The Importance of Researching with Pencils, not Markers
by Janessa Harris
Research is not about proving something but rather about learning. Learning means that we are engaging with people and environments as they are and not who/what we want them to be. By focusing on feminist studies and epistemology, I will look at how research of vulnerable populations and minority groups has often been patronizing, dehumanizing, and harmful. I assert that within research we must utilize a feminist pencil, a metaphor I will further explain in my piece. Utilizing a feminist pencil gives us the potential to research with eyes that are open to possibility and not blinded by our own preconceptions. Through this piece, I ground my argument within the work of Kimberly Kay Hoang, Jamilia Lysiscott, Sarah Ahmed, and Haunani-Kay Trask. I hope that by reading this paper you, the reader, will think about research in a way that encourages you to be critical of your own preconceptions and the ways that it has shaped your ways of knowing and building knowledge.
research, feminism, epistemology, methodological reflection, learning
In this paper, I argue the importance of researching with pencils, not markers. What I mean when I say this is that we should not initiate research with pre-written stories of what we hope to find. We should not go into studying with ideas written in permanent markers that are unopen to possibility. Instead we should not construct, but describe our hopes written in graphite, easily erased by the rubber ends of our mind—rewritten, reerased, over and over.
I believe that research should be about learning instead of the traditional focus of making a certain point (Trask 23). Western research has used markers to write narratives when they “study down” individuals who they think need saving (Lyiscott 34-35). These narratives do not often change but rather are reaffirmed by other researchers who write in marker. Feminist research on the other hand brings the possibility to write in pencil. By including continuous reflection within our work we can recognize and address our preconceived notions. Through this we are able to rework our ideas by learning from those we engage with within our research. In order to see the dynamic realities of the world, I assert that we must use a feminist pencil in research.
Before we delve further into this paper, I want to speak to you about its structure. At times, it may seem like I am talking over myself or talking in circles. However, using a linear structure would contradict the very argument I am trying to make. Sara Ahmed explains how “… we have been taught to tidy our texts, not to reveal the struggle we have in getting somewhere” (Ahmed 13). Utilizing a feminist pencil is a process of (re)construction. I recognize that this writing style can be confusing at times, but remember that confusion is all part of the process…
So please bear with me.
To provide some clarity, I will forecast what’s to come. Our next topic of conversation will be a brief discussion of the research project that motivated this reflection. Then, I will speak about my own relationship to that project and look at how this weaves into my larger argument. Because my own personal experiences are linked to this methodological reflection, it feels only right to share this side of me with you. To conclude our conversation, I will finish with a brief summary and a piece of advice. My goal in this is to leave you with a sense of direction. Let’s begin.
Last spring, I began a research project focused on how Black officers understand police culture and identity tensions by embodying two identities with contradicting interests—being a police officer and being Black. I conducted interviews with Athens-Clarke County law enforcement.
Deciding to study law enforcement was no easy task. Oftentimes, there is a discussion about studying vulnerable populations but not how the researcher themselves can become vulnerable in who they choose to work with. I want to explain to you how this research put me in a vulnerable position.
My relationship with the police was a chemical reaction, irreversible. Unable to ever revert back. Growing up in a Black household meant that there was always the rule of avoidance of the police. We followed the “Keep your head down, do as you’re told” mentality. However, I know that even these safety tactics that we have created still do not keep us safe. Nothing keeps us safe from the police.
I have an aversion to the police.
Stories of my own experiences with the police are permanently marked by an endless overflow of emotions often too difficult to contain into words. It’s the emotion that keeps me tied to my own beliefs which made it so hard to come to this research with a feminist pencil.
My experiences with law enforcement are written in marker. I know that to be true. I was trying to blind myself from any other reality that did not match the narrative I had about policing. I assumed that during my interviews I would go in and learn about how police culture enforces hypermasculinity and white supremacy. Because of these ideas, it would make it an uncomfortable setting for Black officers to work. I searched for this in my interview responses…
I didn’t get that.
While I clearly came into this research very emotionally-charged, funny enough, I did not fully comprehend how my emotions would factor in. I assumed that during my interviews I would go in and ask my questions, find my answer, and repeat until I was done with my data collection… However, that was not the case. I was often riddled with feelings of anxiety to even pick up the phone and dial the police or sheriff’s station to contact someone. When I listen back to the audio recordings, I can hear the shakiness in my voice, feel the sweatiness in my palms, and the racing of my heart. It took me a lot of strength, vulnerability, and courage to do this project.
The work of Kimberly Kay Hoang helped me to realize what I had written in marker. In her book, Dealing in Desire, she speaks about her own“feminist blinders” that blocked her ability to see data, stories, etc. in a way that did not conform to her own feminist expectations (Hoang 192). I was facing a similar situation. Once I was able to get beyond what I had written in marker, I was able to see that there are police officers who are trying to do better—there is hope for better policing.
Although, I am aiming to write in pencil, I am not able to do that in totality. To me, it is more important that throughout this process I am using a feminist pencil to tackle what I have written in marker. This has led to a meeting ground of both writing tools—pencils and markers. In this middle is where my perspectives of law enforcement remain—written in an erasable pen. They are malleable, yet permanent. It’s almost like Crayola Air-dry clay where once it dries you can no longer remold it—it stays as is. However, if you add some water, you are then able to rework, remold, and restart all over again.
If I were not able to recognize what I had written in marker, I would have missed out on learning other realities that exist besides my own. This mindset of learning is what I encourage all researchers to focus on. I want you, the reader, to consider what your intentions are when you go to research and to critically analyze how your experience, your values, and your life will impact the way you interpret what you read. This will give us the mindset to go into our work with the intention to learn while critically analyzing how we sit, think, and write within it. I advocate for the use of a feminist pencil within our work so we can open ourselves to possibility. I leave my readers, you, with this advice:
Read carefully. Think long. Reinvestigate your purpose. Use pencil.
Ahmed, Sara. “Introduction.” Living a Feminist Life, Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina, 2017, pp. 1–18.
Lyiscott, Jamila. 2019. “If You Think You’re Giving Students of Color a Voice, Get Over Yourself!” In Black Appetite. White Food.: Issues of Race, Voice, and Justice Within and Beyond the Classroom, 33-35. Routledge.
Trask, Haunani-Kay. (1993) 2019. “From a Native Daughter.” In Race, Class, and Gender: Intersections and Inequalities, 10th ed., edited by Margaret L. Anderson and Patricia Hill Collins, 18-24. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning Inc.
I want to thank Christina Crespo for not only encouraging me to submit this piece to the Classic Journal but also aiding me throughout the revision process. I want to thank her for fostering one of the greatest class environments in my academic career. Additionally, I want to thank all my peers in WMST 4011 that endlessly showered me with support. This paper would not be where it is today without the support of people at the Classic Journal along with my peers, professors, and family.
Citation Style: MLA