To the CritiSphere and Back Again: What does it even mean to be critical?

Something I struggle with is feeling like I’m not a ‘good enough’ critical researcher. I am constantly amazed and taught by amazing friends and peers that just seem to get what it means to be critical – they can integrate neoliberal or constructionist theory effortlessly and seamlessly into a conversation. I do okay if I’m in the ‘academic brain space’, but when it comes to casually referencing critical psychology in my day-to-day life, I find it a struggle. It usually goes something like this:

Me: (Sarcastically) Well, better get that cancer screening done so you can continue being a good neoliberal citizen.

Other: Why is that neoliberalism and not just plain sensible? I think you’re being a bit dramatic here.

Me: Uh, because if you don’t get the screening, you can be constructed as being to blame if you get cancer…I think…

Convincing, right? And that’s just within the health sphere.


Image: Imgur

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Grant Shopping

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Guest post from Danielle Ferndale who completed her PhD through the School of Psychology at The University of Queensland recently. Her work focuses on the area of critical health psychology and her main interests are deafness and hearing loss, qualitative methods and privilege (and oppression). Contact her at @deafresearchau  Email: dferndale@gmail.com

Recently I was in a meeting talking about grants, and needing to find grant money to fund a follow-up project to the one we were currently working on. Except that’s not really how the discussion played out. Essentially, it became about identifying where the money’s at – e.g. breast cancer, diabetes etc. and how we can make the follow-up project suit the agenda of these funding bodies. This discussion went so far as to say, that while less prevalent diseases (or lesser known) or certain minority groups of people were fascinating, that’s not where the money is at.  This is not the first time I’ve had this experience.

Logically, I understand that in order for any research to get done it needs money. And the people with the money want certain topics (or certain answers) or types of research to be explored. So naturally, we make compromises on the population we’re interested in, the methodology, little parts of our soul etc. to accommodate the focus of particular grants. I also understand, on a human level, researchers need an income in order to purchase food, afford healthcare, etc.

However, on a principle level, I find it problematic that funding bodies dictate what topics/types of research are interesting, valuable and fund worthy. Less attractive areas of research, projects with “difficult” interventions or projects with “not-readily-quantifiable” outcomes (e.g., mental health), fall by the wayside. The funding system as I understand it, and I’m a relatively new player in the game of academia, privileges certain types of knowledge over others.

 

Image credit: www.phdcomics.com

As a newby in the game of academia and grants, I’m figuring out how to forge a career within which I can do “good” research, that doesn’t compromise the values of my population of interest, my principles (which I hold dear) but will also still be fundable and publishable. And I see a few options:

  1. Quit academia and pick one of the many back-up careers I have identified (e.g. driving instructor, movie critic)
  2. Suck it up and play the game by the current rules (pick ‘sexy’ research and adapt it to the trends, agenda of others) AKA, sell my soul
  3. Learn how to sell my research or mask it so that it is appealing to funding bodies – only selling part of my soul, the part that was evil anyway.
  4. Start a cult whereby, with likeminded individuals, we adopt the ideals of ‘the slow scholarship movement’ (Mountz et al., 2015)
  5. Change the system from within, also implementing the ideals of ‘the slow scholarship movement’

However, I am yet to figure out, how does one change the system – what does this look like? Where do I need to go to see this in action? Who can I look up to and learn from? Is it possible for an early career researcher to survive within the system while at the same time changing it? I think it is imperative that discussions on this topic continue, not just within the ‘critical bubble’ but in mainstream contexts.

 

A first-timer’s experience in grant writing: Part 2

Recently, I wrote a blog about my experience writing an Early Career Fellowship for the National Health and Medical Research Council in Australia. In the first blog, I told you about some lessons from this experience: follow your interests and don’t Google your ‘competitors’.

In this blog, I want to tell you about my final three lessons:

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A first-timer’s experience in grant writing: Part 1

How did I spend the recent, beautiful Australian summer, you ask? Writing a grant application, of course! In fact, I was writing an Early Career Fellowship for our National Health and Medical Research Council. In this blog, I want to share with you what I learned through the process of writing this application. This is the first of two posts.

Let me first set the context.

This fellowship is designed to fund researchers who are less than 2 years out of their PhD. The selection criteria is weighted according to research output (50%), research proposal and environment (30%) and professional contribution (20%).

My fellowship is about smoking in the home. I’m interested in how we can support families to recognize that second-hand smoke is a problem and to take steps to reduce exposure.

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To be called critical, or to not be called critical? That is the question.

I’ll admit, when I first volunteered to be a contributor to the ISCHP blog, I almost hyperventilated due to feeling both underqualified, and a bit of an imposter when it comes to talking about critical psychology issues. [read more]

‘Growing up’ (academically) I was introduced to psychology through a positivist framework; one which emphasised ruling out variability and bias, and that research in psychology should ultimately be a united fight in the pursuit of ‘truth’. Embarrassingly, one of the earlier documents when I started my PhD, makes the bold statement: ‘I want to seek, and find, the truth.’ It’s now years later, and on reflection, I can now recognise that when it comes to talking about the experiences young people have during their transition to adulthood, and how they define adulthood itself, there probably is no one (or any) ‘truth’ to be uncovered.

It was due to my supervisor and PhD friends that I was exposed to critical theory; the value of qualitative research methods; the role of reflexivity when conducting research; methodological and ethical issues that arise from (what I view as) problematic experimental psychology; and really, how numbers can tell you anything you want them to. I became immersed in social constructionist theories, my personal worldview shifted, and I’m still known to occasionally shake my first and despair over our ‘neoliberal outcome focused society’.

However, I also started a cool job looking at youth substance abuse, which involved looking at large data sets and, *gasp*, numbers. And while a couple years ago I may not have considered this kind of work, I’m now able to approach my work using my own unique experience to guide, and influence, the research decisions I make. I have the opportunity to use both qualitative and quantitative research methodologies. Not every piece of work that gets presented and has my name on it is critical. And I’m starting to be okay with that.

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Caption: Me, trying to eat both epistemological pies.

So, I describe myself as being ‘qual-lite’, or a constructionist trying to exist in a positivist world. It sometimes feels like I don’t fit in either camp – I’m too convicted by an alternative belief system to go back to how I was when I was an innocent undergraduate. But I also don’t see my future as being a gung-ho critical researcher who can recite Foucault at length.

But I think my position can also be a bonus. I think it would be great if multiple ontological positions could be considered and acknowledged within the same research project, and that is what I am aiming to do, and encourage others to do the same. So, when I’m writing for this blog, with my contributions hereby titled ‘To the Criti-sphere and back again’, it will be considering issues that I come across within positivist or mainstream research, and I will be seeking discussion and thoughts from a critical perspective on how to operate as a stealth critical researcher in a mainstream research environment.

I look forward to the ride!

Guest post: On being an outsider

Outsider. This one word could be used to sum up my PhD experience. In my everyday world, I am hearing and I operate with relative ease within a society that assumes, and caters to, my hearingness. [ Through learning Australian Sign Language (Auslan) and my PhD research, I have been exposed to a complex world that is largely defined by deafness, where people have a visual (rather than auditory) orientation to the world. However, this is an orientation that is rarely acknowledged (at least, not beyond viewing it as a disability) in Western society.

I have been navigating my role as an outsider for the past several years. Recently, I attended (and presented at) the World Federation of the Deaf Conference in Istanbul, Turkey. This was an exciting time for me because I was also preparing to submit my PhD thesis. It was this conference that was my first venture into the international (and academic) Deaf world. Let me put this conference in context for you. There were 1, 310 delegates from 97 different countries. And if that weren’t overwhelming enough, there were more than 45 sign languages at the conference. And, I think most importantly, the majority of presenters were deaf. This marked an opportunity for me to communicate to the deaf community about the deaf-centered research I had been conducting in Australia and my passion for deafness and sign language.

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My experience at this conference was, by far, the most challenging experience of my short lived academic career, and my short time in the Deaf world (I started learning Auslan in 2011). Having limited skills in International Sign (IS) language and only knowing the alphabet of American Sign Language, made networking with international delegates an intimidating task. My conversations were mostly limited to whether I was hearing or deaf, my name and where I was from. Indicative of my status as an outsider, telling people I was hearing was frequently met with “are you an interpreter?” which was quickly followed by “oh, why are you here?”

Weaved throughout my whole experience at the conference were the subtle behaviours and implicit attitudes that suggested to me that hearing people (those who were not interpreters or family) were not particularly welcome. While I have always been an outsider as a hearing person, in Australia, I have mostly felt welcomed, or at least not unwelcome. It is rare that as a white, middle class, heterosexual, able-bodied woman I experience being an outsider because of my identity. So I found this experience really difficult, but an invaluable experience to go through. This experience has left me questioning, what is my role as an outsider, and do/should I even have a role? Do I accept being an outsider and if so, how? What does this look like in terms of how I should move forward with my research career? Alternatively, how do I demonstrate, without overstepping, that I am a hearing ally (i.e. I’m not someone who is looking to ‘fix’ deaf people)?

I know colleagues who also experience being an outsider within their field of interest and go through similar challenges. I don’t have answers, I only have questions, but this was certainly an interesting experience for me, one that has led me to question my (professional) role within the deaf community.

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Danielle Ferndale is a PhD student in the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland. Her work focuses in the area of critical health psychology and her main interests are deafness and hearing loss, qualitative methods and privilege (and oppression).

@deafresearchau  Email: dferndale@gmail.com