The Relevance Question: Questioning The Academic Research Methods

I wrote previously about the College Trap (see here) - how college can't be denied to anyone in a democratic society and yet, the prevalence of college may privilege one kind of learning over others and undermine democracy itself - and, as someone pointed out to me, this is quite antithetical to my own ambitions of setting up a college eventually. At this point, my broad point about the inaneness of college education needed more empirical justification. 

For a concrete example, I thought of picking Research Methods, that one thing that legitimises an academic degree, that magic wand that baptises a graduate. My choice is deliberate: I hated it and have long thought about why I hate it. And, the affectionate place that it holds in the academic imagination - in fact, it is itself the academic imagination - makes it a suitable candidate for interrogation. 

I shall provide some more justification in case you are wondering what the fuss is about. Let's start with the question: What's the difference between a vocational/ professional diploma and an academic degree? (My discussions are quite specific to UK, but many other countries operate in a similar way) The answer will be the initiation to Research Methods. Often, an university would recognise a diploma of suitable quality and length and allow its holder to gain an academic degree by learning Research Methods and demonstrating its mastery by writing a Dissertation. The Research Methods course (or call it a module or unit, if you like) is the bedrock upon which academic identity stands.

What is Research Methods? It is about a method of enquiry, particular to the discipline in question. It is the initiation to the disciplinary thinking, approach and exploration and disciplinary language. No wonder that it is treated as a magic wand, that gives the uninitiated ways of looking and speaking academically. The entire structure of degrees builds itself around this one thing - Research Methods! This is also seen as a panacea: Research-based Undergraduate Degrees have been the latest solution that universities offer when the relevance of what they teach is questioned.

Now, the idea itself is indeed sound: The learner should be able to 'enquire' and 'create new knowledge'. Someone initiated in methods of research should be able to adopt to emergent situations and identify new possibilities, adapt to new positions and learn in different ways, it is variously claimed. Such an approach indeed elevates someone from the mundane technicalities of a vocational qualification, which is grounded in static and practical knowledge, to the plain of abstract thinking and higher learning. 

However, the question of relevance should arise precisely from these two assumptions behind initiation to Research Methods. First, that a methodological enquiry disconnected from practical concerns would elevate the person to abstract thinking. Second, that an initiation to disciplinary thinking is key to developing an academic identity.

My first argument is not about the primacy of practical knowledge, as it may first appear, but the disconnectedness of abstract thinking from the everyday knowledge. The limits of everyday experience as a source of knowledge is well understood: It makes one prisoner to her own circumstances. But that the abstract enquiry should begin with an abstract or imagined problem is what I have quarrels with. For me, the research should start with the everyday, practical problem: the Empirical should be the starting point of the rational-positivist. Therefore, the ethos of 'research' and the arrogance of 'Research Methods' as a separate area of knowledge are therefore antithetical.

The second argument is that disciplinarity, which grew out of a particular social and technical circumstance at the end of Nineteenth century, and which was intricately linked with a particular stage of evolution of the University as an institution, is out of step with the current circumstances. This is evident in the current fashion of interdisciplinarity, which universities themselves advocate. And, yet, Research Methods classes are elaborate initiations in disciplinary language - countless hours are spent on how to do the footnotes - and about developing academic style. This stylisation, which is really about playing the games inside the university, raises huge questions about relevance of academic study outside the university.  

For me, the problems with Research Methods as it is usually taught is not peculiar, but symptomatic. Imagine the moment when a student is taught that she has to think about a new problem to research about, and not try to understand a practical concern of her own life; or that some tools and methods as prescribed by disciplinary practises are the only plausible ways of reaching at the truth; or that a particular language is privileged over others for the sake of that enquiry: All of these privilege style over relevance, and puts it at the heart of academic practise.

There are indeed exceptional colleges and teachers who are focused on context and relevance, but they are exceptional and sit outside academic mainstream. Besides, at the mass end of Higher Education, Research Methods have become a ritual, a rite of passage without a purpose or substance. And, yet, all these pretencions have a cost - the one I highlighted earlier - in shaping our views about expertise and 'right' ways of learning. For me, I would much prefer the intense public-spirited polemic of the Coffee House as a way of developing an idea than the rituals of Research Methods.


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