Researchers in Residence: a researcher’s experience

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Guest contributer Sophie Bisset, doctoral researcher in History at Sussex, writes about her experience participating in the Researchers In Residence scheme.  The R in R scheme is open to all doctoral researchers in receipt of research council funding.

Researchers in Residence, or Taking Your Research and Making It Interesting to a Bunch of School Students

I am a full-time DPhil student in the History department. I am currently in my third year of research and in the autumn term, I took part in a RCUK scheme called Researchers in Residence. RinR gave me the chance to present my research to a completely new audience – secondary school students – and work with them over a period of time to help them develop their own ideas from the starting point of my own research. Not only was it a great experience, but also it meets the elusive criteria of “impact” within the wider community. This is the case study that I submitted to RinR at the end of my current placement but more general information about the scheme is available at www.researchersinresidence.ac.uk

Getting Started on the Project

I first heard about the Researchers in Residence programme at the Sussex Profolio DPhil training in the first year of my studies. Although I decided to wait until I was further into my research, I had immediately thought that it would be something that I wanted to do because it would encourage me to find a way to make my research accessible to a wider audience. RinR set up the initial contact with Dorothy Stringer High School but after that it was over to me and the Acting Head of the History Department to come up with a project. We soon settled on the idea of offering an extra-curricular programme for a small group from the current Gifted and Talented History GCSE students. This fitted in well with my own studies because it allowed me to go in and work with the same group of students each week at a time (after-school) that was convenient for getting on with my own work.

I wanted the topic to reflect my own research interests but also to be relevant to the students’ own studies too. At the time that I started the RinR project, my own research was centred on a specific text, Hugo Grotius’ Rights of War and Peace. As it is a classic text in the history of just war theory, it seemed like the perfect stepping stone to a wider survey of the historical and philosophical issues surrounding just war theory. Luckily, the school agreed that the topic would fit well with the students GCSE curriculum. The course itself ran for seven weeks. The first half focused on acquainting the students with the core ideas in just war theory and encouraging them to apply these core ideas to historical examples through lots of lively discussion and debate and the second half gave the students the chance to work on individual projects looking in more detail at a specific case study and exploring the limits of just war theory. In the final session, the students presented the findings of their individual research projects and I was blown away by the hard work (and hard thinking) that had gone into these final projects: everything from video projects in the style of Horrible Histories to discursive essays on whether the classic principles of just war theory can be applied to the contemporary war on terror.

But School Students Are Scary!

Before the placement started, I was very nervous about pitching the material at an appropriate level and coping with any behavioural problems that might arise. I talked this through with my contact at the school beforehand and they invited me to come in for a day and observe GCSE level lessons before I led my first session. It was really reassuring to get a sense of the student-teacher dynamic at the school and watch how the teachers dealt with any behavioural difficulties that arose. In the end, the students exceeded my expectations in terms of their ability to think critically and creatively and there were hardly any behavioural issues that arose, other than keeping the students calm during debates when they became over-enthusiastic about defending their position! After really positive feedback from the students themselves, we will be running the same programme again next year.

For me, the whole process encouraged me to look at my own research from a different perspective. Working out how to explain tricky conceptual ideas to a group of young students in a simple, comprehensible way made me clarify my own thinking on some of the big questions at stake in my own research. Best of all, however, was the feeling that the long, dense and solitary process of research came alive in the heated debates in the classroom.

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