The 13 principles of Black Lives Matter are the starting point of my qualitative methods courses
Researchers, and those who teach them, must be practiced at identifying and interrogating structures of oppression and how they are instantiated in our logics, our biases, and our practices through anti-racist praxis frameworks. This requires creating the conditions to cultivate a reflexive lens and disciplined humility for self-learning, peer-learning, society-learning, and world-learning—with compassionate and contextualized rigor as an ethic of humanizing research and humanizing methods teaching.
Six years ago Katie Pak was teaching assistant in a qualitative methods course I teach at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. For Black Lives Matter Week of Action in Schools, which happens the first week each February during Black History Month, Katie assembled a panel of doctoral students conducting research that centralizes Black Lives Matter principles. This was a deeply generative session that opened up critical and affirming discussions about race, intersectional identities, Critical Race Theory as a theoretical and methodological approach, structural racism in academia, White Western imposition in research, research as counter-narrative, identity and equity literacies and tensions. This session powerfully oriented the semester, setting the stage for us to become an inquiry community actively attuned to racism, identity, and equity. This now happens as a semesterly practice.
The first class session begins with a discussion of the principles of Black Lives Matter
We discuss the structural and organizational conditions that create and perpetuate the need for these statements and stances, for this social movement to take root in schools from pre-k through higher education, to be centralized in inquiry and research. We discuss humanizing and anti-racist methodology as necessary to, and relying on, praxis—the process of enacting, embodying, and embedding knowledge from lessons, skills, and theories, in/to/for transformational action (Freire, 1985). We discuss praxis research as a reflexive approach to critical action as part of inquiry itself, an ongoing process of moving between practice and theory through and in our research (Eikeland, 2012). This requires taking a critical learning stance on ourselves, our research, and the contexts—personal, relational, organizational, structural, and sociopolitical, and economic—that shape research settings, research designs, and methodological processes. These learning processes require, as they evince, critical dialogic engagement, culturally responsive methods, humanizing and ethical research; they challenge norms in the field, in methods pedagogy, and in our own embedded logics and ways of interpreting the world.
Start the course with transformative ideas
Reading and discussing these transformative ideas early on in the semester supports the intentional disruption of take-for-granted knowledge hierarchies that permeate our courses (even on Zoom!). This helps situate us early on as a community of embodied learners who seek to interrupt traditional power dynamics and asymmetries to build more authentic learning and exchange in coursework and fieldwork.
Together, we question the hegemonic codification of academic texts and research processes and norms in the field as a whole. We read and discuss a range of critiques of the academy and examine the potential for research to be transformational and/or oppressive. We discuss White logics and the colonization of inquiry, of our minds, of the ways that we relate even as we endeavor to teach and learn together. These conscious starting points and disruptions to White normativity matter. Specifically, we interrogate the binary of “expert” and “learner” as a false White Western construction of knowledge and value—an antidote to authentic and humanizing teaching, learning, and inquiry. We examine the ways that dominance is conferred upon so-called experts as an outgrowth of White supremacy—which must be disrupted at the very conception of research and in the researcher within our core self—for research to be vital, valid, catalytic, and useful.
William Thomas IV was our guest luminary this week, sharing his groundbreaking mixed method dissertation research on Intersections of Critical Race Theory, Culturally Responsive Teaching, and Humanizing Methodologies in a study of Black male teachers’ professional trajectories.1 Having doctoral students share their research and make active connections between theoretical and methodological frameworks, as William did, is vital to integrated learning in methods courses.
This class is followed by a session on building racial literacy and learning to navigate identity-based stress that I’ve integrated into my methods courses. Racial literacy is vital to valid and ethical research—after all, how can we read and interpret the world accurately if we cannot read ourselves accurately through the prism of identity and positionality? These sessions serve as a conscious starting point to interrupt the normative centering of Whiteness and to center BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) knowledges, wisdoms, and research approaches.
Study anti-racist researchers
Anti-racist researchers explore our social identities, power, and privileges and how they influence our worldviews, practices, and experiences as researchers. We explore social identities in terms of power and privilege, and hierarchy broadly, which inform the development of our mental models for how we think the world operates. We discuss how those who exist uncritically in these nested systems of power and privilege often mistakenly subscribe to the meritocracy myth, deficit orientations, and disbelief of structural oppression (Pak & Ravitch, 2021). The uncritical acceptance of opportunity structures ignores the role of structural racism and discrimination in shaping the differential opportunities that people have, creating fertile ground for grand narratives of deficit, exceptionality, essentialization, and tokenism—concepts central to critical research. Deficitization is the foundational lie upon which most codified research is built, and our research can serve to unsettle and dismantle these problematic norms. The start of the semester seems a solid time to begin this dialogue!
I strongly believe that researchers must engage racial literacy work and build our identity-based stress-navigation skills in order to do ethical and equitable research—as a floor not the ceiling of what it means to be a skilled researcher. This is necessary to being ethical co-learners and researchers who build our own critical literacies for interpretation and meaning-making as a primary responsibility. Relatedly, as methods instructors, we must address inequities and microaggressions that arise during our courses to model anti-racist pedagogy and challenge with care. It is our responsibility to validate and amplify non- and anti-dominant knowledges, value systems, points of view, and approaches to research. We need to continuously interrupt and address racism, sexism, microaggressions, and imposed deficit orientations with clarity and kindness while not tolerating behavior borne of White fragility and White grievance, assiduously challenging discriminatory views, unspoken assumptions, and projections as they emerge in our courses.
It is important that we lead with this kind of critical care and that we demystify research and academia—including its embedded racism, sexism, and ableism. This can be a disruptive, affirming, and exciting process. Of course, our own identities mediate all of this in important ways that must be attended to and named as part of this humanizing process.