Oberlin Blogs

The Mellon Dive: Part II

June 4, 2014

Alexandria Cunningham ’16

Two months into this year (February to be exact), The Mellon Dive allowed me to begin to define my own positionality as a researcher and a scholar with interests that extend beyond my time here at Oberlin. Before writing that post, I did another one (Make It or Break It Week: The Mellon Chronicles) sharing all my anxiety and joy over the recently released Mellon Mays Undergraduate Research Fellowship decisions. Between these two posts, I became increasingly more comfortable with talking about what my research is, why it matters and all the wonderful places and spaces that I hope it will go.

For folks who have not had a chance to peep at the aforementioned (and because everyone needs a refresher here and there), fret none, I got you with a quick recap. My Mellon project is in the Sociology department and broadly focuses on elements of racial stratification in the urban education system. Specifically, primary focus is given to black student performance and the black achievement gap. The way that I have chosen to go about engaging in this conversation is to note how black students' academic performance is (dis)qualified, characterized, understood and rearticulated within scholarly and/or academic literature.

Doing this work well and responsibly requires me to both collect and critically read a variety of academic texts and articles that address my research question(s). Furthermore, I also have to nuance that work and arrive at my own informed, honest conclusions that I can take back to my communities and do something with. Sound like a tall order? Yep, your girl knows it too but this is what I want to do. Just to give you something to marinate on, the tentative title of one section of my project is "Unpacking Being Black AND Educated: What Society Says."

In having about four months (and a couple official days of my research program) to think, I am noticing that I have both personal and academic goals that I expect to accomplish from doing this work. Some goals can be crossed off at the end of the summer, while others are lifelong ambitions that I will always be working towards. It is great to have those. My research cohort and I have spent the past few days revisiting and talking about basically why did we sign up for this? What is there to be gained from doing this work in our respective disciplines? Beyond that, in what ways are we going to be impacted by this process? It is self-reflection left and right and I love it.

Divin' On In
Usually, I am really hesitant about jumping in head first but my Mellon research has had so much preliminary preparation that it has me securely screaming #YOLO (you only live once). Honestly, as scary as it is to take on all that I have written entire proposals and papers on and even told my wonderful advisor (s/o to Clovis White) that I could get done in the next two years, I am confident in doing it. I got this. I know it will not be easy--I would not have chosen to do it if it was going to be simple. So now it is a matter of identifying what needs to be done, how it can get done, who are the experts (aka members of my support team) who can help me and when and where I can do this work at my personal best. Get ready for the dive.

But Wait... I Wasn't Ready!
Early in my third semester I learned that it is indeed possible to actively seek both clarity and complication at the same time. What this means is that I can ask a question, seek only answers and find nothing but more questions. And guess what? Only coming up with more questions is not a waste of my time. It is probably just what I needed to do. One of my biggest fears about researching (and this project especially) is that I will come up with either a huge collection of what everyone else has said (and, consequently, have nothing else to offer) or I will have a ton of questions to ask but not even a road map to get to the answering of those questions. The line between both of those extremes is pretty thin for me but I acknowledge that, depending on my own position in doing my research, my end product can vary. In reality, there will be things I can answer and others that I can only question further. It will not be the end of the world, so back to swimming I go.

Counterweighting the Anchors
Many of my professors and mentors have honestly told me that research can be a tedious, exhaustive and sometimes frustrating thing. It takes a lot to stay motivated and there will be times when I may or may not reach a point of satisfaction with where I am at in the research process. Admittedly, I do not exactly know how I am going to handle that. I am going to be reading a considerable amount of work that will give me concrete statistics, stories and "informed" opinions that demonstrate that black students just do not (and also argued cannot) perform on par with their white peers. My personal experience is inconsistent with that reality so how am I going to feel when I come across that literature over and over again?? Disheartened is the first thing I think of. However, I know it is imperative for me to counterweight the negatives with positives. I personally know tons of amazing folks who have counter narratives to characterizations of black underachievement being a natural and forever persistent thing. I have to both remember that and believe that. Still swimming strong.

And so, I will close by ending with this quote...

"Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose." ~Zora Neale Hurston

Responses to this Entry

Perfect quote! And, even though it's just a quick update of your project, this post is super awesome. I can tell you're going to do really good work, no joke - "it is indeed possible to actively seek both clarity and complication at the same time"? Only an excellent mind does that. (And only an excellent one can handle it long-term… good luck to both of us there!)

Also, I'm pretty sure I've said this before, but your area of research is SO good. I am all about unpacking and destroying the ways academia discredits/reads/recasts the lives/activities/culture/achievements/etc. of oppressed people. (Speaking of: I actually saw a talk this morning by Lorna Williams, a member of the Lil'Wat Nation who fought to have the University of Victoria establish a masters program in indigenous language revitalization and spoke in part about getting higher ed to recognize the knowledge systems and ways of teaching of indigenous cultures!) Keep on keepin' on. You are awesome.

Posted by: Ida on June 16, 2014 10:06 PM

I feel like all my reply comments to you must be the same but THANK YOU!! The work is complicated, insightful and wonderful all at the same but I really am loving it. My presentation at the end of the summer (and during the year too) is going to illustrate that point about actively seeking clarity and complication at the same time quite well.

What I am loving right now is all of the books that I am reading (and all the way through I might add) that are truly unpacking the dominant narrative about education and opportunity for oppressed people. I am taking that conversation in some newer directions so hopefully it all works out well *fingers crossed*

Posted by: Alexandria Cunningham '16 on June 28, 2014 6:16 PM

Your three sections pulled out three themes I constantly see with my fellow Obies and I LOVE that!

- We don't do what we do because it's the easy way, but because it is the way to do it.
- Questions are only as good as the additional questions they spark.
- The more you learn, the more you realize you don't know, and as uncomfortable as that may be, that's the beauty of exploration, and ultimately, discovering new things/

Having done some Big World interactions with non-Oberlin folks since graduating, it's astonishing to me how many people go the road they know, keep with the norm rather than asking questions, and don't reconcile their own experiences (or recognize that those experiences are different for each person).

Oh, the world. Every time I read a post of yours, I start wishing I'd double majored in sociology because you make me curious about all sorts of things I'm only getting a taste of in these little slices of your blog-life.

Posted by: Ma'ayan on July 2, 2014 2:41 PM

"Questions are only as good as the additional questions they spark" I LOVE IT

Posted by: Ida on July 2, 2014 4:01 PM

TRUTH!!! Ma'ayan you so effortlessly summed up the three major themes of probably all my posts! I especially love "The more you learn, the more you realize you don't know, and as uncomfortable as that may be, that's the beauty of exploration, and ultimately, discovering new things." I would definitely say this is my biggest Oberlin take away thus far--knowledge is an uncomfortable gift but can be so great when that discomfort is embraced and shared with a purpose. I absolutely can attest to that feeling and even now, with all the books that I am reading that comment is super resonant.

Also, awww sociology love! The department is great and I am totally more than willing to let you pick my brain for a while if my posts aren't satisfying all of your sociology curiosities :)

Posted by: Alexandria Cunningham '16 on July 2, 2014 6:41 PM

I LOVED THIS TOO. It sounds like something Dr. Charles Peterson (Africana Studies) would say. He is probably the first professor I had to make me see that all good inquiries do not only have answers, but start new questions and dialogues with longevity, in part because your curiosity has the momentum to continue the pursuit of knowledge.

Posted by: Alexandria Cunningham '16 on July 2, 2014 6:44 PM

Charles is one of the GREATEST PEOPLE EVER and I love that every time we talk we're basically asking big questions of each other and then getting bigger ones in return. I leave every conversation with him thinking about more things that I thought were possible. He's a professor all the time and not just in a classroom, an overall A++ human being, and to be compared to how he thinks is a high honor.

Posted by: Ma'ayan on July 3, 2014 11:30 AM

I absolutely love Dr. Peterson and Dr. Gadsby with all of my heart. They both create the type of conversation where it goes deeper than you expected, leads to more engaging conversation and you walk away being so mind-blown that either they are just incredibly insightful and that the dialogue just went in the direction it did. Literally they both make my heart happy. Speaking with you gives me that same feeling too Ma'ayan--you're literally great too!

Posted by: Alexandria Cunningham '16 on July 3, 2014 2:00 PM

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