I am the laboratory

Andrew and Val

An autoethnographic[1] response to a research journey

“It’s done,” I say. “I feel exhausted. In fact I’ve had enough. I’m not sure that I can write another word.” Val is sitting across the dinner table. She has taken this journey herself. After 40 years of marriage she knows when to wait and when to speak. She is waiting.

Eventually she smiles and that is sufficient.

I smile back. “I never thought that I would get to the end of this research journey. But I feel like I’ve learnt so much about my own practice and that of my colleagues. I’m carrying so many confidences and treasuring some terrific conversations.”

So, one more time the recorder emerges and we are off exploring where the road has taken me and where I have arrived.

Val kicks off by pursuing my exhaustion:  “How did you feel exhausted when you finished?

“It was a mental thing. I suddenly felt like I have nothing more I could give. When you have been writing and just ploughing away and it’s just words that have been coming out and, and, and… when those words come out sometimes they trip you up as you’re typing. So I’m typing along and out comes something like the ‘system is institutionally racist’. It’s really quite mentally taxing to think about how that’s come about and is it really the case. And if it is, you know, am I responsible? That’s quite tiring.

“So I don’t know… I need to walk away from it really.”

And, right now, that’s how I feel. That I need to put this all to one side and come back to it again. There’s a small nod of understanding as Val moves the conversation forward. “What was the most surprising thing that you think you discovered while you were doing this?

This isn’t a difficult question but I already feel a little uncomfortable having to broach this area so early.

“Oh, I think the institutional racism. It was surprising in the sense that I’d never thought of it in that sense. I’d never looked at it through that lens. I knew that we didn’t always hand over very well. And I knew that we were always there doing stuff to help. But I never really thought that, actually, by being always available actually, we… I… we… might be making things worse. Because we’re standing at the door ready to leap and say ‘OK, well you’ve got a problem. I’m still here with my pocket full of cash. I’ll come and help you.’

“That was very disarming.

“It felt quite uncomfortable.

“Writing it down, I took it out and deleted it three times before I decided it had to stay.”

I’m very conscious that I’m pausing as I voice these last three sentences. The discomfort is still present and I move on quickly to a less challenging theme.

“The other thing that was quite surprising was the conversation about being good enough. When I was talking to Frank and he made some comment about some training they had been doing in one particular country, it just felt like he was saying ‘Well it doesn’t really matter what we do as long as we do something. Something is better than nothing.’ And I thought, well, is something better than nothing? Would nothing be better than doing something sometimes? What is good enough? How do we know that what we are doing is really good enough? Then I thought, it’s not just adequate. It’s not like the old days of OFSTED [in the UK] when they would do a school inspection and say ‘This school is satisfactory.’ I remember an OFSTED inspector saying to me once ‘Satisfactory means that. It’s satisfactory.’ But it doesn’t anymore. OFSTED has changed that. They’ve taken away the word ‘satisfactory’ and replaced it with ‘requires improvement.’ There is a sense that we need to know what is good enough. Is satisfactory good enough? Do we need to do more than just be satisfactory? I think it depends on the context. Sometimes satisfactory probably is enough. Particularly when you’re giving somebody an initial introduction in the training then probably, satisfactory might be good enough. But if you’re doing some work with people who’ve been in the profession for a number of years and they want to improve and develop… maybe they’re thinking of taking on more managerial roles then satisfactory may not be good enough.”

You talk about measuring what is good enough. You don’t really come a conclusion with that. Do you have any ideas, going forward, about how you might define that?

Ah, here’s the academic speaking to me. She wants to know how I’m going to take my work forward… “Do you know,” I reply “I don’t think that the quality of good enoughness is measurable. I think that there is an awful lot, in our society and in our world – where the pressure is on us – to measure stuff – we want numbers… I talk about how some training groups [outside the ICTI network] get into the habit of writing proposals to get funding and they define the outcome by some simplistic measurable. So they say ‘you’ll know that we have done good training because we’ll have had 150 people on our training courses.’ And so suddenly the measuring process fails because that isn’t a measure of good enoughness. In fact what this does is drive people to bribe learners to attend training events. So then they are always full and we can say ‘We said we’d do 150 and we’ve done 150.’ Because we’ve paid them to come. But we don’t know whether that training is good enough. So, measurement has to be a longer term thing. We’ve often said when we are training young trainers on our Training of Trainers courses that when we do evaluation we do it during, at the end and, we always say, sometime later. It is the sometime later that is never done. Because sometime later always gets pushed away by the pressure of what’s on the agenda right now. I’m not sure that good enoughness is something that I want to measure in that numbers sense of measurement. But there is a qualitative sense of what’s good enough, I think. It has to be, somehow, a qualitative assessment rather than a quantitative one.”

Do you see some kind of ongoing discussion with the research participants?

She’s not letting me off the hook… “There has to be a conversation. As I was writing I realised that I couldn’t give an answer about where is the end of the research. The moment this document is handed in, examined, printed and bound, assessed, and stuck in a library it becomes static. The real document, the living document, has to go back to the partners for more conversation. So actually this printed document will be dead – almost. Because I hope it will go round again. That’s my intention. Perhaps the mission that I have for the rest of my working life is to continue to have these conversations rather more than standing at someone’s door and saying ‘here I am to help you with your training’ it is to ask ‘how can I help you to engage with these issues of good enoughness, institutional racism and how we support people when they are isolated?’”

You said the institutional racism was the most surprising and disturbing thing. What do you think will be the best way to communicate that?

“Macpherson (1999) says that we have to recognise it and name it and face up to it. That’s what’s go to be done.”

Are you going to find that difficult?

I hesitate. I don’t speak out the difficulty for a moment but I can hear it in the tone of my voice when I do speak: “Yes. It’s going to be very difficult because I’m going to go to people who are my friends and say that I think we have been handing over badly. And actually there is a sense that what we’re doing has this racist edge to it. Not intentionally. When we say to somebody ‘Here’s some money and, by the way, we think you should do something that is irrelevant to you but it meets our needs to satisfy the people who have given us some money’ that’s a racist system that forces somebody in Africa to do training which is largely irrelevant because it’s driven by the agenda of some well-meaning, but not very well thought out person, from the North.”

When you talk about that you say that it is about helping the people you work with to see the importance of their own leadership and to develop their own leadership. Have you any thoughts about how to do that without still having your finger in the pie as an outsider?

“Well that’s a challenge… I’m an inside-outsider or an outside-insider… I don’t know other than by involving them in the unpacking of this piece of work. I can’t unpack this just with a bunch of Europeans and North Americans. I’ve got to unpack this with my African colleagues and get them having conversations. And as they are having this conversation I almost need to walk out of the door, close the door and be on the aeroplane while they are having the conversation. I’ve got to present this to them in such a way that they are so engaged with the issues that they don’t notice when we withdraw.

“The real anxiety I have with that is how do we then capture the knowledge and insight that’s gained from that process? So, even if I did metaphorically walk out, I’ve got to leave the tape recorder running in the corner and get the recording back to recover the learning that has gone on.”

Could you get them to document that themselves?

“Well yes… but… the very fact that I then say to them I think you need to document this means that I’m beginning to get back involved in leading the process. My concept of documentation – writing it up, preparing some papers, publishing and whatever else – that’s a very Northern way of doing it. They are more likely to make stories of it and tell those stories. And sit and narrate the process. So, you’re right that I should get them to do it but then it’s their document. It’s not my document anymore. I have to surrender the document. There is this kenotic idea which I wrote about. This self-giving process. There is almost with this document a need for it to be handed over and for me to withdraw – and for some else to take it on locally.”

And that would be hard to capture in the future?

“It would be hard for ME to capture in the future and publish as something arising from this process but it might not be for someone in Africa to write up and publish. But it won’t be mine anymore. But that’s OK… I suppose.”

Will you find that hard?

A question passes through my mind but remains unspoken… What’s with asking me how I feel Val? This is feeling a bit personal…

“No. I’d be very happy if someone else was going to do it and did do it. That is what new knowledge is about. That’s what academics are always doing. They take someone else’s ideas, develop them a bit and come up with a new idea or a new development of that idea. If it’s captured and made known then that’s fine.  My job will be to keep asking ‘have you done anything with that?’ “

So, what has been the hardest part of this whole journey?

“I think getting the people who said they would help me and participate, getting them to do that beyond when I am present. When I sit there with my recorder and ask them to have a conversation they give me the time. But I walk away and then we engage later. Getting them to respond after the event has been much harder. So when we did the Learning Histories conversations – they were recorded, then transcribed. I sent them back to the individuals for their further reflection and some people responded. That was great. But a lot of people did little more than just acknowledge the communication. But if I went and sat with them I think they probably would have given much more commentary. I think there would have been more reflection and adjustment in the Learning History conversations than actually happened because I wasn’t physically present. That is partly a function of those kinds of relationships. As Rebecca said ‘Africa is very relational.’ They are about taking time, taking coffee together.”

If you could have practically done it, is that something you would do if you tried this again?

“I think so. In the process I did add in Skype conversations with people to at least overcome some of the missing face-to-face contact. But there is still something about sitting face-to-face. I don’t know if it just an African thing. If I walk into a room my African colleagues will stop what they are doing, however important, and give time to me. So it is something to do with being present. Now, I don’t want to impose myself upon people and take their time but the fact is I achieved more in those face-to-face relational contexts. Of course we talk about lots of things apart from the research. The conversations drift off into all sorts of storytelling over things that have happened.”

Val has paused. Perhaps she is gathering her own thoughts but I sense that she thinks that the time has come to give me a rest. The question that she then poses next feels very affirming.

Was there anything that delighted you? Things that were surprisingly good or encouraged you?

“I think I was humbled to see the impact of some of the work that we’ve done. I was humbled to see some of the responses to some of the interim feedback that I gave in presentations. I went to one meeting 18 months ago and presented some of the things I was looking at at the time. To actually have colleagues engage with me and discuss what I was saying enthusiastically was a delight. To have a response that was not just polite was encouraging.

“I enjoyed seeing some impact both from the research but also that dates back to previous work. To hear colleagues say that this or that had a real impact was encouraging. They were able to recount the story of what had happened and point out that I may not have seen the impact myself.”

And that is true. I really hadn’t noticed the good things that were being said about the research and my other work until I started to write it down, read the interviews and reflect upon them. Even during the conversations I didn’t always notice the affirmations.

I know that you don’t find writing all that easy. How would you reflect on the actual experience of having to write all of this down rather than doing the research?

One of the challenges in talking with someone who has known you for over forty years is that they really know you and, in particular the challenges I’ve faced with writing substantially. I remember my theological college tutor commenting that an essay was masterfully brief. I didn’t think it was entirely intended as a compliment.

“I never thought that I could write 60-odd thousand words. When I was an engineering undergraduate lecturers used say ‘you say in a thousand words what probably needs several thousand.’ When I did my master’s degree I never thought I’d manage to write enough for that. But another thing I’ve enjoyed has been in the process of writing. As I’ve written I’ve discovered stuff. I talked about the tools of a craftsman just being available to hand. They are intuitively available. You don’t, necessarily, think about which tool you are going to use next. You just reach out and pick whatever it is you need. And I kind of have that sense with the writing. As I’ve been writing things have come and have emerged in the writing. I discovered stuff like the institutional racism thing. I wasn’t expecting to write ‘this process is institutionally racist.’ I’d realised where I was going with the ideas but suddenly out came this idea from deep down inside me – this phrase institutional racism – and I have enjoyed that bit of the process of actually writing and seeing stuff come out of my fingers as it were and that appear on the screen. And going back to read afterwards and for some of it, at least, to have made sense.”

As I wrote the main part of the research text I was conscious of Val’s next question. She clearly sees it too. “What about communicating what you have discovered beyond this group of people that you work with?

I’m pleased to have given this some thought already: “Well, the immediate group, the smaller group of participants in the research, get to be involved automatically as we go on but now I need to talk more widely. I’m booking opportunities to speak at events, I’ve written articles to be distributed, and I will be promoting the Field Manual at a continental convention in the autumn. I’m going to have to start using all the opportunities that become available and draw on the credit that exists with partners beyond the research participants to encourage them to engage with this work.”

We are both aware that there are some bigger themes arising in the research than displayed in the Field Manual. Val wants to know more. “Does the Field Manual include any of these bigger themes?

“I conceived the Field Manual as a far more practical document. Something that a jobbing trainer can go to and research ways of addressing specific tasks that they are faced with. Most of the themes in the Field Manual arose from the Learning History conversations. As I was having conversations some topics came up directly or I found them in the subsequent reflections and journal entries. But these aren’t these meta-themes, the big issues. I’m not sure whether the Field Manual is the place to engage with them. “

I’m sure that it isn’t. That seems to be designed for something different… But it’s how you communicate these big issues.

This is fun we’re interacting more quickly now. I feel that I’m hearing my own voice…

“You’re absolutely right. The Field Manual is the operational trainer’s guide book. These meta-themes have got to come back to the leaders of today and tomorrow to really think through. I need to encourage them to continue to develop a criticality as they address these themes. There are some areas such as the isolation that trainers face that ICTI can and should continue to address. We can continue to provide spaces for people to engage with one another, to communicate, to support one another. So there are things I can contribute very directly and practically but there’s more to be done to encourage my colleagues to engage with these meta-themes.”

Val seems to be quite engaged: “There’s something I was reminded of… When you talk about the communities that come together, sometimes for quite a short time, I wondered if there’s an issue there, too, about learning when they’ve served their purpose and not trying to extend them beyond their usefulness. Or how you even recognise that…

“Or even being willing to say it doesn’t have to be extended. “

She comes back quickly – almost before I’ve been able to finish my sentence: “Yes, indeed, this is something that has come together and it’s served its time now and so it’s naturally come to an end.”

“Well, some of these pop-up groups never become a Community of Practice. Some of them pop-up and they become a social community. My desire initially was to try to encourage those to develop into something more functional or operational. I think I’ve had to learn that you have to let things die. A lot will die. They start and go through a very short life and then die. The ones that go beyond that very short time then might begin to develop into something else. And if they were given nurture then they might actually be very useful for a bit longer. They still might serve their purpose after a year, 18 months or whatever. But, you know, it’s a matter of knowing when to encourage and when to say this one is never going anywhere. “

Or this one’s been fruitful and it’s done its thing…

“Yes, yes… And the temptation is, with these groups that do last a year or more, that we’ve got to keep it going.”

Yes, and I was wondering how you recognise that and, if you’re communicating this more widely, how you get other organisations to recognise that kind of thing. To keep trying to extend those groups artificially could be another aspect of this institutional racism. ‘Cos it’s what the outsider sees as useful and says let’s keep it going.

“One of the reasons the Africa trainers group has been successful is that nobody has their life vested in it continuing. So, there’s nobody who has a job who, if they were to be made redundant, would suffer. If, as a group of trainers we decided not to meet again, we would all be able to carry on doing what we do. I think that’s probably one of the reasons why we’ve been able to look at it every year and quite honestly say ‘Do we want to carry on next year?’ Because we hold very lightly to the group as something that’s got to be maintained at all costs instead arising from that structure that has been maintained because it has been useful and valuable.

“The group for media trainers who were wanting volunteers died despite really trying to drag it on – actually not because somebody was going to lose their livelihood – but people were extremely vested in it as an idea or concept – so we kept trying to keep it going when it was evident very early on that it wouldn’t work… because it didn’t have a convenor. We didn’t have the energy to keep it going and help it to maintain itself. There wasn’t enough buy in from people… they said they were but in practice it was down to one or two people.

“The Asian Network of Trainers which I’ve discussed, at the time everybody seemed very positive but actually several have said with hindsight, even at the time we weren’t sure that it had any life… But interestingly it did achieve some important things bringing key people together and building some bridges and mending some fences, to mix metaphors. So maybe it did its thing. There was another purpose for the group so perhaps it was a pop-up community.”

Do you think you have any suggestions about how you could deal with those sort of things in practice?” Ah, Val is bringing us back to the practical impact questions.

“Well… If we have a Community of Practice the Africa Media Trainers group has demonstrated the importance of good facilitation. Somebody has to take the responsibility of getting up each morning and asking what is going to happen with this group today. They have to nudge it along, encourage its members to interact, keeping the group in touch with what is going on. There are other communities that I see that function because they have individuals who commit deeply to keeping things flowing. Not to leading it necessarily but encouraging the participation and individual group members to contribute and calling people together and that sort of thing.

“And so, I’m not sure that I can do that for more than one group. You’ve only got so much energy to give to that sort of thing so if there was another Community of Practice emerging I think I’d want to encourage somebody else to pick up the role of convenor.

“The Scandinavians talk about Folkbildning (Hektor, 2005; Norberg, 1998; Rubenson, 1995)- a democratic, educational process. I think Communities of Practice are very democratic. Inherently so. So you have to have a structure which recognises and responds to that.”

The recorder is turned off and we relax and laugh about some things and talk of the family. Then Val slips in a late contribution. “It’s interesting to see you using different voices. Mostly your writing has been very personal but the conclusions seemed much more conventional.

That’s a good point. I think I wanted it to be that way as long as I can end personally.

[1] This autoethnographic reflection is intentionally personal and draws from Ellis’ and Bochner’s (2000) approach to placing the researcher as the subject of their writing. My comments are quoted, Val’s are quoted and italicised. My thoughts are without quotes.
Ellis, C. and Bochner, A.. (2000) ‘Autoethnography, Personal Narrative, Reflexivity’. in Handbook of Qualitative Research. ed. by Denzin, N.K. and Lincoln, Y.S. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 733–768
Hektor, S. (2005) ‘A “Folkbildning” Approach in Media Training’. Journal of the International Communication Training Institute 4, 25–28
Macpherson, W. (1999) The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report. CM4262. London: Home Office
Norberg, K. (1998) Folkhemmets Röst: Radio Som Folkbidare 1925-1950. Stockholm: Brutus Österlings Bokförlag Symposium
Rubenson, K. (1995) ‘Vad Är Folkbildning’. in Folkbildnings Innebörder. Linköping: Mimer