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So you want to be a qualitative researcher in the 21st century

Randall F. Clemens

Originally posted at

A tension exists between old and new. In The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom explains the generational process among writers: Old poets inspire young poets. The apprentice learns to love form by reading the work of a skilled master. The beginner writes derivative verse. Anxiety stirs as she realizes the only way to establish a legacy is to break from tradition. And, that’s the rub.

The charm of Bloom’s theory is that it extends to numerous fields. Consider the myriad movies in which young protagonists ignore the sage advice of their battled-scarred mentors. Characters fail, fail, and fail again. And then, after sweaty and bruised adversity, they triumph. Hello, Karate Kid. Or, think about athletes. Young basketball phenoms like LeBron battle the legacies of legends like Jordan and Magic. Musicians provide yet another example—thankfully, Bird inspired Coltrane. The theory extends to more quotidian examples too. Children clash with parents. Students argue with teachers. The young fight for a trophy, the ability to say, “I did things my own way, a better way.” The trophy, of course, proves elusive.

As qualitative research enters an exciting moment, apprentice and master researchers are reenacting similar clashes in classrooms and research labs across the globe. “The methods are quaint,” the initiate says, “but I think they’re a little dusty. I can do better.” The mentor winces: How many times has she heard similar boasts?

Innovative technologies and digital media are providing new tools and venues. Consider the possibilities of research-based digital media. They can reveal complex processes that contribute to elusive opportunities for low-income students in ways that peer-reviewed articles cannot. Policymakers often grimace at pedantic and esoteric research. A digital short provides fertile ground for conveying the sorts of thick description qualitative researchers seek and also improving the relevance of research for policy stakeholders.

Novel methods are alluring, an opportunity for novice researchers to shape their legacies. But, like the young poet who privately spends thousands of hours mastering rhyme and rhythm or the basketball phenom who quietly practices drills in the gym, the innovative researcher is the product of hours and hours of unheralded work: planning, collecting, analyzing, producing, experimenting, revising, and repeating.

Rigorous designs depend on the ability of a scholar to undergird the process and product with traditional methods, all the while embracing emerging opportunities. A two-minute film excites. It also requires a complex set of skills. The researcher has to be well versed in fundamentals like interviewing and analyzing as well unconventional techniques like filming and editing. She has to understand triangulation and color theory, parallelism and the rule of thirds, NVivo and Final Cut. The challenge is formidable. But, the chance to experience that inventive moment, the next adjacent possibility, is worth the work.

Tom Hanks Loves #FreeCommunityCollege and So Do I

Randall F. Clemens

Originally posted at

Is it possible for Tom Hanks to be any more lovable? Apparently, yes. Last week, the actor who made such endearing classics as Big, The ‘Burbs, and Turner & Hooch published an editorial about his time at Chabot Community College. After discussing his experiences, he concluded, “That place made me what I am today.”

Hanks wrote the op-ed in response to President Obama’s plan to provide free community college. Of course, the policy warrants a critical discussion. The research is mixed about the effectiveness of two-year colleges. Scholars have long discussed the possibility of a “cooling out” that may occur; others focus on the lack of degree completion among students and poor alignment between two- and four-year colleges. For instance, less than two-thirds of students who enter community college will graduate with a degree after three years.

Others argue that Obama is wasting billions of dollars. After all, pathways to college and career begin years before community college. Why not spend the money on early education or remediation? Consider that, in a city like New York, less than half of the students from the lowest performing schools graduate. Of those who do, less than a quarter are college-ready.

Bill wrote last week about the possible externalities of the ambitious plan. Yes, it may increase college access for low-income students; privileged students may also partake. With a limited amount of resources and no such thing as pure public goods, perhaps the government ought to target the provision of services. Established policy scholars presented similarly incisive arguments when mayoral candidates during New York City’s last election waved big, bright flags for universal pre-kindergarten. Few discussed the downsides of such a simple and alluring idea. Namely, scholarship indicates that low-income children benefit the most from pre-k. In such a cash-strapped state and city, why would politicians subsidize a service for middle- and high-income children when the gains will likely be minimal?

I agree with all of the above concerns. The plan may be a colossal waste of money. It may not improve college access or address the core problems of the pre-k to college pipeline. It may never even survive the whims of the political process. And yet, I’m thrilled.

Prior examples show that sometimes politicians—rather than using the results of a cost-benefit analysis—ought to make decisions based on ideals. That’s part of being an ethical policymaker.

Postsecondary education made me a more thoughtful and compassionate person. It also prepared me for a career that I love. I was a first-generation college student. My family couldn’t afford a four-year university. I attended community college. I eventually earned a Ph.D. One wouldn’t have been possible without the other. Everyone should have the same opportunity.

My wife and I are also one of the first cohorts who have incurred so much student loan debt that—despite everyone trumpeting the value of postsecondary education—the financial burden may outweigh the benefit. The cost is even higher for first-generation students today. That’s wrong and something needs to change.

Maybe the free community college plan fails. Or, maybe it doesn’t. Maybe, it foreshadows a free four-year college plan. I’ll take the risk because the reward could be so much better.

Ferguson, ethics, and the public intellectual

Randall F. Clemens

Originally published at

During the 1890s, newspaper publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst competed against each other to sell more papers. They printed sensationalist stories accompanied with fear-inducing headlines and vivid, provocative pictures. Journalists eschewed facts for melodrama. At the height of yellow journalism, the two newspaper tycoons published stories that contributed to the United States’ involvement in the Spanish-American War. 

Fast-forward 120 years. In Ferguson, Missouri, a 28-year-old white police officer shoots an 18-year-old black man. Residents protest. Droves of reporters travel to Ferguson. Over three months later, following months of unrest and anticipating even more, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declares a state of emergency. One week afterwards, a grand jury decides not to indict the police officer with criminal charges. Violent and nonviolent protests escalate. Journalists chase and film rioters. They flood newspapers, television channels, and social media with panic-inducing stories and images. Cable channels cut from out-of-breath reporters in the field to argumentative talking heads in the studio.

The media has largely influenced the ways in which the public talks and thinks about Michael Brown’s death and the subsequent protests. Rather than facilitating civil, fact-based exchanges, they encourage vehement, opinion-based disagreement. Their actions starkly differ from the ethics of journalism, which include pursuing truth, reporting accurately, and limiting harm. If there is such a thing as a 21st century public sphere—a place where we can intellectually discuss important social issues—the media is corrupting it.

What, then, is the role of academics? Consider some of the ethical concerns of researchers: beneficence, respect, and justice. While we typically discuss those ideals in terms of the conduct of research, we may also consider them in relation to when and how scholars participate in public forums. 

Stated more simply, while talking heads whip up racist antagonism and blame individuals, research is resolute. Young men of color disproportionately experience gun violence. A discriminatory police state surveils low-income neighborhoods. We have established clearer pathways from school to prison than school to college. And, due to a lack of opportunities, concentrated and generational poverty has spread among individuals of color.

While sitting in Birmingham Jail, Dr. King wrote, “Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.” We have few forums to thoughtfully and critically discuss the pursuit of social justice and the existence of injustice in the United States. Scholars have an ethical responsibility to assume an increased role in public discourse, to illuminate the pressing causes and consequences of injustice, and to help imagine opportunities for social justice in the 21st century.