Campus News

Asking better questions about the world

Qualitative research program prepares to observe 30 years at UGA

Jude Preissle didn’t set out to start one of the best qualitative research methods programs in the world, but that is what happened.

“I was hired at UGA in 1976 to teach elementary social studies methods,” says Preissle, now a full professor in the lifelong education, administration and policy department. “I know I was not the most qualified candidate in the pool, because one of my friends applied for the same job and she was more qualified than I was. The difference was that I told them I could also teach educational anthropology and qualitative research methods.”

And so after a day packed with interviews for a job in elementary social studies methods, Preissle, the newly-minted Ph.D., was asked to go back to her hotel and prepare a sample qualitative research course syllabus and to come back for more interviews in the morning.

“I thought, ‘What am I going to do now?’ ” she says.

She called her major professor at Indiana University in tears and asked for references to scholarship that she could not recall.

“Back in that day, we didn’t have the Internet to look things up, and I wasn’t carrying a typewriter with me,” Preissle says. “I just wrote things down longhand on a sheet of onionskin and presented it the next day.”

Hired nearly 30 years ago, Preissle taught the first qualitative research methods class at the University of Georgia. She had four students. By the mid-1980s, it was the only subject she taught. Today, UGA’s Qualitative Research Program has five full-time faculty lines supported by more than 51 affiliated faculty from around the university. It is one of only two certificate programs in the world devoted exclusively to qualitative research.

Faculty members practice and study the range of traditions associated with qualitative research including interpretive study, historical research, sociocultural research, emancipatory traditions, evaluation research, and postmodern and post-structural traditions.

“Part of the reason for this program’s success is that the program seeks exceptional teachers,” says Ron Cervero, lifelong education, administration and policy department head. “Just as a committed qualitative researcher wants to understand the meanings held by participants in the community he or she is studying, we have partnered with faculty across campus who focus on understanding the needs and views of their students.”

In the early years, a lot of support came from the math education faculty, according to Preissle.

“It was interesting, because so many people come into qualitative research because they have a fear of math, but here were a bunch of math ed professors-who clearly weren’t afraid of math-saying they needed to better understand children’s thinking and learning,” she says. “The way to do that is through qualitative research.”

In fact, faculty from fields like anthropology, sociology, mass communication, journalism, art, social work, child and family development, psychology, and many other areas started steering their graduate students to the classes which focused on topics like qualitative research theory and interviewing.

By 1984, the Qualitative Interest Group was formed for faculty, and in the 1990s, the Student Qualitative Inquiry Group followed. Classes became so popular that by the early 1990s there was an 18-month waiting list to enroll in the introductory class.

“People took these classes from all over campus. We were becoming victims of our own success, and we had to rethink how we were doing things,” Preissle says. “We didn’t want to simply give students 30 ways to get people to talk and 20 observation strategies. We were trying to get them to ask better questions about the world.”

The department hired some post-doctoral teaching assistants to help eliminate the waiting list shortly thereafter and then added a senior qualitative researcher, Kathleen deMarrais, in 1999. A series of three classes was developed into the core of the Qualitative Research Certificate Program, which was approved in 2001.

The certificate requires doctoral students to complete the core classes, a qualitative research elective and a capstone seminar. They also have to complete a dissertation using a qualitative or mixed design.

One way certificate students get their experience is through a one-day  mini-conference that they organize and produce to showcase their research projects. This year’s conference will be held from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Dec. 9 in Aderhold Hall. It is free and open to the public.

“This is not a ‘tools and techniques’ program,” says Kathy Roulston, who is teaching the seminar. “We are grounded conceptually and philosophically, so that even the core classes, which are somewhat linear, are still organized around the disciplines in the field.”

Roulston joined the QUIG faculty in 2000 as a post-doc and has continued in a tenure-track position.

Since 1987, the QUIG group has also been hosting an annual interdisciplinary conference at UGA attended by qualitative researchers from around the world. This year’s theme, “Local Knowledge, Global Contexts: Mapping the Terrain of Qualitative Research in the 21st Century” focuses on the directions qualitative research is heading. Keynote speakers include Norman Denzin from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Patti Lather from Ohio State University, and Angela Valenzuela from the University of Texas at Austin.

This year’s conference will be held Jan. 6-8 at the Georgia Center for Continuing Education.