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The Qualitative Research Journal as a Creative and Therapeutic Space

by Jason D. DeHart - March 24, 2021

This research note explores the affordances of the research journal as a space for creative reflection and therapeutic process during trauma. Examples are drawn from professional literature, as well as the author's experience in research and attempting to line up practices and preserve elements of the field in drawn and written forms.

In the fall of 2016 and the winter of 2018, I engaged in two studies that were aimed at looking at the ways that educators used film as a text for literacy instruction in their classrooms. The results of these studies have appeared in other publications, but I here take up an aspect of the process that has not yet been examined: the use of a qualitative field notes journal as a creative space within an academic research study. Within this concept, I see great potential for the use of classroom observation notes among teachers, as well as expanding the possibilities and intentionality of the use of the field journal among members of the qualitative research community. I see additional benefits in the use of a research journal for writing and research as a therapeutic exercise, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. My use of a multimodal research journal stems from the contributions of scholars in the literacy field, like Gunther Kress and Jennifer Rowsell, as well as qualitative voices, such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty’s (1964) work on experiences of artwork, from a phenomenological stance, was an important aspect of my epistemological stance in the research project this article describes.

Of chief note in this examination is the work of Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw (2011), whose thorough use of the research journal as a method of data collection informed the initial studies I conducted. These authors suggested that researchers take the time to stop and make jottings in the field, brief notes that help bring aspects of the study to mind as researchers move to the process of writing up all the details that they have collected. In reflection on my classroom practice, I now wish I had paid more attention to these kinds of jottings in the moment. Afflerbach (2016) advocated for the use of teacher notes in classroom assessment practices, but I was unfortunately trained to only write down moments of tension or incident for later referral in my teaching practice.

In terms of procedure, Phillippi and Lauderdale (2018) recommended that the use of field notes line up with the theoretical framework of the study and that field notes be an element included in sources of data for instructional review board materials. This intentional use of the research journal as a written space that mirrors the design and purposes of the study speaks to the potential for the journal as a space for deeper reflection, and it also points to the journal as a form of data or documentation that is often taken for granted or may be mentioned in hindsight (or, in the case of IRB review, not at all).

Phillippi and Lauderdale (2018) suggested that field notes are useful for preserving the context of a research site so that details can be revisited later as the researcher goes on to analyze and share findings. The initial experiences, thoughts, and reactions of the researcher, along with the practices and words of a participant, can be preserved in the amber that a field journal affords. Creswell (2009) suggested that researchers gather field notes in the context of observations and when examining documents pertaining to the study, and Flick (2014) defined the use of field notes in observational settings simply as “writing about what has been watched” (p. 44). All these voices from the literature underscore the power of the journal as a way of reaching back into memories, particularly when time has elapsed between study and writing, or when multiple sites are used in the project. In this way, the research journal is not unlike the amber that the remnants of a study can be stored in for later retrieval and authentic sharing.

Beyond descriptions of the experience, Pachego-Vega (2019) pointed out that a challenge for researchers who are using field notes for the first time is that the work is more practice than theory, often revolving around observations and even emotions that are encountered in the field. Yet, this author went on to say that field notes act as unique spaces for self-reflection and for working through the process of interpreting data for scholarship. Berger (2015) echoed this sense of the field notes, or logs, being a site for self-reflection and for focusing on what a participant has said, tentative interpretations, and the researcher’s own response. In this way, the field journal becomes a way of balancing out the divisions between self and the phenomenon of inquiry. It is akin to finding the separations of self and participant so that bias can be examined, acknowledged, and explained.


Adding to this existing line of conversation among researchers regarding the potential of the research journal, I advocate for a multimodal field notes guide. In my own practice of drawing and writing on field notes, I chose a research journal that held affordances that lined up with the focus of my study. In this case, I was writing about the use of film, and so I purchased a film notebook that was organized in a series of storyboard frames. This framing is seen in the Figure 1, below. To make decisions about the kind of data that I would collect in the journal, I considered the guiding questions of my study.


Figure 1. A page from the journal

To that end, a first step in beginning the practice of using field notes is to consider the focus, theoretical framework, and methodology of the study. The research questions themselves act as a driving force throughout the process and can steer the types of data that are recorded. Because I knew I would be entering school settings and sharing about the visual and verbal practices of teachers, I chose to construct field notes that worked in this way. I drew pictures of classroom environments, highlighting where screens hung in the rooms relative to the seating of students, and noting the presence of cultural artifacts and markers in the learning spaces (e.g., film posters, visual elements on the board to represent content in writing and film).

Within the storyboard frames of the journal, I sketched the environments that I entered, and this constant use of a film-strip-styled storyboard frame helped me be steeped in the focal point of the study, even when conversations with participants extended to other media. The journal was itself a visual reminder to capture what teachers were saying about all media, but to think about these statements in light of the research questions and overall design that informed the study. Beyond a printed journal, an electronic text composed within a Google document or series of Google slides, or similar platform, could include audio and video clips, allowing for additional modes of reflection during the research process.

In the margins of these images, I made notes about what participants were sharing, as well as the general impressions I gathered from first entering these sites. Because I work from a literacy framework, I also traced elements of my literature review in the journal as I worked, highlighting citations that I saw in active practice. All the elements from my work informed the way I set up the field journal, and returning to the notes was an experience of joy in the writing process as I treated the pages as a kind of sounding board in an otherwise very lonely and solitary process. The image below, Figure 2, represents some of the collage work I included.


Figure 2. A collage composition

Once I had interviewed all participants and completed all my classroom visits, I used the field journal as a space for reflecting and bringing together the findings of the study. I had the opportunity to share my data with a research group that specialized in the methodology I was employing, and these interactions served as additional sources of data that I included in the journal. I stored notes from my initial thoughts, as well as the reflections of other researchers, on these pages.

The journal served as a place for my emotional reactions, including awe and frustration, and allowed me to find and preserve voice in the process. Dutro (2011) noted the power of writing while wounded, and I apply that notion to the concept of processing emotions and maintaining a record of experience in times of trauma, including the context of 2020 living.

I now return to the journal when I want to reflect on the experience of visiting classrooms and talking with teachers about my initial research interests, and the experience is one of situating and re-situating the practices I encountered in the field. My notes now become more poetic as I record events in daily life. This ongoing collection and reflection is aimed at Wolcott’s (2009) notion of “descriptive adequacy” (p. 94); Wolcott noted that we are always working toward a developed description of the places in which we find ourselves and the people who inform our work. The journal, in this way, acts as an original artifact, rendered in my handwriting and including pasted-in reflections from my initial journey into film as a topic for literacy research. It is a reified memory stone.

In terms of a set of steps, I recommend that both researchers and teachers who position themselves as researchers:


Consider the epistemology of the researcher and the design of the study.


Decide, based on field of expertise and research questions, about the kinds of data that will be recorded in the journal.


Decide the ways in which you will represent the data, based on the elements of experience you want to recall.


Consider the placement of additional artifacts, including sketches and other elements or fragments gathered in the field.


Ethically report the intention to use the field journal in the IRB process as an additional form of data.


Reconsider the research journal as a compendium for data, as well as a space for exploring findings in early drafts and articulations of findings.


Consider the ongoing use of the journal as a potential source for refreshing your memory as you return to the study for the purposes of scholarship.


Employ the journal as an artistic and theoretical reflection of the ways that you currently situate the study you are working on.


I conclude with two concerns that are part of the research journal process, as noted by Pachego-Vega (2019). First is the notion that the writing completed in a study is an academic practice, and this view of collecting research may leave the writer feeling blocked. In my own work, I tried to resituate the research journal as a welcoming textual space where I could have permission to record details and write about tentative findings that might later be reshaped. In essence, I saw the journal as both a process and a product. If a section of the journaled notes, on reflection or discussion with a participant, does not yield the results that I am yearning for or does not adequately capture the essence of what the participant would intend, my only loss is the space this drafting took up on the page. Perhaps we are too hard on ourselves as researchers when developing our drafts, or perhaps this precision is a needed element.

In either case, writing in the field journal, as well as drawing and collecting other fragments, can actually be a place to breathe in and out, flex methodological muscles, and then return again once the word is honed and reconsidered. It is humbling to consider our words as this kind of palimpsest, but also an acknowledgement of the need to process.

The second concern that has been highlighted by Pachego-Vega (2019) is setting boundaries about what will be recorded in the research setting. Wolcott (2009) shared a similar concern in attempting to define what is most salient for the study at hand. While there is no ultimate solution to this problem, researchers may find guidance in the questions that guide their work; they may also frame their study proposal in a way that allows them to return to the participant and/or research site in the form of member checking to ensure that their memories of what has been shared, as well as the physical spaces they encounter, are accurate. Helpfully, there is always more work to be done.

Of final note, I urge the reader to employ journals not simply for research, but for capturing moments of life. In classroom practice and exercises of creativity, much goes missing as we engage in busy interactions. What we do as researchers and writers is aim to capture an aspect or facet of life. The conversation continues, and the work of capturing what is essential to experience and in shaping educational practices is never-ending.


Afflerbach, P. (2016). Reading assessment: Looking ahead. The Reading Teacher, 69(4), 413–419.


Berger, R. (2015). Now I see it, now I don’t: Researcher’s position and reflexivity in qualitative research. Qualitative Research, 15(2), 219–234.


Creswell, J. W. (2009). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. SAGE.


Dutro, E. (2011). Writing wounded: Trauma, testimony, and critical witness in literacy classrooms. English Education, 43(2), 193–211.


Emerson, R., Fretz, R., & Shaw, L. (2011). Writing ethnographic field notes (2nd ed.). University of Chicago Press.


Flick, U. (2014). An introduction to qualitative research. SAGE.


Merleau-Ponty, M. (1964). Eye and mind. University of Chicago. http://csmt.uchicago.edu/annotations/merleaupontyeye.htm


Pacheco-Vega, R. (2019). Writing field notes and using them to prompt scholarly writing. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 18, 1–2.


Phillippi, J., & Lauderdale, J. (2018). A guide to field notes for qualitative research: Context and conversation. Qualitative Health Research, 28(3), 381–388.


Wolcott, H. E. (2009). Writing up qualitative research (3rd ed.). SAGE.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 24, 2021
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23641, Date Accessed: 4/22/2021 12:52:48 PM

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About the Author
  • Jason D. DeHart
    Appalachian State University
    E-mail Author
    JASON D. DEHART, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of reading education at Appalachian State University. DeHart's research interests include multimodal literacy, including film and graphic novels, and literacy instruction with adolescents. His work has recently appeared in SIGNAL Journal, English Journal, and The Social Studies.
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