When we developed our research questions a couple of years ago, most of my EdD cohort picked topics that are very, very ‘qualitative’. Most of us are investigating issues that we feel a deep personal or emotional connection to, be they indigenous leadership, refugees’ experiences of “home” or parenting a chronically ill child. We want to be involved in the research, perhaps tell our stories alongside our participants and to make a difference in the world. This fits very well at UBC, where no one blinks an eye at this sort of work. We were told (perhaps anecdotally) about a dissertation that was written entirely without punctuation. Previous cohorts in the program have produced plays, used songs as data, and used art such as photographs and so on. My “I want to write stories and use them as my results section” was barely a blip on the radar.
Last weekend I presented my EdD research for the first time to my peers at RTi3 – a radiation therapy conference – a great event but staunchly grounded in the positivistic domain. My first hurdle was to fit what I have done into the standard “intro/methods/results/discussion” abstract submission process. After a lot of rewriting I had something that sort of worked and sent it off. Some highly ranked abstracts are selected for 30 minute slots, the rest get 10 minutes or a poster. I’ve been a judge before and I knew my abstract wouldn’t fit the rubric, so was happy to get selected for a 10 minute talk, despite wondering how on earth I could fit it in.
Advice for presenting qualitative work usually involves ‘bringing your data to life’ in a dynamic way. For example, Petra on the blog “The Research Companion” asks “Can any of the work lend itself to poetry, or musical interpretation? Might it become the basis of a song, rap or other spoken word performance?” Further ideas are podcasts, infographics, video abstracts, webinars, Ted-style talks and more.
There’s also the viewpoint that the presentation of qualitative work should align with the genre or methodology. Bekker and Clarke say that researchers should avoid “formulaic presentations based on normative presumptions and practices” (p. 3) and pay attention to the embodied act of presenting. One of the central tenants of qualitative work is engagement with the audience (or reader). We have to show them (through ‘thick description’, reflexivity and/or an engrossing and evocative story) that the work matters. The researcher-storyteller should surface the voices of the participants, rather than disembodied ‘data’, and elicit an emotional reaction to engage both hearts and minds. This is hard to do in a ‘ten-minutes-plus-two-for-questions-and-the-moderator-will-wave-a-red-card-at-you-if-you-go-over’ scenario. I was worried!
The norms and social contexts of typical conferences rely heavily on PowerPoint. We all know the sinking feeling of staring at text-heavy slides, presenter comments like “I know you won’t be able to see that…” and people who simply read their bullet points. But that’s what we expect, in some form or other. This conference was no different, some slides were better than others but all speakers stood behind a podium and relayed information to the audience using PowerPoint. I decided that rather than use a slide deck, I would read one of the stories that constitute my dissertation results section.
So what happened? I confess I did four quick slides (with minimal text) to outline my research questions and methodology, then I read the story. I rehearsed A LOT. Two minutes max for my slides left me eight for the story. I blacked out the screen, put on my glasses and read. It was a story about a radiation therapy department, written for an ‘outsider’ audience, and described some common issues that lesbian and gay therapists might face. I think the unexpectedness of having to actively listen and react were surprising, people were unsure of what to do. The room was very quiet, there were a lot of smiles but no one laughed at the funny bits (maybe they weren’t as funny as I had thought!) I was asked what surprised me about the research. I said, that things didn’t seem to have changed much in twenty years, people were still reluctant to come out in the conservative healthcare environment. I did get a lot of people afterwards tell me that they enjoyed it, that it made them think, that they would like to hear more. Perhaps the best comment was from an old friend who gave me a hug and said that the research was “really me” – I hope so!
As I write this there is a lively conversation on Twitter started by Janice St John. Janice’s learning difficulty (dyslexia) makes it hard for her to present results in a written form. This conversation has veered from that to other ways to present, and other “ways of knowing” beyond the usual third person written format. Better and (importantly) more engaging ways to share research would benefit more than just qualitative researchers! It’s not easy – but disseminating our work is an important part of our scholarly activities and we should be pushing the boundaries.