Monday, December 17, 2012

Asperger's Syndrome Backlash

This is more personal than professional, but I have done quite a bit of research on this syndrome and its relationship to Autism.  There is a paper on this blog about the subject (check archives from Feb. or March 2010).

The shooter in the horrific Newtown, CT, tragedy is being labeled as having Asperger's.  I have written elsewhere of how anyone who has poor social skills gets tagged with this moniker.  Asperger's folks are not violent; they might be odd, but not evil.  Whatever caused this shooting cannot be laid at the door of Asperger's.  It might have been a contributing factor in a remote way, but I would be more likely to think the young man had schizophrenia or some other brain or chemical disorder.  And he might have just been morally bankrupt, evil, psychological disturbed as opposed to physically or neurologically impaired.

I would hate for there to be a backlash against the Asperger's community because of misunderstandings on this matter.  We need to pray and mourn, not politicize about guns, God, prayer in schools, school safety, bad parenting, blah, blah, blah.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Change and QEPs

This is a paper I wrote for a doctoral class in leading change in organizations.  It might help someone faced with leading a QEP.  
From 2010 to 2012, the author led the efforts at her institution to comply with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ requirement that the college submit a quality enhancement plan.  She encountered challenges in raising awareness, countering apathy from superiors, obtaining adequate funding, and writing a coherent document.  Using Kotter’s theory of leading change, Hill’s model of team leadership, and Scharmer’s Theory U, she analyzes her behavior as a leader.
                                    Change Analysis:  Responding to an Accreditation Board
On an evening in June 2010, I was checking out at a local grocery store when I saw the chair of the academic department in which I work.  She said, “Oh, did you get my email?” a question that often implies something negative, or unexpected, was in the email.  “No,” I answered.  She informed me that I was going to be asked to be the chair of the Quality Enhancement Plan Committee.  “Oh,” was my innocent response.
            I was being asked that question because during the previous week our assistant vice president of academic affairs had passed away from an illness of several months.  She had been the chair of the committee; I was a member and had been given the job of QEP editor and committee secretary.  Due to her illness, the committee had not met since February, and the administration was beginning to feel the heat of the SACS visit, even though it was still two years away.  No real work had been accomplished on the Quality Enhancement Plan except for an agreement on a vague topic, developmental studies.
            Of course, considering the circumstances, I agreed to take on the job, and thus began my second major project as a change agent at my institution.  The first was leading the initiation of a teaching and learning center.  Now I would be leading a different kind of change—one enforced by an outside organization, our (seemingly all-powerful) accrediting association and one not necessarily being embraced by the college as anything but a requirement and nuisance.  In this paper I would like to explicate the process of leading this change, what actually changed, the obstacles I encountered,  and what I learned from the experience.  In doing so, Kotter’s model of leading change (Anderson, 2012, p.83; Kotter, 1995) and Hill’s Model for Team Leadership (Northouse, 2010) will be used as the theoretical grounding.   At the close I will use Otto Scharmer’s insights into leading change as published in Theory U and comment on how those ideas may have helped our project.
The Context
            Beginning in the early 2000s, the Southern Association for Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges changed its philosophy.  Before, institutions were required to complete comprehensive self-studies of their compliance with a thick book of requirements which were usually referred to as “must” statements.  These must statements touched on every aspect of higher education; however, institutional effectiveness was the central focus of the self-study, other than the areas of faculty credentials, ethical fiduciary practices, and following federal guidelines.  Now, institutions still must assert and document their compliance with a much-reduced series of requirements (now stated as “is” or “does” statements rather than “must” commandments).  Two of the “does” statements address a quality enhancement plan that must solve a significant problem the institution faces, the awareness of which has arisen from institutional research processes, that involves student learning, and that will be thoroughly assessed and funded (SACS, 2011 ). 
            The QEP requirement has presented a challenge to colleges and universities since its inception.   The number of workshops offered at the annual SACS conference meeting and by SACS at special conferences and the number of consultants willing to help colleges develop their QEPs-- at a price--bear witness to the perception that institutions have not understood the requirement.  Specifically, colleges have proposed QEPs that have not satisfied SACS because they were not focused on student learning, because they were too ambitious, because they were not ambitious enough, because they were underfunded, because they have not been developed with input from all constituents, and, mainly, because they do not contain clear assessment and institutional effectiveness sections.
At our institution, the discussion of the QEP plan began very early, in 2008, four years before the Plan was due to SACS.  By late 2008, the topic was selected.  This date was probably too early, but I was not involved in that decision.  I soon realized that the planning was begun so early because the persons driving the QEP did not understand the process.  I do not say this as a criticism because the process is complicated.  However, the choice to begin so early and the choice of developmental studies as the topic were not motivated by a desire to address a real problem on campus, but to comply with SACS.  Choosing the topic so early led to problems later on.  External forces would eventually throw some obstacles in our path, and a weariness and boredom set in.  A four-year change process is probably too long.
The Work
Realizing that my predecessor did not fully understand the QEP process, my first task after I took the position as QEP Planning Committee chair was to understand the QEP and what SACS wanted.  That led me to realize that our committee was not sufficiently broad-based or representative of the whole campus.  I also realized that I was responsible for organizing a process that could easily fall into a chaotic mess and that the task was what we instructors call “an ill-defined problem.”  There were no manuals for running a QEP Committee, only examples of what the final documents looked like, posted on the websites of institutions that had successfully passed their SACS reviews. 
Hills’ Model for Team Leadership places three leadership decisions at its core.  Should the leader monitor the group or intervene?  Should the leader intervene to meet task or relationship needs?  And should the leader intervene internally or externally?  These questions did face me in the summer of 2010.  The committee was in disarray, so I could not leave it to its own devices and simply monitor it.  I had to intervene and take a very direct hand.  My intervention focused almost entirely on task needs, for two reasons.  I already knew the members of the committee personally and was (and still am, thankfully) on fairly good terms with all of them and have credibility; secondly, the task needs overruled the relationship needs.  Additionally, the members of the committee were in some respects my superiors in terms of education and position.  My department head and my dean were on the committee.  Most of the members were administrators who had been at the institution longer or had more advanced degrees than I do.  They did not need me to be relationship driven. 
Being task-motivated is not difficult for me personally; in fact, it is probably a fault of mine to see the task rather than the people.  I learned the detriment of this early.  In order to broaden the base of the committee, we invited a student to join us.  However, my agenda was hidden—I wanted him on the roster but not in the meetings because I did not want a student to be privy to our discussions of student issues.  I let him know that he did not have to come to meetings but that he could put on his resume that he served on the committee.  He did not respond well to this suggestion, and in retrospect I can understand why.  Another less problematic obstacle for me was that although I have an M.A. in English and occasionally teach an English class, I am a member of the Communication faculty and do not teach developmental English, the eventual focus of the QEP.  That meant a lack of internal understanding but at the same time an ability to see the class with fresh eyes. 
Hill’s Model for Team Leadership lists specific actions in the categories of internal leadership actions, whether those are task or relational.  In terms of task action, a leader must do the following:  goal focusing, structuring for results, facilitating decisions, training, and maintaining standards.  This list more than adequately explains what I did over the next fifteen to eighteen months.  We began by mapping out the steps to our goal of submitting the QEP to SACS by July 1, 2012.  We revisited this schedule every two or three months.  We divided into subcommittees to write the various parts of the QEP after the goals and strategies were decided upon.   I created timelines and matrices for the committee to see the task components.   It was my responsibility to educate the committee about the intricacies of a quality enhancement plan and to maintain and monitor the communication processes of the group meetings.
Internal leadership actions also include six relational dimensions:  coaching, collaborating, managing conflicts, building commitment, satisfying needs, and modeling principles.  Although in retrospect I could have lightened up and made meetings more fun, I also recognized that my committee members were extremely busy people, and they, like I, value meetings that reach the balance between giving sufficient time for deliberation and not wasting time in nonessentials.  There were no major conflicts that arose in the meetings or that were specific to our group.  As in most colleges, there are underlying turf wars, and those became apparent; in this case, the conflict was between math and English departments.  Ultimately, we had to decide whether developmental English or developmental math would be the focus of the QEP.  The college president wanted us to choose math; the Math Department did not want to change its practices; and the English Department was willing to accept the changes the QEP would bring.   Also, in reference to Hill’s Model, I did not have to build commitment although I did have to remind members of their commitment.  Finally, I modeled principles of communication by being transparent and performing more than I expected of them.   
What made this experience different from a typical committee in an academic environment was first, the high stakes nature of the task.  We were constantly aware that the accreditation of the college depended on what we did.  Second, we had to be responsive to external and internal forces, some of them very unexpected (described below).  Third, the committee was long-term but would eventually disband.  Fourth, we truly had to work together in one of the most difficult tasks a group can have—writing a coherent document.  
On the first day of the Fall semester, 2010, just when we were starting to hone in on the task,  we learned that the University System was redefining developmental policy for all state institutions.  Up to that point, we had been completely open access.  No student was really excluded from enrolling at our college.  That meant that a large number of our incoming freshmen needed developmental classes in all three disciplines—reading, math, and English.  The University System passed a new policy that excluded students who needed three developmental classes, and concurrently raised score requirements and tightened allowances on repeated developmental classes.  (NOTE:  In the University System, developmental or remedial classes are termed “learning support,” which is the term that will be used in the rest of this paper).  These policy changes imposed from the system would strongly impact our work.
Another unexpected external force was the economy and its effects on our budget and enrollment.  A third external force was our president, who suggested, strongly, that we alter the topic by focusing on one discipline of learning support rather than all three since the college could not afford to address all three disciplines.  Keep in mind that, even with the system policy changes, a significant portion of our first-time, full-time students need learning support classes. The president wanted us to choose learning support math as the topic of the QEP; the Math Department put up resistance to this proposal.  That resistance was an internal force; the math professors on the committee also lessened their commitment to the process after the decision was made to write the QEP about English.   
The third decision, according to Hill’s model, involves the question, “Should I intervene internally or externally?”  In this case, I had to do both.  I have already listed some of the actions I took for internal intervention.  An equally large part of the position was to perform the functions Hill’s Model for Leadership was my communication with the “environment”—the administration, the English Department, the Office of Institutional Research, and of course, SACS.  Hill’s model lists networking, advocating, negotiating support buffering, assessing, and sharing information.  These tasks took up more of my time and energy than the work with committee members. 
Specifically, I provided monthly reports to the campus for publication in the campus newsletter.  I wrote press releases and articles.  I reported regularly to the Director of Institutional Research and the Vice President of Academic Affairs and the President.  I was required to find a QEP evaluator from somewhere in the region, one of the most challenging parts of the position.  I had conference calls with our SACS Vice President, who required us to significantly rewrite our first draft and to revolutionize our understanding of student learning outcomes (not without some resistance and bad attitude on my and the editor’s parts).  I met in budget meetings with the Vice President of Fiscal Affairs. 
One of the fun but time-consuming aspects of the job was raising campus awareness of the QEP.  For some reason, SACS threatens that any student could be asked about the QEP and is expected to know about it.  We took this threat seriously and conducted a massive propaganda campaign.  We engaged student services, a marketing class, the orientation leaders, and others to help publicize the QEP.  We held a logo contest and a rap contest.  We created a rap video, maintained Facebook and web pages, and I made two informational videos for YouTube.
Hill’s Model indicates that the outcome of the team leadership is team effectiveness, which consists of the two facets of performance (task accomplishment) and development, “the ability of group members to satisfy their own needs while working effectively with other team members” (Nadler, 1998, cited in Northouse, 2010).  The task was accomplished because on September 20 our SACS Visiting Team informed us that we had created an acceptable QEP.  We were satisfied with the task accomplishment and the continued good-standing status of the college with SACS (and our continued employment), and involvement on the team meant movement toward promotion and tenure for some of them.  
Change Management
            On September 20, my work was over.  I had overseen a successful committee and have handed the work of running the QEP over to an English professor who would be the QEP Director for the five years of the Plan’s implementation.  The question remains:  Was this twenty-eight month period in my life simply an exercise in jumping through hoops so that the college could achieve accreditation, or was it truly a change management process?  While it sometimes felt like the former, I can defend its status as a change process. 
            Learning support English at our college was in a rut.  It had been taught the same way for several years.  There was a sense that the way it was taught was the way it had to be and was supposed to be taught.  The QEP shook that attitude out of us.  The course is now tighter, more technology friendly, more student-focused, and less tradition-bound.  The teachers have more say over the course and textbooks.   The class is capped at 20 students as opposed to the previous 28.  The strategies used in the class benefit from being based in best practices.  A learning community model is being utilized, and metacognition, or learning to learn and be a self-directed learner, is being taught and assessed.  The changes to system policy changed the student composition of the class in a negative way, but our internal forces rose to meet the challenge of the external forces.. 
            The QEP process caused us to question our assumptions about the learning support English.  It meant that the institution had to pay attention to students it would like to ignore—those who are not really prepared for college.  Having to write a QEP meant that certain constituencies had to talk to each other and know what each other was doing.   It meant that the organization’s individuals had to learn more about itself and themselves. 
            In his 1996 book, Leading Change, Kotter presented “eight steps that leaders should follow in instituting a major change in their organizations (Anderson, p. 83).  I find in retrospect that my experience with chairing the QEP committee followed Kotter’s model almost to the letter. 
  1.  “Establishing a sense of urgency.”  This step was guaranteed for me, in that a successful QEP was crucial to our reaffirmation.  However, I had to remind my constituents frequently, including my superiors.  Much of my job was as a town crier for the QEP.  The college administration was reluctant to fund the QEP; eventually I was able to get a yearly budget of about $50,000, some of that from grants, but most from reallocations from Student Services, which caused some friction. 
  2. “Creating the guiding coalition.” Taking the team that was given me, I added more four more members to it, persons who I believed had the needed expertise.
  3. “Developing a vision and strategy.”  The goal was to pass reaffirmation.  My vision was to do that and to have a QEP that mattered.  With the committee we developed a strategy that would accomplish both.
  4. “Communicating the change vision.”  I used almost every organ that the system had, print, electronic, face-to-face meetings with departments, even the bathroom “stall wall” to keep the vision in front of the constituents.
  5. “Empowering broad-based action.” Although the breadth of my influence was really only the QEP,  we were able as a team to cut through some entrenched policies and practices that research showed was holding us back from success with our students.  Although the QEP process did not make large changes to the system as a whole, it did make the institution pay attention and come to the aid of the English 0098 students.  The QEP’s influence touches Student Services, the Office of Technology and Information Systems, the Writing Lab, the Advising Center, the Center for Academic Excellence, and the Office of First Year Experience Programs.
  6. “Generating short-term wins.” It was wonderful for the team to hear on September 20 that our QEP passed with no recommendations.  That step, however, I see as the first short-term win; it proved to the institution that the process was validated by an outside organization.  The continued changes that the QEP will bring will be longer-term wins.  When we see the success rates of our learning support students improve, that will really be the win we were looking for in the change  process.
  7. “Consolidating gains and producing more change.”  My work with the QEP is over, although I continue to be on its advisory committee now that it has taken effect.  One obstacle we are encountering has to do with the learning community program.  I will keep my eye on that part because it was something I particularly wanted to see in the QEP.  Complacency about the QEP is a very real problem; in fact, the SACS team asked us about that possibility.  It remains to be seen how the director will manage the ongoing publicity needed to prevent anonymity.
  8. “Anchoring new approaches in the culture.”  One suggestion that the SACS visiting team made was to make similar changes to English 1101, the basic composition course, that were being made to the learning support English class.  In order to respond to this suggestion, the English Department will begin to explore ways to do so, such as by reducing class size, incorporating the Writing Lab, and tracking student success better. 
            Because the SACS visiting team was complimentary of our QEP and approved it, I am personally reluctant to second guess the process.  However, there were some things I could have done better and that taught me about my deficiencies in leadership.  I could have delegated some of the work better; however, I was getting paid to lead the effort while my committee members were not.  I could have kept in touch with the administrators more about the issue of funding; however, our college began to have some unforeseen financial problems in Summer 2012,  so unforeseen adjustments ended up having to be made in original budgets.  I am satisfied with the communication in the team and believe the members felt free to express themselves, a high value for me. 
            The question remains, how would Theory U have helped this change process?  Theory U prescribes the going deeper through the levels of co-initiating and co-sensing to the crucial stage of co-presencing, at which point the group can move upward to co-creating and co-evolving.  In moving to co-presencing, the group or individual must struggle with the voices judgment, cynicism, judgment, and fear.    Theory U strategies may have helped us to be less tentative about change. It took us a while—and took me some diplomatic skill—to convince the English faculty and department head that learning support English needed significant changes, not just tweaks.   Further, would my team have been open to the strategies of Theory U?  Not unless Theory U had been championed by the administration or introduced emphatically into our campus culture.  Our campus is conservative and skeptical.  I did not have the level of credibility needed to institute a process of reflection, introspection, and interpersonal transparency and honesty as deep as Theory U, nor did I have the time to train them in its use. 
In retrospect, perhaps I would have benefited myself from Theory U, and then perhaps could have adapted some of it to the group’s deliberations.  As Scharmer writes on page 384, “So part of the idea f convening these players is to loosen your own grip on the idea—without necessarily giving it up.”  This statement and similar ones convince me that if I had read Theory U before June 2010, I would have been a different leader of change,  a person more comfortable in my own abilities and even more a person more comfortable with the synergy that can come from groups of different people with different ideas but ultimately a common purpose.

Anderson, D. L. (2012).  Organizational development:  The process of leading organizational change.  2nd ed.  Los Angeles:  Sage.
Northouse, P. (2011).  Leadership:  Theory and practice.  Los Angeles:  Sage.
Kotter, J. P. (1995, March/April).  Why transformation efforts fail.  Harvard Business Review, 59-67.
Southern Association of College and Schools Commission on Colleges.  (2011).  Principles of Accreditation.  Atlanta:  Author.
Scharmer, O.  (2009).  Theory U:  Leading from the future as it emerges.  San Francisco:  Berrett-Koehler. 

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Further Reflections on Action Research

This is an executive summary/argument for using Action Research at a college.

As Our institution moves from a two-year college to a full-service baccalaureate institution, faculty will be increasingly asked to consider their role in the creation of knowledge for their respective disciplines and instruction in that discipline.  As the Faculty Fellow for Publication and Communication, I approach the role as one of facilitating not just faculty development in instructional methods for the classroom, but also in professional development in the personal, service, and research aspects of their work.

Concurrently, I am beginning my journey as a doctoral student in the Adult Education and Organizational Leadership at the University of Georgia.  The goal of the faculty in this program is to lead us to be scholar/practitioners using, among others, the action research methodology.

In this memo, I would like to outline the characteristics of and processes used in action research and the benefits of this methodology to our college.

Action Research Defined

Action research is a rigorous social sciences methodology that has been in use in various forms since the 1940s.  Its earliest uses were in studying group dynamics and relationships.  Kurt Lewin, one action research’s originators, along with his colleagues realized that including the reflections of their research subjects in their data and in planning research processes provided a richer array of evidence.

Today, action research exists in many forms.  Some are focused on improving social conditions and ensuring more socially just conditions; Paolo Freire’s work in South America and much action research in Scandinavia are examples.  Other versions of action research, while embracing a democratic view of human relations and power, are more focused on solving problems or creating improved conditions and operations in businesses, schools, colleges, and health care and social service-providing organizations.

However, all action research involves a core of characteristics or traits.  A composite definition would be “a research approach combining quantitative, ethnographic, and qualitative methodologies which focuses on studying and solving real problems in social systems, that collects data and plans interventions, that views those affected by the research and problem-solving as research partners, that values democracy and dialogue, that views knowledge as including knowledge that is socially and personally constructed, and that requires consecutive cycles of planning, reflection, action (intervention), and assessment, and replanning.”

Action research differs from purely quantitative research by requiring reflection and dialogue, and it differs from purely qualitative methods by allowing, even requiring, that the interviewees or survey takers be part of the planning process and fully aware of their agency in the process.  However, action research usually incorporates quantitative and qualitative methods at various points in its repeated cycles.  Further, the researcher is expected to be honest with herself about biases and submit those to the group engaging in the research or those reading the published findings.

Action research is also highly reliant on grounded theory for its research and the manner of its intervention.  It is this action or intervention that also distinguishes action research.  In a sense action research is experimental, but the hypothesis testing is being done to address an existing problem or deficiency which the organizational leader and/or employees have agreed to address or have invited the researcher to address.

Action research adds to the knowledge base by testing and providing evidence for theories in the respective discipline, or by providing evidence that modifies the theory.  These disciplines include business development and growth, education, communication, social psychology, and management, among others.  Action research also adds to the knowledge base of research methods and epistemology.

Traits of Action Research

Action research, regardless of the location or the contest in which it is conducted, and regardless of the problem that is being addressed, shares these characteristics:
  • Rigorous.  The cyclical nature, the requirement of reflection and reflexivity, and the theoretical bases and prior research demand a detailed, careful, rigorous process.
  • Democratic.  Those who are affected by the research and the action have a voice in the design, data collection, and “meaning-making” of the conclusions.
  • Open.  Participants (not “subjects”) are apprised of the goals and strategies of the study and often partners in choices of such methods.  Ideally, action research has no secrets. 
  • Theory-based. 
  • Reflective at three levels.  The researcher reflects on the problem, the research process, and the theory behind the intervention.  The participants also reflect individually and corporately, for example, as part of the initial data collection and post-action phases.
  • Cyclical.  After one cycle of diagnosis, planning, action, and assessment/evaluation, another is begun based on what was learned in the first cycle.  An action research study may include three or four cycles.
  • Resulting in publishable conclusions.  There are many academic journals devoted to action research.
  • Flexible, or as Herr and Anderson (2005) term it, “emergent.”  Since each phase of the cycles, and each succeeding cycle, depends on what is learned previously in the action research process, the researcher and participants respond to the found and constructed knowledge and may find themselves going in unplanned directions.
  • Autobiographical.  The researcher, especially, is transparent about his or her life experience, standpoints, and thought processes in the research.
  • Constructivist.  Knowledge is seen, at least partially, as socially and individually constructed through experience and reflection on experience
  • Practical.  The goal of action research is to solve a problem and to learn from the process.

Analogies to Action Research

When I was introduced to the action research process, my first response was, “This is very much like how the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) is done.”  SoTL is rooted in Ernest Boyer’s work Scholarship Reconsidered (1990), in which he argues that rigorous research about teaching in a discipline should be considered on par with research in the discipline.  SoTL is a vital part of faculty development.  Faculty members engage in SoTL informally every day, by trying new techniques in the classroom.  The action research and SoTL models allow them to formalize the use of new pedagogies.  

My second response was “This is what we did with the QEP.”  In fact, I have often wondered why SACS does not present the QEP as action research.  It might have helped their communication of the goals of a QEP and located it in a more useful place for colleges. 

Benefits of Action Research to Our institution

DSC will benefit from action research in the sense that specific and systemic problems can be addressed in formal, internally driven, yet inclusive, broad-based, dialogic ways.  Action research will facilitate reflection and lead to the possibility of faculty presentations and publications.  Action research works well in higher education and other fields which we teach here.

As a teaching institution, we expect and value quality instruction.  That mission lessens the opportunity for faculty to do in-depth, traditional research.  The benefits and processes of action research—problem-solving, participatory, reflection-oriented, cyclical-- are appropriate for us.

I would like to suggest two plans.  First, I will model action research as a Faculty Fellow as part of my doctoral research, which will involve some aspect of improving the assessment and evaluation of professional development on campus.  Second, I would like to present workshops in action research methods specifically related to instruction and service.  The best approach is to have a learning community of faculty who apply and commit to learning about action research and engaging in it with a goal of a publication or presentation. 

The question might arise, “What would our institution’s commitment to Action Research entail?”  Because it is a social sciences methodology, that commitment would largely be in terms of time spent by the researchers and participants.  The learning community approach would require one-course release time for those who qualify for participation.   Resources beyond that would involve paper and copying. 

Reflections on Action Research

Note:  I am in two doctoral classes this semester.  One is on Leading Change and the other is about Action Research methodology.  This is a reflection on my understanding of Action Research.

In reading Theory U for Dr. Watkins’ class, I came across a casual quotation in the book.  It is not a book about action research but one that is highly dependent upon it.  Scharmer quotes Kurt Lewin, “You cannot understand a system unless you change it.”  That quotation hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks.  That is action research in a nutshell, if you will.  It is a process of understanding a system, and the people and processes within that system, by trying to change it. 
I am writing this essay the day after our SACS visiting team has given us our final report.  They were on our campus for three days.  As the chair of the Quality Enhancement Plan committee, I had a large responsibility in preparing for the visit.  Starting in June 2010, I led this effort.  It consumed my life, or a big portion of my professional life, for over two years.  I was originally the editor of the document, but when the chair (our Assistant VP of Academic Affairs) passed away, I was asked to lead the process.  It was a large statement of faith in me since I don’t (yet) have a doctorate, but I had acquitted myself well in leading a couple of other major projects. 
The QEP was very much like action research.  Perhaps that is why I do not struggle as much with the concept of action research as some of the others in the cohort:  I feel like I have completed a research project very much like action research.  Action research also is about systems theory and communication processes, and that is my academic background. 
The QEP process is like action research in the following ways:
1.       A change must be introduced into a system and its effects tracked over five years. I will not be in charge of that process; another faculty member who has more expertise in the subject matter of the QEP will be serving as the director. However, each cycle must be assessed carefully, reported on, and responded to; if the intervention is successful, new goals are set; if the intervention is unsuccessful, the lack of success is researched and new strategies instituted, or perhaps revised goals.
2.      The change is a result of research in best practices and theory in the field.  The QEP involves an extensive literature review.
3.      The change is a group effort.  I was not the most knowledgeable person about the subject of our QEP (developmental English).  I do have a graduate degree in English and have taught the course once or twice in the distant past, but not recently or extensively.  Our work in researching, writing, and enacting the QEP was truly collaborative.  I facilitated the process and believe it was as democratic as possible, although our SACS representative in the end had a strong influence on the document (that is common).  Along with working collaboratively in the committee, we worked collaboratively with many members of the whole campus.
4.      We used quantitative and qualitative methods for data collection.  Lots of statistics and number crunching, and lots of interviews and focus groups.
That being said, there are some differences.  The people involved in the QEP process do not think of what they are doing as research for the good of a system.  Unfortunately, we tend to think of it as something we have to do for SACS compliance.  The change feels enforced from an outside agency rather than internally driven or motivated.  In the end, the change is a good one (we were able to get a lot of money for our department to improve educational delivery), but if the college had said, “Here’s $50,000; improve development English,” it would have been easier!  In a related way, colleges can hire consultants to come in and help them develop their QEPs.  We did not do that, mostly due to lack of resources, and it did not seem to matter.  The visiting team was highly complimentary of our QEP and we received no recommendations—something about which I am very proud. 
Another difference is that the literature review really focuses more on best practices than on grounded theory.  Also, there is not a strong understanding of systems theory behind the process.   Finally, there is not a strong reflective component to the process.  Obviously, we participants thought and talked a great deal about the QEP because of its vital role in our being reaffirmed for accreditation, but other than me, I do not think anyone engaged in real reflective practice about it, even when writing his or her part of the lit review. I blogged about it and journalled frequently, but I was very ego involved.
Action research is often criticized for its lack of generalizability, a criticism I am not sure I fully understand.  That is one area where I will need to delve more deeply in my concept of AR because it seems to me that from a systems perspective, traditional research would lack generalizability as well.  Each system is itself, unique.  Systems theory is closely tied to AR, and this is one of the reasons why I am drawn to AR.  Organizations, families, churches, groups, etc. are systems, not machines. 
            The analogy of a spider web is apt, I think. We have a big spider in our yard who builds magnificent webs in sometimes inconvenient places.    The web’s shape is dependent on where the spider builds it, its environment, so the web is an open system.  The web might be part angular if woven in the corner of a porch, or totally irregular if built in a shrub (my spider gets around).  Touch any part of the web and it affects the whole web.   That speaks to the fragility of a spider’s web, but I think it also speaks to the fragility of systems, despite how systems depend on rules and regulations to stay constant.  The web is always changing in some way.  Systems follow patterns but each system is different.
This reflection on AR has been an adjunct to the other document, the memo to my academic supervisors; this one is more personal than analytic.  I am excited about AR and believe in the process, although the multiplicity of theories that we encountered in the case studies was daunting.  I like that AR is transparent, demands an admission of positionality, and is practical, flexible, cyclical, and emergent.  I am not currently committed so much to its social justice uses or the view that all knowledge is socially constructed; perhaps that will come.  To me, action research is life.  We are all growing and changing, we learn in cycles, and we must accept our limitations as research facilitators and learners.