by Nicholas Hayes
At my nephew’s daycare, they do not have toys or games. They have provocations. What are provocations? They are toys or games, but with the important difference that the encounter with a provocation is seen as a learning opportunity. The children are not instructed or corrected on the appropriate way to experience the provocation. They are merely encouraged to experience and learn from it. At eighteen months, my nephew was mirroring a process that is effective at many stages of intellectual life: the personal encounter (I can hit the table with a crayon) that leads to reflection (I can use a crayon as a percussive instrument) and then to further research (Can I use two crayons simultaneously as percussive instruments?) The provocation leads to experience and then to further research. I find myself following a similar path in my research projects.
A few years ago, Miller Lite ran a series of commercials aimed at shaming men who did not conform to heteronormative masculinity. These commercials gleeful shamed men in scarves or holding satchels since these acts were portrayed as feminine. The misogynistic and homophobic content provoked me. More than that it stuck in my craw. That near constant irritation led me to research the way masculinity has been depicted in beer commercials. By the end of the research and writing process, I had a paper which I presented at the 2012 Mid-Atlantic Popular and American Culture Conference. The provocation to annoyance had become a research project.
I have found that most of my research is provoked by the personal. This influences how I guide my students in their projects. I tell my students they should research what interests them or what impacts them in their day-to-day lives. But just as often, I advise them to figure out what is bothering them. I ask them what is stuck in their craws. The suggestion to turn their minds to small issues provokes projects that are often quite rich.
The approach can challenge the assumptions students have about research. It can challenge the drive for overly large topics students feel they need to fill pages. But the small question located in their personal lives has tremendous value. Emily Schnee at Kingsborough Community College – CUNY directs her students in a different yet still personal trajectory. She starts by having students write educational memoirs, which are then used as prompts for deeper research. She finds, “Having the opportunity to write and revise their lived experiences, within the collective of their peers, enabled the participants to understand how social structures operate, to discover the power of their own agency, and to critique their world.” Reflection on personal experiences is powerful, but the promise of research is connecting student experience to larger academic and non-academic worlds.
To make these connections, students must not navel gaze. Instead students must explore how small provocations connect to the world. Of course, some of this needs to come from the self. The tensile tethers that are thrown out and snag on credible academic research when drawn taut can lead to meaningful learning.
This is not an easy task. Throwing out tethers can create something beautiful and web-like when they snag on the solid research. But there are those moments when students fix them to insecure or unfounded pieces of research (like a random but seemingly golden Wikiquote that deprived of accurate context becomes mere pyrite.) The work can be difficult. The beauty we can be achieve at the end is based on exploration.
These paths are typical of those learned in the writing process—gathering, evaluating, and editing content. The writing instructor can best be a guide on the quest, and a friendly, reassuring voice when the paths and treasures a student finds are false. But we also know that every experience is a treasure. Everything connects to the larger world, but we must push ourselves to see how.
Schnee, Emily. “Writing the Personal as Research.” Narrative Inquiry 19.1 (2009): 35-51. Web. 18 Feb. 2016.