Nothing More Practical Than A Good Theory

We are almost in the middle of our EdD last course and diving down into the fine detail that will inform our piece of research/thesis/gift to the world.  At the moment we are wrestling with defining our theoretical framework before heading for our comprehensive exams in June.

Being of a positivistic bent – or at least coming from a profession that is newly academic, and mainly unconsciously atheoretical, I struggle with the concept of theory. Theory means something quite specific in science – something you test, a hypothesis.  Scientific principle tells us that everything is infinitely testable (like quantum field theory that ultimately underpins the practice of radiation therapy).  But “theory” or “a theoretical framework” in the social sciences, and indeed in grad school, is something different, a tool that no good researcher should be without.  My current bedtime reading Introducing Critical Theory (literally a cartoon book about Marxism – which is the only way I can deal with it) tells me sternly that an undertheorised student is a failing student, and our UBC Profs tell us that theory is a lens through which we examine the world.  On the other hand, there is the view that theory is for those with the luxury of being able to sit and reflect (perhaps in their ivory towers), not busy practitioners who are out there in the “real world” (wherever that may be). But figure this out and pick a theory I must!

Most of us in the EdD program are there to try and make our little bit of the world a better place. This aligns with the aim of the EdD, which is geared towards practice, examining it and ultimately improving it. A critical theory lens takes an emancipatory, roll-up-your-sleeves-and-do-something-about-it stance and accepts that “there are dirty problems like racism, sexism, classism, homophobia and poverty to be solved” (Sikes p.45). If we look at the world and see that “mainstream research practices are generally, although most often unwittingly, implicated in the reproductions of class, race and gender oppression” (Kinchloe and McLaren, p. 304) we turn to critical theory for help – be it feminism, race theory or critical lesbian and gay theory (my wheelhouse). There are other broad theories/paradigms which we could use – ones that aim to deconstruct current ideas, or understand them – and there is good old fashioned positivism which is all about prediction. For a closer look at this try here. But I think I am a critical theory girl at heart ♥

One thing is sure, once you start looking at (any kind of) theory there are a LOT of “doctoral-level” words that need to be nailed down. I hope to have a few of these impressively roll off my tongue before the comps in June. To help you recognize them in class, impress your love object and to encourage you to sprinkle a few on your grad work, here is your free Valentine’s Day EdD bingo card. Enjoy!

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References:

Sikes, P. (2006). Towards useful and dangerous theories. Discourse : Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 27(1), 43–51

Kinchloe, J and McLaren, P. (2005) Rethinking critical theory and qualitative research. In Denzin, N and Lincoln, Y (Eds) The handbook of qualitative research. 3rd ed. pp. 303-342. Thousand Oaks, CA. Sage.

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Year Two, yeah!

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Year two of my EdD has begun with a new class (Organizational Analysis) and it feels like the end of the course work is actually a possibility. This is a six week stretch, with two classes back to back. Then one elective and a final doctoral seminar in the New Year. Four of my 2015 cohort are taking this class and I am impressed and proud at how far we’ve come. I remember this time last year, having no idea who 90% of the theorists we discussed were (now it’s probably down to around 70%). I think it’s fair to say that most of us felt the same. Compare to this week – when one us casually mentioned Foucault’s focus on governmentality related to field theory in new institutionalism! I know, right! have to point out that wasn’t me…. and it’s a good job that most of these critical theorists have YouTube videos made by people smarter than us that I can cheat from*!

I started off last year with a strong sense of what I wanted to study – LGB health care professionals and how their sexual orientation affects the patient-provider relationship. I segued (via a policy class) into LGBT patients and how their care and access is affected because of their minority status. This led to a collaborative paper, and a couple of conference talks on the subject. The research and presentations have been oddly cathartic. As with a lot of our discussion on social justice, it has given me language and data to support what my gut already knew. I don’t think I am finished with it – I would like to present the work within my own workplace and continue to push for improvements. However – the burning desire to find out and talk about it has dimmed a little bit. I am not sure what this means for my dissertation. I am reluctant to throw the LGBT baby out with the bathwater, but I am wondering if I would find anything new if I looked at BC Cancer Agency (BCCA) with an organizational analysis lens (now you can see why I am doing this class!)

I’ve been interested in patient education for a long time, and more lately the language and focus has shifted to “patient engagement” and “patient experience”. It’s (to me) old wine in new bottles – we know from narratives, qualitative research and just plain listening to patients that they want to be treated like human beings. However our systems are usually set up in direct opposition to this. A casual conversation with one of our leadership team at BCCA has got me thinking of a new way of providing patients with education, in the form of other people’s experiences. We know that patients coming for treatment want to know primarily “what will it be like”? Reading well-crafted stories can help with that. I am thinking about the great website Faces of Health Care from Ontario as an exemplar, or the UK’s Health Experiences Research Group. A friend from the UK has also co-developed a radiation therapy specific site along these lines. How cool would it be to have one for BCCA, with local stories and experiences, hints and tips and the normalisation of feelings related to diagnosis, treatment and beyond? I am wondering if narrative inquiry could be used for this – a brand new area for me but … I do love stories!

So…lots of ideas and possibilities and horizons opening up for miles! Onwards and upwards!

Finding a research voice

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There are a few things that seem inescapable in our grad work. I have previously mentioned Foucault (or “Mikey” as one of our Profs refers to him) – that bad boy will pop up in every reference list of every paper we read. Another is the idea of the “middle ground” – aka “binaries are bad” (I may be oversimplifying this a bit). As human beings, we love binaries, good and bad, black and white, qualitative and quantitative. Sadly, life is more complex – we really know this but “tidy binaries” are just so comforting and easy to argue about. That’s why poor old bisexuals get a bad rap – come on (our imaginary exemplar yells) – pick a side already! This weekend we were all about the bricoleur, and its accompanying verb – bricolage.  This word is ubiquitous in many of the papers we are reading – it implies someone (the bricoleur) who uses a variety of methods and approaches to construct an argument, a research framework, from what already exists. It implies a pragmatic spirit, flexibility and an ability to weigh what is useful and what can be discarded.  I had seen this term before- and imagined it to be some rarified French philosophical definition, perhaps even by Foucault himself (praise be his name). Turns out it is basically French for DIY – and there are stores in France that are called “Mr. Bricolage”.  Yes, like Home Depot. Bit of a letdown.

Class this weekend was a bit of a bricolage. There was guitar playing, some Pogues, poetry writing, interviewing, free writing, a lesson in drawing owls and an attempt to discuss a paper via Twitter (#itsreallyhard).  We are trusting that this will lead us gently to the point where we can point to a research method/critical theory and say “yes, that is the one I want to take home” but in the meantime we EdD bricoleurs are like magpies – sifting through the piles of shiny, useful and not-so-useful things to construct our nests (which will really be our dissertations, in case you got lost back there.)

The free writing and the poetry writing made me consider issues of voice and style. There is a ton of advice out there about “finding your voice” as a writer, and then there’s the counter argument that voice is seriously overrated.  There is also style, the way in which something is written and why. Style depends on the purpose and the reader/audience. I realised my usual style has become (by default) the writing I do at work. The 3,500 word max, third person, hope-this-will-pass-peer-review journal article and the reports I write have become comfortable and easy for me. What I remembered (as I did the free writing) were the times in the past I wrote for fun, or felt compelled to write – when I needed just to get things out there. I wrote compulsively after my father died of lung cancer, I wrote over and over again about what it had felt like to hold his hand, to feel it go cold, My writing was full of emotion, full of my voice – I couldn’t pull apart the story and how it had made me feel.

The challenge I’m facing (and one of the reasons I started this blog) is to rediscover that voice, that passion. I want to do research – and write about research – with both my head (which I am good at) AND my heart (not my comfort zone). Unlearning the reliance on neutrality and other voices (the references, the multiple supporting quotations) is tough. However, when I remember that the reason I chose my topic (aside from “the current situation sucks”) is because the LGBTQ patients that are “unseen” in our system are also me. I am increasingly feeling that “as I write and theorize the lives of my participants, I theorize my own” (St.Pierre, 1997)- and progressively aware that it’s not only allowed, it’s mandatory.

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6 months in….shifting frameworks, Foucault and procrastination

So….this summer I started a professional doctorate (EdD at UBC) and after a lot of prevarication, perseveration and procrastination I have decided to write about it. A bit. Or parts of it. When I feel like it…..OK – let’s just see how this goes!

My grand idea was to explore complex themes of reflexivity and subsequently mine meaningful nuggets of wisdom from the blog to inform my world-changing doctoral thesis. In all likelihood it will be yet another form of displacement activity and comprise of observations about being a middle-aged student on a campus filled with hipsters – possibly sprinkled with insights about Foucault (I have none at the moment, but that man seems to pop up everywhere).

To say that it’s been a mind-blower would be an understatement. The program is designed for people working full time in educational leadership roles. Most of the participants are in K-!2 or higher education-type roles – a whole new vocabulary and frame of reference for the lonely two of us in health care (social work and radiation therapy). So far it’s been an uneasy juggling act of writing papers, group work, actual work-work, family stuff, binge-eating and panic. Already the subconscious whisper of “you should be writing”  manages to flavour my (so-called) leisure activities*.  The program format is 8 courses (including 2 electives), exams then the dissertation – in theory over 3 years (although average completion time is 7). Having gone the DCR (diploma) – end on degree- radiotherapy Masters route beloved of those trained in the UK in the 1980s (and before) I have very little experience of critical theorists like the lovely Monsieur Foucault – or concepts like neo-liberalism (hint – not a good thing) and (I am rather ashamed to say) even philosophers like Plato (a frequent guest star in our ethics course). But I am glad to report, it is all rather wonderful to consciously shift away from the technical focus of my day job and look at such questions as ‘what makes a good life’ in the company of 10 wise, kind and experienced people. It’s a luxury and a privilege to be able to tackle these ideas, and better late than never!

My probable area of investigation is the experiences of health care professionals (HCPs) who are gay, lesbian and bisexual (GLB) in the cancer care system – I am really interested how their sexual orientation plays into (or doesn’t) their relationship with patients. I’ve been doing a lot of reading about GLB patients in our system – we could definitely make some improvements in helping them access care and feel welcome. Most of the research examining HCPs looks at the work environment – at homophobia for example. I would love to look at where the patient and HCP’s ‘horizons of understanding” meet (a concept from Gadamer illustrating the need to fully understand the other in a relationship). Does it make a difference? Does it matter? Does sexuality affect the fusion of horizons? Will I pick Gadermarian phenomenology as my critical framework – do I really know what it means yet? Stay tuned – more to come!

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*Currently consisting of trying to keep up with my tyrannical FitBit, mess around with #MedRadJClub and binge watch Brooklyn 99. Oh….and Dr. Who.