Teaching About Power and Inequity When Qualitative Methods Are Devalued

Ethnic studies was born from community, student, and faculty struggles that literally shut universities down over issues like racism and colonialism. The discipline that emerged from that contentious birth is a broad field that centers a critical analysis of systems of power and supports resistance to inequality. In the universities where I have taught ethnic and gender studies courses very few of my students are majors. Most students come from a wide variety of other departments and enroll as an elective because they are concerned with social issues and want to understand them deeper in order to make change in their worlds, reflecting the original mission of the field. Other students enroll as a required diversity course and may harbor suspicion, resentment, and resistance to the perspectives of the oppressed that we center in our work. Students also arrive with different levels of academic preparation. Teaching a mixed skill level class is difficult but the biggest challenge to teaching ethnic and gender studies is getting past the problematic assumptions about the field that students can arrive with.

My course may be a student’s first exposure to humanities or social science as well as the first time they’ve encountered perspectives by authors who are not straight cis white men. Usually my students are curious about the course topic and genuinely interested in learning something new. But sometimes they arrive with a common, troubling and incorrect assumption that our field is purely subjective and opinion based. Despite their interest in the themes of the course, they tend to see ethnic and gender studies as a field without method, without evidence, and purely based in the hurt feelings and uninformed opinions of people of color, women, queer, and trans folk.

Such assumptions are offensive on many levels, and they inform students’ initial perceptions and expectations of the course that I must overcome. However, those assumptions are shaped in part by dominant society’s systematic devaluation of non-western forms of knowledge production and the ways that non-STEM fields are seen as limiting employment opportunities, and therefore lacking merit in a capitalist and consumerist world. Those assumptions are also shaped by student experiences with humanities and social sciences courses that might not provide opportunities to study the social construction of knowledge, interrogate what constitutes evidence, or to learn clearly articulated qualitative research methodologies. Qualitative data and non-western ways of knowing challenge the positivism of mainstream education and can be daunting for students who have not been taught how to evaluate such materials nor that they evidence and not just opinions.

When teaching about structural inequities, I often do rely upon statistics to get past the resistance of students who think inequality doesn’t exist. Quantitative data can be very useful for this purpose. But when it comes to the core skills that my courses are designed to teach such as how to critically analyze a text for its evidentiary biases, how to evaluate a writer’s craft choices, and how to consider the impacts of certain discourses on how we understand social problems, rather than just summarize the text like a fourth grade book report, most college students are failing. There are several possible reasons for this, but I have found that emphasizing research and analysis methodologies in my pedagogy has been the most useful tool to get past student resistances to ethnic and gender studies content.

There is always the student in my classes who “just wants to know the right answer to get an A” and who resists learning research methodologies. Typically this student is accustomed to what Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire called the “banking method” of education, where students memorize and regurgitate data imparted by an instructor. Activities that require more complex functions such as application, creativity, or problem solving are met with resistance by students accustomed to less effort. Early in my teaching I was surprised by how many students responded to my creative assignments where they could practice their skills and prepare for work in the real world by requesting standardized exams instead. At first I assumed these students were lazy or resistant to the course content but when I challenged my own assumptions and engaged these students to find out why they resisted the assignments, their responses were often that creative tasks they couldn’t control gave them unbearable anxiety. These students actually really cared about the course content and their grades but they lacked practice in more applied and creative work and this made the assignments stressful. I found that the more explicit I could make the structure of the research and analysis methods I expected, the less anxiety these students experienced and the more they excelled in their work. 

I was also shocked by how students tried to get me to divulge my political positions so they could “just know what you want us to say” when I asked them questions and provided assignments where they would have to learn to evaluate evidence and construct an argument. Eventually, I understood that this was not so much about a politics of political correctness as the students often phrased it, but really was a comment on the limitations of their prior banking method training and their fears of speaking their mind and being attacked by others. Social anxiety daunted students who had not had sufficient practice in discussing politically charged topics. My students in general were not lazy nor uninterested. Most of them actually wanted an opportunity to think critically about and discuss the topics we were engaging but they just had not been trained in how to do it. So how do we change this?

Identifying your research methods

During my second year in graduate school, I sat in a seminar where we worked to prepare our methodological exam papers, dumbfounded that amongst all of the cultural studies majors in my cohort, none of us could really identify what the research methodologies for cultural studies were. It seemed that many of the academic books we were reading, particularly if they were humanities focused, did not define a clear research method either. The frustration of this situation pushed me to self-train myself in research methods and to transform my teaching approach so that my students would hopefully not catch themselves in a similar conundrum.

This is a list of some sample qualitative research methods commonly used in the social sciences and humanities to analyze historical and contextual data or interpret meaning, relationships, causes, and impacts across phenomenon:

  • analyzing primary source material (archives, laws, policies, interviews, case studies, etc.)

  • discourse and rhetorical analysis

  • narrative analysis

  • structural or material analysis of an author’s/artist’s work

  • contextualization (analyze causality, influence, and the historical or social context)

  • evaluating the evidence and structure of an argument

  • analyzing the craft choices and techniques used by an author or artist

  • analyzing social and material relations

  • analyzing complex systems, relationships, and interactions

  • debunking assumptions and opinions with evidence

  • unveiling the ways that culture, common sense, social categories, systems of power, ways of seeing and experiencing the world are socially constructed

  • posing critical questions about ethics, impacts, and social structures

  • grounded or inductive methods (evaluation of empirical data, observation, and evidence)

Often it is easier for students to understand research methods that can be more quantitative or that utilize fieldwork and observation. Research methods that rely upon object or textual analysis are sometimes viewed by students as not being evidence or observation based because math, measurements, or fieldwork are not involved and students have been told these are the only worthy forms of analysis. The challenge to this internalized positivism is to first get students to understand what kinds of evidence you are examining and how these things actually become legitimate evidence, as well as what the politics are behind who decides what is legitimate evidence and why. From there, you can build readings, lectures, activities, and assignments that teach the student what the research method is and how to do it themselves.

How to incorporate skills or methods into a learning objective

Clear learning objectives can cover the concepts and definitions you want students to understand, the concrete skills you want students to master, and the research methods you are presenting and modeling in your lectures and course materials. Sometimes I will break learning objectives up into categories such as this so that students know the various tasks I expect them to concentrate on.

In interdisciplinary fields like ethnic or gender studies we have a tendency to focus our learning objectives on the theories and concepts we want students to understand, such as the idea that gender and race are social constructs, without addressing the underlying research methods to identify social constructs. By doing this, we miss the opportunity for students to develop skills to  know their world in more critical ways. This also contributes to students’ perception that our courses present theories that lack evidence and method, because we simply don’t make evidence, skills, and method explicit in our teaching when we only focus on identifying and comprehending concepts and theories.

Take the skill you want students to learn and reword it as a learning objective. For example, right now I am teaching a course on Native American Literature. One of the main things I want students to learn is how to evaluate the craft choices of creative writers because this is a literature course. Hence, one learning objective is, “by the end of this course you should be able to define common craft techniques of poetry and fiction such as pacing of action, plot structure, and poetic meter.” But if I just stopped there at the skills of identify and define, I would not be teaching my students any new research methods.

So another learning objective is that students will know how to critically analyze a text instead of simply summarizing it. Here my goal is that students learn the difference between summary and analysis and are able to perform a critical analysis. But since students are often confused on what is meant by the term “critical analysis” and how it differs from a summary, I need to communicate my expectations. For this courses I define analysis as a set of specific skills I want students to master such as compare and contrast, evaluate the impacts of historical context on the text, etc. These are laid out in rubrics and explained in lecture examples as what I consider the steps of analysis for this course that form a research process.

A third learning objective is how to apply a theoretical concept to an analysis of a text. I give students a list of the theories we are learning and make sure they comprehend them. For example, in this class I am teaching Dian Million’s concept “Felt Theory”, which is a form of narrative analysis that considers the embodied, lived experiences of Indigenous women as evidence and the narrative choices Indigenous women use in telling their stories as formations of theory about the world and colonial power relations. I give assignments where students can practice applying the theories in their research, kind of like problem-solving activities. So I had students concept map the article then take a memoir we read in the course and analyze it using felt theory as an analytic in a short research paper. In lecture I explained what that paper would look like structurally and what my grading rubrics were in clear and concrete terms.

By the end of the class, the students should be prepared to move on to other courses in either Literature or Native Studies, but they should also know how to apply their knowledge to the real world. Most of my students are not Native American studies majors. Very few of them will ever become creative writers. Instead they want to be K-12 teachers, public health workers, therapists, and social workers. They are taking the class because they want to work with Native communities, so I need to frame learning objectives in a way that will help them with their future goals.

I want them to understand and value their experience in the course because it serves as an introduction to Native issues and qualitative research methods that may assist them in their future work. This means making the research methods explicit so that students know that they should not extrapolate stereotypes of Native peoples from this one course or think now they know everything there is to know about Native communities. But rather, that now they should be prepared with basic cultural competency and the tools needed to do further research on Native issues. 

A final word on teaching non-western and feminist epistemological methods

In ethnic and gender studies fields we teach non-western, feminist, queer, and trans epistemologies. We are critical of the historically oppressive underpinnings of western knowledge production, including the way theories of positivism and empiricism have devalued evidence and knowledges that are affective, sensory, lived, and embodied. So we critically interrogate theories of objectivity and neutrality as systems that maintain and legitimize the power dynamics that marginalize people of color, Indigenous peoples, the disabled, women, queer, and trans folks.

To students who have spent most of their lives in an educational system that teaches positivism and objective neutrality as truths while dismissing any critiques of these theories and any other form of knowledge production our courses can seem mystifying, confusing, and even upsetting. I have found it helpful to address this learning process by clearly articulating the research methods that have emerged from non-western, feminist, queer, and trans epistemologies so students can develop tools to do the often more complex work that these ways of knowing foster.

In doing so, it is useful to explain to students the relationships between the ontologies (ways of being) you are studying and the epistemologies (ways of knowing) that emerge from those states of being. Once that is understood, then the epistemology can be analyzed through clearly articulated research methods.

It’s also important to directly address criticism from students who want to use their own limited personal experience to refute the lesson you are teaching. I often get white students who refute the existence of racial privilege because they don’t feel that they personally experience it. In situations like these I may use a mix of qualitative and quantitative data to demonstrate the existence of the object of study (racism). But I’m careful not to take up too much class time proving the existence of our object of study and I discuss with students how inappropriate a challenge to the object of study would be in any of their other classes so they know this is not academically acceptable behavior. You don’t walk into biochemistry arguing that cellular molecules don’t exists do you? No. You are there to learn how to study them. Same goes for racism, sexism, etc. in an ethnic studies class.

I also talk about how to know the difference between an alternative epistemology emerging from the lived experiences of a marginalized group, (women of color for example,) and how to know when your own life experience is too limited or privileged to be relied on as generalizable data. This entails discussing different measurements of scale in our research methods, the ways that privilege is intentionally invisibilized, and how concepts of normalization are socially constructed.

I ground these discussions in methodological research and clarify what constitutes as acceptable evidence so students learn how we know what we know in the field rather than just having to take my word on it. Students may come in to my classroom with the false assumption that I want to indoctrinate them to my own political ideology and there isn’t much I as an individual can do about that before they take the course. But I can make sure they leave my classroom knowing how to critically examine their world themselves instead of worrying about what the professor believes in. Which actually fits with my radical anti-authoritarian politics quite nicely.  


Amrah Salomón J.

Graduate Teaching Consultant, University of California San Diego Teaching + Learning Commons

Amrah Salomon J. is a writer, artist, activist, and educator of Mexican, Native American (Akimel O’odham and Tohono O'odham, descendant), and European ancestry. Amrah is a PhD candidate in Ethnic Studies at University of California San Diego, a Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellow, and a former Critical Ethnic Studies Association board member. She teaches at San Diego State University and University of San Diego. Amrah is a co-founder of Rez Beats and her work has been published in both academic and literary publications in the United States and in Mexico. She also works as an anti-oppression, transformative justice, and community organizing consultant.