Journalistic decay, epistemological certainty

The text comes from an epistemological statement drafted for BBL 7023, “Qualitative Research Methods,” University of Texas at San Antonio.

To understand the world, knowledge is not enough, you must see it, touch it, live in its presence.

—Teilhard de Chardin, Hymn of the Universe

I saw a Facebook post recently that contained an image from southern New Jersey, where in 1985 I had started a career in journalism at a midsize, family-owned, suburban Philadelphia daily newspaper. The picture was of the newspaper building, in an early stage of disassembly, that had housed editorial and advertising offices, the publisher’s suite, a library, cafeteria, and production and press facilities. Weeds spread from cracks near the entrance, and shrubbery crept unabated to partially obscure the dappled granite façade. The scene resembled the post-apocalyptic landscape of the Ukrainian city Pripyat years after the Chernobyl disaster, news of which I had first received, in 1986, at my reporter’s desk in this same building.

The newspaper’s name was still perceptible just above the main glass doors, but some of the white Gothic letters had dropped off. It read, “Bu_lin_ton _oun_y _im_s.” This was an especially painful picture to see and not just because of its witness to decay and the damage that time inevitably does to monuments of one’s memory. Combined with the loss of many such journalistic outposts over the past few decades, this was the pictorial representation of an epistemological edifice—my epistemology—being taken apart, stone by stone, then bulldozed and buried, such that I must try to refashion it here in this brief epistemological assessment.

My constructionist epistemology had begun to be shaped in the journalistic mode when I was 16 years old and started interviewing people—teachers, faculty advisers, tennis players, baseball coaches, leaders of community nonprofits—and publishing their stories in a small-circulation weekly paper outside Washington, DC. Over the years, from the late 1970s to the podcasting era of the first decades of this century, I probably have conducted more than a thousand interviews.

The qualitative interview featured as the core data-gathering technique in my master’s research, a multiple case study of adult Mexican American L2 English-learners in a Freirean-inspired community education center. I asked the three informants primarily about their experiences with and uses of silence in daily life, as they sought to cross thresholds into English-speaking environments at work, schools, government agencies, medical centers, and elsewhere. The project was an extension of my vocation as an ELL teacher, during which I had interacted closely with numerous migrants from México and shared in some of their daily rites: religious rites of mourning and Via Crucis, trips to the panadería and the tax preparer, graduation ceremonies for their children. My epistemological orientation, as a reporter and teacher, has been as a collector of testimonios. These collected truths are many and individual and, when rendered through my own interpretive filter, are most certainly not true in the positivistic sense. Yet the stories that have been passed on in this manner speak to a form of knowing through relationship and witness.

My comfort lies in this observer’s role. My mind casts back, again to a scene from my newspaper career, to a particular day, May 25, 1986, a New Jersey park, just east of the Delaware River, where hundreds for 10 or 15 minutes linked hands and I, the only person not so connected, made jottings in a spiral reporter’s notebook. I was very strict about remaining a non-participant in Hands Across America, the nationwide fund-raiser and feel-good celebration of unity, to the extent that I defied calls to join the human chain and listened at a safe distance as the meandering line swayed to “We Are the World” and “America the Beautiful.” My separation testified to a jaded cynicism but, more important, to some certainty about knowing—that, to represent the “truth” of this moment, I could not allow myself to be swayed, literally, by this fleeting expression of collectivism. My voice needed to be my own; my perspective had to be at some remove from those absorbed bodily and spiritually in this civic liturgy.

I had been taught, by siblings and parents, to watch and learn. Knowledge, within this familial belief system, was not conveyed through direct instruction—my father quite intentionally, for example, refused to guide me in any of his arts, those of sailing, electronic-kit assembly, shortwave-radio tuning, genealogical research, or pipe smoking. One needed to be self-motivated and self-taught, even to smoke a pipe; this was the implicit teaching. This was my path through what theologian Richard Rohr (2021) calls a “seminary of life” or what educational theorists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger (1991) have termed legitimate peripheral participation, a socially rooted construct linked to forms of apprenticeship. As a result, my skills as onlooker and listener have been honed.

Over time, the skills have transferred themselves to contexts about which I feel a personal commitment. Observation, I learned, is not about cold-blooded neutrality but also involves the heart. Through religious faith, I have been convinced about the preferential option for the poor and believe that this bias in favor of the oppressed should be considered part of my epistemological stance. In South Africa in 2009, reporting on the buildup to the 2010 World Cup finals that Africa would host for the first time, I opted out of the pre-planned junkets to diamond mines and the soirées hosted by mid-level members of the African National Congress.

In lieu of these prefabricated story ideas, I sought out the family of an openly gay national female soccer player, who had been murdered in her township the year before in an epidemic of brutal “corrective rapes.” I spent a day with the nation’s only self-declared lesbian soccer club, Chosen Few. In Colombia, where I had previously worked as an English teacher, I volunteered a month in 2018 as a peace accompanier. Here, again, I was an observer with an agenda of the heart, reporting on efforts of Indigenous and displaced communities to survive through base organizing and hopes in a nonviolent future. The experience proved once more that others have much to show me, as is evident in this short tableau, or fieldnotes, from an evening prayer meeting in Morindó, Córdoba (pop. 150):

In the peace, under the glow of fluorescent light following the service in the church without walls, a woman distributes small cups of tinto on a tray. I stand with “the men’s group,” the ad hoc coalition of campesinos tasked with building the pastoral manse. One, Francisco, the only man among the fifteen-person church membership, has a seasonal job as an agricultural fumigator. There is some concern about finding the appropriate wood for the framing, or if the church could afford it. It is the night of a new moon. According to one of the older campesinos, this bodes ill for work on the project. Pastora Magalys arrives and challenges them: “What kind of faith do you have? Who is more powerful than G*d? What do you believe? My G*d, the G*d I worship, is more powerful than any problem.” Duly chastened, the men stand in silence, fiddling with the white plastic tinto cups. In the darkness, I say to the man next to me, “She’s a strong woman.” He nods. (Turnbull, 2019, p. 23)

The female pastor, seeing me there, in the gloom, might have been showing off or doubtless had myriad other motivations for her outburst. But for my presence, though, and commitment to noticing, this would have remained a story untold outside the settlement’s confines.

Finally, the epistemology I claim is one of border crossing, and such is my current positioning when approaching qualitative research. In the first 17 years of life (bracketing out a few formative years in Italy and Hawai’i), White suburbia taught me little. I needed to leave, to be with others who could help me construct a worldview and a way of knowing born of connection rather than isolation. My approach to knowing, based on our reading in BBL 7023, is constructionist and relativist, convicted of the statement that “[t]ruth, or meaning, comes into existence in and out of our engagement with the realities in our world” (Crotty, 1998, p. 8).

Knowledge, in this view, is interactional, or, to use the metaphoric approach of Sipe and Constable (1996), we might envision a community picnic of great diversity at which multiple dialogues occur simultaneously. At such a picnic, I would be keen to record more testimonios among attendees, so naturally, in another course reading, I felt drawn to a discussion of family cuentos and of how honoring stories might form part of one’s research epistemology. Figueroa and Sánchez write, “[I]nterviewing has always been foremost about gathering cuentos for the purpose of inserting greater clarity and gaining a closer approximation about a lived experience. I approach this work in much the same spirit as I was taught throughout my life: with a strong sense of reverence” (2008, p. 165).

Having worked as a journalist, the interview for me, too, is a holy encounter, a trading of knowledge and experience and, ultimately, the receipt of a gift from the interviewee, who opts for vulnerability and disclosure in front of a stranger. I believe we can learn from others’ discourse, and these discourses are manifold, conflicting, and often enigmatic. It is worth talking to people to hear what they say. Such is the methodological justification I shared with my thesis adviser at Northern Illinois University, at the same time hearing echoes of author Janet Malcolm incanting her famous first sentence from The Journalist and the Murderer: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible” (1990, p. 3). The branches of epistemology and ethics intersect here, affirming how qualitative research must strive to do better than daily journalism in maintaining awareness of epistemological assumptions and how to defend them.

References

Crotty, M. (1998). The foundations of social research: Meaning and perspective in the research process. Routledge.

Figueroa, J. L., & Sánchez, P. (2008). Technique, art, or cultural practice? Ethnic epistemology in Latino qualitative studies. In T. Fong (Ed.), Ethnic studies research: Approaches and perspectives (pp. 143–177). AltaMira.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge University Press.

Malcolm, J. (1990). The journalist and the murderer. Vintage Books.

Rohr, R. (2021, February 21). A seminary of life. Center for Action and Contemplation. https://cac.org/a-seminary-of-life-2021-02-21/

Sipe, L., & Constable, S. (1996). A chart of four contemporary research paradigms: Metaphors for the modes of inquiry. Taboo, the Journal of Culture and Education, 1, 153–163.

Turnbull, J. (2019). Mensajes desde Colombia. JZ Editing & Publishing.

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