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FACILITATING REFLECTION AND ACTION THROUGH RESEARCH
REFLECTING ON THE SELF
My challenge began with my own life history; a paper I wrote to locate myself in the research process, to stimulate my ability to reflect, and to substantiate reflection as a central aspect of research. In my case, I wanted to study the institutional responses and the responses of educators in post secondary institutions to the issues of diversity and discrimination. But I could not begin this work without examining my own responses to institutions, change, diversity, and discrimination. What could I learn from my own story and how did that fundamentally influence my self-knowledge and knowledge of others? This was an "unpacking" of myself as well as a way to engage in critical thought about my own motivation: "a reflexive project of the self." (Giddens, 1991, 244)
While writing my own life history, I immersed myself in the subject of biography, narrative, and life history. I began to see connections between my story and the stories of others. At the same time, I saw the potential risk of "storying" each other when engaged in this process. I recognized that we have the capacity to learn about ourselves in reflection, while listening to other people's stories.
I identify myself as a feminist and as a researcher, but this has led to contradictions for me. I began to explore, conceptually, how research participants might benefit from the research process and not be susceptible to the "extraction" paradigm of science and social science. This meant examining the relations of subject-subject and subject-object. How could I be the "good" feminist and not objectify others in the research process? I knew I wanted to move away from notions of "technical rationality" (e.g. following a scientific knowledge prototype) as described by Schön (1983), to a place where reflection would inform the research meaningfully, for the participants as well as myself. I also acknowledged how important it was to explore my subject of enquiry within a context of researcher and the researched (Acker, Barry, & Esseveld, 1996; Gluck & Patai, 1991; Roberts, 1981).
POSITIONING REFLECTION IN RESEARCH
The notion of reflection has a grounding in adult education in which reflection is seen as a critical aspect of practice and learning. Schön (1983) moves from a knowledge-in-action to a reflection-in-action process for the practitioner. Vella (1994) refers to praxis: action with reflection or a process of "doing-reflecting-deciding-changing-new doing" (Vella, 1994,12). This suggests thinking critically about both process and content. As the researcher, I was expected to be reflective and I embraced this notion wholeheartedly. But this left me with a gaping sense of uncertainty as to how I could engage in this practice with my research participants in a genuine and meaningful way. Could this process also be empowering for the individuals where I was building a relationship and in which their experiences were my data?
One of the challenges to reflection is the commodification of time. We live and work in an era where the process of reflection is frequently disregarded and challenged as a "waste of time." This resonates particularly in educational institutions where the language of the day focusses on consumer economies: full time equivalents, expanding class sizes and revenue generation. The managerial culture (Bergquist, 1992) speaks to the notion that the structures of the academy need to be managed, particularly people and money. In this context, time is constructed in a discourse of scarcity.
Another challenge is identifying and addressing any barriers to reflection. Reflection, such as attending to one's own feelings, may not have social support as a worthy activity, thus reflection becomes unacceptable. We internalize these judgements and it makes it even more difficult to be reflective (Newton, 1996). A critical piece is how personal awareness is linked to reflection: "If we are not personally aware that a barrier exists, then how can we possibly seek to overcome it?" (Newton, 1996,143).
I began, thinking hopefully that I would ask my research participants to reflect and therefore generate reflective responses and relationships. One difficulty manifested itself early on, with research participants who came from the perspective where time was a commodity and where disregard for one's own feelings was often normalized. Some of the participants were preoccupied with their work tasks and thus had lapsed in the practice of stopping to think and feel and self-interrogate. I needed to move the researchees and myself to a site where time to reflect was both valued and valuable. One of my own struggles was acknowledging a sense of urgency to "maximize" data collection and how at times this might push me to a place where my imperative was working towards "efficiencies," rather than engaging in the relationship and our mutual and individual reflections.
As well, the reflective research process continued to be contested by a traditional paradigm of researcher and researched. Individual participants had notions of what it meant to participate in research and they determined their role accordingly. They saw me as the researcher and therefore I was determining the inquiry. An inherent contradiction was, of course, that I had designed the research and was asking participants to be reflective within the design. Even as we talked about research being "with" and "for" the participants, it became a struggle of how previous conventions dominated current behaviour. I articulated that this was not participatory action research, but it had strong elements of participation and action, which were more consistent with feminist approaches.
DECONSTRUCTING THE QUESTIONS
"Facts are not given, but constructed by the questions we ask of events" (Lather, 1991, 105). I argue that the construction is also dependent on our relationship and contexts within that questioning milieu. If deconstruction means identifying the positional effects that the questions present, keeping things in process, and examining the contexts of knowledge (Lather, 1991), then deconstructing the questions becomes pivotal for influencing reflection. Questions and research relations may otherwise produce impositional knowledge.
The research included group and individual interviews, as well as a document review. I met with faculty, staff and administrators. Each person came with a background (packed or unpacked), their life story, and different levels of self-awareness. All of these factors shaped their institutional stories. Thus, we constructed a variety of "good" and "bad" narratives. I found myself reacting to the "good" and "bad" stories. In my journal, I tried to examine the basis of my strong responses. Was I overtly supporting negative experiences and disbelieving positive ones? Did the researchees have a vested interest in producing a particular kind of narrative?
I began to ask questions such as "How did you feel about that? How does your own experience shape your reaction, what you see and do?" It was not a question of "What happened, what is?" but finding a way to explore internally as well as externally, emotionally as well as logically. This became the crux of reflection for me.
I became the facilitator as well as the researcher, working through identification of self and renewed self-interrogation. If we struck head on against an identified problem, I asked "Why am I [or you] having a problem with this? What is it about 'this' that is a problem?" I found that some individuals were more reflective than others. Why? My intuition told me that reflection was related to emotional literacy and access to the self. As well, the research process was a production that was space and time bounded. Thus, I had differing relations with each person, we "produced" a different event with each meeting. However, in view of this "production" I had to ask myself: who really creates or facilitates the reflective process and under what conditions?
Our reflections on the self led us to conceptions of identity. Without exception, every participant had an identity with a marginalized group. I began to see how identity exists in direct relation to specific contexts and inquiries. Men who might be signified as "white, middle-class" talked about their own experiences of being racialized because of an affiliation with relative or a friend, or politicized because their parents had working-class occupations. These men, characteristically, would be seen as part of a monolithic group of "white men," but they were more than that. They moved from locations of isolation to locations of power and this influenced how they saw themselves and their work in the institution. These relational aspects of self engendered a deeper sense of awareness of the issues of diversity and discrimination, even though observers might see these men as primarily members of a power group.
Women spoke of their multiple identities of race, gender and class. There were times where gender was paramount, and other contexts where race superseded the dimension of gender. Some sense of struggle emerged around the concept of "white women of privilege" and this opened up new dialogue. The reflections on identity facilitated a "mirroring" process in our meetings. There was a moment when one participant commented to another: "I feel deeply distressed listening to this..." Here, an important link was made between the two people, but also a link was made to their everyday interpretation of the institution. For some, this was a reactivation of the personal and the institutional, there were new examinations of stories that had been assumed, and for others there was a reaffirmation of their role and place: "this is what I do and why."
Identity and identifying with the subject at hand became troublesome for a number of individuals who described their struggle. There emerged a need to move people's perceptions away from the view that discrimination and diversity was a personal issue or agenda. The issue had become individually identified rather than institutionally. This demarcation became a way of minimizing their concerns, as the concerns could be signified as belonging to a small group of people.
The construction of identity and identification was problematic for some, as it is for me. It often raised more questions than it answered by essentializing the group(s) to which we belong. The institution itself represents a place of privilege. The construction of privilege interplays with the margin. Having recognized some of the elements of their own marginalization, the participants in the research began to examine what that meant for them in the future. Did we choose the margin, as hooks (1990) suggests as a place for "radical openness," a place where we can continue the struggle in our own terms? These thoughts and reflections continued well past my time with the participants.
The narrative process began as a dialogue with the researcher and with the self. Reflections made it possible to renegotiate meaning and "truth". Starting from the personal, we moved to the social and the institutional. Where stories of institutional rigidity prevailed, there were attempts to reconstruct what this lack of movement meant. In essence, the researchees began trying different vantage points for their story and its placement within the institutional stories. These attempts were not always successful within the context of the research, but the discussions continued. The measures ("what counts") of movement and change began to shift.
This process provided a time and space for people to articulate their feelings about changes and lack of change in their institution. Through reflection, some notions of what had been achieved were redefined. This was a site in which critical reflection and analysis, both personally and institutionally, took place. The research process influenced a rethinking of action plans, individually and collectively. Reflections also facilitated some redefinitions of knowledge and knowledge processes in action.
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Bergquist, W.H. (1992). The Four Cultures of the Academy. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
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Gluck, S.B. & Patai, D. (Eds.) (1991). Women's Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History. London: Routledge.
hooks, bell (1990). Yearning: race, gender, and cultural politics. Boston: South End Press.
Lather, P. (1991). Getting Smart: Feminist Research and Pedagogy With/in the Postmodern. London: Routledge.
Newton, R. (1996). Getting to grips with barriers to reflection. In M. Zukas (Ed.), Diversity and Development: Futures in the Education of Adults. Proceedings of the 26th Annual Conference. SCUTREA. Leeds: University of Leeds, Department of Adult Continuing Education.
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© Copyright 2002 A.S. Chan, Ph.D. & Associates
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