Posthuman Education

Researching with and not on Participants, Emergence and a Great Start to a Possible’s Slow Fuse 2020 Series

February 14, 2020

By Samuel Chen

I was excited for the first Possible’s Slow Fuse of the year (Vicki Kelly’s session was rescheduled to Mar 4th due to weather) and an opportunity to hear about Dr. Lynn Fels and Dr. Saliha Bava’s recent collaboration and research.

Instead of opening with formal introductions the duo invited the audience to use crayons to draw what they thought research looked like on large blank sheets of paper.  I opened the new Crayola box spilling the 36 waxy coloring sticks available for me to put on the white canvass.  It was like back-to-school in grade school and in the moment, I realized I was experiencing a novel and creative way to look at research. 

After about 10 minutes of drawing, we were asked to display our pieces across the walls of the room like an art gallery.  The audience was then invited to walk around to look at the different pieces.  We were provided colourful sticky notes to write down a word or two about what each piece evoked and to stick them around the artwork.

Finally, the original artist was asked to review the stickies and based on the provocations of these words, to come up with a title for their art piece.  By the end of the 20-minute exercise we had an open art gallery of research.

We were asked to share some of our observations while introducing ourselves. Dr. Fels asked whether in coming up with the words on the stickies, we first read other’s words? This was a great segue way into the reality that we never read or interpret data as a blank slate. We are socialized and taught what to notice, which is also constantly shifting. There was also a discussion on whether the drawings and stickies could be considered raw data.  The consensus was that this really depends on the research tradition one is coming from. Dr. Fels thanked us for our offering and explained how in the arts, we’re interested in evocation.  The exercise was meant to help us think about how research is created, interpreted, performed, and amongst many possibilities, arrives at a name. The research practice Dr.Fels engages in is performative inquiry, as conceptualized and articulated in her doctoral thesis.

Dr. Bava began to share how her experiences as a family therapist and researcher on adult play, involved creating the conditions for curiosity and co-creation of meaning of lived experiences. 

“My role as a therapist is creating a mindset of how we might listen together, to not hold just what you are saying and what is my counterpoint, but what is arriving?  How might we make that which we want.  Not on my vision, but our vision. How do we learn together?”

Whether as a family therapist or researcher, Dr. Bava explained that her work was to make what is implicit to explicit in what is but an offering and not a definitive moment.

There is an interactivity quality that is more apparent in human interactive spaces but even in a post-human context, there is a type of interactivity with technology and environment.  Dr. Bava related this experience to a Master’s level course she taught on research in Houston where students often found research to be dry.  Even in the areas of natural science where a scientist is studying a rock, the environment performs us. 

“As we walk, the rock shapes how we walk.  I am not the only thing happening to the rock, the rock is happening to me.” 

It is this interactive quality that requires curiosity and is the basis of inquiry and emergence.

This wonderful opening exercise and discussion led into a live video-recorded interview between Dr. Fels and Dr. Bava about a collaborative project they had been working on with PhD, Master’s and Undergraduate students in the performative arts program.  This Possible’s Slow Fuse would be the first public performance speaking to this research. 

The dialogue began with Dr. Fels and Dr. Bava speaking about how they had met in the Fall of 2018 at a conference in New York.  They were both members of an audience in a session with a speaker claiming that he was doing research with people versus on people.  Both Dr. Bava and Dr. Fels felt there was a disconnect between what the presenter was saying and what he thought he was doing. This moment of resonance led to what would be an invitation for Dr. Bava to come to SFU as a visiting scholar in January 2020.

Dr. Fels spoke to some of the limitations and challenges of the ethics application process to recruiting students for the collaborative project, especially in a project with international researchers. The project would explore capturing emergent moments in PhD, Master’s and Undergraduate level classes and how to play with emergent moments in dialogic inquiry. A key question that both researchers were interested in exploring was since emergence happens between people, who gets to elevate the moment? In practical terms, the researcher often interprets and writes from and about their own experience but how does a researcher bring participants into coding or interpreting these emergent moments? 

An idea that they had explored for the project was to collect the video footage of classes and use software to allow participants as well as researchers to mark critical moments of emergence, or what Dr. Fels calls “tugs on the sleeve”, see each other’s comments as well as respond to each other’s comments tied to time markers in the video clip.  This would be a way to allow for the co-creation of meaning and a type of research with the participants and not on.

Unfortunately, the annotation program required the videos to be hosted on Youtube and ethics does not allow Canadian research to be hosted on servers based out of the US. Their plan had to be reimagined. Sometimes emergence throws a curve ball at us.

So at the 11th hour, they decided to watch the video clips together with their participants and mark moments the old fashion way.  

As the first researcher-participant group examined the footage, three unique moments occurred where technology interfaced with researchers and participants to create art and vivid illustration of emergence as relational engagement. One was where the group stopped the video footage and the entire video became pixelated.  The second was where two frames became superimposed showing individuals over time in multiple spots.  These two images evoked a new relationship to the video that they were annotating.  A key “tug on the sleeve” was when one of the participants commented on a moment of emergence for the group, which called him to attention – not what was happening on screen  but what was happening in this group while assessing the video footage together.

A comment from the audience that was elicited while we listened to the duo retell this rich story was whether a glitch is ever a glitch or could we recognize glitches as offerings.  Are we attentive enough in the moment to notice the emergence of meaning or does it simply unfold into the next moment?

The discussion shifted towards Dr. Bava making concluding remarks about how research is performative.  What is performative is always constitutive because how we choose to engage in research is about who we are.  As a result we are always s redesigning and remaking methodologies.  There is a type of re-examining that needs to happen with research.

What struck me most was how this collaborative project exemplified how research is always a creative process.  I hadn’t really thought of research as art or performative prior to this thought-provoking session.   Dr. Fels and Dr. Bava left me with a wonderful idea that “research is future forming and not just discovering what has happened.” This really does require a reimagining of research as performance.

Hope to see you at the next Possible’s Slow Fuse and don’t forget to check the Research Hub’s webpage for upcoming events like this one.