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Listening as Method

Posted By Paula Gardner, ICA President-Elect, McMaster U, Tuesday, December 13, 2016


In my work as a scholar, I engage in a lot of community-based and network projects, and attend many conferences in which there is much diversity of peoples and difference of opinion. The recent U.S. election and our attempts to make sense of it have brought me to value, more than ever, the principle of listening, to aid me in framing my research and scholarship. It also seems to me a useful guiding principle as we head toward ICA San Diego 2017.

Conferences can be exhausting and travel to and fro can become a chore. Last weekend however, I rallied my energy to attend the National Women's Studies Association, in Montreal. At NWSA, we are largely indigenous, women of colour, and queer (LGBTQ) and our leadership and our plenaries reflect that diversity. Meeting only 2 days after the U.S. election, as you might expect, the NWSA panels and plenaries were full of speakers with strong assessments of where we are in North America and globally-- politically, culturally, sociologically.

As academics, we are trained to be quick to assess, comprehend and respond to our fellow colleagues with agility, incisiveness and care. Perhaps we are less well trained to listen. At NWSA last weekend, I made a concerted decision to talk less and listen more. I attended panels hosted by indigenous women and learned new methods for employing indigenous concepts, for example, framing the land, itself, as method. I learned there was a method for capturing and reading data known as indigenous statistics. Elsewhere I learned that one necessarily works in collaboration with the fishing community when doing environmental scholarship in Newfoundland-- because fishing people will approach you, assuming their knowledge is needed. This kind of listening can productively flip our assumptions of what constitutes knowledge and what makes for discursive exchange.

This week, in a planning meeting with antiviolence research partners, the question of how to talk about "community" was raised. My collaborator noted that academics often position ourselves in binaries-working "with" a community, to which we do not assume we belong. Community is the whole group, for this leader, engaging in discussions that are sometimes fraught, and always benefit from pausing and self-reflexivity. Simple concept- not always easy to manifest when many of us are accustomed to being "positioned" in the university.

"Positioning," as we know, can cut us off from rigorous dialogue with people whom we read as different. Placing one's self within expansive communities of difference challenges any of us. Pausing offers the opportunity to consider where we stand, and how we are listening. At ICA San Diego, this could mean attending sessions at other divisions or even a preconference that is of interest, but not necessarily within one's research expertise. In the coming year, and especially through our ICA research, division, and conference meetings, I am thinking hard about the crucial method of listening and how it might productively, and radically, alter our usual practices.

Tags:  December 2016 

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