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Should Research Release the Imagination?

The past few weeks, I have been reading about the power of Imagination, the role of Art in our lives as human becomings, and especially as teachers, writers, philosophers, and researchers.  I emphasize researcher here to reflect on the intra-action of several pieces of scholarly work and conversation that seem to have converged this morning in reading Brenda Ueland’s (1938/1987) book If You Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence, and Spirit.

Earlier this week, I submitted to a discussant the paper I will be presenting at the Association for the Study of Higher Education conference later this month in Washington, D.C. Thinking through the possibilities and limitations of post-qualitative research in higher education, I spend considerable time in this piece articulating why researchers in post-secondary education might embrace the post-qualitative turn in order to re-invigorate our work, refocusing the perennial questions we face in higher education.  I envision post-qualitative research as an ethical obligation of persistent questioning, reading, re-reading, a healthy dose of skepticism against ‘truth’ or representational reality.  This is largely framed within my worldview fueled by complexity science: seeing the world as contingent, unfolding, and a desire to be part of that unfolding; not to be removed but to be present in the world’s becoming.

Ueland (1938/1987) caused me to see/think something else about post-qualitative research. Persistent questioning “releases the imagination,” (Greene, 1995) allowing us to envision the world as possibly different.  Ueland argues throughout that as writers we should tell truth, speak truth, avoid comparing our work to others and avoid the voices of self-criticality or external critics. Rather, view writing as a spiritual investment in telling your truth; trust your truths, regardless of reason or critics or rejection. The work of writing becomes its own reward.

Ueland (1938/1987) asks “how will we know more? Only through the Imagination” (p. 170).  This passage comes after a particularly succinct questioning of Reason.  Here I cite her at length:

“‘You cannot do this,’ Reason says (and all those erudite critics) ‘because it did not work the last time. Besides, it was logically and scientifically established by so-and-so after plenty of experiments,’ says the rationalist, the materialistic scientist, the critic, basing all this on merely physical experiences and so shutting out the glories of their Vision, their Imagination, which is Divine and comes from God and cannot be weighed and measured by scientists, established and explained. This Vision might tell them something new, miraculous and great if they would only let it. But their hard-shell of skeptical intellectuality keeps it out” (p. 170).

I love this last sentence. It spoke to my interest in post-qualitative research. Here, as a critique of reason (and I would argue method and rules, which throughout her book Ueland criticizes), Ueland suggests that relying too much on reason, focusing too much on what we think we need to write, or how we need to write, locks out imagination, “forecloses thought” (Jackson & Mazzei, 2012, p. 5).

Yet, I want to focus the phrase “skeptical intellectuality.”  Such skepticism in some ways is the root of post-qualitative inquiry: skepticism of inherent truth, of strict method, of representational authority.  This skepticism can be connected to “intellectuality” through persistent questioning – using theory, philosophy, Art, or Imagination to envision different realities, interpretations, and interventions.

So maybe post-qualitative research is really about Imagination, about vision, about the diffractions (Jackson & Mazzei, 2012) necessary to visualize research differently.  Perhaps we can use our skeptical intellectuality (through employment of theory and philosophy or art) to open our Imagination as researchers and writers.  Does invoking our Imagination open the spaces for envisioning a more ethically humane or just world that looks “microscopically” (Ueland, 1938/1987, p. 105) at the beauty and possibility of the everyday?

I take from these readings by Ueland and Greene (1995) a sense that this might be precisely what makes research, art, and writing, such an important endeavor in life.  We must write (or produce art) to seek and express truth.  In doing so we come to not only better understand the world around us, but importantly, ourselves.

Ueland Quote


Greene, M. (1995). Releasing the imagination: Essays on education, the arts, and social change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Jackson, A. Y. & Mazzei, L. A. (2012). Thinking with theory in qualitative research: Viewing data across multiple perspectives. New York, NY: Routledge.

Ueland, B. (1938/1987). If you want to write: A book about art, independence, and spirit. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press.

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