disturbing the surface

Last Friday I had the pleasure of presenting at a seminar jointly hosted by OFFA and SRHE on the role of research in policy-making.  Professor Jacqueline Stevenson (SHU), Co-convenor of SRHE’s Access and Widening Participation Network had pulled together a great line-up including Nick Hillman of HEPI, Dr Neil Harrison (UWE) and Dr Vikki Boliver (Durham).  In between their thought-provoking presentations it was the turn of early-career researchers – seven of us, to outline our thoughts on the relationship of our research to policy, to reflect on the relevance and the challenges we encounter.  My own presentation focused on my current role as Research Fellow undertaking gender equality research within the boundaries of one institution.  I drew on Adrian Holliday’s wonderful description of the process of research ie: that it is by trying to understand what happens when, as an inevitable consequence of being there, the researcher disturbs the surface of the culture she is investigating, that they are in a position to dig deeper, to reveal the hidden and the counter (Holliday 2004 p.278).  Disturbing the surface, it seems to me, is also an essential part of the often slow process of policy and culture change.

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contested territory

Full-time study not only holds the centre ground of English higher education (HE), it crowds the whole territory, pushing different ways of engaging with higher level study to a strategically precarious periphery.  In my doctoral research, I take on the influential narrative of ‘belonging in HE’, which has become so entangled with ideas about student retention.  My thesis re-imagines belonging in HE for mature part-time undergraduates peripherally positioned in the English sector.  It does so by drawing on spatial, psychosocial and psychogeographical ideas to map a more nuanced territory, to theorise ‘belonging’ through concepts of space and power.  Its findings disrupt a dominant, reductive narrative and emphasise instead, a rich territory of persistence and shared ownership; of belonging as a complex, negotiated process in the contested space of HE.  Institutional approaches to strategy and practice which acknowledge and encompass multiple versions of ‘belonging in HE’ increase HE’s capacity to engage with all its students more meaningfully.