This is a followup to the “Sermon on Educational Research” that I posted last week. It’s a reflection on two dysfunctional orientations toward scholarship that students often pick up in the course of doctoral study.
We’re Producing Academic Technicians and Justice Warriors:
A Sermon on Educational Research, Part 2
David F. Labaree
Published in International Journal of the Historiography of Education, 1-2019
In 2012, I wrote a paper for this journal titled “A Sermon on Educational Research.” It offered advice to doctoral students in education about how to approach their work as emergent scholars in the field. The key bits of advice were: be wrong; be lazy; be irrelevant. The idea was to immunize scholars against some of the chronic syndromes in educational scholarship – trying to be right instead of interesting, trying to be diligent instead of strategic, and trying to focus on issues arising from professional utility instead of from intellectual interest. Needless to say, the advice failed to take hold. The engine of educational research production has continued to plow ahead in pursuit of validity, diligence, and relevance.
So here I am, giving it another try. This time I take aim at two kinds of practices among doctoral students in education that are particularly prominent right now and also particularly problematic for the future health of the field. Most students don’t fit in either category, but the very existence of these practices threatens to pollute the pool. One practice is the effort to become a hardcore academic technician; the other is the effort to become a hardcore justice warrior. Though at one level they represent opposite orientations toward research, at another level they have in common the urge to serve as social engineers intent of fixing social problems. The antidotes to these two tendencies, I suggest, are to take a dose of humility every day and to approach educational research as a form of play. Let’s play with ideas instead of being hell-bent on tinkering with the social machinery.
The Academic Technician
One role that education doctoral students adopt is academic technician. In practice, this means concentrating on learning the craft of a particular domain of educational research. Not that there’s anything wrong with craft. Without it, we wouldn’t be a profession at all but just a bunch of amateurs. The problem comes from learning the craft too well. That means apprenticing yourself to an expert in your subfield and adopting all the practices and perspectives that this expert represents.
One flaw with this approach is that it treats educational research as a field whose primary problems are technical. It’s all about immersing yourself in cutting-edge research methodologies and diligently applying these to whatever data meets their assumptions. Often the result is scholarship that is technically expert and substantively deficient. Your aim is to be able to defend the validity of your findings more than their significance, since at colloquia where this kind of work is presented the arguments are mostly focused on whether the methodology warrants the modest claims made by the author.
The focus on acquiring technical skills diverts students from engaging with the big issues in the field of education, which are primarily normative. Education is an effort to form children into the kinds of adults we want them to be. So the central issues in education revolve around the ends we want to accomplish and the values we hold dear. The key conflicts are about purpose rather than practice. Technical skills are not sufficient to explore these issues, and by concentrating too much on acquiring these purportedly hard skills we turn our attention away from the normative concerns that by comparison seem awfully squishy.
Another problem that arises from the effort to become academic technicians is that it turns students into terrible writers. You populate your text with jargon and other forms of academic shorthand because you are speaking to an audience so small it could fit in a single seminar room. You’re trying to do science, so you model your writing after the lifeless language of the journeyman scientific journal article. This means using passive voice, abandoning the first person (“data were gathered” – who did that?), avoiding action verbs, loading the text with nominalizations (never use a verb when you can turn it into a noun), and at all costs refusing to tell an engaging story. If you make an effort to draw the reader’s interest, it’s considered unprofessional. In this style of writing, papers are built by the numbers. Using the IMRaD formula, papers need to consist of Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion. You can read them and write them in any order. Every paper is just an exercise in filling each of these categories with new content. It’s plug and play all the way.
The Justice Warrior
Another scholarly role that doctoral students adopt is justice warrior. If the first role ranks means over ends, this one canonizes ends and dispenses with means altogether. All that matters is your frequently expressed commitment to particular values of social justice. You can’t express these values too often or too vehemently, since the mission is all important and the enemies resisting the mission are legion. As a result, your position is perpetually atop the high horse of righteous indignation. The primary targets of your scholarship are sexism, racism, and colonialism, with social class coming in a distant fourth.
If people seek to question your position because of a putative failure to construct a compelling argument or to validate your claims with clear evidence and rigorous methods, they are only demonstrating that they are on the wrong side. It’s ok to dismiss any text or argument whose author might be accused of betraying a tinge of sexism, racism, or colonialism. Everything that follows is fruit of the poisonous tree. You can say something like, “Once I saw he was using the male pronoun, I couldn’t continue reading.” Nothing worthwhile comes from someone you deem a bad person. This simplifies your life as an emergent scholar, since you can ignore most of the literature. It also means you seek out like-minded souls to serve on your committee and like-minded journals to place your papers.
This approach incorporates a distinctive stance toward intellectual life. The academic technician restricts intellectual interest to the methods within a small subfield at the expense of engaging with interesting ideas. But the justice warrior on principle adopts a position that is whole-heartedly anti-intellectual. You need to shun most ideas because they bear the taint of their sinful origins. Maintaining ideological purity is the key focus of your academic life. The world is black and white and only sinners see shades of gray.
For justice warriors, every class, colloquium, meeting, and paper is an opportunity to signal your virtue. This has the effect of stifling the conversation, since it’s hard for anyone to come back with a critical comment without looking sexist, racist, or colonialist. Once you establish the high ideological ground, it’s easy to defend your position without having to draw on data, methods, or logic. Being right brings reliable rewards.
Some Common Ground: Becoming Social Engineers
These two tendencies within the educational research community appear to be opposites, but in one way they are quite similar. Both show a commitment for scholars in the field to become engineers whose job it is to fix social problems. For the academic technicians, this means a focus on creating data-driven policies for school reform, where the aim is to bring school and society in line with the findings of rigorous research. Research says do this, so let it be so. For justice warriors, this means a focus on bringing school and society in line with your own personal sense of what is righteous. Both say: I know best, so get out of my way.
The problem with this, of course, is that exercises in social engineering so often go very badly, no matter how much they are validated by science or confirmed by belief. Think communism, fascism, the inquisition, eugenics, the penitentiary, and the school. Rationalized scientific knowledge can be a destructive tool for tinkering with the emergent, organic ecology of social life. And moral absolutism can easily poison the soil.
A Couple Antidotes
One antidote to the dual diseases of academic technicalism and justice fundamentalism is a dose of humility. What most social engineers have in common is a failure to consider the possibility that they might be wrong. Maybe I don’t know enough. Maybe my methods don’t apply in this setting. Maybe my theories are flawed. Maybe my values are not universal. Maybe my beliefs are mistaken. Maybe my morals are themselves tainted by inconsistency. Maybe it’s not just a case of technique; maybe ends matter. Maybe it’s not just a case of values; maybe means matter.
Adopting humility doesn’t mean that you need to be tentative in your assertions or diffident in your willingness to enter the conversation. Often you need to overstate your point in order to get attention and push people to engage with you. But it does mean that you need to be willing to reconsider your argument based on evidence and arguments that you encounter through with other scholars – or with your own data. This reminds me of a colleague who used to ask faculty candidates the same question: “Tell me about a time when your research forced you to give up an idea that you really wanted to hold on to.” If your own research isn’t capable of changing your mind, then it seems you’re not really examining data but simply confirming belief.
Another way to counter these two baleful tendencies in the field is to approach research as a form of intellectual play. This means playing with ideas instead of engineering improvement, instead of pursuing methodological perfection, instead of pursuing ideological perfection. Play lets you try things out without fear of being technically or ideologically wrong. It keeps you from taking yourself too seriously, always a risk for academics at all levels. Play will keep you from adopting the social engineering stance that assumes you know better than they do. This doesn’t mean abandoning your commitments to rigor and values. Your values will continue to shape what you play with, serving to make the stories you tell with your research meaningful and worthwhile. Your technique will continue to be needed to make the stories you tell credible.
Playing with ideas is fundamental to the ways that universities work. Ideally, universities provide a zone of autonomy for faculty that allows them to explore the intellectual terrain, unfettered by concerns about what’s politically correct, socially useful, or potentially ridiculous. This freedom is more than a license to be frivolous, though it’s tolerant of such behavior. Its value comes from the way it opens up possibilities that more planful programs of research might miss. It allows you to think the unthinkable and pursue the longshot. Maybe most such efforts come to naught, but that’s an acceptable cost if a few fall on fertile soil and grow into insights of great significance. Play is messy but it’s highly functional.
In closing, let me note for the record that most doctoral students in education don’t fall into either of the two categories of scholarly malpractice that I identify here. Most are neither academic technicians nor justice warriors. Most manage to negotiate a position that avoids either of these polar tendencies. That’s the good news, which bodes well for the future of our field. The bad news, however, is that this often leaves them feeling as though they have fallen between two stools. Compared to the academic technicians they seem unprofessional, and compared to the justice warriors they seem immoral. That’s a position that threatens their ability to function as the kind of educational scholars we need.