31 Oct Reflexive Student Report: First Year As a PhD Student
According to Denzin and Lincoln “every text that is created is a self-statement, a bit of autobiography, a statement that carries an individual signature” (1998, p. 184), therefore, in view of this, this reflection is a piece of my autobiography, it is a chapter related to my first year as an MPhil/PhD student. It is also an exercise of reflection towards the challenge to be a reflexive researcher, because I am among those who embrace reflexivity as “the primary methodological vehicle for their inquiry.” (Etherington, 2004, p. 31)
The main purpose of this reflection is to transform my experiences into learning, and I do not know another way to achieve this but by writing. In other words, writing is the only means I am able to reflect upon experiences and learn from them. Additionally, writing is in the heart of my methodological intentions, and was a point of struggles in this first year, as I discuss later. This analysis is also a sort of debriefing exercise, aimed to understand my own actions, and the context that surrounded them.
I divided the analysis into several parts accordingly to the “path” of them. The first part presents my autobiographical account at present on the journey which led me to my research topic and methodological preferences, comprising my early days as a primary teacher and the last years before the beginning of the course. The second part comprises a contrast between my expectations and the reality of becoming a student again. The following section analyses the research training programme, namely its units and the analysis ends with a reflection upon my study.
The autobiographical side of the analysis
Prior to my degree in Education, I finished a formation for primary teachers at a second level, which was then the minimum requirement to have a qualified teacher status in my country. Therefore, I started teaching at the same time that I started university. It was a paradoxical learning experience, because at the same time that the theoretical part was enchanting me, the school reality was a frustrating experience for me both as a human being and as a professional. At those days the behaviourist practices were the leading pedagogy and the practicalities of this in a daily basis almost put me out of the education ground. On the other hand, I started reading the ideas of Paulo Freire and the fundamentals of Vygotsky, which seduced me profoundly. At the end of that first year I decided to work in another school, where the behaviourism was not the law and the Vygotskian thought had a place. Since then, my teacher education at degree level was always accompanied by my teaching experience in a flexible school, which allowed me to be innovative, creative and able to contribute together with other teachers. As part of this process, I was nominated educational supervisor after four years as primary teacher.
During the ten years that I worked as an educational supervisor, coordinating, advising and supporting teachers, I gradually found that my daily tasks were all related to an educational system that I didn’t believe, moreover I rejected. I spent years developing strategies and creating materials to support an ideal education which was real only in my wishes. At the end of those ten years I found myself frustrated and lost. It was at this point that I first listened about a school that created and regulated its own system, disregarding the mainstream practices and was working based on this ideal for twenty-five years then. That school worked as an insight for me. Since then I realised that what was inside my heart had a name. It was called inclusive education with a strong focus on collaborative learning and knowledge sharing. In addition, I realised that my interest and passion for storytelling was not something outside education, but rather something to be in the centre of it. After that discovery, my personal life was affected in a large extend, at the point that made my leave my country to go in the direction of that school. But life is based on contingencies and I was forced to abandon my recent initiated studies and to put my academic vision to hibernate for about four years. This period of hibernation was a crucial experience that has consequences in my current situation, which is part of another reflection that I recently wrote; therefore, I will not look at that again now.
The expectations and the reality
Being originally from a so-called third world country it is unnecessary to say that I could never expect more from the university than the reality that I found. Contrarily, I was, and still am, impressed with the richness of the resources and the range of expertise. The facilities we students have are quite something. However, everything in the world has room to improvement, and I present some of my views on this subject in a later section.
Having started a doctorate in a related topic which seemed to be the perfect match to my purposes, I could not expect that it would be possible to find another course able to fulfil those expectations. Although I am still in an early stage, everything I learned until this moment is a piece of an enormous puzzle that is revealing to me a picture that has intrigued me for a long time. Regardless of my inability to carry out my study in a reasonable pace, which I discuss in the next topic, the course has been the most meaningful experience I ever had.
To talk about expectations in contrast to the reality I need to explain that I was used to be the one-eyed mentioned in that ancient adage that says that “in the land of the blind one-eyed is king”, in my case queen. I always felt frustrated for being considered a sort of “gifted” person because I was immersed in a context that hasn’t allowed the majority of the people to be sufficiently educated. I was always suspicious of my so well reputed “capabilities” both professionally and academically speaking. On the other hand, I felt very confident that I was a creative person who found my way to tackle some limitations of my context and to go beyond them, differently of most of the people I knew. In this sense, I was used to be proactive and strongly effective in all my intents. However, the current reality was not that nice. The four-year hibernation, the language barrier and the new familiar context worked together to make me to realise that I am now a paraphrase of the adage, I am the ‘one-eyed in the land of the fully sighted’. Fortunately, I believe that there is no need to be the “king” of anywhere. Moreover, I believe that the one-eyed and even the perfect blind can see significant things as the sighted.
My successful initiatives
In fact, I don’t have an extensive list of initiatives to analyse, in other words, this first year was marked more by my reactions other than by my actions. The only genuine initiative I recognise as successful was my online journal. I am very happy to my decision to make it electronically, and I am very fortunate because my Supervisor fully engaged on this adventure with me. I see my journal as a means to build a wide picture of my whole journey through this MPhil/PhD, comprising my reflections, my notes about readings, lectures, seminars, meetings and so on. It is also a rewarding space for sharing and receiving feedback. I hope this could be extended to other students, because I strongly believe in collaborative learning and collaborative work.
As part of my reactions that I recognise as successful I include most of my assignments that, regardless of my weaknesses, were considered to have a good level of quality. Another successful re-action was an annotated bibliography that helped me to give a step further in my process of “moving on” in opposition to the “getting stuck” phase.
My great “failure” or unsuccessful action was the slow pacing to deal with my low self-confidence and a rough self-pity about my lack of fluency in English and my out of date state due to the years of my strictly domestic life style. I am aware that in some aspect went from one extreme to another, from feeling completely guilty of my situation to being totally a victim of the situation. Finding earlier the balance, understanding which parts were my responsibilities and what were out of my reach to change, could be determinant to have had a better first year.
Critique on key issues
Despite of my genuine impressiveness of the University capabilities, mainly the staff expertise, I could not avoid to find some critical aspects that I believe could be improved with some simple actions as follows:
Taking into account that we are in a strongly knowledge and communication age, and that we have an unprecedented range of facilities that enables a large variety of communication channels, in addition to the fact that the University of Southampton provides the latest technologies available, I felt that the communication between tutors and students, and especially among peers could be largely widen. Some of the struggles that I experienced could be deal with some degree of collaborative work with my peers. Obviously I am free to ask for help, but it is also obvious that it could be easier if some mediation was provided. I think that the School of Education could develop specific communication channels to encourage knowledge constructing and sharing among students, with the mediation/participation of unit tutors. This could be through email listings, blogs, wiki spaces, forums, Blackboard and so on.
I imagine a space where all new students are introduced, which is composed by current students and tutors, with the main purpose to share. Through this communication channel the units could have vivid continuing discussions, sharing of doubts, questions, notes, insights and so on. Every student and every tutor could see that the various groups were present in some form in that space.
My vision can be a result of my naivety, but even so I am convinced that the innocence of the novice can be a source of new meaningful insights, or at least a potential new perspective that might paradoxically reveal an obvious thing that nobody mentioned or took any action because everyone believed that it was too obvious.
The lessons I have learned from the training programme are related especially to my own attitude. They are associated to my initial difficulties, which led to be less participative in most of the units, differently to what I believe it is a good learning approach. Being a believer in interaction as a crucial means to learning, I cannot allow myself to be a passive student in any situation for any reason or excuse for any length of time.
The tricky beginning
Sometimes the first step can affect the course of a journey for a long time. I think this is in some extent my case. I started this course without meeting the conditional language requirement to properly enrol. This fact prompted a sequence of delays in my right to have entire access to the facilities; such limitation later met other situations that also caused others delays. These circumstances were inevitable and consequently relevant only as a register of the facts to understand some further stages of the whole process.
From the earliest stage of this journey the supervisor has played a key role in the process. my Supervisor has acted as a supporter and adviser in every aspect, having engaged in every stage, every struggle and every victory and accomplishment. I feel a natural empathy between our ideas and intents, I am very confident that she is always alert to give any guidance and normalization that I need. Furthermore, I feel protected from being victim of my lack of knowledge by her expertise and competence. The main aspect of the supervisor’s interventions on my study has been the opportunity to develop my critical reflexivity, through a continuous dialogue that has taking place in our presencial and online meetings, and also through email and my online journal. This multiplicity of means is a source of enriching opportunities of experience sharing in a variety of modes and channels of communication. I strongly believe in this multiplicity and need to use all the available channels to compensate and/or tackle my limitations. Having said that, it is important to say that my Supervisor’s support and engagement in all my attempts and efforts have been crucial to my development. For this reason, a list some punctual interventions that I recognise as essential in the process:
- Flexibility with my initial conditional status;
- Fully commitment with my work from the beginning;
- The continuous landing of own books;
- The engagement in the online journal;
- Flexibility to engage in online meetings;
- The openness to help me with my academic English, including the review of my assignments after the submission with meticulous and meaningful comments;
- The openness to help me to deal with my personal struggles.
The online reflexive research journal
When my Supervisor suggested me to start a reflexive research journal, I immediately visualised an opportunity to take the most of the technology to create a kind of repository of experiences of my journey towards my PhD. I see the journal as an extensive depot that can comprise all sort of material that I collect during my journey along the years. The result has been very positive for me, and to my Supervisor as well, I believe. One important aspect of the journal has been its capability to be accessible anywhere, which is quite significant considering that I currently cannot spend a significant extent of time at University and need a high degree of mobility of all my stuff. In this sense, the journal allows me to have most of my material in an electronic version.
My vision (desire) to this journal is quite ambitious. I would like to create a sharing point through it that can continue to exist after I complete the PhD.
My baby’s birth
When I mentioned the initial delay caused by my lack of access to some facilities, I also mentioned that it met other situations that caused new delays. The most significant situation was my pregnancy that happened simultaneously to the start of my course, and the birth of my daughter at the beginning of the second semester. I think it is important to record this personal event because it affected my academic activities and need to be taken into account when I do a self-evaluation, in order to be fair with myself and to avoid weaken my self-confidence.
Difficulties with my reading pace
My reading pace is the third ingredient to the recipe for a slow first year. This slow pace was caused by a multiplicity of factors which included my lack of familiarity with academic English, the impact of some texts in my reflexive attitude which required some pauses in my reading to process the new information, and the difficulties related to the practicalities of transforming my housewife routine into a student one. All this together with some other things that I probably didn’t realise, or don’t remember right now, led me to a “getting stuck” point, which I describe next.
I call my “getting stuck” moment that phase in which I totally blocked my ability to both read and write. It was a profoundly frustrating moment when I felt like I was wasting time – mine and my Supervisor’s. I was extremely anxious with my inability to get out of that situation. I am still starting to feel confident that that inert state is gone now. My self-confidence is still suffering the effects of that, but I am gradually rebuilding my identity and finding where my strength is.
Finding my voice
As an extension of that “getting stuck” I felt a need to be authorised to think and express my thoughts in English. Furthermore, to be legitimated to contribute to a context that I don’t belong to and that don’t belong to me. At the same time that I was stuck in terms of ability to read and write, I was struggling to find my voice. It was necessary not only starting to write, it was crucial to write/speak my own voice. In this situation as in all other difficulties, my Supervisor played an essential role. In this particular case she freed me of my fear to be an alien, a non-legitimated voice. Moreover, she was always open to be my listener, my interlocutor. Being a Freirean educator since my early days, the dialogue was always something that worked for me. Therefore, the dialogic approach of my Supervisor has been the driven force to encourage me to tackle difficulties that otherwise I could not cope with. The practical result was a couple of texts that I wrote, shared with my Supervisor and received meaningful and emancipating feedbacks. That was my voice finally emerging.
The lessons I have learned are extraordinarily complex to describe extensively, but I am confident that I can summarise them into brief points that can be insightful to help to carry out the future actions.
My reflexive attitude needs to be focused on the actual needs, and I need to develop a strategic “method” of reflexivity;
Even a foreign can have a voice and something to say that can be valuable; and
If I believe in inclusive education I need to include myself and/or accept to be included in this study.
The action points are intended to be accomplished in the second year and are listed in a roughly chronological order, but some of them are going to occur simultaneously.
- Carry out the Literature Review chapter;
- Advance the reflections to decide whose voice we will listen to and represent;
- Finish the remaining units;
- Submit the portfolio;
- Decide objectively about the sampling and
- Plan and carry out the data collection.
DENZIN, N. K. & LINCOLN, Y. S. (Eds.) (1998) Strategies of Qualitative Inquiry, Thousand Oaks-London-New Delhi: SAGE Publications.
ETHERINGTON, K. (2004) Becoming a Reflexive Researcher: Using Our Selves in Research, London – Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers
Dr. Hilra Gondim Vinha