4th June. Today marks one year to the day I last held my father’s hand; the birth of an all-consuming grief that would transport me into a dual reality. Two states of mind. One, where life continues as normally as can be manufactured, for the sake of a young family. Another, a grief state, bruised from being flung into the front line of mortality, compensate only with an amplified ‘inner voice’. A voice fuelling an urge to write. Losing Dad has inevitably leaked into deep reflexive insight, on being, life perspective, and my identity, including that of a ‘researcher’.
My recent inclusion to present at the ICDE’s 28th World Conference on Online Learning (WCOL2019) in Ireland this November triggered strong emotions about ‘belonging’, and curiously unveiled patterns within my introspective reflections. No matter how many times I turn my kaleidoscope filled with memories of my father, my childhood, existential thoughts, personal identity, an urgency to investigate and to write, two themes reoccur: the power of voice and the power of story.
Voice: Exposed biases and values
At the beginning of my doctoral journey I was encouraged to examine my foundational beliefs, to understand the significance of subscribing to certain social or personal values which could potentially undermine my rationality (Howarth et al., 2016). I thus was keen to unpick my reaction to inclusion in WCOL2019, which rippled far beyond the excitement of the invitation to expose my researcher voice to an international platform, a global community.
Voice: a sense of place and identity
The fact the WCOL2019 takes place in Ireland, my ancestral home, the land of my father, exposes strong feelings. I am very excited about the academic and professional experience tendered by the event, but I do grieve that I will not share this with my Dad. He would have taken pride in both the privilege and the cause, as it contrasts quite sharply to his own painful brutal experience of education in the 1940/50s, which would influence his ambition, and forge a steel focus to build a life that would ensure education would offer choices and security to his own children. I recognise this voice and this story as my own.
Dad would most likely have requested to travel with me. Instead, I look forward to being in close proximity of warm Irish accents, indicative of the rich intense voices that once enveloped my life. An accent, different to mine, which embodies the history, identity and personality of my paternal and maternal gene pool. I recognise, despite photographs and memories studied so intensely, since breath left his body, it is loss of a ‘voice’, both of accent and representation of mind and soul that I battle with daily. This has opened up questions of the impact accent may have on how an individual is perceived by others, and on the way it may influence how others treat them (Khilay, 2016). I speculate as to whether accent would impact upon my own interpretive framework within my own qualitative research, and consider to what degree interpretive acts of meaning-making are located in contextually unique social environments, times, and places.
“Ancestral memory and nuance break on the shores of thought” (O’ Donohue, 2000)
The motivations behind researcher ‘voice’
I have always celebrated the power of voice, to share ideas, to change perspectives. I originate from a family of storytellers, with a richness of oral history transferred through song, stories, and comfortable, merry conversation. An international conference appeals on so many levels, an opportunity to come together with people from all walks of life, as a unified community ‘sans borders’ to share passions, skills and ideas. Voices drawn together to unlock potential and offer opportunity. Yet behind each and every delegate and researcher, irrespective of philosophical paradigm, lies a personal narrative.
‘Thinking’ about it, stripping back the layers of my ‘researcher’ self, I now question how I could or should even, decouple from my inner voice. Embarking on any research, we embrace a journey of discovery. To explain some phenomena. Yet I am now further sensitised to how much of ourselves we may unknowingly shape or leave a trace on the explanation or findings. Researcher bias and subjectivity are understood to be inevitable, even important by many qualitative researchers; an acknowledgement such research is not value-neutral (Mehra, 2002).
I see a place like the WCOL19 as one where people of all countries and cultures are conjoined, using the power of ‘voice’; not just to present, learn, and network, but to ‘connect’. Through their stories, statistically underpinned or otherwise, they contribute to the integrity and future vibrancy of a shared goal: to bring inclusive, flexible and quality learning and teaching to all in the digital age.
The value of stories
On a personal level, the value of my life will be reflected in my life stories, collected or made. In the wider world context, I believe that research, conducted with stories in mind, are safe vehicles for participants to deliver powerful messages that influence and drive design and innovation. Life is about stories. To share ideas, entertain, inform. I am at peace I have discovered that storytelling has a place in academic writing and research. “Manuscripts submitted for publication, dissertations, and other research reports tell the story of a scientific investigation. Stories consist of five major components: setting, conflict, character, plot, and theme. Each component has its parallel in academic writing’ (EDIT99, 2018).
Yes, of course, I recognise as a researcher, it will not be my story to tell. From an ethical perspective, as an interpreting researcher, who will collect, analyse and report research, I must be attentive to whose voice is really represented in the data, and the discretionary power (Tiselius, 2018) bestowed upon me as the conduit through which stories will be told. I am both humbled and excited by this role.
Voice: Sense of loss
There are no benefits from loss, yet I find some solace in the reflections and the re-telling of my shared life-story with my Dad ,that he had bestowed upon me, hidden strength and confidence to face new challenges. This is welcome at a time when I face surgery in my throat. The procedure risks vocal cord paralysis, and at best, bruising to a recurrent laryngeal leading to a “loss of voice” for a temporary yet unpredictable period. A voice is not just the tool with which we communicate, but the means to share one’s story and perspective, and our means to support, to protect, to challenge and facilitate change. On the brink of the loss of the physicality of ‘voice’, I cling to the power of voice with my stories.
A story’s purpose
According to Shulman (2018) “a loss or death can have an impact on your identity-how you define yourself in the world and explain your life story to yourself”. I am now sure of one thing, this day, twelve months on: Telling your story or being trusted to collect or share those that belong to others, speaking your mind, is valuable, is important. “You never know who it could effect, how, or to what it could one day lead” (Campbell, 2013).
I may not meet up with my Dad, Jim Healey, in body, on the banks of the River Liffey with his Guinness in hand this year, but I will stand there, one day in November, proud, with his voice in my stories, held close to my heart.
‘Absence is full of tender presence, and nothing is ever lost or forgotten’ (O’ Donohue, 2000) when held in someone’s story.
Campbell, S. (2013) ‘The importance of finding your voice in a 2019 world’ [online]. Available: https://theascent.pub/the-importance-of-finding-your-voice-in-a-2019-world-8856200735e2 [Accessed 1st June 2019]
EDIT911 (2018) ‘The Art of Storytelling’ [online]. Available: https://edit911.com/the-art-of-storytelling-in-academic-writing-5-steps-to-a-better-research-paper/ [Accessed 1st June 2019]
Khilay, S. (2016) Speaking my language: how accent impacts our opinion of others [online]. Available at: https://www.personneltoday.com/hr/speaking-my-language-how-accent-impacts-our-opinion-of-others/ [Accessed 1st June 2019].
Laslett, B. (1999) ‘Personal narratives as sociology’, Contemporary Sociology, 28(4), pp. 391-401.
Mehra, B. (2002) ‘Bias in Qualitative Research: Voices from an Online Classroom’, The Qualitative Report, 7(1), pp. 1-19. Available at: http://nsuworks.nova.edu/tqr/vol7/iss1/2 [Accessed 2nd June 2019].
O’Donohue, J. (2000) ‘Eternal Echoes: Exploring Our Hunger To Belong’, Bantam Press: Great Britain
Shulman, L.M. (2018) ‘Before and After Loss: A Neurologist’s Perspective on Loss, Grief, and Our Brain’, Johns Hopkins University Press.
Tiselius, E. (2018) ‘The (un-) ethical interpreting researcher: ethics, voice and discretionary power in interpreting research, Perspectives, DOI: 10.1080/0907676X.2018.1544263