TQ2014 – Blog Entry #2
Christina Grant is a U of A instructor who will begin her PhD studies in Secondary Education under supervisor Dr. Olenka Bilash in fall, 2014. A longtime journalist, she is keen to start her mixed methods longitudinal dissertation project exploring writing studies knowledge transfer in ESL learners who take WRS 101—Exploring Writing, a U of A course unique in Canada. Each night for the next five days, Christina will post a blog entry that captures snippets of thoughts and ideas from the TQ workshop.
Tuesday, June 17: Case Studies and Getting Published
Well, today I headed back into the bustle of the TQ Workshop Series to find participants less jet-lagged than yesterday and milling about the book tables and poster presentations.
I decided take in the session on Case Studies with U of A Social Sciences ethnologist
Helen Valliantos, and so joined about 15 others in a PowerPoint-led discussion on this qualitative research method which I’m thinking of using, somehow and at some point, in my own PhD enquiries into second language writing—and writers.
After around-the-room introductions that revealed a wide range of participants—everyone from doctors and psychologists to MA food researchers and PhD educators—Helen cautioned us to be sure to “find the key sources” for our own disciplines as each area has unique expectations and “disciplinary traditions” for how case studies are done. So, for example, the psychologist in the room would not go about it the same way as I, as an educator, might, and it will be up to us to figure that out. It seems there is plenty of room for interpretation in this flexible but respected approach to research.
Case studies, Helen said, are a great methodological choice when the researcher seeks answers to “how?” and “why?”She walked us through the history of case studies, pointing out how dramatically they’ve changed from the early 20th century when largely privileged Caucasian scholars parachuted themselves into far flung, “primitive” cultures to observe and report back to the equally privileged masses. They often made shockingly biased comments and leaped to recklessly broad assumptions— all the while disrupting their subjects’ lives in ways that would be totally unacceptable today.
While the art and science of The Case Study has come a long way since then, Helen pointed out that one, simple precept still holds true: the conviction that to do a good job of it “you need to get out there and talk to people to find out about their everyday experiences.” And one or two interviews won’t do. Case studies go deep and long, mining lives, situations and behaviors over significant periods of time for myriad details that are rarely gathered by other research methods. “It gets at messiness of life,” Helen remarked. She said the best case studies don’t try to sum up their data in neat little conclusions, but embrace something called “rich ambiguity that speaks to the complexity of peoples’ every day social lives.”
After Helen explained that a “case” can be any definable unit such as a village, a community, an institutional system, or a person, a participant asked, “how many ‘cases’ do you need in order to be able to generalize the results?” Helen answered cautiously, saying it of course depends on the situation and what one is attempting to explore. However, if we’re talking about individual subjects, the magic number appears to be “10 or 12 to reach the saturation point” at which data will start to reveal discernible and reliable trends.
I left this session with my head filled with images of how I could possibly use the case study method in my own research. I know from teaching and chatting with ESL learners that they are highly complex people dealing with an often crushing range of pressures from family (to succeed), from institutions (to perform like native speakers of English) and themselves (to surmount all the barriers alone), yet instructors often only see the surface: a C or D-range foreign student slipping quietly in and out of the class, barely speaking. Someday, maybe, I could do a case study on one or more of them that would unpack this complexity and really help us understand—and thus help—them better.
And on a totally different track…
Today I was also able to catch part of a lively session called “Getting a Qualitative Article Published” with Mitch Allen of Left Coast Press in California. He urged us to remember that besides doing the regular things like reading back issues, boning up on writing guidelines, and then submitting articles on time to the right place in the right way, getting published in an academic journal is about people. “This is qualitative research,” he exclaimed. “It’s relational!” To increase our chances, he said we should do everything we can to forge a relationship with the publishers of the journals to which we aspire—and then keep them on our side by becoming their collaborators through multiple drafts (which are often required), not just writers.
Other hot tips from Mitch? If a publisher asks for revisions, do them fast. Work hard to publish parts of your dissertation, not the whole thing, aiming for different audiences. Market yourself and your work through social media in order to rise above “all the noise out there on the blogoshere.” And finally, don’t get discouraged by rejections “because ‘no’ can be ‘no’ for many different reasons,” such as they’ve simply “published too much” on that topic, or “you didn’t make the timeline.” If you get rejected, try to find out why, learn from it, and carry on.
I contributed my own tip, too: “Submit it and forget it,” I advised everyone. “Just make the sending out of articles a continual through-line to your other activities.”
Mitch liked it. “Good suggestion,” he said, and soon sent everyone on their way, better armed to tackle the academically essential world of Getting Published.