Phenomenology seeks to describe basic lived experience. As a research method it is the study of essences. "The essence of phenomenon is universal which can be described through a study of the structure that governs the instances or particular manifestations of the essence of that phenomenon" (van Manen, 1990, p.10). Research using phenomenology seeks to uncover the meanings in our everyday existence. Its ultimate aim is "the fulfillment of our human nature: to become more fully who we are" (van Manen, 1990, p. 12).
Phenomenology as a type of research is a poetizing activity in that "it tries an incantative, evocative speaking, a primal telling, wherein we aim to involve the voice in an original singing of the world" (van Manen, 1990, p. 13). Phenomenology is both the "description of the lived-through quality of lived experience and the description of meaning of the expressions of lived experience" (p. 25). The description of meaning is a mediated expression and is more interpretive. It is through the use of some type of text or symbolic expression that interpretations are made of life experience. Phenomenological text is descriptive "in that it names something. And in the naming, it points to something and it aims at letting something show itself " (p. 26). The assumption is that the meaning of lived experience is hidden. For van Manen, "a good phenomenological description is collected by lived experience and recollects lived experience?is validated by lived experience and it validates lived experience" (p. 27).
Phenomenology as a research method in education tries to "ward off any tendency toward constructing a predetermined set of fixed procedures, techniques and concepts that would rule-govern the research project" (van Manen, 1990, p. 29). While there is not a set of fixed procedures, van Manen understands hermeneutic phenomenological research in the human sciences as an interplay of six research activities:
(1) turning to a phenomenon which seriously interests us and commits us to the world;Turning to the Nature of the Experience in Web-based Computer Conferencing
(2) investigating experience as we live it rather than as we conceptualize it;
(3) reflecting on the essential themes which characterize the phenomenon;
(4) describing the phenomenon through the art of writing and rewriting;
(5) manipulating a strong and oriented pedagogical relation to the phenomenon;
(6) balancing the research context by considering parts and whole. (pp. 30-31)
At the heart of every phenomenological research endeavor is a deep questioning of an experience. In my case, I find myself using computers more and feeling a battle between being terrorized as well as enchanted by them. This struggle is the center of the section "Entering the Matrix: Turning Toward." My research is rooted in a life-long journey that has sought to find meaning in the use of technology. As I untangle myself from my own technological matrix, I have begun to discover meaning in the connections I thought were only a matter of circumstance.
This deeply held search for meaning within a technological matrix has taken form in my research question. I want to know what it is like for students using computer conferencing for all or part of their course instruction. Without some sense of how I experience this phenomenon, I enter the research ungrounded. The influences, the ebbs and tides of my own experience, lay hidden. It is from my own experience of computers and WCC that I not only begin to explore my own sense of meaning from the experience, but I begin to wonder what it is like for others. These questions that seek meaning and delve into the nature of the experience beneath will inform me in my own teaching not only in WCC, but in my overall use of computers in my classes. "Phenomenological research is a being-given-over to some quest, a true task, a deep questioning of something that restores an original sense of what it means to be a thinker, a researcher, a theorist" (van Manen, 1990, p. 31).
Investigating the Experience as We Live It
In phenomenology, personal experience is the starting point. The source of personal experience is a description or account of the lived experience. "To conduct a personal description of a lived experience, I try to describe my experience as much as possible in experiential terms focusing on a particular situation or event. I try to give a direct description of my experience as it is, without offering causal explanations or interpretive generalizations of my of my experience" (van Manen, 1990, p. 54). To produce lived-experience descriptions, van Manen suggests:
(1) You need to describe the experience as you live(d) through it avoiding as much as possible causal explanations, generalizations, or abstract interpretations.This type of description is less concerned with the factual accuracy and more focused on the person's living sense of the experience. What is it like to live through an experience?
(2) Describe the experience from the inside as it were; almost like a state of mind: the feelings, the mood, the emotions, etc.
(3) Focus on a particular example or incident of the object of the experience: describe specific events, an adventure, a happening, a particular experience.
(4) Try to focus on an example of the experience which stands out for its vividness, or as it was the first time.
(5) Attend to how the body feels, how things smell(ed), how they sound(ed), etc.
(6) Avoid trying to beautify your account with fancy phrases or flowery terminology. (1990, pp. 66-67)
Written descriptions of student experiences in WCC were taken at two points in the two years they used conferencing in their program and were a part of the text used for the study. In addition to written descriptions of the experience, conversations provided a valuable source to understand the lived-experience.
Conversation is a process of coming into an understanding. Thus it belongs to every true conversation that each person opens himself to the other, truly accepts his point of view as valid and transposes himself into the other to such an extent that he understands not the particular individual but what he says. (Gadamer, 1994/ 1960, p. 385)Gadamer suggests that we fall into conversations. We are led by the conversation. To have a conversation means
to allow oneself to be conducted by the subject matter to which the partners in the dialogue are oriented. It requires that one does not try to argue the other person down but that one really considers the weight of the other's opinion. Hence the art of testing. But the art of testing is the art of questioning [and] to question means to lay open to place in the open. (Gadamer, 1994/1960, p. 367)It is through this process of laying open that I understand your experience. It is a pathway to finding common meaning. For van Manen (1990), conversations provide an avenue to collect personal stories rooted in specific instances and events as well as an opportunity to form a relationship with the other about the meaning of an experience.
I had two face-to-face conversations with each student participating in my dissertation research. The students experienced WCC as a component of their program over a two-year period. Seven students participated in the study. Each conversation lasted between one to two hours. Each conversation was audio taped and a transcript was produced from the tape. I reviewed the initial round of conversations for themes and clues for places I wanted to probe more deeply. I also conducted a virtual focus group that met in a real-time chat space to discuss and clarify aspects of the experience of being in a WCC. From the transcript of the chat session and the individual transcripts, I arranged to have another set of individual face-to-face conversations with the student participants. The second set of conversations lasted about one to two hours. The conversations were audio recorded and transcripts were produced from the tapes.
The conversations had both a face-to-face component and a virtual component. The texts generated from both provided the basic source material for my interpretation. Several other texts also provide insight into the experience of WCC. Experiential descriptions in literature, biography, and art are all sources for lived experience (van Manen, 1990). Phenomenological literature offers insights into lived-experience, but is different from other literature. According to van Manen, phenomenological literature is different in four ways:
(1) Phenomenological literature may contain material which has already addressed in a descriptive or an interpretive manner the very topic or question which occupies us.Once I had gathered textual sources, the next step was to begin the process of interpretation and the process of identifying meaning units.
(2) The work of other phenomenologists turns into a source for us with which to dialogue.
(3) Selected phenomenological materials enable us to reflect more deeply on the way we tend to make interpretive sense of lived experience.
(4) Phenomenological sources allow us to see our limits and to transcend the limits of our interpretive sensibilities. (van Manen, 1990, pp. 74-76)
Characterizing the Phenomenon Using Themes
What is the process through which I take the text I have carefully brought together into meaning units or themes? How do I identify the nature of the lived experience as it is reflected in the text collected in my study?
To do human science research is to be involved in the crafting of a text. In order to come to grips with the structure of meaning of the text… in terms of meaning units, structures of meaning or themes. Reflecting on lived experience then becomes reflectively analyzing the structural or thematic aspects of that experience. (van Manen, 1990, p. 78)Theme comes from the Latin word thema, what is laid down. Thema is a thesis (Webster's, 1979, p. 1891). A thesis is "a position, from tihenai, to put, place." A theme is placed, laid down. It is tied to a position, a value, meaning. "Phenomenological themes may be understood as the structures of experience" (van Manen, 1990, p. 79). For van Manen, a theme "is the experience of focus, of meaning, of point; …formulation is at best a simplification; …is not an object one encounters at certain points or moments in the text [a theme is not a thing]; …is the form of capturing the phenomenon one tries to understand" (p. 87).
Van Manen suggests three processes for isolating thematic statements: "the wholistic or sententious approach; the selective or highlighting approach; and the detailed or line-by line approach" (1990, p. 93). Each approach guides a different view of the text differing in how specific the lens of examination. The first approach is more global, seeking overall meaning of the text. The second approach focuses on phrases or sentences that stand out in the text. The third approach is a close examination of the text sentence by sentence.
Through the use of hermeneutic conversation, "keeping the question (of the meaning of phenomenon) open, to keep [myself] and the interviewee oriented to the substance of the thing questioned" (van Manen, 1990, p. 98), the meaning of the experience of students in WCC was examined. Students were encouraged to reflect on their experiences to determine the deeper meanings and themes of their experiences. Once the transcripts were generated from the conversations, the students and I reflected on the conversations for meaning both in focus group and an additional conversation.
All phenomenological research involves "explorations into the structure of the human lifeworld, the lived world as experienced in everyday situations and relations" (van Manen, 1990, p. 101). Van Manen suggests there are four fundamental lifeworld themes that are helpful guides for reflection: "lived space (spatiality), lived body (corporeality), lived time (temporality), and lived human relation (relationality or communality)" (p. 101). While these four themes can be identified they can not be separated in the lived world of experience. In my initial exploration of WCC, all of these themes are evident. The challenge was to connect these fundamental themes to the experiences growing out of the web-based environment in a fresh and "lived" way.
Perhaps the most difficult part the thematizing process is determining the difference between universal or essential qualities of a theme and those that are more incidentally related to the phenomenon. "In determining the universal or essential quality of a theme our concern is to discover aspects or qualities that make a phenomenon what it is and without which the phenomenon could not be what it is" (van Manen, 1990, p. 107).
The structuring of meaning with themes sets the stage for the process of "bringing speech to something" (van Manen, 1990, p. 32), the art of writing and rewriting.
The Art of Writing and Rewriting
"Human science research is a form of writing. Creating a phenomenological text is the object of the research process" (van Manen, 1990, p. 111).
All writing is a kind of alienated speech, and its signs need to be transformed back into speech and meaning. Because the meaning has undergone self-alienation through being written down, this transformation back is the real hermeneutical task. The meaning of what has been said is to be started anew, simply on the basis of the words passed on by means of the written signs. (Gadamer, 1994/1960, p. 393)"Writing separates us from what we know and yet it unites us more closely with what I know" (van Manen, 1990, p. 127). I began to know myself by externalizing an internal sense that is immersed within the situation I am unable to see beyond the moment of this internal sea in the writing. Writing facilitates this movement from internal to external. "We come to know what we know in this dialectical process of constructing text (a body of knowledge) and thus learning what we are capable of saying (our knowing body)" (p. 127).
Writing also separates us from lived experience and through this separation I am able to reflect on everyday experience. It is through writing that the lived experience of WCC allowed me to examine its essence. Immersed in the experience, the experience is seamless without reflection. To step back in reflection, the edges begin to be clear, and slowly I began to see what has been nothing more than a sequence of activities. Is this similar to Heidegger's (1996/1952) seamless use of the hammer? How does writing as a reflection compare to the reflection that occurs when equipment is dysfunctional in some manner?
Writing decontextualizes thought from practice and yet it returns thought to praxis…. [It] focuses our reflective awareness by disregarding the incidentals and contingencies that constitute the social, physical, and biographic context of a particular situation. But as we gain in this manner a deeper sense of meanings embedded in some isolated aspect of practice we are also being prepared to become more discerning of the meaning of new life experiences. (van Manen, 1990, p. 128)My experience of the world becomes abstract as I describe it in writing. It is intellectualized. Yet through my description?my story of an experience, it is possible to draw you into the feeling of the experience by making it concrete. "The narrative power of story is that sometimes it can be more compelling, more moving, more physically and emotionally stirring than the lived-life itself" (van Manen, 1990, p. 129).
"Writing objectifies thought into print and yet it subjectifies our understanding of something that truly engages us" (van Manen, 1990, p. 129). For van Manen, "research is writing in that it places consciousness in the position of the possibility of confronting itself, in a self-reflective relation" (p. 129). In phenomenological text, "it lets us see that which shines through, that which tends to hide itself…. To read or write phenomenologically requires that we be sensitively attentive to the silence around the words by means of which we attempt to disclose the deep meaning of the world" (p. 131).
Maintaining a Strong and Oriented Relation
Van Manen suggests that modern educational theory and research suffers from three main problems: "(1) confusing pedagogical theories with other discipline-based forms of discourse; (2) tending to abstraction and thus losing touch with the lifeworld of the living; and (3) failing to see the general erosion of pedagogic meaning from the lifeworld" (1990, p. 135). The focus of the writing and the research needs to be guided continually and demonstrate from where we stand pedagogically. The focus on pedagogy in the phenomenological text grounds the research in a perspective that can inform educational practice. "Learning to understand the essence of pedagogy as it manifests itself in particular life circumstances contributes to a more hermeneutic type of competence: a pedagogic thoughtfulness and tact" (van Manen, p. 143).
Pedagogy in the sense van Manen (1990) is using it goes beyond a positivist model that depends on certain observable behaviors or actions. It resides in what we experience and know as intrinsic in the human experience of teaching. Pedagogical theory "has to be the theory of the unique, of particular case" (p. 150). In this sense, pedagogy in WCC is rooted in our experience of teaching. While WCC is unique, it is intimately linked to teaching.
Van Manen (1990) suggests that the research/writing and also evaluative criteria of any phenomenological human science text need to be oriented, strong, rich, and deep. An oriented text is one that is "understood as an answer to the question of how an educator stands in life, how an educator needs to think about [students], how an educator observes, listens, and relates to [students], how an educator practices a form of speaking and writing that is pedagogically contagious" (p. 151). A strong text "always needs to aim for the strongest pedagogic interpretation of a certain phenomenon" (p. 151). For a text to be rich, "the meanings of the lived sense of the phenomenon are not exhausted in their immediate experience. A rich and thick description is concrete, exploring a phenomenon in all its experiential ramifications" (p. 152). A text with rich descriptions, that explores meaning structures beyond what is immediately experienced, gains a dimension of depth. Merleau-Ponty expresses it this way: "Depth is the means the things have to remain things, while not being what I look at at present" (cited in van Manen, 1990, p. 152). How will these evaluative criteria transfer to a multimedia/hypermedia text?
Van Manen (1990) believes that human science is a critically oriented action research?a philosophy of action in three ways. "Hermeneutic phenomenological reflection deepens thought and therefore radicalizes thinking and the acting that flows from it" (p. 154). The critical action flows from a deeper understanding of the lived experience. Second, "phenomenology is a philosophy of actions especially in a pedagogic context. Pedagogy itself is a mode of life that always and by definition deals with practical action" (p. 154). A focus on pedagogy in educational research leads naturally to action. The research I have done thus far has informed my pedagogic practices in WCC. It is from an informed place that I can show others. Finally, "phenomenology is a philosophy of action always in a personal and situated sense. A person who turns to phenomenological reflection does so out of personal engagement" (p. 154). I am studying student experiences of WCC not only from a deep personal questioning coming from inside myself, but also from students who experienced WCC as part of their program in the Institute for Educational Transformation (IET).
Balancing the Research Context
The research plan or proposal is a balance of explicit statements on the methodological process and an openness that "allows for choosing directions and exploring techniques, procedures and sources that are not always foreseeable at the outset of a research project" (van Manen, 1990, p. 162). In terms of ethics, van Manen believes that the researcher needs to be aware of the following:
(1) The research may have certain effects on the people with whom the research is concerned and who will be interested in the phenomenological work.Van Manen (1990) suggests that there are several ways to structure phenomenological research: thematically, analytically, exemplificatively, exergetically, existentially, and inventing an approach (pp. 168-173). While my initial exploration into the phenomenon was thematic, my method for approaching the writing is of my own invention.
(2) There are possible effects of the research methods on the institutions in which the research is conducted.
(3) The research methods used may have lingering effects on the actual "subjects" involved in the study.
(4) Phenomenological projects and their methods often have a transformative effect on the researcher. (pp. 162-153)