Three Gatekeepers, a Sister and Some Bagels: Making Research Happen

by Sarah Ovink

Face-to-face, qualitative research is messy and time-consuming. Reflecting on my research process, I realized just how much the success of my project relied on a few key gatekeepers, the support of family, and finding the right incentives in recruiting high-school-aged respondents. I offer this timeline of my research experience to highlight the challenges that get left out of our published, polished narratives.

Fall 2003: I begin graduate school at UC Davis. John Ogbu publishes his controversial book on oppositional culture, Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb. Briefly, the argument goes: involuntary immigrants, like African Americans, will perceive little benefit to school achievement and will adopt oppositional behavior; meanwhile, voluntary immigrants, such as Chinese Americans, are more likely to be school strivers. Ogbu remarks that girls did not seem as “susceptible” to adopting oppositional behavior. Say what? If oppositional culture is rooted in racial/ethnic group membership, but half of the group is “not as susceptible,” then the argument would seem to rest on shaky ground. My interest in within-group gender differences in schooling outcomes is born.

Spring 2007: I am writing draft after draft of a dissertation proposal to examine gender differences in post-high school pathways among four racial/ethnic groups. My committee is concerned about the scope of the project. Will I really be able to complete 100 in-depth interviews at three time-points? How can I possibly tease out the within-group gender differences given all the between-group differences? My committee and I decide it can’t be done, not without doing severe damage to either the method or my sanity. My chair is convinced the topic is worthy; I just need to be a bit more realistic. “You are fluent in Spanish, right? What about focusing on Latino/a students?”

Summer 2007: After a few false starts, I identify three schools in the San Francisco Bay Area that I will target in order to interview students. The schools are a workable commute from my home in Alameda, while fitting the demographics needed for the study. The goal is 50 students, at three time-points, at a near-majority Latino/a school, and a school with less than 10% Latinos/as. I cold-email a principal (Gatekeeper #1) and, amazingly, she is interested in the project and wants to work with me. However, she is changing schools over the summer; will the new school’s demographics do? Incredibly, they will! By now I am eight months pregnant with my first child. I nearly cry with relief. I tell the baby, “Okay, you can come anytime. I have at least one school. The project is a go.” Two weeks later my daughter is born.

Fall 2007: My sister graduates from college. She generously offers to live with me and my spouse and act as nanny to our baby so that I can conduct interviews for my dissertation, while she takes online courses and applies to veterinary school. Affordable childcare assured by this incredible luck, I contact a friend from my days as a public school teacher. She says she can “recruit” students to talk to me at her less-than-10%-Latino/a high school. However, the students never materialize. After some back-and-forth, I bypass her: I contact the school counselor (Gatekeeper #2), whom I don’t know at all. He says, “Tell me what day you can come in for a couple of hours. I’ll make some calls.” I show up with bagels and sign-up forms, and he proceeds to send slips calling all the seniors who marked “Hispanic” on school forms down to his office. Students stream in one after another. They eat bagels and listen to my pitch. Some of them don’t want to participate, but most of them do.Ovink_image

Winter 2007: Recruitment has gone well at the less-than-10% schools, but has totally stalled at the near-majority school. I am in a state of constant panic. The whole point is to interview seniors in high school and then follow them—if I don’t get them this year, I’ll lose a whole year. Luckily for me, the teacher who advises the “La Raza” club for Latino/a students (Gatekeeper #3) has a plan to help me. La Raza is selling nachos to raise money, but it’s not earning them much. What if I agree to donate money to La Raza for each student who participates in my study? It’s a brilliant plan, and well worth the $10 per respondent. I cover the first round of costs out of my own pocket and immediately sign up all the interviewees I need. Fortunately, in 2008, I am able to secure funding through an NSF Dissertation Improvement Grant to pay for remaining data-gathering costs.

June 2011. Amidst the fog of coding interview data, time on the job market, a son born in March 2011, working as a research assistant on other projects and teaching the occasional class, I have finished a dissertation. I graduate with my Ph.D. in sociology and move across the country with my family of four to begin a job as assistant professor. The bones of the article that will appear in Gender & Society in 2014 are in my dissertation, but it will take yet more time (and additional, fourth-wave interviews) to refine the paper’s feminist theoretical frame and sort through the voluminous data that 150 completed interviews produce.

All this to say: face-to-face research is messy, and it takes time. In making my research project happen, I faced challenges that required hard work, tenacity, and flexibility. In the tradition of feminist methods, I also acknowledge the many privileges I was afforded. Nearly-free childcare fell into my lap, making it possible for me to pursue fieldwork while parenting. I contributed funds out of my pocket for the first round of interviews, but was able to take advantage of funding from UC Davis, the National Science Foundation, and the American Educational Research Association to keep my personal costs minimal. The reputation of UC Davis likely opened doors that might have been closed to others. I owe my biggest debt of gratitude to my respondents. In exchange for three gift certificates and a donation to their high school club, these 50 young Latinos/as trusted me—a white graduate student at an elite institution—with intimate details of their lives, including, for some, stories of being undocumented. I am privileged to be able to tell their stories, and to have a platform for promoting them. I recognize the ironies of doing so within a structural and cultural framework that tends to pay less attention when they tell their stories themselves.

Sarah Ovink is assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Her article, “‘They Always Call Me An Investment:’ Gendered Familism and Latino/a College Pathways,” was published in the April 2014 issue of Gender & Society. To view the article, click here.





2 thoughts on “Three Gatekeepers, a Sister and Some Bagels: Making Research Happen

  1. I’m looking forward to reading your article and I congratulate you on having a family and completing your PhD at the same time. Very interesting research topic.

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