It was a crisp day at the beginning of April. April 3rd to be exact. The sun was shining and students were walking all about the campus, half sheepishly, coffees in hand. During this time of year, there is a hurry to get the semester over with, combined with a renewed focus on studying for exams, finishing papers, and handing in the last slew of assignments. It was also the last seminar for one of my classes, Program Evaluation for Complex Interventions.
As a Master of Public Health graduate, I had always been interested in evaluation. For me, it was the art of getting to truly understand a program in order to leverage the science of evaluation to paint a picture of the program and its effects. In fact, while completing my MPH degree at Queen’s University, I opted to also tailor my practicum to the evaluation field. Now, as a first year PhD student sitting in another evaluation class, I started reflecting on what I had learned about evaluation over the last 3 months.
Throughout the course, there was this notion that struck me – good evaluators must learn how to also use their intuition. This is particularly important as most often evaluators are outsiders in a particular community, setting or context, called upon solely to perform the evaluation without having necessarily been involved in program planning and implementation stages. As an outsider who has been flown in to perform a particular task in a specified timeframe, it can be difficult to truly immerse yourself in the program in order to choose the best evaluation design. This is where you must partly rely on your intuition.
And so, as the last day of class was coming to an end, I was toying with the idea of whether intuition could be taught or whether it is an innate trait that you either have or don’t have. As the clock was striking noon, half an hour until class ended, I was curious to hear from my professor – his thoughts on whether intuition could be taught. I was particularly interested in his answer from his perspective as an experienced evaluator with many years of local and international experience. His answer surprised me.
“I do believe intuition can be taught and the way to do it is to get students to slow down.” That was it, the answer was that simple. Slow down and take the time to get to know yourself. Find new experiences, get outside, travel, reach out of your comfort zone and use those experiences to learn about and understand other people, new cultures, and acquire new knowledge. In evaluation, context matters. Broadening your perspective can increase your ability to understand the context into which the programs you will be evaluating are embedded in. This includes the geography, history, culture, political, social, and economic environment of the setting and the people who are stakeholders in the project. If you don’t understand the context, you don’t understand the program.
It is however becoming increasingly difficult to devote time to our own personal development. When deadlines are encroaching, papers need to be written, and assignments handed in, it can be difficult to still set aside time to work on your “intuition.” This is also something that should be further encouraged and facilitated by academic institutions. My evaluation class did just that. The class involved doing a Pecha Kucha presentation, a style of presentation that was initially invented in the architecture industry. Instead of a regular PowerPoint presentation with bullet points on a slide, you have 20 photographs that are shown for 20 seconds each. You have only 400 seconds to get your message across. This was tedious at the beginning while pondering what angle to take, but it had students telling stories, exposing the human side of why we do what we do. I learned more about my classmates in those 400 seconds than I had in the last 3 months of the entire semester. The class felt much more intimate in a way, after those presentations.
Spending time on building our intuition, or as I like to call it, our human side, is not a waste of time. Many of us are caught up chasing the promotion ladder, where before we know it we will be ready to burnout if we do not slow down. Engaging with our surroundings doesn’t have to mean going on lavish expensive trips to a new country – it means being present and aware of where you are in the world and exploring everything around you that you might sometimes take for granted. For me, going back to school to start my PhD was in a way, my commitment to personal development. In addition, I am making a much more conscious effort to engage with the world around me – whether it be attending the art gallery more often, writing blog posts, reading a new book or learning to cook with new ingredients. It doesn’t have to be extravagant, but it should occur regularly. Approaching our work and everything we do with a genuine interest in understanding others, their context and their motivations can be much more valuable than picking the best evaluation design. After all, if you don’t understand the people that are affected by the program you are evaluating, how can you pick the right design?