Monday, December 7, 2009

Smart people wrestling in church

The title of this blog post essentially describes what I've learned through the analysis process of this long project for class. After interviewing four EMU faculty members, asking each of them to essentially tell me the story of their spiritual-vocational journey, it's come to that assessment: "Smart people wresting in church."  The phrase is basically an interpretation of the top 5 themes that emerged from analysis of the interview transcripts. More about that process later, but here is the top 10 in a pretty pie chart:

Read on after the break for (a lot) more...
Contents (Yes, it's that long)
  • Smart
  • People
  • Wrestling
  • In Church
  • Other Themes
  • Discussion of Ethical Issues
  • The Analysis Process
  • Conclusion
  • Outline of Project
Education was the most prominent theme in all the interviews. This really should come as no surprise considering all four interview subjects are university faculty (read: highly educated folks). Since the arc of my interview questions essentially walked the subjects through the phases of their life, it makes sense that a good deal of their lives have been spent getting smart!

The (Education) category on the chart above was an abstraction of various terms that recurred throughout all interviews. Anything related to school, students, academics, studying, reading, seminary, et al, fell under the rubric of (Education) in my analysis. So a good deal of time was spent aggregating these together in the analysis spreadsheet I was working with.

So, (Education) = "Smart" (a dangerous assumption in reality, but not with my subjects).

This one is, perhaps, a bit more complex and covers quite a bit more ground. I did not aggregate (People) quite as broadly as the (Education) category and I'm interpreting it broadly, as I think the concept was used quite broadly in the interviews themselves. In the title of this blog post, I'm using "people" to refer to the folks that I interviewed. In the interview analysis, however (and life in general), this term refers to the fact that so much of what we do is about people! We're interpersonal beings that are not able to separate ourselves from others, no matter how strongly some people would love this to be.

Whether we are talking about theology or peacebuilding (major topics of conversation in this project), we are talking about something that is for people to consume and process in some way. I realize the theological danger of this focus, bringing us too close to making it all about us and not about God, but I'm willing to leave it there for now and work with that more deeply some other time.

It would also make sense to fold (Family) into this category, as this is a very significant set of people who have a large amount of influence on our lives, which certainly came up to varying degrees in all my interviews.

This is actually a term that appeared a few (3) times in my interview with Mark. By this I mean "working seriously, or vigorously at." (Working) as a category encapsulates some of this, but was mostly meant to signify, specifically, vocational work outside the academy, where that was prominent in a few interviews. So (Theology) goes in here, too. But the work of theology and peacebuilding does not only happen in the academy or in our jobs. These people I interviewed would argue (good Anabaptists that they are), that this work happens in our whole lives, every last little shred of it.

"Wrestling" is a problematic analogy, particularly for anyone who has actually wrestled. I wrestled (briefly and poorly) in Jr. High and High School, and it was a tremendous amount of work that would leave you mentally and physically pummeled at the end of nearly every practice, never mind actual competitions. Luckily, I never wrestled varsity, because that introduced a higher level of physical and emotional demands that were sometimes actually quite harmful (not eating to meet weight class demands). So I use this word, but I use it with awareness and caution and I seek to capture the best aspects of serious, diligent work.

In Church
This is the key to the title of this post and therefore my whole project this fall...and, what the heck, my whole life-encompassing theological project. (Church) and (God) occupied spots 3 & 5 in the list, and I fold those two into this part of the title. Without this, we would have people merely wrestling with each other for no good reason. Talking about life in the church was part of how I framed some interview questions, so I did nudge subjects there intentionally. But their responses to this nudging were significant and varying.

Mark, for instance, grew up in a non-religious family and came to faith through a dramatic revival experience in a Baptist church, eventually becoming a convinced Anabaptist, and finally a Mennonite. Peter, Heidi, and Lisa all grew up in the Mennonite church in the U.S.  Heidi and Lisa had pastors in their immediate or near-immediate families which influenced their experiences growing up, in both positive and negative ways. Take a look at this 5 minute video, in which Peter, Heidi, and Lisa reflect on their early experiences in the church. (Mark's experiences were thoroughly documented in an earlier video, so didn't get repeated here).

If I had another interview with each of these folks, I would probably spend a lot more time digging into the church question. The questions would be much more theological in nature and probably seek to get at deep-held beliefs about the nature of the church, in their own understanding and in respect to the biblical analogy of it being the body of Christ; how those two converge and diverge.

Other Themes
Generally, (Peace) didn't get talked about as much as you might expect from a crowd of Mennonite professors, although it did crack the top 10. This wasn't the focus of the interview questions, so it really only came up strongly while interviewing Lisa, who was the only vocational non-theologian in the group of interview subjects. Her field, peacebuilding, naturally led to much peace discussion, which she linked strongly back to her experience growing up as a Mennonite, in her particular congregation. Peter connected peace issues with vocation, citing his work with Mennonite Central Committee at various points through his journey, as well as citing peace as being a focal point for Mennonite theologians (and not always in a good way).

(The World), as a category, only showed up in Heidi's and Lisa's transcript analyses. They both showed a strong desire to tie theology to their interactions with the world. Heidi called it "bridge-building" and helping "the academy bridge to the church, and the church to the world." Lisa described an embodiment, our way of living, of the Gospel that Jesus taught as our witness to the world. Here's another "what if" scenario for future research: I would like to take this (Church)/(World) dichotomy and tease out some deeper beliefs about the nature of the two and their interconnections and distinctions.

The category of (Life) came up in analyses from Mark's and Lisa's interviews. Both of these subjects showed a strong interest in a life-encompassing project.  Mark described his work as helping Christians take their faith seriously in ways both large and small, while Lisa focused this on a peaceful living out of the Gospel in a "horizontal" sense.

Discussion of Ethical Issues
From start to finish in this project, I sought to keep the ethical issues of my work in mind, particularly the concerns that my interview subjects may have had (or continue to have). In my initial e-mail to each subject, requesting an interview, I was clear in communicating the purpose for the interview (this class project), the video-recording of the interview, and what form it would ultimately take (online mish-mash: blog, text, photos, video), and most importantly the fact that it would be posted to the general online public.

At the beginning of each interview, I reviewed all this information with the subject before turning the camera on. During one interview, the subject and I got into touchy issues and was making gestures and comments toward the camera that particular parts of our conversation should not be used in the project. This was noted as I later transcribed the interview. At the end of each interview, I would offer time to go back and re-state anything they may have wished to say again, or think about anything they didn't want going past the interview, into editing.

After the interviews were all completed, I typed a transcript for all four (very time-consuming) and sent them to the respective subject. For each subject, I gave them an opportunity to indicate to me any sections of the interview that they might not want used in the editorial process, eventually showing up in the final form(s). Since all my subjects are professors, they are very busy individuals, especially toward the end of a semester. So in order to continue work on the project while waiting for a response, I also informed each subject that I would also be exercising this judgment on whether or not particular parts of interviews should be used and published in the public. I exercised this option in two out of four cases.

Now that all this material has been edited in various forms and published, I have notified each interview subject. If any express concerns after publishing, I will continue to work with them. I have the pleasure of having good relationships with each of these people, and that is something I seek to maintain. Like a good Anabaptist, I connect these ethical concerns directly to my faith.

The Analysis Process
In our qualitative analysis textbook, there was some discussion about using software to help with the analysis phase of a research project. Being the cheapskate (read: grad student) that I am, I looked for something free and found a program that ended up working quite well: TextSTAT. I was able to take the transcript from each of my interviews and feed it into this program, which then spit out a word frequency list, quite simply: a list of all the words in the transcript and a number next to each signifying how many times it occurred. I included my own words from the transcripts, as I sought to identify themes in the conversation, not just what each particular person said.

I then transferred this information from each interview onto a sheet in a spreadsheet document (I use the free OpenOffice suite on my Mac), one sheet per interview. Since there were a number of very common words like "a, and, but, for, the," there was a fair amount of sifting to be done. I switched between sorting alphabetically in order to combine similar words/ideas, and sorting by word frequency to weed out unnecessary words.

After I had repeated this process for each interview, I created a new sheet on the spreadsheet document and placed on it the "top 10 list" from each interview: the words/ideas that appeared most frequently in each interview. With these four top 10 lists side-by-side, I then color-coded common themes with four colors corresponding to the number of times a word/idea appeared across all interviews, then created a fifth top 10 list identifying the composite themes from all interviews. This list formed the data set which created the pretty pie chart at the top of this post.

I should be clear that this top 10 list didn't drive my editorial process. There were themes emerging in my head even during the interview process, so by the time these ideas and numbers showed up at the end of the analysis process, it was more of an affirmation that I had been on track throughout the process. In fact, I had completed Mark's interview video/blog-post before the analysis phase described here had even started.

This is by far the most time I've put into a project in any of my college or graduate courses. The video for my interview with Mark, for instance, took 9 hours. I'm scared to even guess how much time I've spent overall on it. Quite simply, I am very, very happy that this project is over. And I'm tired. A hallmark of a Howard Zehr class is the extreme flexibility that is given to the student when choosing class project subjects and formats. I bit off a lot with this project, which I had somewhat of a sense for before I even started back in September.

All late-night/end-of-semester whining aside, this project was profoundly rewarding in a number of ways. For one thing, the topics of theology and peacebuilding are important to me, and I got to explore them in a new way that I've done in the past year while studying here at EMU. From a creative standpoint, the project allowed me to talk to interesting people, play with cameras, video and photo editing software, and a place to put my band's music (a number of shameless Honnold plugs in each video). Finally, the chance to start a new blog for not only this project, but also my ongoing theological project best described by the title of this blog: "Restorative Theology." It's been draining and exhilarating all at the same time. And if that doesn't qualify all this work as "research," then I must have no idea what the hell that word means.

But I think I do now.  Thanks, Howard and Paulette!

Outline of the project

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