Research as relational or Just because I can think of a good interview question doesn’t mean I get to ask it.

 

Each fall, faculty are contacted by prospective doctoral students who are interested in furthering their education, acquiring more credentials, becoming researchers, and sometimes looking for another way of being an educator. When students call or email expressing interest, we faculty respond back, often invite them for a visit to campus, and at least where I work, there is usually one full day of mutual courting/impressing. During the meetings I’ve had with prospective doctoral students, at some point in this process the student asks about my research and, then almost always, asks about potential involvement in the work. It goes something like this, “Your work sounds important/intriguing/insert adjective that conveys interest. If I were to come here would I be involved in that research?”

 

Usually I blink while thinking, “Whoa. We just met.”

 

It’s not that I have any illusion about the strategic question of these prospective doctoral students – they should be asking about the kinds of research projects sponsored at an institution if they intend to become a researcher. Nor do I operate under the illusion that research institutions are not very much about preparing researchers, and that does not happen very effectively outside of conducting actual research. And of course I am as functionally aware as I can be of how much of a nontreat it is to work with me specifically. No, the whoa in my response is that there is no way of knowing if this person’s involvement in the collaborative research is beneficial to the participants outside of the university. Research is a fundamentally relational, cultural, political practice. As an intentionally community-involved, collaborative researcher, such a question without contextual knowledge leaves me at a complete loss. I shouldn’t be able to answer that question as it is simply not up to me completely and yeah, I don’t even.know.you.

 

When we engage in many academic research activities, though, there tends to be a generic, tacit reference to accepted graduate students (and faculty for that matter) as inherently capable of conducting research. For example, in applying for and procuring grants, an essential activity for any faculty member at a research institution, it is wise to include line items to fund graduate students, to both people the work of the research as well as to support their stipends, tuition needs, and their development as researchers. But here’s the problem: acceptance into a graduate program does not necessarily tell us very much about the ability to be of service to a specific population in specific contexts working on often multi-faceted, hydra-headed issues of equity and oppression. Considering the demographics of those who make it into doctoral programs at research-intensive universities, the viability of that population knowing the needs, logics, and intelligences in communities far flung of the academy should minimally be up for discussion. Of course, neither do the initials P, H, and D necessarily tell a community anything other about those capacities. In fact, those initials have far too often meant seduction, betrayal, and opportunism. It is for these good reasons that so many communities have enacted their own processes of ascertaining how and when to grant external researchers entry.

 

Working across the very different and sometimes oppositional needs of marginalized communities and university-based researchers should not be, as it has often been, a question of how the researcher can ‘gain access.’ In participatory approaches to research, access itself is poorly conceived concept. Most participatory approaches to research are long-term and as such, access isn’t a single point of entry. It takes a long time to establish trust, to build relationships, to engage in ongoing, messy dialogues and practices that interact with systemic issues, which are, by definition and reality, never a single-fulcrum issue. None of that, though, is well reflected in traditional linear research designs of problem, literature review (from the academic library), methods, findings, and results.

When conducting research that is guided by academic knowledge, it is much easier to devise a plan, and then execute, controlling for x, y, and z so that it all feeds into the research focus. Even in qualitative research, that kind of roll-out is better for the speedy learning of research skills like interviewing, observing, and coding. The questions and approaches that do control for variables are important, but for different questions than those that tend to be asked and pursued by marginalized communities finding ways to survive despite what a heteropatriarchal racist settler state might have in mind for them. Life just isn’t that controllable outside of labs. It’s much messier, and it should be. The mess also yields insights, if we can shake off the logarithms of the academic processes long enough to see them.

 

For example, in a current collaboration with a local group of youth, educators and social justice activists, I am working with two graduate students to investigate the contours of settings that support critical consciousness of youth outside of school settings. In this mix, sometimes some of the youth are on point with their views on a just society, and sometimes not. At a recent meeting, there were some strongly misogynistic phrases thrown around at the end of one of our sessions. I’d say they fell into the realm of ‘rapey’ that I often use to describe why it’s taken me so long to watch Game of Thrones. Now, adherence to the previously designated inquiry into social justice development might mean asking some of the youth to participate a later date because their comments and practices do not resonate with any descriptor of social justice praxis and therefore would yield little in the way of data. In such a scenario, the graduate students might interview who remained in the program and conduct some activities with them, but they wouldn’t necessarily be directly making central decisions about who should remain in the program, as those decisions would be for the principal investigator, not the apprenticing graduate students. But in this approach, insight from the graduate students was crucial to making meaning of the interactions. They had been onsite, working as long-term substitutes with these youth and therefore, could flesh out what those comments were about, and provide suggestions on how to proceed. These ‘students’ have that place as researchers because of their time in the school, certainly, but that would not have come to be without their ability to be in the school, be effective teachers of the youth, and to be critically reflective practitioners. It also helps that they understand aspects of navigating the world from nondominant positions through their own lived experiences.   I am hoping they are learning something much more important than a textbook-worthy semi-structured interview protocol. I’m hoping they’re learning that if the research is worth its mettle, it won’t simply seek the cherries in the data that all but shout ‘quotable’ but that it makes the theories work as well as works the theories in relation to the data. That is research in action. It means being answerable to the people we’re working with and respectful to actions as holding life and wisdom, albeit often complicated and thorny.

 

Which brings me back to the blinking I do when asked if someone I just met three minutes ago would be able to work, to be of service, to be a ‘researcher’ in such a setting. I’ve yet to arrive at a better, more honest answer than ‘let’s see how it goes’ because that contains my desire to delay making promises that serve academic processes at the delay of other participants.

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