As a semester begins, I have been developing two new modules for our Personal and Professional Development programme this year. The first is on Using Threshold Concepts in Research Practice. It was inspired by my recent dissertation for the MA in Higher Education Practice here at the University of East Anglia, where I was researching the ways in which our probationary stage of the doctorate is understood by academic colleagues. As part of this work I needed to understand the ways that doctoral projects are assessed, and it was through this that the key element of conceptualization emerged. This is something that examiners have reported as being crucial for ‘doctorateness’. Being able to frame your research project, and align aspects of it – the ontology, methodology and epistemology – have changed the way that I have thought about my teaching.
Until now I have been concentrating on methodology for arts and humanities students, because this is something that often slips through the net in pre-doctoral teaching. Awareness of methods of analysis is perhaps not as well formed as in the social sciences because I believe that much academic practice in the arts and humanities tends to be implicit rather than explicit. Our teaching on the research methodologies programmes aims to rectify that, by encouraging students to confront the reasons for their choice and application of certain methods in their work.
However, thinking conceptually, extends this by trying to tackle the common assumptions and basis for the study, as well as the ways in which a project may (or may not) make an original contribution to knowledge. It connects with the ideas around research design, which may be very practical or very theoretical depending on the nature of the project.
Readers who are interested in this area might have a look at the following authors:
- Keefer, Jeffrey M. “Experiencing Doctoral Liminality as a Conceptual Threshold and How Supervisors Can Use It.” Innovations in Education and Teaching International 52, no. 1 (2015): 17–28.
- Kiley, Margaret, and Gina Wisker. “Threshold Concepts in Research Education and Evidence of Threshold Crossing.” Higher Education Research & Development 28, no. 4 (August 1, 2009): 431–41. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360903067930.
- McKenna, S. “Crossing Conceptual Thresholds in Doctoral Communities.” Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 2016, 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1080/14703297.2016.1155471.
- Meyer, Erik, and Ray Land. “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways and Thinking and Practising within the Disciplines.” Occasional Report. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, School of Education, 2003. http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/documents/142206.pdf.
- Trafford, Vernon, and Shosh Leshem. “Doctorateness as a Threshold Concept.” Innovations in Education and Teaching International 46, no. 3 (August 1, 2009): 305–16. https://doi.org/10.1080/14703290903069027.
The second workshop is on Reflective Writing for Personal and Professional Development. A technique (or set of techniques) more widely used in education and the allied health professions, where practice is understood as highly person-centric, and interactions with others is part of interventions, be they teaching or treatments.
Fundamental to reflective writing is understanding how we, as humans, respond to the world around us: how we act and react to events and experiences in our daily lives. Some of these experiences may have a greater effect on us than we imagine at the time, and others may be less influential, but at the time seemed important, whether positive or negative. Reflective writing is increasingly a tool that doctoral researchers can use to develop a commentary, or journal, alongside their research work that engages not simply with the intellectual problems of the project, but the emotional life of the researcher.
All too often, and even in the arts and humanities where an understanding of subjectivity is considered vital to many investigations, the actions and reactions of individual researchers are rarely interrogated – they simply end up ‘edited out’ of the formal prose. Academics (students and staff) are so used to this style of writing that admissions of, say, unconscious bias, the influence of previous training, upbringing or dominant value systems, would seem at best out of place, and at worst a sign of weakness.
Researchers such as Jennifer Moon and Barbara Bassot remind us that it is not only okay to articulate these thoughts through writing, but that doing so can be highly productive in analysing situations and developing more pro-active strategies in the future – here’s just one of Bassot’s reasons why professionals need to reflect critically:
Reflective practice helps us to question our assumptions and prevents us from accepting things at face value. It encourages a deeper examination of issues, which is vital when seeking to promote equality and social justice for clients. (Bassot 2016, 3)
Research students maintain many professional relationships on their journey, and learning to engage meaningfully with the communities within and outside academia is a vital part of their work. Those who go on to foster research in others (as supervisors), or develop learning at a higher level (through teaching) clearly have an advantage if they can develop methods of effective reflection.
Structured writing activities are one way that this can happen. Some of the exercises in this document by Watton, Collings and Moon (2001) provide useful exercises to train thinking and re-thinking around critical incidents. Things brought to mind, and subject to interrogation after the event, and with some distance from it. An exploration of its positive and negative elements, and questioning what seems to have happened can help to turn even the most challenging incidents into important learning moments.
- Bassot, Barbara. The Reflective Practice Guide: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Critical Reflection. London: Routledge, 2016.