Home > Shifting research > Listening for the silences and absences

Listening for the silences and absences

March 31st, 2010
Yesterday Jennifer and I met (in person, wow!) to talk about our AERA paper. We’ve yet to start actually writing “the paper”, although we already have many pieces of writing that represent stepping stones towards it. As we said we’d do in our original research announcement, we’ve been blogging little micro-chunks of our data analysis and emerging thinking/questions along the way, hoping that some of our readers and shiftingthinking community members would respond with their own thoughts, responses, questions, challenges, reflections, arguments, anecdotes. We’ve already received a number of very insightful responses and Jennifer and I have really appreciated the additional ideas/perspectives you’ve offered. Soon we’ll decide how we’re going to weave all of these threads, ideas, and conversations together into a paper that bears a decent semblance to the paper plan we originally submitted to AERA last year.

Desert Oasis (c) Rachel Bolstad, 2007

(I actually think we’re pretty close, but it reminds me of something someone once told me about writing a thesis: It’s like a mirage of a desert oasis – the closer you get, the further away it seems….)!! 

Yesterday when we were talking about the exchanges and dialogues between yourselves and us through the blogs and comments, we returned to that old question about who’s not commenting, who’s not participating in these conversations. To illustrate, in her last posting, dark and disruptive methodologies, Jennifer talked about some areas/questions that various of us (within our team of educational researchers) have found the most uneasy and unsettling when it comes to the purposes and implications of this shiftingthinking space (or as she phrased it, “the ways that blog spaces like this one could be a disruptive and potentially frightening innovation in the world of educational research”). 

Jennifer reflected yesterday that when these kinds of issues are raised in the blog, the people who tend to comment are often those who (perhaps like me) tend to take a fairly optimistic/confident stance, which goes something like this: “even if we don’t know for sure exactly what this new thinking and collaboration space will lead to, nor do we yet fully understand it’s implications (either positive, negative, or simply different) for the ways we think about education, learning, research, and so on, well, there are plenty of good theories and research to support the notion that we ought to be at least trying to work in this way, and as long as we keep thinking and talking about what we are doing, we’ll work the tricky things out together along the way, and this is all good learning, and unexpected things may emerge, and that’s all just part of it and it’s nothing to be too afraid of, and that’s just the way a learning community ought to operate”. 

Maurice and Mary’s recent comments also helped to pull us back from becoming overly stuck in a solipsistic “researcher” perspective. Commenting from their own positionings, their comments suggested pulling our focus back to the interactions within a community of learners/educators/researchers – as Maurice suggested “We probably could all learn from sharing narratives as explorations, not positioning ourselves as teachers, learners or researchers, but as all of these.” 

So - back to the conversation that Jennifer and I were having yesterday: We wondered, once again, what do the people who aren’t participating in this online conversation think? What arguments/critiques/theories/evidence is not being presented within our ongoing learning conversation? As researchers we’re used to the idea that the voices we don’t hear are usually the ones that have something different to say. I’ve long been very interested in the silences and absences in this blog/community (longtime readers might remember some of my earlier postings about lurkers). It seems there all kinds of reasons why people don’t comment/participate. Some of the most common ones, I think, include: 

  • I don’t visit shiftingthinking, or don’t check it regularly.
  • I’m not interested in the discussions/ideas here.
  • Blogging is a waste of time. Doing things on the Internet is not real work.
  • I’m too busy/I don’t have enough time (either to read the blog, or to respond to the blog)
  • I can’t see the purpose, I need a more relevant purpose for participating in this site.
  • I like reading the blog but I’m not interested in responding to it.
  • I would like to say something, but don’t quite know how to say it (i.e. composing a response is too hard or time-consuming).
  • I would like to say something, but don’t feel it is worthy of posting (i.e. I don’t think my ideas are well-enough expressed, or I am uncertain about my ideas, or I’m afraid that I might be criticized or held to account for the things I post, or I’d rather not share my ideas publicly at this stage because I haven’t thought them through fully enough).

There are probably other resaons, and for most of our silent/absent friends and colleagues, a combination of these reasons are probably at play. I’m also not saying that everyone has to participate, and I’m certainly not having a go at the lurkers (honest, I still love you, lurkers!). I’m completely aware that it does take time and thought to put together something in writing – much more than, say, participating in a discussion with us at a conference – and that just seems to be part of the territory of this particular medium.  And I can also [grudgingly] accept the fact that perhaps the topics and threads on this blog might not be of interest to that many people in the world! 

Still, we’ve had many occasions where people have chosen to email us, or talk to us at conferences or in the kitchen or tearoom about something from the ShiftingThinking site, rather than posting their thoughts on the site. I can imagine lots of perfectly good reasons why people would opt to take their conversations with us into these more “private” spaces rather than the truly public space of shiftingthinking.org. 

However, it is useful (and important) for us to notice the silences and absences here, and we can’t help but speculate as to what those silent and absent voices and perspectives might say in reference to some of the challenging questions and tensions we’ve been discussing?

Shifting research , ,

  1. Robyn
    | #1

    You have pondered on why people might not be participating in your conversations as you think with each other and others in the preparation of the paper for the AERA conference. For me it is partly about making the time – but not any old time but time when I have space to think and so feel I have some chance of offering something that adds to the conversation rather than merely fills the space. It is something else too that bothers me. You suggest that people could respond to a single blog but this feels to me like coming into a party and giving everyone the “benefit” of my thoughts with no consideration of what has been said before and so making no attempt to build on earlier ideas. So from my viewpoint I need each time to read the transcript of the entire conversation – the many blogs – to get an overview of all the interesting ideas raised and then perhaps begin to think of ideas that might add to and/or challenge the ideas presented. However, as I have reflected on your Listening for the silences and absences posting I am wondering if the rules of social engagement are changing – or at least that I need to change my “rules”. Maybe seeing things in “pieces” is OK and people who might have made similar points in the past might see my ideas as supporting theirs rather than a lack of acknowledgement that they had said this earlier? (somewhat like seeing someone wearing an item of clothing the same as yours and viewing it as shared taste rather than in bad taste!).

    Now I am started I want to make a comment about educational research. Early in my research career I was told that the job of a researcher was to undertake a quality piece of work and then to put the report (usually of the door-stopping variety) on the table for those interested to pick up, read and use. However, as we know these reports, while being the essence of the trade, are written for the seriously interested to draw from, build upon, and to check the veracity of the findings and conclusions. In more recent times researchers have sought – and continue to seek – a range of ways to disseminate the findings of their work in ways that are accessible and of use to a wider audience whether this is another researcher, a teacher, a policymaker, a politician or someone with a general interest in education.

    In both these examples the researcher is in “control” of the research process and the products of the research. Even if the researcher is working in partnership with practitioners the process of doing the research is determined by the “rules” of doing research, such as the methodology selected and the approach taken to analysis. What is disruptive about the way you are preparing your AERA paper is that you are redefining the idea of the “research team” to include anyone interested in contributing and your process is evolving rather than being purposefully selected and managed. As a result only retrospectively will you be able to describe your methodology and approach to analysis let alone describe your team. It would be hard to win a research grant with this approach, at least in the first instance! However, I am very curious about the impact of continually putting your emerging ideas into a wider arena for constant scrutiny and interrogation. I am also rather hopeful that this experimental approach might provide insights into ways to undertake research in education that speak more directly to those who will use its findings to influence the outcomes of education in ways that are positive for learners and the wider community.

  2. Mary
    | #2

    I’ve just re-read the “dark and disruptive” post, and that in juxtaposition with this one has me thinking – maybe the valueset / world view that considers disruption as a “bright” opportunity rather than a “dark” risky one is a prerequisite for active participation in a communtity like this?

    Do the absent voices belong to people who are more risk averse, who see change as a darker, less welcome force?

    And is there any way to effectively influence or direct the self-selection of active, passive and non participants?

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