Contributing to Different Lines of Discourse

Ask eAIR covers topics about the work of institutional research, careers in the field, and other broad topics that resonate with a large cross-section of readers. This month’s question is answered by Jessica Shedd, Assistant Director for Strategic Initiatives, University of Texas System. The ideas, opinions, and perspectives expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily AIR. Subscribers are invited to join the discussion by commenting below.

Dear Jessica: I notice there is a gap between the theoretical questions raised by higher education scholars and the practical questions raised by administrators. As an IR professional, how can I contribute to both lines of discourse?

JessicaShedd.jpgIt is true that a gap exists between the theoretical questions addressed by higher education scholars, and the more practical, pointed questions, often raised by our institutional administrators. However, the gap is not always as wide as it seems and it can be further narrowed to the benefit of both scholarly and IR-related work.

Much scholarly work is focused on the same topics that drive IR’s work and our administrator’s questions—student access and success, assessment of student learning, student engagement, and the list goes on. Further, when browsing through past scholarly conference themes, it is not uncommon to see references to making their work more impactful and useful in decision making at all levels—not unlike the role of IR. There may be opportunities to bridge the gap in our discourse, or at least narrow it. The following are suggestions for working toward this goal:

First and Foremost, Stay Current
Make a habit of reading The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education to stay current on the headlines and the environment in which higher education is operating and providing context for your work; scholarly or otherwise. Follow the refereed journals such as Research in Higher Education and New Directions for Institutional Research to stay current on the scholarly research literature, theory, and methodologies.

When Possible, Publish
For some, contributing to scholarly discourse is synonymous with publishing. However, the nature of our work as institutional researchers doesn’t always translate into publishable work. Often we tackle very specific questions that don’t lend themselves well to the traditional “experimental” research model that would allow us to determine causation. Further, administrators need answers quickly, resulting in a pace of work that typically doesn’t allow time to devote to exploring analyses to the degree necessary to publish. Still, there are actions we can take to increase the likelihood of producing publishable work.

Leverage work already being done: At least some of our work as IR professionals can be leveraged—an analysis may be expanded upon or a complex dataset built for one purpose may be used to conduct different research that could lead to publishable work.

Keep learning: To the extent that IR relies heavily on straight descriptive statistics, learning new analytic techniques could help move beyond the descriptive into analyses that may be both useful to your administration and also publishable. AIR offers many opportunities throughout the year that could add to your professional development in this way, including the Forum and its pre-conference workshops.

Help others help you: IR is often called upon to evaluate or determine the impact of a policy or program after it has already been implemented. All too often, a simple data field or process could have been put into place before implementation to help ensure these types of questions could be answered. Instead of focusing on the negative, see these instances as opportunities to make suggestions for the future and potentially increase the robustness of the data on which IR can rely for its role, but also for conducting publishable research. The implementation of new policies and programs at your institution is an excellent source of natural “experiments” that not only provide exciting opportunities for IR work, but also may be an opportunity to add to the scholarly research literature.

Take advantage of the resources available: Writing a publishable manuscript may use a different set of skills than how IR professionals typically present analytic results to stakeholders. An article by John C. Smart, former editor of Research in Higher Education, was suggested to me by a colleague, and is an excellent place to start: “Attributes of exemplary research manuscripts employing quantitative analyses,” Research in Higher Education, 46(4):461-477.

AIR’s Professional Files are a way to get your feet wet in publishing. While not a traditional scholarly publication, as the focus is less on theory and theoretical perspectives and more on IR fundamentals, it is an excellent way to disseminate your work more widely.

Finally, AIR offers research grants each year to help IR professionals, faculty, and other higher education researchers advance the field and discourse. A grant could be helpful in providing the resources necessary to conduct more scholarly work.

Opportunities Beyond Publishing
Publishing is not for everyone. It is a lot of work, time consuming, and requires patience and dedication. The good news is that it is not the only way to contribute to the scholarly discourse.  

Attend and present at conferences: Actively attending and presenting at conferences can be a very effective way to not only learn about the latest research, but contribute to and further advance the discourse. By presenting, not only is your work disseminated beyond your campus boundaries, but you will likely receive helpful and constructive feedback that will improve your work. By actively participating—attending sessions, asking questions, and networking—you will not only learn, but you will have the opportunity to use your own experience to contribute to the discussions in sessions and beyond. The AIR Forum is an excellent option, as are regional/state conferences, and you’ll also find scholarly work presented in forums such as ASHE and the ASHE Policy Forum, that takes place in advance of the annual ASHE conference.

Review conference proposals: Volunteering to review conference proposals is an excellent way to help stay current on the latest research and analytic approaches used by IR colleagues and scholars. Further, you can contribute to the discourse by providing constructive feedback on proposals throughout the process.

Often, the most obvious opportunity for impact or contribution exists locally. For some IR professionals, there may be education scholars on your own campus who are conducting research and working to advance the scholarly discourse, and perhaps even looking for opportunities to contribute to the practitioner research discourse, as well. Reach out to them! You likely can educate each other, find opportunities for partnership, and help in narrowing the gap in discourse at your institution and beyond.



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