Spaces that matter for graduate researchers (James Burford)

Given that this post is all about the spaces and places research is conducted in, let me start by describing the space I currently find myself in. I am clicking the ‘publish’ button on this post while sitting in a library at Thammasat University in Pathumthani, a province in the northern part of the Bangkok metropolitan area. The library I have been working in this morning is possibly the coolest place on campus, which is important given that the temperature outside is hovering around 40 degrees celsius! This library is named after Puey Ungphakorn, the former Rector of Thammasat University. Professor Puey is an important figure in Thai history. He resigned his rectorship (what we might call vice chancellorship in Australia) in protest following a massacre of university students on campus in 1976 and subsequently fled Thailand for his own safety, ultimately dying overseas. The ground floor of the library features an exhibition about Professor Puey’s life and service, and nearby to here is a memorial to those killed in the 1976 massacre. Sitting in this library, I find myself thinking about the uneasy social space that universities often occupy and the risks that have been taken to defend universities as spaces for critical and creative thinking.

A picture inside the Puey Ungphakorn Library, Rangsit Campus.
The reason that I am sitting in this particular library and getting thinky about matters spatial is because I am about to start collecting data for a research project called “Spaces that Matter”. I am working with two colleagues Dr. Sarunwit Promsaka Na Sakonnakron and Dr. Wasana Sriprachya-anunt on a mixed-methods (qualitative and quantitative) study that seeks to better understand the spaces that matter to graduate researchers in Thailand. Our goal in this project is to better understand which on-campus and off-campus spaces are important to graduate researchers, why particular spaces come to matter, and how graduate researchers narrate their experiences of using these spaces. I am crossing my fingers that all our scheduling will work out, and later this week I’ll be conducting interviews with international graduate researchers at Thammasat where they’ll be introducing me to some of the locations that matter to them.

The Dome Administration Building, Thammsat Rangsit Campus. 
Why do spaces matter for graduate researchers?

This research project is premised on an understanding that graduate research is a social, embodied and spatial practice. Contrary to popular belief, graduate researchers are not brains on a stick and they do not undertake their research activities in a vacuum. As a number of studies have outlined, ordinary research work like reading, writing, doing experiments, and talking to participants is inevitably spatialised and emplaced.

Many graduate researchers have elaborate spatial routines which may involve more or less lengthy commutes to campus, time spent in an office or a lab and escapes to other spaces that might afford a better mix of quiet, solitude and focus, or noise and bustle. Others involve even more complex rituals of preparation (e.g. making tea or coffee or fishing the batteries out of a noisy clock) or procrastination (e.g. an urgently felt need to scrub the shower, dust the glassware and do multiple loads of laundry - or is that just me?). Some graduate researchers may have particularly constrained physical workspaces, especially those who care for others and do research while they are at home. Sometimes research spaces take shape as a spare bedroom to devote to study, other times it might be a kitchen table, a couch or a small partitioned area at the top of the stairs. The specificity of these spaces really matters. After all, spaces shape the conditions under which research work is (or is not) ultimately accomplished.

A rainbow over the sports stadium at Thammasat Rangsit. 

In this study Sarunwit, Wasana and I are interested in the kinds of adaptations that researchers make to the spaces they are provided (e.g. decorations made to an office or lab, fashioning a small kitchen zone in an office), and how they select locations to do particular types of work (e.g. creating a writing space at home, or finding reading space during their commute). By closely examining how graduate researchers use space, as well as how they co- and re-create spaces, we can get a better sense of the requirements and desires researchers may have, and feed this information back to university planners.

So far in this study we have launched an online survey with graduate researchers at Thammasat University. We only have some early findings to share at this stage, but a couple of things stand out. In our survey, we asked graduate researchers why they come to use space on campus. By far, the main reason that our participants identified was that they were coming to class (those enrolled in graduate research degrees often undertake coursework in Thailand). Other significant reasons for coming to campus included meeting their supervisors, finding a place to do research work, and making use of exercise facilities. So far, most students have reported that they did their research work at the library or at the learning centre rather than at their faculty buildings.

We have a couple of next steps to carry out as we move forward. The first is to conduct some focus groups discussions with graduate researchers and to set off on some walking interviews to generate narrative data. If our participants are comfortable to do so in the summer heat, we’ll be moving around key locations on and off campus that matter to our participants. These may be obvious spaces where research activity often happens like the library, the office or the lab, as well as other spaces that might be meaningful for particular individuals. That means we are also thinking of spaces like that cafe that plays soft jazz which is perfect for writing, that picnic table where lunchtime conversations with an officemate are conducted, a spirit house on campus where a researcher called on local spirits to help them pass their proposal defence, or that tree lined avenue that really gives someone a sense of being a researcher working on a university campus.

Our second step is to understand how spaces are conceived through reviewing various iterations of the university master plan and other institutional spatial policies. Interrogating these written documents can help us shed light on university decision-makers’ perceptions of the role of space in graduate research, and who may be prioritised (or not) within these policies.

I’ll keep you updated as the study continues. In the meantime I’d be keen to hear from La Trobe researchers too. What spaces on campus matter to you? Where do you work most of the time? Where can’t you work? How experimental are you with how you arrange your work space? Do you like hustle and bustle, or serene quiet? And what parts of campus really make you feel like a researcher?


James Burford is a lecturer in the RED team. With Dr Emily Henderson, James also edits the blog Conference Inference. He tweets as @jiaburford