Research Methods of Philosophers

Philosophy symposium 1

Philosophers sometimes use primary documents in ways not much different from the historians I mentioned in my previous blog. According to Yale:

Primary sources provide first-hand testimony or direct evidence concerning a topic under investigation. They are created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events or conditions being documented. Often these sources are created at the time when the events or conditions are occurring, but primary sources can also include autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories recorded later. Primary sources are characterized by their content, regardless of whether they are available in original format, in microfilm/microfiche, in digital format, or in published format.

For historians, primary documents include photographs, letters, news clippings and the like. For philosophers, I’d say they could include original texts where an idea first appeared in written form. As a social science researcher, I myself am collecting audio-taped testimonies of female students who have first-hand experience of first-year engineering education. All three of these examples–philosophy, history, and social science research–involve high levels of interpretation of documents, ideas, and stories contributed by others.

Whereas my historian friend, Cecilia Hartsell, is investigating phenomena that include both the 1916 Uprising as well as the return of soldiers from WWI, my colleagues in philosophy spent a recent weekend discussing the phenomena of intentionality and normativity. These historians and philosophers seek to understand the context of events and ideas arising in the past, and what the authors of various documents meant at the time they spoke, or wrote.


february-workshopI joined a group of philosophers for a February 19-20, 2016 seminar that explored various aspects of phenomenology. The event was hosted by the School of Philosophy at the University College of Dublin but held at Newman House, on Saint Stephen’s Green in Dublin.

Attending the seminar, I learned much more about phenomenology. I also learned more about the way philosophers think, study, generate new knowledge and new understandings, communicate with each other, test ideas, and seek to uncover the complex meanings embedded in writings by philosophers throughout the ages.

I am indebted to Prof. Dermot Moran and Dr. Elisa Magrì for inviting the public to their event so that I could attend, and to DIT’s new PhD student, Diana Adela Martin, for notifying me about the event.

Much of the discussion focused on phenomenology, which is both a philosophy and a social science research methodology. I’m currently using the methodology to study women’s experiences of STEM education, and will submit later this week a manuscript on another phenomenological research study of teachers’ experiences working together to implement Problem-Based Learning at Dublin Institute of Technology.

Related to experience, I must admit that visiting Newman House was an exquisite one. In this house, John Henry Newman founded University College Dublin (originally called the Catholic University of Ireland). I believe that he later became a cardinal and was beatified by the Catholic Church, despite the fact that his views did not always match the official sanctioned interpretations of the Church. Today, one can visit Newman Houses on campuses world wide, like the one I attended while a student at Virginia Tech. I’ve attached photos of the formal entry hall at UCD’s Newman House, for your enjoyment. I got so caught up in discussions at each coffee break that I never made it all the way to the lovely formal garden behind the house. Maybe next time!

A Tasty Bite of Elephant

Last night I met with the class on Student Development Theory at The College of William and Mary.

The class on Student Development Theory at The College of William and Mary.

I visited alma mater last night, The College of William and Mary, to speak about cognitive development theories developed by William Perry, Marcia Baxter Magolda, King and Kitchener, and the like.  I was asked to highlight how I incorporate these theories in my research and teaching.

This was an optimal time to give such a talk, because I’m gearing up to conduct a phenomenological study of students’ experiences of collaborative, trans-disciplinary, problem-based learning.  Last night’s talk got my mind moving in that direction.

The people in the picture above are working on graduate degrees in Higher Education; several of them shared  ideas and recommendations for the design of my proposed project.  At least two of them are using phenomenological methods for their dissertation work.  Their enthusiasm for my plan raised my own energy level and got me psyched to start work.

I’d had some nagging questions about how to best protect my research participants (i.e., “subjects”); the W&M students helped address my concerns.

I’d also had difficulty making time for this project because of its sheer scale.  I was trying to do too much at once.

I devised a workable plan during my drive to Williamsburg and got good response to my idea.  In essence, I’m now following the rule that if you want to eat an elephant, you’ve got to proceed one bite at a time….

I’d been completely overwhelmed by trying to analyze data from 30+ participants.  So, I’ve determined to focus in on one group.  I can extend the work over time, but a group of six is appropriate for a phenomenological study (and a more reasonable way to digest this elephant).

So, I’ll look closely at one group of six students who worked together as a team with impressive results.  Each of these students documented the team’s design process in writing across the course of a semester.

I’ve already done quite a bit of analysis on what they wrote, and that allowed me to make a purposeful selection.  In this case, I know that more than one team member experienced  powerful (pivotal or seminal) instances of learning.  I want to find out what factors caused those changes.  I’ll be looking at how the six team members experienced the collaborative design process in the period leading up to significant “a ha” moments.

I hope that the results will help educators (including me) prompt that type of “deep learning” more often.

I can extend the work to look at other groups later.  And, as Dr. Jim Barber (the instructor of record for last night’s course) pointed out, I can also extend the study in the future (to make it “longitudinal”) by tracking down members of the group and conducting follow-up interviews.

I always enjoy visiting the W&M School of Education and yesterday was no exception.  After arriving at the School of Education’s brand new LEED-Gold building, I admired the fall colors and gabbed with a former classmate (Sharon Stone) and my mentor (Dr. Pam Eddy) before heading into Dr. Barber’s class.

Can’t wait to visit again!