Eight months in and I now have my first conference presentation under my belt. On Thursday 12th May, ACES (Faculty of Arts, Computing, Engineering and Sciences) organised and hosted the second annual METHOD Conference.
METHOD 2016 is a broad, experimental frame to bring together our University research student community. Every research student must use a method to find something out, or gain new insights, and must be able to articulate their process in a way that others inside and outside of their field can understand. Method, then, offers a context where we might find some common ground, and where we might also explore our differences.
Open to all research students, attendees therefore spanned the disciplines across the University, with talks ranging from artificial intelligence to the legal issues associated with shopping centres and from participatory research in the museums sector to wrist protectors for snowboarders. In the four main sessions, there were parallel strands, each of which had four 15 minute presentations plus Q&As. Thirty-two students, mainly but not exclusively those early in their research, provided presentations to mixed audiences of their peers, supervisors and other interested academics. With around a hundred delegates, the atmosphere was familiar and friendly; much less intense than at larger conferences or those tightly-focused in a disciplinary area.
After taking the plunge and deciding to submit an abstract, choosing a method left me with a number of options. I’ve now completed two pilot studies, but rather than revisit those areas, I thought I might gain more by focusing on one I have yet to undertake. That way I got to prepare the pilot I would have been undertaking anyway, but simultaneously did the prep for the presentation. I chose the focus group I’m planning to conduct through a Twitter educational hashtag chat. Knowing that I would be facing a wider audience than I might usually do, served to focus the mind rather more than normal. Since the presentations weren’t recorded on the day, I decided to attempt to redeliver and record it (went a little bit over the 15 mins this time though!):
I was happy enough with my delivery on the day and was glad I’d taken the trouble to rehearse it beforehand, even though the final few minutes were slightly more rushed than I’d have preferred. It seemed be received well, but in such a considerate atmosphere and with so many of us very early in our research, it’s hard to know the extent to which people were just being polite. I wasn’t so sure whether, in trying to cater for an audience from a wide range of disciplines, I lost some of the depth that a PhD study should have? A fine balance I’m not convinced I got right.
There were things that with hindsight, and having learned from some of my colleagues, I’d now do differently. In trimming what I originally produced, to fit the 15 minute slot, I perhaps sacrificed some of the background. I think I should have included where this online method is located within the larger literature of online ethnographic research and I’m not sure I made its methodological contribution sufficiently explicit. I also wish I’d kept in the Google presentation Q&A feature that I chose to ditch when I learned the Q&As would be in panel format at the end of each session. Although I couldn’t perhaps have used it as intended, it might have provided the opportunity for people to ask questions specific to my presentation.
I never cease to be both amazed and humbled by the research my colleagues are undertaking. It’s invariably incredibly interesting and often seems far more worthy than mine, and although it’s partly imposter syndrome creeping in, there’s no doubt that many of these people are far brighter than me. They’re sharper, more astute and more lucid.
If I had Harry’s wand (no euphemism intended), there would be a couple of spells I’d want to cast. The first is that despite all the preliminary guidance provided and the exhortations of the conference organisers, in my unqualified opinion, some colleagues didn’t stick as closely to the theme as they perhaps could have. I’m not sure METHOD was as prominent in their presentations as it might have been and that they talked at greater length about their research in general. Secondly, and again neglecting the advice we were given beforehand, a good number of colleagues read from a script, rather than speaking naturally. Personally I find it harder to maintain my focus when a presenter is delivering in that way, but that’s my problem, not the presenter’s. I understand completely if someone is giving a presentation in a language which is not their first, and have nothing but admiration for them, but I’ve been surprised by how common it is, even from established,experienced, native English-speaking, highly regarded academics. I suppose it’s all very well for me to say that when my career largely involved speaking in front of groups of people, day in and day out. What I find perplexing though is how articulate and fluid those who read from their script invariably are in the Q&A session. This is an arena I find particularly challenging.
I thought the panel discussion Q&A sessions were particularly generous to nervous presenters like me. You didn’t feel quite as exposed as you might if the questions had followed straight after your own presentation. I know I often struggle to marshal a cogent answer, even to sometimes rather straightforward questions. There was one question which was passed to me after two other presenters for whom it was more relevant had answered. It concerned the topic of engagement, which was a significant issue for the participatory techniques my colleagues had used. My answer had been less than satisfactory because I hadn’t recognised at the time that engagement was equally important in my research method too, although it did take a different form. So I’ll now take a stab at a more considered answer than the more evasive one I gave at the time.
Engagement in the context of a hashtag chat focus group should be considered on two levels. First there is engagement in the chat as it is usually conducted; an event where educators assemble to discuss predetermined issues. If people choose to ‘attend,’ then they have made a positive decision to do so and one might therefore assume their interest or engagement. The same would be true for a session in which a focus group is conducted. If people are there, then they have chosen to be so, however, for the purposes of research, one might hope for a level of commitment (or engagement) not necessarily found in an informal ‘chat.’ That’s expecting too much; the hashtag focus group, unlike its offline sister, is a much less formal and structured event. As I mentioned in my presentation, the moderator has no idea whether the participants are fully involved (engaged?) in the discussion, or whether they’re doing so whilst preparing their evening meal say. This might be one of the areas where offline and Twitter focus groups are very different. Some might point to how superficial Twitter is with its microbit, 140 character utterances; one more indication of its unsuitability as an arena for serious discussion. (I wonder why no-one did point that out?). Perhaps it’s just that the discussion is different and has to be analysed differently. The online and offline versions may share the name ‘focus group,’ but perhaps they’re two different methods? So to return to engagement then. Maybe it’s multiple, rather than singular; located shifting across a spectrum of levels of commitment. Or in trying to define it or expect it, are we doing our research participants a disservice? As Kate Soper suggests with her learners, defining engagement rests with those who are producing it.
I do hope a third conference is to follow; I’m keen to talk about a method I’ve used, rather than one I’m hoping to use. If it does go ahead, I have more hopes. All presenters need to embrace the overarching conference theme and restrict their presentations solely to their method(s); it’s simply not the forum to talk about your research in toto. If panel Q&As are used once more, I think we as the audience need to try to restrict our questioning to the session themes, thereby allowing all to contribute. There was a tendency for some to pursue specific points with specific presenters … at length. Perhaps the Google Q&A feature might help everyone?