Stories are important teaching tools. They help people to remember, convey, and learn from experiences. They also help people to connect with themselves and with others. Qualitative research is a useful way of collecting and sharing valuable stories. This review explores the value of stories and the importance of using qualitative research to collect stories. I am going to explore how Criminal Justice professors draw from their experiences in order to share stories with their students. These stories are effective teaching tools because they provide concrete examples of principles that can sometimes be abstract and difficult to understand.
From the beginning of time, the human race has told stories. Stories are valuable. They teach men and women about their inner selves and about the world around them. Perhaps George Santayana best surmised the value of stories with the words, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (312). People need stories in order to remember and learn from the past, because these memories shape the decisions and actions of the present and future. Stories hold personal, interpersonal, and professional benefits. When a person tells a story he or she has the power to evoke an emotion in his or her own self, connect with another person, or teach a valuable lesson. Some storytellers have the ability to do all three at once.
Qualitative research is a useful method of collecting stories and anecdotes. When a researcher conducts a qualitative interview, he or she asks the subject questions that help to draw out the subject's interpretation of a story, in addition to the details of the story itself (Warren, 83). The goal of qualitative research is to, “capture and to relay the genuine experiences of people through writing a text of social accounts,” (Frels and Onwuegbuzie).
In qualitative research, “truth” is relative. The “researcher accepts that there are 'multiple realities” (Kisely). This means that discoveries will often vary and could even change over time. For example, when a group of researchers collaborated on a chapter for the Qualitative Research Handbook, they found that even though they all employed the same style of research, they had all, “come to narrative work through quite different paths” (Andrews et al). The group decided that the value of their collective research would be lost if they were to try to condense the value of a story down into a concise definition. Therefore, they recorded each of their stories in order to demonstrate the varying purposes, methods, and results of each individual's qualitative research. Not only does this method provide well-rounded definitions to the concepts behind qualitative research, it also fully demonstrates the power and complexity of this form of research (Andrews et al, 109).
Subjects received a survey covering the background of their careers in criminal justice and also seeking information regarding the stories the subjects used to teach concepts in their respective classrooms. The background questions to the surveys were as follows:
- What led you to the criminal justice field?
- Who was your biggest influence?
- When did you enter the criminal justice field?
- What types of criminal justice environments have you worked in?
- What types of cases do you prefer, and why?
- What types of cases would you rather not work with, and why?
- What made you decide to teach?
- Is there a case or are there cases that you find you often use to teach from?
- Describe the case or cases in as much detail as you are comfortable with.
The subjects then answered as many of the following questions as they felt comfortable with (if they answered positively they were then provided with follow-up questions):
- Can you think of a case that was exceptionally difficult for you?
- Can you think of a case in which you would do something differently when considering it from hindsight?
- Can you think of a case that affected you emotionally?
Throughout my college career I learned from stories. I studied English, Spanish, and Criminal Justice. Each of these disciplines used stories in unique and interesting ways. In my English classes I read all kinds of stories. I learned the different techniques employed by authors to create a good story. I learned how to find myself in a story. I learned to see a story as a highly important method to convey information about a person, place, event, belief, or ethical code. In my Spanish classes I read stories so as to better understand the language. Rather than learning random pieces of vocabulary, I learned to see how words fit together, and how I could figure out a word's meaning based on the context of the words around it. In my Criminal Justice classes I found both of the concepts regarding stories that I had learned from my other two disciplines coming into play. My teachers taught stories from which I pulled information regarding criminals, legal principles, and the value of ethics, while also learning different words and terms.
At the conclusion of my college career I found myself surrounded by stories – English stories, Spanish stories, criminal cases, psychological cases, and my own personal stories. I wanted to find a way to collect these stories; to discover connections between the stories and the concepts I had learned from them.
One subject found himself drawn to the field in a slightly similar way. He took a Business Law class in his senior year of high school which resulted in a life-long interest in the criminal side of law, order, and justice. Unlike me however, there was not a single person who influenced his decision to enter the field. He officially entered the criminal justice field in 1969 when he went to work part time for the Springfield Police Department Reserves.
He worked in law enforcement as a police officer and then as an Assistant Prosecuting Attorney. He prefers cases in the criminal justice field, because his effectiveness and skill as a prosecutor and knowledge of the law is more specific and easier to measure. Like me, he prefers not to work with cases involving crimes against children because they are emotionally draining and the victim rarely gets the full measure of justice they deserve. He stated that it is hard to keep emotions in check and remain objective and professional when dealing with the innocence of children.
He has taught in many different settings prior to law school - one of his undergraduate majors was even education. Since obtaining his law degree, he has had a desire to teach students the elements of criminal law. He also desires to inspire and teach students about the opportunities and challenges available in the criminal justice field with the hope they will consider choosing one of many careers available within the criminal justice field.
One of my subjects had his own interesting situation in which he would have acted differently in hindsight. He had a case in which refused to enter into a plea agreement because the defendant had confessed to the crime and he had all the evidence a prosecutor could hope for to prove his case. However, the jury failed to convict because they felt sorry for the defendant. The defendant himself admitted under oath that he had committed the crime, but the jury completed disregarded his admission. He says he learned from this situation that many times juries base their decisions on emotion and disregard the oath they took to follow the law. Because of this case, the subject always tried to decide what the jury verdict would be for the case and then prior to trial he would make an offer to the defendant within the range of the conviction.
The entire process of researching and writing this project did in fact prove that stories are valuable. Throughout the research process, interviews, and writing process stories made their way into this project. Each new piece of information came with a story about how it was collected and put into the framework of the research.
The process by which the narratives were collected is one such story. Collecting good stories is more complicated than one would think and it requires months of planning. Several of the survey questions went through multiple re-wording processes. It is important to plan questions carefully and to pay particular attention to the words used. It is also highly important to plan for follow-up interviews or questionnaires with subjects so as to clarify responses that are too vague or too short. I learned this when one of my subjects left me a voicemail with his survey responses. The message cut off halfway through what he was saying and it took months for me to track down complete answers to my questions.
Completing as much background research into the process of researching and interviewing, and into the subjects themselves was immensely valuable throughout this project. It is important to know the answer your subject is going to give before he or she gives you that answer. This enables the researcher to guide the interview in the appropriate direction and it also ensures that the researcher does not waste time collecting information that he or she does not need.
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