Whose opinions? Whose experiences?

Who should we trust to tell a story? Whose view on events matters? And what is our responsibility as researchers?

My own research relied heavily on perceptions of teachers, who I find to be very open and reflective about their work. I think reflection and communicating reflective thoughts are a huge part of the job and, generally, I believed the stories of the teachers. However, I’ve found a prime example of how the perception of research participants can lead us to strange places. How do we reconcile the perceptions of participants who have racist or sexist views? What is our responsibility as researchers in how we report this?

I am working on publishing my research from my PhD which focuses heavily on the experiences of teachers. I took the stance that I was most interested in looking at teachers’ perceptions of their own work and that listening to stories of their work was important to me. I chose this position as a critical researcher, hoping to counter claims that we can understand teachers’ work through things like test results, school rankings and claims made by schools (who are often competing for students). I wanted to understand how teachers felt about their work and to look for the patterns of teachers’ experiences, especially in marketized contexts. I felt that an ‘objective’ view of the work of teachers could not tell the whole story; Personal stories, experiences and perceptions could bring better insight.

This issue has gained popular support with movements like ‘Believe Women’ and even Black Lives Matter. For a long time statements like ‘Black Americans have the same rights as everyone else’ were accepted as objectively accurate, dismissing the experiences of actual Black people. Rape cases were tried in court and found to contain not enough fact and too much perception, as if individual perception of harm was not evidence enough for litigation.

However, I’ve found an example where individual perception of harm was coupled with racist views and reported as objective fact. I recently read an academic article that included this paragraph:

My first thought reading this was that this teacher was probably just a terrible colleague. He has a PhD and experience and is unemployable? I’ve met people like that, where no amount of academic qualification or previous work excellence could counterbalance a terrible personality.

I had to read it again, and that’s when I noted the voice of the researcher.

“Afrikaners have complained that the policy is a form of reverse discrimination”

“Unable to find employment in his home country due to the complex sociopolitical consequences of Apartheid”

These statements, with so little qualification, tell me what the researcher thinks. At the very least, they state clearly that the researcher believes these ideas without further evidence required. I try to imagine if the teacher had claimed that he couldn’t get a job due to a vast conspiracy against him personally by the mob/unicorns/Illuminati, if the researcher would have questioned it. What if the participant was a Black man who said racial discrimination had kept him from getting a job. Would a history lesson of racist exclusion in South Africa accompanied an acceptance of that statement? I want to yell at the researcher, “No, not ‘Afrikaners’, only this teacher!” and “Tyron says this is the cause! But you don’t have to believe him!”.

What is our responsibility as the researcher? This author has now published a paper saying that highly qualified white men aren’t getting jobs because of Affirmative Action. Is this your research?! Do you have this evidence?! I can imagine this article appearing on white supremacist websites in the US as evidence of reverse discrimination! But this article includes no evidence, only an unsubstantiated claim.

My third thought was the peer reviewer and editor. How did such blatantly subjective experiences with no qualification like ‘he believes’ or ‘he assumes’ or ‘he imagines’ get published? Doesn’t the editor have some responsibility that this journal publishes claims well beyond the scope of teacher experiences? How did the editor find this worthy for publication? And my fourth thought, what is my responsibility? Should I call for a retraction or a correction? Is ‘the author was careless with their language’ enough to ask for that? So, what do we do? Believe teachers? Believe peoples’ experiences? Do I react to this by trying to find out the objective fact about Affirmative Action in South Africa? Will that make a difference?

Personally, I think there actually may be a ‘bright line’ here but it is not about arguing objective facts or about silencing individual perceptions. I like this approach, recently discussed on NPR’s science podcast Short Wave, which focused on how to correct people who believe misinformation. I believe that Tyron thinks that Affirmative Action was the cause of his problems. I think it is even fine to report that he believes this. The researcher used these perceptions as evidence that Tyron was powerless. However, I think it is evidence that he believes he is powerless. He believes that no matter what education, experience or expertise he has, the system is against him. I don’t know if there is any system against him, all I know is that he believes this. If he has been unable to find jobs in other countries, then this can’t be the sole cause, although he may believe that. ‘Belief’ is still the key word. If this story were reported and analyzed as personal beliefs and personal perceptions, it would be fine. However, if it is used as evidence of a system set up against teachers like Tyron, then more evidence is needed. If we follow the approach of correcting misinformation, we should acknowledge the feeling of being powerless, even if it is not fact. Then we can find ways to improve the information.

So, I wonder. What do I do? Blog? Ask for a retraction? Stay tuned.

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