The Lone Adult-Education Researcher: Reflections on Method and Practice

The Lone Adult-Education Researcher: Reflections on Method and Practice


The lone adult-education researcher: reflections on method and practice

Annette Greenland, The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, NC, USA

The purposes of this paper are to describe and critique the pattern of ‘lone’ research activity which has evolved over my relatively short career as a university adult educator. After sketching a context for my remarks, I will trace the development of my preferences in scholarly inquiry and then pose questions for SCUTREA participants.

Defining lone has been a challenge because we academics are all, to varying degrees, solitary in our scholarly efforts, even when our projects list multiple investigators. So I adapted language from the literature of self-directed learning in order to characterize the lone researcher, using myself as example: someone who, without benefit of ongoing, face-to-face, informed discussion with one or more persons of similar academic preparation and inclination, makes all the major decisions about a line of research; that is, chooses the topic or question; how, when, and where to examine it; the pace, sequence, and intensity of the work; how much to expose and scrutinize his/her assumptions and biases; the selection and integration of others’ prior work; the outside expertise to be sought; the first evaluation of the project’s cohesiveness and worth; and the manner of reporting to decision-makers (funders, personnel review committees).

Local context

UNC Charlotte is one of 16 public universities in the state system. The Charlotte area, one of the fastest-growing urban areas in the United States, has about a half million inhabitants.

I am UNC Charlotte’s first (and only) full-time, tenure-earning faculty member in adult education, hired five years ago not only to do teaching (master’s students), research, and service, but also for

performing program administration and coordination functions, advising students, directing theses/projects, providing leadership for Adult Education and the adult student within the University; work[ing] closely with personnel within the University, with other universities within the system, and with community and industry leaders…[1]

The Department of Teaching Specialties comprises 10 faculty in special education, four in reading education, three in research methods, one in English as a Second Language, and one (me) in adult education. They and the 60 other faculty in the College of Education and Allied Professions are primarily engaged in preparing personnel for positions in child and youth education.

Adult education carries no certification in North Carolina. Most of my students already work with adult learners, in corporate or government-agency training, community college literacy and support programs, health education, and consultancy.


When hired by UNCC, I had just completed my Doctor of Education in adult and higher education at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. I had entered UMass with a practitioner background – six years of coordinating off-campus credit courses for a small community college in Arkansas. In those six years (‘lone’ in an office 65 miles from the college) I had earned my master’s in higher education, ventured into basic survey research, published my first refereed article, and made two conference presentations.

At UMass I discovered adult higher education as a discrete, interesting, but not widely understood subfield of study and practice. Feeling driven to establish a sense of context, I undertook, along with classroom courses, a lengthy independent-study project to identify my positions along a variety of perspectives – historical, philosophical, learning style, and others. More solitary work the next year – on two qualifying papers –put me in a frame of mind to tackle dissertation research within a nearby but very complex context, UMass itself.

I wanted to know how responsive UMass was (and could be) to adult – 25 and older – undergraduates. Long respected for serving full-time, traditional-age undergraduates, this 25,000-student institution had had two adult-degree options for about a decade: a University Without Walls program and a general-studies major, the latter offered via the continuing education division. Both were often perceived elsewhere on campus as marginal to the central mission of the institution.

My quest was to locate – all across campus – support for, and usage of, particular practices suited to serving older undergraduates. The initial stimulus for my project was a theoretically grounded publication, Postsecondary Education Institutions and the Adult Learner: A Self-Study Assessment and Planning Guide[2], which had been designed primarily for use by administrator-led institutional teams in carrying out a campus-wide assessment. More than 200 diagnostic questions, attached to a yes/no/not applicable response format, are offered in such groupings as outreach; admissions, orientation, and advising; curriculum and instruction; academic policy and practice; faculty/staff development; and mission and objectives.

My design goal was an institution-wide self-assessment which could be carried out by a single researcher who would use both quantitative and qualitative methodology. I used the Guide as an initial organizing framework and theoretical base for developing survey instruments and open-ended questions. The literature on which the Guide was based, including reports from 19 conventional self-study teams at other institutions, provided further guidance.

I developed three pencil-and-paper survey instruments (for samples of faculty and academic advisors and for all department and division heads) and a set of telephone-interview protocols (for heads of support-service units). I modified the question format to measure both attitude (‘Are you a proponent of this practice?’) and usage (‘Is this your [or your department’s] practice?’), and added new questions based on the literature.

Of 456 persons I asked to supply information for the study (I included an adult-student component, using a standardized ‘satisfaction’ instrument), more than 80 percent responded. I manipulated the quantitative data using conventional statistics. I subjected responses to open-ended questions to standard content-analysis procedures.

The resulting dissertation[3], a hefty tome, is usable as a reference for determining the relative status of, or climate for, particular practices and for tracing the rationale underlying specific recommendations. One of the monographs I extracted from it[4] won a national award for dissertation excellence.


I recall thinking, ‘I’ll never have an occasion, the institutional linkages, or the concentrated time to do that complex a study again!’ (Hindsight reinforces pride of accomplishment but blurs the amount of time and energy invested and the uncertainties encountered).

The dozens of separate steps and decisions along the way enriched my repertoire of possibilities for a career as a university teacher/researcher; none qualified me as ‘expert’ researcher. I continue to believe that large studies, carefully conceptualized and organized, can be directed by one person, but I’m aware that the impact may not be greater than that of several more compact studies of equivalent total effort. My doctoral research gave me practice in several modes of inquiry, but did not prepare me to move comfortably between a lone-researcher frame of mind and a collaborative one.

I find survey research and its literature challenging and interesting, mindful that my British readers may, if Brookfield’s[5] claim is valid, view survey research and statistical analysis as ‘camouflage’ for a ‘lack of analytical capacities’! My ideal blend of methodologies at present is gathering quantitative data to serve as benchmark or larger context for concurrent or subsequent qualitative components. Although I value both the ‘number cruncher’ and ‘story teller’ roles[6], I regard the former as a necessary framer – and perhaps monitor – of the latter.

Transition to the present

My ‘lone’-program -coordinator background probably figured in my hiring by UNC Charlotte more than did my research agenda. I began my scholarly inquiry there on topics which had immediate application (nature and evolution of master’s programs in adult education) or which extended earlier work (self-assessment among professional women in higher education). My largest ongoing study is of first-time-at-UNCC adult undergraduates; I have the cooperation of, and considerable input from, the staff member who coordinates student services for ‘nontraditional’ students. The study thus qualifies as a tentative move away from purely ‘lone’ research, and legitimizes the allocation of time to discussions of progress and implications with someone who has a significant investment in (albeit different objectives for) the work.

I was unsuccessful in attracting funding for the above-mentioned projects, even in the in-house grant competitions I have entered every year. Not until the Education reference librarian and I teamed up to propose a qualitative study of graduate students’ information-seeking behavior were the institutional coffers opened for research support.

Monitoring research patterns

Reflecting on the ways I have tried to monitor my activity is intended to help me avoid what Bright[7] calls ‘bad eclecticism.’ I give an extra measure of attention to the knowledge-base context for my work, going beyond the expected topical literature to the broader adult-education agenda-setting pieces, the ‘futuring’ literature, and refinements of those inquiry skills I value in common with other educational researchers.

I remind myself not to slip into a ‘grass-is-greener’ outlook about others’ joint inquiry. The collaborative studies reported in journals and at conferences may not have been more smoothly conducted, enthusiastically debated, or valued than ‘lone’ research. As Jones[8] reminded SCUTREA, those ‘sanitized’ research reports ‘give no real clue as to the doubts, false starts, and uncertainties which accompany any research activity’ (p. 35).

I’m more confident in presenting partially completed research at professional conferences. Sometimes the briefest of such interactions serves as welcome formative evaluation.

Much as I’m intrigued by the research-as-self-directed-learning metaphor[9], I caution myself first to use it as an energizer and task reminder and then to reconceptualize myself as embedded in a community of researchers.

Additional checks and balances have come to mind as I prepared this paper: I could develop what Bryant and Usher[10] call ‘… ‘an agreement with the self’ to set aside time for reflective analysis’ (pp. 14-15). Perhaps a journal dedicated just to reflecting on research could be my self-agreed-upon aid.

I can resist the temptation to design overly large projects which lead me to expect too much from them. I can work to change departmental workload policy so that encouraging master’s-student research becomes a more recognized use of faculty time and a stimulus to my own and my colleagues’ research.

A call for feedback

How do you talk to yourself about your research? Do you have a personal reflection journal or checklist? If the latter, what are its elements?

How do you perceive the lone researcher I have described above? As moving predictably and conventionally along some continuum of professional development and outlook? As behaving in concert with other facets of experience and personality? As clinging too closely to past successes and paradigms?

[1] Chronicle of Higher Education (1988, March 30), [Position announcements], p.B8

[2] Postsecondary education inst