In fall semester of 2021, the public affairs graduate students enrolled in my Research Design course again embarked on a somewhat unorthodox (in my experience) curriculum. Instead of reading about how to conduct research or drafting proposals for largely hypothetical studies, they were to execute their own research projects from start to finish.1 The projects were “microstudies,” understood as small-scale projects not intended to generate widely generalizable knowledge. Nonetheless, the mandate was considerable: conceive, plan, and execute a research project in its entirety, then write up the results—all in the span of 15 weeks.
Once again, the challenge was undertaken in a stressful and uncertain time. Against the sustained tension of an accelerating climate crisis (Filippelli et al, 2021), authoritarianism was on the rise worldwide (Williams, Satgar, & Duncan, 2021). Indeed, 2021 marked the first year in which the U.S. was credibly designated a democracy in decline (International IDEA, 2021), as the GOP’s radical wing attempted to usher in a wave of state policies to upend U.S. democracy as we knew it (Drezner, 2021). And we were entering year three of the SARS-CoV-2 (aka “coronavirus”) pandemic, which continued to impose a disproportionate burden on the more vulnerable sectors of society (Burki, 2021; Fortuna et al, 2020), even as a grossly inequitable economic recovery gained steam (Lee, Park, & Shin, 2021).
In the midst of such unease, tension, and turmoil, how did the projects turn out? As I found the first time I built the Research Design course around the execution of group microstudies, the results were individually impressive and a resounding collective success. As I wrote in 2020: “I set the bar high and these public affairs scholars-in-training cleared it—turbulent context and collective trauma notwithstanding” (pg. 2). In the remainder of this introductory chapter, I set the stage upon which the microstudies can be considered and assessed. I first outline the assignment and describe the pedagogical underpinnings upon which it is built. I then outline the research carried out by my fall 2021 Research Design students, revealing a set of microstudies that are wonderfully diverse in objectives, research designs, data, and methods.
The Assignment: Complete a Research Project in 15 Weeks
Students were directed to complete their microstudies in groups of two to four, although exceptions were made for those especially inclined to work alone. The semester was 16 weeks long, with an additional few days for course wrap-up. I set aside the first course week for students to orient themselves to the syllabus and course expectations. Another two were set aside for peer review, as the microstudy assignment was designed to provide students experience giving and receiving critical feedback (I also commented on projects ideas, research, and writing). This effectively left 12 weeks for students to conceive of, plan, and execute the microstudies, as well as write up the results. The assignment timeline is listed in Table 1, below.
|Microstudy group and research “pitch”||Week 4|
|Microstudy proposal (research rationale and rough design)||Week 5|
|Proposal peer review||Week 6|
|Draft microstudy chapter||Week 13|
|Chapter peer review||Week 14|
|Final chapter submission||Week 15|
As with the prior year’s projects (Carter, 2020), the microstudies were “public” in more than one meaning of the word. First, students were directed to choose a research question within the realm of “public affairs,” including matters of “public policy, public administration and management, nonprofit organizations and management, social enterprises, etc.” The requirement was intentionally vague, as a great many topics overlap with the students’ areas of study in some manner or another. As seen below, the results were research studies that focused on pressing and prescient matters, with significance in both the scholarly and practical realms.
Second, the microstudies were meant to be “public” in the sense that they would be published in this book.2 Thus, students knew from the get-go that their experience would be shared beyond our classroom’s virtual “walls” – including the successes and challenges that they experienced along the way. The decision to (self-)publish the microstudies was part of a larger pedagogical approach, which I hoped would help generate genuine investment in the research and animate the projects, as described in the following section.3
The microstudy assignment that generated the chapters in this book (and indeed, the idea for the book itself) was borne out of a course design founded on a (attempted) critical, student-centered pedagogy. To appreciate the instructional approach, it is important to recognize that the work that my students perform (or hope to in the future) is more challenging, important, and consequential than my own. I teach courses for current and future public service professionals—people responsible for addressing society’s most pressing and intractable problems. They provide aid to the impoverished, advocate on behalf of the marginalized, maintain the infrastructure we use, and protect the environment we rely on. They do all of this with far too few resources. They do this in political contexts ignorant of—and often openly hostile to—the public service missions they pursue.
In this educational context of a combined academic and professional public service education, I’ve come to see my ongoing pedagogical project as respecting, validating, supporting, and channeling my students’ inherent capabilities, motivations, experiences, and knowledge towards organic, self-directed learning. Rather than seeing my students as vessels into which I am to deposit knowledge (as famously described in Paulo Freire’s  “banking model” of education), I seek to empower students to assume agency over, and responsibility for, their education. In explaining the approach to students, I accordingly frame learning as a collective process of co-creation:
…only a portion of what makes up our course’s substance comes from assigned material (readings, lectures, recordings, etc.). Instead, the course is structured such that the lessons it offers are the product of combining the ideas communicated in course content (in the form of academic theories, methods, etc.) and empirical observations (data, narratives, and experiences) to understand, critique, and engage the world around us.
As indicated in the opening section of this book, to the extent that the chapters in this book are a testament to the value of such a student-centered pedagogical approach (and I think they are), the results provide robust support for the role of student agency in course and curricular design. Diverse in epistemologies and methods, and pursuing questions with both practical and scholarly importance, the microstudies echo the characteristics of some of the best public affairs literature that comprised much of the students’ graduate studies.
Six Microstudies in Public Affairs
This book presents six microstudies conceptualized, designed, and executed by students in the University of Utah Programs of Public Affair’s Fall 2021 Research Design course. The studies are summarized in Table 2, which identifies the individuals in each microstudy team, alongside the associated research question(s), epistemological approaches, and research designs and methods. The studies in the table are organized according to the order of the chapters in this book (which is to also say that they are presented in no particular order).
In the first study, titled “Behavioral Economics and Sustainable Consumption,” Charlotte Serage, Sydney Metcalf, Joseph Erickson, and Meagan Wilson set out to understand the role of sustainability—and more specifically, sustainability certifications—in consumer’s purchasing decisions. Through eight in-depth interviews, they find that while consumers use available information and product features to take sustainability into account, but that their relative influences “were not strong enough to place sustainability at the forefront of purchasing behavior.” They further highlight that consumer ignorance regarding sustainable production practices likely limits associated changes in purchasing decisions.
In the second study, “The American Perception of the United Nations,” Keanan Beatty, Alisha Bak, Justin Hansen, and Akanksha Mishra examine the relationship between U.S. residents’ preference for “soft” or “hard” power and their perceptions of effectiveness by U.S. policy towards the U.N. To answer the question, they analyze large-n 2016 survey data from the Chicago Council Survey of American Public Opinion on U.S. Foreign Policy with several descriptive and associational tests. Consistent with the literature upon which they build they find that Americans who prefer “soft” power over “hard” power are more likely to favor the U.S. strengthening the U.N.
|Researchers||Research question(s)||Epistemology; research design & methods|
|Charlotte Serage, Sydney Metcalf, Joseph Erickson, and Meagan Wilson||How do consumers’ feelings around and understanding of sustainability shape their purchasing decisions, both regarding chocolate products and more generally?||Empiricism and interpretivism; quantitative and qualitative analysis of primary interview data|
|Keanan Beatty, Alisha Bak, Justin Hansen, and Akanksha Mishra||How do Americans’ preferences for economic (soft) or military (hard) power relate to how they feel towards the effectiveness of U.S. policy towards the U.N.?||Positivism; descriptive and inferential statistics analysis of secondary quantitative data|
|Beau Bayless, Kimberly Hampton, and Keaton Jones||How has the current “critical race theory” debate affected classrooms and school curricula?||Interpretivism; qualitative analysis of small-n semi-structured interview data|
|Clint Yingling||How do Utah wildfire causes and consequences vary across land ownership and management entities/arrangements?||Empiricism; descriptive analysis of secondary quantitative data|
|Pablo Correa, Shaylee Tulane, Sara Edgar, and Jaycee Baker||How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted single mothers?||Empiricism; qualitative analysis of small-n semi-structured interview data|
|Alissa Rubin and Samuel Tew||How do state policies impact queer youth experiences in Utah?||Queer critical analysis; critical policy analysis|
In the third study, “Understanding Teachers’ Views Regarding Critical Race Theory and the Surrounding Debate in Utah High Schools,” Beau Bayless, Kimberly Hampton, and Keaton Jones pursue the implications of the political debate that had erupted regarding the (poorly understood) “critical race theory” (or CRT) on Utah schools. Through in-depth interviews with local teachers, they present evidence for the teachers’ understandings of CRT, the debate surrounding it, and how the debate has impacted their teaching experiences. They report that interviewees understood some of the concerns expressed by CRT detractors, but also believed that some political actors were intentionally provoking much of the related conflict. Interviewees further worried that the debate would create additional burden and limitations for teachers.
In the fourth study, “A Multi-Jurisdiction Analysis of Wildfire Policy and the Use of Prescribed Burns in Utah,” Clint Yingling draws from existing quantitative data to investigate how the causes and impacts of wildfires in Utah vary across the different land ownership and management entities/arrangements in the state—a topic growing in saliency as climate changes mean that the fire season lengthens to encompass almost 12 months a year. He reports that there are evident differences in wildfire causes and the capacity to manage wildfires between federal, state, and local departments; a fact that deserves more attention as wildfire incidence continue to rise.
In the fifth study, “COVID-19’s Personal and Professional Impact on Single Mothers,” Pablo Correa, Shaylee Tulane, Sara Edgar, and Jaycee Baker question how COVID-19 has impacted single households headed by women, and in particular, how the pandemic affects single mothers’ ability to maintain child care and stable incomes. Their in-depth interviews with seven single mothers found that every single mother faced some life change during the pandemic. They reported that each experience was unique, however, reflecting changes in employment, support networks, balancing work/home life, and childcare arrangements.
Finally, in the sixth study, “A Critical Look at Utah State Education Laws Impacting LGBTQ Youth,” Alissa Rubin and Samuel Tew focus how Utah’s state laws affect queer youth (youth who identify as sexual and gender minorities). They subject a selection of Utah laws to queer critical analysis, findings that Utah has few explicit protections for LGBTQ individuals, resulting in a patchwork of local education policies and an overall lack of resources and support for queer youth. Synthesizing their findings with existing literature, they draw links to the higher victimization and suicide rates of queer youth in Utah.
Burki, T. (2021). Global COVID-19 vaccine inequity. The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 21(7), 922-923.
Carter, D.P. (2020). Inquiry of the Public Sort: Microstudies in Public Administration and Public Affairs. Salt Lake City, Utah: Public Sort Press.
Drezner, D. W. (2021). Presidents, Populism, and the Crisis of Democracy by William G. Howell and Terry M. Moe. Chicago [Book Review]. Perspectives on Politics, 19(2), 589-590.
Filippelli, G., Beal, L., Rajaram, H., AghaKouchak, A., Balikhin, M. A., Destouni, G., & Zhang, M. (2021). Geoscientists, who have documented the rapid and accelerating climate crisis for decades, are now pleading for immediate collective action. Geophysical Research Letters, 48(21), DOI: 10.1029/2021GL096644.
Fortuna, L. R., Tolou-Shams, M., Robles-Ramamurthy, B., & Porche, M. V. (2020). Inequity and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color in the United States: The need for a trauma-informed social justice response. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 12(5), 443.
Freire, P. (1968). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London, UK: Bloomsbury Publishing.
International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA). (2021). The Global State of Democracy 2021. Strömsborg, Sweden: Author.
Lee, S. Y. T., Park, M., & Shin, Y. (2021). Hit harder, recover slower? Unequal employment effects of the Covid-19 shock (No. w28354). National Bureau of Economic Research.
Williams, M., Satgar, V., & Duncan, J. (Eds.) (2021). Destroying Democracy: Neoliberal Capitalism and The Rise of Authoritarian Politics. Braamfontein, Johannesburg: Wits University Press.