What gets researched: a project of colonization

We began our inquiry from a view of the system of educational debt and from there, I invoked Diamond’s work as a metaphor, to ask what educational research has to do with things are they way they are. Within the field of educational research, this inquiry will focus particularly upon the genre of research, how it is written, received, and positioned favorably through certain kinds of texts and language.

Within contemporary societies, knowledge and power are inextricably linked, most often through writing and speaking. From educational policies to educational research, the lived material realities of today’s youth, their families, and their teachers are permeated by and intricately influenced by texts. How we write about, study, enact legislation and policies, and assess children, is all based in writing and texts. Consider the texts that precede all university-sanctioned research:

  • Development of literature reviews of existing research on a topic
  • Review of methodologies used to study the topic in the past
  • Development of a written research proposal, typically including a problem statement, literature review, theoretical framework, methods, and significance or implications of the study.
  • Proposal to an Institutional Review Board to conduct human subjects research

Not a single piece of data has been collected, but it is within these texts that, already, who should be studied, by whom is defined. In fact, these processes are meant to be tantamount to exploring and addressing ethical concerns that may arise from research involving human subjects. By following these steps, it is as though we can now wash our hands of larger responsibilities to an unequal system, to a system that echoes legacies of colonization.

Beyond research proposals and extending into research studies, their findings, school curricula and policies, these textual practices have material consequences for people at various points in the system, including educational researchers.  It is within genres of academic research, then, that we must look to investigate the role of educational research in the continued systemic disenfranchisement of populations.

Patterned silences of the system

To understand how the genre of academic research works, instructive are stages where novices, graduate students, are being apprenticed into the academy. As part of that apprenticeship, doctoral students take courses in research methodologies to study the ways in which research knowledge is framed, gathered, and communicated. These research practices, along with knowledge about what counts as a valid research topic, are then put forth in doctoral dissertations. The dissertation acts as a sort of an academic calling card for newly minted Ph.D.’s (Kilbourn, 2006), communicating to members of the academy that the work of the doctoral candidate is capable of academic research and writing, contributes original knowledge to the field of educational research, and is rigorous in its design and findings. However, from a different stance, a stance in which the gaze is turned back onto educational research, doctoral dissertations also mirror what the field deems worthy. This worthiness is bestowed only by those who have already passed the traditional requirements of doctoral work. In the following section, I explore the work of recent doctoral dissertations to illuminate the ways in which a research question tells a great deal about what preceded it and about the keys needed to unlock the gates to the academy. I again remind myself and the reader that this analysis is done with humility and hope; that although some of this may sting, it is necessary for healing to occur. This analysis, then, is not so much about the dissertations themselves, but more so about the system of educational research that requires these forms of colonizing knowledge.

Where does a question come from?

In his oratory introduction to KRS-One’s audio CD, Ruminations, Professor Cornel West pushes his audience of higher education students to consider where a question comes from. “Those cast in the arbitrary constructs of brown. Black. Yellow. Red are inferior, less beautiful, less intelligent. What a lie, but, my God, that lie has taken on tremendous ferocity. [pause]. And it’s still around.  Who cares about the intelligence of those with blue eyes as opposed to those with brown eyes? You can’t get a Ph.D. in psychology from that. Who cares about the intelligence of those in Georgia as opposed to those in North Dakota?. You can’t get a dissertation in psychology studying that! But you raise black and white, and that’s a very serious issue. I know it’s going to delicate for some of you [laughter], but let’s see where the evidence shows. That’s how science works. [pause] Where does a question come from?”

In the years from 2004 to 2009, 909 dissertations were completed and published that included one of the following terms in the title: achievement gap, African American or Black students, African American or Black youth, Latino students, Latino youth, immigrant students, immigrant youth, at-risk students, at-risk youth, marginalized students, marginalized youth. Within those studies, most of the dissertation titles focus on one population and one factor or characteristic relative to that population and/or its learning experiences. For example, in Asterilla’s 2008 dissertation entitled, “The fragments of frustration in building academic literacy for college-bound African-American students: Implications for the use of outdoor education,” we see a focus upon college-bound African American students and an investigation into outdoor education for building academic literacy. But where does this question come from? This research inquiry, quite logically, emanates from a system in which academic literacy is often falsely equated with intelligence (Lemke, 1996), in which African Americans are disenfranchised from a cultural model of literacy that is the home of the White middle class (Lee, 2007), and from a research industrial complex in which interventions are common as the solution to the achievement ‘gap’.

The same focus on interventions is within the work of seasoned researchers, who, rather than just having cleared the hurdles of graduate study, are actively engaged in foundation-sponsored research into the achievement gap. In Biancarosa and Snow’s (2004) Carnegie-sponsored report on how to move beyond the early literacy foci of recent U.S. national educational agendas and address secondary learners, they state:

In addition, the problems faced by struggling readers are exacerbated when they do not speak English as their first language, are recent immigrants, or have learning disabilities. Indeed, a struggling reader may fit all three of these descriptions, making intervention a truly complicated proposition” (p. 9)

Here, outdoor education as an intervention might not cut muster, as there are several different factors that may cause a reader to struggle. Within these two examples from a novice and more experienced researchers, we see that the underlying logic of educational research is to locate the factor affecting the population and then hone in on a singular intervention. Research produces knowledge that assesses the single intervention and projects implications for its use with other populations. How might research progress differently if it started from a quest for the interventions into the systemic factors that marginalize some populations while privileging others? Rightly so, the quest for a technical intervention becomes appropriately stunted when it is a system and not just a group of individuals in need of an intervention.

However, simply increasing the number of factors being considered does not necessarily bring in a more systemic view of marginalized and privileged. In Ayers’ 2010 dissertation, “The relationship between stress, academic confidence, parental involvement, and academic achievement in African American urban youth,” we have now several factors that might speak to the achievement of African American urban youth. Without a doubt, stress, confidence, and parental involvement interact dynamically with academic achievement, and an inquiry into this dynamic is certainly more ecologically grounded than a study into just one of the factors.  Nowhere in the title of this dissertation, though, do we gain an understanding of the ways that a discriminatory society produces stress, reduces confidence and often precludes involvement of parents in educational institutions. Without naming the discriminatory and racist society in which African American urban youth live, the system is silenced, and the target of the intervention [to reduce stress, build confidence, and involve parents] is solely articulated for/upon the youth, not the system in which they live. Although interventions for individuals and systems need not be diametrically opposed, my concern is that rarely is there is an intervention for the racist society, while interventions abound for marginalized populations to bridge the gap between themselves and privileged populations. While these interventions proliferate, and the researchers documenting them solidify their positions in society, with the most vulnerable populations remaining vulnerable to a society that is poised, at best, to assimilate them, and more typically, to keep them in low-income and less safe contexts.

Imagine an alternate inquiry into stress, confidence, and parental involvement, but this time with the population of legacy college attendees at elite private colleges and universities. No such study exists, or anything remotely similar to it, in the 909 dissertations completed over the last five years on the achievement gap. Only the ‘at-risk’, those in need of intervention are studied, those who are in the preferential spots in society are not studied, and because of that silencing, they are re-centered as the norm, and those struggling are spotlighted as the area of need, not the system that arranges all the participants into their respective spots. Although the system is not highlighted in the examples that precede this one, it is more forcefully seen when we contrast the studies published and this fictional one about elite college students I have proposed. Alongside each other, these real and fictional studies illuminate that these populations are working within and rewarded differentially within a discriminatory system, one that is predicated upon competition and capital. However, the study into the privileged college attendees does not exist mainly because this population needs no intervention; they have already achieved. These practices of achievement are so normalized that they are invisible, not worthy of inquiry, and certainly not seen as dynamically connected to the populations that drop out of school. From this line of logic, the interventions that abound in the hundreds of other studies into oppressed populations (sometimes known as at-risk, marginalized, or quite euphemistically, urban) are designed for those populations to achieve like attendees at the private elite college. Rarely do the interventions directly address the ways in which status is so inequitably conferred. Nor do social scientists actually consider the plausibility of how an iniquitous social order, predicated upon privilege and disenfranchisement, actually closing the gap between the haves and the have nots.

While Ladson-Billings’ call for us to consider educational debt moves us in the correct direction of regarding the system, we must even more fully engage with questions of the system, including how it amasses educational wealth alongside the debt. Without a consistent and explicit exploration of the systemic factors that are institutionalized into the daily rhythm of oppressed and privileged peoples, social scientists reflect and become part of that system that is built on inequity and injustice.

Research into systems of inequities need not discard inquiry into factors and characteristics. In the video, “Unnatural causes,” (California Newsreel, 2003) the episode, When the Bough Breaks, charts the search for explanations of disproportionately high incidences of infant mortality and low birth weight of children of African American mothers. By contrast to native-born White American mothers, babies from African American mothers are four times more likely to be premature and three times more likely to die before their first birthday. The rates are alarming, disturbing. What could be the cause? The documentary progresses as the following factors are successively discussed and dismissed: genetics, socioeconomic level, and country of origin. Using large-scale quantitative data, the health researchers profiled in the video make the case that what seemed most logical to the medical field, genetics and socioeconomic level, cannot explain the prevalence of low birth and infant mortality rates in babies born to African American mothers.  To illustrate the case, the documentary focuses particularly closely on the history of a successful African American lawyer and the medical complications of her daughter, born prematurely and with a birth weight low enough to relegate to a neo-natal unit for the first month of her life.  As this woman talks over images her now-healthy daughter and recounts how she had done all the advised practices of eating well and resting during her pregnancy, the viewer is left with the question of how this healthy, economically stable woman gave birth to a premature and delicate infant. The medical experts unfold their history of inquiry into cases like the lawyer’s, investigating and successively ruling out the factors of genetics and socioeconomic status. They highlight that the only remaining possibility was to look for what African American women, and not African or White American women, had in common, and that was the shared context of a discriminatory society. The studies conducted under this view of African American women in a racist and sexist society focus on the role of societal toxins and stress. Over time, the human system that runs high on the stress from daily microaggressions of discrimination manifests this stress biophysically. One researcher likened the accumulation of these daily stresses to constantly revving a car engine; the integrity of the engine will begin to show these signs of undue wear and tear, of undue abuse. Systems biologists now routinely consider the ways in which multiple systems, neurological, genetic, physical, and cultural, interact dynamically with each other to produce particular human practices, behaviors and tendencies. Educational research should follow suit and consider constantly the role of the system into inquiries of educational achievement, debt, and wealth.

Just as with African American mothers, any students not borne into social class prestige live, study, work, fight, and love under the heel of discriminatory contexts.  In times when colonizing through physical force was more recent, students were barred from formalized education based on their racial heritage, language background, gender, and physical ability. However, now that the guns have been put down and victories have long been lodged in history books, the question of why things are the way they are must investigate the colonization that continues in the minds and spirits of these same populations and in the privileged. Educational research that segments populations by characteristics, deems them at-risk, and designs and tests interventions for them may provide short-term bandages to the flow of blood from colonizing legacies, but this research also ultimately works to sustain the system and how it confers safety and status. In fact, these more implicit echoes of colonization are no less potent; rather, they are more insidious because they co-opt populations into looking first and solely to themselves for explanations to the question of why they are not succeeding. The African American mother profiled in “Unnatural Causes” was perplexed by the low birth weight of her daughter, wondering what she had done wrong. Similarly, populations disenfranchised at the hands of formalized schooling typically look to themselves first to explain their lower status. This is echoed and perpetuated in educational research that provides a seemingly endless stream of interventions for ‘at-risk’ populations. In this way, educational research is complicit in a larger system that normalizes the achievement and wealth of some while pathologizing and marginalizing others. Ironically, it is, in part, because of the silences in the mass of studies into the achievement gap that this debt exists. To realize this responsibility, though, does not dig deeply enough into why it exists. For decades upon decades, educational research has operated in this fashion.

One thought on “What gets researched: a project of colonization

  1. Pingback: A Breach of a Social Contract | Decolonizing educational research

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