The Accidental Researcher: A Cautionary Tale

This was written by alumna Anne Zbitnew.

a photograph of the embroidery on a white night gown

Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, a naïve first time university student had an idea that she thought would be fun and interesting as an assignment for one of her courses.  She was new and late to the academy and worked very, very hard to impress those around her with her knowledge by using the biggest and best words possible when writing her assignments.  Writing was an arduous task and she had a terrible fear of the blank page.  Assignments took days and days to complete and she felt imprisoned and tethered to her laptop as she wrote.  Befriending a thesaurus, she trusted that this new friend would guide her and give her the language credibility she sought.  The student and the thesaurus were inseparable.  They spent hours working in collaboration. The student leaned very hard on her new friend, becoming so dependent that the meaning and application of words became less important than the impact of a fancy, academic word.  The student became so tired as she was lost and tangled in a jungle of jargon and she couldn’t find her way out.  She was captive in her own mind and she had lost trust in her own voice.

The student became very passive and let another with official academic credentials speak for her.  The fun assignment for her course became a research project and, knowing nothing about research, she just followed along and became an accidental researcher.  The voice in her head had concerns but that passive voice remained silent, in that captive prison of her vulnerable mind.  She felt like a puppet attached to strings while the academic manipulator directed her in every research

move.  Working on this research project was like running on an enchanted treadmill that only went faster and higher and never stopped.   Knowing nothing about the Ethics protocol, she just answered the questions, filled out the forms and did not even try to ask for what she really wanted.  When the data was collected, she spent hours alone, trying to figure out how to analyze and organize the information and she wrote, submitted and re-submitted papers written in her fanciest language to academic journals and chapters to undergraduate textbooks with little guidance.  She wrote applications for conference presentations and spent days and days organizing and creating lovely visual lectures.  She organized transportation and accommodation for the academic and herself and was urged to do most of the speaking to audiences of other academics.  She began to imagine that she was a RESEARCHER, keeping company with other RESEARCHERS.

But the more she wrote and spoke about her project, the more she began to realize that she had betrayed herself and the artists she loved to work with and now that voice in her head just kept repeating “shame on you” … and she felt like a fraud.

I am the Accidental Researcher.  I didn’t trust myself.  For this project, I wanted to work with a group of students I knew well on an art project using iPads, which were a new and emerging technology in 2012. The students are adults with intellectual disabilities.

I had never done an ethics application before and didn’t know or even try to ask for what I really wanted.  I wanted to capture images of the artists engaging, yes with the device but also with each other.

The REB was very concerned about protecting the “vulnerable population” of adults with intellectual disabilities by insisting on privacy and anonymity so I had to blur the faces and put bars in front of participants’ eyes in every image of these artists using iPads to make art.  These disguises only served to silence rather than protect the artists.

In the room, there was a tremendous amount of connectedness and communication in the art making as well as in the social interaction and the excitement and energy can be viewed in the hundreds of images that were captured.  The bars and blur I had to add not only hid the identity but also concealed the personality of each artist, dehumanizing and reducing each person to an object.  I still feel terrible about this and even though my research was published and acclaimed, celebrated and acknowledged, I vowed to never research like this ever again.

In the summer of 2014, I read a number of articles, books, papers and projects about Art-based and Arts-informed research.  And these readings connected me to more reading about Site-specific art, Place-based art, memory, remembrance and forgetting, memorializing and redress, collaboration and visual communication and visual studies.  My bibliography of readings multiplied and exploded.  I knew that for my master’s research project I would do arts-based research.  My research participants and I moved through the threshold between what has come before and what may come next as co-creators of knowledge.

The results of this research can be seen at the future home of Tangled Art Gallery, 401 Richmond St. W, Studio 122 in Toronto until December 3, 2015.

Arts-based research will:

  • Engage people in conspiratorial conversations
  • Entice outsiders into meaningful dialogues
  • Pull audiences in
  • Provoke conversations
  • Hatch conspiracies through dialogue
  • Re/create public space          

Arts-based research can create new languages, illuminate disabling contexts, expand accessibility and bridge culture and scholarship. This Accidental Researcher has learned the most valuable lesson…to let yourself be vulnerable, to ask questions because if you don’t ask, you don’t know and to trust your own active voice.  She has given herself permission to explore and experiment, to cut those puppet strings and to try find her own way.


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