Isn’t it funny how sometimes life just insists it has something to tell you? This last fortnight I’ve been going through various procedures in preparation for a submission to the Research Ethics Committee, hoping for permission to busy myself with real grown-up research in 2012. The procedures that the University lays down are pretty thorough, so who’s to say whether they foreshadowed the strange series of events that unfurled last week, or whether this was a major case of synchronicity (*cue spooky soundtrack*)?
I guess it all began with one of my Supervisors who suggested that, before making elaborate plans to actively involve poets and artists in a research process, I might first think to ask some of them if they considered this a good idea. Sound advice, and an obvious oversight on my part. Thus it was that I found myself as hearing-person-with-videocamera talking to (‘interviewing’?) some deaf poets.
Now that might seem a fairly innocuous activity, and I thought so too. I’ve known all of these people socially for years, I’m fluent in British Sign Language, and we talked in various locations –some of their choosing, some merely of convenience; involving tea and cakes, pot roast suppers and planned cocktails. All very cosy. But, with hindsight, a couple of things were disturbing. One was that, very occasionally, some of the folks I was chatting to seemed to default to a sort of ‘automatic pilot’ script, and I had to gently remind them of the topic of our conversation. The other arose from what we might call a tiny disaster; one poet and I’d had a good old chat for over an hour but the video camera hadn’t worked, so we had no record of it whatsoever. This was annoying, but not disturbing. What was disturbing was that when we tried to reschedule, the deaf poet’s diary was stuffed with appointments to be interviewed by various hearing researchers. So that was the first event in this process of illumination.
The second event occurred over coffee with a colleague. I was busy picking his brains about ethical procedures and the like when he uttered the sentence “I’ve been interviewing [name of one deaf individual] for ten years”. For the purposes of our conversation, this was intended to illustrate his seniority and experience, but I think the raw content took us both aback.
And suddenly I began to understand that automated script response that had nudged into my ‘friendly chats’ with some of the deaf poets. Suddenly I saw that- despite what I thought of myself- I was in many ways just another hearing-person-with-videocamera come to extract what I could from the deaf subject.
A Gestalt therapist would have been cock-a-hoop (pun intended) because this connected incredibly strongly with the one and only time I have been the subject of this academic value-extraction process. I HATED it. I’m still trying to get over it, but whenever it rears its ugly little head it is still guaranteed to bring out an apoplectic tornado of spat feathers, claws and bile. Not my best side.
For me it wasn’t just the appropriation of my work and insights, nor the power exercised in the exclusion of my agency, not even the superficiality involved in ticking the ethical boxes (Phone call: “I’m at a conference and I’m just about to give a paper. I just wanted to check with you that it’s ok to use your name and show images of you…”). All of these experiences were destructive and demeaning but the worst, by far, is the ongoing experience of the researcher now positioning themselves as ‘expert’- a position validated by the field.
So this was the third surprising and illuminating event. I had imagined I was just going to have to suck sour plums on that one for evermore and say ‘NO!’ very firmly whenever anyone else approached me as subject. It was only this week that I realised this might, in fact, be a most useful and empowering experience. Because that experience, inadvertently, has given me insight. Not on a theoretical level, but emotionally. I know how it feels.
Of course I don’t know how it feels to be treated like that year after year. What it must be like to watch whole cadres (of the friendly folks whose tribe routinely dominate and oppress your tribe) use your knowledge, experience and insights to become experts in your field, to be legitimated as your superiors, to get the social kudos and to carry home fatter wage packets than you.
How do deaf subjects tolerate this? But then what choice do they (feel they) have? I gave so much away because I didn’t want to be nasty, and couldn’t bring myself to be so cruel as to withdraw consent when I knew I was the only subject of the study. I mean, how would that look? On one occasion I found myself in a group being ‘taught’ by the researcher in question. The researcher was obviously disconcerted and struggling with the situation so, with a discreet wink and temporary generosity of heart I feigned ignorance of one of the most basic premises of a subject I had taught at post-graduate level for over a decade. Alas, the researcher had come to believe their own research paradigm and so was convinced that this action merely evidenced their academic superiority. But what on earth drove me to such generosity with someone who might otherwise be understood as simply out to exploit me? I can’t find a word to answer that question, but it is a beginning of an understanding of the position of deaf subject.
As far as my own research goes, I already knew that I didn’t want to use the interview as my basic methodological tool, but I hadn’t hitherto considered quite how conditioned as subject my co-researchers might have had to become.
I hadn’t considered that it might be a good idea to tell them about my own experience, how much I hated it and how much I really wouldn’t want to do that to anyone (unwittingly or no). And I also hadn’t considered that perhaps I should make it clear that I’m not involving myself with sign language poetry because I’m crafting myself a future as an ‘expert’ in that area (actually a nice little job as a researcher in a museum would be lovely, thanks).
I can’t change the fact that I am hearing, and I most definitely shouldn’t ignore it, but I can and should seek to mitigate it- and that takes some very careful and honest consideration.
After all that reflection I sat down to revise the research ethics documentation I’d been putting together, but what emerged from the keyboard was a map of chapter headings. Sometimes it’s difficult to control where your mind will wander. I gave in, finished the map and then took a chat break with another colleague. We talked for a while about Tom Docherty’s article in the THE (10.11.11). Tom recounted a number of considerations important to research and teaching, such as “We [should] go into a seminar or a laboratory or a library not knowing what we will have found out when we leave”. I told my colleague about my chapter headings map. She asked “So what are your conclusions going to be?” Weird event number four.
Now she was probably being tongue-in-cheek about the likelihood that my chapter headings map will bear any resemblance to the finished article, or perhaps she was simply encouraging me not to forget to reflect at the end of the process, or perhaps she was suggesting that no kind of map can be value free, naive.
Whichever is the case, the ambiguity reminded me just how deeply ingrained those traditional research paradigms are (data>analysis>conclusions), and how firmly these practices are married to the pseudo-scientism of researcher-as- sole-expert and all the power relations that entails. How hard it is to kick over these traces!
I recently travelled to Salerno to give a paper to an international audience of interpreting and translation practitioners and academics. Working with a group of translators, I had put together a piece of collective biography that distilled their thoughts-in-process and re-presented them (in song/poem form). The research did not follow the traditional Social Science model; I was not presenting myself as an expert above all others (by claiming the data as my own, or making conclusions that would stake some claim on absolute truth). The work was in engineering an opportunity for these voices to speak (and to speak together), and in claiming a space for them in the current academic discourse of the field. The results were dramatic. The room divided before my eyes into practitioners and practitioner-academics on the one side versus academics on the other. Something of a humdinger ensued. One group got it. The other group couldn’t cope with this as ‘research’. I’ll leave you to guess which was which.
Of course I had been hoping that inviting poets and artists to co-research the topic of my PhD might upset some apple carts, but it may well prove more challenging than anticipated- to all concerned.
This ethics process sure is tough….