Weeks 8, 9, and 10: How do You Start a Research Project?

It’s been a little while since I last posted, but the delay comes with a payoff: I finally decided on a topic for my independent research project. This is going to be kind of a long post. So, buckle up!

As part of this position, I get to dedicate some of my time to an independent project of my choosing (so long as it involves digital scholarship). I debated taking on a dozen different projects with topics like:

  • Memes
  • Capitalism
  • Karl Marx/Das Kapital
  • #Activism
  • Twitter Bots
  • Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure
  • Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49
  • The myth of the American dream
  • Utopias
  • Free Speech
  • Portrayals of panopticons in video games

And, I considered making all kinds of weird digital projects involving these subjects, like:

  • flash games
  • Twitter bots
  • visuals not unlike The Knotted Line
  • an essay consisting entirely of memes
  • any other jarring combination of maps and graphs that would cause you to pause and think before interpreting the data

The one topic that really grabbed me was free speech on campus. Free speech has been an interest of mine since I was a student at Denison, where I protested speakers and groups invited to table on campus (details I won’t go into here). When I found myself talking about free speech every evening and weekend with my friends and family, I knew I had found a topic that could sustain a years’ worth of inquiry. Below, I’m going to outline how I turned a vague idea into a research project.

The idea for this project came up during the Ohio Five board meeting while provosts and board members discussed their concerns about students’ interpretation of free speech policy on campus and the seemingly escalating events that challenge free speech policy on the campuses. It felt like something was missing from the conversation (student voices), but also an acknowledgement of the post-structuralist point of view that many students–especially those advocating for stricter policies–have embraced and taken as truth (which certainly isn’t a criticism coming from me, the “how many times can she reference Foucault in an hour” student).

So for me, this conversation generated a pile of questions that I couldn’t immediately, internally resolve with Marxist theory as my friends and family would tell you I am wont to do. I ordered the book suggested during the meeting, Free Speech on Campus by Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman, and after some discussion with Ben, I decided to sketch out a rough research project involving student interviews.

I started with initial questions that I had for students, like:

  • Do you feel the administration does a good job making you feel safe to express yourself on campus?
  • Do you feel like there’s a group of students who don’t agree with your political opinions on campus? What is your perception of the divide of political opinions on campus?
  • Are there any policies that you would change on your campus in order to better reflect your views on free speech?

From there, I started reading everything about free speech and interviewing that I could get my hands on (see reading list). However, this isn’t exactly a digital project yet. It’s a sociology/psychology/communications project, but it doesn’t incorporate digital scholarship outside of the fact that I would be using a digital recording to analyze the students’ views. So that’s when I brought in the idea of text encoding. There are a lot of words that students (and everyone else) uses to talk about free speech that are coded with different meanings depending on who uses them. For example, the phrases “political correctness” or “PC culture” are rarely defined by the people who use them. Heidi Kitrosser explains,

“When [journalists] reference “political correctness,” it often is unclear whether they mean to reference formal restrictions or informal pressures, let alone the subset of either type that they have in mind. Even when reports single out particular practices, important details frequently are excluded. We saw, for instance, several commentators refer to “trigger warnings” without specifying whether they mean voluntary warnings by faculty, warn- ings suggested or encouraged by a school’s administration, or administratively mandated warnings. There is even less clarity as to the meaning of “safe spaces.””*

So I wondered whether there a way I could encode the transcriptions from the interviews to reveal the disconnect between students and the words that they use to talk about free speech. That’s when I came across this very helpful paper by two Berkeley students who were using interviews to visualize information like word frequency and word count. After talking with Jacob Heil, the Digital Scholarship Librarian and Director of CoRE at the College of Wooster, I found this was actually a pretty doable project.

However, as I mentioned earlier, I want to get weird with the data and my analysis or visualization of it. I want to do something unexpected. So, I thought about creating a Twitter bot, and it’s still a consideration. I’m drawn to the uncanny valley aspect of a Twitter bot and though I don’t know exactly how a bot might take shape as a result of this project, it seems like an interesting way to reveal new insights into the thoughts of students. I’m also on the fence about making something similar to the Knotted Line, though I am certainly not an artist of any kind of caliber, so I will have to find a new way of creating this type of visual. Regardless of the form, I think making these challenging visuals actually results in a better conversation with the audience because the audience is forced to spend time with the visual to interpret it, rather than showing statistics or graphs that reveal to the audience the answer that they want to find.

The questions about this type of visualization become: can I interweave the student narratives to reveal something new about them? Can I uncover assumptions students hold? Is one of them right and the other wrong? What is the relationship between the post-structuralist points of view these students and their arguments for changing campus policy? This isn’t an argument between red and blue, it’s much more nuanced than that (as are many arguments). Where do these students overlap? Where do they separate? How can I visualize this without imposing my own interpretation on students’ beliefs, or is that possible?

I don’t know the answers to these questions and of course, there are a lot more logistical and pragmatic issues to take into account for this project as well. For example: What if no one volunteers to be interviewed? What if I only get students with very similar points of view? What if I don’t have enough time? I have to go through five IRB processes if I’m going to do interviews at all of the campuses like I hoped. Do I even have time for that?

For now, I am simply maintaining a list of all of these questions so that as I move forward, I don’t lose sight of the constraining factors.

Finally, I had to actually formulate a research question that was both narrow enough to fit within the scope of this project and my 10 month(ish) deadline, and broad enough that it could be tweaked to better fit the project should it begin to take a new turn as I’m interviewing students. To formulate this question, I first read papers on qualitative research techniques and interview projects (see reading list again). Then, I compiled a list of all of the questions that arose as I was reading about free speech. I used these notes to write research questions that could allow for the possibility to dig into the theoretical questions as I interviewed students. Below are the two research questions I landed on and a series of 5 sub-questions related to the main two.

(1) How do students think (talk/perceive/conceptualize/interact with) about free speech on campus? (2) When students disagree on aspects of free speech, are there differences in the ways they talk about free speech and the language that they use?

  1. What words do students use when talking about free speech? How often do they use them?
  2. What do students think the “other side(s)” don’t understand about their POV?
  3. What influenced students to think about free speech in the way that they do?
  4. Are students’ views grounded in different schools of thought/theories/ways of understanding the world?
  5. How does students’ perceptions of campus climate impact their views or vice versa?

This isn’t a final list, and it certainly isn’t a list of interview questions, but it’s definitely a start. From here, I am going to continue to meet with campus leaders to discuss my project plans and continue to read about free speech and interview practices. Soon, I hope to begin the IRB process and teach myself how to encode text.

*Citation on Reading List under Kitrosser

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