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Research methods taught for undergraduate students is like asking a young person to eat their greens; fraught with difficulties. The prospect of engaging with active research seems distant, and the philosophical concepts underneath it, seem convoluted and far too complex. After all, at some point each of us struggled with inductive/deductive reasoning, whilst appreciating the difference between epistemology over methodology…and don’t get me stated on the ontology and if it is socially proscribed or not…minefield. It is through time, and plenty of trial and error efforts, that a mechanism is developed to deliver complex information in any “palatable” format!
There are pedagogic arguments here, for and against, the development of disentangling theoretical conventions, especially to those who hear these concepts for the first time. I feel a sense of deep history when I ask students “to observe” much like Popper argued in The Logic of Scientific Discovery when he builds up the connection between theory and observational testing.
So, we try to come to terms with the conceptual challenges and piqued their understanding, only to be confronted with the way those concepts correlate to our understanding of reality. This ability to vocalise social reality and conditions around us, is paramount, on demonstrating our understanding of social scientific enquiry. This is quite a difficult process that we acquire slowly, painfully and possibly one of the reasons people find it frustrating. In observational reality, notwithstanding experimentation, the subjectivity of reality makes us nervous as to the contentions we are about to make.
A prime skill at higher education, among all of us who have read or are reading for a degree, is the ability to contextualise personal reality, utilising evidence logically and adapting them to theoretical conventions. In this vein, whether we are talking about the environment, social deprivation, government accountability and so on, the process upon which we explore them follows the same conventions of scholarship and investigation. The arguments constructed are evidence based and focused on the subject rather than the feelings we have on each matter.
This is a position, academics contemplate when talking to an academic audience and then must transfer the same position in conversation or when talking to a lay audience. The language may change ever so slightly, and we are mindful of the jargon that we may use but ultimately we represent the case for whatever issue, using the same processes, regardless of the audience.
Academic opinion is not merely an expert opinion, it is a viewpoint, that if done following all academic conventions, should represent factual knowledge, up to date, with a degree of accuracy. This is not a matter of opinion; it is a way of practice. Which makes non-academic rebuttals problematic. The current prevailing approach is to present everything as a matter of opinion, where each position is presented equally, regardless of the preparation, authority or knowledge embedded to each. This balanced social approach has been exasperated with the onset of social media and the way we consume information. The problem is when an academic who presents a theoretical model is confronted with an opinion that lacks knowledge or evidence. The age-old problem of conflating knowledge with information.
This is aggravated when a climatologist is confronted by a climate change denier, a criminologist is faced with a law and order enthusiast (reminiscing the good-old days) or an economist presenting the argument for remain, shouted down by a journalist with little knowledge of finance. We are at an interesting crossroad, after all the facts and figures at our fingertips, it seems the argument goes to whoever shouts the loudest.
Popper K., (1959/2002), The Logic of Scientific Discovery, tr. from the German Routledge, London
If you go to Freshers’, you will probably think this is for White people. But you’ve got to occupy your space. Better get used to occupying your space now because you’ll have to fight wherever you go, university or otherwise. Don’t let that deter you from your goals but more vitally, don’t let anybody make you feel bad about yourself. Don’t be silent in the discussions on slavery or the prison system. Use your voice, a sonicboom in the seminar. Don’t be mute to appease the White fragility of your peers, or even your lecturers and personal academic tutors.
You worked hard to get here, so occupy your space. Fill these spaces with jollof rice and jerk chicken and calypso and steel drums – the guts, determination and sheer willpower your parents and grandparents had when they arrived all those years ago. Don’t ever feel that you have to dilute your opinions for White consumption, or tell bitesize histories for the masses. In that Business class, talk loud about the Cheshire and Lancashire cotton mills written in the blood of African-American slaves.
Students, you might get lecturers that call you angry, who will have a hard time coming to terms with their own prejudice and White privilege. You will see that within a few weeks of studying. But keep your head down and think about graduation. Come and speak to me at the Students’ Union if you have any worries or just want to vent. Sometimes it’s just about finding solace in someone that gets it. Cry into that cheeky Nando’s. Buy that weave. Write a damn good assignment and prove all the naysayers wrong.
You will also find lecturers that are willing to listen to your experiences of racism and prejudice. They will implore you to write a dissertation that’s personal to you. You will find lecturers that give a shit, and will stand by you to the very end – who will say it’s absolutely fine to lace your dissertation with personal history – roots, rocks, and rebellion – academic staff that are activists in their own right (but will never openly admit it!)
Write about the politics of Black hair. Write about the Windrush Scandal or the legacy of colonialism on the Black body, or even Black men and mental health. Write every assignment for your aunties, who live in headwraps, talking in Twi and give you sound advice. Write in ruthless rebellion to the White Eurocentric reading of your degree, break the colour bar in style!
You will likely not relate to your course content. You will find it reflects the experiences of White people. No Afropean stories. No love for Sarah Forbes on History, or the Slave Trade cases of the 1700s on Law – the cases that helped forge the legal profession into what it is today. Or even the racial theories of the 18th and 19th century that we living in the remnants of – not Edward Long’s History of Jamaica nor the Black writers that top bestsellers lists. Write about a decolonised curriculum and inclusive course content.
When your lecturers make no allusion to American Slavery when you study the Industrial Revolution, give them the evilest evils you can muster. And challenge them on it. Leave them shook. Educate your “woke” White friends on why this is important. And when it comes to race, don’t feel you need to talk about race just because you’re the only non-White person in the class.
When you come to university, you will feel the urge to be someone that you are not just to fit in. BE YOU. You will try studenty things. JUST DO YOU. You’ll go out drinking, even if you don’t normally drink. You will join every society at Union Day and your emails will be chocka block. You’ll change your accent and “be friends” with people you dislike to conform to social norms. You will then admit you hate going out out and prefer a good book, or one of my poetry nights or just a chat with good people in your halls.
Tell yourself “Black is beautiful.” You know it, I know it. But there are people out there that’ll try to make you feel bad about your culture, as is life. Come back to campus in January with that Angela Davis afro, or be a dreadlock rastaman. Play cricket, like Jofra Archer or play football like Raheem Sterling. And, your hair is not an exotic specimen to gawked at and touched like a museum exhibit. Remember, say no. No means no. Always.
Black students, walk with pride. YOU DO YOU. Be united. You’ll see quickly that there are forces that are waiting for you to make a mistake. To fail. To point the finger. You’ll see quickly that failure is racialised and that failure in a White person is not as bad. You’ll see that we live in a society that doesn’t include you in its definition of beauty standards. So girls, when someone says “You’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl,” pay them no mind. Find beauty in your melanin. Find your tribe. Sisterhood is paramount.
When someone asks “Where are you from?” – it’s fine to say London or Milton Keynes or any British town or city. You do not need to entertain them when they ask “Where are you really from?” You can be British and African. You can be British and Caribbean. You belong here. You can just be British. And that is also fine. Previously, you’d not have found events that represent Black people or felt inclusive. But my philosophy is “Black History Month is every month, 365 days a year.” October, November forever. See me!
Listen, you might be made to feel conscious of your otherness and not everyone will get your “I Am Proud of My Blackness” mentality. Not everyone will understand the nuanced politics of Blackness at Northampton. That even in inaction, the supposed “woke” White people are still complicit in racism. And remember it isn’t YOUR JOB to explain what is racist and what is not. Do not take on that emotional labour. You are not the mouthpiece for Black people, and you don’t have to be.
You will have days where you will say “I hate this town, I want to go home – there is no culture and nothing to do” but Northampton can work for you. There are other communities of African and Caribbean here where you will be welcomed with rice and stew. You will find family and community.
And you are not alone. There are a lot of us here. Build communities. Join the resident ACS (African-Caribbean Society). Empower yourselves. Come to see me, as your Student Union representative. Look after each other. Be good to yourselves and one another – and above all, enjoy it.
Vice President BME
Northampton Students’ Union