I’ve just come from a great workshop with PEPNET (The University of Leeds Public Engagement Practitioner Network), where we looked at collaborative research. I co-facilitated the session with Alexa Ruppertsberg (Head of Public Engagement with Research) and Judith Hanks (Associate Professor in Language Education).
Alexa introduced me to Judith via her book. When reading about Judith’s work, I was struck by the similarities in or practice. Despite working in a very different field, I identified with the values that appeared to underpin Judith’s research, and I recognised many of the challenges.
Judith’s book focuses on exploratory practice. As I understand it, exploratory practice is a type of practitioner research, used in language teaching, where students and tutors work together to research what is happening in the classroom. The learning and the research are integrated, as people continue to practice whichever language they are learning throughout the research process.
I found it fascinating to read about how collaborative research is approached in a different field, and found myself wondering whether exploratory practice could be a useful lens through which to critique public involvement / engagement. Here are some of my initial thoughts…
Links between education and involvement
Judith’s book really reinforced some of my thoughts about the links between education and public involvement. Essentially my job is to bring people together to learn from and with each other. Public involvement hinges on a process of mutual learning and on recognising that expertise takes different forms. Just as within a classroom, there are power dynamics that effect that learning process, and it can be helpful to consider pedagogy (the theory and practice of education) when designing / reflecting upon public involvement activity. For me, learning from education is yet another example of where public involvement can avoid re-inventing the wheel by considering the links with another field.
Developing involvement practitioners
People like me, who work in a role focused on public involvement / engagement, often operate in a strange space between being an academic and a service provider. We support academics to do engagement within their research, but also want to research the process of involvement/engagement as a field in its own right. I believe that thinking of ourselves as practitioners can help to give our roles an identity within academia. Therefore, it makes sense to look towards practitioner research to help interrogate what we do. Exploratory practice feels particularly relevant as it involves exploring your practice together with your ‘learners’. In the context I work in, that means developing an understanding of my practice together with the patients / public / researchers I work with.
A ‘them and us’ mentality can be found both within healthcare practice and research. Exploratory Practice explicitly tries to move away from that and towards understanding issues together.One area where I think this could be particularly helpful is in approaches to evaluating public involvement. I constantly hear that public involvement needs more evaluation; however I have serious concerns about evaluation approaches which seek to isolate the impact of public contributors within a collaborative research team / process. To me, it makes more sense to evaluate the collaborative process and reflect on the contributions that different people bring.
Perhaps it’s time to reframe involvement evaluation as a form of practitioner research?