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By Brittany Amell

Brittany Amell is a PhD student studying in the School of Linguistics and Language Studies at Carleton University, Canada. She leads writing retreats and workshops for graduate students in a variety of disciplines. Her research interests lie at the intersection between creative practices, social change, and doctoral writing. In this post she describes and shares some activities from a workshop she developed to support other doctoral students with “finding” their research question. If you are interested in incorporating more activities similar to the ones described in this article, you might also be interested in a recent Special Issue of the Canadian Journal for Studies in Discourse and Writing/Rédactologie on “Play, Visual Strategies and Innovative Approaches to Graduate Writing”. You can access the special issue here.

All research is informed by a question, though how this question is phrased and presented (if at all) no doubt depends on the discipline one is located within. Research questions can guide empirical studies, of course, but they can also guide our literature reviews and theoretical papers. But while one may know that beginning with a question is important, useful even, just how does one arrive at a question to begin with?

This is the question that spawned a fairly well-attended workshop I run, called “Gamestorm your research space”. What is gamestorming, you wonder? I describe gamestorming as similar to brainstorming, but more fun. Doctoral students from across the disciplines, and at varying stages in their degrees, participate in activities that are playful, interactive, fluid, and designed to support students in brainstorming and narrowing possible research questions.

When I first proposed the workshop, I was in the midst of trying to find my own research question(s) for a research project I was meant to do. I understood that I needed a research question. I understood, more or less, what research questions looked like. But what I struggled with was “finding” one. Research questions are not like squirrels or birds—we have many of those on our campus—they are more secretive and elusive, and though I had a hunch as to where their habitat is, I was unable to simply “find” a research question.

Each gamestorming workshop is structured so that we begin with a brief mindfulness moment. We situate ourselves in our bodies and breath, and the space. Then we introduce ourselves and state our aims for the workshop. Because the session is highly interactive and at times ambiguous, some participants may feel surprisingly vulnerable. I typically suggest some guiding principles for the session, such as the following.

(1) Be gentle with each other, as well as yourselves.

(2) Try to view the workshop activities as formative, iterative processes, rather than as a single, summative experience.

(3) See if you can allow for confusion and discomfort—bring this “unknowingness” into your process, instead of seeing it as separate. You might take the long view and repurpose/re-story this discomfort and confusion as playing an important role in your research process—a tilling of the soil, so to speak.

(4) Stay with the process but lower your expectations of yourselves; instead, start with a beginner’s mind.

In terms of activities, there seem to be two favourites. The first is a take on a speed networking activity. Participants are paired off and given 5 minutes each to share their responses to the following prompt: Imagine your project is a space. What (ideas, concepts, theories, etc.) and who (theorists, etc.) is in that space, and why? What does the space look like?

After the timer sounds, participants are asked to switch partners a few times. After about 30 to 45 minutes (and several rounds), I then ask participants to return to their seats and free-write for five minutes. Often, I will give them prompts to respond to, such as “how was that activity for you?” or “what did you notice?” or “what are some preliminary questions you could ask about your research?”.

This activity can be scaled down to a smaller group or practised alone with a voice recorder in a pinch.

The second is an multi-phased activity that involves sticky-notes. Each participant is given a stack of sticky-notes and asked to generate hashtags (words or phrases preceded by a # sign, typically used on social media sites as a way to categorize or theme the content). The prompt is: Based on what you know now, start generating hashtags that could attach to your fuzzy idea. I time this phase to put a bit of pressure on the participants. Then, I ask participants to find some wall space and organize the hashtags in a way that makes sense for them. Because the placement of sticky notes is relative to the other sticky notes, they are susceptible to being repositioned as participants go through the exercise. I encourage players to embrace this.

Figure 1. Errant hashtags from a previous workshop

If participants are trying to narrow their ideas, I suggest they imagine a big circle. Inside the circle is “closer” or “in scope”, e.g., ideas that are closer to what they are interested in. Outside the circle is “further” or “out of scope,” e.g., ideas they may be interested in, but perhaps feel a little further away from “the target.”

Some participants will group their hashtags into clusters of ideas, theorists, questions, and so forth. If you have a whiteboard or chalkboard handy, you might generate a chart or use the chalk to draw asterisks by ideas you favour, or a flow chart.

If there is time, I like to ask participants to pair up and explain what they’ve come up with to a partner. This is helpful because we often notice new connections when we are explaining our thought processes to another person. Then, just as in the first activity, I ask participants to spend some time free-writing on their experience. I usually offer the following prompts: “Based on what you know now, what are some possible research questions you might ask?” or “Based on what you know now, list 5 manageable actions you can undertake within the next 7 days to support your progress” or “Based on these activities, list out what you know, what you need to learn still, and what you need to do next”.

I had no idea when I first proposed the workshop how many other doctoral students struggled with articulating their research questions. Although the main intended outcome of the workshop is to draft provisional research questions, there seem to be at least three unanticipated outcomes. The first is that students inevitably learn about the research interests of those outside of their disciplinary community, which is exciting. The second is that students inevitably learn that they are not the only one struggling with articulating their research. The third is that many students enjoy and find themselves energized from the experience—and I suspect many supervisors and coaches might as well.

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