Being a writer, researcher and PhD student can be a lonely and isolating experience. When you’ve spent the past few years dedicating nearly every waking minute to your research topic it can come as a shock to discover that not everyone shares your enthusiasm or passion for it, or wants to hear about why it’s interesting or important.
For this reason, I really enjoyed attending the Co-operative Education conference in April, in my capacity both as an employee of the Co-operative College and as a researcher. As well as having the opportunity to hear from and speak to academics and practitioners from different institutions, I constantly found myself needing to find new and concise ways to describe my research in networking and conversation.
Having ummed and ahed about submitting an abstract for a paper (in the end, I regretted that I didn’t, once I had heard some of the other papers and attended a few sessions) I appreciated the chance to take part in the conference in a more informal way, through the postgraduate research panel.
The panel brought together five current postgraduate researchers associated with the College to various degrees. This ranges from joint supervisory arrangements with universities (Jo Darnley), to being a researcher in residence in the National Co-operative Archive (Pauline Hadaway), to researching topics in which the College has close involvement (Jo Dennis and Debbie Ralls are both researching co-operative schools) and, in my case, working for the College.
One of the challenges I face is juggling two separate projects, related to two different if complementary historical periods and bodies of literature – post-war art education for my PhD, and interwar co-operative women’s media, for my own interest. However, I’ve felt encouraged and supported by the College to undertake and present research as part of my staff development. As I explained during the panel, I feel it is my responsibility to educate myself about subject areas around my work as part of my ongoing education, and to be interested in research others are doing within and related to my organisation. The challenge, for some people and organisations, is finding the space, time and motivation to do this alongside busy day jobs.
Although I had met all except Debbie before during their visits to the College, having a reason to meet the other postgraduates together was a great opportunity to discuss our work and to have stimulating discussions about shared themes and interests in our seemingly disparate projects.
Our panel took place at the end of the first day of the conference, which was dedicated to research. Despite a full day of ideas and discussions we attracted a good and varied turnout who were willing both to listen and to make observations and ask questions.
Throughout the day, I had found that other sessions and speakers triggered thoughts and questions in my mind, from the Social Science Centre’s discussion of a framework for a co-operative university, and the co-production of knowledge, to Dr Linda Shaw’s keynote presentation, which was participatory and called on the audience to work together to identify some challenges and highlights of doing research both about co-operatives and in co-operative ways.
Several of Linda’s points were ones I noted down to pick up on in our panel. She identified challenges including a dominant narrative of decline and a lack of optimism in the co-operative movement, as well as a tendency to be inward-looking due to the lack of academic platforms for research into co-operatives in the mainstream, and the apparent lack of a theoretical base. Another concern is the lack of opportunities for postgraduates once they have finished their PhDs. However, I also thought Linda’s point about the need to translate academic language into popular language, so it reaches wider communities, is a very important and useful one, and one which I have tried to address through my own work by writing articles and doing public talks.
Hazel Johnson, Professor of Development Policy and Practice at the Open University and College Trustee, chaired our session and offered some direction, asking: “How do we understand the idea of ‘doing research co-operatively?’”; “What does it mean in practice?”; “How best can we engage research users throughout the research process?”; “Why is it useful to partner with the Co-operative College in doing research?”; “How can we help the College become the centre of a co-operative research network?”; and “What research is needed in the co-operative movement?”
This led to discussions about the potential to liberate research from academic structures, to develop different and participatory thesis forms, to make research accessible through technology, to partner with institutions nationally and internationally, to develop research models that are more equitable and co-operative, and to build a network of researchers through the College’s emerging Co-operative Research Action Group and database.
We also shared our own insights and experiences as researchers and some of our concerns, from ongoing questions about whether your research is useful and the confidence that it is worth doing, to finding a place for yourself in established institutions and finding collaborators and networks which understand your values.
For me, an important part of doing research co-operatively is being part of a culture where there are people around to speak to, as well as access to others’ knowledge, built up over many years. Most of all, it helps to have someone taking an interest in what you are doing. As a postgraduate researcher, the Co-operative Education Conference was a great opportunity for this. With five perspectives to share, the 45 minute session flew by, making me wish there were opportunities to meet and share more often.