Echoes from the field: Meeting gatekeepers

16716167_10154395149407549_2697571276313872087_oJane Nebe is a 2nd Year PhD student at the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol. Her research is investigating the consequences that poor academic performance in Nigeria’s high-stakes examinations, have on post-secondary school educational aspirations. 

I stood before him with a smile. An elderly man with grey hairs, standing tall and confident. He was holding white chalks, about four pieces of them. It’s been a while that I saw white chalks. For some seconds, I fixed my gaze on the white chalks as it brought back forgotten memories – copying notes from blackboards as a student, writing on blackboards as a teacher and secretly chewing white chalks when the craving arose. But I was not there to see white chalks. I was there to get access to meet potential participants for my research. Papa, as he is fondly called, was the first gatekeeper I met as I commenced fieldwork. Papa teaches and supervises activities, at a privately owned coaching centre for secondary school students and leavers, who are preparing to write Nigeria’s high-stakes examinations. The high-stakes examinations are for certification and selection into higher educational institutions. He returned my smile with a smile of his own as I began to introduce myself.

white chalks

My PhD research is exploring the lived experiences of secondary school leavers who wrote the secondary school exit Certificate Examinations (CEs) in Nigeria, in order to understand how poor academic performance in the CEs initiates consequences on educational aspirations. On 27th December 2016, I returned to Nigeria to commence data collection using a Mixed Methods Phenomenological Research (MMPR) Design. After a pilot phase, qualitative data was collected using Life-Grid charts and interviews. The preliminary analysis of the qualitative data, the stage I am presently in, is informing the design of the questionnaires that will be administered in the next phase, after being piloted. Getting supportive gatekeepers has been easier than anticipated, but I cannot say the same for getting actual participants who meet the criteria for selection. As I continue with the preliminary analysis of my qualitative data, I see potential ways of improving my sampling strategy and design, in order to enrich my research findings. But time is a factor I must take into consideration if I intend to make any revision in the next phase of my research design.


Reflecting on my fieldwork experience so far, I am grateful to all the gatekeepers that I am working with presently. Prior to our first encounters, I neither knew nor had met any of them. I am impressed by how much they value knowledge and wish to be a part of something that would seemingly extend the frontiers of knowledge. They have provided the platforms for me to address potential participants. They have allowed me to use their space as the venue for collecting data. I have had some of them refer me to other places I can find potential participants. They have always welcomed me pleasantly when I arrive. And yes, Papa tried to match-make me with one of his handsome teachers. Perhaps, I would have given it some thought, if I did not have to explain its ethical implications for my research. For now, I will just focus on collecting ‘rich data’.


The Politics of Affect: an interview with Dr Audrey Reeves

medium-246537On Thursday 2 March, CIRE members enjoyed a talk by Dr Audrey Reeves from the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies (SPAIS) here at Bristol. Audrey shared with us her recent doctoral research exploring the politics of affect in the context of education for peace and conflict at the Pearl Harbor museums and memorials. Through a visual journey around the Pearl Harbor site, we were introduced to the increasing link between war museums and the wider tourism industry and consumerism. In particular, Audrey honed in on the idea of affect referring to the response of our bodies to stimuli, prior to any conscious or subjective reaction; emotion is a more conscious reaction that we display and can be put into words. Through the careful design of visitor sites, affect is therefore promoted in order to encourage or repress consumption. The Contemplation Circle at Pearl Harbor looks out across the water and contain the names of all Americans who died in the 1941 attack. The design reinforces the belief that this was a grievable event, with presumably innocent lives lost in an illegitimate attack at home from a foreign place (Japan) and dictates a quiet, sombre response. On the other hand, other areas are colourful and fun in design, reinforcing the idea of just wars, American force and protection; being uplifted means that people are more likely to buy. Audrey’s research encompassed museums in Germany, Israel and the UK as well as the USA, all of which demonstrate this principle.

Following the session, I had the opportunity to ask Audrey a bit more about her research and her journey in academia so far.


Laura: What drew you to studying museums?

Audrey: I was very keen to do my PhD at the intersection of feminist international studies and peace and conflict and security studies. I originally offered a completely different proposal, derived from my Masters degree, but two years into doing the research I stalled. I was finding all kinds of other things to do that were relevant to my development, like teaching, but I wasn’t doing the PhD. On the side I was doing a museum project that I had started as part of the Discourse Analysis unit I was taking with Prof Terrell Carver, one of my supervisors. I had really enjoyed writing the assignment and was told I should publish it and so I was trying to develop it further. A year or so later I realised that this had hijacked my thesis. I think at some point your interest evolves and you change as a person. I was making a bold move but I had my supervisors’ support. It did mean that my PhD was longer and that I had a tougher time at my viva.


How did you decide on your methodology?

I come from a Foucauldian background so discourse analysis was already what I had been doing. I think if you become proficient at doing a particular method or theory you are more likely to read the world in that particular way. When I started my PhD, discourse analysis in International Relations (IR) was still very focused on the written and spoken. Visual analysis was emerging, but I felt there was something lacking in terms of how embodied practices and bodily movement make up meaning. That was where I was going when I was looking at ‘affect’. I was lucky to have supervisors, Terrell but also Prof Jutta Weldes, who were open to me looking at things that were not traditional, yet forcing me to be rigorous in grounding my ideas in existing scholarship in other disciplines. Other people had done similar things before, I just didn’t know about it!


You have taken a very reflexive approach to your research…

It was difficult and involved a lot of moments of crisis in the research process, but they were productive. I am writing a piece at the moment for a volume on how to study emotions in IR (edited by Dr Maéva Clément and Dr Eric Sangar) where I am arguing for people to use autoethnography as part of their visits to sites that are experiential yet political at the same time – such as war memorials and museums. Taking one’s emotions seriously during the research process, including but not only during fieldwork as such political sites, is the means to keep one’s own assumptions in check about the object of study. We all have an emotional relationship to our object of study – we may be really enthusiastic, or may think there is something really wrong with the thing or people we study. These emotions are revealing about how we conceptualise that thing or group of people, the moral judgements we make about them and our own subjectivities, how we are positioning ourselves in discourses about the thing we study. Autoethnography is not simply about talking about your life, but using your experiences to learn and explain new things in the social world


What were the greatest challenges for you in your PhD?

If you are going to do fieldwork, you need to start looking early on for money, which I did not do as much as I could have. In retrospect, the nature of the project may have made this difficult anyway. Finding funding takes time and the problem was that as my project was evolving organically there was no grand plan or strategy from the start. I had to pay for a lot of it through working other jobs (such as teaching) as there was no time to apply for funding and wait for the response, which can take several months.


What advice do you have in balancing your own development with your PhD project?

For those of us that are looking for an academic job after a PhD the demands are really high. I was lucky with the people that surrounded me, my supervisors and senior PhD students who made it into a lecturing job, so had a good sense of what I had to do. But in terms of how to integrate it into everyday life and balance time management and priorities, that was hard. I got distracted with writing blogs, teaching, conferences and workshops. All these experiences were valuable and I don’t regret doing them – but now I’m finishing my PhD and I only have one peer-reviewed academic publication on my CV. That’s a problem as I can’t get a job with that, but I think I got distracted at times during my PhD as it felt easier to do things that have an immediate impact with instant gratification. Actually, it’s the publishable writing that counts!

Meet Our Members: Interview with Dr Julia Paulson

Dr Julia Paulson, FHEA, is a Senior Lecturer in Education, Programme Lead for the forthcoming BSc in Education Studies program, and a member of CIRE.

CIRE Blog: What brought you to the Graduate School of Education and CIRE?

IMG_0615Dr Paulson: I have been attending CIRE events since 2011, when I was finishing my doctorate, so I knew about the wonderful community of comparative and international education researchers here at Bristol, which was definitely a big draw. After I finished my doctorate, I worked at Bath Spa University nearby, where I was Programme Leader for undergraduate awards in Education Studies and International Education. Bristol will be launching two new undergraduate degrees in September 2017 and a big part of my role is to help get them off the ground, which is a privilege. Unsurprisingly, the new undergraduate Education Studies at Bristol has a strong focus on international, comparative and global perspectives – interested people can learn more here. Finally, my partner is from Bristol and I am raising two mini-Bristolians, so being able to work nearby home is amazing!

What do you hope to contribute to the GSoE and CIRE communities? 

I hope to support the School to introduce wonderful new undergraduate provision that offers exciting teaching opportunities for colleagues and postgraduate students, as well as a great experience for undergrad students, who I’m sure will love being part of the warm, friendly community in the School. I’m thrilled to join CIRE, with its established expertise in social justice work in education, and to contribute towards developing work around education, peace and conflict, which is a strong area of common interest within the Centre and at the heart of my own research agenda.

How does your research fit into the research already being conducted at CIRE?

CIRE colleagues have been so important in laying out the conceptual and practical implications of a social justice approach to education. Their work has been important for me in thinking about the ways that education policy in conflict-affected contexts might contribute towards positive peace and to trying to understand the conceptual, potential and practical possibilities for education and transitional justice processes to complement one another.
There is really interesting work being done in CIRE around conflict – including Angeline’s work on teachers and peace-building and Shelley’s work on applying contact theory to better understand intergroup relations. There is real commitment in the Centre to social justice and working to understand how education might best contribute towards peace – and to acknowledging how difficult this challenge can be – and it is energising and exciting for me to join this community.

What are some possible future directions for your research?

I am just back from Bogota, Colombia and a workshop with colleagues there on pedagogy, conflict and memory – these are all themes I am taking up in current and future work, including as part of new project that I am developing in Colombia (with Michelle Bellino from the University of Michigan). I will continue with my interest in transitional justice, truth commissions and history education in conflict affected contexts, including through the publication of a Special Issue of Comparative Education on transitional justice and education, which is coming out in August 2017.
I am also very interested in education responses to the migration crisis, and to doing more work around possibilities for peace education here in the UK, especially in response to Brexit and in the context of Prevent.