community-based discussion

I spent almost all of today at a good Democracy

Collaborative conference on "engaged," or "collaborative,"

or "community-based" research (i.e., research in which academics

and members of a community work together, at least to frame a common research

agenda and sometimes to conduct the whole project.) There was a lot of

talk about potential research involving University of Maryland faculty

in our own community, Prince George’s County, although many of the speakers

came from elsewhere. (One of the best was Gary Cunningham, who runs the


County African American Men Project in and around Minneapolis, MN.)

I was generally impressed and inspired, although a couple of worries stick

with me.

First, this was the kind of conference in which everyone quickly feels

comfortable with one another and starts to talk as "we." For

example: "We need to convince young people to work in the World Bank,

so that they can bring our perspective inside that place." But no

one ever exactly says what defines "us." I suspect this is partly

because everyone in the room is on the left, and that’s their most fundamental

identity. That’s why they all feel confortable with one another. But the

agenda and purpose of the meeting are officially non-partisan and non-ideological:

we’re supposed to be talking about research in partnership with communities.

The fact that everyone is on the left is an unacknowledged but crucial


Second, one graduate student gave a presentation on an extremely disadvantaged

group that she had studied. No one asked the kind of questions that would

routinely arise after a presentation at a regular academic event. For

example, individuals had volunteered to participate in her focus groups,

and no one asked whether these volunteers were representative of the whole

population being studied. Also, many of the individuals claimed to have

given up drugs, but no one asked whether this claim was tested or credible.

I wondered why these questions didn’t come up. (I didn’t ask them, either).

Here are three guesses:

  • She made a good presentation about a terribly oppressed group, and

    everyone was moved and sympathetic and didn’t want to appear skeptical

    in any respect. or

  • People who do action-research are not primed to think about such matters

    as the representativeness of their samples. or

  • This was a middle-aged, female, African American graduate student

    and no one wanted to ask the tough questions that they would naturally

    pose of a young, white student who was starting on the standard academic

    career path.

If the last hypothesis is true, than I worry about what one of my least

favorite presidents calls "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

In other words, I hope we are not afraid to ask tough questions of middle-aged,

black, female graduate students because we think that they will be unable

to answer effectively.

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