Dr. Kelly Clark/Keefe’s philosophical and reflective approach to research and teaching attempts to look beyond conventional or commonsense boundaries of what we think we know and understand, stretching her students—and herself—to take risks and discover intellectual growth amidst uncertainty.

“Formal education can be transformative, and it can also be constraining,” says Clark/Keefe, an associate professor in the College of Education and Social Services at UVM. “There’s this side of me that is always interested in opening up educational spaces, ideas and practices that have solidified over time, and have maybe lost some of their experimental, intuitive underpinnings—and pushing at that.”

In the fall of 2017, Clark/Keefe became part of the first cohort of faculty across UVM to engage in a campus-wide initiative to promote the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL). Supported by the Center for Teaching and Learning and the Provost’s Office, the SoTL project utilized a variety of field-based, qualitative research methods to study what she describes as “classroom conditions and teaching practices intended to cultivate flow.” Her primary aim was to better understand how the use of certain types of instructional strategies – designed to promote culminating states of concentration, interest, and enjoyment (i.e., flow) – influenced the collective atmosphere of the classroom environment, and graduate students’ perceived sense of engagement and agency in their learning.

For the graduate students who participated in her research, this involved a willingness to occasionally suspend the common belief that new knowledge is always best or most easily constructed through detailed reading, listening, writing, and speaking activities. Clark/Keefe introduced arts-informed approaches to exploration and learning, focusing on embodiment and creativity as an additional avenue for wisdom practices and knowledge production. Intentional integration of less dialogue-based forms of learning and expression, such as visual thinking and movement, helped encourage her students to let go of the notion that they needed to have full expertise in their research areas of interest. Instead, she encouraged them to experiment with ideas.

“I try to prime the classroom to hold what can feel differently risky, especially for graduate students, and by extension for me; that is, to find more comfort in uncertainty. I’m very upfront about saying, this is going to be an experiment, this is going to be an exercise in imagination and invention.”

Still in the process of analyzing her data, Clark/Keefe’s initial findings suggest the importance of allowing students of educational research a space to experiment to help them be open to the widest range of possibilities for either developing their research, or for listening to other people articulate their inklings.

“As valuable as knowledge production in higher education is, there is surprisingly little understanding of how certain teaching strategies either engender or constrain epistemic agency among graduate students,” she explains.

Though she will present the first paper on her SoTL research in April at the 2019 American Educational Research Association (AERA) annual meeting in Toronto, she never considers her research “finished,” continually revisiting it as the empirical findings and related new conceptual understandings unfold.

Another one of Clark/Keefe’s current research projects at UVM is in collaboration with Dr. Kelly Mancini Becker, a lecturer in the College of Education and Social Services. “Life Lines: The Art of Being Alive to Young Adulthood,” is proposed as a semester-long ethnographic study involving a group of undergraduate students residing in the newly-conceived UVM Arts and Creativity Learning Community. Their goal is to engage students in arts-based methodologies, including visual journaling, to explore identity, belonging, and purpose within a higher education context.

With the help of a CESS Innovation Grant, Life Lines has been conceived as a type of participatory research project, with students generating themes for arts-oriented exploration alongside Clark/Keefe and Mancini Becker. “This is an opportunity for young adults to utilize multimodal creative approaches to thinking and expression,” Clark/Keefe says, “giving them a chance to explore, say, and show how identity development works on their own terms.”

Additionally, Clark/Keefe is one of three editors on an upcoming book utilizing a variety of narrative inquiry approaches to explore stories of human displacement, collaborating with Lynn Butler-Kisber of McGill University, Canada, and Maggi Saven-Baden of the University of Worcester, United Kingdom.

Slated for release in spring 2020 through Routledge, Human Displacement Stories and Narrative Inquiry: Constellations of Challenge, Change, and Resilience (working title) opens up the concept of displacement itself, creating opportunities for those who have experienced displacement directly to complicate narrow or decontextualized notions of the term.  Doubling as a book that will provide an illustration of various strategies within the broad subgenre of narrative inquiry, participant experiences with displacement will be explored through deep dialogue and storytelling—rather than simply a snapshot of participants’ lives. “The goal,” Clark/Keefe explains, “is to offer a more complex and detailed expression of participants’ varied experiences with displacement than many current research and journalistic reports allow.” The book follows similar threads to her teaching of social processes and issues of inequity with her UVM students.

Clark/Keefe is also involved in the Integrated Behavioral Health and Primary Care Study, a broad-scale mixed-methods study situated in the UVM Larner College of Medicine. The investigation centers on whether patients with both medical and behavioral problems do better when their primary care physicians work in combination with behavioral health professionals including psychologists and social workers.

This multi-year project was awarded an $18.5 million grant from the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, and is divided into three “aims.” Aim 3, focused on contextual features, is the qualitative component of the study and is led by Dr. Jennifer Jewiss, research assistant professor in the College of Education and Social Services. The Aim 3 team includes a team of highly-skilled researchers including Clark/Keefe as well as Dr. Abigail Crocker, research assistant professor in the Mathematics and Statistics Department, and Dr. Lisa Watts Natkin, a post-doctoral research associate. Clark/Keefe’s role is consultative, assisting Jewiss, Watts Natkin and Crocker in research design, data collection, and analysis.

The work is very impactful, Clark/Keefe says, given its immense scope and focus on high-profile national interests and curiosities about more fully integrating behavioral health and primary care.

“My scholarship has always focused on how the human body is impacted by, and is involved in impacting, social, environmental and educational systems and structures. This study brings that inquiry focus into the dynamic organizational sphere of healthcare, an opportunity that is already brimming with more questions and avenues for future inquiry.”

Even though much of Clark/Keefe’s work takes her into broad, philosophical, national and global spaces, she acknowledges the influence of the local, innovative, and creative spirit of Vermont. “Politically and socio-culturally, it’s that outlier—it’s that state that people think of as somewhat alternative, and willing to take risks.”

And she holds the same high esteem for her students—her favorite part of UVM.

“They come to the classroom with a high level of expectation that something is going to go on for them, they want something to happen, they want to grow. I really enjoy entering this space feeling I’m among colleagues who are ready to roll up their sleeves and get at whatever is about to unfold."


Kate Whitney
Dr. Kelly Clark/Keefe meeting with doctoral student Asma Abunaib.
Dr. Kelly Clark/Keefe (left) meeting with doctoral student Asma Abunaib (right).