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Becoming Advocate-Researchers

I have just returned from the 2015 meeting of the Association of the Study of Higher Education Conference (ASHE). This year’s theme, Inequality in Education, sought to focus quantifiable inequalities – those measurable inequities of society centered on questions of income, college cost, access, and outcomes. Certainly the conference provided some much needed attention to these important discussions.

However, early in the conference a tension emerged surrounding the role of higher education researchers. The questions and thoughts, offered by ASHE President Dr. Laura Perna, centered on what makes our work as researchers relevant in the 21st century? At the core of this discussion was the role of “advocacy” research: do we as researchers start from a position of advocacy to inform our research, or utilize our research to advocate for policy positions? More importantly, who should be driving the research agenda? Policy-makers or researchers? I realize that here I am setting up an either-or dichotomy, when perhaps it would be more productive to think in terms of both-and. However, as my argument below will more fully articulate, there was a distinct tone of either-or in these discussions, at least as I interpreted them (and having talked to others, I am not alone in this interpretation, though I can only speak for myself).

This conversation about “advocacy” emerged more than once during the conference. It occurred again on the last day, during the emerging issues luncheon (a session which was, in my opinion, hardly about any emerging issues in higher education, but about ongoing historical issues). These discussions about “advocacy” centered for me a different kind of inequity in higher education: the inequity arising from certain conceptions of research.

My own interpretation of this discourse and commentary – offered not only by Dr. Laura Perna, but also by members of the Lumina Foundation and representatives from the Department of Education – is that researchers should consider taking up the questions concerning lawmakers and be less concerned about what was referred to as “self-interested” research agendas. The implicit (if not explicit) message was that higher education researchers should forget about their own personal interests, their own lived experiences, or the many questions and concerns of students, faculty, and staff, and become efficient cogs in the higher education machine.

In other words: be good workers. Quit revolting by asking questions that nobody on funding boards or in government are concerned about.

Such conception of the role of researchers and research only perpetuates the neoliberal machine that many of us are attempting to work against. The neoliberal machine that tells us we must view students as commodities and dollar signs rather than as human becomings. The neoliberal machine that tells us the worth of our education should only be measured by it’s ability to return to us monetary gain in the form of capital and consumption rather than new perspectives on the world, a better understanding of self, or enhanced relationships. A neoliberal machine that measures our worth as humans according to metrics of productivity: what is the return on investment of my education? Why should society value education if we aren’t good, productive workers (citizens)?

Among the inequalities facing higher education are those rooted in inequality of thought and approaches to research. Certainly we need to conduct studies that utilize “big data,” that attempt to understand trends, both historical and contemporary, and that focus on issues such as college outcomes.   However, these types of studies almost exclusively promote certain ways of knowing and measuring (often quantitative). These types of studies, while helpful, often fail to account for qualitative inequities in education – inequities that are as important to understand as those of persistent gaps in access and attainment (and in my view, might shed more light on the persistent ‘problems’ in education).

To pretend that lawmakers and those funding research are starting from an “objective” position, not a position of advocating/advocacy, is short-sighted; yet this was the insinuation in comments about the role that research and researchers should take up in the 21st century. There is advocacy occurring when lawmakers and funding agencies ask us to consider questions around issues such as competency-based education, reduction of college costs, shortening time to degree, measuring certain outcomes over others, or “moving the country forward,” as representatives from the Department of Education kept stating. The question is who/whose position is being advocated? Who/whose visions of “moving forward” are we advancing? Not considering these questions in our approach to research borders on ethical malpractice.

name-badge-advocateWe need advocacy work in the field of higher education research. We need advocacy to fuel our questions, to allow those who are marginalized to speak to policymakers, and to honor different ways of thinking-knowing-being-becoming. Researchers need not only take up the interests of lawmakers, but should be fueled by the questions that haunt us, our students, or those with whom we intra-act.

As researchers, we should advocate for expansive, not restrictive, forms of research. This means moving beyond the (false) quantitative-qualitative divide. Advocating for research that is creative, thought-provoking, rigorous, and theoretically sound not only because it has a large sample size or effect size, but because it asks us to consider new-different perspectives, new-different ways of envisioning higher education, students, self, society, and relationships. We should advocate against myopia in research. What are the ways we can question, disrupt, seek understanding, or unfold 21st century higher education?

As researchers, we should also advocate that policymakers and funding agencies consider writing and enacting public or higher education policy arising from results, insights, and analyses offered up by different conceptions of research. I question whether our persistent failure to do so actually perpetuates many of the quantitative inequities that plague education and our society. Maybe we need an expansive conceptualization in our discussions of the role of research and researcher in the 21st century. Perhaps that expansion might begin by taking up a position of becoming-advocate researchers.

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