Ethics And The ‘Personal’ In Action Research

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9781412947084-Part 312/17/083:25 PMPage 25420Ethics and the ‘Personal’in Action ResearchJane ZeniAction research is intrinsically engaged. Those conducting action research areinsiders and stakeholders – working alone or in partnership with outside consultants – and it should be their questions that drive the inquiry. As action researchhas assumed a larger role in education, the need for appropriate ethical guidelines has become evident. However, the personal engagement and insider stancethat are central to action research have complicated the effort to develop workable standards for research ethics.The ethical challenges specific to engaged, insider research have becomeclearer to me over the years as I have collaborated with teachers doing classroominquiry and researched my own practice as a teacher educator.Some projects I have initiated and directed. In the mid-1980s, through mywork in the National Writing Project, I wrote a grant and recruited a dozen secondary teachers whose students were writing with computers. We documentedwhat happened to the writing and the teaching process in classrooms equippedwith the new tools (Zeni, 1990). Although I was an insider to the Writing Project,the data I gathered came from other teachers’ classes – because at that time myown writing classes at the university did not have access to computers. This firststudy raised few ethical dilemmas, but when I proposed a similar grant to theSt. Louis Public Schools, the questions exploded: ‘What are you going to sayabout our teachers? If it’s bad news, who will you tell? If it’s good news, whowill get the credit?’ At the time I was shocked. Later I came to see the possibledangers and distortions of action research.In other projects, I was hired by teacher groups or schools as a consultant.Here, the power relations were different; the grants and the leadership restedwith the school people. I was not a true insider – I was not examining my own

9781412947084-Part 312/17/083:25 PMPage 255ETHICS AND THE ‘PERSONAL’ IN ACTION RESEARCH255practice – but often I developed close, collaborative relationships with myresearch partners (Krater et al., 1994).In still other projects (many unpublished, a few published), I too gathered datato address problems in my own classrooms or in the English Education programI directed at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Some ‘projects’ involved thethin data that many teachers collect routinely: as I puzzled over the small but disturbing number of student teachers who withdrew before completing theirpracticum in the schools, I kept track of their ages, prior work experience, academic records, and anything else that might help me anticipate or prevent theirfailure. A few projects were complex and longitudinal: a colleague and I analyzedthe online conversations of student teachers, leading to improvements in the personal and academic support we provided during this stressful apprenticeship(Singer and Zeni, 2004). Often my projects were fully interwoven with my teaching. For example, my English methods students felt some urgency to root out theirown usage errors before they would be marking the papers of their own students.I assigned an error analysis log, offering people with substantial usage problemsa chance to earn course credit by addressing them; for my part, I analyzed the logsand reported the results at our last class meeting. Student feedback suggested thatmany came to see error correction more as academic inquiry than as punishment.Despite my efforts to behave in a fair and respectful way, and to guide myresearch students accordingly, ethical dilemmas, questions, and roadblocks haveemerged, usually catching me by surprise. Gradually, I realized that actionresearch calls into question the ethical norms that guide the academic modes ofinquiry, both quantitative and qualitative. The norms of quantitative researchhave defined the ethical researcher as an outsider; any personal involvement withthe people or engagement with the events in a research setting is considered bias.The norms of qualitative research have allowed for the ethical researcher who isinvolved with participants, and who affects and is affected by events in theresearch setting; however, those relationships are limited, kept in check byanonymity and informed consent.Neither quantitative nor qualitative guidelines offer a good fit for actionresearch. It is no surprise, therefore, that research textbooks and mentors oftencite universal principles that hamstring the action researcher, while ignoring realethical dangers to students, colleagues, or others. I have found that analyzingexemplary cases (Mitchell, 2004; Smith, 1990) is a better route to understandingthe ethics of the local, situated dilemmas of action research.NEGOTIATING DUAL ROLESRather than focusing on methods or paradigms, I would define action researchby the ‘insider’ stance: The researcher also plays another professional role in theresearch setting, with relationships and responsibilities that continue after aspecific project ends. Each role – researcher and practitioner – brings its own

9781412947084-Part 325612/17/083:25 PMPage 256THE SAGE HANDBOOK OF EDUCATIONAL ACTION RESEARCHethical standards, and untangling these roles can present knotty challenges. I willillustrate with two cases.Wanda Clay’s dissertation was a self-study of her work as an instructionalcoordinator in an urban school. She reflected in her journal after her coachingsessions, triangulated by asking teachers to write the minutes of team meetings,and questioned her own actions – was she trying to improve instruction orenhance her data? Some of her journal entries even represented her thoughts asa dialogue between her Researcher self (‘R’) and her Practitioner self (‘P’). Inan essay revisiting this experience, Clay (2001) writes, ‘Facing these dilemmasin my role as practitioner-researcher, I sometimes felt torn in two.’ The following research memo captures the duality:R: OK, so the second year is over. How do you feel?P: I don’t know, kinda funny. I know that the changes we made had a profound impact onthe people who left, yet I don’t feel responsible in the same way I did last year.R: How so?P: Well, last year I wanted small miracles. I mean I thought everyone would buy into thechanges, and our context would be transformed. But this year I knew we were engaged ina struggle. I mean people were fighting change left and right, and I accepted that I wasseen as the maker of the change.R: And you are okay with that? .P: I have to accept that it isn’t easy and there will be casualties of reform. My so-called powerdoesn’t afford me the opportunity to work miracles. (p. 33)Now consider the dual role when the ‘insider’ is a parent. Although many educators have written case studies of their own children’s learning, to untangleone’s ethical requirements as parent and as researcher may prove daunting.Puchner and Smith (2006) had discussed their own efforts to raise a son and agrandson, each with an ADD diagnosis. Accustomed in their professional workto writing careful documentation, each kept a log and noted how their actionsaffected the child. Soon, however, they were asking, ‘How much does this childunderstand of what we’re doing?’ and ‘How is my increased focus on this childgoing to affect others in the family?’ Listening to their concerns in our ActionResearch Collaborative study group, I suddenly pictured a dilemma from Gilbertand Sullivan. After checking the musical reference, I messaged them:Your ‘consent’ dilemma reminds me of the Lord Chancellor in Iolanthe, who is legally responsible for all the ‘Wards of Court.’ He spends much of his time ‘giving agreeable girls away’ tovarious young suitors, but eventually finds himself more than a little attracted to a ward namedPhyllis. Here he contemplates his predicament (hypothetically, of course, in the third person) –Can he give his own consent to his own marriage with his own Ward? Can he marry his ownWard without his own consent! And if he marries his own Ward without his own consent,can he commit himself for contempt of his own Court? And if he commit himself for contempt of his own Court, can he appear by counsel before himself, to move for arrest of hisown judgment! Ah, my Lords, it is indeed painful to have to sit upon a wool-sack which isstuffed with such thorns as these! (Iolanthe, Act I)

9781412947084-Part 312/17/083:25 PMPage 257ETHICS AND THE ‘PERSONAL’ IN ACTION RESEARCH257After analyzing their own predicament, Puchner and Smith chose to set asidetheir research, at least temporarily. They could not foresee the potential impactof those ‘thorns’ on their families. In this ethical dilemma, the parent or grandparent role took precedence over that of researcher.IN SEARCH OF AN ETHICAL BASISFOR ACTION RESEARCHEven in less dramatic stories, the action research stance violates conventionalnorms. While pursuing an inquiry, the researcher usually exercises some powerover other participants – whether through grades, allowance, diagnoses, or performance reports. Decisions about ethical principles such as anonymity orinformed consent, if made in advance, must often be revised or renegotiated withother stakeholders in response to unforeseeable events.This is our reality, but I would argue that the power and interpersonal complexity of the ‘insider’ role do not necessarily create an ethical threat. In fact, thebonds of caring, responsibility, and social commitment that engage actionresearchers with other stakeholders may be the most appropriate basis of ethicaldecision-making.The rest of this chapter will explore ethical issues by foregrounding Noffke’s(1997) ‘personal’ dimension and building on the engaged insider stance. I willframe my discussion with the themes of responsibility/accountability,action/social justice, and caring/respect. These themes will intertwine as Ireflect on some ethical decisions and dilemmas in my own experience withaction research.RESPONSIBILITY AND ACCOUNTABILITYThe ethical standard of responsibility – the special trust that teachers or otherprofessionals must exercise while investigating issues in their own schools –most clearly distinguishes action research from traditional modes. In 1987, highschool teachers Marian Mohr and Marion MacLean published Working Together:A Guide for Teacher-Researchers, based on a decade of experience in theNorthern Virginia Writing Project. In Teacher-Researchers at Work, they went onto articulate an ethic of research as an integral part of good teaching:[Teacher research] is enmeshed in the context of the classroom. It is designed so as not toexpose students to harm in any way but rather to include them as participants in the processthrough which they and their teacher learn about learning. It offers students the model ofan adult learner at work. (MacLean and Mohr, 1999: x–xi)Lincoln and Denzin propose ‘professional ethics’ for the current ‘moment.’Although their own work is not action research, they echo MacLean and Mohr:researchers should focus on their ‘responsibility and obligation to participants,

9781412947084-Part 325812/17/083:25 PMPage 258THE SAGE HANDBOOK OF EDUCATIONAL ACTION RESEARCHto respondents, to consumers of research, and to themselves as qualitative fieldworkers’ (2000: 1117–18).In classroom action research, the daily activities of teaching assume a dualrole, as research activities. Several good handbooks (MacLean and Mohr, 1999;Hubbard and Power, 1999) illustrate this sleight-of-hand. Meetings with individual students become informal interviews; discussion circles and projects becomefocus groups; the full range of student work becomes data as well. One ethicalquestion is central: ‘Do the research methods support or interfere with my primary professional role?’ (I recall the brilliant middle-school math teacher whobecame so enamored with writing field notes that he sat at his computer duringclass, observing and writing rather than engaging with students.) The challengein planning action research is to make the methods transparent. When successful, the inquiry involves students as co-researchers and contributes both tostudent and to teacher learning.Although responsibility is now widely cited as an ethical standard, manyteacher researchers, universities, schools, and grant agencies still regardanonymity as the norm for student participants in classroom inquiry. However,if the research is shared with a wider audience through conferences or journals,anonymity is almost impossible. The child described in a good case study willbe recognized by others from the community; most action research is written,not in the traditionally abstruse style of scholarship, but in a literary or journalistic voice that really might be read by parents or friends.Ironically, when researchers discuss anonymity with their students, from primary school through university, most say they prefer their real names. (Whentold they must have pseudonyms, many children ask to create their own fancifulnames, thereby reclaiming their stories.) As van den Berg comments:The qualitative research community thus seems basically to have decided that the subjectsof its enterprises need protecting, and that there are certain ways in which this is to be done(which apparently seldom, if ever, involve consulting the researched). The notion of protection, then, presupposes an unequal relationship between the researcher and the peopleshe or he claims to be researching with . (2001: 84–5)A further irony is that anonymity may violate another ethical principle: creditfor intellectual property (Anderson, 1998). Teachers admonish their students tocite sources accurately and to credit the ideas of others. Meanwhile, researchmanuals admonish those teachers to use a pseudonym when quoting from theirstudents. Suppose the student work cited is a prize-winning poem? Suppose the‘student’ is an adult in college? At what point does a student deserve cr