Desire in Research: Antioppressive Methodologies by Brian J. Reece

Damage is a word that many of us understand perhaps a little too well. To me, damage can be physical, like broken bones and broken windows, and emotional, like broken hearts and broken spirits.  It is something that is done to us—or that we do to ourselves. And it can eat us up inside. We become obsessed with it until it’s all we think about or talk about (or Tweet about). And there always seems to be someone behind it, someone at fault, someone to blame.

Research about oppressed groups has almost always been about damage. Whether it’s research about the effects of bullying on queer high school students, research about the impact of segregation on Black youth, or research about ways that sexist practices keep women from negotiating for higher salaries, our framing of research tends to focus on some wrongdoing and how it changes an individual or group for the worse.

I have been guilty of this same epistemological framing in my own research and scholarship, but emerging conversations about deficit ideologies in the world of education have helped me see this differently. Positive psychology and a resurgent focus on strengths has allowed a renewed interest in goodness, in what seems to be right instead of what is wrong. Yet, for every right, there seems to be a wrong, perhaps an ode to Psychology’s historical roots in philosophy and theories by the likes of Hegel, Kant, and Fichte.

Last year I took a class on Native Feminisms at the University of Oregon. My introduction to Native feminist theory toyed with this notion of the binary, one to which I have always felt tethered but from which I’ve always sought freedom. The words of these unfamiliar activist-philosophers opened me up to the possibility of creation as healing; not everything is necessarily a response to something, and yet all things come from one another. In other words, binaries are not just about one end being tied to another. They are also about the possibilities that come when the thread is rewound, broken, unwound, twisted, or reinforced. The course, which focused on the theoretical philosophies and scholarly frameworks of Indigenous feminists, completely changed the way I thought about research by introducing the concept of desire-based research through the work of professor and activist Eve Tuck.

Tuck wrote a letter to the Harvard Educational Review imploring Native communities to stop allowing researchers to invade their spaces until research is done in ways that are truly mutually beneficial and that focus on desire rather than damage. Research on Indigenous communities in particular has a long history of painting such communities in one monolithic damaged way. Tuck proposes desire as a framework that captures the complexity of the human experience, one that encompasses damage without being driven by it. Desire also allows us to understand the ways in which people both reproduce oppressive systems while at the same time actively resisting them; in fact, Tuck suggests that desire is a concept that explains this contradiction. While I could summarize Tuck’s work for paragraphs on end, I suggest giving it a read firsthand. I will focus here on its value in the context of higher education research.

In our work as higher education professionals, we are working with today’s campus leaders and tomorrow’s world leaders. In some cases, we are working with both at once. Our students are quite incredible, so it can be painful when we realize that many of their lived experiences are fraught with anxiety brought on by oppressive systems and people. It can be so easy for us as educators to get lost in the process of teaching; we want to get in there and “fix” our students or help them get “better.” Realistically, many of our students need support (sometimes our support) in moving toward a healthier view of themselves and, consequently, healthier on-campus engagement.

This same sentiment, the one that leads us toward wanting to “fix” our students is one that poises us as better off or even better than our students. We know because we have been there; or we don’t know because we haven’t been there—and this is our “privilege.” Our students, particularly those who face oppression in one way or another, are quite resilient. They are in college, for example, an accomplishment not ascertained by the majority. But our tendency in social justice programming and resource development tends to be to focus on what is wrong. The queer student who was bullied in high school and now has trouble developing friends in their freshman year is seen as damaged.

What if we were to look at this student and see their resilience instead? What if we were to ask the student who they are and where they want to be in 5, 10, or 20 years? As Tuck points out regarding Indigenous communities, research on other oppressed groups has been primarily focused on their past, on a static picture of the damage done to them, and has rarely looked into their future. It is has also been primarily conducted from the oppressor’s perspective. Educated white men have invaded Native communicates for too long touting the educational benefit their studies will bring; but the benefit has not been for the Native communities.

And what if the goal were not to “fix” our students, but rather to be in solidarity with them, to help them realize their full potential, and to provide support as they do? As one of the participants in my session at ACPA Tampa pointed out, this is not so far off from the frameworks of actual student affairs theories, so why is it so hard to see the desire in our students?

Although Tuck’s work addresses Indigenous communities and the imbalance of power in research, there are lessons we can learn in this field. There is, of course, the obvious connection to research on/with Indigenous students in higher education, but I also believe that there are more abstract associations to be gleaned. We must see desire as an antidote, as Tuck puts it, not to the damage done to our students but rather to very perspective of them as damaged. By disrupting such frameworks, we can escape the either/or binary mentality of damage and see our students as they manifest complexity.

Brian J. Reece is Associate Director for Assessment & Communication at the University of Miami’s Toppel Career Center. He earned an M.Ed. in Higher Education Administration from the University of Delaware and an M.Ed. in Counseling, Family, and Human Services with a specialization in Prevention Science from the University of Oregon. He also serves on the Commission for Social Justice Educators Directorate Body as Vice Chair for Social Media and as a reviewer for the Journal of Critical Scholarship on Higher Education & Student Affairs.

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