Transforming the University: Critical Practices

In creating the Graduate Certificate and its core course, we took seriously Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s lessons from the process of decolonizing methodologies: “... it is not enough to hope or desire change. System change requires capability, leadership, support, time, courage, reflexivity, determination and compassion. It is hard work and the outcome often seems a distant vision” (2012, xii). Here, we elaborate on three critical practices that we believe can help concretize visions of creating a social justice space that will enable marginalized graduate students and faculty to thrive in the academy.

Critical Practice 1: Establishing Different Gatekeeping Standards

Academic gatekeeping sets limits around not only what kind of research is acceptable but also who is drawn to the academy in the first place. A relational and power/knowledge production process, academic gatekeeping determines what kinds of research counts, what research purposes are legitimate, whose research gets funded, and even who is treated as a (potentially) serious contributor to the academy in the first place. The archive that interested Rachel involved Vicki Gabriner, co-founder of the Atlanta Lesbian/Feminist Alliance (ALFA), and a close family friend. Rachel was raised by lesbian mothers and is queer herself, so her methodological experiments in how archives function in the transmission of gay and lesbian history took on a personal importance, as is often the case for students and faculty, especially those living through marginalized positionalities.

Against the grain of how research has historically been described, research interests for marginalized students often arise from deeply personal and political experiences. If told enough times that your approach to research is not “objective” or “rigorous” enough, you are likely to shift your project or seek out a space outside of academia where you can do this work. The academy frequently does not provide the institutional affirmation, guidance, and resources to support the kinds of research that Rachel was attempting. The excitement that Rachel felt about pursuing unconventional research might easily have been quelled by uneasiness and self-censorship if faculty and fellow students had responded to her from the normalizing practices of tradition. How many potentially transformational projects die on the vine as students are told their projects are too dangerous to their careers?

The Certificate in Participatory Research, however, was set up to privilege, not exclude, such clear commitments to and relationships with the communities we are working with. In shifting gatekeeping mechanisms to focus on the strength of one’s ties, rather than the distance from the research, our goal was to ultimately transform what the university could be. In her first semester at UNC, as she was beginning to form the seeds for what eventually became a discipline-shaping collaborative archival research project, Rachel met Anthropology professor Jean Dennison, who encouraged Rachel to register in the core course she was co-teaching as part of the new Graduate Certificate in Participatory Research at UNC-CH. With mentoring and support from her advisor, Sharon Holland, a Professor in American Studies, Rachel signed up for the Certificate, joined its one-hour required course, and enrolled the following spring.

Too often, students and younger faculty seeking social justice approaches to research are bolstered only by chance encounters with sympathetic research mentors, or worse, discouraged by unwelcoming settings where influential faculty persuade them that their research goals are out of step with established academic pursuits. These same students and faculty are often, although certainly not always, coming from a place of vulnerability vis-à-vis the university due to their own subject positioning, by being non-white or non-normative in terms of their gender, class, or religion (Puwar, 2004; Gutiérrez y Muhs, Niemann, Gonzalez, & Harris, 2012). If we as academics are really committed to diversifying who inhabits academia, we must establish different academic gatekeeping criteria that shift the standards of research. This is not about making it less rigorous, however, but about including clear research commitments and strong relationships as part of what makes good research.

The founders of the Certificate, while coming from a wide variety of disciplines, including Anthropology, Communication, Public Health, Religious Studies, Geography, and Nutrition, often felt the limitations of the current structure of academia personally and through our research relationships. We knew the challenges we faced in pursuing participatory social justice approaches at a major research university. In fulfilling the publication, teaching, and university service requirements for tenure and promotion, there was little time left for a hallmark of participatory research: long-term collaborative research with communities outside the academy. Respect for community knowledge and interest in the co-production of knowledge were novel concepts that were neither valued nor fostered in many parts of the university. The founders sought to not only create standards in the academy that would not carve out space for students wishing to do collaborative research but also enable a community of critical scholars to push this work further and deeper, a space in which the shared goal of challenging existing power dynamics from differently situated disciplines and perspectives was paramount.

Connecting with Existing Movements

Challenging the ways in which “engaged scholarship” was seen as less relevant or useful than “traditional research” meant strategically connecting to and influencing the wider conversations about the role of the University.

As with other universities, UNC-CH was inspired in the 1990s by national and statewide conversations about the purposes of public colleges and universities and the call to help improve community life and educate students for civic and social responsibility (Boyer, 1996).li Campus Compact, a national higher education association with state and regional chapters, emerged as an organizing channel for campus-based civic engagement at UNC-CH with a mission of nurturing students’ citizenship skills and forging effective community/university partnerships. These developments and others encouraged initiatives at UNC-CH to expand the university’s role to place a greater emphasis on engaging communities. All of this momentum facilitated the development of the Certificate. We were able to build upon the changes underway and push them toward our own goals of social justice and participatory research, in order to create space and legitimacy for the Certificate.

We have continued to stress these traditions and the intellectual ferment underway in participatory research through events such as panel discussions hosted by the Certificate (see videos on http://participatoryresearch.web. and publications (see Grimes & Parker, 2009). While engagement continues to be a debated term at UNC-CH, the core mission of the university to serve communities in the state is a key tool for explaining the importance of social justice participatory work. As we would learn, however, the legibility of participatory research as an intellectual endeavor did not guarantee the legibility of all parts of the Certificate nor was it guaranteed that it would be a high priority for institutional support.

Create Institutional Legibility for Participatory Research Praxis

A key lesson for shifting academic gatekeeping involves the necessity of creating a recognized space for social justice-focused participatory research training in the intellectual and ethical life of the university. We asked ourselves: What is the best institutional vehicle for training graduate students in social justice-focused research praxis? Should there be a stand-alone department, a center or institute, or perhaps occasional workshops? The tendency in universities to make “applied research,” “service endeavors,” and “engaged scholarship” a second-class knowledge endeavor is a distinctive problem for our vision and hopes for participatory research.

The vision for participatory research is one that prioritizes the synergy of disciplinary grounding coupled with a collaborative, social justice praxis. This led us to use the Certificate as a means to transform the university, but through standards that could be accessed from across the University. We see disciplinary grounding and interdisciplinary cross-fertilization as key to maintaining the dynamism of participatory research methods and theory. The Certificate seeks to build an intellectual and praxis community that learns and develops from each other. At UNC-CH we have multiple clusters of nationally recognized participatory researchers and community experts, from performance ethnography in Communication (e.g., Craft, 2015; Pollock, 2005, 2010) to action research (e.g., Price, Gittell, & Ferman, 2011) and collaborative archaeology in Anthropology (e.g., Agbe-Davis, 2011), to art making in post-conflict zones in Music (e.g., Ndaliko, 2016), to model community partnerships in Health Behavior (e.g., Schaal et al., 2016). Our goal is to increase the number of trained researchers and community experts who know how to bring the power of collaborative research to communities. A Certificate seemed the best vehicle possible for breaking down disciplinary silos, ensuring intellectual and ethical rigor for participatory endeavors, effectively concentrating university resources for graduate training of marginalized individuals, and integrating participatory concerns into the university as a whole.

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