Reflections on NEARIMeet online

Reflecting on our first NEARIMeet online, a month or so after the event, I have two main thoughts. My first has to do with my fear, prior to NEARIMeet, around the loss of the essence of NEARIMeets in terms of the collegiality, support and critical engagement. My second thought, subsequent to NEARIMeet, pertains to the sustainable nature of self-study and living theory approaches to action research – even in a time of pandemic.

The following are my reflections:

  1. I have watched the recording of the NEARIMeet of April 24, 2020 very carefully and on more occasions than I would like to admit. I have reflected on the event and I have read the words of feedback from participants meticulously. I have read articles on how best to move to an online environment, should it become a more regular event for NEARI, and conversed critically with my co-conveners, Bernie, Caitriona, Mary and Cornelia. We have crafted an ongoing joint discussion document to continue our critical reflections about the day, in terms of what worked well and what we might change for a future online NEARIMeet. I believe our move to an online meeting resulted in a having a different type of dynamic at the NEARIMeet and yet, the collegiality, support, critique, reflexivity and intellectual gymnastics that are hallmarks of our usual face-to-face NEARIMeets are still evident in the online setting.  I missed the ‘breakfast’ coffee and the conversations prior to the official opening of the meeting that we usually have. I also missed the spontaneous conversations that often erupt during NEARIMeets that often seem to capture universal truths or highlight issues of power and privilege and examples of hegemony. However, during our online NEARIMeet, once people got the opportunity to find their voices and to converse – especially in the breakout rooms- it ‘felt’ more like our usual NEARIMeet. It was different and, for me, it is a new form of practice that I would like to enhance.
  2. At a deeper level, as an action researcher who researches my own practice, I need to check if the change to an online meeting reflects my educational values – and those of my co-conveners. We locate our thinking and our work with NEARI in our shared values of social justice, care, fairness, inclusion, democracy and collaboration. These umbrella-values incorporate my own values of care and support for life-long learning and I check that these values are evident in my practice as a co-convener of NEARI.
    As I check to see if I am embracing my values in my practice as co-convener of NEARI, I realised that sometimes, amidst the rush to comply with institutional regulations, it is easy for practitioner researchers to forget that self-study action research and Living Theory are based on lived reality.  The focus of their research is on the researchers themselves, their practice and on their learning in the research process. The beauty of self-study and Living Theory approaches to action research is that they are based in real life – with its messiness, imperfections and unpredictability. ‘Warts and all’ approaches to educational research, such as self-study action research and Living Theory, are imminently suitable for people who want to capture the ‘here-and-nowness’ (Kemmis 2012: 891) of their practice and who work in unpredictable, complicated situations, such as classrooms, lecture halls and with communities, among others. Mellor (2001) has written about how in his doctoral studies, the mess, in terms of data and methods, grew disturbingly out of hand until he came to realise that the mess is the method. Cook (2009) explains how ‘mess’ needs to be articulated so as to give an honest picture of research processes. Brydon-Miller et al. (2003) talk about the ‘beauty’ of chaos, and goes so far as to say the action researchers not only want to improve messy situations, they are actually drawn to difficult predicaments: ‘most action researchers have disciplined themselves to believe that messes can be attractive and even exciting’ (2003:22). So it is important for us educational action researchers to remember that we are always researching our own real-life practice, in real time and embracing all the messiness and disruption that are inherent in our lives. People who are engaged in self-study action research and Living Theory seek to enhance their practice and improve their world, but not by examining their practice in a test tube, from an externalist’s perspective. Instead, researchers involved in self-study action research and Living Theory, engage in educational research by looking at their practice and their world in terms of their own identity, the values they hold and the happenings in their practice. At the moment, the lives and practices of many people (including practitioner researcher) are hugely disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and many research projects have been cast aside because of the ensuing upheaval.

However, I believe that researchers who are involved in self-study action research and Living Theory approaches to their educational research should continue with the research process, and embrace the disruption to their practice as part of their research. Their learning may not come from the research project they had planned at the outset, but it will come instead from the insights they gain from trying to address, cope with and manage (or not) the disruption to their lives and practices. I imagine the learning process may be difficult and trawl through hitherto unchartered waters, but it will be drawn from the lived reality of the researcher’s practice and will be based upon the values they hold. The theory generated from such research at this time, will undoubtedly influence the researcher’s own learning and will influence the learning of others – and may also lead new understandings outside the border of our current imaginations.

It has become very clear to me as I reflect on our NEARIMeet and the dialogue in which we engaged and its position in the midst of the disruption to normality that has occurred as a result of COVID-19, that engaging in forms of practitioner research (such as self-study action research and Living Theory) that embrace ‘real’ life is crucially important.

I am humbly reminded of both the importance of, and the sustainable nature of engaging in research that aims to enhance practice or understanding of practice as researchers seek to make sense of their world.  I hope our research will continue to be educational in terms of learning with a life-affirming energy and values that carry hope for the flourishing of humanity (Whitehead 2018).

I look forward with great anticipation to our next NEARIMeet!

Máirín Glenn

25 May 2020

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