Friday, November 7, 2014

How are we preparing graduate students to do educational research focused on broader systems perspectives?

by Lucy A. LePeau, Assistant Professor of Higher Education and Student Affairs at Indiana University Bloomington 

Last November, AERA Division J Vice President Dr. Adrianna Kezar started a dialogue about “thinking about needed research.” As a pre-tenure scholar, I was encouraged reading her post and subsequent posts from Drs. Gildersleeve and Museus calling on researchers to cultivate the intersections in their research and scholarship to make systemic change. Dr. Cox and Dr. Hart also drew attention to the diminishing conference proposals for AERA Division J section Faculty, Curriculum, and Teaching. They all pointed to the abundance of important research focused on students from developmental and outcomes oriented outcomes. Yet, I found myself asking two resounding questions after reading their posts: (1) How do we as educational researchers need to innovate in teaching and socializing graduate students in order to design future research to meet these pressing objectives? and (2) What would graduate education in higher education and related programs (e.g. educational policy and leadership, higher education and student affairs, organizational change) look like if faculty designed aspects of the curriculum as coalition-building movements?

In higher education, graduate students are engaged in coursework that often bifurcates issues in higher education at individual or organizational levels. We need our students to develop deep analytic skills to ground their approaches to scholarly inquiry; depth in foundational content and methodological rigor is important. However, Dr. Gildersleeve called on scholars to use strategies when developing a research agenda that included: looking at policy concerns related to a population of interest, identifying organizational complexities related to the issue, and looking at existing data/implications to address findings that one cannot conclude from individual level data. Faculty, therefore, might employ similar tactics when engaging our students in developing research agendas from systems perspectives. I offer three suggestions for continuing this line of thinking and discussion.

Challenging Scholarly Isolation Within the Classroom:
How might a class be designed to cultivate an intersection? Within undergraduate education, there is a push for interdisciplinary learning in the classroom. Some problem-based learning includes faculty members who approach a topic from more than one discipline co-teach particular classes. I suggest that more classes in higher education break down silos to link across classes for students. Faculty members are trained to develop expertise in particular scholarly domains. For example, some educational researchers study students at the individual level whereas others focus on policy implications. Rather than looking to the student to synthesize and integrate their learning across domains when taking comprehensive exams or formulating dissertation topics, what if a course was taught by two faculty members who maintained their passion and area of emphasis from a particular domain but worked with students to make connections among individual, organizational, and policy levels? Practically speaking, I acknowledge limitations to this idea due to factors such as faculty members needing to demonstrate their teaching design through course evaluations and scheduling challenges due to efficiently putting together semester course loads for faculty. However, I wonder how educational researchers might share how they challenge scholarly isolation in the classroom beyond inviting guest speakers or guest tweeting with students.

Promoting More Opportunities for Learning by Doing:
Some of my formative research experiences occurred with mentors in graduate school who invited me to research with them. It is common practice for graduate students to assume research assistantships and/or volunteer for research teams as part of their education. How are we as educational researchers sharing pedagogy for conducting research that tries to take a systems perspective? I am currently working on a duoethnographic study with a doctoral student, J.T. Snipes, who participated on a research team with me. We are both chronicling the learning that occurred in this experience from our individual and shared perspectives. The act of researching our shared process is challenging me to integrate my teaching and research agenda in a different way and for J.T. to learn more about how he sees himself as a scholar.

Including Graduate Students in Coalition Building:
Dr. Museus outlined a thoughtful example of his own work with the Asian American and Pacific Islander Research Coalition (ARC) as a venue for young scholars to contribute to scholarship focused on AAPI students and communities. How are we developing and reporting about coalition-building within graduate curriculum? One of my colleagues Dr. Danielle DeSawal is serving on the ACPA Presidential Task Force on Digital Technology in Student Affairs. She’s teaching a social media and advising course where students are collecting data for a research project and sharing those results with the digital task force. Therefore, an intentional connection is built between a research agenda connecting scholarship and practice. There are examples of this type of work occurring in higher education. How might scholars strategically collect information about these projects and then work with administrators, policy-makers, and students to translate the ideas into exemplar practices? A coalition is ideal because voices from different sectors invested in addressing pressing issues in higher education are able to discuss whether or not research findings have staying power for policy and practice.

I recognize that there are multiple innovations occurring in graduate education in higher education. I merely alluded to a few examples. It is important that we share those narratives at research conferences like AERA! These connections educational researchers make between teaching and research can propel systems approaches to scholarship.

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