Mastering the language of research to make a contribution to knowledge

Recently when I was visiting a country in which English is not the dominant language, I was made aware of the important role played by language in the pursuit of knowledge. The connections to undertaking a research degree were uncanny!

I was scheduled to catch a 4.29 (16:29) train from Prague (Praha) to Berlin at the conclusion of the conference I had been attending at the Miska Palace. This would be a simple transit exercise in my own country, and one which I would not even have to think about, but the absence of English signs everywhere to inform my problem solving made me very aware I was in unfamiliar territory. I could see parallels between this experience of trying to find my way and those ‘lost’ feelings students often comment on when they embark on their research degree and are unfamiliar with many of the terms and concepts of doing university based research.

I learnt from a colleague which tram I needed to catch to get from the palace to the railway station. As a reference to the tram routes showed me, this did not leave from directly in front of the palace and required a brief walk to a different tram stop from which I could be assured of catching this tram.
Once on the tram, I listened to the announcements. Although they were not in English I noticed a rhythm and pattern of the announcement, and when I compared this to the actual names of the tram stops, I realised that the announcement was advising of the current tram stop and the next tram stop.

Just in case the purpose of this story has not been clear, I am suggesting that my knowledge of the language and my meaning making about getting to the station was enhanced firstly by asking a colleague, but checking this advice with an alternate source and secondly by listening to and making sense of repeated statements.

Once at the station I needed to locate the platform from which my train was scheduled to depart, and this was aided by an enormous sign which listed all the train details along with English translations of the key information indicators. Because my train booking contained the exact time of departure, I was able to identify it, and then see which platform it was due to leave from. I was also able to ascertain in this exercise that my train was running twenty minutes late.

Again, in case the purpose of this blog is not clearly understood, a third recognition of how I could survive in this new and foreign language was that sometimes it helps to have definitions of the unfamiliar terms.

As I stood waiting for my now delayed train I started to consider that grappling with a foreign language was a very similar experience to beginning to undertake a research degree. I clearly remember being overwhelmed by terms such as ontology, epistemology and hegemony. It would have been nice if these words were translated for me or if I had been given a list of possible words and some references to explore the meaning. All this in hindsight! It may also have been that having a list would have been all part of the overwhelming feeling.

I now know that words such as paradigm, ontology and epistemology are highly debated words, but, in hindsight, a start would have at least been to provide some basic assumptions and an alert that as I progressed with my research I would encounter much discussion about these words. I suppose these are the sorts of scaffolding that we can consider when we understand the start of a research degree from the perspective of the outsider.
Paradigm for me is a set of beliefs. These are beliefs and not as such provable. They are just things a person believes.
The investigative paradigm is the set of beliefs that underpin the way in which we investigate, and this has two essential elements in ontology and epistemology.
Ontology is about truth – a person’s belief about what constitutes truth.
Epistemology is about knowledge – a person’s belief about what constitutes knowledge?
These two, as I have mentioned in another blog, make up the philosophical foundations of every form of investigation. The sooner a research supervisor can encourage their student to being thinking about these essentially philosophical issues, I believe, the sooner they will begin to grapple with the philosophical side of a research degree.

In many ways, these core and problematic terms have a sense of also being what Mayer and Land (2006) refer to as ‘threshold concepts’. They are those concepts which underpin the learning of a particular field and which are also seen as troublesome or difficult to grapple with. Again, the sooner we know that a research student finds these terms and concepts troublesome, the sooner as a research supervisor we can come up with interventions which help to make them less troublesome. I doubt that they will ever be not troublesome as these are the contested areas on which major revolutions in research and investigation have been waged, and understanding the contested nature of knowledge is part of what a research degree is all about.

Meyer, J. H. F & Land, R. (Eds.) 2006. Overcoming barriers to student understanding: Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge. London, U.K.: Routledge.


About the (research) supervisor's friend

I work at a university helping university academics who are supervising research students. I am a research supervisor myself and also work as a research coach for people undertaking their research I was originally in a Management Faculty and when I completed my doctoral studies on 'doing a doctorate' I started working with research supervisors to help them improve their practice.
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