Achieving social justice begins with studying the self
Academic Development manager Dr Caitlin Kight, is part of the University’s Academic Development and Skills team, which supports good practice in teaching and learning across the institution.
Caitlin is also undertaking an EdD in the Graduate School of Education. This is a professional degree, acknowledging that Dr Kight is researching a topic that is directly related to – and will inform – the teaching activities undertaken as part of her daily work at the University.
She is supervised by Professor Vivienne Baumfield and Professor Justin Dillon.
What is your background?
I have always been a jack-of-all-trades, as reflected in the range of jobs I once aspired to hold: Egyptologist, librarian, journalist, astronomer, and veterinarian, just to name a few. I struggled to settle on just one field or role because I was curious about all of them, and even at an early age I appreciated that learning more about one topic could help you to better understand the world in general – and your place in it. The one career I knew for certain that I did not want to pursue was teaching – my mother’s profession, which came with the very unappealing task of having to mark assessments, sometimes in the evenings and on weekends!
What I did not appreciate at the time was that teaching is not just about decanting knowledge into students’ brains (or about marking). Teachers are researchers, fuelled by curiosity about their discipline and also about learning – and the complex interpersonal and psychological processes that underpin it. Though I originally studied biology at BSc, MSc, and PhD level, undertaking interdisciplinary research on the effects of humans on bird populations, I found the greatest joy not in the field but in sharing scientific knowledge both with students and lay audiences. This is what ultimately led me to education, despite my childhood pledge to avoid it at all costs.
What’s next for your research?
Although my attitude towards teaching has shifted over the years, I have never wavered in the belief that the purpose of learning is not ultimately to ensure a high mark or a good job, but to help you orient yourself in the universe – to find your own personal answer to the question, ‘what is the meaning of life?’
This is why I have ended up researching ‘self-study’, a reflective approach that involves unravelling the mysteries of what makes you, you. There are numerous ways to do this, and I take an interdisciplinary approach that draws on information and techniques from fields as diverse as physics, drama, psychology, and religious studies. Although I enjoy reading theory, my own work tends to be more practical: I am particularly keen to develop self-study methods that support educators in comfortably and confidently tackling social justice issues through their practice.
I have just finished the data collection portion of my research – 18 months of using myself as a guinea pig to trial different self-study approaches – and am about to begin the analysis phase of my project. Simultaneously, I am beginning to deliver lectures and workshops to share my techniques with others so that their feedback can help me gauge whether my logic is sound and my methods applicable to others beyond just myself.
What are the best and worst things about your field of work?
Some of the central concepts in my research – e.g., ‘experience’, ‘self’, ‘identity’, ‘reflection’ – sound familiar and straightforward until you have to pin down a single definition for them. What is the difference, for example, between ‘self’ and ‘identity’? Does ‘self’ refer to physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual aspects of a person – or perhaps some combination of these? Might different cultures have different understandings of ‘self’ – and, if so, would self-study techniques developed in one culture be applicable in another?
It is challenging to sift through and try to reconcile these different understandings of what we typically take to be straightforward, everyday words. As frustrating as this process can be, it is also illuminating; I enjoy working across disciplinary boundaries to see how/whether work in different fields can help us find universal understandings.
This may sound highly philosophical, but developing shared interpretations of these key concepts is the first step in creating an entire vocabulary, philosophy, and ethics that supports us in investigating not just individual selves, but how all of those distinct selves come together and interact within a community. This is integral to relating to others in an empathetic and compassionate way, so working in this space gives you a real sense of developing concrete tools for promoting kindness, equity, and a more peaceful future.