Using Emotions to Influence Change

Emotions drive people. When we are able to navigate them, they become the fuel for our ability to make change.

Thinking back to 1996, my high school graduation, I vividly remember the emotions that were going through my mind. I was excited and full of joy as I marched across that stage. I knew that in a few months, I would be going off to college. At the time, I didn’t anticipate the struggles and challenges I would have. I realized, very quickly, that I missed home, and I didn’t feel as though I fit in. I remember sitting on my bed and sobbing, wishing I could just quit and go home. I was close to throwing in the towel. I didn’t. Four years later, I had a college diploma and I was applying to graduate schools. I was able to manage my emotions to make choices that supported my goals in life. Where did I learn to do that?

Looking forward, in 2005, as a fifth grade teacher, I was challenged everyday by Jeremy. Jeremy was a Hispanic male from a low-income household. His father was in and out of jail and his mother was uninvolved. Jeremy didn’t like school. He never turned in his homework and he was often off task. Other kids didn’t like him due to his bullying tactics, mean mannerisms and his resentment towards life. Today, Jeremy is in jail for participating in a home invasion.

What happened? It saddens me to think about what I could’ve done differently to increase Jeremy’s chances of being successful. At the time, I did everything I thought I was suppose to…I taught him how to read, compute math equations, memorize the location of the fifty states, and various science concepts. Now, none of that really matters. His anger and bitterness ended up determining his life path. How does one harness their emotions so that they are used to make strategic and informative choices in life? When I think about Jeremy, why didn’t he use his anger about his father to fuel his desire to reach his own goals? I never taught him the skills to do this. Was that my job? If so, I didn’t know nor did I know how.

Many researchers would argue that teaching students social and emotional skills is a missing link in our schools. According to Bridgeland, Bruce, M., and Hariharan, (2013), social and emotional learning (SEL) “involves the processes of developing competencies, including self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making” (p. 1). Studies have shown that SEL can have many positive effects on students including boosting academic performance, increasing student interest in learning, improving student behavior, reducing bullying and improving a school climate.

I think it is really telling that the authors of “Humanizing Research” emphasize the power of emotions.   From a researcher’s standpoint, we need to use our emotions to fuel our ability to inform change. The notion that “feelings circulate and shape our work” (Paris and Winn 2014, p. 10) illustrates the role that feelings play in influencing our actions and decisions. When we are faced with ideas and policies that challenge us, emotions motivate us to see and challenge norms (p.10).

It’s not always easy. When I think about all of the “Jeremys” out there, I want to respond with a sense of urgency to fix this problem. It upsets me and I have often let my feelings of hopelessness stifle my desire to move forward with finding solutions. Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yangidentify with these struggles as they shared their experiences with immigration policy. They talked about how they maintained hope and perseverance despite the continuous political challenges that they faced. They shared, “throughout our four years of work we have not paid significant attention to these feelings, yet they persist and continue to shape our work” (Paris and Winn 2014, p. 5). Despite the long battle, they allowed their feelings and emotions to continue to fuel them.   Knowing that our emotions are powerful in influencing our decisions, I am motivated to act upon my convictions. The need for students to be taught social emotional skills is dire and without it, students, like Jeremy, forfeit their chances to live successful, impactful lives.



Bridgeland, J., Bruce, M., & Hariharan, (2013). The Missing Piece: A National Teacher Survey on How Social and Emotional Learning Can Empower Children and Transform Schools. Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. Chicago: Author

Paris, D. & Winn, MT. (Eds.). (2014). Humanizing Research: Decolonizing qualitative inquiry with youth and communities. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications



There’s no crying in research

Several years ago, while working as the assistant director of the Disability Resource Center (DRC), I met with a student regarding a particular accessibility issue. This student was a male, African American, senior, who was a returning veteran, and had a hidden disability (psychiatric disability). The student had expressed some frustration regarding access to one of his classes, and that he was having challenges with one of his instructors. As I listened to his story, I felt it appropriate to try and remain as objective as possible, in order to best advise this student, and eventually the instructor. My goal was to be as neutral in the process as possible. However, as we discussed the particulars of his concerns, I sensed a real disconnect between myself and the student. Sensing that this disconnect was related to my being detached emotionally, I shifted to a more personal approach.

In an attempt to make the conversation more meaningful, I related a story that involved my brother. This story was similar to his own, as my brother, too, had a disability. I expressed the frustration that my brother had felt and experienced during a particular time in his educational pursuits, and the anger that resulted with our family. In doing so, I introduced an emotional and human element to this student’s experience, and could sense, almost immediately, a drastic shift in his trust of me as a participant in that experience.

As researchers, we are taught to be objective when doing observations. In doing so, we lessen the likelihood that our own experiences, feeling, opinions, and cultural identities bias the results of the study. In this week’s reading, author Renato Rosaldo (1993), argues that complete, detached objectivity distorts the true context of the work we are doing, and does not accurately reflect the places and people that we are observing.

In framing the argument, the author notes, “arguably, human feelings and human failings provide as much insight for social analysis as subjecting oneself to the “manly” ordeals of self-discipline that constitute science as a vocation. Why narrow one’s vision to a God’s-eye view from on high? Why not use a wider spectrum of less heroic, but equally insightful, analytical positions” (Rosaldo, 1993, p.173)?

The author gave an example of ethnographer, Jean Briggs, who embedded herself in an Eskimo village as a way to study the people. In her book “Never in Anger: Portrait of an Eskimo Family”, author Jean Briggs (1970), describes the experiences and the challenges of her own emotional journey. In her book, Briggs introspectively explores her own identity and emotional struggles, which impacted her ability to connect with the people in a meaningful way.

Rosaldo describes her experience by saying, “in conducting her field work, she did not try and elevate herself to the dignified heights of science as a vocation. Instead she used her own feelings, particularly depression, frustration, rage and humiliation,” (Rosaldo, 1993, p. 176). The author goes on further to say that “although the choice was originally her own, Briggs found herself overwhelmed by an alien world. In response to emotional and physical deprivation, she sought consolation through food, and even went so far as to hoard eight sesame seeds in tin foil. The ethnographer was held prisoner, not by the Eskimos but by her determination to succeed in doing fieldwork under demanding conditions” (Rosaldo, 1993, p.177).

While I may never experience the harsh conditions that Jean Briggs experienced among the Eskimo tribe, there is great wisdom in acknowledging the emotional introspection of that journey, and the impact it had on her ability to effectively connect with the very people she was observing. As I look ahead to my own action research, particularly in ensuring access, excellence, and impact through mentoring, I want to be mindful of that balance of my own emotions and attachment to the student participants, and frame my life experience in that process in a way that creates trust among those that I will be working with. Only through doing so, will I be able to truly represent an accurate reflection of the impact of my research.

Rosaldo, R. (1993). Culture & Truth: The remaking of social analysis. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Briggs, J. (1970). Never in Anger: Portrait of an Eskimo Family. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

The Role of Emotions

“We were, we told ourselves, too close to the work” (Paris & Winn, 2014). I have told myself this many times in relation to my job. In my opinion, it is a hazard of being a teacher. It is difficult to find the balance between work and home. This probably has a great deal to do with why so many teachers burn out within the first five years. I don’t envision a researcher as having such problems. In the past I have typically thought of a researcher as one who is serious, precise, objective and disconnected. Prior to starting this program, I was trying to determine what I wanted to research. I had a difficult time because I felt I was overly passionate about the things I wanted to research, but on the other hand I did not want to research a subject that I was dispassionate about; I imagine that would become tedious. “We have not paid significant attention to these feelings, yet they persist and continue to shape our work” (Paris & Winn, 2014). When reading through research articles, it appears that the common approach to research is to be detached, in order to be objective.

In Renato Rosaldo’s book, Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis, he discusses the difference “between the technical idiom of ethnography and the language of everyday life” (1994). Rosaldo gives multiple examples in his book of daily life being described in Ethnographic terms. Each time I feel as though the researcher in the example has no idea what they are talking about because all emotion has been taken out of play. It leaves the description sounding idiotic. One example Rosaldo gives is Horace Mann’s paper, “Nacirema”. I had read it in elementary school and I remember being a little disturbed and thinking Nacirema people were barbaric. When I found out it was actually about Americans I was shocked and thought it was the funniest thing I had ever heard. It became a joke to speak in such a manner.

People are emotional; they have joy, grief, anger…etc. When emotion is taken out of the equation daily actions seem a little crazy. I understand that the purpose is to stay distanced, but people research with purpose. “I want to emphasis…research carried out by anyone is a political-historical process.(Lave, 2012) Regardless of whether one expects their research to have an impact, it does, in some aspect have an influence on society. As quoted by Lave, research is political. It goes back to knowing the community and how the research will impact them. Paris and Winn discuss how emotions are used to modify policies. “The fear of terrorist violence of ‘illegal aliens’ taking U.S. jobs, of prisoners using tax dollars…all help to justify expanding the punitive arm of the state” (Paris & Winn, 2014). My purpose in researching is to initiate change within my community. The keyword throughout these readings seems to be balance. One must be aware how their emotions, passions and desires affect them in order to keep bias from impacting the results of their research. However, it is our passions that drive us.  Additionally, remembering that the community you are studying is made up of people and that the purpose of the research is to create a better world for them. Once we lose sight of that, there is no point in continuing to research.


Lave, J. (2012). Changing practice. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 19(2), 156–171. doi:10.1080/10749039.2012.666317

Paris, D., & Winn, M. T. (2014). Humanizing Research (p. 277). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Inc.

Rosaldo, R. (1994). Culture and truth: The remaking of social analysis (pp. 1–52). Boston, MA: Beacon Press.