Teaching to Change LA > Youth Voices > Vol. 5, Issue 1 > Electoral Politics
Electoral Politics > Features > Student Work

On Being a Critical Researcher

Marco de la Torre is a senior at Santa Monica High School.

To be a critical researcher is to be an archeologist searching for hidden remnants of the past. Much like the archeologist that first identifies an area to excavate, a critical researcher must first identify an issue he wishes to explore. An archeologist will carefully and diligently remove layers of sediment, and in the process catalogue small samples to analyze later in a lab. Likewise, the critical researcher will analyze the underlying causes of the problem he is researching. While the tools each professional uses differ, brush and chisel, versus interviews and surveys, their goals are alike: they search to unearth the forgotten corpses veiled by history.

While the oppressors are armed with millions of dollars, armies, and power, a critical researcher has only his eyes.

To be critical is to be aware, and to be aware, you must have a keen eye. A critical researcher must be proficient in recognizing things others do not see as important. As an archeologist you must be able to look at small bits and pieces of clay and conclude what object they fell off of, and from what time period they originated. A critical researcher must be able to see key aspects of everyday life that most people ignore. He must examine a problem thoroughly by taking account of all people affected, as well as account for all the variables that make up the problem. The concept of digging is well suited for a critical researcher, as he must be inquisitive; each question unveils a new layer of dirt and new valuable information. But while an archeologist might leave an area after failing to find anything, the persistent critical researcher will not disappear. He will keep asking, “Why?” And if no one answers, the inactive disposition of his interviewees will provide him with data.

Once a researcher feels he has compiled enough evidence; be it by time restraints or by lack of information, the most important, and possibly the most difficult task follows, the analysis. You must examine every data set that has been acquired, and needless to say, countless hours will be spent going through testimony. A critical researcher must tie everything together and provide concrete evidence for his/her findings. A mixture of qualitative and quantitative data is key. One must see how one problem feeds into another so that when you have an evaluation completed, you must go back and evaluate it once more. Finally, a critical researcher must present his findings to those who are directly affected by the problem, as well as those who have the power to fix it. If no change follows, the sedimentary response from people in power provides more data for the research; they are choosing to ignore the problem and the people affected by it. While this task will seem tiresome and time consuming, a critical researcher must be motivated by the fact that he is giving a voice to the voiceless. There are millions of people that have been marginalized by today’s society, be it by systematic forces or by history. Worst of all, other people are not aware, or choose to ignore the problems. They don’t know of the day-to-day plights inner city youth face. Thus, it is the job of a critical researcher to spread awareness.

As a critical researcher you must approach the world aware of the bias present in today’s society. One must know that things are the way they are for a reason, and that they need to approach with caution because there are people in the world that seek to keep things the way they are. Corporations that profit from the disenfranchisement of marginalized people will not be too happy knowing one is trying to show them the truth behind their situation. While the oppressors are armed with millions of dollars, armies, and power, a critical researcher has only his eyes. It is then his job to transcribe his findings onto a medium that can be presented to the masses. A video may serve the purpose, however, there is always the chance that it will sit on a shelf in a library, and remain untouched for years. Attempting to use the media to spread your message might prove out of the question, as the media is often a cause of the problem. If inner city youth are constantly bombarded with images of artists preaching about drugs and hoe’s, then one cannot expect them to aspire for higher education.

Many times, communities surrounding inner city schools are aware that their schools are in shambles. However, what they see is not supplemented with raw data. They know that many kids don’t graduate, but they don’t know the exact percent. If they did, they might be inspired to protest.

A critical researcher must look at education as the perfect vessel for spreading his message. Additionally, for the critical researcher fighting for social injustices, knowledge represents the key to freedom. In today’s society, you cannot have one without the other, and those that limit the education of others do so knowing this. Thus, he must cherish it with all his might and seek to absorb knowledge from every branch of physical and metaphysical science. While these may not seem necessary requirements for a critical researcher, they will give him various perspectives on the subject matter he is analyzing, not to mention, they will help supplement his research. While it is one thing to learn, it is another thing to teach. The researcher cannot be miserly with what he has learned because, again, one main reason he is doing the research itself is to educate.

Doing critical research requires that one implement the use of various civic literacies, or special skills and strategies that facilitate gathering research, as well as in sending a message. There is a broad range of these strategies, ranging from the simplest task like writing, to the more complex activities like editing video. Anything can be a civic literacy as long as it can give social commentary on today’s society. Painting murals, composing music, writing poetry, and designing websites are a few examples. While everyone has the ability to use critical civic literacies, there are few people that actually implement them. This is because, sadly, educational institutions located in low income neighborhoods employ curriculum that does not encourage their students to voice their opinions. They are not taught how one can take simple everyday actions and turn them into critical civic engagements.

There are different kinds of data a researcher can gather: quantitative and qualitative. Quantitative data generally involves information that can be counted and be represented with numbers. Surveys work well as they allow a researcher to pose the same questions to a large number of people. Their answer choices can be counted, and then represented by graphs. On the other hand, qualitative data is usually testimony posed by people. Some tools that are effective for gathering qualitative data are voice recorders, digital cameras, video cameras, and even pencil and paper; voice recorders and video cameras can capture live testimony word for word; digital cameras can take pictures of the environment a researcher is working in; pencil and paper can do both when one writes down what an interviewee says, and also documents the things he sees.

Critical data is the fruit that emerges from long difficult hours spent doing critical research. The data can be used in many ways, but as stated earlier, it must be made public. One step toward accomplishing this is through publishing the findings. This data will not only be available to the public, but may also aid future critical researchers. Another step is to upload the final project on the Internet. With its ease of use and public availability, the Internet has become a quintessential method for spreading information.

While North High may welcome us on campus and tell us about their “Grad Program” and their college acceptance rates, they fail to tell us the stories of those who are left behind; the self-defeating resistance.

For teens, critical research can be used to voice-out against educational injustices. Many times communities surrounding inner city schools are aware that their schools are in shambles. However, what they see is not supplemented with raw data. They know that many kids don’t graduate, but they don’t know the exact percent. If they did, they might be inspired to protest. However, inner city schools, especially those in the L.A.U.S.D School District, have been facing the same problems since the 1960’s. In that era, students voiced out against their schools by walking out and demanding that politicians take action. If the affected community is shown how they have been deliberately ignored for 40 years, then this might also inspire them to take action. Moreover, if they see politicians have failed to address their problems, they might be inspired to fight for new politicians or seek to reform the educational system. Research data can also be shown to affluent people who may prove sympathetic to these communities and may try to use their pull on society to bring change. Yet another way is to show the data to young people. Inner city schools participate in what Macleod calls “social reproduction,” where schools track higher income students into courses that teach them to manage, while lower income students are tracked into classes that teach them to be managed. If youth become informed about Macleod (see research supporting his claims), then see that they themselves are becoming a product of “social reproduction,” then they might be provoked to seek change.

While critical research is done for a worthy cause, there are many different obstacles that a researcher might, and most certainly will encounter. For example, if a researcher is looking to investigate educational injustices, he might find himself confronting administrators. Based on my experiences, it is in my opinion that many of today’s administrators are concerned with the image people have of their schools. North High and Crenshaw High are two clear examples. While Crenshaw displays brightly colored billboards that boast they turn-out students thoroughly prepared for today’s world, students might appear on camera refuting these claims. While North High may welcome us on campus and tell us about their “Grad Program” and their college acceptance rates, they fail to tell us the stories of those who are left behind; the self-defeating resistance. They take away a student’s right to voice out their opinions because administrators fear that if we take footage of students that bash their school then show it to the public, people will have the misconception that their school is faulty. If they are so concerned with misconceptions, then they shouldn’t try to pass their schools off as unflawed. If one encounters this problem, then they should simply look to interview students right after school as they leave campus.

Another obstacle a researcher must be prepared to deal with is false testimony. Many times there are people, or students, who do not speak out against their school for fear that an administrator will observe and rebuke them. To combat this, one should first ask if they can be recorded on camera. If not, then the researcher should simply record their testimony on paper. Also, one can set-up to meet them at a certain location after school has been dismissed. False answers are easy to spot on surveys. All one has to spot is a survey with the same answer selected for every question posed. To try and diminish this, the research group should have surveys that ask questions students can understand. Also, one must assure them that they are, and will remain, confidential. If, when attempting to write a critical theory, a critical researcher is encountering woes, then they would greatly benefit from looking at the work of previous researchers and theorists. One researcher can learn a lot by comparing his data with that of another researcher. Lastly, it is important to remember that one must stay focused, maintain motivation, and never stop asking ”why?” After all, like an archeologist who searches to discover the fossils of a previously undiscovered creature, all a critical researcher is trying to do is change the world.

Teaching to Change LA is an online journal of IDEA, UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education, & Access