Thursday, January 16, 2014

Building a Research Program of Consequence in the Study of Higher Education (or, thinking beyond student-focused research)

by Ryan Evely Gildersleeve, Associate Professor of Higher Education at the University of Denver's Morgridge College of Education

One of the more challenging tasks for some academics can be the development of a cogent and cohesive research agenda. Particularly at the turning points of our careers (e.g., dissertation, first job, new institution, promotion/tenure), we often bump our heads against a wall we might not have seen coming, jarring us to consider, “So, what now?” These moments are excellent opportunities to take stock of our achievement thus far, our interests and values, and the state of the field generally. They are built-in moments we can use to strategically situate our work and the contributions we hope to make for the next phase of our careers.

I am seizing one of those moments as I write this essay for the Division. Recently tenured, I recognize that three distinct yet complementary lines of inquiry mark my pre-tenure research agenda: 1) critical qualitative methodology, 2) cultural analyses of educational processes and practices, and 3) discursive analyses of higher education policy. Social justice, equity, and diversity have been prominent themes across my work, and problems related to access and success have been central concerns. I have done a lot of work related to Latina/o (im)migrant communities. These are the kind of articulations required in promotion/tenure dossiers. However, such clarity and sophistication has not always been so readily available to my thinking about my own research.

Like many, I have suffered from being interested in everything and wanting to do it all. I am privileged to have a supportive network of mentors, peers, and mentees to confront my wandering eye and support my efforts to bring focus to my research. In this first year of my tenured life, I am indulging in the opportunity to think strategically about where to head next. I take seriously that my personal interests are a significant dimension to my research agenda. However, if my work is to be consequential, particularly in the strengthening and on-going improvement of American higher education, then my work must reach beyond my personal interests. I need a well-informed assessment of what the field’s pressing needs might be. Where does the work need to be done?

A cursory glance at the Division J or ASHE programs is instructive. As a field of study, higher education knows a whole lot about students. So much so that in my relatively short time (11 years) as a member of these organizations, ASHE has gone from one to two to now three sections of conference proposals dedicated to students. Meanwhile, once dominant organizational and policy analyses have tapered, and curriculum, teaching, and learning studies are nearly extinct. I am uncertain if this signals any sort of crisis. Students are a core constituency in higher education and deserve attention. Yet, governance, policy, leadership, faculty, and curriculum are also imperative to understand – even if our primary concern might be students. And what to say of students’ primary activity in college – learning? Further, I often reflect on how changes in the attentions of our field have informed the decay of the once powerful notion of higher education as a social institution. What can be done? What can I do?

There are good reasons for the contemporary focus on students. First, they constitute a group of people central and critical to higher education. We need to know about them. Second, students are a readily available resource for empirical study. Every college/university has them. Recruiting student participation in research is usually a bit easier than, say, policymakers. Third, our field has some of the best and most user-friendly datasets about students available in UCLA’s Cooperative Institutional Research Project and Indiana’s National Survey of Student Engagement. These, and similar datasets, provide incredible resources for student-focused research programs. By contrast, large-scale national datasets from the U.S. Government or statewide data from individual states can be a bit more cumbersome to combine, clean, and manipulate for analysis, even when open-sourced.

Calls for increased attention to policy, organization, governance, finance, curriculum, and broader social contexts are not new. And the field definitely has strong leadership in each of these areas. Anna Neumann’s 2012 Presidential Address in Las Vegas surely inspired many to take seriously our role as pedagogical inquirers. Early-career scholar, Leslie Gonzales, is doing ground-breaking work around faculty behaviors in the Late Capitalist University. Luciana Dar continues to do cutting-edge work around financial aid and higher education funding models using some of the most advanced statistical analyses available. Anne-Marie Nuñez has complemented and transfigured her early student-focused work with institutional, policy, and curricular studies using mixed-methods traditions. Estela Bensimon provides innovation in the study of organizational transformation.

Our field does not lack for contemporary expertise or role models. Yet, student-focused research continues to dominate the landscape of studies at our national conferences. My point is not to lament our field’s strength in knowledge-production about students. Student issues of identity, access, and success – popular student-focused research topics – are perennial concerns that need constant and rigorous attention. But I am troubled by at least four consequences from this historical development in the study of higher education.

1. PREDICTABILITY: Our abundance of studies focused on students can lead to some predictability of analytical strategy, representation, and findings/outcomes. Personally, I have perused the program at AERA or ASHE, seen a title of interest, then often thought to myself, “But I’m pretty certain I already know what is going to be shared. It’s yet another investigation of [insert group] college choice process.” I’m not proud of myself in these cynical moments, but I rarely end up attending the session and/or finding myself more informed if I do. My good friend and colleague, Aaron Kuntz, is currently working on a book about methodological responsibility. Part of his thesis includes a directive for researchers to take risks in our work – that abiding by the status-quo is irresponsible in the pursuit of knowledge. Taking Kuntz’s instruction seriously encourages me to take pause when I think about the next steps of my own research program – how might I take risk in my next research project? How can I inform the experiences of Latina/o (im)migrant students while not studying students, per se?

2. INTERVENTION: The increased focus on students in higher education studies has come at a cost to other domains. Student-focused research most often designs and draws upon individual-level analysis, which then produces individual-level findings. These can often suggest organizational and systemic concerns that need to be addressed, but most student-focused research does not provide the data necessary for sophisticated understandings of organizational culture, process, and practice, much less provide opportunities for systemic analyses of governance, funding, politics, and leadership that help shape the conditions of access and success for students. When we ignore organizational and systemic concerns, we inevitably leave the development of our institutions in the hands of the market. In today’s neoliberal climate of educational reform, rigorous research from a variety of methodological traditions is one of our most powerful interventions into hegemonic political regimes. How will my research program intervene in the dominant discourse of higher education?

3. DISTRIBUTION OF KNOWLEDGE: Research questions about teaching, learning, curriculum, and the politics of knowledge, are in danger of becoming extinct. These are mission critical activities for any college/university. Again, if we as a field rely on too few of us to pursue these domains, we are inadvertently truncating knowledge production in the study of higher education. We have fewer voices to instruct us and provide direction in these areas than we do in student-focused, individual-level analyses. This dynamic concentrates expertise of mission critical activities in the hands of a few, which can potentially limit the field’s sphere of influence across the academy and its constituents. One of my early and long-lasting mentors, Kris Gutiérrez, has done extensive work on learning and development, provocatively asserting that knowledge is most productive when understood as distributed broadly, rather than concentrated narrowly. I must ask myself, how can I contribute to the broader distribution of core concepts, methods, and content in which I have expertise – and how can my knowledge base expand from the expertise distributed across other areas of inquiry?

4. SOCIAL JUSTICE: I fear that issues of social justice, equity, and diversity might become understood in isolation. The dangers of identity politics make it far too easy for discourses of equity and diversity to be co-opted as exclusive to work explicitly about particular populations. While most of my cultural analyses work has focused on Latina/o (im)migrants, which is arguably a disenfranchised group in American higher education, I contend that my discursive analyses of policy and my methodological theorizing equally contribute to social justice in distinct and significant ways. Studying higher education finance is no more nor less an inherent social justice/equity concern than studying homeless, lesbian, single-parent, first-generation students of color. Indeed, we can dangerously objectify subjectivities and perpetuate dehumanizing practices, policies, and processes regardless of our areas of research. In reflecting on how to augment my current research program to meet today’s needs, I need to ask myself “How does my research contribute to social justice?” not simply rely on the historical assumptions about my research subjects.

In order to mitigate these consequences from the abundance of student-centered, individual-level analyses, I am personally investigating ways to augment my research agenda and interests, based on the needs of the field, in order to conduct research of consequence. Some strategies I have deployed, largely based on conversations with other mentors, peers, and mentees, include:

a) Identify a policy concern directly related to my population of interest – 
This strategy led me to begin my work with in-state resident tuition (ISRT) policy and undocumented students. It has been a fruitful pursuit, garnering me a prestigious fellowship and a book contract. In my critical policy work, I examine how policy constrains opportunity for undocumented students, not via objective outcomes, but rather through its discursive rendering of policy subjects (i.e., students), and the construction of the policy problem itself. I ask, “What ‘problems’ does ISRT policy make available for the public to consider?”

b) Identify organizational constraints related to my core problems of concern – 
College access and success has been a cornerstone of my research agenda. Branching into organizational analyses of broad-access institutions (e.g., community colleges) seems like a potentially promising new direction within an existing area of interest. Yet, community colleges, as an institutional/organizational level analysis, are constrained by finances, the politics of state legislatures, policy regimes driving an ever-increasing reliance on contingent faculty, and systemic demands that the institution serve all parties and all purposes for postsecondary education. Each of these constraints provides an opportunity to intervene in the dominant discourse around college access and success – potentially contributing something consequential in the support of students.

c) Look to my existing findings for implications I cannot answer from my individual-level data – 
In my first book, Fracturing Opportunity: Mexican Migrant Students and College-going Literacy, I pointed to a number of ways to pursue more systemic analyses of migrant college-going. It would be a natural extension to follow-up on any of these implications. For example, I suggest that migrant college-going, as a system of activity itself, intersects with multiple other social systems. Examining the intersection of migrant college-going with migrant farm labor might potentially reveal systemic practices of the state that mediate migrant families’ opportunity to develop robust college-going literacies.

d) Consider organizational level spheres of influence most obviously related to access and success for underrepresented students – 
There are plenty of units within colleges/universities and plenty of institutional types across the diversity of American higher education with direct influence on diversity, equity, access, and success, for example: multicultural student affairs, enrollment services, and minority serving institutions. Studying the funding, governance, social contexts, and/or politics, of any of these organizations could make a much-needed contribution, of consequence, to the field.

I hope these reflections and strategies might prove useful to others who are similarly examining their research programs and seeking to augment or enhance their consequence in the field. Of course, robust and rigorous student-focused, individual-level analyses can make consequential contributions. I want to encourage more diverse ways of thinking about student-centered issues from organizational, systemic, and social context perspectives, as an additive approach to engaging within the study of higher education. As a field, I believe this might sharpen our cutting-edge, amplify our distribution of knowledge, increase our toolkit for intervention, and strengthen our commitments to social justice.