I spent the morning working through an on-line program that's supposed to teach me what I need to know to ethically work with human subjects. I learned some helpful, thought-provoking stuff. But the on-line system I found off-putting and inefficient.
For one thing, it's really hard to tell how long any section is going to take, or how you should take notes until you've gone through the system. And the little tests afterwards, which I needed to complete to demonstrate that I'd completed the section, seemed more tuned to covering the institutional ass rather than helping me grasp concepts and demonstrate my grasp.
But you could take the little test, and then if you did poorly, look at the required answers and then go back to the section and then retake the test. I don't know if you had to spend any time on the section before you could retake the test because I was trying to actually understand the stuff I hadn't gotten the first time around. But someone who just wanted to jump the hoop could have jumped it in about one third the time it took me with exactly the same score.
Still, it's important to think hard about how to do research ethically, and doing the process made me think about a possible complication with my project.
And then I spent some time reading the Belmont Report. For other Shakespeareans out there, this isn't about The Merchant of Venice.
I have to say, while I think my project is both ethical and unlikely to harm anyone, I can see how it would be easy to be so convinced of one's project's value that you could harm folks even though you didn't want to.
And there are some things in our culture that are just so accepted that I think they'd fly through a standard review board. That is, I don't think all the folks on review boards (at least if they're representative of the upper levels of university research types) are necessarily really aware of and committed to anti-racism, feminism, and so forth. (I'm sure some are deeply aware and committed, though.) (I'm thinking, for example, of research that's aimed at enforcing heteronormativity and gender conformity, though of course researchers wouldn't frame it as such.)*
I'm guessing folks who do IRB stuff a lot get way more comfortable with it quickly, but as a lit person, I'm finding it all pretty new and more than a little daunting.
*I just saw a video thing on cnn (which I'm not going to link because I really hate video things) on research aimed at convincing Japanese women to want to have babies. That may be totally what the Japanese government wants (because the population of Japan is not reproducing at replacement rates), but if the video's representative, the research is aimed at enforcing gendered reproductive behaviors. (They're not showing men wanting kids, just women, and they're sure not suggesting that men should be stay at home parents.) (Yes, that's in Japan, and they probably have totally different research rules and laws. But the point is, that same research protocol would probably get right through a US university IRB.) And, of course, there are a lot of people in the US who think that making women (especially white middle-class women) want to reproduce more would be very positive. I'll bet most of those folks aren't committed feminists or anti-racists.