2 Framing

Incorporating personal experience into academic research is taboo. These concerns have been framed in terms of credibility and objectivity but there are also significant power structures underlying this practice. We do not dispute the importance of credibility and objectivity in academic research which are necessary elements of reliable knowledge production. Rather, we argue that there is room for the inclusion of personal experience citation in existing practices. It would not necessarily constitute the central evidence of an argument but would rather be incorporated to add context and in-depth knowledge which adds value to the research. As student bodies diversify, they bring new perspectives and new areas of focus for research but are confined to using sources that reflect the older white perspective, or the sources may not exist at all. The model developed in this project invites students to critically examine knowledge production practices and appropriately incorporate personal experience into their work.

We respect the need for credible knowledge production and the role of academia as a source of truth. We have developed our guidelines to decolonize knowledge production without degrading the quality of academic work. Our argument is not that knowledge should be constructed primarily on personal experience which would open the door to fabrication and erosion of truth. Rather, personal experience should be used to challenge or support new or existing explanations or knowledge. It can also reintroduce valuable context to data that may have been lost in the pursuit of objectivity. It is time to recognize the value that direct personal experience can bring to academic understanding. While our focus for this project is on undergraduate students, we believe our argument extends to mainstream academia as well.

It is important to first examine why academia holds the power that it does. Academia originated as an exclusive institution whose membership was restricted to white men of means. By extension, it excluded the perspectives and knowledge of anyone who did not fit that status. As its power grew, academia monopolized knowledge production by establishing itself as the only credible source of information. This meant that any work examining the world was done exclusively from a privileged perspective. The practice continues to this day, primarily in the form of requiring an institutional degree that acts as a “license” to produce knowledge. Because of the high resource barrier to entry, this license continues to be extended to people of privileged identities.

This results in the exclusion of an entire class of people from contributing to knowledge production and the exclusion of underprivileged voices. A striking example of this occurred when a coauthor of this paper was asked to give written testimony in support of an asylum application. We found this odd because there was no way for an academic thousands of miles away to verify a firsthand report, only make an informed guess that the asylum seeker was telling the truth. This example illustrates the paradox we identified where a person’s lived experience is less credible than another individual’s expertise, even though that expertise may not come from anything concrete. This is frequently the case in academia where knowledge often comes from the classroom and readings. By requiring that students only use sources that have been generated under this structure, it excludes new areas of research that are equally as valuable. Hence, we seek to challenge this hierarchy of knowledge production by expanding the sources of knowledge primarily by privileging students to include marginalized identities by sharing their lived experiences.

A problem central to the issue of citing personal experience is the requirement of a mediator which typically takes the form of an interviewer. Incorporating personal experience into a research project or study is a core element of conducting academic work. Yet, for this information to be considered credible, it must pass through a mediator. It is an effort to preserve credibility but is nonsensical. An experience does not change whether it is cited directly from an author or passes through an interviewer first. In fact, requiring the experience to pass through a mediator first may distort the message as it is then subject to the mediator’s biases and positionality that may not provide as rich an outcome. Passing information through a mediator is an accepted practice that aims to preserve credibility by ensuring an author does not make up false information and claim it as truth. However, the presence of a mediator does not guarantee accurate or truthful responses. If one is to argue that it does improve the truthfulness of the information, that turns the mediator into an arbiter of truth, an impossible task as well as one that reinforces the academic’s position of power. Who is a mediator to say that an experience is legitimate or not?  Requiring a mediator acts as a barrier to the entry of diverse perspectives into academia. Direct use of personal experience challenges this power structure by directly empowering an author.

We address the potential complication that appears to arise from this system of author-based knowledge production: its abuse by authors seeking to spread misinformation. To illustrate the difference between legitimate and illegitimate use of personal knowledge, the example of a Holocaust denier is potent. Claiming that the Holocaust did not happen is an illegitimate use of personal experience citation because 1) it forms the basis for a piece of knowledge instead of supporting it, 2) it is not possible to live a negative experience, and 3) it is not an experience but a claim. However, the personal experience of an author who has interacted with Holocaust deniers and wishes to leverage their personal experience alongside other sources would constitute a valid use of the guidelines. Our framework does not invite opinion, it only considers real lived experience.

Our goal is to bring a working understanding of knowledge production to the classroom and explore the ways it can be incorporated into student work. It will challenge problematic citation practices and gives life to new voices and perspectives. Students will be encouraged to think about their own role in research and future knowledge production which benefits all research, even quantitative work. We also found that student engagement increased when they could bring their own experiences into the work they did. Finally, it is an important tool for critical, feminist, and anti-racist pedagogy because of the challenge to existing power structures that it poses.

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