While contemplating the topic and eventual focus of my doctoral dissertation at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, I was having difficulty deciding since so many potential directions and questions excited me. Knowing me as well as she did, my major professor offered me some guidance.
The seemingly simple but deeply profound words she uttered placed, for me, the scope of my eventual research into poignant and profound prospective driving my research agenda to this very day.
“Your research is your therapy,” she told me. Though framed as a declarative statement, she was posing in these words what I understood as a number of underlying questions. By implication, what I heard her saying was, “There are many potential directions and research questions for you to investigate. What directions and questions will challenge you to change and to grow, not merely as a researcher, not merely intellectually and academically, but also, and very importantly, personally, spiritually, ethically, emotionally, psychologically?”
I listened to my professor’s words, “Your research is your therapy,” and as I did, the bottlenecks in my mind unclogged and tears welled in my eyes. Visions of my childhood swirled in my memories settling upon a five-year-old self seated upon my maternal grandfather, Simon (Szymon) Mahler’s, lap in our cramped Bronxville, New York apartment.
Looking down urgently but with deep affection, Simon said to me: “Varn,” (he pronounced my name “Varn” through his distinctive Polish accent), “your parents named you after my father, your great-grandfather, Wolf Mahler.” I asked where Wolf was, and Simon told me that Wolf, along with my great-grandmother Bascha and most of my grandfather’s thirteen brothers and sisters were killed by people called “Nazis.” In stunned amazement, I asked why the Nazis killed them, and he responded, “Because they were Jews.” Those words have reverberated in my mind, haunting me ever since.
I later learned that the Nazis shot many of my Polish relatives and dumped them in a mass grave in Krosno, and eventually shipped others to Auschwitz and Belzec concentration camps where they murdered them. Hitler and other Nazis rationalized their methods in resolving the “Jewish question” by deploying “racial” arguments in their claims that Jews descended from inferior “racial” stock, and therefore, they must exterminate Jews en mass to prevent genetic and social contamination to so-called “Aryans.”
Before leaving my major professor’s office that day, I understood the question I needed to investigate in my dissertation to challenge myself to change and to grow. Up until that time, I had studied and began the journey in my white identity development process. For me, however, and for so many other progressive European-heritage Jews, underlying paradoxical questions remained, questions that seemed to act as roadblocks in our full acknowledgment and acceptance of the unearned privileges accorded to us as European-heritage people in the historically, socially, and politically racialized and racist context of the United States.
While I and other European-heritage Jews clearly understand that we have been accorded white privilege vis-à-vis minoritized racial communities, we also understand the history and legacy of anti-Jewish persecution and, yes, how dominant groups have racialized us as well. Foundational, gnawing, and for me, unanswered questions remained: “Do European-heritage Jews, in fact, have the privileges accorded to, say, mainline white Protestants and other white people in the United States?” And even more fundamental: “How can we Jews have white privilege when dominant groups justified the murder of our mishpucha (our families) for not being “white”? In other words, “What IS my race?”
I positioned this latter question as a major foundational piece in my qualitative doctoral dissertation. I interviewed an intergenerational sample of European-heritage Jews asking them to define their “race.” The results not only advanced the extant literature base somewhat in the area of race theory and identity development, but for me, and more importantly, advanced my understanding of my Whiteness.
I now realize that even before my doctoral work, even before I came to consciousness of this, my research was, in fact, my therapy, for it had challenged and continually challenges me to change and to grow.
I have since gone on to investigate issues of internalized oppression; youth bullying and the larger social contexts that actually promote these behaviors in the schools; how heterosexism and other forms of oppression not only oppress members of minoritized groups but also, on many levels, hurt members of dominant groups. I also research issues of campus climate for LGBT people and the implications of cyberbullying on LGBT youth; Christian privilege and religious oppression; the overrepresentation of African American students in special education programs; how schools reproduce the inequities stemming from the larger society; and other issues too numerous to list here. As you can see, I need lots and lots of research therapy since research never truly and conclusively answers our questions, but rather, raises further and ultimately deeper and larger questions.
In addition, I understand the term “RESEARCH” as representing an acronym, and not merely a noun, but, rather, a verb – an action.
As an acronym, for me:
The initial letter, “R,” represents Resolve: to have the resolve, the conviction to follow our passions where they may lead in addressing questions of meaning and importance to us.
The first “E” stands for Empathy: to have the capacity to walk in the shoes of our research participants to accord them their voice in areas where they may have been denied their sense of agency and their sense of subjectivity previously.
“S” exemplifies the Search in research: to go to the greatest lengths and the greatest heights in attempting to reveal the truth no matter how uncomfortable that truth, or more correctly, those multiple truths might be.
The second “E” characterizes being Earnest, being ourselves, finding our true core in terms of our values, our goals, our purposes not only within the research process and realm, but in our lives, which when revealed, will enhance our research and our overall life outcomes.
“A” embodies Action, for research is not by any means a passive endeavor left to others alone to engage. No matter what our role across the spectrum – research assistant, associate researcher, senior researcher — our work adds to and challenges, encourages, and ultimately empowers future researchers to continue where we concluded.
The second “R” signifies the “Realization” that we must understand “knowledge” not as indicating a singular unitary creation, but, rather, we must understand it in its numerous and plural forms, as “knowledges,” by investigating questions from multiple perspectives, viewpoints, and understandings dependent on the overlapping and intersecting subjectivities and epistemologies represented by our research participants and by the audiences for our work.
“C” denotes “Creativity”: our work connects to the extant literature base, comparing and contrasting with what has gone before, and ultimately advancing the discourse in our chosen field and to all of humanity.
And “H” symbolizes our “Humility,” because while we may contribute a piece to what our society and our world constructs as the accumulation of knowledges, many have gone before us to pave the paths on which we walk, and others one day will walk on the sections of those paths we have paved.
So, again, I have found my research to constitute a form of therapy in which I situate my passions, and to aid me in how I make meaning of the world.