Tell Me More About Myself (on being an object of academic interest)

I was planning on finishing up the story I started last week, but then I had a pretty strange experience a few days ago, at a lecture series run by the migration studies department at the university where I am currently studying (I’ve been going to this series partially because stories and perspectives on migration are increasingly interesting to me, and partially because I imagine that in that crowd I am bound to find some people I can share some general principles and worldviews with. No ‘kindred spirits’ yet, but the talks have been quite good, so academic satisfaction is going have to make do for now). The speaker for the week (a white woman) was discussing her research on immigrants from Hong Kong moving to Vancouver talking specifically about the sorts of family dynamics that these moves create and the way they disrupt relationships and create what she termed ‘satellite families’. It was a pretty striking topic of study – and the mental image of a ‘satellite family’ helplessly orbiting some unseen gravity certainly helped – but more than that, it became clearer and clearer to me as she spoke that she was essentially describing my own childhood. In the snippets of her interviews she presented, I could see echoes of things I’ve heard my mother say, and in her profiles of these families, I could see things that I had felt. I was hearing her track the trajectory of a good portion of the early years of my life, and as she spoke, as the audience intermittently made noises of surprise or affirmation (because they of course understood), I had to resist the urge to reveal myself as one of these people. Another data point.

You hear about people seeing their lives reflected in songs or in movies but you don’t expect your very own ‘Killing Me Softly’ experience to come from an academic sitting in a wood-panelled room talking about historical immigration patterns. It was slightly unsettling, to be honest. I wasn’t used to seeing the events of my life explained and theorized about, to have parts of my personal history that seemed to be so uniquely mine suddenly be cast as part of larger cultural and historical trends. And thinking about it more, I realized that this experience, while new to me, has probably been felt hundreds of times over by people who are part of some ‘population of interest’ or other. And that made me think about the power that academic research can have in shaping the way experiences are understood. And it made me think about the research and data that are so often used by those in positions of power to explain and understand marginalized groups, and the way that communities of colour, and the poor, and new immigrants, for instance, are so often the subjects of study but so rarely those doing the studying.

It looks to me then that academia is simply another space in which you have a small group of people who can control what stories are told and how they’re told. Now, I’ve spent a large portion of my life in elite academic institutions, and plan to spend quite a deal more of it in them, and I am certain that there are people I know who would take offense at that. They might say that academic research is about uncovering truths, and, when done rigorously, any patterns and trends that it suggests are still useful and productive. And I’m partially tempted to agree. Because at the same time that it felt invasive and objectifying, hearing that researcher present her work was also incredibly appealing, in the way that all potential answers are. There was something in there, maybe, that could tell me more about who I was and about whether there were others in the world who had had experiences similar to my own.

So what do you think? Can academic research, particularly the kind focused on looking at the characteristics and experiences of marginalized communities, be a positive space for understanding and sharing stories that aren’t often told? Can that only happen when those doing the research are part of those communities? And if the answer to the second question is yes, then what can be done to make that happen?

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