About a year ago, I was slogging through dissertation writing when I came upon a call for applications for a program run through my university called Humanities in the Community. My dissertation is about Baptists and sex, and yet I was still having trouble making my topic feel fresh and relevant and – well, sexy. (Ironically, I struggled with this same conundrum when I was writing my masters thesis and desperately trying to make my research on laughter be anything other than decidedly dull and un-funny.) Moreover, I was gradually realizing that I didn’t just want to do traditional scholarly research; I wanted my work to have a broader impact beyond the academy.
I had already published an academic journal article about the role of language in constructing religious policy that highlighted how some Baptists use conversational discourse framing to promote inclusivity. But I didn’t yet know how I could use my role as a researcher to help bolster these positive practices. Thankfully, the Humanities in the Community program gave me the space (and the funding) to dream that up. I began to think about how I could use my scholarly skills to create engaging curriculum that would help people think through the intersections of faith and sexuality. I set about creating and disseminating a needs assessment survey to give me a sense of whether and how people experience these intersections in their daily lives. To date, I’ve collected over 650 responses and I had the opportunity to present some of my preliminary results at the General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Atlanta, Georgia, this past summer. I’m currently working with a team of scholars, ministers, and other experts to develop the content for a series of online curriculum modules on topics such as consent, pleasure, sexual and gender identity, and body image.
Throughout this process of reimagining the scope of my research, I’ve learned two key lessons. First, there is a great need for community-engaged research – particularly for scholarship that deals with critical social issues like race, class, gender, and sexuality – but there is often very little institutional support for it. If we believe (as I do) that this type of research matters both to the academy and to communities, then we must demonstrate its value across a variety of platforms and push for the funding necessary to support it in a sustainable way. (For examples of how this type of work can be done responsibly and effectively, we can look to models in sociolinguistics and language documentation – e.g. Benedicto et al 2007; Czaykowska-Higgins 2009; Charity Hudley 2013; Bucholtz et al 2014.)
Second, doing community-engaged research implicates scholars in complex ways, especially if we are studying controversial issues in tightly regulated communities. We must therefore be highly reflexive about our motivations and methodologies when approaching our research. (There is also a strong tradition of highlighting researcher subjectivities in the fields of sociolinguistics and language documentation – e.g. Alim 2004; Mendoza-Denton 2008; Norton and Early 2011; Tretcher 2013.) This involves everything from how we gain access to the communities that we study to how we disseminate scholarship and information about our research. There is a growing awareness of the need for this type of reflexivity, and I’m honored to be participating in a panel of researchers who will be discussing this topic at the American Anthropological Association annual meeting in December.
When we do community-engaged work, we often don’t know where it will take us. We work with topics that can change daily depending on the sociopolitical landscape, and we work with collaborators who often have very different goals and priorities than we do. But I believe that this type of work matters a great deal and that it is crucial for the survival of the academic institution as well as for the flourishing of society in general. And if I can also manage to squeeze a sexy dissertation out of it as well, then all the better.
Alim, H. S. (2004). How The Other Half Speaks: Ethnosensitivity and the shifting roles of the researcher. You know my steez: An ethnographic and sociolinguistic study of styleshifting in a Black American speech community, 39-77.
Benedicto, E., Antolín, D., Dolores, M., Feliciano, M. C., Fendly, G., Gómez, T., Baudilio, M., & Salomón, E. (2007, October). A model of participatory action research: The Mayangna linguists team of Nicaragua. In Working together for endangered languages: Research challenges and social impacts: Proceedings of the XI FEL conference (pp. 29-35).
Bucholtz, M., Lopez, A., Mojarro, A., Skapoulli, E., VanderStouwe, C., and Warner-Garcia, S. (2014). Sociolinguistic justice in the schools: Student researchers as linguistic experts. Language and Linguistics Compass 8(4): 144-157.
Czaykowska-Higgins, E. (2009). Research models, community engagement, and linguistic fieldwork: Reflections on working within Canadian indigenous communities. Language Documentation & Conservation 3(1): 15-50.
Hudley, A. (2013). Sociolinguistics and Social Activism. In Oxford handbook of sociolinguistics (eds. Bayley, R., Cameron, R., and Lucas, C.). Oxford University Press.
Mendoza-Denton, N. (2008). Homegirls: Language and cultural practice among Latina youth gangs. John Wiley & Sons.
Norton, B., & Early, M. (2011). Researcher identity, narrative inquiry, and language teaching research. Tesol Quarterly, 45(3), 415-439.
Trechter, S. (2013). Social ethics for sociolinguistics. Data Collection in Sociolinguistics. Methods and Application. Routledge, London, 33-45.
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