Carol A. Hand
Do you ever have times when you wonder if what you are doing makes a difference? Teaching research to undergraduate social worker students has proven to be a challenge. Of course, I wasn’t content using the textbook and syllabus that other instructors use. But designing the details of a new course from week to week is never easy. Some things just haven’t worked the way I had hoped.
Photo Credit: Research
The word “research” often strikes fear into the hearts of students. Yet, as a friend and former colleague has eloquently written, we are “born” to be researchers.
Human beings enter this world with an endless curiosity about themselves, others, and their surrounding environment. In this sense, we are born researchers. At its essence, research is inquisitiveness in thought and action. It is the pursuit of new knowledge and discovery through a creative, conceptual process of researcher engagement with the world and its mysteries. (Maxine Jacobson, 2007)
The purposes of the course I am teaching include helping students rekindle their sense of wonder and curiosity about the world, and inspiring students to analyze and apply research as a liberatory tool to improve the lives of clients, communities, and nations.
Some of the initial assignments have proven to be too daunting a task for many students despite assistance and extensive commentary without grades on their work. Faced with this task, some have opted for an alternative – to take an online tutorial about research and the importance of having committees that screen research proposals that involve people to protect them from harm. The legacy of Nazi medical experimentation and the Tuskegee Syphilis Study underscore why human subject protections are necessary. Students actually found the tutorial valuable.
Yet each week, I struggle with how to best engage students and explain things in ways that make sense and are accessible. Some weeks, it works, and other weeks, I can see their puzzled looks, not even knowing how to ask for clarification. And then, there are weeks like this one that somehow make all the uncertainty and anxiety worth it.
I only have 18 undergraduate students, a luxury. In the other institutions where I taught, my classes rarely had fewer than 25 students and sometimes had over 100. So I am grateful for the freedom I have to experiment here, even though it does engender some displeasure from my colleagues. (But that is another story.)
My class and I are trying something old and something new. In the past, I sat in on a research class that a former colleague taught. She actually had undergraduate students engaged in real research methods to evaluate the social work department. Students learned both quantitative and qualitative methods and produced a report that helped the department meet the requirements of the national accrediting organization. The politics where I teach now really don’t lend themselves to studying the department, and the likelihood that any findings would result in constructive improvements is marginal at best. Instead, the five teams comprised of three or four students are each using a different research methodology to study the local effects of global climate change.
Dialogue and experiential learning assignments are the foundation, so this week I asked each of the groups to write the research questions on the whiteboard – what do you want to know from your study? Each team had good beginning questions refined through thoughtful, creative comments from the class as a whole. As I understand the teams’ ever-evolving plans at the moment:
1. The “single subject design team” will be studying changes in their food purchasing habits in the context of the carbon footprint left by the production and transportation of food products. They will be taking an inventory of everything in their refrigerator and cabinets to find out where it came from, calculating the carbon footprint, and measuring how their buying and consumption change as a result of what they learn. In the end, will they make fewer trips to the store? Will they buy fewer processed products, more organic foods, more locally-grown foods?
2. The “social survey team” will be studying the access of welfare clients to community gardens as a way to access affordable healthy local food and reweave community support networks.
3. The “photovoice team” will be studying the effects of the 2012 Duluth flood to discover damage (past), differential recovery progress for poor families in the community (present), and innovations that could be used to help the city prevent similar damage in the future.
4. The “participant observation team” will be studying the effects of changing climate on produce at a local framer’s market, historically through the comments of venders, and at present by observing the produce size, quality, and abundance.
5. The “interview team” will also be exploring the impact of the flood and possible ways to reduce the impacts for low income neighborhoods in the future.
Will this approach “be successful”? It depends on what “success” means. At the moment, there are some weeks when the curiosity and excitement about exploring the world is so evident. For now, that is enough for me. Receiving an email like the one that arrived the day after this week’s class is an added affirmation that we’re sometimes on the right track.
This reminded me so much of you and how you always say we are in this together!
A mouse looked through the crack in the wall to see the farmer and his wife open a package. “What food might this contain?” The mouse wondered – he was devastated to discover it was a mousetrap.
Retreating to the farmyard, the mouse proclaimed the warning.
“There is a mousetrap in the house! There is a mousetrap in the house!”
The chicken clucked and scratched, raised her head and said, “Mr. Mouse, I can tell this is a grave concern to you, but it is of no consequence to me. I cannot be bothered by it.”
The mouse turned to the pig and told him, “There is a mousetrap in the house! There is a mousetrap in the house!” The pig sympathized, but said, “I am so very sorry, Mr. Mouse, but there is nothing I can do about it but pray. Be assured you are in my prayers.”
The mouse turned to the cow and said “There is a mousetrap in the house! There is a mousetrap in the house!” The cow said, “Wow, Mr. Mouse. I’m sorry for you, but it’s no skin off my nose.”
So, the mouse returned to the house, head down and dejected, to face the farmer’s mousetrap alone. That very night a sound was heard throughout the house — like the sound of a mousetrap catching its prey. The farmer’s wife rushed to see what was caught. In the darkness, she did not see it was a venomous snake whose tail the trap had caught.
The snake bit the farmer’s wife. The farmer rushed her to the hospital, and she returned home with a fever.
Everyone knows you treat a fever with fresh chicken soup, so the farmer took his hatchet to the farmyard for the soup’s main ingredient.
But his wife’s sickness continued, so friends and neighbors came to sit with her around the clock. To feed them, the farmer butchered the pig.
The farmer’s wife did not get well; she died. So many people came for her funeral, the farmer had the cow slaughtered to provide enough meat for all of them.
The mouse looked upon it all from his crack in the wall with great sadness.
So, the next time you hear someone is facing a problem and think it doesn’t concern you, remember — when one of us is threatened, we are all at risk.
We are all involved in this journey called life. We must keep an eye out for one another and make an extra effort to encourage one another. How true is this!! (Author unknown)
Photo Credit: quoteko.com
Perhaps the most important lessons we can learn are about life. Research can be a liberatory tool that helps us discover that our lives are inextricably interwoven with the world around us. It’s not something I can teach. It’s something each student needs to discover on his or her own. I am grateful for the opportunity to be part of the journey of discovery at this moment in time.
Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.