A Reflection on the “Digital Interreligious Encounters in Urban Contexts” (DIEUX) research methods workshop series
The following reflection on the pedagogical integration of failure owes a debt to The Queer Art of Failure as mode of thinking articulated by Judith Halberstam (2011). Engagement with the emotional maelstrom of failure in the context of academic insecurity and precarity (see also Ahmed 2010, 2018) is particularly apt in the context of designing a pilot research methods workshop aimed at early career researchers. Feelings of failure are ubiquitous within the academy but more challenging still to cope with at an early career research stage (see Posselt 2018 for US-based reflections on this). The most evident and intersectional i.e. further magnified for individuals themselves from a minoritized background (both gendered and racialized, accounting also for ‘religious diversity’) of these feeling is academic ‘imposture syndrome’.
In methodological terms failure is good to think with, particularly for qualitative research because the affective node of failure draws on previous experience and is embodied in feelings of shame that reinforce insecurities but also highlight the degree to which we, as a research community, are bound together in an unstable and often uncomfortable commonality of research experience. Moreover, failure as a mode of thinking (a hermeneutic) underscores the potentialities of critical self-reflection for ‘working through’ and maybe even ‘working out’. Such self-reflection can achieve significantly more purchase if it is set in a context that enables sharing which does not necessarily draw out prescriptive ‘lesson learning’ but rather seeks to develop reflexive expressions of failure and a comprehensive forum to encourage this (bolstered by active and empathetic listening).
It is important to stress that the moment which led me to reflect on the tremendous potentiality of failure as pedagogy was born out of discussion and preparations with Dr Ben Kasstan, guest speaker to the workshop’s first session. His reflection chiming with those participants in attendance concerned the specifics of our common circumstances: the feelings of failure in the face of an institutional (and no doubt internalised) expectation that we as qualitative researchers should re-skill in digital ethnographic practices. While this is a process that has been ongoing with the advent of parallel digital worlds (Cheruvallil-Contractor and Shakkour 2016), the shift to full psychological integration of online lifeworlds i.e. of all interpersonal relationships beyond the immediate homeplace, creates a tremendous pressure on the whole HE research/teaching community (see Williamson et al, 2020 on this point). This discussion and Dr Kasstan’s reflections on it during our first session sparked a wave of understanding remarks and empathetic responses. This spark would become a running theme of the DIEUX workshop as a shared experience of circumstances and feelings of ‘under-preparedness’ during the pandemic created the camaraderie necessary for honest and critical discussion about methodological failings as tied to ‘challenges’ (the oft cited but seldom tested idea of ‘trial and error’).
In design terms, this ‘spark’ allowed me to modify pre-set questions and importantly, review my management of activities i.e. to redirect focused discussion and tasks. Crucially, the final in-session task (session 3) was reframed as a reflection to formulate between seminars that would hone-in on ‘challenging circumstances’ in relation to the use of online community media sources. Incidentally (so, again, not of my own devising) the identified timing of the ‘challenging circumstances’ discussion followed the final guest speaker’s talk; a talk that I had practiced and revised with the speaker for whom public speaking in formal English is a significant challenge. Given the struggle (admirably surmounted) to express her research, as well as the richness of the material itself which focussed on the ethical parameters of research with the online material of so-called ‘hard to reach’ communities (Orthodox Muslim women in France) and in particular the matter of reserving judgement, an ideal stage was set to share stories of challenge, error, and feelings of failure.
The discussion that ensued was the clear favourite of those participants who shared feedback with me by email, indirect and anonymous feedback and orally. This fortuitous yoking together of elements favourable to a frank and safe discussion with peers around often embarrassing methodological challenges enabled a dynamic exchange in which the fragility of failure was not immediately interpreted normatively as a missed opportunity but rather was allowed to remain hanging as a question mark.
Many of the factors that led to this moment and the individual/collective reflections derived from it appear to be circumstantial – the pandemic, the order of speakers, and feeling of group-security less evident in session 1 and 2. However, these are important points from which to learn and to enhance future workshops. It cannot be stressed enough, I think, that the importance of careful listening and the need to bend towards difficult and sometimes undermining discussions of our practical failings and feelings of inadequacy can create a supportive context to reflect and learn.
Ahmed, Sara (2010) ‘Killing Joy: Feminism and the History of Happiness’. Signs 35:3, 571–94.https://doi.org/10.1086/648513.
–. –. (2018) Complaint as Diversity Work. CRASSH Lecture. University of Cambridge. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQ_1kFwkfVE&t=462s.
Cheruvallil-Contractor, Sariya and Shua Shakkour (2016) Digital Methodologies in the Sociology of Religion, London, Bloomsbury.
Halberstam, Judith (2011). The Queer Art of Failure, Durham, Duke University Press.
Posselt, Julie (2018) ‘Normalising Support: Dimensions of Faculty Support for Doctoral Students and Implications for Persistence and Well-Being’. The Journal of Higher Education, 89:6, 988-1013.
Karimi, Hanane (2021) ‘Online Discourse Analysis’ DIEUX Workshop Session 3, March 2021.
Kasstan, Ben (2021) ‘Virtual Ethnography with Orthodox Communities’ DIEUX Workshop Session 1, February 2021.
Williamson, Ben and Rebecca Eynon & John Porter (2020) ‘Pandemic Politics, Pedagogies and Practices: Digital Technologies and Distance Education during the Coronavirus Emergency’ Learning, Media, and Technology 45:2, 107-114