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Disrupting traditional research methods

Social work students speak on their experience in an arts-based virtual placement
By: Tesni Ellis & Jocelyn Courneya
May 11, 2021

"Instruments of Research" illustration by Nicole Victorino

As their field placement at the Student Experience Research Team with the Office of Social Innovation (SERT:OSI) came to a close, six students from the School of Social Work joined the faculty and staff team at OSI to share what they have learned, achieved and reflected on this semester. Our conversation was an opportunity to celebrate the impact of this experiential learning initiative, led by Tesni Ellis (TE). SERT:OSI completed a virtual, participatory, arts-informed research project investigating the impact of student debt and OSAP on student engagement and persistence at Ryerson.  

The SERT:OSI cohort includes Oladunni Aladejebi (OA); Ellen Wiegand (EW); Lisa Kuley (LK); Nicole Victorino (NV); Viaan David (VD); and KP (KP). The students shared their newfound appreciation for art as a tool of expression and its application in social work practice. The cohort also spoke on their experiences hosting focus groups with student peers and reflected on what they are taking with them beyond Ryerson as they approach graduation.

TE: How has participating in this placement impacted your understanding of social innovation, your experience as a student, and your social work practice?

LK: My ideas about social innovation have changed by forcing me to conceive of knowledge creation differently.  With our research, we're finding “truth” in a different way; it's the truth of how things make us feel and how they impact us.

"For me, it's been a disruption of what I understand research to be. I now understand different ways to evaluate practice and to enhance voice and social work now. "

KP

KP: For me, it's been a disruption of what I understand research to be. I now understand different ways to evaluate practice and to enhance voice and social work now.  I’ve already started discussing it in cover letters, those different ways of researching specific to social work. I've been more innovative in the ways I approach research.

OA: Just being in a team was really helpful; I didn't feel alone in this process, and you know, just being at home all the time has been very isolating and just having a team to work with I felt was super helpful.

EW: Doing these focus groups and learning what a different type of research arts-based or arts-informed method is has opened my mind to what can be done when you actually bring in real people. I had never done something like that and it's been really nice to see how it all played out.

TE: We want to find out what you learned about conducting research as an anti-oppressive practise and tool. Is there something about arts-informed methods that particularly help us do this work?

NV: The fact that we used art as a tool to initiate conversation, rather than [engaging in] a form of critique took away some of that power imbalance between the researcher and who we were researching. Within that process of using arts-informed research methods, we collaborated and created resources for them to find the right words to describe their narrative.

KP: It was a great way to have difficult and uncomfortable conversations and help people feel and talk about that discomfort. 

TE: We decided in our methods that drawing and photography would be tools and gateways in - we saw how helpful it is for people to have something to hold or point to when they're having those challenging conversations. It takes away some of the vulnerability.

OA: I think we just move beyond words - there's so much more depth and analysis that can go into things when you don't have to say it. I think that was important, and the emphasis on the process rather than results was also something that I found arts-informed work did.

"I think people naturally express their concerns and experiences through story and emotion, so I think it's naturally anti-oppressive and more accessible than typical research, which is more linear."

Ellen Wiegand, Bachelor's of Social Work '21

TE: Is there something about that, Oladunni, about focusing on process rather than a product that is potent for you? Why is it important to you?

OA: When you focus on results, I think it takes away from what you might be able to get - it boxes you into a certain type of answer or a [specific] type of results. When you focus on the process, you're able to get more out of it.

EW: I think people naturally express their concerns and experiences through story and emotion, so I think it's naturally anti-oppressive and more accessible than typical research, which is fast and linear.

VD: It personalizes experiences. We’ve sort of created the space where rather than having participants check off a box or something like that, they were able to share their experience. Just having an opportunity to take a statistic and bring stories to it, I thought it was great.

TE: Can you describe or tell the story of a standout moment, lesson, project, or experience in this placement?

VD: I think of how Tesni incorporated a lot of different activities, and one I’m thinking of is the one where we discussed ownership in research, and we had all contributed to the same drawings - and in the exercises like that, it just kind of made me think about how in classrooms when teachers are explaining more complex concepts, that there are diverse ways to approach these, and I found this placement just incorporated a lot of different ways and approaches to teaching. 

NV: For my specific focus group, it was refreshing and fulfilling to hear that my participants were saying, “Oh, we don't really get to talk about [this] with our friends. It was nice to have this platform, this opportunity to speak on [this].” As I reflected on that, it reminded me about the impact of our research and how it's necessary for policies to check in with the people affected by them.

LK: The most memorable times were when Nicole would create an image that we all came up with. It was a visual representation of community, to me. It’s exactly like our focus group participants were telling us - we all have a unique story, but depending on the groups we belong to, it's a much bigger story. Every time I saw Nicole’s drawings, everything came together and reminded me that we're all necessary here.

"I felt like this was really aligned with what I want to do beyond school, and so I would just say that everything will work in your favour, and this is probably the most anti-oppressive, trauma-informed type of work that I've been able to do in school, so it was really helpful."

Oladunni Aladejebi, Master's of Social Work '21

TE: What advice would you give to yourself at the beginning of the semester before starting the placement?

NV: The advice I would give myself is to take the risk. This risk paid off, rather than trying to wait for something directly related to the field I wanted to go in. I still learned the skills that I can use in that future practice, whatever it may be. Because I didn't see myself in research, I didn't like research, but then this placement is a completely different approach to research.  I feel like it's a good placement especially if people are questioning what field they want to go in. This is a great opportunity to have a first-hand experience in facilitating research for social justice.

OA: The advice that I would give is that everything will work out in your favour. I felt like this was really aligned with what I want to do beyond school, and so I would just say that everything will work in your favour, and this is probably the most anti-oppressive, trauma-informed type of work that I've been able to do in school, so it was really helpful.

VD: I think I would say to be open. In the sense of whether it's being open to new learnings or being open to change, or being open to challenges, this placement opened my mind in a lot of different ways.

TE: Trust the process, right? And trust that we will arrive somewhere really interesting.

About SERT:OSI

Led by Tesni Ellis, Facilitator, Research & Engagement, SERT:OSI is a group of student researchers, three undergraduate and three graduate students from the School of Social Work at Ryerson, who completed a research study from January-May 2021 investigating students' experiences with financial assistance through the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP). Participation in SERT:OSI provided a virtual environment for social work students to fulfill the placement hours required to complete their programs. The team engaged in arts-informed methods of learning, inquiry, and data storytelling, such as drawing, photography, collage, and digital media, contributing non-traditional knowledge and meaning-making to social justice and research practice. Find more about our work and our study findings at: https://www.ryerson.ca/social-innovation/programs/current-programs/SERT/

SERT was originally launched by Tesni Ellis and John Hannah as a pilot project in Ryerson Student Affairs Storytelling.