Back to Belfast: Part 1

Exploring social justice with BERA

Back in September, I took a day-trip to Belfast to attend BERA’s Social Justice SIG seminar on doing educational research in a socially just way.  I went on this trip with Chris Fox – a friend, colleague and fellow-PhD researcher.  We work together at Paragon on the Play On programme, as well as both doing PhDs with social justice as part of our scope.

Arriving at Queen's University Belfast
Outside Queen’s University Belfast

We signed up for this seminar quite last minute, so we hadn’t really given thought to what to expect.  We won’t summarise the whole thing, but here are some highlights of the bits we found most useful.

How can we do education research in a socially just way?

One of our first tasks was to write down why we are doing the research we are doing.  What are our motivations?  What do we want out of this for ourselves?  For others?  How have our experiences led us here?

A common theme emerging from this task was the personally-rooted motivations behind our research, and the desire to contribute to change that pushes us to keep going.  The takeaway message from the seminar was about being reflexive, continuing to ask ourselves if our research is being socially just in its intentions, methods and output.

Researchers are people

One of the most useful parts of this seminar for me, personally, was Dr Vicky Duckworth‘s presentation on positioning ourselves within our research.  This is particularly relevant to what I’m going through at this stage of my PhD, trying to articulate exactly what my position is, what personal and political baggage I carry.  Vicky made a really important point that I think we should carry beyond our research and into our lives:

“Value your history…” the individual stories and circumstances that made us who we are and got us to where we are – “we are all equal as human beings” and should not be made to feel inferior because of where/what we come from.

These words particularly struck me as I’ve recently been exploring my positioning as a young woman of colour in the arts, grappling with how I left behind my Indian-ness to climb the Western cultural ladder, and have only just begun to accept my roots for the way they enrich my life, instead of neglecting them.

In doing the research I’m doing, these experiences are exactly why I am interested in the issues I’m looking at, and what give me an understanding of the less visible and tangible barriers in society.  Since the seminar, I’ve had a chance to read Vicky’s book (Learning Trajectories, Violence and Empowerment amongst Adult Basic Skills Learners) and reflect on her work and the parallels it holds with my own research.  Being so tied – personally, emotionally – to my research is difficult, but I can’t ignore these ties, so it’s really helpful to see good work emerging that is so explicitly personal.

I could go on for hours about how inspired I am by researchers like Vicky – strong women who not only do great work, but are just so supportive of others.  My PhD has had its ups and downs in the last couple of months, but reading work that is honest and open about the personal relationship between researcher and research has helped me keep going.  Having good role models is such a powerful thing.

To round this up and end on a happy note, I thought I’d highlight the food (which was featured in my REF). In true school style (it was an education conference after all) lunch consisted of a packed lunch, complete with sandwich, fruit, chocolate bar and crisps!

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