Beth Robertson

PgR Student, School of Geography, Politics and Sociology

Could you just describe your current research project for me please? 

So, my current research project is looking broadly at Disaster Risk Reduction practices and the education system in Anguilla, which is a British Overseas Territory in the Caribbean, and it received a lot of devastation after Hurricane Irma in 2017. I'm looking at all of the different agencies and actors within the disaster network, so at the school level, teaching staff, non-teaching staff, children, parents and then working with NGOs, international NGOs, the British government and inter-regional agencies - basically how they all come together and rebuild their education system following disasters. 

And what what made you get into that area of research?  

After my undergraduate research, I wanted to go and do something with my summer and my mum's friend had built a school in Tanzania in partnership with a person that lived in Tanzania. They were looking for some volunteers to go to the school and I spoke to them about doing my undergraduate research while we volunteered, and it got me really interested in education. I returned to Tanzania for my Masters, and went to about six schools and I looked at the privatization of education in Tanzania and this generated a lot of questions in my mind about what education means and how it is valued against what children’s needs should be. 

My supervisor Jon worked in the Caribbean and he was really keen for me to do my PhD in the Caribbean and I was keen to work in a new field in a new area after doing two dissertation research projects in Tanzania, I kind of wanted to broaden my ideas and learn further about different challenges for education systems across the world. That year was 2017, and it was one of the most devastating hurricane seasons on record for the Caribbean region and caused widespread devastation across the region. My mum was working in Anguilla at the time of Hurricane Irma and when she came home, she was telling me stories about what happened to the schools. This happened at the time that I was coming up with my idea for my PhD, and then it made sense to focus on how education systems recovered post-disasters because I felt it would be a significant concern within the Caribbean. I made contact with Anguilla's Department for Education, who agreed to be a collaborative partner to this research, who helped formulate the direction for this research so it could have the greatest potential impact. 

What made you get into research in the first place?  

I am quite a people person and I very much enjoy talking. 

There's just so many questions of inequality, there's like an internal drive to try and understand why these things are happening. I was really interested in geography from a young age and I did it at University within the same department as my PhD. I have a good relationship with the staff there and I guess they encouraged me to do my PhD! 

Prior to my MA and PhD, I worked for a year on a pilot scheme for the Department of Education and within that pilot, part of my job was research. We were piloting the introduction of T levels which are new technical qualifications which involve a work placement trying to build technical skills for further education students. My job was to pilot the placement element of it so I conducted research with employers about the technical skills gap and how we would market this work placement. So, I did also have some research experience outside of academia! 

And then thinking back to your PhD, are there key research methods that you've used and why did you select those methods? 

Originally, I was hoping to work with mixed methods, so both qualitative and quantitative, and was also doing a comparison with two islands between Anguilla and Dominica. I started off with my data collection and I was predominantly doing semi-structured interviews and focus groups. I got so much participation, which I'm so grateful for, but it also meant that my capacity was stretched and I was no longer able to research both islands. I also began to value the qualitative data much more in order to answer my research questions. So, in the end, I just focussed on this approach in Anguilla. 

Where there any key obstacles when you were in the field? 

With predominantly working in schools, you are first of all restricted on the timetable that you can access people as you do not want to cause disruption to the children's learning environment. Your ultimate responsibility and priority is of course the children, so you can be doing an interview and then half way through a child's fallen over in the playground and they have to attend to that child. I had planned a whole day of interviews with teachers and there was an island lock down because of an approaching tropical storm to prepare the school, and then of course your research isn’t the priority. 

Also working within a post disaster zone there can be a lot of high emotion when participants are talking about what's happened. For some people, it's been a much more distressing experience and there was a couple of instances where my participant and I decided to stop the interview because it was clear that the taking part was potentially causing more harm than benefit for the participant. 

Are there any research methods that excite you? 

Yes! I’ve used some creative methods with children. In Tanzania, I did a quiz that was like an interview and I did like a simplified survey with them also. It was done in like a fun game kind of way, and then they had to draw a picture of the school to help me understand how the children frame their education. 

In Anguilla, I did focus groups with children and I brought in loads of paper and pens and basically my approach was to have this as a backup where the children could draw or write down responses in case they felt difficulty responding to questions in person. 'Cause again, I was really limited with time, I just got them on their lunchbreak, so I had 40 minutes to do focus groups and it was really tricky! That being said, I loved it, and the children in Anguilla gave me the best responses and were not shy about participating. They were just as good at asking questions back and assertive in their answers like, “we want to talk about this issue.” One child came in with her notepad and a clipboard with notes of things about the school she thought was important for me to know about. A 10-year-old! It was brilliant. 

And then are there any research methods that you'd like to learn more about or have some training in? 

I've always been really interested in a lot of digital methods such as using videos and media. I considered using them in my PhD but there were practical issues and it wasn’t the best fit for my research questions - but I've always been interested in the use of films and analysing filmed interviews and focus groups. 

I also think about research skills when I look at jobs for the future because I’m noticing a lot of them want a general understanding of programmes such as SPS, so I will exploring other ways to develop my skillset there. 

And then is there anybody that particular inspires you methodologically? 

Hmm I’m not sure, though many of my reflections around my risk assessment were informed by Gill Valentine’s work and I kept thinking back to what I'd learned. Like how much did the ideas around risk and fear due to me being a woman doing overseas research impact me in my movements over there. 

Is there anything about research methods that you wish your younger self had known? 

Yeah, positionality! When I first went to Tanzania when I was younger, as much as I went with this post-colonial framework that I was only beginning to learn about, there were some narratives that were constructed, such as me "going to volunteer as a teacher" at the school, that were so problematic! For example, I wasn't trained or skilled enough to do that! It sometimes makes me feel uncomfortable to think about, but I think these reflections are important for any researcher. 

I think I've learned in greater detail that power dynamics are constantly changing and it’s really important to know your privileges, but also know your limits. I guess that's the biggest journey I would say I've been on, realising I was so ignorant and understanding that positionality is incredibly complex and requires a lot of attention and work. 

Ok great, and have you had any sort of memorable methodological blunders.  

Oh yeah! When I was in Anguilla I really struggled to get in touch with parents and I got invited to the Parent Teacher Association meeting. I remembered them from being at school, as being about 6 teachers at a round table and I prepared to do a focus group. I arrived and it was about 200 people in a hall and each parent had been given a leaflet outlining a full hour-long schedule with my name on it to address the audience within five minutes at the end. I went up very anxiously and spoke really quickly and afterwards so many people said they couldn’t hear what I said! The next time I went I was so much more prepared, and it was much better! 

And there were other little things that went wrong during my fieldwork. In Dominica, I tried to meet up with my collaborative partner and three times we failed to meet each other. There was a mix of reasons why, and we're still in touch and we have a really good relationship. But once you're out in the field, you genuinely think it's all over that your collaborative partners are not meeting up with you. It was a difficult decision not to continue with that element of my research, but it was a quick decision. Sometimes you feel like it’s a life-or-death decision but in reality, it’s not and it all works out okay in the end. You have to be flexible!