Tag Archives: research

“Inside the box, outside the box, and among boxes”

Written by guest blogger, Steven C. Muir.

People are encouraged to “think outside the box,” and while this is worthwhile advice, it does not tell the whole story of doing effective and innovative research. Below are some observations on this process, and how I go about it. These issues were at work in my article for Mouseion.

Inside the box. Dive deep! Don’t settle for a superficial reading or quick assessment of data. Go over the material very carefully, multiple times. Investigate the context of the phenomenon you are investigating. Things not only reflect but are a product of their time and setting. In your research, sometimes the background may need to be moved into the foreground. Have a good grasp of the relevant methodologies and theories. Consult assessments within secondary scholarship, but don’t be locked into those. They are relative to the perspectival context of the researcher. Finally, always check primary data. Don’t rely on footnotes and what others say. Others may be wrong, incorrect, or only have a partial grasp of the issue. Come to your own conclusions and don’t just parrot what others have said.

Outside the box. Question old paradigms and theories. Seek new connections and explanations in data. Look for patterns. Assume very little. Investigate as much as possible. Cultivate your intuition and don’t be afraid to be creative and imaginative. In research, I empathize with others – walking the paths they walked, seeing the sights they saw, feeling what they felt. Have a sense of humour, for whatever humans do may seem surprising or even odd at first. Have fun in your research! “The devil is in the details” – and so is the fun.

Among the boxes. Choose and combine fields and disciplines. Particularly within the Humanities, there is nothing which cannot fit together and inform your research. You will be learning not only about your topic, but about what it means to be human. Be interdisciplinary in your research and eclectic in your interests. In my Mouseion article, I deliberately brought Classics, Philosophy and Religious Studies into dialogue. That synthesis helped me produce new insights and challenge previous scholarship. A new project I am working on will bring together Archaeology/Architecture, Performance and Ritual Studies, and Pilgrimage Studies. Remember, boxes are always a construct, even when they are academic fields. We build and work within structures to help us manage and analyze data. But, those structures are not absolute. When we can achieve new insights by moving outside them, we are at liberty to do so.

“A wheel has spokes,
but it rotates around a hollow center.

A pot is made out of clay or glass,
but you keep things in the space inside.

A house is made of wood or brick,
but you live between the walls.

We work with something,
but we use no-thing.”

Tao te Ching #11, in Getting Right with Tao (a modern translation) by Ron Hogan

photo of Steven Muir

Dr. Steven C. Muir is a professor of Religious Studies at Concordia University of Edmonton. He has published in the areas of Biblical Studies, Classics, History of Early Christianity, Healing and Identity in Religious Communities, Pilgrimage Studies, Ritual Studies. His most recent book is a co-edited volume, titled, Ritual Life in Early Christianity (Routledge 2018). Read his recent article in Mouseion “Greek Piety and the Charge against Socrates”—free for a limited time here.

Behind the Book with Raymond Stephanson and Darren N. Wagner

The Secrets of Generation: Reproduction in the Long Eighteenth Century

Raymond Stephanson and Darren N. Wagner discuss their interdisciplinary examination of the many aspects of reproduction in the eighteenth century – The Secrets of Generation: Reproduction in the Long Eighteenth Century

How did you become involved in your area of research?

RAS: In the early 1990s I began researching and writing a book about the famous 18th-century poet Alexander Pope and the ways male creativity was then understood. It became clear to me that a key cultural touchstone for this were reproductive metaphors. Many years later—2004, to be exact—the University of Pennsylvania Press published my The Yard of Wit: Male Creativity and Sexuality, 1650–1750.

DNW: My early academic background is split between biological sciences and English literature. In 2007 I began an interdisciplinary master’s degree program in 18th-century literature and reproductive biology under the co-supervision of Prof. Stephanson and Prof. Roger Pierson. My specialty in sex and reproduction in the 18th century was forged then, and I have been researching various aspects of this topic since.

What inspired you to write this book?

RAS: Having published on 18th-century sex, gender, and reproduction, it was apparent to me and my co-editor Dr. Wagner that such a collection was sorely needed for such an important historical topic.

How long did it take you to write your latest book?

DNW: Prof. Stephanson and I first discussed this project in 2011 at a Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies meeting hosted by McMaster University. Four years and a couple thousand emails later, The Secrets of Generation has hit the shelves.

What do you find most interesting about your area of research?

RAS: Its diversity and surprising range of application across material and cultural domains: humans, animals, plants, species, heredity, selective breeding, literary expression, scandal and gossip, pornography—all of these include some aspect of reproduction, from theory to praxis to money-making.

What’s the most surprising thing you discovered during the course of your research?

RAS: Mainly in talking to others—mostly colleagues—about the work we were putting together, how narrow most peoples’ attitudes were to the subject “reproduction.” My pals always only think about human sex stuff and never about animals, plants, history, and all those other cool things!

DNW: For my chapter on anatomical displays of male genitalia, I had a small grant from the Scientific Instrument Society to spend some time researching at the Hunterian Museum, London. It’s an impressive museum based upon John Hunter’s anatomical collection from the 18th century. If you’re ever in the neighbourhood, stopping in for a peak is a must!

What are your current/future projects?

RAS: Right now I am working on a book that attempts to trace the emergence of science fiction around the middle of the 18th century. Literary historians usually mark Frankenstein as the first of this new breed, but I think we can look at the interesting ways in which, taken together, scientific writing including fictional elements and literary narratives deploying new science and technology opened a historical space for initial experiments with a fictional science.

DNW: I am currently writing a book with the working title of Sexual Feeling: Sensibility and Generation in Enlightenment Britain. This book explores physiological theories that connected nerves and sex in the long 18th century. A central question in this book is how these theories are expressed in and communicated between literature, philosophy, medicine, science and technology.

What do you like to read for pleasure?  What are you currently reading?

RAS: Reading pleasures have always been the stuff I’m currently researching, and right now I am keenly reading 17th– and 18th-century botanical treatises, filled as they are with all manner of cultural baggage. Very exciting to me, and likely boring to others!

DNW: I generally enjoy picaresque novels, such as Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, or Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. Currently I am preparing for an exhibition I am co-curating at the Osler Library for the History of Medicine by reading medical books from the 16th to 19th century about blood.

What is your favourite book?

RAS: Laurence Sterne’s 18th-century novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, and many of the short stories by Charles Bukowski.

DNW: The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith is one of my all-time comedic favourites.

If you weren’t working in academia, what would you be doing instead?

RAS: Playing jazz piano in Vancouver nightclubs.

DNW: As a postdoctoral fellow with no certain employment in sight, that’s a question I am always asking myself. Probably I’d have a career that’s much less interesting and much better paid. Perhaps I’d still be working on the cucumber farm I grew up on. People need their dill pickles.

Learning Activism: The Intellectual Life of Contemporary Social Movements

To mark the publication this week of Learning Activism: The Intellectual Life of Contemporary Social Movements, the author, Aziz Choudry, provides the following background, as well as thoughts on how the book might be used in the undergraduate or graduate classroom. The book launches this Wednesday in Montreal at the Immigrant Workers Centre, 4755 Van Horne Ave., Suite 110, from 5:00 to 7:00 pm. Visit the McGill event page here.

Learning Activism

Learning Activism is primarily about the intellectual labour—the learning, knowledge production, and research—that takes place in the course of organizing and activism. Indeed, in this book I suggest that some of the most radical critiques, understandings, and theories about the world we live in, its power structures and dominant ideologies, and the fragility of the environment—and indeed the most powerful visions for social change—emerge from ordinary people coming together and working for such change.

For teaching purposes, I’m often drawn to books that incorporate, in different ways, narrations of the author’s everyday observations and experiences—to make their points as well as review and reference selective areas of scholarship. This book tries to balance insights derived from some of my own organizing and activist education practice with scholarship about activist learning, knowledge production, and research in sufficient depth to be helpful to both student and broader audiences. Drawing from a range of contexts, Learning Activism discusses the significance, dynamics, and politics of forms and processes of informal and non-formal learning, education, research, and other forms of knowledge production within social, political, and environmental activist milieus. Examples include anti-colonial currents within global justice organizing in the Asia-Pacific, activist research and education in social movements and people’s organizations in the Philippines, migrant worker struggles in Canada, and the Quebec student strike.

The book is born out of many conversations, debates, and arguments and is in dialogue with many other people, ideas, theories, and struggles. It should be of interest to people working in several disciplines concerned with learning, knowledge production, research, and social action/social movements. Besides education, this includes sociology, political science, international relations, critical anthropology, community development, social work, and international development. Learning Activism could be integrated into undergraduate courses and graduate seminars as well as serving as a reference for scholars in these and related disciplines. It may be adopted as a text in courses related to social movements, learning and adult education, organizing and non-formal learning, community development, international development, global education, and social justice, for example. It’s written in a style that should also be accessible to activists, community, trade union, and NGO practitioners and broader publics.

Throughout this book I highlight the intellectual contributions of informal and non-formal learning, knowledge production, activist research, and organizing to the academic field of education and learning, and educators in general. I also address some theoretical, analytical, and pedagogical questions in ways that should be relevant to organizers and activists. It is neither a social movement studies reader nor a traditional text on social movement learning or adult education. Along the way, it engages critically with some of the literature in the field of social movement studies as part of a broader project. It tries to break the serious analysis of social movement learning out of the particular sites where it usually takes place (like adult education programs and literature) to make it more widely accessible. It is not meant as an exhaustive text on the study of social movements, but instead, points readers to further sources that include many theoretical works as well as more popular or activist literature.

I do not believe that activism can be neatly packaged into boxes labelled “organizing,” “education/learning,” “research,” and “action.” Academic scholarship commonly demands and generates such categories, but it is not always analytically helpful to carve up and analyze people’s activities in the world, nor is it an accurate reflection of how things actually happen. For that reason, dividing the book’s content into chapters and sections reflects convenience rather than rigid categorization or narrow compartmentalization. The book can be read in the order in which it is presented, or its chapters can be read to complement themes of courses in any order.

At the heart of this book is the simple idea that people struggle, learn, educate, and theorize wherever they find themselves. The forms this takes may change, but the importance of spaces and places for collective action, learning, reflection, and intergenerational sharing is crucial to building, sustaining, and broadening resistance to injustice and exploitation. A critical eye to history is vital, together with an openness to valuing processes of informal and non-formal learning, and knowledge created from the ground up. Indeed, this lens is necessary for those who want to link critical knowledge to action and for action to be informed by deeper historical understandings of how and why we are in the state we are in. This, in turn, connects to my collaboration in this book with photojournalist Orin Langelle’s powerful photography, including the striking front cover image. In Langelle’s words, his photographic work aims to “counter the societal amnesia from which we collectively suffer—especially with regard to the history of social and ecological struggles. This is not merely a chronicling of history, but a call out to inspire new generations to participate in the making of a new history.”

The politics of documenting earlier and contemporary histories of social movements is an important thread running through the book, and one which also points to future prospects for change. I think it can be instructive and sobering to reflect on how ideas and causes once viewed radical, subversive, and even criminalized can sometimes become mainstream (and perhaps, how this can happen in reverse, sometimes). The strategies, tactics, and methods used, the dilemmas they have grappled with, and many of the people involved are often airbrushed out of dominant or ‘common sense’ accounts, affording instead dangerously sanitized and sometimes wildly inaccurate misrepresentations about the dynamics and histories of social and political change.

In conclusion, although you won’t find many neatly packaged answers in Learning Activism, the book puts forward lots of questions—and a strong sense that the struggles for social, political, economic, and ecological justice are unfinished business. In that sense, freedom may well become, as Angela Davis suggests, “not a state for which one yearns, but rather an incessant struggle to remake our lives, our relations, our communities, and our futures.”

Aziz Choudry is Associate Professor, Department of Integrated Studies in Education, McGill University, and Visiting Professor at the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation, University of Johannesburg.

Five Ways to Think Differently About Textbooks

The Higher Education Division of UTP is quickly approaching its fifth anniversary, and in advance of this hallmark, we will be contributing monthly blog postings on the purpose and various functions of our division. Our first five years have been set amidst a background of rapidly changing technologies and shifts in the needs of teachers and scholars, and we would like to contribute our voices to the wider conversation. Our Executive Editor, Anne Brackenbury, continues the conversation with her list of five ways to think differently about textbooks.

Textbooks have a bad name these days, but not all textbook publishers are the same. The Higher Education Division at UTP is relatively new, having come into being just five years ago in the midst of an emerging open access movement, a backlash against textbook prices, and massive technological change. We tend to take nothing for granted, and since we don’t have deep pockets to invest in expensive technological solutions, we have to think creatively about what we do.

As an acquisitions editor whose job it is to inspire people to write textbooks, I’m continually surprised by the lack of imagination shown in this sphere. Even as the sage-on-the-stage model of lecturing in the classroom has been thrown into question, and more creative approaches to teaching and learning are emerging daily, many people cling to their limited ideas of what a textbook should look and sound like. To be sure there are changes happening, but most of it so far seems to be focused on pricing, and most of it is coming from those who support open access or low-cost digital alternatives.

But what about the form itself? What can the latest research in teaching and learning tell us about how we can change textbooks to be stronger pedagogical supports? Here in the Higher Education Division we are happy to produce straight-up textbooks that meet high scholarly standards, and deliver them at reasonable prices, but we also believe there is plenty of room to push at the edges of the form. What if a textbook looked and sounded different? What if it were more than just a reference tool? What if the text was actually enjoyable to read and could translate sophisticated scholarly ideas effectively?

Below is our list of five ways to think differently about textbooks. It is by no means exhaustive, and these forms are not particularly new. They are, however, rare to find in most textbooks. We welcome your additions or comments. Either log in below or catch us on Twitter (#UTPHE5).

1. Textbooks with (Smart) Voices

The comprehensive textbook is still very much alive and well these days. Many instructors, even those who employ innovative pedagogy in their classes, still rely on these texts as both a reference and security blanket of sorts for students. There is a difference though between a textbook written in a dry, third-person voice, and one told as a masterful story. The first invokes yawns and drooping eyelids; the second aims to engage the reader from the get-go. There’s also a difference between a textbook that provides standardized, lowest-common denominator information and one that integrates cutting-edge scholarship. The latter, if written in an engaging narrative style, not only encourages reading, but influences the direction of research and teaching practices.

2. Textbooks that Establish Relevancy

One way to engage students in reading a textbook is to ensure that they actually care about why they are doing so (beyond trying to get good marks). An effective textbook—the kind the student might actually read, not just skim—takes the time to establish why the subject matter is important. Whether it’s beginning with an invitation that acknowledges and validates where the student reader is coming from before challenging them, or using contemporary controversies from their everyday worlds to talk about key concepts, this breed of textbook starts from one basic question: why should the reader care? Once relevance is established, reading follows more easily.

3. Textbooks that Ask Questions

Some instructors, often those who avoid using textbooks altogether, prefer to assign course materials that foster critical thinking. In this instance, they are looking for pedagogical tools, not information vessels. A textbook serving this purpose is brief, covers a broad scope, and employs techniques like debates, case studies, thought-provoking scenarios, or creative assignments. The textbook that supports this kind of pedagogy is likely to look friendly, and is written in a highly accessible style, but it asks questions that require sophisticated decoding skills. It may be easy to read, but it is far from easy.

4. Textbooks that Employ Humour

When all else fails, the dedicated instructor looks to humour to keep students awake. So why is humour so rare in textbooks? Imagine a text that shows rather than tells about key concepts by using funny anecdotes to illustrate not just the right answer, but the wrong answer as well. Don’t we learn from making mistakes? Aren’t we more relaxed about learning if we’re laughing and nodding our heads in agreement at the same time? These texts are approachable and well written and they use humour and storytelling to translate sophisticated concepts and ideas for a less-sophisticated audience. To be sure, they are funny and light-hearted in tone, but readers can’t help but come away with a deeper respect and understanding of the need for rigorous analytical thinking and research.

5. Mixed Media Textbooks

Lest you think this list is a little light on technology, we do think textbooks should use a mixed media approach where appropriate. We know that technology has become a powerful way to engage students—whether it’s using PowerPoint, YouTube videos, Twitter, or Wikis in the classroom. Most comprehensive textbooks now also come fully loaded with companion websites that provide interactive digital support. These include instructor support materials, PowerPoint slides, student self-study guides, online links and references, image banks, etc. But do students and instructors really use this material to their full advantage? Do students use them to avoiding having to read the book altogether?

What if digital technology could be used not only to engage students but also to help lure them into a more immersive form of reading? What if a newer digital technology could be used to support analogue technology (i.e. the book) rather than replace it?

In this, we have a good example from our own publishing program: Andrew Walsh’s new ethnography, Made in Madagascar: Sapphires, Ecotourism, and the Global Bazaar. Walsh’s book is a straight up ethnography in many ways, though written for introductory-level students with a highly accessible style and a tone that establishes both relevancy and personality. What’s different is the way he uses his blog as support for the book. The introductory chapter of the book is available in a hyperlinked version, providing a fun and interactive way for students to immerse themselves in context with visuals and text. An added benefit is the way this experience is used to illustrate the limits of internet searches. Walsh could have written the entire book in this format, but he ultimately wanted to encourage students to learn the value of ethnographic writing as a form to present original research. With student interest already established, Walsh then begins to tell his story. What results is an enhanced learning experience that draws on the unique strengths of each media format.

-Anne Brackenbury, Executive Editor

Do you have a good book for your theory courses?

Alan Sears and James Cairns, the co-authors of UTP’s bestselling social theory book, A Good Book, In Theory: Making Sense Through Inquiry (now in its second edition), are soliciting feedback from instructors on their experiences using the book in their courses. We invite you to join the discussion!

We co-wrote the second edition of A Good Book, In Theory as an accessible introduction to theoretical thinking for students in social theory courses or in other classes where it was relevant (some introductory courses and methods courses, for example). We are writing this blog posting to share some of the feedback we have received, and to welcome your responses to the book.

One great pleasure of writing A Good Book, In Theory has been the feedback we have received since it was published. Another pleasure is speculating about who would play us in the movie if our agent would only get her act together to sell the film rights. Hey, they made a decent film about Mark Zuckerberg and he is no action hero, so why not us? But even if the movie does not get made, the feedback will help carry us through our next project, a book on what democracy means in the 21st century.

It is amazing that some undergraduates have taken the time to write to tell what they like (or do not like) about the book. It is clear that one of the things that affects them is the more personal voice that we assumed in writing it. Students have written, for example, to ask if it is really true that I do not like baseball. That is a sign of a human connection, which is something we deliberately sought in writing the book.

The use of a more personal voice was deliberate because we saw this book as a conversation opener. That is not the task of all books, and this is not a style of writing that is applicable all the time. In this case, we specifically felt that the introduction to theoretical thinking would benefit from a conversational style that invited readers to ask basic questions and to engage with sometimes difficult concepts.

It is our sense, reinforced by feedback we have received since writing this book, that theory is often introduced as something else to know in addition to substantive and methodological insights. Further, this additional realm of knowledge is often presented as forbidding and intimidating, a towering castle ringed by moats of jargon and turrets of conceptual abstractions.

We agree that theory can, indeed should, be difficult to learn. All worthwhile knowledge requires some sweat to acquire, whether that is how to shoot a basketball, bake a cake, or understand a social ritual. If our capacities are not stretched in the process, if there is not a bit of stiffness and pain, if our assumptions are not challenged, we will have gained very little. On the other hand, if it hurts so much we never want to do it again, if we feel humiliated and incompetent, then the challenge might simply de-motivate us and convince us of our own inabilities.

We hoped the personal voice would make this book seem approachable, while at the same time working in sophisticated concepts that were not easy to understand. It is our conviction that people will engage more richly with theory once they have seen how useful it is in their own process of sense-making. The book is designed to help people take their first steps as self-conscious theoretical thinkers with a guide who is both supportive and challenging.

A personal trainer who yells at you and makes you feel like a failure, like my high school gym teacher, will often not help you get in shape. On the other hand, a trainer who simply showers unconditional praise and never challenges us to try adding a bit more weight or running up that hill one more time will not help us transform ourselves. This book was designed specifically for that zone, challenging readers to reach higher while also supporting by setting achievable targets, chapter by chapter, in an engaging voice.

You may or may not think we succeeded, so feel free to let us know. It is clear from feedback we have received that at least some readers feel we have done fairly well at hitting that mark. Comments from undergraduates have tended to focus around the relatively engaging experience of reading the book and the importance of application in it; of developing conscious theoretical thinking by making sense of the world around them.

Interestingly, we have heard some similar comments from graduate students, including people we consider to be sophisticated independent thinkers at advanced points in their programs of study. Many people enter into graduate school without having established a strong sense of the work that theory does in formalized ways of knowing. In graduate school, they might wrestle with the big ideas of influential theorists in original texts, yet without clarifying the relationship between theoretical thinking and their own research processes. For example, I have frequently had conversations with master’s students who see theory as something to plop into a project that has already been conceived in substantive (what they will examine) and methodological (how they will do so) terms.

It has been fulfilling to hear that the same book undergraduates tell us is relatively engaging can be useful in a different way for sophisticated thinkers at the graduate level. This is not to claim that we got it all right, but rather that there is something in the project that works. This view was affirmed by a review of the book in the Times Higher Education in Britain.

The book has also challenged our own practices as teachers in the classroom, figuring out how to integrate it into courses in such a way as to emphasize engagement and application. It is an amazing experience when it works, when you actually see a room full of students (ranging in scale from 8 to over 200 participants) working through challenging analytical tasks with a sense of the excitement of discovery and vibrant debate that emerges out of differences in perspective.

So what do you think? Do you have a unique approach to teaching theory? Does our approach make sense to you? Have you used A Good Book, In Theory in your own courses? How did it work? Was it a challenge to work it into your course? Please provide us with your comments.

Alan Sears and James Cairns