Posts Tagged ‘honours’

Research Methods

Why I teach research methods the way I do in honours:

The model (to use a poor analogy) is cooking. We don’t tell them that they will be French or Thai chefs, we want them to learn that there’s some carrots, basil, and garlic and that they can actually be cooked using different methods (fried, boiled, etc) and even more interestingly, in completely different styles with their own milieus (French, Thai, etc). So they learn that the skill is not in being a French chef and being surprised that there’s different food somewhere else, but knowing what recipe, and what style, when, and why. We get near to this by the end of honours, and this is not changing.

The Research Process (via Mel Gregg)

list of readings and some very useful comments, observations, and suggestions about research writing. While her comments are directed at higher degree students (so those writing longer, more complex things than an honours project, though with more time too), they are apposite. Take a look if you want to get a different version and variation of the stuff I’ll be rabbitting on about all semester.


A good problem is one that is contestable. To be contestable it must be grounded in the knowledge of the field. This is how it is tested and contested. As an honours student, what does ‘contest’ and ‘contested’ mean here?

Finding Problems

This is an interesting proposition:

Students must learn how to become ‘problem finders’ as well as problem solvers – helping organisations define the nature of the problem as well as how to respond to it. As budgetary pressures grow so to will the pressure to find fundamentally new ways of delivering public services. Designers must know how to work ‘upstream’ and be confident of the distinctive value they can bring to strategic design in public services.

It comes from the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce’s (aka RSA) “Six Challenges for Design Education“. It is an intriguing prompt as we spend so much time rabbitting on about how our students should be problem solvers, yet they’re right. Problem finding is a better and more relevant skill. This is what honours is all about. This is also what teaching is about. What is a problem worth finding, and then finding out about? It is also how you frame or come up with ideas worth doing and projects worth making.

Twas Last

labsome class

Last class for the semester in honours last week. Been very intermittent notes put online about some of the things covered. As usual with me very eclectic, loose. There is no real map of where we go, the guiding principle being simply if it helps the students get a deep experience of what it means to be engaged in research as a practice, then we’re headed in a good direction. As the post on Monday probably shows, I have some views on what research involves and is. As a consequence we don’t do specific ‘methods’. My experience in honours has shown that formal methods only really make sense to the students after honours. If you put the method first then the method drives everything and they don’t see research as a problem with mess, there is no qualitative change in their understanding through research practice, they just learn a method and then apply. Too rote for me. So, I ramble. I repeat. I revisit, I move through examples from all over the shop. As Ted Nelson accurately argued, everything is deeply intertwingled, knowledge does not live in packets of content but resides in relations between things. So my teaching is about making relations, connections, links between things. (For example wondering if spending time as a smart undergrad proving why a theory is wrong is just a reactive sort of Oedipal labour.) Questions, probes.

No idea what they have made of it, the delightful wonderful university Course Evaluation Survey tells me I have earned a Good Teaching Score of 66 point something percent. Most liked it, a couple didn’t. Always the way, and as long as those who don’t like it understand why they don’t like it – rather than thinking dislike must equal bad teaching – then the outcomes are good. Though really, GTS, how this instrument doesn’t encourage a model of student centred learning as fawning fandom is beyond me.

So, last class, we had a shared morning tea in the studio, and then compiled a list of all the things that they had done through the semester. This was to make a simple but concrete list of what participation looks like, in retrospect. Then, as a final task for the semester (well, there is an essay being written) they needed to:

  1. indicate two things that they have done well, and why doing these well is important
  2. indicate two things that they have learnt to do better, and why this matters
  3. indicate two things that they could have done better, and what you will do to actually do them better in coming weeks

Each lets them identify things from the complete list. The first prompt requires an ability to not only identify what you might be good at, but why being good at that matters – too much of their undergraduate education is experienced as being rewarded for being good but not actually understanding what that means, or why it might be significant. The second allows acknowledgement for them that they (hopefully) have developed in their ability to learn during the semester, particularly reassuring for those who still feel lost and intimated by the work that lies before them. Finally, the final one lets them recognise that there will be things that they avoid, dodge, duck, and if they actually start doing these better (or even just start doing them), then their honours outcome will be dramatically better. But not just naming it, for by now after a semester of similar exercises they all know their answers to this, but now they need a plan to do something about it. In other words past (I did), present (I have) and future (I will). Not a bad morning tea either.


What Should an Honours Program Do?

Perhaps that should be “what should an honours program be?” I’m involved in developing a school wide honours program, which is tricky as there are a lot of very diverse disciplines and undergraduate courses involved. There is a man with a van amount of paperwork that needs to be done for approval which I’m working through, as well as a variety of consultations and the like that need to be undertaken. As is pretty usual with these matters the compliance documentation pays much more attention to demonstrating industry need and viability than demonstrating good pedagogy or research outcomes. Disappointing, but not surprising, and not unreasonable I guess given the cost of running a program so you need to know it will have students, rather than running it just because it is a great idea.

As part of this process I’m holding a second planning day, partly to help people get on board with what honours is (being a once upon a time institute of technology we have many staff who think that spending another year at university after they have delivered their industry wisdom to a student is just, well not daft, but dangerously intellectual), and then the harder problems of how and why it should be taught. To help conversations like this I provide or seed the debate with some points, so that we don’t spend half the day thinking up these points, but can use them as launching pads.

So, here we go. (Insert sound of tentative rolling up of academic sleeves.)

  • honours should always have research outcomes
  • honours research requires the investigation of a dense or messy problem
  • a dense problem is something that you don’t already know the answer to yet
  • a dense and messy problem requires you to change your understanding to address it
  • such problems can be theoretical writing, they can be about practice, they can be about making, they can also arise in doing each of these things
  • the investigation of this dense and messy problem can be via thesis, project or via practice
  • the investigation will produce outcomes that can be in the form of a thesis, a project and exegesis, or a portfolio and exegesis
  • all honours students are expected (and required) to be able to write to their work
  • all honours students are expected to read, and utilise in their practice, relevant theories
  • a theory is a proposition that is grounded in, and arises within, an informed practice of thinking
  • this thinking might not only be in words, but the exegesis requires you to use words

That’s the first list. I’ll see what it feels like in a few days. Also need a similar list about learning and teaching outcomes, or models. If you get this figured out first, and people on board, then you have a map for how to teach honours, this matters much much more than the specifics of what you actually then teach. That keeps changing. The deep structure of the why of the teaching, that’s the pointy end. Most academics don’t get this, being content experts and all.