As part of the Academics Writing project, we are conducting interviews with academics across nine different sites; three disciplines at three universities. One of our interviews is a ‘go-along’ interview (Garcia et al., 2012).
A go-along interview entails walking around the research site with your participant, talking about the physical environment as you go. Moving around while talking has affective benefits in that it takes pressure off the respondent to speak continually, and its relative informality may help in building rapport.
In the context of a university department, the go-along format can also offer insight into how different discourse communities orient themselves and share ideas. Garcia et al. (2012) found that walking around and encountering different aspects of the research site by chance added an extra layer of richness to the data and shed light on the participants’ own perspectives. This also happened in the Academic Writing project.
It was not until one respondent was showing me around her department that the topic of shared social space came up. She showed me the kitchen and an open seating area with colourful but rather uncomfortable-looking sofas (pictured).
“Is this where you sit and have lunch and chat?” I asked.
“Yes”, she replied, and began to whisper, “but students are around as well”. She went on to explain that she did not feel able to discuss what she really wanted to talk about in this space: her research. This academic had talked earlier about how highly she valued advice she’d received over the years from other academics in her department and how this collegiality was a crucial part of what she enjoyed about her work. However, she did not feel comfortable talking to colleagues about, for example, negative comments from journal reviewers in such an open space. “You might be upset,” she said, “and you can’t show that in front of students.” In this sense, the physical layout of space actually hindered this academic’s ability to exploit the potential it offered for knowledge sharing and informal professional support.
It was not only the way in which the physical environment interacted with social networks in this case that was interesting, however. The chance discussion about the seating area also highlighted the level of emotional investment this academic felt in connection with her scholarly work. Although she had been working as an academic for more than 10 years and had published extensively, her research writing was at the heart of her sense of professional identity and she was not immune to feeling bruised by reviewers’ comments.
In the current higher education environment, where academics are pitched against one another and have their worth measured by metrics, it is important to consider the emotional effects of these practices, and to ensure that the physical organisation of space fosters the kinds of social and professional networks that provide appropriate support.
And if you are wondering where the pineapples and potatoes come into this, another respondent said during his go-along interview that the combination of his department’s ventilation system, open-plan atrium, and floor-to-ceiling windows made it cold on the lower floors and hot at the top. “We are the pineapples” he joked, as we walked around the sunny fourth floor, “And they”, he indicated down through the atrium, “are the potatoes”.
Garcia, C. M., Eisenberg, M. E., Frerich, E. A., Lechner, K. E. & Lust, K. (2012). Conducting go-along interviews to understand context and promote health. Qualitative Health Research, 22(10), 1395-1403.