by Tesni Ellis, Coordinator, SA Storytelling and John Hannah, Director, Special Projects & Storytelling, Ryerson University
Folks who work near the Student Affairs offices at Ryerson will have maybe heard mysterious snippets about the SERT Initiative. SERT has been a word heard often in these hallways. Most people probably don’t know that it stands for Student Experience Research Team and they may not really know what it’s all about. It isn’t a secret, it’s just one of those programs done quietly in the background. And it’s really good, we think. So, folks “out there” will surely not have heard of this but, as part of the mandate of SA-Exchange, it’s a thing perhaps worth sharing.
SERT is our answer to providing a meaningful research opportunity to undergraduate students – a thing well known to have all sorts of deeply positive effects on a student’s experience, a so-called high-impact practice. And so it was.
We were guided by the notion that there is something interesting to be learned when students observe their fellow students and report on what they see – “[t]heir complete membership in the culture under observation permits unobtrusive access and a richness of collected data that is enhanced by observer insight into student life” (Bedwell & Banks, 2013).
The Student Experience Research Team is, above all, a learning experience. We are not (yet) a high-flying research lab with credentials and grant money. We are a humble group committed to a few important things:
- Providing a meaningful on-campus job experience to Ryerson undergraduate students that will enrich their understanding of their own and their fellow student’s experience in higher education
- Supporting these students financially by paying them a good wage for this
- Making a meaningful contribution to the field of Student Affairs through these research efforts
The creators of this program, Tesni Ellis and John Hannah, are generally inclined towards the critical side of educational thinking, our ilk being folks like John Dewey, bell hooks, Maxine Green, Elliot Eisner, Ivan Illich, Paulo Friere, Sara Ahmed, James Baldwin, Henry Giroux – you know, smart, lefty shit-disturbers. And we’re inclined by the prospect, not of certainty or objectivity, but by ambiguity, and exploration, and the emotional aspects of social life. This is mostly in keeping with our Student Affairs colleagues who seem generally to swim in that pool, driven by a desire to understand the peculiarities of students’ lives. And we’re inclined, not by the strictly scientific, but by the artistic as the form of expression that moves us most deeply. And so these inclinations present themselves as we contemplate “doing research” in Student Affairs. How to be productive, thoughtful shit-disturbers in this endeavour? An approach guided by art-based research practices seems the perfect fit.
Now, this is not at all a rejection of other forms of inquiry. We see no need for hostility here and believe that the method should simply be chosen according to its fitness for purpose, and that the researcher should operate ethically and offer some open acknowledgement of their inclinations and biases, as we do here. This can go a long way towards loosening some of the oppressiveness that can be inherent to research methods and inquiry. In short, we believe that the contours of the human experience are most usefully illuminated by seeing them from a variety of perspectives. So, in our pursuit of better understanding the varieties of student experience, with student researchers as our partners, we declare our greater attentiveness to and preference for the “context of discovery” over the context of certainty, causality and justification. For this purpose, arts-based research approaches are suitably fit.
So, what is an arts-based approach to research? And why do it?
We are guided especially by the thinking of Elliot Eisner and Tom Barone who articulate as clear a vision for arts-based research (ABR) as we know. They define ABR as a “… process that uses the expressive qualities of form to convey meaning” (Eisner & Barone, 2012, p. xii). This is an emphasis, not on objective truths, or definitive answers, or causal relationships between variables. An inquiry driven by those things would lead to more traditional research methodologies as the appropriate choice. But inquiry can be led by other concerns, other interests – things like the provision of new perspectives, a deepened understanding of social phenomenon, the disruption of dominant narratives, the productive advancement of conversation, the vexing of others. And, animated by those legitimate motivations, the researcher can fruitfully turn to more “non-traditional” forms of research like ABR. Research driven by ABR uses expressive forms – film, photography, poetry, fiction, music, dance, sculpture – as devices of inquiry, as data, as objects of scrutiny, as forms of reporting, with the purpose of revealing something new to what is often hidden behind dominant views, to “make vivid what one had not noticed” (Eisner & Barone, 2012, p. 156).
We feel that this project of unearthing, or illuminating things that go unnoticed, is a valuable thing to do in Student Affairs research. The “student experience” can be a dizzyingly complex thing, the texture of which can get flattened by overly narrow perspectives and common narratives. ABR can find its purpose here, as a way to do what James Baldwin asserts is the purpose of all art, to “lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers” (as cited in Eisner & Barone, 2012, p. 17).
Our first priority was the formation of community in our group, one grounded in a spirit of risk-taking and tolerance for ambiguity. We’ve written about this as a process, what we call “the student as artist.” And we have done this with a kind of unfolding intention towards art as a way of seeing things, of jarring ourselves, of vexing us, of helping us notice, and notice our noticing. And, while this is not the typical kind of “undergraduate research assistant training” we might expect, it feels very much like we’re providing something eye-opening to the student participants, something that they feel proud to be part of. And that feels like a very good foundation on which to do our work together.
The first SERT team wrapped up our project in April 2019 after several months together. Our team of students considered student affairs theory and practice, learned about research methods in education, decided on a focus, completed a Research Ethics Board submission, and ultimately led a series of focus groups with their peers, asking them to create collages – devices to help them share stories about their post secondary experiences. Later we engaged in coding, narrative analysis, and endless discussions about the nature of our work. Our project culminated in an exhibit at the Ryerson Arteries Undergraduate Research Conference – on display we shared the collages our participants made, personal reflections from each SERT member in the form of digital stories. And we explained our methods, process, and included the raw data and themes we found from our interviews and focus groups, and the team engaged personally with conference attendees to walk them through the exhibit. All of this was an effort to be transparent about our goals and biases as researchers; we do not presume to unearth “truths” about the student experience, rather, we believe “the value of research derives not from its purported truth, but from our ability to use the research in anti-oppressive ways” (Kumashiro, 2002, p. 89).
In the report we detail our process and insights, and share the stories we gained from our participants about their experiences at Ryerson. Our report comes in the form of a zine – because, just as our methods engaged art and making as a form of inquiry, so too did we want to present our work in a non-traditional way. A zine felt like the right format, and it includes pieces from each team-member and participant in the form of drawings, writing, collages, and stories, woven into the document, not as decoration, but as integral features. A text-only version of the report is also available at ryerson.ca/studentaffairs/storytelling/sert.
In the end, we think we have unearthed some interesting insights about the student experience and about the ways in which the research process itself can reinforce certain master narratives about student-hood. And, in the course of that, we have provided a truly exceptional experience for the team of undergraduate student researchers, who taught us a lot.
The zine is the final output of that project that we hope you’ll read and learn from. It was a very interesting and productive process and we’re embarking on SERT 2.0 as we write this. For anyone who’s interested in setting up a similar program with students as a way to engage them in meaningful research in a Student Affairs context, we’d be happy to chat more. Just drop us a line.
Learn more about SERT at ryerson.ca/studentaffairs/storytelling/sert.
Bedwell, L., & Banks, C. S. (2013). Seeing through the eyes of students: Participant observation in an academic library. Partnership: The Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research, 8(1).
Eisner, E. & Barone, T. (2012). Arts based research. USA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
Kumashiro, K. (2002). Against repetition: Addressing resistance to anti-oppressive change in the practices of learning, teaching, supervising, and researching. Harvard Educational Review, 72(1). 67-92.