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[ Contents Vol 17, 2001 ] [ QJER Home ]

Cui bono, indeed...

Máirín Kenny

Joyce Grenfell, in an interview on the BBC (unfortunately I cannot give a more precise reference), recounted how once, when she was five minutes into a one-woman performance, a small child's voice rang across the auditorium asking, 'But Mummy - what's that lady for?'.

As the editorial so eloquently portrays, currently the same question is being asked about universities and academic research. The editors are to be congratulated for bringing together a set of diverse papers that point to a few answers. In their papers, the authors reflect on who benefits from their research; their answers relate above all to themselves and the people whose practice they research. I suggest that the university is a third beneficiary. Insights into what universities are and how they can contribute to developing appropriate education arise both from the authors' scrutiny of the research topic, and from their scrutiny of their work to see who benefits.

I will briefly comment on the papers, not in their order of appearance in this journal issue, but in clusters that to my mind make the change process clear. In all the papers, one sees change coming from what is traditionally seen as 'below' - from the 'researched'. Adults returning to formal education learn to identify their 'hero's journey' (Simpson & Coombes); in doing so, they learn to be reflexive, and to be powerful co-enquirers in the university setting. This puts pressure on traditional modes of inducting students into university discourses - and critical writing skills empower students to be co-researchers rather than passive regurgitators of their tutors' putative wisdom (McIntosh). Something similar is happening in the experience of VET teachers seeking to move from industry teaching/training to literacy teaching (Harreveld). In their struggle to learn another teaching discourse, they are far from passive; they interrogate the new discourse from the basis of their lives and professional experience.

Active engagement with the research process itself emerges in these projects, because the researchers share a specific ethical commitment to reflexive research and to relating to the 'researched' group as agents. As noted above, the adult students do this in their reflections on their journeys; the VET teachers do it with the new discourses they encounter, and they actively registered this in Harreveld's research project. Likewise the teachers in a primary school engage with and even try to shape research into their collegial culture (Jarzabkowski); so do the activists in the Japanese environmental movements (Danaher).

The authors expect to learn from their effective co-researchers - not just by studying them, but by listening to and interacting with them.

One cluster of papers particularly intrigues me. It is revolutionary to find lessons for universities in the performance of adult returnees to education (Simpson & Coombes and McIntosh), and perhaps even more so to ask academia to learn from circuses (Moriarty & Hallinan,) and from fairgrounds (Anteliz, Danaher & Danaher). These authors pay serious attention to their subjects. These papers challenge august institutions of learning not to patronise the adult students and fit them in; not to laugh at the circuses and fairgrounds and forget them - but to engage seriously with these people in reflecting on their journeys and performances, and to learn from them.

These research topics themselves offer a kind of map of change in academia. Students are changing, new sources of insight are being identified in research, and where all this is recognised and valorised it can change the university. These researchers enrich and are enriched by working with change, on the margins and in new arenas; in turn they engage with students as co-enquirers. New kinds of student expectations inevitably demand that new kinds of student-tutor relations replace the old 'jugs and mugs' approach; new kinds of research processes challenge positivist and naturalist models that (probably unwittingly) often supported traditional power patterns. This shift in the educational relationship is a challenging but very positive facet of the university's loss of ivory tower status. In the process, every agent changes.

But where is change happening in the universities? The findings of these papers point to exciting developments at the level of individual academic practice, both in research and in teaching. Again, we see change and learning filtering from the bottom up. However, the openness to change and transformation of the overall institution must also be examined. McConachie's topic is the university, and her analysis of the reasons for the miserable trajectory of the PeopleSoft project does not suggest that the university is a learning organisation. To become one, it must invest in involving all its personnel in clarifying its vision and in working for transformation. McConachie depicts a situation that calls out for the kind of reflexive research demonstrated by the contributors to this journal issue. However, the project seems to be techno-driven, and public relations rather than consultation and involvement seems to have been the primary instrument for inviting people - individuals, groups, factions, faculties, whatever - to engage in a cultural change of immense proportions.

Yet as the papers in this journal issue exemplify, within the very change-resistant institution there are radically innovative researchers and teachers. And is their work useful? These papers remind us that perhaps above all it is reflexive scrutiny of one's research - its genesis, its theoretical frames and methodologies, and its destiny - that one expects of university research. Many of the projects also shed light directly or indirectly on what, ideally, universities (or at least what their education faculties) are 'for', and how they go about it. Having done various pieces of commissioned research for social services, I find that the commissioning agents and field practitioners are keen judges of sound research. However, in my own search for just how to make my work sound, and for new theoretical and procedural insights to bring to the field - for this I turn to academia, and these papers demonstrate that I have come to the right place. They show the academics at work, and the scenario is promising.

There is a fourth beneficiary - or set of beneficiaries: the readers. Danaher addresses this question at some length, and as a research practitioner from outside the academy I find that his experience particularly interests me. Like him, I believe that research findings must be disseminated in appropriate arenas - particularly when that research is into issues of ethical significance (as is research into educational and environmental issues). In an education research project I interviewed a group of people with disabilities about their school experience; afterwards one participant hung back to ask me: 'Will things change now?'. Undisseminated research is really unfinished research. In the most basic way it fails to address the question 'Cui bono?': it betrays the commitment of people who gave time and resources to the project because, to state the obvious, research cannot be useful if it cannot be read in the domains where it should have impact.

Before concluding, I will deviate to comment on the corollary of benefits: costs. In all the research projects depicted in these papers, there are costs to the research partners - in terms of time, resources and emotional involvement. McConachie works so to speak in the eye of the hurricane (or cyclone in Australian parlance), and her position is obviously fraught with at least potential conflict. However, there are costs that are perhaps easily overlooked in more 'pleasant' research situations where the researcher is welcomed as an ally. Authors who work with adult students have opted for marginal sectors of the university system, and are moving away from preferred forms of academic discourse. The authors who engage with circus and fairground people are keenly aware that they have been given privileged access to that domain. Furthermore, as well as moving well outside the preferred domains of education research they face challenges to their entitlement to speak about (not for) circus and fairground people and their experiences.

Jarzabkowski had to walk a tightrope as she managed the ethics of building relationships with people and studying them at the same time, of encouraging their communications with her while not taking sides. The necessary 'ambivalence' may have been easier for Danaher who moved through various groups but the same issues faced him. He also reflects on ethical concerns about cross-cultural research. There is also a post-research emotional cost - probably to the people among whom the research was done, and possibly to the researcher: the research relationship can be felt to end in a sort of betrayal. The emotional labour demanded brings ethical issues for researchers (how to respect both relationships and research aims, and how to manage the costs to themselves) and for supervisors or the research community (how to support researchers, what investment can justly be expected of researchers and of those they research?).

I will conclude by quoting some lines that struck me as specifically relevant to my argument - and that happen to be pithy enough to be quotable here. This is invidious because so much more could be quoted, but I intend this as a brief aide memoir for a set of papers that were both diverse and highly congruent:

Finally, the editors remarked on the 'provenance' of the contributors: there is a dominance by one institution, Central Queensland University. I suggest that this concern is not warranted. This journal issue is strong precisely because so many contributors are CQU people: their work demonstrates how a university, or sectors of one, can be a school of thought in the truest sense. The highly diverse work of these contributors adds to a pool of expertise, to a 'learning culture' within the academic body itself. Though of course the academic staff isn't 'a body' but a conglomerate of groups - a phenomenon that McConachie highlights as a major inhibitor of change. Yet this very proneness to diversification is part of what enables universities to offer opportunities for innovative research and teaching practice that redound to the benefit of us all, and are powerful indicators of further potential for transformation. Cui bono, indeed...

Author details: Dr Máirín Kenny is an independent scholar and freelance educational researcher associated with Trinity College, Dublin.

Address for correspondence: Dr Máirín Kenny, 12 Streamville Court, Killiney Hill Road, Co. Dublin, Ireland. email: kennymairin@eircom.net

Please cite as: Kenny, M. (2001). Cui bono, indeed.... Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 17(2), 237-242. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer17/kenny.html

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Created 12 Dec 2004. Last revision: 12 Dec 2004.
URL: http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer17/kenny.html