When we first started hosting panels at conferences discussing Writing Where It Hurts, more than one person asked me why I thought this was important. While there are many reasons I think exploring the personal elements of teaching, research, and service is important educationally, scientifically, politically, and professionally, in this post I would like to focus on one specific aspect that (from my experience talking with people in varied fields) seems far too common. I’m speaking of the term “me-search.”
In my experience, many scholars refer to work that engages some aspect of personhood as me-search. While this is a cute phrase, it is generally used to bolster claims to objectivity and / or to marginalize scholars who work in areas that have personal significance for them. While others have pointed out problems with believing in “objectivity” and reasons people may engage in personally meaningful scholarship and advocacy, I would like to take a different path here, and ask what exactly is meant by the term me-search. On the surface, the best answers I have been able to find for this question at conferences, online, in departments, and in informal conversations suggests the term refers to any case where someone conducts research in an area or with a population that is personally relevant to them.
Based on this suggestion, me-search could actually just be considered a synonym for science. When, for example, an American demographer studies American population trends, ze is conducting me-search because ze is studying zir own population. In a similar fashion, when a religious person analyzes surveys to see how religious variables correlate to other social aspects, this person would again be engaging in me-search because they are studying an area (i.e., religion) that is part of their own life. Likewise when a scholar explores brain tissue or any other element of human biology, said scholar is engaging in me-search by attempting to explain something they have within them in scientific terms. In fact, even studies of animals could be a form of me-search because every human experiences a world wherein they interact with and may seek to understand animals (as well as plants and other natural phenomena) from a rather early age. One could even go as far as to say that if science is the study of the natural world, all science is me-search because all of us are parts of the natural world, and both influence and are influenced by this phenomena. Unless someone can find some area of study that does not influence human life or somehow become non-human prior to doing any kind of research, all research is ultimately me-search because all research seeks to make sense of the world we (or me) live in to the best of our current abilities.
If, as it appears, me-search is simply a synonym for science based on its most common definition, then we must ask how this became a slur or source of marginalization. One fruitful place to start such an inquiry lies within the examples I gave above. Anyone familiar with the way the term “me-search” is tossed around likely realized early into the above paragraph that I used examples that are never (that I’ve seen) called me-search despite the fact that in each case the researcher is exploring elements of their own self and existence. Considering that these are some of the older (or traditional if you prefer) areas of science, it seems curious that no one ever seems to note them in discussions of me-search. Rather, most of the time when people use the term me-search they are referring to (and generally denigrating) scholarship done by, done about, or done in the service of minority communities or marginalized subject areas.
Examples of this contradiction wherein some personally relevant scholarship is deemed me-search while other personally relevant scholarship is not may be seen throughout current scientific structures and norms. When, for example, a racial minority scholar studies racial minority communities to illuminate systemic racism, people may accuse this scholar of me-search to create a reason to lessen the importance of their findings. However, no one ever seems to make the same claim about a white scholar studying populations (like the GSS or any other large scale data set) full of white people without mentioning race or while making claims about race. In a similar vein, I have yet to hear anyone mention that white scientists working with biological samples and claiming racial findings are doing me-search. Rather than noting that their own racial identities likely play a role in how many or what kinds of races they find in biological samples, such researchers typically offer sweeping claims about race without much critique from the rest of science until after the fact. In all such cases, researchers are studying something deeply salient in anyone’s life (especially in American society), but only when racial minorities do so is the term me-search ever called upon. Other than protecting institutional racism embedded within the history of the academy and science, what purpose does it serve to call one person’s (i.e., a white person who obviously has a socially constructed race and a stake in racial politics consciously or otherwise) racial findings “objective” while we call another person’s (i.e., a racial minority who obviously has a socially constructed race and a stake in racial politics consciously or otherwise) racial findings me-search?
We see similar situations wherein heterosexuals study sexualities or samples full of sexually identified people, men study gender dynamics or samples with multiple genders, cisgender people study gender dynamics or samples of other cisgender people, religious people study religion or samples full of religious people. In all such cases, the scientists are doing me-search (or science), but we only tend to use the term me-search to refer to sexual minorities, women, transgender people, and nonreligious people studying the exact same things. In so doing, we reproduce the subordination (both within and beyond the academy) of sexual, gender, racial, religious, and other minority communities by emphasizing personal connections in minority scholarship while downplaying or denying personal connections in scholarship by people occupying privileged groups.
This observation brings me back to why it is important to discuss and reveal the personal aspects of research, teaching and service. Since I have yet to find a scholar who does not have a personal stake (whether admitted or not, whether conscious or not) in the findings they present in physical, social, and other sciences, terms like me-search appear to be academic methods of social and knowledge control that limit our understanding of the world and marginalize people for no reason other than being honest about the influences that feed into their scholarly endeavors. I thus became involved in this project in hopes of (at the very least) beginning the process of celebrating the bravery of people who openly engage in personally-meaningful scholarship, and challenging those who hide behind academic “traditions” and “control mechanisms” to avoid admitting the personal stake contained within their own findings, arguments, and assertions. If science is to actually provide accurate knowledge of the world and potentially facilitate a better world, I think one of the first steps involves recognizing that all research is a form of me-search, and embracing the personal, subjective, and human elements of academic work emerging from a wide variety of backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences with the natural world.