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  • Virginia M. Schwarz

Critical Inquiry As Love

On February 16, 2016, I posted the following statement on Facebook.

“Why do we position ourselves as researchers? Why does research need a researcher, singular and of a particular body and history, to become visible and valued? Why do we attend the university, an institution that disciplines us into disciplines and removes us further, year by year, from the people and the communities we love??”

I’ve always been worried about my [in]ability to make institutional change. After all, I came back to school to get the tools necessary to redesign writing programs, assessment practices, and teacher education. I also came to learn how to be a leader. I want to rally people around a cause, uncover hidden financial resources, and make programmatic changes along with students. Students of color, migrant students, first-generation students, and returning students are disproportionately represented in basic education. And composition courses more broadly have a long history as gatekeeping mechanisms, granting and blocking access to the rest of the university. There was a point I could no longer teach, because I knew the college wasn’t making policies that benefited me or my colleagues or the people in our classes.

But now I worry about something else entirely: the way the institution is changing me. As a PhD student, I worry that I left my job, my life, and my community at Portland Community College to be surrounded by academics, most of whom are white. I wonder what being in these white environments does to me as a white person, what ways of thinking and habits of engaging I am picking up without knowing or seeing. I also wonder if I’m being taught to engage in research that is objective, distant, cliche, loveless. And I wonder how I can reconcile the two sides of myself: the person who hates control with the person who wants to become a leader. Where are models for critical assessment? Where are exemplars of critical leadership? Is the person I imagine becoming too radical or too passive, or is she even possible? I want to become an academic with the heart to identify, voice, and sort through this conflict. I want to stay the person whose students believed in her and encouraged her to go back to school.

Some scholars have commodified the “research site” of basic writing and made a name for themselves by “helping” the “underprivileged.” For me, all of my students have been names and faces, and I feel my eyes warm with gratitude when I remember each individual person and the conversations we shared together, in my office or during class. I remember the challenges they had to overcome to get to campus, to do homework, to stay focused on our class. But most of all, I admired their determination and resiliency. If I were told to start nine classes behind transfer level, would I have been a college graduate? I had started two ahead. At the community college, students were generous storytellers, and these stories [re]made me.

I want to go back to that site, to transform PCC and make it better, but that’s the spirit of the colonizer, the spirit of the researcher who profits from extracting stories and delivering them through reductive data sets or exaggerated tales of heroism. How can I go back to PCC now? How can I go back when I’m someone else, who is no longer a teacher but some other assemblage of positions? How does one study their own community when the act of human research seems to necessitate a form of exploitation? Is love permissible here? Would it even be enough? I came to UW to learn tools. Now I’m struggling as I become unsure of what these tools can even do. Whatever I touch from this moment forward, I’ll be touching with the hand of a person formed by university. So here I am learning critical theory, reading Ruth Behar, and wondering how I can ever be Maisha Winn’s “worthy witness.”

As I deconstruct my own identity to fit (and feel) right in these new roles, I pull out a stack of English 100 essays to “grade.” As long as I am in a room full of curiosity, presence, and love, I am home. Those are things difficult to sample in a study and difficult to mine as a researcher. Most often, they surface unprompted and unplanned. But they are obvious as they emerge in the spaces between us.

And I feel silly for asking. Silly as I walk up Bascom Hall, silly as I sit on committees, silly as I write essays, silly as I say this aloud . I feel silly for asking, but I want to love and be loved. I want to practice love in my research, teaching, mentoring, service. Because it feels good to me, because it feels necessary to repair the distance and harm people inflict upon each other. Because if I am a researcher and you want me to “see”– there’s no other way I want to see than through the lens of love. Out of love, I do my best seeing and practice my best inquiry. How do I design a project in assessment research–data, arguments, findings, critiques– that are a performance of love? Silly, huh? Why should relationality be discussed this way? For me, this isn’t an “instead of” proposal. It’s an “also.”

When I do say ‘love’ in classes, it’s not well received. I think people worry that love means ignoring power dynamics, getting too personal, or mucking up an objective truth. These are all important considerations. But through critical inquiry, I’ve been imagining what critical assessment and critical leadership might look like. And to be honest, it’s about love. And friendship. Sean Micheal Morris, from Digital Pedagogy, said that friendship could be an act of resistance. I think that’s true both in the acts friendship makes possible but also just in the space of friendship itself. When I say resistance here, I mean we no longer consent to the boundaries designed to keep us apart. We can move through new, co-created spaces both physical and intellectual that are unlikely and unexpected and unstable and precious because we are related and because we are different: disciplines, campuses, institutions, positions, status, communities, publics, and identities. That’s not to deny any of the realities or challenges we face, but just to add that possibility to the mix, the possibility of love.

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