Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Death of the Author and why are my days numbered?

There has long been a debate about which methodological approach to research best secures the truth. This complex debate has often been reduced to questions over whether quantitative or qualitative approaches produce the most reliable, generalizable and useful contributions to knowledge. Personally I am more comfortable with qualitative approaches; my PhD drew on ‘hunt and peck’ ethnographic thinking and these days I would describe myself as a bricoleur. Bricolage is a multifaceted approach to the research process. Mixed methods are used in both data collection and analysis, in order to bring about a richer understanding of human beings and the complexities of their lived experiences.  

In these times of information overload, interpretation of what we are being told becomes an increasingly important aspect of decision making. As a sometimes producer of information, I learnt a long time ago that when I write something and it gets published, I the author die. Whatever I have written, whatever I have intended to be read, ceases to exist as soon as the reader makes their own interpretation of my words. It doesn't stop me from writing however; there is something very addictive about trying to find a way of sharing ones ideas with others. It can be challenging too.

Often information (research based or otherwise) is delivered through the use of numbers and/or numbers and a descriptive term. So for example, hotels are often given a number – 2 stars, 3 or 5 stars by industry reviewers As users of hotels, we all tend to associate (interpret) the number of stars a hotel has with a personal understanding (or at least a perception) of what these given appellations might mean; perhaps variations in price, quality, location, service and so on. This can be very different from what the reviewer might have intended to mean when deciding on how many stars a hotel deserves.

My favourite restaurant of the moment, Albert’s (as in Albert’s Shed and so on) received a 1 star food hygiene rating last week. This is the lowest rating possible and seemed inexplicable to me. Over the years I have often eaten at all 3 restaurants and have never had anything to make a complaint about, and as regular readers of this blog will know, I can be a harsh critic of restaurants and hotels. The decision to award this low rating was down to problems in the paper work – an important issue of course, but it was not something that impacted upon my experience or satisfaction as a customer.

Dealing with the meaning of numbers was the story of my world last week. More precisely it was my having to deal with the consequences of the meaning of the numbers that others chose to hold that was the story. As regular readers of this post will perhaps recall, last week I mentioned that as a School we had some mixed results from the National Student Survey in terms of student satisfaction. Read one way, some of the numbers told a pretty depressing story.

For example, there were some programmes apparently languishing in the 4th quartile, not a great place to be in comparison to others. However, the gap between those in the 1st quartile and those in the 4th was often only a few % points. Adding in some contextual information, and read another way, these same programmes will be seen to have actually made huge improvements in the level of student satisfaction achieved. 

Interestingly the other numbers game in town last week was clearing. Unlike some parts of the University, most of our programmes didn't need to be in this year’s clearing in order to reach our student number targets. The high level of applications and the educational achievements of the students applying tell their own story in terms of how we are doing as a School in comparison to other Universities with a similar range of programmes. Colleagues are not complacent however. We will keep working at improving the student experience and raising the levels of our student’s satisfaction - and if we don't succeed, our days really will be numbered!