Teaching Social Research Methods in a Time of Crisis

Emma Jackson

This summer The Sociological Review hosted its first fully online event. The idea for this workshop started with a Tweet on 19th June 2020.

‘Would there be interest in an online meet-up for those of us who are planning methods teaching for next academic year? Particularly focused on how we are adapting more hands-on approaches to online teaching perhaps?’

I thought that my suggestion might be met with Twitter tumbleweed, but the response was huge. I had initially envisaged an online cup of tea but as requests started to come in from all over the world, I began to realise there was a demand that exceeded that format. The idea evolved into a workshop hosted by The Sociological Review. It sold out in minutes and on 20th July 2020 we gathered to discuss the possibilities and problems of teaching research methods at this time.

In the introduction to the event, I suggested that perhaps the high level of interest was because teaching social research methods sits right in the middle of a Venn diagram of how our working lives as social researchers and as teachers are being reordered. In one circle we have all of the discussions about how we carry out researchat this time. In the other circle we have the issue of how we move to blended or online teaching models. In the middle of this sits methods teaching.

Methods has a bit of a reputation as being the thing that you are allocated to teach, the thing that no one really wants to do. But for some of us methods teaching is really exciting. It is more than teaching a series of techniques. It is about teaching a craft and helping students to work out what kind of researcher they want to be. For many of us keeping it lively and engaged means moving beyond the textbooks and out into the world. But how do we retain this liveliness in the current circumstances? How do we balance this with the ethical commitment to our students and their potential participants? Rather than staging a series of talks that told participants how to do this, the event was held in the spirit of working through some of these problems together.

We broke into five groups to discuss two prompts: What are the particular challenges and possibilities of teaching methods at this time? and How do we respond to those challenges and possibilities? Concerns ranged from how to preserve an element of group work in the teaching of social research methods to the difficulties of being able to intercept a student panicking over SPSS when teaching is delivered remotely. A key concern was how to approach teaching students about how to do research at this time when we’re still learning how to best adapt our research practices. Discussing this key issue also brought to the fore some of the possibilities of this moment, as well as the constraints. Perhaps this could be a moment of shifting classroom hierarchies and a working example of how research methods have to always evolve and be adapted as the world will not stand still for us to research it?

We discussed the importance of directly bringing the pandemic in to our teaching and getting students to engage with the ‘strangeness’ of this time. After all, there will be a whole generation of students graduating with this methods training, so we need to ensure they are equipped to research both pandemic and non-pandemic times. The point was raised that the crisis this year had led to students reflecting more deeply on methods after having to change their methods midway through their dissertations. The importance of methodological questions, ranging from the ethical to the practical, has come to the fore for students researching through the crisis.

We discussed how this engagement might be linked to radically reimagining what the field is and using different techniques such as observing from our windows, or spending more time researching the digital realm. It was suggested that this moment could be used as a prompt for thinking about what ‘being there’ in the field means, that ‘being there’ can also be online.

Another set of discussions focussed on the potential for radically reimagining the classroom – of setting up our (online) classrooms as collaborative learning spaces with students. Perhaps we can be transparent with students from the beginning, letting them know that we don’t have all of the answers, that we can work on solutions together and that sometimes the snags and limitations are just as important as ‘what works’? In these discussions we could bring our own methodological issues from current research into the classroom to fully draw out the messiness of methods. In this new classroom we could reflect on the power structures of these online spaces and how it feels to be in them. Students could be asked what they want to learn. How do they feel we can meet methodological challenges? And what ethical issues do these challenges raise?

We talked about keeping our sessions lively and engaging, learning from a summer of endless Zoom and Teams meetings. Again, there are new possibilities in this move to online. We coulduse the podcast format to teach, for example recording a conversation between two academics on a topic. Or, rather than teaching ‘about’ methods, we could invite the person whose material we teach to record a video or get them in the (virtual) classroom. This would involve some cross-institutional mutual aid of academic labour where we help each other out, reciprocating by making guest appearances in each other’s sessions. This also applies to sharing helpful methods teaching resources. In helping each other, we disrupt the business logistics of universities that are based on competition and also help to avoid self-exploitation by us all replicating the same labour.

We discussed how to manage the challenge of monitoring how students are engaging and their emotional state so that it can feed into the support we provide. This came up particularly in relation to quantitative courses. Suggestions included getting playful and asking students to use gifs or emojis to feedback on how they are feeling, building in time each week to respond to issues students have emailed in advance and having students from previous years come back to share experiences of the challenges and the emotions of the module and their strategies for getting through.

The range in career stages of participants at the event was very striking, from professors to people who were just at the beginning of their teaching career, but the level of anxiety was high and cut through these categorisations. As one participant confided in one of the small groups ‘I have been in a dark place with this’. The event demonstrated an urgent need for spaces, beyond our institutions, where we can talk about teaching. It also brought together the social research methods teaching community in a way I have never experienced before. That is an exciting prospect for keeping methods teaching lively, engaging and responsive.

Thanks to Charlotte Bates, Sol Gamsu, Rob Smith and Phillippa Wiseman for facilitating the discussion groups at this event, Laura Harris and Sarah Perry from the digital team for keeping it running so smoothly and all workshop participants for sharing their thoughts, concerns and resources.

Emma Jackson is an urban sociologist and ethnographer. She is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Goldsmiths and co-editor of The Sociological Review. She tweets at @EmmaKJackson.

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