Responsible for my own snacks

Dear Willow:

Focus groups today!

Sitting in the back room during a focus group for the first time was my eureka moment for how complex and fascinating research is.

As you guys know, I basically started in the typing pool at the old place back in the day, formatting PowerPoints (in the very early days of PowerPoint), editing and polishing proposals, correspondence, reports, etc… but a few months in, I was asked if I could stay late and take notes from the back room for a focus group and man, it was really cool.

Still is.

Part of it is the one-way glass, the sense that you’re truly eavesdropping (though of course the participants know this; they just forget). Every time we do qualitative research, I’m amazed at how candid and forthright people can be. A lot of it is in the planning and the moderation, for sure, but it’s also just human nature. When asked, people don’t mind sharing their opinions, even about potentially sensitive or touchy subjects, and when they’re sharing these things, you can’t help but learn stuff.

I have some experiences seared into my memory from a project at the old place, well over 20 years ago, exploring the potential for a new medication for constipation, where I did 30 one-on-one interviews with men over the course of two or three days. It’s amazing what strangers will tell you about their bathroom habits if you just ask. The elaborate nature of some of the folk remedies people had tried was astounding.

I don’t want to go into too much graphic detail, but there was one gentleman who, when asked about his usual remedy for constipation, mentioned a bar of soap and a whittling knife.

‘Nuff said!

It’s also amazing to me how seamless it’s been to transition these groups to online. I think I was skeptical that doing healthcare-related research during a pandemic was appropriate, but you guys were right that we could and should do it, because thus far, it’s been amazing.

My first mea culpa of the day. There’s more.

To be able to peek into the day-to-day experiences of women trying to manage their own and their families’ healthcare through this crisis is a once-in-a-lifetime research opportunity. To think we’ve been planning this project for months and it’s happening during this period is kind of mind-blowing in and of itself.

Still, online groups are not the same as face-to-face groups, don’t you think? It’s a lot more fun to sit in the back room and observe together in real time, sharing a look when something notable happens, or furtively whispering back and forth as an exciting notion about the research locks into place. There’s a collaboration both among the participants and the observers happening simultaneously, the participants generating the data that the observers will make use of.

Our back-channel texts and chats during the group recapture some of this dynamic, but it’s not the same.

Also, I’m responsible for my own snacks.

On the other hand, online groups allow us to bring geographically distant folks together in ways in-person groups at a facility (almost always in a large metropolitan areas) can’t. The potential additional diversity of experiences may enhance our research.

And of course, people who might not be able to carve out a few hours to travel to a facility to participate in face-to-face groups may be able to log on for 90 minutes with a virtual group. Expanding access is a good thing for lots of reasons.

I see it in very similar ways to how I’ve been thinking about the impact of the virus on education. I wrote at Inside Higher Ed how I don’t see the spring semester as any kind of “experiment” in online instruction. In reality, it’s emergency distance learning, and while most everyone is doing their best, we can’t pretend it’s the equivalent of what was originally planned.

But…this period of emergency distance learning is an opportunity—similar to our switch to online focus groups for this project—to reflect and assess what is most valuable and necessary at a given time to meet particular objectives. We have to be adaptable. I designed my writing textbook in a way that allows it to be used without an instructor at all. Talk about distance learning!

But the experience is greatly enhanced by the presence of peers and an instructor. This allows the instructor to add elements that are necessary, rather than simply expected or what’s usually done. Here’s my second mea culpa. I was really skeptical about online groups relative to face-to-face, but they totally work. They’re different, but different isn’t inferior.

Even better, similar to teaching, understanding the ways they are different will enhance either mode. Knowing more about how distance learning best works makes me a better face-to-face teacher. Knowing more about how face-to-face instruction best works makes it easier to convert a course to learning from a distance.

The same is true of our different mode of focus groups, I think.

What do you guys think?

Oh, one last thing. Remember how I said that after the last set of groups a couple weeks ago I was absolutely exhausted the next day. Turns out it’s totally a thing.

“Zoom exhaustion is real.”

I’ll “see” you at the groups soon.


Yours in curiosity,


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