In this blog series, STH Practical Theology doctoral students from the Fall 2016 Practical Theology Proseminar share insights from their final, collaborative project, “Taking on the Paradigm at BU School of Theology — Lived “Symptoms” of Epistemology and Practice.” Dan Hauge is the author of this first post introducing the project and detailing the researchers’ methodology, framework of critical intersubjectivity, and project limitations. Practical Theology PhD. students Matthew S. Beal and Shinmyoung Kim were co-researchers on the project, and their work will be featured in future posts.
Taking on the Paradigm at BU School of Theology:
Lived “Symptoms” of Epistemology and Practice
Dan Hauge, Practical Theology PhD. student
Whose knowledge gets to be counted as legitimate in practical theology, and whose knowledge is left out? How does the reigning epistemic paradigm(s) either allow for, or repress, contributions from scholars and communities of color? How does injustice impact the field of practical theology, and what can be done to transform the field into a more equitable and just academic discipline? These questions guided the Fall 2016 Practical Theology Doctoral Proseminar. Throughout the course, we examined the creation and maintenance of systems of knowledge (epistemic paradigms) in the field of practical theology, particularly through a critical lens towards issues of privilege and power.
Within this broad framework of “taking on” the field, we (my colleagues and I?) elected to explore three interrelated questions: whether there is a dominant epistemic paradigm at the School of Theology, whether this potential paradigm (or paradigms) can be described, and finally, what the effects of this paradigm(s) are with special consideration for the experience of marginalized student groups. This post is the first of three, and will document the more applied or interactive dimension of the class project, focused especially on student interviews at STH.
STH Professor Courtney Goto’s assessment of the field of practical theology provided a critical entry point for engaging dominant paradigms in practical theology and was a crucial resource for shaping the goals and method of the project. Addressing the field of practical theology, Goto’s Taking on Practical Theology (forthcoming) reminds us that “The majority of scholars know the privileging of the dominant culture’s assumptive world in practical theology only by a ‘felt sense’ (Gendlin) of tradition or rightness” (Goto 33). For Goto this assumptive world constitutes the dominant “paradigm” in practical theology, which she challenges scholars to expose and challenge. One essential tool for challenging the paradigm is Critical Intersubjectivity, a mode of practical theological research in which co-researchers reflect together on what they bring to the research and … also consider issues of power, privilege and oppression in the research process” (Goto Ch. 3, 16).
Method, Critical Intersubjectivity, and Limitations
We examined the nature of the Western white male epistemic paradigm at the School of Theology through three primary approaches: an examination of the Diversity Statement currently in the process of development by the Steering Committee on Diversity Inclusion, and Equity (will note approved); two semi-structured interviews with School of Theology leadership; and two semi-structured group interviews with a total of five current graduate students. One interview with STH leadership focused on how the School of Theology addresses diversity issues in general and another interview discussed an attempted faculty-wide quantitative study on interviews were shaped, to an extent, by the methodological commitment to Critical Intersubjectivity (as described by Goto) as much as possible. This first involves a general commitment that “what is revealed in the research is the dynamic encounter between the lifeworlds of all participants in the research—the academic(s) as well as members of the faith community under investigation” (Goto Ch. 3, 10). In this approach, “all co-researchers reflect together on what they bring to the research and how it shapes what they understand to be the ‘context’ of the faith community (Goto 16). As mentioned above, what then makes the approach Critical Intersubjective is the commitment to “also consider issues of power, privilege, and oppression in the research process,” (Goto 16) a commitment from the inception of the research project to ‘taking on’ the paradigm itself. This requires that “co-researchers deliberately and consistently practice sensitivity to questions such as who has authority, what norms are operative, and who the research serves” (Goto 17).
There were some aspects of Critical Intersubjectivity we successfully incorporated into our practice, and other areas where we fell short. While we endeavored to remain aware of our social location as researchers relative to the social location of those we interviewed, power dynamics intersected in various, sometimes confounding, ways. Our research team was made up of four cisgender male doctoral students, one of whom is a Korean international student and three of whom are Caucasian nationals. We were intentional in recruiting student interviewees who were not majority white male (one was), but we were also aware that when they arrived in our interview room in groups there was always a dynamic in which the majority of those in the “researcher” position did embody this positionality. On the other hand, our common status as graduate students allowed for a certain amount of frankness and openness about experiences in the School of Theology, as our nominal allotment of power within the institution was similar relative to faculty or deans. We did not take programmatic steps to address the differences in social location in our interviews with students, except to simply acknowledge them in the course of the interview, and remain as aware of them as we could while compiling and interpreting the findings.
Regarding the relationship between the “researchers” and the “researched,” we tried to construct the interviews so that the interviewees were genuinely invited to be co-researchers. Our initial exploratory question was, “Is there a dominant epistemological paradigm at the School of Theology, and how does it affect the experience of minoritized students?” We invited interviewee evaluation not only of the paradigm, but on our research question and operative framework. This was particularly fruitful in our interview with the students who were more advanced in their programs. One way we incorporated student feedback was to shift from focusing on epistemology and knowledge dissemination to also inquire about pedagogical practices in the classroom and in faculty-student relationships in general. This expanded the scope of our project to an extent, although one aspect of our findings was how pedagogical practice and curriculum choices often intersect in generating a kind of classroom experience.
Ultimately, however, the power relationship between ‘researcher’ and ‘researched’ was not fully overcome. While our interviewees did indeed help to re-shape our research questions and approach, their voices are not heard directly in the final product—they are interpreted, repackaged, and presented through the lens of the researchers. While we will fulfill an agreement to share the results of our project with our interviewees, we did not take the added step to have them review our results before turning the project in for assessment. Some of these choices were necessary to protect confidentiality, but others were due to responsibilities and assignments of our program. The question of project time expectation and allotment is actually central in developing Critical Intersubjective work; this is a step that requires efforts typically elided in most research projects. In her critique of current practical theological research, Goto notes that “[e]xperiencing the revealing of the other is attractive and safe because the other is given in filtered form—predigested and re-presented by trusted colleagues” (Goto Ch. 5, 38). Our final results must be said to fall into this same category.
Courtney Goto, Taking On Practical Theology: The Idolization of Context and the Hope of Community (manuscript).