Ethical Quandary of Discourse Analyst Interviewing

Martyn Hammersley, never one to shy from instigating hard looks at methodology for qualitative researchers, has recently called into ethical question the research practice of conducting discourse analysis on interviews as a kind of bait-and-switch contrary to the priority of informed consent.  Qualitative Research provided a couple of responses from Stephanie Taylor and Robin Smith that encapsulate the responses that come to mind immediately to me–and more.  Yet Hammersley’s charges nag at me, because they articulate hesitations that have bothered me in my few, immature attempts at discourse analytic research.  

As an example, even as Ben Rampton talks about opening up the tools of discourse analysis to those educational practitioners under study, in a manner that might mitigate some of those ethical concerns, he is uncharacteristically limited in vision, from my point of view.  As an analyst, I think we have some hard thinking to do.

The Empowering and Burdening Work of Transculturations

The science behind the cognitive benefits of multilingualism is well established.  But maybe we think about it too simplistically when we suppose that it’s merely toggling between language systems making the mind more flexible and adaptable.  That much is true, but there’s much more going on in multilingual experiences, I think.

Here, as always, the children are instructive.  Marjorie Faulstich Orellana’s Translating Childhoods is based on ethnographic research with children engaged in language brokering practices, the kind of thing immigrant children know quite well: answering and making phone calls for their parents with the Department of Motor Vehicles or pizza delivery, translating (or arguing with proud parents about the translation of) documents from the mail way over their heads , etc.

Orellana’s chapter on the multiple positions and roles that children translating in parent-teacher conferences must take on, entitled “Transculturations,” unpacks the potential complexities of multilingualism really nicely.  Translating for the parents and teachers, these children are certainly not purely conveying information verbatim– the extremely tricky nature of translation makes that impossible.

The immense subtleties of language that have so much impact on communication between parties have to get juggled by kids with still-emergent command of those nuances.  One example from Orellana’s chapter’s involves a teacher saying, “tell your mom she has a lot to be proud of,” an ostensibly simple pragmatic act riddled with complexities in meaning, implication, and positioning.  Convey to your mother some form of hedging or qualifying statement that suggests that, in spite of the criticisms you’ve already heard from me, I intend for you to feel affirmed in those aspects of parenting which you clutch on to in the face of these criticism [my extreme extrapolation, not author’s.]  Instead, the child ends up with, “Dice que tú tienes que estar muy, um agradecida por mí [He says that you have to be very, um, grateful for me].”

Moreover, in these situations, the stakes are high and the subject about which these children are translating (not just language but huge communicatively complex and culturally nuanced moves) is none other than themselves and their schooling.  This begins to unfold the multiple complexities inherent in a multilingual child’s situation.  Contrast this with the monolingual kid who sits at home while mom or dad attends a parent teacher conference and comes back to report that the child better start turning in her homework every day.  The experience of schooling, relationships, and language is utterly different.

And when I say language, I’d emphasize, not just language in terms of systems, but language in terms of worlds, cultural worlds, worlds of meaning and expectations and imagination.  The child is constantly translating those worlds.  Transculturing.

A research project I did with transnational students writing their college application essays revealed the same complexity, the juggling of not just the Spanish or English or Cantonese or English versions of the same words, but juggling multiple cultural worlds, the sense-making systems of vastly diverse experiences.  I’ve worked with many students on college application essays.  It’s always a complex task.  For some of the multilingual students I’ve worked with, their inhabiting multiple worlds provides them the resources, the allusions, the imaginations, the aspirations to write themselves as extremely cosmopolitan and knowledgeable young people.  But for others and also for those same students, there’s something overwhelming, almost crippling, about the burden of representing a summary of themselves, who they are and what they hope to become, when they consider the mad complex of their multiple experiences.  Many monolingual students wind up writing about that one trip they took somewhere once where they learned how the rest of the world lives.  For these students, this was a lifetime’s experience.

Transculturation.  Great power and great burden.


The SCALLAHS Project: Immigrant Youth, Civic Action, Language, Literacy, and Argumentation

The research project I intend to be engaged in over the next two years involves the study of adolescent immigrant and “English Language Learner” students and how their civic participation influences their academic language learning, and vice versa. I want to know how immigrant youth involved in critical civic and political action find new meanings, purposes, and contexts for acquiring, using, and appropriating academic English, for example in the course of reading real-world texts that bear on the conditions of their communities and families, or in composing argument texts with real-world audiences where they have a chance to educate, inform, persuade, and mobilize others. Underlying this is my sense that students in our schools need a counter-narrative to learning for individual success or “getting a job,” but are hungry for spaces for their emerging political consciousness, hungry for meaningful social action, hungry for a community of purpose to surround them. In that context, learning to read texts and compose speech and complex, sophisticated communication rises in importance, but for other reasons than the standard, neoliberal ideology-driven ones often promulgated in schools.

SCALLAHS stands for Student Civic Action, Language, Literacy, and Argumentation in Hayward Schools. The idea is to make the classroom–and by extension, the schools–a place for interacting with the community on issues of concern within the community, learning to read the world and write the world, learning and communicating with local leaders and constituents in the course of becoming politically active, and engaging in literate activity that’s also empowering and makes a difference. I hope to enroll a few teachers to pilot with me, initiating a unit (or units) in their classes with English Language Learners. I hope to show that projects with these priorities can lead to the gains that test-focused educators are looking for, but more importantly, that students come to develop in their academic achievement in a way not subtractive to their cultural and community commitments, but in ways that are additive and agentive: they gain access to codes, to cultures of power, that they can use in the course of affirming their own voices and the concerns and causes of their own families and communities, ones often marginalized in schools and in the public space. It’s intended to be a social justice pedagogy, building on the work of teachers, activists, and researchers who have initiated youth action research as critical pedagogy, but with special consciousness of the linguistic and discursive aspects of such engagements.

More details on this project to come.

Preschool for All Kids- Now is the Time.

Alongside a federal push for Universal Pre-K, California has some political momentum towards expanding its Transitional Kindergarten or some other means of widely broadening voluntary preschool access, especially for low-income and immigrant kids.  How this will happen–and particularly how it’s paid for–are still in negotiation, but there are lots of reasons, fiscal and otherwise, why it’s a worthy investment.  This repository of links and fact sheets is a good resource for FAQs on the issue, from a pro-preschool perspective.

There are many ways to address the achievement gap (or the educational debt to non-dominant communities), but this particular idea has strong research, good sense, broad appeal, and ideal timing.  Most important of all, investing in good quality preschool means good things for kids’ life outcomes.  I’ll be particularly curious and watching for how it influences multilingual kids, immigrant families, and dual language learning programs.  But as a matter of policy we can get behind, this is one whose time has come for California.

Cultivating work of “a tough mind and a tender heart”

In a sermon reprinted in 1963’s Strength to Love, Martin Luther King calls for a dialectic of tough-mindedness and tender-heartedness, which he encapsulates in nonviolent resistance, which “combines toughmindedness and tenderheartedness and avoids the complacency and do-nothingness of the soft minded and the violence and bitterness of the hardhearted.”  It’s a simplistic schematic, but it contains the best of what I appreciate about Dr. King, particularly as a thinker.  Resistance cannot be complacent, must not only be in a state of unrest, but must stir up unrest.  Academia’s complicity in reifying the domination and stratification of the ruling classes extends from its dependence on the means of corporate interests and warmongers, to its shirking of intellectual responsibility to be truth-tellers, as gadflies from Chomsky to Cornel West, from Gramsci to Bourdieu, have reminded us.  But nonviolence is a concerted effort of compassion and love, a hard-nosed and sustained, painful and dedicated commitment to humanizing oppressed and oppressors, of calling out the evil in others and recognizing it in ourselves, of strength enough to fight and sympathy enough to free.  I think my own tendency is to attempt to be a scholar of reconciliations, a tender-hearted embrace of as many perspectives as wish to sing kumbaya around the table.  But the organic intellectual must also speak forth what’s misguided, what’s hegemonic, what’s imperial, often in the very language and forms of communication which are designed to mark out, distinguish, separate, and exclude.  She must do so while suffering the schizophrenia of tough-mindedness and tenderheartedness.

We must be in grateful and continued dialogue with those we resonate with, but also with those we disagree with.  We must engage them with clarity and force, but also in a spirit of understanding.  For instance, I think often of how I should write about our schools as a scholar.  Will my critique antagonize school leaders?  Get me pinned as a “critical” (read: irrelevant) voice, offering nothing substantive to the conversation?  Or do I compose myself with the same norms of research, the packaging of quantifiable, value-added economic efficiency-trained best practices, that I feel drain the work of its humane, particular, contextualized, and potentially revolutionary bent?  The answer is to do neither.  The answer is to step into the morass, to march up where other voices are uninvited, to speak with common moral language of authority, and if necessary to stand there with the courage to be flogged and hosed.  But to do so with the recognition that your opponent needs to hear something, needs to be reminded, needs to be called back to something which first put him in front of kids in a classroom, first compelled her to invest in children…

Education scholars must be endlessly critical, as a matter of critical hope, which is material hope, substantial hope.  But we must also be willing to be refined in good-faith dialogue.  We must continually find the veins of shared blood even among those with incommensurable perspectives and contrary positions.  For me, that means despite my significant concerns and critique of Common Core, David Coleman, and the Gates Foundation and so on, which I will have to write about one day, I can’t help but bristle at Susan Ohanian’s sometimes eloquent but often bitter screed against the “heart’s death” we are supposed to resist with Common Core’s onset.  In broad sweeps, I largely agree, and would like also for my daughter to have crayons and finger paints, but I wish our disagreement did not have to be such a whole-cloth dismissal.  In reality, earnest teachers are rolling with this momentary swinging pendulum, still instilling the distinctive and personalized passion for language and literature with or without CCSS, NCTE, or whatever body’s say-so.  Only those who believed in salvation by standards will perish in its flames, and would have anyway.  Instead of a “resisting the system,” we might, by our teaching, call the system to the carpet for its failures of vision and purpose, and struggle for children to be “college and career-ready” as incidental to the bigger project of human flourishing, civic empowerment, and cultural development that we are engaged in.  I’m not saying we should sell out, but can I hope we can retort transcendently.


phD uncertainty.

In year four of my Ph.D program, doubt sets in.  I’ll be plain about my studies: I’ve done terribly with my benchmarks, those milestones of progress that should pace me through “normative” time to earning the doctorate.  To be clear, the demands are by no means unreasonable.  I should at this point have completed my oral exams after finishing my position papers.  I’ve drafted my position papers, one a review of research, another an empirical study, and a third paper that serves as a draft proposal for my dissertation project.  Only one of those has completed the review process, and the other two have gathered varying degrees of dust on a digital shelf, having already garnered valuable feedback from my advisor and classmates, awaiting my attention like starved offspring.  Also, a paper I was invited to submit to a publication, the not-yet-ripe fruit of a long collaboration with some very willing and thoughtful research partners, also sits and waits.  I believe in all these projects.  They are rich with data, with conceptual relevance, well-articulated methodology, meaningful findings.  They sit and wait.  I can’t bear to revise them.  It is grinding and grueling work for me, combing through my own writing, re-writing and seeking clarity, making the judgment of Solomon for concision’s sake.  I need to approach it with freshness, stamina, and expanses of time.  The first I find from time to time, the latter two elude me, and always have.

I admit I feel at this point like I’m languishing, my scholarly career in a prenatal ICU, caught in the contradiction between not having enough funding to focus on the work and not having focused on the work enough to be competitive for funding.  My first semester was a sunlit backstroke on a Maui beach, and then my daughter was born and time disappeared in a diaper-shaped vacuum.  Stints of teaching, working at my church, family and family and family, all those local and familiar attachments of not having moved away for graduate school, and then the scholar-related chances at teaching, publication, research projects… all have left no margins for the clean, well-lighted place and the uninterrupted time to apprentice in the rigors of fifth drafts, peer review, lengthy reading lists.  I read, read constantly, read widely, read promiscuously, read fruitfully… but in scattered bits, like a desperate prisoner squirreling away illicit bits of food and sunlight.  Meanwhile, by day, I keep hustlin’ for fatherhood, for meaningful labor in schools, for these other facets that I cannot divorce from myself, the million yeses I could not no, rows of doors opened for me or that I’ve pried open that I cannot shut.

So much dissatisfaction in a life that should feel satisfying makes me question whether to continue trying to become a scholar.  An analogy: my spotty bilingualism.  Mandarin was my first language, the earliest language of my consciousness, the first reservoirs of culture, the primal sounds of intimacy.  But moving to the US, my literacy in English soared and my literacy in Chinese dissipated, and with them my access to the productive capacities of those language structures.  Yet, even though as a ninth grader, I routinely read 19th century British literature, crime novels, and dramatic theory, I did not know the difference between what was called a “stove” and an “oven”.  I could distinguish regional accents of Mandarin but forgot how to write “dog.”  Gaps.  Glaring gaps.  The side effect of inhabiting multiple worlds.

My formation as a scholar, divided as it has been with all these other obligations, is riddled with gaps.  I haven’t done any conference presentations.  Haven’t even written a proposal for one.  I’ve written hundreds of pages but can’t get myself to turn in twenty-five.  I have not served on any committees– I have to be home by dinner time.  I’ve joined all the organizations but contributed to none, not even attended their meetings or conferences– I have to take mom to the doctor.  I’ve accumulated repositories of journal articles and books about my research areas, but can’t pull together my orals list– I lost a whole summer selling our house, renting another one, and moving. It goes on and on like this.

And I have to question my readiness to enroll in scholarly work as a whole-life endeavor.  Research engages me, especially the kind of research I get to do, the horizons of research that are humanizing and decolonizing and reflexively rigorous, the possibilities of what research can introduce us to and how it can engage practice.  I appreciate critiques and the opportunity to refine my work.  But I have insufficient space and capacity for them in a hard drive and CPU so tasked with being a good dad, and drafting rubrics, and expounding Scriptures, and maintaining loyal friendships, and keeping up with my cherished former students.  I don’t know that I really want to sacrifice those, whether that is even a possibility.  Even leaving aside for a moment the extra-professional spheres, I don’t know that I want to give up chatty lunchtimes and teacher collaborations and curating educative experiences for lectureships and grant-writing and checking citations.

My ambitions have always been that I can have it all, the opportunity to study, to speak to the world, to remain a teacher for equity and justice, to be a family man, to be a follower of Jesus.  What I did not count adequately before, what I always fail to account for, is the unavoidable costs of such a division of self.  No matter how integrated my vision, no matter how productive the cross-pollination of identities and roles, each day still only has 24 hours, each month only its 35 days.  Oh, wait.

A professor who I have not worked closely with but whose advice I cherish once challenged me with a hard, direct question: do you really want to be a researcher?  Do you really want to do academic work?  My enthusiastic yes at the time is now wavering under the strains and the tradeoffs.  Usually, such tensions feel right, necessary, appropriate.  Today, my fingers reach for the white flag.

“Anyone who has begun to think, places some portion of the world in jeopardy.” -Dewey

Having “boiled” down the purpose of this blog to four aspects of my identity and thought, I still feel the necessity of qualifying each of them still further.  I’m not sure which of the four is more presumptuous, but from one perspective, scholar takes the prize.  Yes, I own a lot of books, to the chagrin of my accountant and the delight of Jeff Bezos (haha–as if I had an accountant.)  But at present, I’m merely a lowly graduate student, a Ph.D not-yet-candidate.  Moreover, I’m in an applied and interdisciplinary field, Education, which by some lights at least is chronically under-theorized and -developed.  I beg to differ.  Being an educationalist means a necessary interdisciplinarity, as well as a necessary engagement with praxis and pragmatism, as well as a reflexivity about scholarship itself, that conditions us to a unique kind of epistemological rigor.
Dewey and this quotation headlines my contemplations about and as a “scholar” because, instead of entrenching more deeply in the institutional structures that ensure/enshrine safety for an academic, I hope that my scholarly work does not merely describe, but changes.  That presumptuous verb change lacks an object, and it is underspecified to suggest why “scholar” or even “scholar-activist” cannot stand alone as an identity.  When it comes to disciplines and discourses, personally, my ambition is to be a bridge-builder as a researcher, to exercise grace and civility in an often cold and contentious academic culture.  Yet, I would not sweat the tedium of academia if not infused with the belief that from one perspective, “we at war.”  Our science must be strong (even us interpretivist, phenomenological, qualitative types) because the stakes are so high for our product, for what we hustle and grind for.
To wit:
Dylan Thomas
The hand that signed the paper felled a city;
Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath,
Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country;
These five kings did a king to death.
The mighty hand leads to a sloping shoulder,
The finger joints are cramped with chalk;
A goose’s quill has put an end to murder
That put an end to talk.
The hand that signed the treaty bred a fever,
And famine grew, and locusts came;
Great is the hand that holds dominion over
Man by a scribbled name.
The five kings count the dead but do not soften
The crusted wound nor stroke the brow;
A hand rules pity as a hand rules heaven;
Hands have no tears to flow.
As a scholar, I hope I make the choice again and again, to choose life.  My meager contributions are the smallest drop in the largest bucket, but we had best mind the currents we flow in, because they shape canyons.

The Literacy Episteme

Reading “The Literacy Episteme: From Innis to Derrida” by Jens Brockmeier and David R. Olson in The Cambridge Handbook of Literacy (2009).  My summary and thoughts below:

My outline summary of Brockmeier and Olson’s argument:

In previous centuries, the “life of letters” was the indulgence of elites with such things as leisure time and armchairs, the “clubby habitus” of a few.  Literacy is now so pervasive, so ubiquitous a fact of social life, that it explodes definition boundaries; observe how not only does a child in school read a book, but a basketball player “reads a defense,” people socially network in textually mediated relationships, and everything from institutional learning to the internal life find literacy practices at their center.  Brockmeier and Olson contend this near limitless diversity of and yet commonalities among literacies belong to an “overarching cultural discourse” they call the literacy episteme, drawing from the larger Western tradition of epistemological inquiry, but especially from Harold Innis and Jacques Derrida, both of whom plumb the materiality/physicality of concepts/language.

The Literacy Episteme and Its Scope.  What makes an episteme: “the cultural order of ideas and concepts that define, at a given moment in history, what knowledge is and how we gain and transmit it” (6).  There are scientific objects that basically only exist on paper, so to speak… the recordings on a computer of protein connections, for instance, or states that don’t exist in a reality apart from models and calculations, that are basically treated as or equated with “real.”  So too hunters ‘read’ the tracks of a deer from signs that imaginatively recreate a history of movement.  Or the cultural dimension of “self” that exists uniquely in the modern Western discourse.  This is a Foucaultian “historical a priori” as opposed to a Kantian “a priori,” meaning that they belong to concrete human discourses and not in an ideal and transcendent pre-knowledge human universal.  Two implications of literacy as episteme: writing is not derivative of speech, but its own form of language; and the privileged place of the “book learning” form of literacy is being dissolved.

The Rise of the Literacy Episteme.  Literacy has been long considered and studied since Plato, but the elevated epistemic status emerges in the West in the 60s, simultaneously in national projects of development via education and in academic attention on literacy (such as Havelock, McLuhan, Levi-Strauss, Goody and Watt):  “Great divide” theories of orality and literacy, from La pensee sauvage to McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy, and of course Goody and Watt’s Consequences of Literacy, along with the Western uptake of Vygotskian sociocultural perspectives of mind.

Widening the Frame: Innis and Derrida.  These two quite different scholars contribute two developments to the literacy episteme: Innis’ focus on literacy “as a momentous factor within a practical, economic, social, and political trajector,” Derrida’s handling of literacy “at the heart of the history of philosophy in he twentieth century.”  Innis is a Canadian economist studying structures of communication in ancient empires and among fur traders; Derrida is a French theorist of deconstruction.  Despite their differences, however, for Brockmeier and Olson, both contribute attention to power and hegemony in Foucault-like ways that join what is traditionally kept asunder, the material and the conceptual, in their thought on literacy.

Why Did the Dam Burst?  The argument here is that all of a sudden, literacy becomes unprecedentedly promoted and studied, mattering not only theoretically but materially as social reality (for example, in the power exerted by schooling).  McLuhan, Goody, Innis and others poised at the century’s midpoint saw the “interdependencies” of communication technologies, the ever expanding “literacies” of media, networks, etc., that revolutionize culture, society, and thought.  This interdisciplinary recognition of the role of sign mediation in social scientific thought works to collectively overcome its Schfiftvergessenheit (expansion of Derrida’s idea that Western philosophical thought forgets or overlooks the ‘writing’ on which it is based, privileging speech and immediacy).

They close by again underscoring the diversity of literacy uses and practices (a nod to the social practice perspectives of New Literacy Studies and the like), but also what is common to literacy everywhere, to its uniqueness as a dominant form of communication against others, its still-primary role in societies, “development” in whatever forms, etc.

A few responses…

Somehow Brockmeier and Olson don’t quite take the tantalizing notion of a “literacy episteme” as far as I thought they would, not even as far, for instance, as the scholars they cite in their title do.  I would simplify their argument by saying that they demonstrate how literacy is not simply one subject among others, but so consequential, not only to what philosophy and human sciences study, but to “study” itself, that rather than “literacy consequences” or “literacy practices” or “literacy ideologies,” the scope of literacy studies is on an epistemic level, all the way to root questions of knowing.  This idea is vastly suggestive… and sufficiently expressed in just the title.

Then, a philosophical trajectory is combined with a social-political trajectory (to some extent), demonstrating the indivisibly theoretical and material presence of literacy in the mid-20th century onward.  I think the recognition of literacy as quintessentially conceptual and material (that is literally what is it… concept materialized) as the core insight of the literacy episteme, I will return to again and again in my thought.  Yet I am somewhat dissatisfied with where the authors take this.  Perhaps it is because theirs is the first chapter of an entire handbook that unfolds the implications they would supply…

Also, I wonder about the equivalence of literacy-as-technology transformations with the proliferation of mediation forms we have been and are part of.  Brockmeier and Olson are right that literacy is indeed broadening, exploding, imploding, so that we talk of the transportation of an “image” (say, a video of my cousin in Taiwan showing up in my Twitter feed) within the literacy episteme, as a continuation of the “reading” and”writing” that as consequentially changed knowledge and our relation to the world and experience.  But traditional literacy, alphabetic words on a page, quickly begins to fail as the metaphor, significant though it is historically, for what goes on now semiotically, for the video in my Twitter feed.  Does “literacy episteme” freeze us in particular consequences that modes are now changing, emptying, replacing?

The critiques may be unfair; they are pointing toward something too vast for a chapter to capture, and I glimpse the expanse and expect more coverage than reasonable. What the authors draw together in philosophical and social thought, though, under the literacy episteme, I will draw from again and again.