Stage 1 – Generating data in Colleges

Sociocultural study of Associate students in transition from college to university: How do college learners become university students?

Generating Data

This month, (June 2015) brings me to the end of my Stage 1 of data collection for my study.  Since September (2014), I have been out in my University’s partner colleges observing and interacting with the staff and Associate Students studying HND Civil Engineering and HND Engineering Systems.  These students, provided that they achieve a B pass in their graded unit and an overall HND pass will have a guaranteed place into 3rd year on the corresponding undergraduate programmes at University.  Given the difficulties that I have heard some of my fellow researchers describe, I now believe that gaining access to the Associate Students was relatively straightforward, although immensely time consuming.  The Associate Students that I wanted to meet were distributed across 4 different college campuses, and although senior managers were extremely welcoming and well disposed towards my research, working my way through the hierarches of Curriculum Managers, Programme Leaders, and Lecturers in order to find a way to meet with these students in each location required patience, persistence and a good diary management system.  My plan was to observe student practice in classes or labs on at least two occasions in each college, and to conduct focus groups and interviews in each location.  Thanks to the generosity of college staff and students I achieved all of that, although in one of the colleges I was unable to organise a focus group, but instead I was able to observe one to one tutorial sessions on graded unit submissions.

Generating data as a novice

But this post is not intended to be some sort of victory narrative of my research practice, because although I was eventually able to make my way into the places and spaces where the curriculum was being enacted and students were practicing studentship, the data collection rarely went according to my plans and by the time June came, I began to expect the unexpected, but not necessarily in a good way! On my first day on college campus, I was surprised to find how nervous I was when given the opportunity to explain my research to the students and to invite their consent to participate in my study. Given the number of years that I have worked in and around Scotland’s colleges, I had not anticipated how the role of lecturer or academic developer gave me a sense of legitimacy in the classroom which I realised that I lacked when approaching students and staff as a researcher. The practice of observation also didn’t go according to plan because although I had undertaken pilot observations, those were undertaken in my own university where I had taken for granted that sense of belonging which was so lacking as I stood in front of my first group of HND Engineering Associate Students. I felt awkward as I looked around the class, made notes and listened in on conversations. I had intended to take photographs to support and add to my observation notes, but that seemed to be too intrusive for a group that I had only just met. So I returned home empty handed on the photo front but with plenty field notes to write up for a first attempt. I had not anticipated just how exhausting two hours of observation would be – on arriving home after a drive of around 15 miles, I promptly fell asleep in my driveway!


Since that day in September 2015, I have become a little more accomplished in outlining my research to potential participants, in finding a place to sit where I don’t trip up staff or students, in operating the recording equipment, in making sure the camera contains a memory card, in speed writing when interview participants do not want me to use an audio-recorder during the interview and in ignoring the overwhelming sound of pneumatic drilling during a focus group.

My initial attempts at focus groups failed to elicit meaningful discussion about Associate Students expectations for going to University. In order to disrupt the tension and formality of traditional data-gathering methods, I asked the participants to work in groups to create models of themselves as Associate Students and as University students using toy-based artefacts and accessories; Mr Potato Head constructions sets, Fuzzy pipe-cleaners and soft modelling clay (Plasticine). The students presented their models to the other group and I recorded the conversations during the activity and the whole group discussion afterwards. I have some interesting photographs of the models and the contrasts between the two models as well as pictures taken during observations. I find the photographs I have taken to be very helpful as memory prompts when writing up field notes and useful for supporting conference presentations (SoE PhD Conference, May 2015, VERA Researching into Higher Education: Innovative Research Methods, May 2015, and QAA International Enhancement Theme Conference June 2015).


I had not anticipated that throughout the research process I would get to know and like my research participants, nor that we would form relationships involving shared understanding, laughter and respect. I have become more confident, or is it brazen now, as I meet with students or staff in my research capacity. I am looking forward to September when I will meet these students as third year students on campus when I hope that they will join me in exploring their practice as undergraduates. I will know to expect the unexpected this time around.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Mid-point review – 20th August 2014.

Writing for the mid-point review felt as though it was a worthwhile and even satisfying experience.  It felt good to be able to pull things together and to consolidate my position in relation to my research project at a fixed point in time.  Prior to producing the mid-point review doc, I had mostly been writing pieces to submit for supervision meetings about areas that I thought might be important or interesting, or as a way of sorting things out in my head.  The most significant way for me  to find out what I know and understand about a topic, is to start some sort of  writing assignment and to see what happens.  That’s when I find out what I don’t understand, where my confusion lies and where the literature might relate to what I am trying to do with my research project.  I wrote and rewrote almost three times before arriving at the final draft that I submitted.  I found my supervisor’s feedback to be essential, but I’m very glad that we met face to face to discuss the earlier versions – I don’t think I’d have handled the feedback so well had it taken the form of comments in the margin – there was a lot to re-do in the earlier versions, and I strongly suspect I would have lost heart if faced with endless comments boxes fringing my fledgling attempts at writing a review.

Proposal for midpoint review final

Observation is one of the data generation techniques that I’ll be using to generate data and I chose to discuss my thinking about how to  go about this for my presentation.  I think I made a good choice with this topic and I produced an utterly straightforward presentation containing no tricky slides and no concepts that I could trip up on.    It helped to settle me into the room and allowed my heart rate to settle to something approaching normal.

midpoint review

If my presentation was straightforward, the discussion afterwards about what I had written in my mid-point review was another story entirely.  I think it would be fair to say that this panel (chaired by Cate Watson) left no stone unturned.  The questions were relevant and appropriate (eg the literature I had chosen, its limitations, Associate Students scheme, the conceptual framework, explain CHAT, why CHAT, its limitations, why the choice of these particular activity systems, why the limits on the formal spaces when so much happens for students in the informal spaces, why photoelicitation , what pictures and for what purpose, pilots and their purpose).  Each person on the panel asked  two or three questions in the first volley and just as I began to think perhaps I could survive this session without requiring urgent medical assistance, the next round of questions occurred.  I wish I could have recorded the panel’s questions and my replies but I’m sure that’s not protocol for these events.  I’m pleased to report that I passed, and I have now been officially ‘upgraded’  to a PhD student and I am absolutely delighted and relieved.

Feedback from the panel suggested that I should do the following

  • Engage to a greater extent with the literature on transition within Scotland and beyond;
  • Continue to develop my understanding of the methodological framework for the study which will inform decisions around, for example, defining the boundaries of the activity systems (including ways in which participants might contribute to this);
  • Explore the literature on methods, for example around photoelicitation, and use the pilots to develop a sense of how these may best be developed in the study;
  • Justify my focus on the ‘formal’ spaces of transition;
  • Continue to identify relevant training needs and seek out opportunities to meet these.


So now its time to start the work getting ready for the pilots …

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

PhD Workshop March 2014

PhD Workshop March 2014

 The March 2014 workshop comprised the usual mixture of receiving vital information, sharing in the process of making meaning and insights (where previously only incomprehension had prevailed), giving and receiving feedback and above all, being intellectually inspired, practically motivated and greatly encouraged.  I’ll say a little bit about each of those in this post. 

 Information – developing as a researcher

 I note that I should attend to the following:

Doctor Conference in May – I need to apply and to think about what I should contribute by way of presentation.

Propel Conference (I have already applied) – poster contributions will be welcome.  Dare I?

The Scottish Graduate School runs from June 9 – 21, but the 16th – 21st is likely to be of particular interest.  I will try to see if I can attend this.  Effective diary management seems to be an essential skill if you are to successfully study for a PhD while working full time.

 PhD Review – some point between June and August. 

 I would like to submit around June, so that I can make arrangements to start data collection in August 2014.  I fear I may be being too ambitious time-wise, but I’m determined to attempt this.  If I am not successful in writing and presenting my review, then I have to wait until August 2015 before I can start to work with Associate Students on their programmes in college prior to their articulating to University. 

 The PhD review will comprise the following:

  • Literature review (Issue/topic, context eg policy, theory methodology)
  • Clarify research questions
  • Choice of research site (including methods of recruiting participants)
  • Choice of methods (ethnography, student diaries using digital tools)
  • Ethical procedures (I should find out dates for the Ethics boards at Stirling and at Edinburgh Napier)

 Doing Derrida – or being done over by Derrida

 Ian Munday led a fantastic session on Derrida – I had tried hard beforehand to make sense of ideas such a logocentricism and deconstruction and had spectacularly failed, so it was a real pleasure to have the opportunity to engage in dialogue amongst our group before, during and after this session in order to reveal some sort of meaning.  It’s interesting to see how hard I’m finding it to write a paragraph about what we discussed about Derrida.  There seems to be a meaning-thief who acts stealthily inside my head, being welcomed in by Time.  While my attention is drawn to different other things, places and people, the meaning-thief crawls into the cracks in my understanding and steals the tentative constructions that are starting to take shape in my head before I’ve had a chance to shore them up and to create firm foundations. I wish therefore that I had written this paragraph before now as this would have made my emergent understanding harder to unsettle. 

I think that both Derrida and Saussure assert that there is no necessary connection between the mark of the signifier (the linguistic sign) and the content of the signified.  But Saussure adopts a logocentric assumption that there is in fact some meaning which pre-exists the sign, whereas Derrida proposes that presence is waiting to be brought into being by the mark of the signifier.  The term ‘mark’ is used since its presence always conveys absence.  You can only see a mark (a footprint, a signature) when the signifier is absent.  Writing comes first and produces meaning, but every word is dependent on the words that are absent for its meaning.    This idea of presence in absence presents endless possibilities for thinking about things differently.  Derrida talks about words as being haunted by previous meanings, and meanings to come.  ‘’Language doesn’t stand still but is always ‘on the way’’. Perhaps the most significant point that I understand from this session on Derrida is the importance of seeing presence in terms of absence.  For example, if some aspect of a theory, concept, curriculum is said to be ‘important’, then it’s interesting to think about how other aspects not mentioned must therefore be presumed to be seen as  ‘unimportant’ – and why might that be?  Derrida offers us a way of thinking critically about what we say and write, enabling other ways of seeing things – being hospitable to the unexpected.  Deconstruction involves being attuned to the gaps, being attuned to the history of ideas, their contexts and I think that’s tremendously helpful. 

 Writing a Thesis – early thoughts

 John and Tara shared the leadership of this session, presenting a variety of ideas based on a series of readings that we had all prepared. One of the things that I love about these workshops is the commitment amongst us all to undertake the advised preparation – it makes for really meaningful and lively discussion.  John observed that concepts allow us to do things which we wouldn’t otherwise have been able todo.  Bringing theorists to our data enables fresh ways of moving on.  Our encounter with the field will resist some interpretation and invite others in.  We are advised not to be tied to only one theoretical framework to early, instead, try to think about the multiple inter-relationships and allow ideas to emerge from and amongst the materials. 

It’s important to be reflexive in our writing, and to consider  the ways in which I (as author) am I implicated as an insider in how and what is being written.  So for my research into academic transitions, and in particular from college to university, I too have made that transition in my professional life, and this will affect my perspectives and the meanings that I ascribe to events.  Tara reminds us to explain clearly what we mean when writing about our research, unfold the idea, taking the reader by the hand.  she always makes this sort of advice seem so sensible, do-able and desireable to achieve.  What a great motivational team in John and Tara 

 Next steps

 What comes next for me is first of all a piece of a review linking transition studies and CHAT, secondly, first attempts at writing about my methodology.  I hope to have achieved both of those things by the end of April 2014.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Conceptual framework

I am making progress – very, very slow progress, but I think I have pinned down in very broad terms that I will be using key concepts from Cultural Historical Activity Theory underpin my study.  My latest piece of writing is attached, with comments from my supervisor.

CHAT for my study with RE comments

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

PhD Workshop November 2013

PhD Workshop – 7th and 8th November 2013

Presented by Prof Tara Fenwick and Prof John Ianson, with special guest Prof John Field

I’m tired, it’s raining and it’s early Friday morning in November 2013.  I’ve been studying late each evening this week making last minute preparations for this workshop and I’m surprised to find that as I walk up the damp steps of the Pathfoot Building I feel distinctly nervous.  I’m unsure whether or not my preparations will have been sufficiently detailed and whether or not the materials that I’ve prepared to share and present will be intelligible to any one at all.  These last few months I have found myself pulled by the literature in all sorts of unexpected and potentially unproductive directions and I have spent weeks wading through books and papers which I find really difficult to understand and for which I have very little to show – I feel as though I have lost direction.  But as the members of our cohort gather and Tara and John join us, I find that I am hugely pleased to see everyone.  The workshop begins and I forget to feel anxious.  Instead I find myself far too busy thinking, listening and writing notes to pay any attention to my own emotional state and before I know it, we are planning our Saturday evening distractions and saying farewell.  See you in February 2014!

At this point, I hear my supervisor’s voice in my ear saying ‘But what did you learn Julia?’, so after due reflection, re-reading my notes and following up on some recommended reading, in the next few paragraphs I will try to identify key learning highlights starting with Bourdieu.   Prof John Field in his capacity as Guest Speaker, led an amazing discussion about Bourdieu’s key concepts.   There’s something so different about hearing rather than reading expositions of complex concepts.  I’m not sure I’ve ever heard any one use the term ‘habitus’ and ‘symbolic violence’ in their proper Bourdieusian context and my understanding moves up a gear when I start to understand how to use these new (to me) conceptual tools conversationally.  Other nuggets of information which John shared and which I had missed from my own preliminary reading were so valuable, such as the fact that Bourdieu based his work on the analysis of large scale surveys, and an introduction to the term ‘sensitising concepts’ as way of accommodating different  interdisciplinary approaches within a research team.  The Experiences of Non-traditional Learners in Higher Education (RANLHE) project looks as if it something that I should be exploring, and a special edition of the Studies in the Education of Adults Journal (Vol. 45, No. 2, Autumn 2013 ) will be helpful in this regard.  John Fields argues that social class is a significant determining factor in education, and particularly in higher education, and so it’s a topic that I will address in my literature review, but I don’t think Bourdieu will form theoretical basis of the analysis of my research project, but I look forward to reading some more before making any final decisions.

The exercise of using Bourdieusian concepts to analyse the HGIOS reports was so encouraging because I began to believe that if I can learn with the support and contributions of others how to be critical of policy documents, then that is definitely taking me a step closer to thinking critically about all of the literature that I’m encountering.  It also provided an example of how theoretical concepts can be ‘pulled through’ data in order to illuminate aspects that would not otherwise reveal themselves.  A different theoretical framing would of course generate different insights, and I’m beginning to see how there is no one ‘correct’ theory to use for my research.  Instead, it’s a question of identifying which concepts will be most useful in answering my particular research questions.  I’m still drawn to CHAT in some form or other but trying not to be bedazzled by Bourdieu!

The session on ‘designing methods for your study’ was extremely helpful since it brought together a great deal of material presented by Tara in a straightforward manner.  I felt the value of those hours spent pouring over the pages of the SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research.  However, this session led into a much more alarming discussion about the 10 month review (or 15 month in our case), and made me realise just how much would need to be decided over the coming months.  I’m going to need to schedule all of this activity very carefully if I hope to gather data in September 2014.  A monthly plan is definitely needed, along with plenty of industry and thinking.

Hurry, hurry, hurry – I could never have guessed how pressed for time I would feel given that there’s six years to complete.  It never ceases to amaze me just how much I have to learn in a pretty short time, but I always leave these workshops believing that it is possible to do it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Participant pictures

As part of the forthcoming PhD Summer workshop, we are invited to ‘try a new method’ using personal mobile technologies and/or cameras for obtaining information about wider systems, or some aspect of events that are likely to relate to our intended research area.

In its very broadest sense, I am going to be investigating academic practice relating to academic transitions amongst articulating students in college and in university.  Most of my academic colleagues were on holiday, or at least not teaching over the summer months when I was ready to undertake this assignment, so I recruited my husband to explore his interpretation of what he considered to be important to his professional practice as a solicitor.  The narrative and pictures below represent his response in terms of the photos that he took with his mobile phone, and the narrative that he handwrote to accompany the pictures:

Book – ‘The Child Support Act is my ‘usp’ as it represents the core of why many people want to speak to me.’  Child Support Act book

Ring: ‘Symbolises what I do it all for …’

wedding ring


Computer: ‘The computer is what I spend most of my day looking at.  How people communicate with me and I with them.  My friend, and my occasional enemy.  This is my PA’s desk and symbolises a collegiate approach.  I can’t do any of it alone.’

Desk with computerCalculator: It does what I have never been able to do.  I have always know ‘what’ to do, but this tells me ‘how much’.


Waste-paper bin:  ‘There are always too many facts.  The real skill is to see what really matters and what should be discarded.  This is too little understood.’

Waste-paper bin


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Observation – Community Centre Cafe

Community Centre Café – Observation

Each  morning from Tuesday 2nd to Thursday 4th July 2013 I’ve been sitting in the Community Centre cafe from 10am – 12.30pm. It’s the start of the school summer holidays and the junior section on the Fife Youth Jazz Orchestra workshop is being held in the X Community Centre for children aged 8 – 13.  Over the years, both my sons have learned to live, breathe and play jazz through participating with this band and it’s my younger son’s second year at the summer school, which explains my presence here in this café – it’s more productive for me to sit and read about qualitative research while the workshop takes place than it is to drive to and from my house to this part of Fife.  This is a place that I know well since my son attends weekly rehearsals here, being one where I feel comfortable reading, observing and taking notes.

The observations noted below were made from 11.00 – 11.30am on Thursday 4th   July 2013.  The aim of the observation was to observe social rules and how these were being enacted, or not.

The boundary which demarcates the café area is not well enforced – there’s an open plan feel to the whole Community Centre.  A wide  door (permanently open) at one side and an open archway at the other mean that customers and their buggies and wheelchairs flow in and out from the other parts of centre quite naturally.  The toilets are located beyond the café boundary, and there are other comfortable places to sit in the foyer and the informal exhibition centre that abuts the café.  The small café tables are well spread out, the seats are not particularly comfortable (I should know as I’ve sat on them for many hours now!) and make a good deal of noise as people pull them out to take their place at the table.  Most tables accommodate 4 people, but some are smaller for 2 – it’s one of these small tables that I have taken as my observation point.  Generally, if there is more than one customer, a 4-seat table is used and although the café is constantly busy, there’s always plenty of tables available.

IMAG0504 IMAG0505

Customers approach the server point (pictured above), picking up a tray and making their food selection.  Everyone seems to know how the serving system works (there are no explanatory signs) and it resembles a pattern commonly adopted in well known coffee shops (Starbucks etc); stand beside the hotplate for hot food orders and/or move up to the till to place orders for hot drinks and to purchase items selected from the chilled cabinet.  There is a good deal of friendly interaction between server and customers.  The café workers wear  black uniforms including head scarves so all of the customers know who is in charge here. There’s a loyalty card for coffee purchase which indicates an expectation that customers may be ‘regulars’.  I was asked if I would like one, and indeed I drank all six of the required cups of coffee and enjoyed my free cup immensely!  The café workers use their judgement about who might need a receipt – I don’t know what the criteria are for this interaction, but I wasn’t offered one.  I guess that carers may claim for refreshments purchased for their clients and café workers have a good idea who the regular receipt-takers are.

There are signs on the tables inviting customers to ‘please help us by cleaning the tables’, and universally I observed the customers clearing the café tables.  The tables are wiped by the café workers and all appear to interact with everyone including the disabled customers, who are often sitting silently.   At one point a middle aged man began rocking quite vigorously in his wheel chair, making loud sounds …”oh you’re happy today” remarks the server as she passes by wiping tables.  Eventually a relative arrives (mother) and food and refreshments are ordered and the middle-aged man, the woman accompanying him, and another woman settle down for chat and refreshments,  but the disabled man does not appear to be included in the conversation.

There are many atypical aspects to this café; for a start, it’s an incredibly sociable place – far more so than I have observed in many city centre cafes.  Noise and commotion seems to be expected and is not even commented upon.  The customers are a diverse group; quite elderly carers (grandparents?) bring their very young toddler charges and I see them order cold drinks, sweets, crisps and cakes for the children, and hot drinks, cakes and sometimes hot food for themselves.  Many of the customers are severely disabled and accompanied by family or other carers.  During the period I observed, none of the disabled customers ordered food from the counter, and only a few actually consumed food or drinks in the café, although sometimes their carers/relatives did. The pattern seemed to be that carers order for their clients who sit quietly at the table.  Customers sitting at different tables often greet one another and there’s a real sense of this being a community centre, rather than just a cafe.  There are formal encounters that I observe taking place at several tables, perhaps business meetings or maybe even interviews and what seems like teaching and learning encounters of some sort or other where one customer appears to be providing feedback to the other.

The children attending the jazz workshop use the café for their snack during the recreation break.  Most of the children are familiar with this venue  and at break time (11.30) they burst into the cafe with much exuberance.  They rummage for money out of jeans and jacket pockets (there are no purses  or wallets in sight) each handling their own money, making their own choices of snack and drink from the counter.  The staff are consistently friendly as they engage individually with this long and pretty disorganised line of small customers. The staff seem to enjoy their presence and are undaunted as some of them jump, skip and run into the café.  None of the children use the vending machine.   The girls arrive chattering like a flock of brightly coloured finches, eventually alighting on the 2 sofas at one end of the seating area while the boys sidle up to the counter , each one on their own – oh and there’s my son, sidling in by himself in accordance with the expectations if this group for his age and gender.  The social rule here seems to be that the boys don’t speak to the girls and they don’t eat their snack in the cafe area.  Instead they prefer to wander around the open area outside the studio where the jazz workshop is being held.  They don’t look as though they are having nearly as much fun during the break as the girls are.  Only one of the adults leading the workshop uses the café during the time I observed (perhaps the rest are enjoying a break from interacting with the children), and at the end of the break time, the girls appear to organise themselves to return to the rehearsal studio without adult intervention.  Many of the girls head for the tray racks in order to follow the instructions on self-clearing tables, and some boys return to the cafe area bins to dispose of their snack rubbish.

A group of customers arrive comprising wheelchair users and people who I presume to be carers.  A young women in a wheel chair introduces herself to the others grouped around her table, and the carers respond to her introduction with enthusiasm.  The group don’t order any refreshments, but one of the carers has a drink of water from a water bottle which she takes out of her bag.  There are other wheelchair users who have gathered in a open space beyond the cafe area, there’s more interaction amongst that group- they are noisy and busy getting themselves organised.   The carers speak to one another at the table in the cafe but the others in the group are quiet after the initial introduction.  At some preappointed time, the group head off to one of the rooms elsewhere in the centre.  There doesn’t seem to be any problem that they haven’t ordered anything from the food service ara.

There’s a wide screen television in the corner which is muted, but I think its showing chidlren’s films.  It remains unwatched – I don’t think people come to this community centre to watch TV.  I have found it fairly challenging to comment on the social rules in operation in this community centre cafe because I am not part of the group.  As an outside observer, I don’t know what rules are being enacted in this place, for example I don’t recognize the rules which underpin interaction between carers and their charges because I am neither being cared for nor am I a carer.  I can only see these interactions from my own perspective.  I think I would need to live, work and care here before I would be able to do this vibrant and really special place any justice at all.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment