Monday, 14 September 2015

Never say never (Carmel Hobbs)

Photo by Caitlin Oriel | unsplash.com
I don’t know about everyone else, but when I was reading and writing about methodology, it hurt. A lot.

I constantly felt like I was faking it.

I chose to use grounded theory for my PhD and, although there are lots of great books and resources around, I felt like I needed more.

I was relieved to learn I wasn’t the only one.

I talked to a staff member (and fellow graduate researcher) at the alternative secondary school where I'm doing my research, and we shared our anxieties about how we felt we didn’t know what we were doing.

I went home that night thinking it would be great to have a workshop about grounded theory for students. That thought developed into a bit of a fantasy about having Professor Kathy Charmaz run that workshop. It was Kathy’s constructivist approach to grounded theory I was most interested in using for my research, and I'd spent a lot of time reading her books and related publications. The notion of hearing from her directly was an idea that I felt driven to explore.

The more I thought about it, the more I wanted it to happen. So, I found her email address, summoned up some courage, and...asked her.


The next morning, I woke up to a reply, with a tentative yes - if I could get support from the university to make it happen. That reply email is still pinned to my wall!

The next step was to figure out how to make it happen.

One of the benefits of being in the same school since I started my La Trobe University undergraduate degree, and having worked as a casual staff member in a number of different departments, is that I have a well-established network.

I emailed a few of these people, and they made additional suggestions about who I should be asking for support and why.

Eventually, after a few ‘no’s’ and barriers being put up, Jeanette Fyffe and the RED team got as excited about the idea as I was, and offered to help. Jeff Young and Penny Wong at The Bouverie Centre, where I am enrolled, offered their space in Brunswick to hold the event, and provided an incredible amount of administrative support. Without the help of RED and the Bouverie, this wouldn’t have happened.

For the event to take place, many things had to happen, and this is where RED and Bouverie helped out in a big way. They took care of organising Kathy’s travel arrangements, provided the venue, organised the catering, took registrations, provided resources for participants, and promoted the event. My role was to coordinate all these processes, and what felt like a never-ending flow of emails. It was a lot of work, and it was worth it.

RED provided some start up funding, in-kind support was provided by Bouverie, and a small number of senior staff at La Trobe offered paid places to their academic staff and postgraduate students. Despite this very helpful financial support, the cost of having a visitor from overseas to facilitate a workshop was high, and led to the need to charge participants for their attendance to cover costs. Preparing a budget enabled us to determine registration costs that were kept as low as possible to increase accessibility to the classes, while ensuring that nobody was left out of pocket.

One of the key challenges had been assuring those who were putting forward support and funding that this idea was worthwhile and people would actually show up. When the registrations for the workshops were over half full within a couple of weeks, everyone felt more confident about the outcome, me included!

Eight months after my fantasy started becoming a reality, Kathy arrived in Melbourne.

We ran two 3-day workshops: one focused on ‘Grounded Theory’, and the other on ‘Writing Qualitative Research’. Both workshops sold out! We had 75 participants in each, and the grounded theory class had an extensive waiting list.

Kathy’s very calm, warm style of delivery, and the way that the space felt very safe for people to ask questions, meant that people took a lot out of the classes. The workshops involved many hands-on activities, and we applied what we learned to our own work as we went along.

Being able to work on my own research in the class made a big difference, and talking and sharing ideas with others who were in a similar position had benefits beyond what I had expected.

Feedback from the workshops was very positive. The classes were in such high demand that the School of Finance, Marketing and Economics at RMIT invited me to work with them in 2015 to organise the workshops with Kathy again. Now there’s talk of her coming back in 2016 or 2017 - stay tuned!

So, not only were the classes themselves great, but they had a longer lasting impact.

One of the things that Kathy encouraged us to do was to be part of a writing group. A few of us created a group after the workshops and have continued to meet weekly ever since (with continued support from the Bouverie). This writing group has had benefits that I couldn’t have anticipated and I’ll be writing about those in another post!

Another outcome for me has been an ongoing relationship with Kathy. We are in the process now of submitting an article about teaching theoretical construction, and she’s using some of the work I did in the workshops as an example.

For all of this to come from my daydreamy idea, and the acknowledgement of shared fear and anxiety about feeling clueless, is fantastic.

My final thoughts for anyone who is considering something similar:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask. The worst thing someone can say is no. 
  • Never say never! The only way to guarantee that something won’t happen is if you do nothing about it.
  • Be brave. Share your insecurities, ask for help, and take the risk of seeing if a fantasy idea can happen (mine did!). 

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Carmel Hobbs is a PhD candidate at La Trobe University's Bouverie Centre. 

Her research is a qualitative project exploring the experiences of young people who are kicked out or drop out of mainstream secondary schools and then attend an alternative school.

Carmel also teaches multiple subjects in the Bachelor of Health Sciences at La Trobe.

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