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'Being Goldilocks,' and Writing a PhD Research Proposal

So, I am 3 years into my PhD and a little behind (although one of my supervisors says there is never really a timeline on a PhD, it comes together when and how it does, there is no 'forcing' it). My goal was to finish this step of the program by the end of the summer, and I even went on a bit of a 'retreat' for a week to do a final push.

I did write something, but it wasn't what my co-supervisors were looking for. Unfortunately though, I think it was the only thing I could have written at the time. And I think they knew that. I was going deep on areas of emerging theory like Post-Qualitative Inquiry (even spend 4 days reading one very dense but also very rich article by St. Pierre on it), Posthumanism (mainly from Braidotti) and Agential Realism (based on the work of Barad). My thought was to do a theoretical dissertation that would dive deep into these areas of theory and how they might inform learning in community and community development practice.

I should mention as a reminder at this point that the PhD I'm doing is in Educational Studies, but I'm also a community development consultant and coach, and I'm also interested in how meditative inquiry as an approach to learning could enhance learning and practice in community development. I have a Masters in Adult Education specializing in Community Development, and have been an adult educator and community development practitioner for many years.

So, I thought I knew what my research question was and a key part of writing a research proposal is writing a 'methodology' chapter related to HOW I would go about doing my research. However, in post-qualitative inquiry thinking from St. Pierre she argues we shouldn't be doing 'methodology' chapters because they are too rigid and in her mind we need to break out of various 'boxes' many students are taught in how we do research today. Thus the term, 'post' in post-qualitative inquiry.

I was very excited by her arguments and thought I would be clever and write a 'no methodology' methodology chapter. I also threw in some preliminary stuff in the introduction of my proposal related to posthumanism, agential realism and meditative inquiry. Then I sent it off to my co-supervisors at the end of my retreat. Feeling rather proud, though also knowing I was done for the moment and needed some feedback before I went further.

The feedback I got was very well done. I was upset and frustrated at first, but really they were lovely and didn't try to tell me what to do. They just said what I had created was very unfinished, and really I had two choices. I could do a very theoretical, post-qualitative study but I would have to do A LOT more reading and learning about PQI, posthumanism and agential realism. Or, I could focus more strongly on my interest in meditative inquiry (which is where earlier versions of my research question had started) and use a method of auto-biographical research called 'Currere.'

It took me a couple of days, but I was also reminded that when I presented my 'portfolio' a few months earlier a key piece of advice from the external examiner was that I should 'focus' what I wanted to study more, and how I wanted to study it. It was a very valuable piece of advice that I had completely forgotten in my deep dive into PQI, posthumanism and agential realism. It was good to be reminded of it, and very smart coaching on the part of my co-supervisors.

Their suggestion also reminded me that other committee members had suggested a similar approach before, especially since I'm what many would consider a 'mature' student coming at a PhD later in life than most but also with many life experiences. The approach they had suggested was auto-ethnography.

Now, I'm not 100% sure (since I'm still learning this stuff myself), but if you think of the key components of a traditional methodology chapter you want to cover your methods, the methodology behind the methods you're going to use in your research (yes, there is a difference), the epistemological approach that underpins your methodological approach and then what kind of ontology relates to or explains the epistemological approach you feel drawn to or have chosen.

For those not familiar with these terms, here's a video that explains them really well using an iceberg analogy and another that explains auto-ethnography well. Basically, for me, I think my method will be to use currere as part of a broader methodological approach in keeping with auto-ethnography. This is partly why I'm writing a blog today. A big part of auto-ethnography is to write frequently about one's life experiences as a way of capturing them, but also of reflecting further on them and discovering experiences in one's own story that could resonate with others.

Epistemologically, if I'm to continue to flesh out a rough version of my 'methodological' chapter of my research proposal here, I will say I don't believe in objectivity or the idea that there are 'facts' or absolute 'truths.' I think all knowledge is subjective and a form of 'bricolage;' that is an accumulation of experiences and learning that individuals experience and then contribute to as a form of collective wisdom.

I know and value the 'scientific method' for instance, but I also know science changes. A fundamental building block of science is that people write up their experiments or 'experiences' of phenomena or learnings about the world (or in the case of social science, about human beings as well), share them with others doing similar work and then see if others can repeat or build on that work. No one study is ever taken as gospel or 'fact' or 'truth' until others have verified it in some way.

In the social sciences, I would say things are even more complex. We are dealing with human beings, how they organize themselves, interact with each other, think of themselves and all the messiness that implies. The question of what is the nature of existence is a very complicated one, and what is the nature or reason for 'our' existence as human beings, or now as part of a larger ecology of existence with other living and non-living beings, the planet and the cosmos, is even more complicated.

This is partly what posthumanism (as a potential 'ontology' or way of understanding the nature of existence and 'being') is wrestling with these days and Rosi Braidotti is one of the field's pioneers and experts. Agential Realism through the work of Karen Barad is another. I'm very intrigued with both because they and others in these fields are pushing the boundaries of how we think of ourselves as 'human' but also how we see ourselves in relation to other living and non-living beings, the planet and the cosmos. Barad even crosses disciplines and brings their life as a physicist into the work they do in the social sciences.

I am fascinated in how these philosophers are also responding to many of the current challenges we are facing today (climate change, technological change and changing understandings of what it means to be human, who is considered human, how we are relating to each other, how we have related to each other, and how we could be in relation with each other - as well, again, as other living and non-living beings, the planet and beyond. I feel like if we are going to find ways to create more compassionate, kind and inclusive communities and societies focused on creating wellbeing for ALL of us (living and non-living) and the planet, we need to explore new ways of thinking about ourselves and the planet.

I am a big fan of science fiction. Star Trek. Asimov's Foundation. Dune. Even Dan Brown's book called Origin. They all challenge us to think about our future, as well as reflecting on our past and present. This also happens to be a key part of currere which includes four phases of reflection, which in simple terms refers to: the Regressive, the Progressive, the Analytical and the Synthetic. One of the pioneers of currere was Bill Pinar, who was also a supervisor for one of my professors, Dr. Ashwani Kumar, who went on to pioneer 'meditative inquiry' as an approach to learning.

Meditative inquiry as an approach to learning though that has never been applied to learning in community or community development, as far as both Dr. Kumar and I know. Thus, I'm interested in what the possibilities could be if we were to imagine and experiment with using it as another tool in the work and practice of learning in community or community development.

Just to bring this all together, what I'm now thinking about for my 'methodology' chapter for my research proposal is how reflections on my own journey as an adult educator and community development practitioner could help inform my research question, using currere as a method of research. The goal here though is not just to indulge in personal reflection without having a specific purpose. The goal is, as is often mentioned in discussions of auto-ethnography, is to acknowledge the subjectivity of the personal and individual experience but also look at how those experiences could resonate with others, and inform the practice and learning of others.

This feels good to me, in the same way Goldilocks finally found just the right temperature porridge, and the right size and type of chair and bed, after exploring many other ways of doing things. It has been a journey though, and I'm so far from being finished yet. However, while sometimes the journey is a struggle, I'm also really enjoying it. As a learner, I enjoy both theory and practice. I also come from fields that emerged from practice before there was theory, both education and community development. Theory related to the study of these fields is also very new. To me, the two are intertwined - and I'm not just talking about theory and practice, but also in many ways education (especially adult education) and community development.

If we want to create a better world, we need to think about how we learn, how we share learning with others, how well we know ourselves as practitioners within either of these fields, what our biases are, and what our strengths are. So, as I continue my journey - in life, as well as a PhD Candidate, I hope I can continue to enjoy the ride.

I'm not sure yet how everything I'm interested in will fit together, and I know I can't just write about everything. I need to focus to get this PhD done in a reasonable amount of time, but it has also opened so many interesting doors and windows that I hope I'll have years yet to continue to explore. Maybe that's the point of a PhD (beyond professional reasons). Maybe it's the point of learning in general. Finding what makes us curious and being able to follow that curiosity, and make a life's work out of it, what else could one ask for?

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