The past few weeks, my doctoral cohort has been studying the use of visual ethnography as a qualitative research method. This was in preparation for work on a project that utilizes photo elicitation interviews to explore our different ministry contexts. Photo elicitation is, most basically, the use of photographs in conducting a research interview (see Douglas Harper’s “Talking about pictures: a case for photo elicitation” in Visual Studies Journal, Vol. 17, No. 1, 2002). The method falls within the larger field of visual ethnography, which looks at images and symbols as cultural texts and “sites of cultural production,” to use Sara Pink’s language (Doing Visual Ethnography, 1).
But more specifically, the kind of photo elicitation we were asked to engage in is more appropriately termed photo self-elicitation. Instead of producing or selecting photographs around which to conduct research interviews, we solicited submissions from people within our ministry context and asked them to submit to us photos that represent some aspect of our respective ministry contexts. Now, if you know me or have been following this blog for the past few months, you know that my ministry context has changed dramatically since I began this doctoral program a year ago. I no longer work for the mega-church that previously employed me. I’m now part of the support staff for George Fox Evangelical Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry programs. Yup, the same place where I’m working on my own doctorate.
It has been difficult for me to redefine my ministry context, since it looks so different than it ever has before. Up until now, I have been engaged in some form of full-time ministry. Now, however, I find myself in the world of academic administration. Who are the people to whom I am ministering? What is my “context”? This project forced me to ask those questions and come up with an answer. What I have come to realize is that my ministry context is our doctoral students. I have daily interaction with students who are active in the coursework phase of their doctorate.
The students only see each other three or four times during the course of the program at events that we call “Advances” (the exception being the Leadership and Spiritual Formation track, which calls the face to face experience “Retreats”). It is my observation that the first Advance shapes a lot of the cohort interaction and subsequent online interaction. When I think about where ministry opportunities exist within my context, I think of those first Advances. They set the tone for the cohort. Or that is my hunch.
Henk de Roest, a Dutch academician from Protestant Theological University, recently presented research at a symposium on Visual Methods at King’s College in London. In his paper and presentation, “Losing a Common Space to Connect” he describes how he used photo self-elicitation methods to help ease church closures in Amsterdam. He asked the churchgoers at these various closing churches to “take pictures of something (for example a scene, an object, a part of the building, an angle, etc.) that shows what you will miss mostly when the building will be closed. In addition, I would like you to tell me what it means to you” (de Roest, p. 4).
He then conducted interviews with the churchgoers in groups and let them talk about why they chose the pictures that they chose. He goes on to state that his interest was primarily hermeneutical: he wanted “to see what would happen to the community if it was given ample time and creative opportunities to deal with the loss of its building” (ibid., 5). What he discovered through the process was that the feelings that were held implicitly became expressed explicitly. This resulted in various courses of action among the churches, with the end result seeming to be a moment of catharsis for the remnant of churchgoers who were losing their physical building.
I decided to adopt a similar approach for my project. I contacted a total of 14 students from five of the six active doctoral cohorts and invited them to participate in a research project. The sixth active doctoral cohort had not yet had its initial face-to-face experience when I conducted my survey. I asked the students to look through the seminary’s Flickr or Facebook photo album containing pictures taken from their Orientation Advance. Then they were to select two photos that “best represent your cohort experience.” After selecting them and sending me the html link, I asked them all the following question:
“What is it about the photo makes it representative of your Advance (or Retreat) experience?”
My hope in this exercise is to see if there are any common themes that come up as students reflect upon the first Advance experience. If there are common themes, these offer opportunities for the Doctor of Ministry team to further develop the Advance experiences.
I took the student responses and paired them with the photos they selected and created a Flickr Set from which I could analyze the responses. That set is located here (view the set on Flickr to see the subject’s comments)
In my analysis of the images and comments, I wrote down all the descriptive words and phrases that appeared more than once in the subjects comments and then attempted to group them by common category. There were 28 unique words or phrases that occurred with regularity. I was able to group them into four broad categories: Community, Experience, Learning, and Emotion.
The two most elicited words were “community” and “experience,” which were mentioned 7 and 8 times respectively. The images that were selected by the subjects bear this out. Many of the photos show groups of people interacting with one another. There seems to be a strong connection between the Advance experiences and the formation of strong relational ties.
Secondary to Community and Experience was the importance of the Learning that they hoped to participate in. Words like “wisdom,” “challenging,” and “conversation” came up regularly. This is reflected in the number of pictures that were selected showing students engaged in lecture-style settings or pictures of Len Sweet teaching the students (either in the classroom or on the streets).
Finally, there were words that described the Emotional aspect of the Advances. Many of them are positive (“laughter,” “making memories,” “loving”), though a few references to anxiety were present. Again, many of the pictures are of people smiling, laughing, and engaged is animated conversation.
In the planning that goes into the Advances, much forethought is placed into creating spaces that are conducive to the learning goals of the different tracks. The community, felt experience, and emotional value of the Advances all spring forth with fairly little coaxing. But those things are what the students remember and name as formative. This offers some great opportunities for future first Advances. What would it look like for the D.Min. team to more intentionally craft community-building opportunities? If students are “gelling” on their own, do they even need community-building experiences? Are there risks or liabilities to taking more control of what seems to happen organically?
There are pros and cons to both sides of that argument. One the one hand, it is tempting to resist overcomplicating something that is happening with very little interference. Yet on the other hand, if Community and Experience are highly valued among the students it seems naive to hope that they will just continue to appear on their own. I think that my team would do well to reflect upon the kinds of experiences common to cohorts that seem to “gel” well, and then look for ways to increase the probability that those kinds of experiences will occur at the first Advances of any given doctoral track.And all that from some pictures. Neat.