How short is too short?: Exploring diary study duration from the perspective of researching conferences and other short-term phenomena in higher education and beyond

Emily F. Henderson

Introduction - how long is too long ... or how short is too short?

In diary' method studies, often a key question in designing the study is, ‘how long is too long?’ This question stems from the fact that diary' method is known to be an effort-intensive form of data collection for participants, as, unlike with for example questionnaires or one-off interviews, they' have to produce the data themselves over a period of time (Reynolds et al., 2016). As such, when researchers justify their diary design, they often include a statement relating to how they made the diary design less onerous for participants, in order to increase the chances of participant recruitment and retention. We can see examples of this in the studies represented in other chapters of this book, such as where Cao (Chapter 5) asked participants to complete a diary' for one week per month, or where Dangeni et al. (Chapter 3) justified audio diaries based on the convenience for participants. The question of ‘how long is too long?’ pertains to diary studies which focus on capturing ongoing experiences, such as how people with chronic health conditions manage their health (Jacelon & Imperio, 2005), or in higher education how students choose where to study' (Beckers, van der Voordt & Dewulf, 2016). Secondly, it pertains to diary' projects aiming to study time-bound phenomena, but which are of longer durations, such as a sports season (Day & Thatcher, 2009) or, in higher education, students’ experiences of their first year of a course (Scott, Green & Cashmore, 2012). Neglected in diary method literature is the question, ‘how short is too short?’

Researching short-term, intense phenomena means researching people when they are at their busiest. This may seem to be a disadvantageous set of circumstances for using diary' method - a method which specialises in gathering nuanced reflections (Alaszewski, 2006) - but there may' be particular reasons why' we wish to capture the micro-level detail of short-term, intense phenomena, which would be easily' forgotten or glossed over in retrospective methods. This applies to anything where importance is placed on understanding process - the decisions that are taken, the feelings and actions which play' out at a mundane level, but which encompassexperience at a more general level. Hyers (2018, p. 28) expresses this as ‘studying the ephemera of everyday life’. In relation to higher education, this could apply to various phenomena - meetings and away days, engaging in assessment and feedback, planning teaching, conducting empirical fieldwork. The short-term phenomenon addressed in this chapter is conferences, in particular conference participation for academics who have caring responsibilities.

Conferences remain an under-researched phenomenon within the higher education research field (Henderson, 2015, 2020a; Nicolson, 2017), and issues of inequality and conferences are no exception. There have been a number of studies relating to access to conferences, which have used survey and/or secondary data analysis methods to examine gender inequality (e.g. Eden, 2016) and ‘international’ representation (e.g. Derudder & Liu, 2016) at conferences. However, the experiences of academics while they are at conferences remain clouded in mystery. This chapter is based on a project entided Tn Two Places at Once’ (Henderson, Cao & Mansuy, 2018; Henderson, 2019a, 2020b; Henderson & Moreau, 2020), which set out to understand more about how academics with caring responsibilities manage attending and participating in conferences, following a previous study that uncovered some of these issues (Henderson, 2020a). The study employed an adapted form of diary-interview method (Zimmerman & Wieder, 1977), using the diary to capture the minutiae of academic-carers’ experiences of attending conferences, and the interview to compare the ‘case’ conference to other conference experiences, thus widening the purview of the study. The diary, which was a simple form with a grid for completion during the conference (explained further below), produced fascinating, detailed information on how care and conferences intertwine.

The chapter engages specifically with two principal issues. The first is that of time in relation to diaries: how short is too short to keep a diary'? And what counts as ‘short’? The second issue is the notion of sampling, which has a specific meaning in diary' research - in addition to the usual meaning of participant selection, sampling in diary’ research refers to the selection of timings for participants to record diary' entries (Bartlett & Milligan, 2015). While the chapter focuses on the use of diary' method to research caring practices at conferences, the issues covered are applicable to any short-term diary' study, in higher education or beyond. Overall the chapter argues that diary' method yields a great degree of flexibility in terms of its adaptability' to phenomena of different durations, but that there are particular considerations for short-term diary' studies relating to the duration of the diary versus duration of the phenomenon, and to the functioning of the sampling strategy' within a short, intense experience.

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