Honey-colored brick buildings surround a bright, manicured quadrangle, edged with shrubs and featuring Our Lady encased in glass. In the classrooms, wooden desks in tight rows are carved with years – decades? – of teenage musings. Our glow-in-the-dark Lord and Savior hangs on crucifixes above the blackboards. The full picture is reminiscent of my own parochial childhood – with a few substitutions beyond the plastic Jesus: the wood carvings are 21st century-centric (Kylie, Kendrick Lamar, F*ck Taliban?), not to mention that the location is probably six thousand miles from my idyllic Northern California hometown.
I’m at a boarding school in the Southern Province of Rwanda, not quite awake for the 7:40 start time. The school specializes in science concentrations at A-level (Senior 4-6, equivalent of senior high school in the U.S.), but the student body also includes O-levels (Senior 1-3, junior high). All of the students are gathered in the quad, grouped around the headmistress on the basketball court. After they sang the school song and the national anthem, they scatter to their classrooms and she comes to shake my hand. Like any ex-Catholic school girl, I smiled and tried not to remember my own strict, similarly short and square headmistress (well, principal) wringing a cheating confession out of 2nd-grade me.
It’s the first day of proper data collection: my research is with a teacher association, and one aspect of the many methods I have engineered for the project involves observation and interviews with individual member teachers. Thus, I am wearing a dress and functioning as the center of school gossip on a cool morning: the thing about quadrangles is you can’t hide, and the thing about being white in Rwanda is you really can’t hide. Students in royal blue sweaters and white shirts and ties embroidered with the school crest rush past me; one kind, brave Senior 5 soul greets me and takes me to the Teacher’s Room where I find the “Maurice,” the association teacher that I will shadow today.
Back in my teaching days, I would always get a little nervous when being observed, regardless of whether it was my boss, some visiting delegation, or even a colleague. But today, the roles are reversed: Maurice seems cool, collected, and unbothered by my presence, and I’m the one who’s sweating and shaking a bit and constantly dropping her pen. As a PhD student, starting your data collection is declaring your allegiance to one philosophical orientation and beginning the process of knowledge construction. Knowledge begins with data, and especially important for qualitative researchers, extensive thought and care should be put into how you collect that data. I have put in that thought and care, but this is where it becomes something real.
Until this point, it’s all been theoretical. Who I am as a researcher is passionate but theoretical, recorded in proposal documents and argued in an upgrade panel, but it is a construction, an ideal. Data collection is when you morph into that person, or a totally different one, where you start to work and communicate and face decisions and problems and become mired in messiness. It’s where things can get personally uncomfortable. Not just sitting in the back of the class, balanced on a stool, trying to remember what I am supposed to be looking for and recording for this observation, what will set me up for our later series of prompted interviews.
Maurice has so many class periods, I lose count: maybe seven? Some are short, only 30 minutes; others are more than an hour. All of the classes are A-level and divided for the concentration: MCB (Mathematics, Chemistry and Biology), MCE (Mathematics, Computing, and Economics), and MPC (Mathematics, Physics, and Computing) – but I probably got at least one of those wrong. It all seems like my own high school subject nightmare. So. Much. Math. Some of the rooms are expansive concrete boxes like my old Musanze classrooms, loud and echoing with every movement across the uneven floor, lit by daylight, with peeling, crumbling blackboards painted on the walls. Some are bricked, hung with ubiquitous net curtains and featuring detailed images drawn on the boards: one classroom for MCE has an elaborate drawing of an Excel spreadsheet. The teacher-artist has used multiple colors of chalk and indicated screen details down to the battery percentage on the bottom toolbar. That’s one way to deal with limited technology.
Behold, He glows: a literal interpretation of John 8:12
For each classroom, I introduce myself. By the seventh class, it’s rushed and to the point. Leanne. Research. American. UK for Phd (yes, I know it’s strange). PhD (don’t do a PhD, you’ll go crazy). They ask me many of the same questions. Married? No. How old? Guess (they are either very polite or very poor at estimation). Some of the classes ask detailed questions – how do I improve my public speaking ability? Others are less interesting – what’s your favorite drink? I wasn’t going to say “gin and tonic” out loud at a Catholic school, so apparently it’s a mocktail of mango juice and Vittolo, the local sparkling water option. After the introductions, I take a position in the back of the room.
Qualitative researchers are (rightly) neurotic over this idea of position and positionality – beyond my wooden stool. Kant famously argued that we cannot possibly experience “things-in-themselves” but can only experience them as they appear to us, encapsulated here by writer Anais Nin: “We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.” Whatever the world is, we process it through our selves. It doesn’t mean that research is some therapeutic self-exploration (unlike, say… blogs…) but it means that we are aware that we exist as a filter for that data and subsequently constructed knowledge.
Without getting too far down the research philosophy rabbit hole, I hold a critical constructivist research philosophy which argues that the social world is constructed. If you think the world is one giant canvas and if we design the right camera, the right experiment, the right path, we can see it correctly and document it and pass this Knowledge onto the future generations, that’s the opposing viewpoint: positivism (well, that’s the quick and dirty and reductionist version; I’m sure I’ll get some emails for that). But constructivists think the world is more messily put together, and knowledge reflects this: critical constructivist capo Joe Kincheloe (2005) argues that from this perspective, it is “misleading to merely study random outcomes… isolated ‘facts’ and ‘truths'” (p. 2). Knowledge rather always involves a knower who is permanently linked to a historical and social context : “how the knower constructs the known constitutes what we think of as reality” (p. 2). Thus, for researchers, especially, our position in this place is important. We can’t just fade into the background, become the nameless automaton behind the experiment. As researchers, we play an exaggerated role in constructing knowledge and deciding what “counts” as knowledge. That’s quick and dirty as well, but ultimately, this perspective requires humility, caution, and social awareness in the practice of research.
As such, critical constructivism requires being aware of who you are, what you’re doing, how you’re behaving, how you are reflecting on your work, how dynamics of power and postcolonialism enter the equation. It means examining your biases and what goes into the questions you ask, how your hear the answer. Obviously, you can’t remove yourself from the work – and to believe that is possible is itself naïveté. Instead, we have to recognize who we are in the situation. To quote from my progression document, the solution is an anti-solution: observe, listen, ask questions and be ready to receive responses that cut at the base of who I think I am, recognize the privilege I have and be able to talk about it with honesty and openness. Gadamer (1989) suggests laying bare your affiliations or “horizons” and consider their impact on your interpretation, what he labels a “fusion of horizons” (p. 370). When this is done fully and intentionally, it is meant to be deeply painful in separating what I actually believe and value from what I express as beliefs and values. It I am asking this of my participants in examining their own practice as teachers, I should be doing the same thing. There’s the discomfort.
I tell myself that this classroom, this moment of mentally pressing record is where it all begins, but that’s not exactly true: PhDs require you to define and package your philosophy, epistemology, ontology, and axiology, but really, none of this is linear – just like travel, research requires that you keep going back over yourself, learning more about who you are and what you think and how all of that changes when you are confronted with things that are different and unknown. So I settle in and watch as Maurice divides the blackboard into sections for the class to review last week’s material: “What I know” and “What I want to know.” Fitting. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a girl nudge a folded note towards a broad-shouldered boy while her deskmate furiously copies Maurice’s board composition. I start making margin notes in pink pen. Honey-colored bricks, a bright quadrangle, glow-in-the-dark Jesus.
Gadamer, H.-G. (1989). Truth and method (2nd, revis ed.). London: Continuum.
Kincheloe, J. (2005). Critical constructivism primer. New York: Peter Lang.