I did not know that I was a researcher until I did academic research for the first time. Like many fellow teachers, just hearing the word research used to make me cringe. It might be the vast implications that research entails that put teachers off, myself included. After all, we all do our own research on a daily basis, whether it is preparing for class, looking up or creating new material, providing feedback, etc. We need to give ourselves more credit, for we all do research, an argument supported by Parsons, Hewson, Adrian, and Day (2013), who claim that “research is less rocket science than carefully planned, rigorously attended activity” (p. 5). If you have questions, then you are ready to embark on your own research journey. And who doesn’t have questions? Doing research means embracing yourself and preparing to face the unknown: You cannot tell at the onset where it will take you nor what your findings will reveal. And this is the beauty of research.
Writing research can be daunting, especially for first-time researchers who may find themselves overwhelmed by the wealth of: (a) academic articles; (b) research methods; (c) writing conventions; and (d) unexpected changes. On the other hand, the benefits of keeping a research journal are threefold; we: (a) become cognizant of what writing entails; (b) hone our writing skills; and (c) engage more personally and academically. By keeping a research journal, we can triangulate the data from the relevant literature with our own reflections and class-based observations. Parsons et al. (2013) provide a succinct, yet comprehensive explanation of the term triangulation, by linking it to sailors:
They [sailors] always measured their position in reference to another place. But it was never enough to use one or two points of reference to ascertain where they were – location was best understood by studying it as the intersection of three points. Using proper equipment and careful tools for measurement, sailors were able to circumnavigate the world. … In a world where accuracy was a life-and-death matter, being a few degrees off could mean being lost forever. (p. 122)
While the research we conduct as language teachers is not a life-and-death matter, we all strive for accuracy and need useful points of reference. In my case, research journaling kept me from getting lost in the sea of references, articles, methods, and conventions, while at the same time, it helped me connect the dots between theory and practice.
Time to get the ball rolling. Following Belcher’s (2009) advice to choose a positive message prior to embarking on a research journey, here goes mine: “Writing is both an act of power and surrender. Passion and discovery” (Herring, 2007, p. 18). Gathering material relevant to my research topic soon started to look like a never-ending story. The endless list of articles turned into a huge pile that took over my office. Despite my hardly contained enthusiasm, I realized that I had bitten off more than I could chew, so I turned to my MEd instructor who reassured me that the feeling is common among first-time researchers. Trying to read everything, even those articles that were off topic, which research gurus advise against, turned out to be my weak link. Note to Self: Be More Selective.
Participant challenges. I am experiencing an emergent design: “The initial plan for research cannot be tightly prescribed and some of the phases of the process may change or shift after the researcher … begins to collect data” (Creswell, 2014, p. 23). I had to adapt the approach to a single participant case study, which is a design of inquiry that enables the researcher to: (a) collect detailed information using a variety of data collection procedures and (b) develop an in-depth analysis of one individual (Creswell, 2014; Stake, 1995; Yin, 2009). While I am glad that I found a solution to my participant problem, tracking down case study articles and reading them will take away from the time devoted to writing the paper. Note to Self: “The research road is not tough but walking it well can be difficult” (Parsons et all, 2013, p. 67).
Writing challenges. My experience writing research thus far is best conveyed by the following proverb: If you hold the bird in your hand too tightly, you will kill it; if you hold it too loosely, it will fly away. Instead, hold it in a cupped hand, both firmly and gently at the same time (Parsons et al., 2013). I am nowhere near the cupped hand. I went headfirst into the reviewing process, telling myself I would power through until I finished it. Instead of letting it loose, I held it tight: I kept on writing. By the end of the day, I had written A LOT on one article; the direction of my paper slightly shifted off its axis. I was anxious to pick up from where I had left off. The subjective writer in me tends to take over the aspiring researcher. Note to Self: Keep writing, no matter which part you tackle.
Research instrument. Today I conducted my first interview. Sharing stories with another teacher was a great experience, which speaks to the advantages of involving participants. To avoid the “imbalance of power between the inquirers and the participants” (Creswell, 2014, p. 237), I opened up via e-mail, touching on the how’s and why’s of my research, background, and teaching experience. Keeping in mind what a fellow graduate student confessed – that she had too many questions and not enough time to address them all during the interview – I adopted a backward design: I started with the questions from the second half of the interview, which are the meat of my research. Note to Self: Every person’s favorite topic is themselves (Parsons et al., 2013).
Writing plan. To stay on top of the many tasks at hand, I need to: (1) juggle a great deal of work (organizing, reading, drafting, editing, writing, proofreading, together with work and family) under the pressure of meeting deadlines and (2) go with the writing pattern that best suits my daily routine. Schaefer (2014) recommends writing many drafts, which I have been doing. However, I don’t love the idea of cutting or deleting whole paragraphs to stay within the required page limit. I’ll save the unused paragraphs in a separate folder and read them later, new emerging themes may come to life. Note to Self: Daily writing equals small, satisfying successes.
It’s not over till it’s over. I have completed a first draft of the abstract, introduction, and literature review. I am half-way through writing the methodology section, which I am enjoying a great deal. Although there is still plenty to work on until I finalize my paper (e.g., results and conclusion), I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Note to Self: Conducting research is FUN.
Happy research journaling!
Belcher, W., L. (2009). Writing your journal article in 12 weeks: A guide to academic publishing success. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
Creswell, J., W. (2014). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches (4th ed.). Thomas Oaks, CA: Sage.
Herring, L. (2007). Writing begins with breadth: Embodying your authentic voice. Boston, Massachusetts: Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Parsons, J., Hewson, K., Adrian, L., & Day, N. (2013). Engaging in action research: A practical guide to teacher-conducted research foe educators and school leaders. Edmonton, AB: Brush Education, Inc.
Schaefer, C. (2014, April 10). The literature review. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9la5ytz9MmM&t=3s
Laura Brass is an MEd – TESL graduate, University of Calgary, with over 15 years experience teaching English for various purposes (e.g., EFL, ESL, EAP, FCE, CAE, IELTS, TOEFL). Her research interests include language and identity, ESL curricula and material design, and digital literacies.