Happy to chat as long as you appreciate that we are picking up quicksilver with tweezers.

~ tellio, 2017a

Quicksilver is another name for mercury. Liquid at room temperature, it “moves and flows and acts almost as if it were alive. The word quick once meant ‘alive’ or ‘moving.’” (Quicksilver, n.d.). It was one of our research participants who described our research seeking to understand the nature of community in two small online spaces as “picking up quicksilver with tweezers.” The first of these online spaces is tied to the hashtag #smallstories within Mastodon, a federated social network. The second online space we are exploring is a site geared towards youth called Young Writers Project. These small, open spaces are different from one another in terms of time, space, and the people involved, but our work is predicated on observations that something similar, something important yet hard to define, is happening within them both.

Our goal may in fact be, not only to pick up diverse, ever-changing strands of quicksilver but to weave them together: perhaps a fool’s errand using to traditional research methodologies. As a result, we find ourselves feeling our way along and challenging our own assumptions about research. One author asserted:

I think researchers into human experience of any kind need to grasp the courage to say “this isn’t rigorous, it can’t be – it’s provisional, incomplete, hesitant, and for now.” I wish we said that. In fact, I wish we didn’t call it ‘research’ when we so often mean: having a think, putting some shape to ideas, hoping to push for small changes in this world (katebowles, 2017).

Responding to the quote above, tellio (2017b) described, “One of the glories of #smallstories is that it enables the adjacent possible and opens the door from ‘research’ to ‘wesearch’. That genius is ours, together… if we permit it.”

What follows is my exploration of these ideas and the methodological considerations that I believe that they require we bring to our work. To this end, I begin with a brief description of our project. I then explore how methodologies including thinking with theory, bricolage, i-search, grounded theory and participatory action research serve as foundations through which we can finds ways to collectively and collaboratively weave quicksilver using an increasingly ‘we’ based approach.

A ‘pedagogy of small’ project overview

Our Mastodon #smallstories hashtag and the Young Writers Project (YWP) research began with an open call to participate in a collaborative writing document. Four other Mastodon members accepted my initial invitation, three professors from the fields of film, music and science, a former journalist, and me, a doctoral student and (now former) university administrator. Throughout this paper, I use the term ‘we’ to refer to the five researchers and the terms ‘research’ and ‘our work’ to refer to the work listed in the approved proposal and ethics review. Having said that, I am not satisfied with these definitions, an issue that I will continue to return to. Together, this interdisciplinary ‘we’ shared over six pages of thoughts and ideas. I then combined those ideas into a paper entitled: A ‘pedagogy of small’: An exploration of two small, open communities (Dorey-Elias, 2017). I then shared that paper with the other authors for comments and suggestions on the next steps using the web annotation tool Hypothesis. Again, all four other authors offered insight that resulted in the following research proposal.

A ‘pedagogy of small’ research proposal

Teaching and learning, particularly where technology is involved, is often concerned with scaling up as witnessed by the growth of MOOCs (Urrea, Reich & Thille, 2017). We will explore an alternative ‘small’ approach to the ecologies of open, building on early work open pedagogy work (Katz, 1972; Paquette, 2005; Spodek, 1970) and using two small, open communities as examples.

The first example is Mastodon. Although the best well-known analogous tool would be Twitter, Mastodon has a number of attributes that set it apart: The software is open source and non-commercial; it uses a federated model; it has strong anti-abuse regulations; it offers a range of post-level privacy settings; it allows posts of up to 500 characters; and it is small with under million users in July 2017 (Hart, 2017; Kenlon, 2017; Mastodon Monitoring Project, 2017). The second example is the Young Writers Project (YWP), which started 11 years ago.  For first eight years it only published work in a series of Vermont newspapers, radio broadcasts and websites. They then developed the site thevoice.youngwritersproject.org, a digital monthly publication. They have had nearly 40,000 users on the site who have responded to writing prompts and participated in special projects and online workshops (Reid & Gevalt, 2017).

Our initial interest emerged from our own experiences within these communities. In Mastodon, during seven months of site use, we noticed prose, poetry and creative remixes emerging, small acts of monologue, provocation and invocation led to rich dialogue. Within YWP, we noticed youth making powerful connections with each other in which they were open, learning and willing to take risks and, in effect, becoming the teachers. These experiences are closely aligned with Paquette’s (2005) series of open pedagogy value pairs: autonomy and interdependence, freedom and responsibility, democracy and participation. We have added a fourth value pair: respected and unjudged. Each of these value pairs will be explored further using examples from Mastodon, YWP gathered both directly from the sites and through interviews with members of these communities. Through this research, we seek to determine whether small, open communities enable pedagogical affordances that larger ones might not, and if so, what benefits to participants gain as participants in these communities?

‘Having a think’: Thinking with theory

What I’ve written is never prescriptive either for me or for others – at most it’s instrumental and tentative.

~ Foucault, 2000a, p. 240

Developing our proposal involved a process that has been reflective, collaborative, and iterative, but was it ‘research’? We did not start with research questions. We still do not have clearly defined research questions. Our work is not neatly situated within an epistemological or ontological framework.  We have not completed a systematic literature review. One author expressed his doubts this way:

So the help I need here is how to communicate meaning behind what we do without that broad-scale scientific evidence. Because what we do HAS meaning. Thinking small DOES matter. The communication of what matters is what’s hard, for me. (Dorey-Elias, 2017, para.1)

He was correct. All we had was an idea, a possibility, that choosing to change the scale of your thinking and the deliberate act of thinking small had power. Even this idea was tentative, a strand of quicksilver, but enough to spawn more strands that we wove into the proposal. I argue that through the process, we have changed in way described by Foucault (2000b), “As soon as people begin to no longer be able to think things the way they have been thinking them, transformation becomes at the same time very urgent, very difficult, and entirely possible” (p.161). Simply ‘having a think’ has enabled (small) changes in our approaches, moving our work towards the possible.

We are not alone in exploring this approach to qualitative inquiry. Jackson and Mazzei (2017) described ‘thinking with theory’ as a process methodology that seeks to pose problems, open up thoughts, and to seek newness. Similarly, Somerville (2007) described a ‘methodology of postmodern emergence’ that, with strong influences from indigenous epistemologies, is centred around ideas of wondering, becoming and generating. Initially, I described our research approach as aligned with Dick (2003; 2011) combination of the use of grounded theory and participatory action theory (Dorey-Elias, 2017). I however struggled to align our work with grounded theory’s goal to achieve a generalizable theory and with what I perceive as PAR’s desire to seek and enact solutions. In both cases, the methodological goals seemed to grand for a research focused on a pedagogy of small. The advantage of the thinking with theory methodology is the ability to focus on process of opening up ideas rather than seeking solutions. “Thinking with theory highlights the networked functioning of thought and thus opens up the possibility of previously unthought approaches: not about what things mean but about how things work” (Jackson & Mazzei, 2017, p.727).

‘This isn’t rigorous’: The courage to reflect, respond and question

Thinking with theory (Jackson & Mazzei, 2017) is not a methods-based and “there is no formula to thinking with theory: It is something that is to come; something that happens… something emergent, unpredictable, and always rethinkable and redoable” (p. 717). The methodology therefore remains appropriately silent on issues of the rigour of specific research methods. Instead, it seeks to enact “a different practice – no more coding, sorting sifting, collapsing, reducing, merging, or patterning,” (p. 723). In our case, the early work has involved collaborative writing interwoven with active reflecting, responding and questioning the ideas of others. Because the original goal was to brainstorm, idea generation rather than methodological rigour was the prime concern.


After I wove the initial contributions of the authors into a paper, I shared it with them and encouraged them to provide feedback, suggestions, and ideas on where to go next. As they made comments, I adjusted the writing to reflect their ideas and suggestions. Through this process, a series of ideas/ themes emerged organically and moved in unexpected directions.

Morse (2017) wrote that “determining rigor in qualitative inquiry consists of many targeted actions… It is essential to recognize that the attainment of a rigorous project is the responsibility of the investigator during the conduct of the project.” (p. 814). If her statement is true, then that responsibility fell to me. While perhaps I could use hindsight to seek to defend my actions as targeted, such an exercise seems of little value. I would rather admit that my actions were not rigorous, but instead accidental, tentative and experimental and then consider how my fumbling created a loose and flexible exploratory space that has been tremendously valuable, and how to ensure we maintain and build on that looseness and flexibility as we move forward.

Seeking ethics approval for the next stage of our work, enacted upon us the need to create more structure, or perhaps rigour than in the initial stage. We created a general list of interview questions for use and ethics approval that is now being used to guide ‘chats’ with others engaged in Mastodon #smallstories and YWP. In the coming weeks we will be chatting and gathering ideas and stories from a wider group of 10-15 people that will then attempt to weave around and through our existing ideas in order to create an incomplete and imperfect flowing fabric of ideas and questions. Some of our previous ideas may be supported, others will likely be challenged and force us to rethink our own underlying assumptions. In other cases, our work may open up entirely new questions and adjacent possible (Kauffman, 2003) in a way not likely possible if we had remained constrained by considerations of methodological rigour.

A bricolage of methods: Weaving and knotting

I think that we may detect that some sort of preparation and faint expectation preceded every discovery we have made. We blunder into no discovery but it will appear that we have prayed and disciplined ourselves for it.

~ Henry Thoreau, as cited in Stapleton, 2013, p.143

Janet and Mazzei (2017) described the need for a process methodology that sits:

with-in postfoundational frameworks to give us concepts, languages, and practices that enable a knotting of texts together, a doing that proceeds from the middle of things—a new analytics practice that enters and exists sideways in an immanent (un)folding where distinctions fall apart.” (p. 726).

My current description of our work starts at the ‘middle of things’ and as I considered where to start this story, I realized that no matter how far I went back, I was starting in the middle of something with strands of connection reaching backward, forward and in all directions. For example, rather than completing an initial systematic literature review, I instead find myself turning to the literature as it is referenced by others involved in the project, as I stumble across it, or to help define a path forward when I get stuck. As a result, the literature consulted does not serve as a initial attempt to define the field or relevant variables, but rather as additional voices to question, challenge and support the voices of the authors and participants of the research. As we weave in these voices from a variety of disciplines and periods of time, the intricacy and complexity of our work is enhanced.

Where thinking with theory does not describe how select or integrate selected research methods, the ideas of bricolage (Denzin, 2003; Kincheloe & Berry, 2004; Steinberg, 2011) offers helpful ideas. Kincheloe, McLaren, Steinberg and Monzὁ (2017) described researchers’ interaction with their inquiries as “always complicated, mercurial, unpredictable, and of course, complex,” (p. 245). They go on to describe attempts to “create contexts where participants and researchers create reciprocal relationships to help them develop and deepen critical consciousness.” (p. 250). One example of creating reciprocal relationships involves doing everything possible to minimize power differentials. In the early work, this reciprocity was supported by sharing and rewriting my first paper based on the feedback of the authors, each doing his or her own part to move the work forward. Our work has been from the start a study of ourselves in which the relationships between community, friendship and ‘research’ have been permeable, enabled by a variety of new technological tools.

As we sought to expand our Mastodon #smallstories group chats, I was quite aware that we had potential participants for whom we had no identifying information, only their username. Inviting these people to participate and engage in our work without gathering any additional identifying information felt important, yet we wanted to conduct chats and needed to gather consent. We decided to create an online consent form and substituted the requirement for a name and signature for a user name for which the link could be sent to participants via their existing account. We then gave participants the choice to chat live via videoconference or asynchronously via messages within Mastodon. So far one participant, someone who might not have participated otherwise, has opted to participate via messages.

With our YWP group, we decided that it was important to engage youth as much as possible while ensuring the sensitivities of research involving youth were respected. In this case, an author and founder of YWP will select the youth and ensure we have appropriate consent in place. As a result, our YWP chat may occur in a group setting in conjunction with another event they are holding on site, or may not happen at all. By keeping our methods open and flexible, we are able to push what is possible while also responding to barriers to participation as they arise. Our goal is not to mandate a level of participation but instead to continually seek to open up opportunities to participate as much as possible. Seeking to support as much participation as possible, also means seeking to blur the lines of participation as part of a move from research to ‘we-search.’

 ‘Wesearch’: Blurring the lines of participation

If there is no sole purveyor of agency, then there is no separate, individual person, no participant in an interview study to which a single voice can be linked—all are entangled.

~Jackson & Mazzei, 2017, p. 725

Seeking to blur the boundaries of our current work, continues to have unexpected benefits. The ideas of quicksilver and rigour explored here arose not in an interview, but in response to the invitation in the participatory space the project is situated within. In that same conversation, tellio (2017c) also proposed the idea of ‘we-search.’ He started by explaining, “I have used Ken Macrorie’s glorious ‘contextbook’ for years in my composition classroom. I love how he re-dubs the research paper into the ‘I-search paper.’” With that reference, another voice was woven into our work.

I search. That’s the truth of any inquiry. Re-search doesn’t say it, rather implies complete detachment, absolute objectivity. Time to clear the miasma and admit that the best searchers act both subjectively and objectively… (Macrorie, 1988, n.p.)

While Macrorie was describing individual work, tellio took the idea further suggesting that we modify the approach to become the collaborative ‘we-search.’ With that, he also demonstrated the ‘shift from what we can know about an object (method and epistemology) to what a particular object does when we enact inquiry—thus, objects of knowledge become doings with ontological force, not inert things waiting to be interpreted.” (Jackson & Mazzei, 2017, p. 726) Clearly neither tellio, nor any of the other participants in this work are objects waiting to be interpreted. They are instead people capable of contributing as much, or possibly more, than the ‘authors.’

At the beginning of this paper, I chose to use the term ‘author’ rather than ‘researcher.’ Arriving at this point, however, I question the use of either term. Why is it that our participants are not authors when they have authored the ideas that have transformed my thoughts, ideas and words? If we are weaving a fabric of ideas, then he is spinning strands while I weave and both roles are equally critical to our success, or perhaps he is more important because without him I would have had no ideas to weave. When I chatted with tellio, I asked him for more thoughts about ‘we-search’ might look like. He cited Kickstarter. He explained that “the best ones weren’t the ones that you paid some money up front and might get a watch some time in the future.” Instead, the good ones were the ones that kept investors informed along the way, shared updates and solicited suggestions. His suggestions sounded something like the first round of collaboration we did in this project, only involving more people. I shared with him the early steps and the feeling of risk that had accompanied it. Together, we agreed ‘we-search’ would be, in fact should be, risky and uncertain. I will ensure that this paper is shared with him and request permission to share it more openly.

He also now has me thinking of a site, in fact, where all of our work is shared openly with participants, and perhaps beyond participants as we go forward and somehow ensuring that all contributors have credit for their work and motivation to stay engaged. Such an approach will involve more risk and more uncertainty; it in fact feels difficult, urgent and possible. At the same time, as I contrast the rigour of traditional research methods in the context of these I cannot help but think about all of the mechanisms put in place to reduce risk and uncertainty; another strand of quicksilver worthy of more thought floats by to be further explored at a later time.

As I reflect further, it seems we might find at the core of ‘we-search’ values very similar to those we have associated with a pedagogy of small: autonomy and interdependence, freedom and responsibility, democracy and participation, respect and non-judgement.  It may also describe a way of getting to know our own selves and ideas better through collaboration. I the case of this paper collaboratively weaving together the ideas of research methodologies, a pedagogy of small, and we-search has not changed the world, but it has altered my thinking and opened it to new possibilities. In describing a pedagogy of small, I wrote at the end of the paper, “With that first step, we are again at an interesting starting point.  Where do we go from here? I will share this writing with the group and gather their thoughts and ideas. We will plan another small research step.” (Dorey-Elias, 2017, para. 23). Four months of work, reflection and collaboration later, I again feel that we are at an interesting starting point, informed by but different than the previous one. Still at a starting point, we have neither ‘advanced’ nor remained unmoved. Rather, we have continued to engage in a process of wondering, becoming and generating a mercurial fabric of understanding whose beauty comes from the only certainty it offers; it is incomplete, difficult to define, and opens new possibilities that will again transform it into something new once again.


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