Case study 5: Innovative teaching in the shadow of fear


Jeremy, a lecturer in anthropology at a large Australian university, teaches an undergraduate methods unit where over 100 students each year conduct an ethnographic field research project.  His university has a process for teachers who want to get ethics approval for an entire classroom of students to conduct a research project.  They have a separate ethics application form for student research as part of the teaching curriculum, and this form is, he says, “radically different” than the regular ethics application form for researchers.  Among other things, it’s shorter and “less onerous”.  In it, he explains why his is “suitable to monitor all those projects,” highlighting his ethnographic research experience and the length of time he’s taught this class.


He obtains “umbrella” approval for the entire classroom, which has to be renewed every three years. The projects are narrowly defined to avoid working with vulnerable or dangerous populations: children, for example, or people engaged in illegal activity.  Before students start their projects, the first weeks of class are spent talking about research ethics, focusing particularly on confidentiality, security of data, privacy and vulnerability.


After receiving ethics approval for the entire class project, Jeremy and the tutors for his unit become, in essence, the proxy reviewer for student research project.  “Some students are fairly cavalier about risk taking,” he notes, “and there is quite a lot of monitoring of student projects that happen in this process.”  Students themselves do not fill out forms.  Instead, they submit to him a research proposal, spelling out their methodology, arguing for the significance of the subject and the procedures they plan to use to study it. 


“I don’t make them address a particular ethics form itself.  I just want them to describe the process as fully and as accurately as they can. Then myself or the tutor can look at it and say ‘Hey, red-flag on this one, that’s a vulnerable population,’ or, ‘That student’s a bit immature to be doing this.’  I try and get them to give me a good description of their project so then I can talk to them about what’s good about it and what might be problematic in relation to the constraints we have about ethics.”


He avoids having students fill out forms in part because he wants to encourage a substantive engagement with ethical thinking rather than focusing on “arse-covering” and risk liability.  When research students fill out the regular ethics form, he says they often come to him for help in “anti-bureaucratic survival measures”.  He helps them develop pat responses that don’t actually serve to address ethical issues, but rather to appease imagined committee objections.  “Some of the language is about minimising bureaucratic concerns, minimising overly eager risk concerns and making ethnography seem more formal and controlled than it really is in practice.”


While Jeremy supervises a huge number of independent undergraduate research projects every year, he says he’s never seen a case where student research was unethical or placed participants at risk.  He says it comes down to
“...peers and mentoring. They come out of a research culture that values faithful and ethical engagement with others.… You want to turn out graduates who are politically astute and ethically astute and who will think about projects in a way that are unproblematic to begin with. That’s why we put a lot of work into this stuff in our undergraduate methods. Good research can sometimes be risky, but there are ways to make risky research ethical, if you have a care for the rights and responsibilities that go with being a researcher.” 


In fact, while his research guidelines generally constrict the types of projects students can do in order to minimise risk, he has occasionally allowed certain students to engage in riskier projects.  Some students, for example, have done projects working with teens in high schools where they used to attend and where they have good relationships with the high school principals who allow the research to take place there.  Another student did a research project with street people, a population which usually would be regarded as risky to research: “a small community of people who are regular alcohol and drug abusers and quite violent. But she had an in with those people. She knew them and she was a mature student. I thought, ‘I wouldn’t let a nineteen year-old do this, but okay.’”  When I asked Jeremy if the research project worked out, he said, “It did.  It was fine.”


By all indications, Jeremy’s methods class is exemplary.  A large number of undergraduate students are engaging in original research projects and in the process, learning about ethnographic research and thinking deeply about research ethics and reciprocity.  He describes extraordinary levels of student enthusiasm.  Yet even though Jeremy supervises these project with the approval of his ethics committee, he lives in fear that the university will eventually shut down the student research.  Even though I observed that his was a best-practice model, the very type of project that I aimed to highlight and publicise for others to emulate, he was reluctant to let me use his real name and university, for fear of backlash. 


“I’m hoping it’s not one of those things that people just haven’t noticed. You know when you have a good thing and bureaucrats notice them? Then they go, ‘You can’t do that.’ I don’t think it is that. I think for once somebody came up with a good idea.  I just don’t want to draw attention to something that may see now as an open risk. The risk assessment office... they would probably want to see some more formal documentation of the risk assessment I take on every single bloody project, which would kill the subject.”


Read a summary of the project's research findings

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