I’m Susan Dawson, a second-year PhD student at the University of Manchester and now officially federated to this project. Last month I spent two days in Durham with the RMTC Hub, who were also joined by Katja, Gameli, Nazmi (via Skype) and Alison at various points, and wrote a brief reflective post for our in-house Language Teacher Education blog about that experience. This is a slightly expanded version of that earlier post (LANTERN – Language Teacher Education Researcher Network at the University of Manchester).
When Richard Fay first asked if he could bounce some ideas around about using Exploratory Practice in a big project he was working on, I had no idea that it would lead to such an enriching experience, both personally and academically. The two days with the RMTC Hub in Durham were very rewarding and for more reasons than I could do justice to here, although I have to say I am unlikely to be disappointed by anything in Durham when the skies are blue and the sun is shining on the cathedral! Surroundings aside, here are some of the reflections and impressions I took away from that time.
Since beginning this collaboration, I have had my thinking pushed and pulled in all directions, as I have seen ideas I am using in my own research extended/ adapted/ appropriated for another context. This has forced me to step outside my comfort zone and really grapple with the key principles of Exploratory Practice. What does it mean to work for understanding and how do we do that in a sustainable and collegial way? What is the essence of ‘Quality of Life’ and what difference does it make to pursue that first and foremost? These questions and more have been key in helping me to address some of my own assumptions and realise the limitations of my thinking.
In terms of developing as a researcher, I felt as if I was doing an intensive apprenticeship in large-scale, interdisciplinary research during those two days. It was a privilege to be able to observe such experienced researchers at work and learn from them. Interdisciplinarity seems to be a bit of a buzz word in academic circles at present and as PhD researchers in Manchester we are constantly being encouraged to meet and exchange ideas with researchers from other disciplines. Although it is interesting to see what methods and approaches others are using, I have seen very little real mutual engagement at these events. Watching the RMTC Hub at work as they thrashed out ideas and ways of working with the other disciplines in this project, and how this stretched and challenged their own thinking gave me an insight into what real interdisciplinary work looks like and the importance of seeking out opportunities that encourage that depth of engagement and exchange.
It was also somewhat reassuring to observe that it is not just new and inexperienced researchers like myself who have to battle with the process of research and the uncertainties, the doubts, the challenges, the highs and lows that come with it. These are things that veteran and highly experienced researchers also grapple with – at least if they wish to do work that is innovative and groundbreaking. It also proved just how generative team research can be and I found myself wishing I could do a collaborative PhD. It did bring home however, the privilege of having three whole years to develop my thinking and the ideas around my research topics. That is something that established researchers can only dream of – they have to fit it in among a hundred and one other work responsibilities.
The whole Researching Multilingually at Borders project appears to me to be about as far away from ‘safe’ research as you can get. Rather it is research that takes risks, pushes boundaries and ruffles feathers, all of which make it VERY exciting. But for that sort of research to succeed, you need visionary, gifted and gracious leadership to drive it, and this project has a superb example of such leadership.
As vital as good leadership is, the excellence of the team members is equally important, and there are more facets to excellence than the academic ones I have mentioned above. It is in this vein that I would like to end with heartfelt gratitude to the RMTC Hub in particular, but also to others in the project with whom I have had the privilege of talking to and working with so far. I’m not sure what I expected when I was initially asked to be involved with this, but one thing I know I did not expect, and that was to be welcomed so warmly and openly as a fellow researcher, not just someone who had to be humoured out of respect for Richard or as part of an AHRC box-ticking exercise. So thank you to everyone for making my experience so far such a rich and enjoyable one.