Behind the scenes: An Institutional Ethnography of Hungarian Higher Education

One of the ways I have been preparing for the book talks and webinars where I talk about my research has been writing these Behind the Scenes posts. Although much of what I write here is for an audience who might be new to the publication process and working toward their first publications—writing about the parts of the research process rarely or briefly referenced in the final published articles has helped me to remember the intricacies of the research process and put me back in the place of being embedded in the data. This mental and emotional space is the place I’d like to start each discussion of my work. This week, I will present on my structural research on higher education in Hungary through a webinar for AACRAO. I was the first recipient of the Gloria Nathanson grant, which helped to fund this research. The webinar is at noon CST on Wednesday, October 16.

In this Behind the Scenes post, I’ll describe the background of my research on higher education in Hungary including the path to the research, the grant application process, and some of the logistics in planning international research.


The final semester of my doctoral program, coursework completed and dissertation data collected, I decided to move to Budapest, Hungary to write my dissertation. A month earlier, I’d taken a trip to Budapest and fallen in love with the city. I mentioned to my travel partner, who lived in Budapest, that I thought I could live there. I told my family when I returned that I thought I might move there. And while I don’t think that anyone took me seriously, that’s exactly what I did. I moved out of my apartment in North Dakota, found a storage unit for my car, bought a flight, found a flat in Budapest, and a month later I was boarding a flight. When I arrived, I settled into a pattern of Hungarian language lessons in the morning and dissertation writing all afternoon and night. It was a largely solitary time of my life; whenever I needed a break from language learning and writing, I wandered around Budapest and the surrounding region. Every day was a new challenge, a new opportunity, and my time and language study there opened up to me a place hauntingly full of history, tragedy, resilience, and strength. It wasn’t easy. I don’t know that writing a dissertation or moving to a foreign country is supposed to be. But it was wonderfully challenging. There isn’t a day where I don’t miss the streets of Hungary. The people. The language.

I wanted to return, of course. But first, I had to defend my dissertation and start a new job at the University of Louisville. And then I was fortunate enough to find a tenure-track (TT) position at Auburn University, and I’m still there as of the writing of this post. Settling into a TT position was critical to my development as a writer – finally feeling secure in my position, I was better able to write and plan. And as soon as I could, I began to plan my return to Hungary, but this time to conduct research into what had intrigued me since my first trip—the Hungarian higher education system. My timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous and urgent. Then (and, as of this writing) prime minister Orbán was slowly but surely eroding the civil rights of Hungarian citizens, focusing many of his attempts on eroding and then dismantling higher education as an emancipator for all. One of the ways he sought to do that was through new legislation, targeted at Central European University (CEU), that in essence would require CEU to close its doors. Orbán was particularly incensed by CEU because it was founded by George Soros, a Jewish philanthropist who had been vocal about migrant rights. At the time, CEU was accredited in the United States, with only a few programs accredited in Hungary. Orbán’s proposed legislation would require CEU to have a physical location in the United States or close. This legislation was viewed with concern across the European Union as further evidence of the Orbán administration’s attack on institutional autonomy and academic freedom. Protests, criticism from the global community, a threat of censure from the EU, and even the opening of a physical campus at Bard College did not dissuade Orbán, and the law passed and took effect. CEU was, eventually, forced to announce that it would launch a Vienna campus where most new students would begin classes.

It was into this setting that I made my first research trip to Hungary. That trip’s stayed goal was investigatory – I wanted to make contacts at institutions across Hungary who might be willing to connect me to students and faculty for a future institutional ethnography of the higher education system. While I was there, I also continued my Hungarian language lessons so that I could read (or at least find) relevant Hungarian education policy. I had planned to return in a year, perhaps more, to conduct this study. However, I realized that the pace of change in the Hungarian higher education landscape was so quick that if I waited a year to return, I might very well return to a completely different place. So, instead, I began planning for my return trip as soon as I returned in January so that I could return as soon as the semester ended. I had less than four months to plan an international research trip. I had the contacts and institutions who indicated they’d be willing to give me access. Now, I just had to get there.

Planning an International Research Trip

Funding. The department research fund, with the support of my department head had funded the investigatory trip to Hungary, but I felt like I couldn’t ask for more funds to support another trip, so I started searching for grants. Through the magic of google, I stumbled upon the AACRAO grant. I didn’t realize that this was the first iteration of the Gloria Nathanson grant. I’d never been a PI on a grant, and this was my first experience writing for one. The amount of the grant would only cover a portion of the trip, but I thought it would be a good start. I wrote to the proposal, explaining how the research would expand our knowledge of Hungarian higher education in a way that would help admissions representatives and registrars (the group of professionals AACRAO supports), hit submit, and waited.

Honestly, I’d only ever heard about the grant writing process as being difficult and thankless, so I had no expectation that I would be awarded the grant. I also had no formal grant writing experience or training, but I did have experience applying for academic jobs, which I think has some parallels to grant writing: 1) Write for the grant/position call, don’t send the same generic description to each place; 2) Expect failure and/or non-response; 3) Apply often, but only to relevant positions/grants; 4) Seek feedback repeatedly and often for each new document you create; 5) Don’t take rejection personally.

Because of this, I was shocked when I received an email asking to set up a call to discuss my research in more detail. I didn’t want to get my hopes up—perhaps everyone received a call. But I did take it as a positive sign. After a positive phone call, I learned that I would be awarded the $1,000 grant. I also received an Auburn College of Education Alumni grant, which funded the remainder of the trip. I’ve heard people often complain about the amount of work that goes into these “smaller” grant applications, and while the process can be rigorous, I have also found the rewards from receiving these grants to be the most rewarding. In particular, working with AACRAO has led to incredible connections across higher education. First, before beginning the institutional ethnographic study, Auburn doctoral student Ariel Steele and I conducted a historiography of higher education in Hungary to understand the institutional context we were exploring. The manuscript resulting from that historiography will be published in an upcoming issue of C&U.  AACRAO also invited me to present at their annual meeting and, as I mentioned above, I will be featured on a webinar to talk more about the research this week.

Ethical approval. The second, and perhaps most important part of planning the trip, was securing ethical approval. Receiving approval from one’s ethical review board or IRB is the bare minimum when considering ethics in research, but it is a required step. For Auburn University’s IRB, I needed to complete the exempt research form and include a letter from the institution(s) where I would conduct research that granted me permission to do the research there. To obtain that, I asked my institutional contacts to write a letter stating that I had institutional permission to do the research that detailed the research I hoped to do, describe the access I’d have to the setting, and define the population of potential research participants. To help them* write the letter, I provided the format of other example permission letters and specifically outlined what access I was asking for and why. I also had several in-person conversations about the research – I wanted to make sure that they understood exactly what they were giving me permission to do. Of note, I only required a letter because my contacts at the institutions were not participating with me in the research. Had they been involved as co-researchers, we would have gone through the full ethical board at each institution and received approval before beginning the research. At my institution, I also had to complete the CITI international module. Once all was completed, the IRB was approved. From there, I just had to figure out logistics, recruit participants, and get there.

In order to protect to identity of the specific institutions and, therefore, participants, I use pronouns like they/their intentionally. As I mentioned, IRB approval is an institutional requirement and very important, but meeting one’s institution’s IRB requirements does not meet that all ethical considerations have been met. Considering power and privilege is always important, but especially so in international research, where one might not be familiar with norms and customs. This puts an additional weight on the researcher(s) to ensure that participants completely understand the research and are able to give their consent to participate without feeling coerced.  Further, it is important to understand the norms and expectations of the country one is in – some countries have additional requirements for international researchers and/or international research standards that one will want to make sure they meet. Finally, it is very important to understand the sociohistorical context of the place you are visiting and the ways that participants might be disadvantaged or marginalized. Context is important, and it is the responsibility of the researcher to understand the setting as completely and comprehensively as possible. This was one of the reasons Ariel and I began with the historiography project. The historiography helped us to accomplish our goal to understand everything that had been written about Hungarian higher education as well as the current and past policy environment. 

Conducting International Research

My local institutional partners, in addition to writing letters giving permission to do research at their institutions, were also willing to help me find a place to conduct interviews and to connect me with faculty and students who could participate in the research. This was integral to the success of this project. Recruitment can be the hardest part of a research study, and I didn’t want to arrive in Hungary without full schedule of interviews and observations. Thanks to the introductions made by my partners, I was able to schedule 1-2 interviews every day I was there (15 days) and a classroom observation most days.

Since I had lived in Hungary and knew it very well, I didn’t have the stress of navigating a new space. Additionally, I spoke the language enough to get around, so getting to and from the different institutions wasn’t stressful like it might have been in a completely new place where I didn’t know the language. However, I did still have to figure out how long it took to get around the city and ensure that I was allotting enough time to get from place to place. I also found that I had booked myself so full some days that I didn’t make time to eat; hungry and lost in Budapest is not an ideal state. Finally, while those who participated spoke English in their interviews, many of them spoke English as a second or third language. While I could understand them during the interview, it was harder to understand them when we were transcribing the interviews later. I took very detailed notes during the interview, but there were some parts of certain interviews that took hours to translate. In retrospect, I think it would have been better to try to transcribe almost immediately to mitigate any questions.

As this was an institutional ethnography and data collection methods were similar to the research described in Gendered Student Ideals in Higher Education, I won’t go into detail about the methods or plan for analysis. They will also be in the full manuscript, once it is published (it is currently under review).

To hear more about the methods and findings, please join the AACRAO webinar on Wednesday, October 16 at noon EST/1 CST. You’ll be able to tweet questions to me during the webinar @Laura_j_parson, and I will respond to as many of them as I can (or, if you post questions here as comments, I’ll prioritize answering them during the presentation).

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