - and was particularly interested in the 'special concerns' that Knight describes as being relevant to face-to-face inquiry. While he provides quite a substantial and detailed list of things to keep in mind - I would have liked to learn a bit more about how to deal with situations where the participants of a face-to-face inquiry may not be providing 'true' information, or maybe somehow influenced by others. For example - I was volunteering on a project recently where a group of undergraduate students were assigned to lead face-to-face interviews with participants about their health experiences. The participants for the interviews were pre-screened for a certain income level and educational qualifications.While reviewing their interviewing experience, one of the students disclosed that the person she interviewed had mentioned his income level and educational qualifications to be much higher than the pre-screened criteria, and appeared to be lying during the interview. I was curious about how to deal with situations like this - should that interview have been dropped from the overall data analysis?

I remember discussing focus groups in a class I was taking in the Summer term, and we addressed the possibility of people being influenced about their opinion in a group of mixed gender, or simply being influenced by the opinion of others. Knight does suggest that focus groups don't necessarily prove anything - but then are they really useful? How do we decide the context in which specific face-to-face inquiry techniques maybe more suitable compared to others? Perhaps this is something that researchers learn from experience.

As for the SSHRC proposal reviewed in class last week - our group looked at the cyborg proposal. I found it interesting (among other things) that the author described him/herself upfront as a person in a wheel chair and how he/she relates to the cyborg theory addressed in the proposal. Although it was quite relevant to the proposal in this case - I was wondering how this piece of information may influence the people judging the proposals. If there was another simultaneous submission on a similar topic, submitted by someone not in a wheel-chair - would it carry the same weight? I guess there is a fine line between representing oneself as relevant to the content of the proposal vs representing oneself in a way that may influence the individuals making decisions about funding. 

Saturday, 29 September 2012

The Role of the Researcher + SSHRC Sample

One thing that I found interesting this week in the Knight reading is his discussion on the role of the researcher in the process of gathering data in face-to-face inquiries. He mentions how depending on how the researcher conducts these inquiries, they can greatly influence the findings or responses of their subjects. The researcher should not take a passive role by just giving out the questions, but needs to be active in listening and understanding their subject. I remember a few times in the past where I conducted interviews where I just gave out the question and recorded the answers. Each time when I go over the findings after the interview, I realized that I should have followed up more on some of the answers by asking more questions. Knight’s point about body language is also something to think about. I remember that some of my interviewee’s would always ask if they were answering the questions correctly or if they were giving me the answers that I wanted. This made me become aware that they are watching you as a researcher as much as you are watching them as a subject. 

SSHRC SAMPLE: Social Justice & Education 

For my group we looked at the Social Justice and Education SSHRC proposal. Similar to Claire, I was also surprised that the person did not introduce themselves until the end. However, we thought that this may be because that the person’s general information was already mentioned prior to this proposal and they did not want to be redundant. Something that I found interesting was the number of citations that were in the “Methodology” section, because I assumed that most of the citations would be in the “Theoretical Framework”. I guess it is ideal to back up your approach and methods. There was one thing that I found a bit strange with this proposal. The title of the proposal got me interested with the words “cocktail party” so I thought this person developed a metaphor to help them articulate their research. However, the “cocktail party” does not appear until the 4th paragraph. I think that if you are going to introduce a metaphor in your proposal you should write about it or explain it near the beginning of your proposal.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Traffic Sources

I'm not sure if anyone else is even remotely interested in this, but if you go into the blog stats, you can see where the traffic to the blog is coming from, both by country and by referral source. 

Some interesting stats as of this post:
  • We've had 429 views from Canada, 37 from the US, 15 from Russia, and 4 from Germany, and 1 from Kenya (?)
  • The majority of people viewing our blog (mostly us I'd imagine) are using Macs, not Windows, which is very different from the general population
  • Despite the fact that more than half of our traffic is from Macs, only about 40% is from Safari
  • Most of our referral traffic, unsurprisingly, comes from Professor Grime's course blog or Google, but we're also getting referrals from something called adresultspages
It's updating all the time with new (and weird) info, so check it out if you're curious.

Is Anything Reliable?

This week's readings, both Knight and the focus groups articles, finally got into the meat of research methods. For the first time I felt like we were actually talking about practical ways to conduct research, ways that I had never considered employing in my past work. It was nice in that it began to really tie together for me some of the things Luker and Knight had discussed in the more introductory sections.

It was also incredibly intimidating. Every method introduced seemed to have absolutely no consensus on the meaning or value of its potential findings. No matter what you uncover, you can question it to the point where you might have to discard it. Trying to conduct meaningful research without a team of scholars to analyze both your methods and findings feels borderline hopeless. With the focus group example, you can spend absurd amounts of time and money organizing and executing countless focus groups, and when you're done, still have no idea what any of your data really means, and whether any of it is really usable.

So how do you go about finding the answer to a question, when every method you might consider using can be torn apart by your fellow scholars so that in the end you prove nothing? Do you simply accumulate data until you have achieved such a critical mass that disputing it becomes more work than it is worth? And isn't that abandoning the concept of "small-scale" research?

I suspect reading more Luker will restore some faith. Reading Salsa Dancing before inspired confidence in me that this could be done. Much of that confidence may have been undermined this week, but I'm sure it is not gone forever.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Researching Research Methods

This week in class we were given a past successful SSHRC application to examine for formatting. I found this exercise quite interesting as I applied to SSRHC last year and was successful in my application. The format of the application that my group was reviewing was significantly different than my own, which confirms that the three different structures presented in class are all valid and possible options. The main complaint that I had about the application that my group was reviewing (Queer Eye for the Straight Guy), is that the applicant jumped right into their research interest and question and left any personal information until the very end. I found it difficult to connect with the applicant and the research proposal as I had no idea where this idea had come from – not even their program of study. This is not vital information to understand the topic at hand, but in an application where you are trying to demonstrate why you are the best candidate to conduct this research, it seems that a little bio at the start would provide that hook.

For my own proposal I had sub-headings (Program of Study, Research Context, Research Objectives, Research Methodology and Importance to the Advancement of Knowledge).  I find personally that these helped me to think through the various aspects of my proposal to ensure that I was able to say as much as possible in a limited space.

I looked over my proposal this week as I am planning on reviewing and editing it for this course. The part that I found relevant and also slightly sad was my section on Research Methodology, which was admittedly quite vague and, as I can already tell from the readings this week, misguided. Having never taken a research methods course, I admit I “faked” this section with the rough knowledge that I had… apparently convincingly! I had planned to use telephone interviews with small community museums across the country to assist in my research on fundraising in rural museums. After reading Knight this week I can now see that this method of interviewing might not be my best option. Knight says that phone interviews are best for “fixed-response”  surveys which is not ideal for the questions that I would be asking. Hopefully a different method will reveal itself in the coming weeks! (Suggestions welcome!)

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

The Daisy approach

While trying to decide on research questions this Summer for my MI Thesis, I subconsciously used Luker's Daisy method. But as expected from a first-time interdisciplinary researcher (my background is in Engineering, and this is all very new to me), I continue to be a little shaky about whether I actually nailed the questions, and I still wonder if my questions are too broad or too specific - even though I'm almost at the point of submitting my thesis proposal. It came to a point where I had to draw the line and decide that I will not over analyze my research 'interest', and stick to the questions that I currently have. What I struggled with the most was in justifying the importance or relevance of my research questions. Although I found my hook/frame, I continue to be nervous about whether people will really care about what I have to say. While I didn't draw a Venn diagram, I did draw something like a flow chart relating each subject area relevant to my research interest, and came up with at least one 'important' aspect for each box in my flow chart. Then I decided which aspects I wanted to focus on, and created questions related to these aspects. My research interest lies somewhat in the healthcare field, and I struggled to keep my thesis relevant from the perspective of the Faculty of Information. I think my flowchart helped me in remaining focused on the information practice aspect, while treating the healthcare needs as the application of the information practice. Luker's description of the Daisy has given me some confidence in knowing that perhaps I was on the right track, and perhaps my research questions are valid enough!

Monday, 24 September 2012

Salsa dancing and research

Luker compares salsa dancing with research, and I definitely agree when he states that salsa dancing makes you hot and sweaty, because that’s exactly how I feel when I think of research. In the past, I would just look up a topic which was usually given by the professor and find articles and books on it, and then develop a research question. However, trying to develop my own research question is very challenging, and scary to imagine. We do need to be constantly questioning what we discover, and that process is can be terrifying because you may have to deter the direction of your research, which can be overwhelming when you’re almost at the end of your paper. I do have a few ideas and interests, but seeing if it’s actually a decent topic to research is somewhat of an uneasy feeling. I am not too familiar with the topics I have thought about, so making an argument can be difficult and this will have me researching a lot of material before I even decide what topic to research. So,  I ask myself, do I research a topic that I am familiar with or do I research something that I’m interested in. Time comes into play here; I am going to aim at researching a topic of interest. Salsa dancing is fun…..

Research interests vs. research questions

Like many of the people in the previous blog posts, I am also having difficulty deciding exactly what I would like to write my research proposal on. I did not come into this program with the intent of writing a thesis, and while there are many research subjects that interest me, narrowing them down to a "feasible" project is quite a challenging task. I agree with Luker's assertion that what is often considered to be a research question is in actuality a research interest. In trying to refine my focus, I have struggled with finding a balance between the things that interest me and workable questions that incorporate them. That said, in reading these chapters and contemplating the "set of relationships between Concept A and Concept B" in my research interests, I am starting to feel more confident I will eventually come to a conclusive decision regarding a "real" question. In particular, the challenge of designing a research daisy is quite useful in finding the overlapping connections between your interests. However, this will likely be a process that I will need to repeat a few times before finalizing my proposal.  

If you're stuck, try a daisy

I also identify with the difficulty of coming up with a real solid research question. I had to do an undergraduate thesis project in my last year of undergrad, and it took 6 weeks of back and forth with my professor to work something out. I think I had four false starts before I settled on something - it also didn't help that all my sources had to be in French, and there just wasn't enough French research for the first few topics that interested me.

I wish I would have known about the methods Luker described earlier. I think the daisy exercise can be used to work out and refine a research question - not just to help with finding resources once you know your frame. If your daisy topics still seem a little broad or if you can't think of very many 'petals', maybe the topic is still too broad and you don't really have a good frame yet. I did a few daisy exercises yesterday and I think I might have actually worked out a research question for this course. It took me three daisies to get to a question that I thought was narrow enough. It seemed to work for me anyways, so maybe it's worth a shot if you're really stuck.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

The importance of staying focused

I found the Luker readings this week resonant with my struggle of forming a research question in undergraduate years. Usually I had many research interests that I wanted to learn about and no clue where to start. In an ideal state, I wanted to keep an idea/interest fresh and expected the research process to be intuitive and explorative. However, the way I was taught how to do research, or at least the impression I got about research was somewhat canonical. And once I started to form a research question, I could only see my interest reduced to simple independent and dependent variables, which depletes the richness and complexity of the original idea and, of course is far from what I wanted to conduct. At that time, I turned to journal articles looking for directions and learning more about this topic and related issues. This method, as Luker referred to as the “dirty socks”, made me even more disoriented. I was left with a bunch of new interesting topics and a wider range of related issues I wanted to look into, but no deeper understandings of any of them. I was very confused and started to question whether my initial idea was valid. I also got caught up in the question of how thorough my literature review was, got carried away by different articles, and end up being swamped in a large quantity of material I wanted to read but never had time to. I spent most of the time struggling to get a hold of the topic. In the end I came up with a research question at the last minute that I was not completely satisfied. It was a frustrating experience and I’m glad that I survived. I learned that it is very dangerous to not have a sense of direction. 
Luker suggested that a research question always emerge at the end, yet I also agree with Knight that having your question formed early on. I think he means to have a question in your mind, let it lead the research and put the ideas in the frame of the question. And meanwhile allow it to transform and evolve, eventually it will mature and bloom as Luker suggested.

An important strategy I learned from Luker is “Harverding”. I feel obligated to read every word in an article, or a book cover to cover, otherwise I could miss something really important, even though I know it is impossible and the worry is totally irrational. And because English is not my mother tongue, I always think it is me if I have difficulty understanding something. So it is reassuring to have someone like Luker to say it out loud that it is all right read judicially. I have the same feeling as Claire towards digital materials that an article is seen as an individual entity rather than a part of a journal. I always think it is because the layout of digital files is so different from physical books. Maybe I should start to see journal articles in a more systematic way. It will help me to have a fresh look of how articles are related in terms of themes and topics. 

More Research Questions and Research Hoarding

I would have to say that Luker is right when she states that developing a research question is one of the most difficult tasks in the research process. I cannot recall a case in the past where I did any research paper where I came up with a research question that I stuck with until the end of the assignment. As a matter of fact I am not even sure if what I had was a proper research question as Luker or Knight defines it. From Knight’s Chapter 1, he says it is best if the research question is developed near the beginning so that it saves the researcher from trouble later on. But sometimes this is difficult since we may not know enough about the topic to make a claim. Luker saying that the research question comes near the end of the process is closer to what I have experienced. Even though Luker and Knight seems to differ in terms of when a research question should start revealing itself, they seem to be on the same page when talking about how a literature review can help with strengthening possible research questions and figuring out how you can present your findings in a way so that others in the field would care. 

One thing that I found interesting in Knight this week is his short discussion on “research hoarding” and how it is like “grabbing gold”. He talks about how having too much data or information can create a false sense of confidence in researchers. He reminds us that even though data collection is important, we need to allot time to think about the data we have collected. More does not necessarily mean better. I think this is a good reminder that we need to constantly evaluate the information and data that we have collected to see if they reveal or support our claims. If you do not think about what your findings mean then it pointless to have that much material.

Journals, Journals, Journals

When I was reading the Luker readings this week (particularly the discussions on journals), a previous assignment from INF1300 Foundations in Library & Information Science immediately came to mind. For this previous assignment, we were to select two peer-reviewed LIS journals for comparison, and examine the latest complete volume of the journal (depending on the journal one volume could be comprised of 4-12 issues). For each journal we had to identify general information, including: publisher, location of editorial office, editor, year of establishment, number of articles in each issue of the volume, etc. Then for the specific volume we were examining for each journal we were to identify for every article: author, title, general topic of the article, author's professional position, suspected primary audience (researchers/students, practitioners, or both); and present this data in a spreadsheet.

While that assignment did require a lot of work to go through one volume of two different journals for comparison, after the assignment was finished, I felt that I had completed a valuable professional learning experience. I became familiar with two professional LIS journals, including some of the topics each journal published on and their selection process. As Luker discussed, knowing the relevant journals that pertain to our research is important and very useful overall in the entire research process, and can guide us to journals that we might be interested in submitting our research for publication. But it can also be time consuming, especially if one is to go back five years, as Luker suggests. Luker makes excellent points in articulating how this process would be valuable, but as Claire stated, I think for myself at this point becoming more knowledgeable in the professional journals is a good starting point, and only after I have done this will I really consider practicing Luker's suggested five year journal reading process.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Sometimes You Eat The Research Proposals...

One of the things that annoyed me the most about my undergraduate work was when professors asked for research proposals, especially early in the semester. How can I have a research question, or even a developed thesis, when I still know next to nothing about my topic? Professors always explained this as needing to make sure we were on the right track before it was too late to restart, but it frustrated me no end. At first, my proposals were unfocused and poorly received. Eventually, I learned to lie and pretend like I had a clearly developed thesis. I made up something that sounded nice in my general field of interest, and then once I began researching I typically changed direction dramatically.

My process was always to begin with a survey text in the field I was interested in; whatever the library had on hand that seemed most interesting. I would read the whole book, cover to cover (typically the only book I would read completely for each essay) and from there I would begin to develop a much more focused thesis.

A prime example would be a paper I wrote for a fourth year class on Canadian political leaders. My proposal was not well-received at all. In fact, I think the proposal, which essentially said that I wanted to study the role of the Governor General and listed some books about Canadian political systems, came back with more writing on it from my professor than my own.

Once I started, I quickly narrowed my focus to the rare occasions in Canadian history where the Governor General had played an active role in Canadian politics. In the end the paper became about Governor General's role in the 2008-2009 parliamentary crisis, and historical precedents. By following my own process, I ended up with a focused, concise, and extremely well-received final paper. But was that more by luck than judgement? It certainly did not hurt that there is not a lot of material about the Canadian Governor General, and far less that isn't painfully dry to read, let alone write about. The same applies for the history of UofT's Scarborough Campus, one of my other favourite undergraduate essay topics. If I followed this process for a much broader topic, would I be likely to find myself too overwhelmed with information and notes to turn it into an actual paper?

I like to think not; I've followed this process so many times by now that I hope that I've refined it to the point where I can find a focus point no matter what topic I choose. But history research is a different animal from social sciences, as Luker has now made plainly clear to me, and I can certainly see how my method might not work at all in that field. Wrapping my head around a new process, especially one which may contain elements I had grown to despise, will not be easy.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Baby Steps

This week Luker tells us to read the last five years of a journal that we would be interested in being published in. I find this idea extremely daunting. Firstly, I don’t know yet what I want my research interest, let alone question to be. I’m not even sure what area I want to focus on. As a Museum Studies student I could be researching anything from collecting human remains to fundraising for non-profits. These topics are covered by very different journals. Even if I did have some notion of what area I wanted to research in, simply deciding which journals to focus on would be a challenge.   

Luker fails to note that almost all journals that we access these days are online in databases. I find that consequently I view articles as stand-alone pieces, and not as part of a larger publication. When we aren’t faced with the physical copy of the journal, I think that we are less likely to peruse the rest of the contents to find the common elements and views. I often find that I don’t pay much attention at all to which journal it is coming from until it is time for footnotes and the bibliography. 

Perhaps the take away from this concept for me is a smaller step than reading five years of one journal – maybe I should start by paying more attention to which journals the articles that I enjoy are coming from and this might help me to narrow down a subject area as well as a potential publication. Baby steps.