In early July a crack team of Student Movement staff attended the National Centre for Research Methods’ annual festival. All this week we’ll be carrying reflective articles on research in Students’ Unions from the team that attended.
Learning from academia: writing a decent funding bid: Kate Little, Student Engagement and Partnership Consultant, NUS (firstname.lastname@example.org)
One of the sessions we attended at the event was on developing funding bids. Obviously, being tailored towards academic researchers, it primarily focused on how to win research council funding, but I think the principles and structure could help us in NUS and unions. It’s not something that unions do huge amounts of, but there are lots of opportunities to bid for funding from NUS, HEFCE, QAA etc, and writing a better quality bid could certainly help your chances of getting the money.
For a research bid, you start with around four research questions. For each of these, you clarify what We Need To Know (WNTK), how we will find out, and what This Will Tell Us (TWTU). Translated into SU-land, we may not use research questions for every project proposal but we can certainly be clear about the problem that is being addressed, what we will do to tackle it, and the impact this will have.
As well as structure, there were some key points on making a convincing case. Funders give money if a proposal meets two criteria: is the question it is seeking to address important, and is there a realistic promise of an answer. In establishing the importance of a question, the advice was to let the literature make your case. In our sector, this may be references to the political climate; a recent QAA review report; university policy; NUS resources, etc.
Another key point was about resources: don’t bury away detail about exactly what you will do in an annex, foreground this information in the main document and refer to it in the introduction to make it clear that what you are asking for is justified. Finally, in the methodology section, if you can frame the discourse in terms of “why” you are going about this a certain way, rather than “how” you are going to do it, this makes a more convincing case. Happy bidding!
Visual Sociology: Andy Scott, Research Coordinator, NUS (email@example.com)
One of the highlights of the festival was a keynote on Visual Sociology from Douglas Harper. From what I could tell, he positions himself as a bit of a renegade in a field where traditional methods dominate. Harper’s focus was on the use of the camera as a ‘sociological lens’ – that is, using photos (and more recently films) to tell us something about social life. It’s less of a method, it seems, and more of an approach – if you’re interested then Google him.
The examples he gave included beautiful pictures of him travelling across America on freight trains, documenting the often harsh lives of those at work in agriculture. Through analysing these he was able to demonstrate the complex social stratification that exists in American society and is daily explored by Americans.
So how is it relevant to students’ unions? As a method it privileges the researcher’s interpretation as paramount, placing them and their lens in the centre of the investigation. If you’re interested in why certain groups don’t use facilities provided, maybe some observation would help. What do they do when they leave class? Are they rushing for the bus, using a café off campus? How are different social groups physically distributed around campus?
I’m not saying it’s the most useful method for students’ unions, but for encouraging us to engage with the world around us in visual ways it’s useful. Instead of immediately reaching for the ‘research method’ – which as other blogs have explored can place a distance between the ‘researcher’ and the ‘subject’, exploring physically and visually can at least stimulate interesting questions, or identify lines of enquiry, that a survey, focus group or an interview might not. In the end, people can’t always be relied upon to explain verbally why they do things, or even what they do. Just be wary of following students around campus – ‘don’t be creepy’ is probably a great research ethic here.