Monday, April 02, 2007


At the panel presentation recently, we were discussing one of the forms for getting on-campus grants, and giving the person in charge some feedback. One of the areas that has to be filled out is the usual research method/methodology.

We humanists have difficulty talking about methodology in the ways that science folks do. They say, well, I'm going to do X to one group, and not to another, and measure the differences in reaction in this and that way. And there's method, and measurement, and you can use statistics and all.

But we humanists, our typical response runs more along the line of, well, I've got this questions, so I'm going to read some books and think, and then I'm going to read some more books and think some more, and then maybe I'll look at some pictures and think some more, and then I'll try to explain what I've been thinking about in writing. There's no measurement, and the statistics suck.

So we asked the person in charge to use more inclusive language, something along the lines of research methods and/or theoretical approach.

The responses on my last post (thank you, folks, very helpful) made me think about teaching research stuff to grad students next term, and how difficult that's going to be, yet again. And you folks are totally right, I think, that most folks could do a research course, but don't want to put in the necessary time. Unfortunately, I put in the time already, so now it's slightly less onerous.

But, yet again, since I'm supposed to teach it, I'm thinking of changing up the class somewhat.

In the past, I've given the students a project that requires some set work that tends to prompt lots of questions because I think having real questions to answer makes research interesting. I tend to think that the hardest parts of research are coming up with good questions and then thinking of possible answers. Figuring out how to test out the answers is easier, and involves finding and reading what other people have had to say, understanding the cultural contexts, thinking about theoretical issues, and so forth.

The thing is, in the past, I've set up this project (which works well, shockingly well), but not given much guidance. And I'm thinking now of spending more time working specifically guiding the process, doing pre-writing sorts of exercises to brainstorm ideas and possible answers, and then trying to be more transparent about the ways of testing out the answers.

But still, the whole methodology thing brings me to a halt. I don't know how to tease out my methodology or describe it, and that makes teaching it all the more difficult. How do the humanist types out there describe their research methods?

1 comment:

  1. I teach a philosophy class to grad students from another subject. As such, I have to teach a fair bit of philosophical research method. I have not had to do anything quite as focused as your situations, but there are a few things that I have learned that work quite well.

    In this class, each student has to produce a research paper, in particular a philosophical research paper. I like the 'project' approach too. I suggest that students begin by thinking about something that has really facinated them, annoyed them, or in some way got their interest. It is much easier for the students to work on projects that they actually care about, rather than some artificial one, I have come up with.

    The next step is I suggest that they write down a few questions about their topic. Sometimes this step takes a few goes, before something emerges, but from these I then get them to try and craft a specific question that they intend to answer. I generally offer a good deal of advice at this stage, to prevent the falling into deep dark philosophical holes.

    Once the question is settled, I then have them work on very detailed outlines. This is the point at which I stress the importance of providing arguments.

    This is just a rough overview of the process. By going through each of the projects, from time to time in class, students then begin to assist one another. This too is helpful. They also benefit from hearing comments made on other projects. Throughout I stress the importance of keeping publication as a goal. This tends to help excite them.

    I have only taught this class a few times. However, it has worked pretty well. It was also through this class that I managed to attract a doctoral student of my own. I recommend this method.

    The Combat Philosopher