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Historical research is "the process of systematically examining past events or combinations of events to arrive at an account of what happened in the past" (Berg, 1998, as cited in Johnson and Christensen, 2011, p. 411). Use of this type of research is evident in MacLean's (2007) article titled, " 'A work second to none': Positioning extension at the University of Alberta, 1912-75;" a historical narrative that systematically examined the evolution of the Department of Extension at the University of Alberta from 1912 to 1975. In the article, MacLean attempted to accomplish two tasks: one, to reconstruct the social, economic and political factors that influenced the Department's evolution from extending university resources to those not affiliated with the institution in 1912, to facilitating life-long learning in 1975; and two, to recapture the philosophies of Ottewell, Corbett, Cameron and Campbell, the four successive Directors of the University of Alberta's Department of Extension from 1912 to 1975. In the following critique, I will first provide a brief overview of the article by delineating McLean's literature review, purpose, methodology, and content. I will then compare and contrast the strengths and weaknesses of the article from my own perceptive, as well as that of Johnson and Christensen (2011) and Guba (1981). Throughout, I will include my beliefs for how this article could be improved in order to be considered a more notable contribution to the field of adult education.
In the beginning of the article, Maclean claimed that current university extension literature is focused on one of two areas of research; either historical accounts of university based adult education in Western Canada or the shift in adult education's purpose from social justice to fulfilling the needs of a neo-liberal agenda. Consequentially, MacLean asserted that there is a gap in current university extension research. According to MacLean (2007), "despite the substantive importance of university extension units in Western Canada, there has been only modest scholarly debate about the reasons for the emergence and evolution of these units"(Introduction section, para.4). Furthermore, MacLean contested that while existing historical studies are descriptive; they oversimplified the political nature of the university extension. Consequentially, they do not provide the analysis needed to indicate how shifts in the role of the university extension were directly influenced by the social, political and economic changes in society, thus providing MacLean purpose for writing this article.
In order to illustrate Alberta's changing social, economic and political climate from 1912 to 1975, and how it influenced the evolution of the Department of Extension, MacLean's methodology included empirical research and theoretical analysis. Regarding evidence for Alberta's changing context, MacLean primarily used quantitative data such as statistics from official documents published by Statistics Canada and Canada's Census and Statistics Office. In regards to the evolution of the Department of Extension, many of MacLean's findings were substantiated using quotations from original, unpublished secondary sources such as past Department of Extension annual reports, thus providing the qualitative aspect to his mixed research method.
The author begins his narrative by discussing the historical context of University of Alberta's Department of Extension in relation to the university extension movements that occurred in England from the 1870's to the 1890's and in the United States during the 1900's. In doing so, Maclean established a framework for his research by providing the reader with greater insight into how the socio-political conditions of the time influenced and motivated university extension implementation. After providing the historical context for university extension establishment, the majority of the article focused on relating the goals of the four Directors of the Department of Extension to the socio-political conditions of the time. According to MacLean, from 1912 to 1975 there were three major shifts in the role and impact of the Department of Extension: extending university resources for the benefit of all citizens under the direction of Ottewell and Corbett; fostering social and economic progress under the direction of Carmeron; and meeting the learning needs of the individual under the direction of Campbell. At the end of the article, MacLean concluded with his hope that this article encourages contemporary adult educators to critically reflect upon the nature of university extension and adult education. According to MacLean (2007), "the usefulness of this argument for scholars ... is essentially one of cultivating awareness of [the] different means of positioning adult education within institutional and social contexts" (conclusions section, para.1).
Strengths of the Research Article and its Substance
One of the biggest strengths of MacLean's article is the fact that it is clearly written and well structured. As an individual who has no prior experience with scholarly historical research, and whom is most comfortable dealing with and analyzing quantitative research, I appreciate the well focused topic and clear purpose. I found it easy to follow the progression of the author's thoughts regarding how shifts in the university extension's role are potentially linked to changes in society's social, political and economic position.
Another strength of the article is MacLean's use of empirical evidence and theoretical analysis. According to Johnson and Christensen (2011), while historical research has no formally agreed upon methodology, the methodology used should: identify the research topic; incorporate a literature review; evaluate materials for authenticity and accuracy; synthesize data; and prepare the narrative. As stated above, I believe that MacLean does a noteworthy job of clearly identifying research topic. Throughout the narrative, MacLean consistently stated how what he was presenting was related to the research purpose. For example, MacLean illustrated how Alberta's relatively rural, agrarian and immigrant population in 1921 provided rationale and political legitimacy for the role of the Department of Extension at that time, which was to extend resources beyond the university. This is because since a majority of citizens did not attend the university, the university needed to legitimize use of tax dollars for its funding.
The literature review is also well done, with fourteen different sources cited that identify the current state of university extension research. However, despite being well written and fairly inclusive, I believe that the review lacks conflicting literature. MacLean does briefly mention a conflicting viewpoint, that changes in the university extension's role could be attributed to a changing university context, rather than a changing socio-political context; however it is done in the conclusion rather than at the beginning of the article. As an alternative explanation, I would have appreciated this information early on so that I could make my own judgement regarding why the role of the Department of Extension changed. Furthermore, in order to negate this explanation, I believe that the author should have been more diligent in providing reasons why this is not the more plausible motive for changing department roles.
In terms of material authenticity, a majority of MacLean's supporting documents are original and were directly obtained from either the University of Alberta's achieves, Statistics Canada or Canada's Census and Statistics Office. Regarding accuracy, MacLean utilized Wineburg's (1991, as cited in Johnson and Christensen, 2011) three heuristics for evaluating historical documents. Maclean first corroborated with comparable documents from the University of Saskatchewan and the University of British Columbia to illustrate how they presented some of the same information regarding the role of university extension. By utilizing thick descriptive data, MacLean was able to compare the University of Saskatchewan and University of British Columbia contexts to that of the University of Alberta, thus allowing the reader to contemplate transfer (Guba, 1981). The author also sourced the information; by using annual reports that were written during or soon after a shift in the Department of Extension's role and purpose, MacLean was able to ensure document accuracy. Lastly, MacLean contextualized the information by relating the shift in Department role with changes in societal context.
Prior to preparing the article, it is obvious that MacLean synthesized the data collected. By utilizing a mixed method research approach through use of both narratives (qualitative) and statistical analysis (quantitative), MacLean skilfully demonstrated how idiographic knowledge of the four Directors could be related to the ideographic causation of Alberta's social, political and economic climate of the time (Johnson and Christensen, 2011).
Weaknesses of the Research Article and its Substance
While MacLean's article provides an interesting overview of the history of university extension both in general and in relation to the University of Alberta from 1912 to 1975, it is not without its weaknesses. First, while use of original archived documents is fundamental to the authenticity and accuracy of the narrative in regards to passing the test of external criticism; the author did not discuss why he chose to base his narrative on previously unpublished documents rather than utilize literature that has been peer reviewed or previously critiqued. Consequentially, this made me question the article's internal criticism with specific regard to its negative criticism. On one hand, use of quotations derived from original documents "provide(s) a deep understanding of the inner views and meanings of the people studied" (Johnson and Christensen, 2011, p.80). On the other hand, since individuals attend to or interpret different components of an event based on their training, prejudice, or prior experience, how one interprets is context driven (Johnson and Christensen, 2011). Guba (1981) corroborates this sentiment when he stated that there exists "multiple realities since there are multiple persons; knowledge of human behaviour is rarely context free" (p.78). As a result, as I read this article I was unsure whether MacLean's findings were based strictly on the subjects and conditions of inquiry or if they were based on his biases, motivations, interests, or perspectives. A solution to this problem, besides acknowledging any bias or preconceived notions to the reader, would be to provide a member check (Guba, 1981). By either stating his perspective or by employing another investigator and determining if they came to the same conclusion, MacLean could have improved his credibility and therefore the overall trustworthiness of the article.
Another problem with MacLean's article is when he stated that "the position of the university extension shifted in concert with political-economic changes that transformed the society and the institution in which such extension work took place" (Introduction section, para.2, italics added). According to the Cambridge online dictionary (n.d.), the term shift means "to move or change from one position to another". Consequentially, is MacLean implying that when the Department of Extension's role changed from extending resources beyond the university in 1912 to meeting learner needs in 1975, that they abandoned all previous discourse? Does this mean that the Department of Extension in 1975 was only concerned with facilitating the needs of the life-long learner and not with extending university resources or fostering societal progress as well? If this is the case, then why does today's Faculty of Extension list all three (extend resources, foster progress and meet learner needs) as faculty goals on its website (University of Alberta, 2010)? Based on current Faculty of Extension goals, it is my interpretation that discourse is added to as time progresses, not changed from one position to another. MacLean only briefly acknowledges this when he stated that these concepts are "not mutually exclusive" in the conclusion section (para.1). As a result, in order to avoid such misleading connotations, I believe that MacLean needed to be more careful with the language used when presenting his arguments.
MacLean's article effectively narrated the evolution of the Department of Extension at the University of Alberta from 1912 to 1975 under the direction and influence of four successive Directors: Ottewell, Corbett, Cameron and Campbell. He also provided a solid argument that illustrated how changing department role were linked to changing societal contexts. However, despite the fact that the article is well written and has a clear purpose, the following improvements need to be considered. First, in order to allow the reader to make their own informed decisions regarding the relationship between changing department role and changing societal landscapes, alternative explanations need to be explicit and not included as an afterthought in the conclusion. Two, the author should identify his own perspective and potential biases in order for the reader to identify the authors point of view and take that into consideration when judging the trustworthiness of the article. Finally, the author must be careful with his use of language in order to avoid leading the reader to false interpretations. With these issues resolved, I believe that this article can provide a valuable contribution to the field of adult education.