Teaching the art of research brings unexpected rewards—and initiates change in racial attitudes

Jun 30, 2021

Mara Berkland, professor of communication at North Central College, found an enthusiastic group of research assistants in an unlikely place: a high school hundreds of miles away in Buffalo, N.Y. She has been partnering with students at St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute, a private college prep school for boys, to conduct a climate study on ingrained racial attitudes at the school.

“The students were asking for changes, and needed data to support their concerns,” said Berkland, whose significant other is an alum of the school. “By attending various events over the years, I got to know the board president, who asked if I’d take on a climate study. I said I’ll do it, but in a way I’m comfortable with, using open-ended questions [to collect the data].”

The school assigned four student-volunteers to work with her, and the team met virtually on a weekly basis to plan the study. Berkland knew that it would be difficult for the school’s students and young alumni to talk openly with her, so she developed a research plan that delegated the responsibility for conducting the focus groups to the student research team.

Berkland saw the differences between working with inexperienced high school students and juniors and seniors at North Central, but that didn’t deter her enthusiasm—or that of the researchers. “Working with these guys was so amazing and so fun,” she said.

The student team collected input from 10 focus groups while Berkland observed and provided direction via a remote connection. “A couple of them got really good at following up, saying things like ‘Can we circle back to …,’” said Berkland. 

While the team members became adept at data collection, Berkland found their enthusiasm dampened at coding 200 pages of interview transcriptions. “Their on-site supervisor was a godsend… she held them accountable and held after-school, group coding sessions.”

Berkland will compile a final report for St. Joseph’s administration and board of trustees. Some recommendations will include enforcing a strict zero tolerance hate speech policy; adding a diversity, equity and inclusion staff position; and doing whatever it takes to hire faculty of color. “This school doesn’t have one student-facing faculty or staff member of color,” Berkland explained. “I said ‘You have to change this … it’s non-negotiable.’” 

Another challenge has been to help the school community understand and build a vocabulary for the racial issues they experience. Berkland is educating them about co-cultures–– understanding and accepting the norms of every culture, not just those of European descent––and how to integrate Black history topics throughout the curriculum, not as a separate “unit.”

“(Interpreting) demeanor and non-verbals are big issues,” Berkland explained. “For example, the expected norm is sitting up straight, but for (some) students, sitting back may communicate that ‘I’m at ease with you.’”

Berkland traveled to Buffalo in May to meet her research team in person. The juniors were enthusiastic about continuing their work next year and additional students will join them. “If they’re going to propose changes, they want to continue to collect data so they can make a reasoned argument,” she said.  “They’ve turned out to be not only good researchers, but activists.”

Berkland’s enthusiasm for the project has only grown over the past months. “I’m interested in this method of [working with the students] for publishing about this project,” she added. “There’s value here in how you teach others to gather information. I’m a teacher first … that’s what’s important from this work.

Mara Berkland