Ten months ago I heard, "Research like this hasn't been done before which is exciting for us..."
Six months ago I thought, "I'm not qualified for this - why don't I just transcribe instead?"
Two months ago I felt, "Wow! we are actually getting somewhere!"
Today, I am more sure than ever that the research we produce will advance higher education and how we think about and foster inclusive campus climates.
I remember sitting in Dr. Demetri Morgan’s downtown Chicago office on that cold January afternoon before class. Having recently been accepted as one of his research assistants, I was excited to learn about my role and responsibilities. There were two projects on the table: one examined student political identity development while the other applied geospatial mapping technology to visually represent campus climates. Chosen for the geospatial mapping team, I left the meeting with a few assigned readings (Hurtado) (Park) (SOPARC) and a brief overview of the project. I didn't know at the time that this research endeavor would become such a formative part of my graduate experience.
A few weeks passed and the Campus Climate Research team consisting of Demetri Morgan, Jessie Payne, Norma Lopez, and myself, met to discuss the project and delegate tasks. Having orientated myself to the campus climate literature as well as to SOPARC's use of GIS technology, I felt relatively prepared to dive into my assignments. During our meeting, Demetri explained that the genesis of his idea for mapping diverse student interactions germinated from a curiosity to know how effective U.S. affirmative action policy is in promoting interaction between students of different social identities. He posed the question: "we know that diversity on college campuses exists but where does it happen?"
Oh, that's good.
Demetri continued to explain that he wanted to create a study that uses interview, questionnaire, and observation methodologies to answer this question. Provided that "research like this really hadn't been done before," we had little reference on how best to structure our protocol. Anyone who knows me recognizes I hold a healthy appreciation for authority, order, and direction. I don't particularly like messes and while some may use a term such as "uptight," I simply think of myself as structured.
For this structured research volunteer, things got real messy.
To break up the behemoth of our research design, Jessie drafted the interview protocols while I took a stab at the questionnaire. The interview protocols were excellent and although long, the questionnaire was passable. Our research was making progress. Then came the observation: Our Everest. How do you "observe" student interactions based on social identities when 1) many social identities are hidden and 2) identity, although socially constructed, is deeply personal?
We put our minds to work.
Maybe we could select a few busy locations such as the student center and library and observe the individuals and interactions within those spaces? Perhaps we could use visual cues such as race and gender and leave the cross-difference classification to the determination of the research team? Controversial research projects such as the Monster Study and the Stanford Prison Experiment have espoused a set of ethnical guidelines set forth to ensure participants are not harmed during research. Universities' Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) are responsible for reviewing research proposals to determine if the benefits of the research conducted will outweigh the potential risks; therefore, obtaining participant consent is crucial. Participants must first agree to the research study and be allowed to discontinue at any time without coercion or penalty. For our research study, obtaining IRB approval was a foreseeable obstacle considering "student consent" would be assumed by our signage: "this space is under research observation." This was assumed consent and it simply wouldn't work.
While our method for observing student interactions weighed on our minds, we were equally concerned with how to actually evaluate cross-difference. Should cross-difference be based solely on the diverse social identities of students engaging with one another or must the context of the conversation/interaction have an element of "cross-difference?" What does cross-difference even mean?!
Diverse in our own social identities, the research team decided that something felt off about observing students and their visual social identities to determine the quality of engagement for them. We realized that observation would need to come directly from the participant. Demetri Morgan, dream enabler as Loyola HESA can attest, time and time again reminded us to "trust the process." I cannot accurately express how often this little phrase pops into my head. At nearly every moment of discouragement, from the denied conference proposal to the GIS map that simply refuses to display the data (I swear it is not user error), I take a breath, draw strength, and "trust the process."
We didn't have all the answers and that was okay. Resting in the uncomfortable space of uncertainty was the best thing we could have done for ourselves and our research. And so, we waited, trusting our methods for observation would come in time.
Early April 2017
In early April, we decided to pilot the study with our completed interview, questionnaire, and participant recruitment strategy. Using a "nominator system," we planned to contact faculty, administrators, and staff within our network to recruit students for the study. One leadership professor graciously offered extra credit to students who participated. In the late spring, just before summer break, we conducted two interviews and administered two questionnaires to our eager student participants. During the pilot study, data was coded under the categories "troubleshoot" and "content." The former category helped us enhance our research instruments to better expose cross-difference interactions while the latter provided initial findings. Although small in scale, the pilot study proved indispensable to reworking the questionnaire and interview protocol. The troublesome task of deciding what to do with our observation loomed overhead until...
...Eureka! What if we created a journal that allows students to track and document their own experiences on campus? We wouldn't observe student participants first-hand but their journals would open a window into their daily lives just enough to help us understand how they experience cross-difference. Although it wasn't until August that our "diversity journals" would become finalized, we knew that we were on the right track that spring.
It was a relatively sleepy summer. Jessie was busy in Austin, Texas pursing an internship, Demetri was busy getting the website up and running (pretty great, right?!), and I occupied my time writing a grant proposal here and submitting a conference proposal there while enjoying another beautiful summer in Chicago. With so few students on campus, we decided to postpone data collection until the fall semester. In the meantime, the summer would be a good opportunity to reflect on our progress.
On July 24th, we found out that our paper, A New Frontier in Campus Climate Research: Diverse Interactions and Geospatial Mapping Technology, was accepted for the 2nd Annual LGBTQIA Symposium in the fall! Having never presented at a conference, I was ecstatic! Our research already had a strong foundation but with the start of the semester just around the corner and a conference presentation on the horizon, it was time to pick up steam.
In early August, right before the fall 2017 semester, Demetri scheduled a research team meeting to hash out the details of the project. This meeting was scheduled to tighten the study and ensure we were ready for data collection. This structured (hooray!) meeting included a detailed itinerary of items to discuss including research participant profiles, site locations, timelines, and instruments, among other carefully curated items for discussion.
First, we needed to select our research participants. We decided that we wanted to recruit students who were new to campus and therefore less influenced by an established social routine. Settling on first-year students, college transfer students, and international exchange/study abroad students as our participants, we then deliberated on site locations and research questions. Although I cannot disclose the institutions where we are conducting our study, we selected four research universities located in an urban environment in the Midwestern United States. Based on our participant selection and site locations, our research questions asked: 1) Where do diverse interactions occur on campus for first-year students, college transfer students, and international exchange/study abroad students at four year institutions located in Urban environments in the Midwest United States? and; 2) How do student definitions of diversity and cross-difference evolve over time?
To obtain data through our interview, questionnaire, and observational journal, we decided our workflow would be structured as follows:
Students would be recruited at our four site locations by building rapport with institutional nominators.
Participants would schedule and meet with a member of the research team who would administer a questionnaire, conduct an interview, and introduce them to their observational journal via an orientation video.
Over the course of the semester, participants would complete their observational journals at their own pace and record instances of cross-difference at the moment of interaction.
At the and of the research term, the participant would again meet with a member of the research team to complete a follow-up questionnaire, participate in a second interview, and engage in a discussion to deconstruct their observational journal.
Data from the interview, questionnaire, and journals would then be used to create an interactive geospatial map of the cross-difference interactions occurring on each campus. Our map would include various filters allowing educators and researchers to aggregate the data depending on the information sought.
We had a clear sense of direction and understood the tasks at hand. With the fall semester upon us, there were consent forms to create, mapping technologies to source, and IRB applications to submit. As our meeting came to a close, Demetri, in his iconic singsongy tone of voice that I have come to appreciate as a vocalized offer of support asked, "Soooo, how are we feeling?"
At the start of the fall semester, our research instruments were finally ready and from early September to late October, we tirelessly recruited students, conducted interviews, and made the necessary preparations to present at the LBGTQIA Symposium. On the cold and rainy morning of October 14th, the day of the LGBTQIA symposium, the research team headed out to DeKalb, Illinois to present our study. Equally nervous and excited, we were thrilled to have the opportunity to share our hard work with other scholars in the field. Because we are so close to the project, explaining our idea, the process, and its significance has proved challenging. Coming into the conference, we wondered if our friends at the LGBTQIA symposium would see the merit in what we are trying to do. We gave our presentation and waited for feedback.
"I've worked with GIS technology and this is a really interesting idea," said one attendee.
"This is great, how do you plan to make this kind of tool accessible?" asked another.
After the session broke out, nearly half a dozen people approached us saying how much they appreciated our idea and looked forward to see our research progress. Our research held up!
Looking to the Future
Currently, the research team is busy coding the initial data, scheduling second round interviews, and making the necessary preparations for next semester. Rachel Fischer, a first-year Loyola Master's student, will be stepping into a new role as a project lead, allowing us to diversify our process. While we hope to take our research to the national level, for now we look forward to analyzing our data, creating our maps, and further conceptualizing how we can transform our understanding of college campus climates.
On a personal note, I never knew that I would love research as much as I do. What started as a seed of interest has blossomed into a fierce passion. Of course, I still have my moments of doubt and feelings of "why don't I just transcribe instead?" do occasionally crop up. But now, 11 months into the project, I do not doubt the integrity of our endeavor nor its importance. So if you ever hear, "research like this hasn't been done before," trust the process and you may just stumble upon your passion.