I must confess, I have a mild warning klaxon that sounds when I see “action research” in a thesis. This is not to say it isn’t a valid methodology, indeed the only way to conduct some research, but it’s one of those fashionable terms that people apply rather loosely. If in doubt, call it action research. That thing you did where you gave them a different text book one year? Action research.
But this isn’t a rant against lazy methodology terminology, as I am now going to co-opt the term for my own use. Rather it is to say that ideally academics should view their own careers as an action research project. As well as conducting the research in their discipline, they should conduct research on themselves on how to do that research. This is particularly true in a digital, networked context. We have many more possibilities available now for how every aspect of research is performed: generating ideas, methodology, dissemination, funding, data, participants. It would seem a waste of these possibilities and the intellects involved to merely continue with the same limited approach out of habit alone.
I always try to stress that it is not a case of X is dead and has been replaced by the new digital version, but rather that we have a more diverse range of tools to select from. And yet many academics are reluctant to engage with these. This is often a result of an anxiety that these won’t be perceived as ‘proper’ scholarship compared with the traditional approaches. I think if organisations and promotion committees in particular focused on this aspect of using your own career as a research project then it would legitimise this experimentation.
There is a strange irony in the present context that at the very time we have the opportunity for experimentation in academic practice, the environment in which it operates is becoming increasingly conservative and strictly defined. The public perception of universities, the manner in which tenure is granted, the student funding model and the increasingly complex process to gain research funding all work against the type of experimentation we would want to encourage. It sometimes feels like we’ve been given free access to the Louvre and been asked to count the lightbulbs.
But I would encourage the attitude of career as action research if possible. Now I think about it, action research may not be the methodology, maybe it’s autoethnography. I have a really big klaxon for that one, but that’s another post.