Rhodes College
Mellon Innovation Fellowship Program

Community Narratives Research Project

Marsha Walton
Professor of Psychology
2016-2017 Fellow

Student researchers from several departments collaborate with faculty and staff in a project committed to listening to stories By Rhodes Bonner Scholars about their community service experiences. The goals are to develop a model for participatory action research at Rhodes, and to deepen our understanding of the role of off-campus engagement in student development and in the nurturing of a strong and responsive campus community.

The Community Narratives Research Project (CNRP) was launched in 2013 as an effort to address several questions about the impact of the Rhodes Bonner Scholars program on individual student development, on the community we seek to cultivate between students, faculty and staff at Rhodes, and on the community we seek to build with partners in Memphis. Several features of the CNRP work have been aligned with the goals of the Faculty Innovation Fellowship program, and have benefitted from the community of practice we have joined.

  • The research is guided by a team made up of: Dr. Marsha Walton, Dr. Elizabeth Thomas, Shannon Hoffman (director of the Bonner Center for Faith and Service at Rhodes), and a group of Rhodes students from departments of Economics, Education, English, Psychology, and Urban Studies. These students have included both Bonner Scholars and non-Bonner research students. In addition to this core research team, we have formed an advisory council of Bonner Scholars who help us maintain communication with the students who are participating with us. We are intentional about keeping our efforts collaborative, with research participants helping us formulate and revise research questions, interpret our results, and consider implications of our findings for promoting the aims of the Bonner program.
  • The CNRP deliberately blurs the lines between pedagogy and research, between research and service, and between program assessment and program design.
    • Pedagogy/Research: As students collaborate on all aspects of the research, they are developing research skills and learning to interact with other professionals on and off campus. We read articles together, we work together with our data, we write papers together, present at national conferences and submit papers to scholarly journals. As we all become more accomplished researchers, we are also all teachers and learners. See link below for references to publications and conference presentations.
    • Research/Service: As we work with our data, we are regularly in discussions about how our findings might be used to improve the Bonner program at Rhodes. Members of the research team participate in Bonner Retreats, and attend some of the Bonner class meetings each semester. Our participation in the refinement of Bonner programming generates new data and new research questions, just as our data generates new programming.
    • Program Assessment/Program Design: CNRP resists a model of assessment that encourages us to define our goals narrowly enough to make it feasible to evaluate progress with a simple questionnaire or test. Instead, we ask that participants share stories about their experiences, that they help us interpret these stories in ways that address questions about what our programming goals should be and about how we might improve efforts to meet those goals. The process is iterative and seamless, so that, at any given point we are engaged both in program design and program assessment.
  • This year we completed our fourth year of data collection, having followed a class of Bonner Scholars through their last semester before graduation. We have selected qualitative data analysis and presentation software to facilitate our longitudinal analysis of Bonner Scholar narrative accounts of their civic engagement experiences, and we have made progress in learning this technology alongside our student researchers.
    • With the help of a Mellon-funded student assistant, we have imported nearly 400 narratives written by Bonner Scholars about their service experiences into NVivo qualitative data analysis software, and several members of two research teams (the CNRP and the Rhodes Child Development Narratives team) have participated in NVivo training sessions.
    • With the help of a Mellon-funded student assistant, we introduced NVivo qualitative data analysis software in one section of the psychology Senior Seminar and in one section of psychology Advanced Methods. The student assistance was critical for (1) designing clear and user-friendly ways to introduce the software to students in the classes, and (2) troubleshooting when things did not go as planned.
  • We began conversations with colleagues who are doing qualitative data analysis across campus. Some of these faculty members are actively seeking more effective ways to work with qualitative data. Across disciplines, we share many concerns, and we are optimistic that some of us have solved problems that others among us are just facing.
    • We organized a webinar introduction to qualitative data analysis software, attended by 15 faculty, student members of two research teams, and Mellon student fellows.
Marsha Walton
Professor of Psychology

Dr. Walton’s ongoing research involves listening to people making sense of their experiences at two points in the life cycle: middle childhood, and late adolescence/early adulthood.