On Being a Flexible Scholar

I attended a Research I institution for graduate school. I was thoroughly trained to do empirical research in K-12 settings guided by a theoretical framework. Specifically, I researched parental involvement in education. I did many conference presentations on my work and even co-authored a few book chapters. My dissertation was published in a reputable journal.

Then I moved across the country to a conservative city with a pretty homogenous population. When I approached the local school district about continuing my line of research, I was given easy access to schools. Too easy. There were no critical questions. Just…sure!

Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I headed into the field to begin a longitudinal case study on implementing a parent involvement program at a Title I middle school. Then I get there. And realize that not a single person (not even the Title I Coordinator) has a CLUE what Title I is. According to them, it is a ‘literacy program’ or ‘a meal program’. Lord, bless their hearts.

So I go to the District office and meet with the Title I person for the district. She too is uninformed about the 50-year-old policy. It becomes clear I can’t do my research here. The city has not caught up with social realities and school policies certainly haven’t.

What to do? This is what I planned to research! This is the content of my research statement!! These are the surveys and interviews I developed!!! This is the data I know how to analyze!!!! JESUS, TAKE THE WHEEL!!!!!

Okay. Breathe. Let’s figure out some options.

I talk to a faculty mentor of mine. He is a tenured white male and is super cool in an anti-social kind of way. His laid back demeanor is very calming…especially in the midst of panic. I tell him my dilemma. He looks at me and blinks. And then says ‘I’m not doing what I was trained to do either.’ He goes on to describe the different types of work he does and how he frames them under a conceptual umbrella. He tells me to relax. He asks me about other scholarly interests. I share with him an idea. He is very receptive and encourages me to pursue it. I feel better.

plan change

I then meet with another faculty mentor. She is a tenured woman in a completely unrelated discipline but is no less supportive or informative. She tells me to do what is of interest to me because THAT is what creates a quality research agenda. She asks me why I’m so hung up on parental involvement. I don’t have a good answer beyond ‘it’s what I’m used to.’ She tells me to get used to something else.

So now, a week later, I feel good. I feel secure in my choice to start a new line of research. I know I won’t completely abandon parental involvement because I still strongly believe in its importance to student success. But I recognize and accept that in order to be my best me and do my best work, I must have a flexible concept of myself as a scholar. I constantly remind myself of something I read while in graduate school:

Easy-to-do science is what those in physics, chemistry, geology, and some other fields do. Hard-to-do science is what the social scientists do and, in particular, it is what we educational researchers do. In my estimation, we have the hardest-to-do science of them all! We do our science under conditions that physical scientists find intolerable. We face particular problems and must deal with local conditions that limit generalizations and theory building—problems that are different from those faced by the easier-to-do sciences.

-David Berliner (2002) Educational Research: The Hardest Science of All

Yes, my job is hard. It’s okay to make it easier on myself.