Down the rabbit hole

October has been a month of milestones for me; I had the last birthday of my thirties, I passed my confirmation of candidature, and I sent off my ethics application. Initially, I approached all of these events with a certain trepidation, which on reflection turned to excitement.

While milestone birthdays are usually celebrated on special numbers like 18 or 21, or completing a decade, 30, 40, or 50, no-one seems to jump up and down about the in-betweens. At first I felt a bit sad; this was my last birthday before the big 4-Oh (hey people, it’s just a number!). However, on the day of my birthday I realised that this is the last year that I can say that I am in my thirties, so damn if I’m not going to make the most of it!

Within days of said birthday, I had the confirmation of my PhD candidature. After six months of reading so much about my topic that my eyeballs hurt, trying to establish what the gaps were, and determining how I could go about filling some of those gaps, I had to present my proposal for research to a panel of academics in my field. This was no small matter, but I tried to keep it in perspective (life goes on, people!).

However, after the requisite grilling, and suggestions for alterations, the panel approved my proposal and I was officially “confirmed”. At first, I was a bit shell shocked, and for the next few days, I wasn’t sure what I felt. Should I be relieved that my project proposal had passed their judgement? Should I be anxious about the weight of responsibility to carry out a worthy research investigation?

With some amendments made from the suggestions of the academic panel, I sent off my ethics application. If all goes well, once this is approved, I can start collecting data in December. And then it hit me- I can start collecting data!

“Collecting data” sounds so dry and boring, but it’s actually what I’m most excited about doing in terms of this PhD. For my study, this means finding out about how international students experience social connectedness through their use of social media. It means investigating how educational uses of social media intersect with personal uses. It means hearing about these issues from the students’ perspective.

This interests me as a teacher who uses social media for teaching and learning because I want to know more about how it impacts the students in my classes. This also interests me because as a teacher of international students, I understand how important social connections are for a productive and happy study experience.

In my research, I am using a phenomenological approach. Phenomenology investigates things from the perspective of those that experience a certain phenomenon. It asks questions about what it is like to experience this situation, and what factors impact on the experience of this situation for the participant.

In The Phenomenology of Practice, Van Manen, states “Phenomenological method is driven by a pathos: being swept up in a spell of wonder about phenomena as they appear, show, present, or give themselves to us” (26). This is a methodology that speaks to me because it encapsulates that sense of curiosity that comes from wanting to understand the mysteries of the human experience. But Van Manen has more gems that describe this process of deepening our understanding of the complex world that we live in: “Phenomenology must stand in awe at the wonder of the thingness of the thing as it acquires its meaning in relation to the other things that surround each other in the world” (52). I love it – I mean, who said that academic writing can’t be entertaining?!

So here I am at 39, like Alice about to go down the rabbit hole, to be immersed in the wonder of finding out about all the weird and wonderful facets of human experience (associated with using social media in education, anyway). Fittingly, my girlfriends gave me a notebook for my birthday with an image of Alice in Wonderland on the front, which I’ve decided to use for making field notes.

Photo by author.

So, if you’ve just finished your confirmation, and are about to start “collecting data,” I urge you to revel, at least for a moment, in the wonder of the issue that you are investigating, and get excited about contributing new knowledge to the world!

Down the rabbit hole we go…

Read more: Van Manen (2014), The Phenomenology of practice: Meaning-giving methods in phenomenological research and writing, Left Coast Press.


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