Doing Collaborative Research

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By Kate Pahl

In the previous post Mathew Flinders identified the ways in which collaborative research touches the emotions of academics and places different kinds of demands on them. In our joint article with Milton Brown, Paul Ward and Zanib Rasool (available here) we identified the emotional work of collaboration and the ways in which it touched us personally. Here I reflect on my own academic journey and explore how it helped to work both inside and outside academia.

After leaving university I worked as an adult literacy outreach worker in Hammersmith and Fulham for several years. I also was poetry editor of a journal, Critical Quarterly. These experiences left me with an understanding that knowledge and experience lay in many different quarters. Working for the Hammersmith and Fulham’s Council for Racial Equality, and learning from academics from the Afro -Caribbean Language and Literacy Unit at the then Inner London Education Authority, taught me that language and literacies did not lie in particular domains of practice but were located in everyday practices and ways of knowing. When I encountered the work of David Barton and Mary Hamilton in their seminal book Local Literacies (1998) which was about literacy practices in communities, this made sense to me.

Soon after finishing my doctorate, I moved to the University of Sheffield to work in the School of Education. I continued to be interested in working in communities. I worked in Rotherham, on a number of projects mostly funded through the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Connected Communities programme (www.connected-communities.org.uk).  I was funded by the AHRC to do a small project that explored everyday stories and objects in the homes of British Asian communities.

I then worked on an evaluation of a literacy initiative in Rotherham where I encountered Zanib Rasool, and I remember the feeling of recognition I had when I met her. Both of us had been community development workers in the mid 1980s. We shared the same passion for books and reading.  I realised that her understandings mirrored my own. Sometimes, being in a university can feel quite lonely, as it is an institution that values individualism and does not sometimes support co-production across different domains of practice.

In my work I have been lucky enough to collaborative with people who understood this. Working on the ESRC funded Imagine (http://www.imaginecommunity.org.uk ) a project with Paul Ward, Milton Brown and Zanib Rasool, as well as colleagues such as Angie Hart and Sarah Banks, expanded my horizons and enabled me to understand the ways in which histories and cultures shape and are shaped by everyday social practice.

Collaborative research rests on trust, relationship building and hospitality. It sometimes involves giving up cherished disciplinary roots and learning new ideas. I have never forgotten sitting in Kirklees Local TV hearing Milton’s account of critical race theory. I have learned from Paul Ward about the need for local history to reflect diverse communities and cultures. I have been lucky in that co-production has been a mode of learning and listening for me.

I am currently exploring the potential of collaborative interdisciplinary research in two projects. One, ‘Odd: Feeling Different in the world of education’ (https://www2.mmu.ac.uk/esri/odd-project ) is exploring, with children, their feelings about school, its strangeness and the ways in which the school day can or cannot feel different to normal. Through film making and reciprocal analysis (Campbell and Lassiter 2010) we are feeling our way into what it is like to feel different in school. All of us feel different in some way – how is that?

Su Corcoran and I are exploring the potential of arts methods working with street-connected and refugee young people in Kenya, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo, and in this work the collaborations guide and shape the work we do (link to: https://www2.mmu.ac.uk/esri/research/projects/kenya-uganda-drc/#d.en.104859 ).

I have written about the process of co-production with Elizabeth Campbell, Elizabeth Pente and Zanib Rasool in a collaborative book about Rotherham (https://policy.bristoluniversitypress.co.uk/re-imagining-contested-communities  ) and also explored co-production as a community development approach with Sarah Banks, Angie Hart and Paul Ward (: https://policy.bristoluniversitypress.co.uk/co-producing-research ). In these books we explored the way sin which co-production itself could become a craft, a skill, that people could learn with and in the process of doing and making together.

Co-production is a relational process; it is built on trust. It recognises that university knowledge is partial and that the knowing we do is only a tiny piece of the knowledge that is gathered in the world. I was lucky enough to be involved in the Common Cause project ( https://www.commoncauseresearch.com/) and through this project we have begun to map the ways in which universities can work equitably with communities, particularly Black and Ethnic minority communities, that tend to be under-represented in universities. I think we are only just beginning that journey.

Kate Pahl is Professor of Arts and Literacy at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her forthcoming book, Living Literacies with Jennifer Rowsell, together with Diane Collier, Steve Pool, Zanib Rasool and Terry Trzecak, is being published by MIT press in 2020.

https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/living-literacies

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