Cultivated Gardens and Cacophonous Circuses


We don’t have many mirrors in our house, but sometimes I’m shuffling around rooms and I catch a glimpse of myself on some reflective surface. What an unpleasant intrusion! Besides the disconcerting reality of my actual face and proportions (so different from the picture of myself in my head…), those glimpses also reveal to me how often I’m in this house with a screen in my hand, a device in my ear, a pair of VR glasses enshrouding my visage. Just kidding, I don’t have VR glasses. Why, do you know where I can get some?

My point is, there are a lot of electronics in our house. I’m responsible for every one of them. I look around a room and say to my wife, “Looks great, but you know what’s missing? A twenty-two inch monitor!”I hate gardening. 

For some reason, maybe because I’ve turned our house into a buzzing den of energy-sucking machines, my wife has taken to gardening in our backyard. Our garden areas are comparatively tiny, and the flowers and plants she and our daughter nurture aren’t anything grand. I see her find the right time, in the cool of the evening, to water them, repot them, consider their colors and the shapes of petals, the red rotundity of three strawberries. It’s beautiful. And I’m already bored and impatient. Should I go heat up some dinner for us? 

Thanks to my friend, Pastor Albert Hong, I’ve begun reading The Cultivated Life by Susan S. Phillips. She’s a spiritual director and Sociology professor at New College Berkeley, and the book contemplates the spiritual cultivation (read: agricultural metaphors, nurturance, organic growth, other stuff that takes a long time) that runs counter to our contemporary noisiness. Her metaphor for that noisy world is the circus, crowded with entertainments and artifice, sideshows and sugar, flashing lights and fast rides. 

It’s hard to deny that pretty much all of us are intoxicated by the instant pokes and persistent vibrations of our super-programmed digital environs. And actually, when people begin tirades against our “digital media age” and the short attention spans our children are apparently condemned to because of the marketing and manipulation we’ve inflicted on them, I actually bristle a little bit. I think we overstate the case, imagining our own fanciful weekday afternoons bicycling by the creek under tree-shaded sunsets granting us the Wisdom of Ages, waxing self-congratulatory nostalgia against the kids we see who seem perpetually Snapfeeding memekatz or something superfluous like that. It’s classic curmudgeonliness sometimes, to condemn the channels and pay so little attention to what goes through them. Thank God I’m not like those teenagers, obsessed with their cell phones, while they are posting, Lord have mercy, I’m disgusted with myself…

Not all gadgets are evil, and not all gardens are good. That’s beside the point, though. The reality is, I find in my life a wasteland of dead crops, metaphorically speaking, of Genetically Modified Organisms instead of fruitfulness and flowering. Strewn around my soul are enclosures of desiccated, trampled grasses and flooded, gasping planter boxes. 

I find myself obese with media, gluttonous of connectivity, and vomiting communications all over the spiritual terrain of my surroundings. I could easily have the same problem without technology. Just come over and check out the piles of books and boxes of DVDs wallpapering our home. But the problem with my iPhone, tablets (yes that was plural), and laptops is that they torrentially pour this kind of contact into a garden that’s meant to be sprinkled and watered. We’re created to laugh out loud, to poke, to comment, and to share… but at speeds and in seasons that were supposed to be subjected to the rhythms of life. 

So here are a few simple moves of tiny salvation: 

-My phone has stations in my home. It can stay there. I will hear your call/ text/ FaceTime/ FriendRequest/ LinkedInEndorsement when it’s the right time. 

-My bedroom will be a sanctuary of materiality. Tunes with no i, candles with no Kindles, and friends with no profiles.

-I will spend time in the garden, allergies be damned. I will contemplate branches. I will leave my Macbook inside.

Mixed Methods Living

In theory, I believe in mixed methods research. I say “in theory” only because there is a set of skills and knowledge you need to include quantitative, numerical analysis that usually you mean when you say “mixed methods,” and that is a set of skills and knowledge that I sorely lack. As a researcher, that’s okay, because I know enough to read, evaluate, and make use of others’ quantitative analyses, and then my part of the work is to offer the complementary qualitative analyses that speak to what those numbers say.
 
But in daily life, being a “mixed methods” person means that I am learning when to attend to the “qualitative” aspects and when to attend to the “quantitative” aspects. They’re analytically distinct, meaning they’re two different ways of looking at things that can often seem to contradict each other. But in reality, in God’s eyes, so to speak, the separation is not so stark. What things look like from the scales of measurement with sufficient quantities of data might provide a different picture from what they look like from the description and interpretation of details and up-close units of analysis. But both become necessary in ways of living. 
 
I was listening to a basketball podcast interview with Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean talk about how he and his coaches work with players. The players he recruits and prepares for the League, he says, are not just the ones who are willing to spend time in the gym or to put in the work— in my words, not just the quantity of will. He also looks for those willing to get into the details, to pay attention to doing the little things right, to get better at the fundamentals that ultimately have a greater impact multiplied over practice time— in my words, the quality of skill. (I’m paraphrasing and adding in a lot— this is my version of what he said in my head, which is definitely riddled with inaccuracies!)
 
But of course, everyone who has read Malcolm Gladwell knows it takes 10,000 hours to become awesome at something, like the Beatles, right? That’s scientifically proven! Malcolm Gladwell said it!
 
Truth is, though I’m a qualitative researcher, I tend to act most of the time as if volume is what matters. Say more words and you’ll cover all your bases. Show your devotion by promising and racking up more hours. Cherish the experience of the buffet, and eat more, regardless of the subtleties of flavor, because the feeling of inundating yourself with food all at once will secure you from all future hunger.
 
Mixed methods research is really rich research, but it requires attending to a lot of particulars and articulating a lot of relationships that can’t be taken for granted. How will one kind of analysis speak to another kind of analysis, what propositions or narratives will the data test or examine and how will they go together. At its best, it’s a John Williams score over a good Spielberg movie. Poorly planned, it’s trying to listen to Macklemore while watching Survivor at the same time.
 
Mixed methods living: a similar challenge. Can I pay more attention to the quality of my time spent with my daughter than sheer quantity? And yet not take myself off the hook for just plain ol’ carrying my share of the load of responsibility, the gigantic mountain of attention she needs and deserves? Can I do the same with my writing, research, or teaching, all of which are vocations that show pretty clearly when someone is taking shortcuts, which require lots of time in the gym, but also thoughtfulness and selectivity? 
 
I have to. There’s no other way to responsibly face the variety of callings in my life than to be responsible for how I live as well as how much I live into it. 
 

“Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes” by Emerson and Fritz Chapter 3

writing ethnographic field notes
The third chapter is entitled, “Writing Field Notes I: At the Desk, Creating Scenes on a Page.”  My summaries and reactions:
Recognizing that all writing, even that which attempts to take a neutral stance and remain as descriptive as possible, is a kind of construction, the authors are mindful about what influences this construction and attempt to raise, in this chapter, several of the circumstances, questions, and decisions that factor into the ethnographic description that the fieldworker puts on the page (or screen) after being in the field.
Issues of how soon and how long the ethnographer gets to the desk (as fresh as possible, as soon as possible, ideally an hour writing for every hour in the field, as much unpolished memory as an outpouring can produce) get squared away pretty quickly.  Techniques for recalling the day (use of jottings, initial lists of topics, beginning with high points, turning jottings into extended texts) are exemplified.  These seemed fairly obvious to me, but might be helpful to someone else.  I find myself to be that kind of extensive, compulsive note-taker anyway.  This method sounds like second nature to me.  Sometimes in the course of going from jottings to notes, new or fresh significance emerges, and that’s something I see happening often in my field note taking.
The technique of writing “lushly” (Goffman), depictions of scenes, including spatial arrangements, details of the setting, the appearance of people to contextualize talk and action (while resisting the too-easy categorizing and stereotyping we tend to do in taking in other human beings), casting evocative images… these produces portraits of irreducible importance, where the discovery lies in the ethnographic task.  Otherwise, everything defaults to the bell curve, the expected scene, without idiosyncrasy that makes the scene matter.  Dialogue can flow in and out without repeatedly adding the she saids and he saids, and the authors make their pitch for capturing verbatim dialogue however possible and getting the narratives of the speakers as important artifacts of culture, something which is already my starting point into ethnography.  Aspects of transcription like capturing breaks and rhythm, pitch and prosody, as Hymes and company articulated, create many decision points in transcription, ones that the responsible ethnographer makes deliberate decisions about.  Characterizations are discussed, as is the use of active rather than passive verbs.
Organizing writing about the day’s events can be broken down with these tools:
sketches: like a still-life picture, a multi-sensory scene.
episodes: capturing action, a “slice of life.”
transitional summaries: because a full sequence is often impossible, linking episodes with transitional summaries segments and coheres the account.
Finally, including in-process analytic commentaries or asides also helpfully warrants a discussion here.  Asides are quicker, commentaries are fuller.
As a reflection, the authors describe a “writing” mode where the ethnographer is intent on producing the observation text, and then a “reading” mode that involves looking again, reflection, etc.  It’s helpful to think about the discipline of ethnography, for me, as investing enough in this writing mode to work fully and intently as an observer, before leaping too quickly, all-too-quickly, to the analytical or interpretive mode.
Overall, the chapter feels the driest, but perhaps because this is the most obvious, practical, and re-tread territory, and the authors want to give details and procedures in pretty straightforward fashion without overproblematizing or over-thinking these steps.  The examples are helpful, but for the most part, I’d be more interested in a version of this chapter organized around common dilemmas or problems that the fieldnote taker encounters in attempting the work, and the way these tools are solutions.

Reading “The Visual Language of Comics” by Neil Cohn (2013): Intro, Chap 1

Neil Cohn, 2013, Bloomsbury

I sometimes wonder if the chatter that came out of the Linguistics Department in the bowels of Dwinelle Hall on the UC Berkeley campus, where cognitive linguistics gestated and flowered, touched often on comics and comic books.  The distinguished linguists there were, after all, North Americans who came of age in the early and mid-20th century, thinking hard about how language made meaning in our minds.  I wonder if, when Charles Fillmore and George Lakoff and company came up with stuff like “Frame Semantics” and “Conceptual Metaphor,” they didn’t have comics tumbling around their heads, and no surprise that as they studied the languages and minds of others in an increasingly visual culture, found the influence of comics on minds and conceptions of mind.

Neil Cohn’s The Visual Language of Comics is subtitled, “Introduction to the Structure and Cognition of Sequential Images.”  Neil Cohn, a cartoonist, found something valuable as an undergraduate at Berkeley in the fields of cognitive science and linguistics, something valuable about how we read not just comics (which he calls a particular sociocultural phenomenon, like any manifestation of certain media within a time and place) but what he terms visual language.  And in the manner of linguists, The Visual Language of Comics sets out to understand how comics reading works as a system, specifically here in the mind of the reader. The book is the linguist’s comics theory book, an attempt to fulfill the potential that any student of linguistics must have imaged when reading McCloud or even Groensteen.

What makes visual language a language, even though Cohn emphasizes that comics “are not a language?”  Sequential images, like language, operate with three characteristics that match language: modalities (ie sound, gesture, images created with intention), meanings (using reference), and grammaticality (ways and constraints for how they’re put together) are all involved to form a system of communication.  Other forms of communication involve some of these elements, but not all three combined, as traditional language and visual language do. To me, the big insight here is that comics are grammatical.  The fact that comics use visual modalities and reference meanings is fairly obvious, though by no means insignificant, and you can plumb the depths of those two aspects of language forever.  But it’s the grammar of comics that interests me the most, and no surprise, demonstrating that systematicity is where Cohn turns next.

Cohn demonstrates the structures of visual language using a page from Kibuishi’s Copper and lays out terms like “navigational structure,” “visual morphology,” and “event structure.”  Introducing these constructs takes Cohn far in making the parallels between language/linguistic categories (phonology, morphology, syntax, discourse, etc.) and visual language.

Cohn anticipates that the first section of the book will examine this.  The second part of the book looks at cognitive research in order to detail how we comprehend visual languages.  Then, in a third section, he turns towards the sociocultural distinctions, with chapters on American Visual Language (comics), Japanese Visual Language (manga), and an Aboriginal Australian Visual Language (sand drawings) that presents a striking comparison and contrast.  Ultimately, Cohn marks out an agenda for visual language research, one he’s in the process of fulfilling.

So far, so good, and just what I expected as a comics reader and a (sort of) linguist.  The evidence of Cohn’s training in Berkeley and at Tufts under Jackendoff shows.  There’s some classic linguistics concepts applied (studying language as a system, with structures at various nested levels), but high value on cognition research (empirical evidence of how minds work to make meaning), and the necessary exploration of the (visual) language in use and how it is culturally contingent to some extent.  Necessary, that is, because even though a non-linguist would suppose that “cognitive linguistics” is a kind of linguistics fixated on the brain, in fact that brand of linguistics is more interested in language-in-use than the linguistics influenced by Chomsky and others, more focused internally on the system of language itself.

One thing I wondered as I read, which I have to give more thought to, is how nested structures of visual language might involve different proficiencies, different sets of conventions and constraints, and different cognitive tasks.  Cohn explains that comics involve two systems, the graphic/visual and the written/verbal.  Of course, the former is understudied (thus, this book) and the latter is widely researched.

But for a moment, I wondered if there were more than two systems involved.  Putting aside the written/visual, just within the visuals, I wondered if there was a system or structure for the drawings or images, relying on iconic representations (Cohn talks about CS Peirce’s semiotics in the next chapter) within each drawing, where a picture has to look like what it’s representing, say a drawing of a dog in a field within one panel.  And then, was there a separate system or structure for the sequentiality and organization of images?   And here, the representation would utilize Peirce’s indexical representation, so that the sign has some visual connection but not a one-to-one relationship with what it points to.  For instance, a series of panels where each one gets more narrow, suggesting time crunching or speeding up (using the spatial-temporal analogy), or balloon placements that suggest the ordering (or maybe disorderliness) of chatter by a crowd of characters.  Were there actually two visual systems at work in comics, one in the images and one in their organization and shaping into panels and pages?

Then I realized that, no, those are nested systems within one visual language, just like words (lexicon, morphology) have their own systems of signification, but these are nested within/beside syntax (organization of elements in an utterance, like a sentence or grammar), another system/structure.  Complex sequences of images and various systems, working together, all at the same time.  In plainer words, we can study vocabulary separately from we study grammar, and of course, vocabulary and grammar work differently, but we wouldn’t therefore say that grammar and vocabulary don’t belong together in a system of language.  They’re both necessary components, and interlaced.

Those thoughts made me excited to read the rest of the book.  I’m not very familiar with the research Cohn mentions, particularly the cognition research on people reading visuals.  I look forward to delving into those chapters most of all.  I’ll continue posting summaries and thoughts here as I read.

“Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes (2nd Edition)” by Emerson, Fritz, and Shaw (2011) Chapter 2

writing ethnographic field notes
The second chapter is entitled, “In the Field: Observing, Participating, and Jotting Down Notes.”  My summaries and reactions:
To the wary new ethnographer, chapter 2 provides a lot of reassurances and helpful clarifications.  Telling someone to be an observer and a participant among people, without the “scientific” goal of slicing away variables and maintaining an extremely tight focus, means always tangling with perceptions, reactions, emotions, and positions of self in relation to others.  This prospect can fill you with doubt.  Am I capturing what matters?  Do I pollute my observations with my own feelings or subjectivity?
The ethnographer’s fieldnotes always involve perceptions of significant ideas and facts, but that significance is determined first and foremost by the priority to the perspective from “within,” rather than the outsider’s perspective.  Yes, ethnographic writing wants to include initial impressions and reactions of the participant observer, but not uncritical ones.  Those impressions are good for identifying things that regular participants might take for granted, like when a commonly-used saying strikes the observer as strange or unrelated, or a behavior doesn’t appear logical even though everyone takes it for granted.  But the ethnographer is certainly not satisfied with their own perceptions of weirdness.
Rather, the ethnographer does well to note her reactions and responses, observe the reactions and responses of locals or those being studied, and consider the indigenous meanings, narratives, practices, perspectives that make events significant or not, etc.  How do local actors attribute importance or grant attention?  The authors give an example of the observer in an ex-prostitute’s residential program who notes a brief conversation about a woman’s new haircut, jotted down, easily passed over as insignificant, except that people at the site grant it significance by further talking about the haircut and identifying its significance: it turns out to be consequential because the haircut is a step towards the trappings of a sex worker lifestyle that the observed woman is supposed to be getting away from.
Overall, the authors convey that the writing of fieldnotes is tied in with observation, and observation does not dismiss the subjectivity or judgments of the observer, but must discipline them under the endeavor of the anthropological task.  This includes become a systematic observer and recorder, including being attentive to the “where, when, and whom” that are often taken for granted in events by local people, as well as the “why” and “how” of routine and mundane interactional accomplishments.  Over time, then, the writing can narrow and focus, after starting as a broad net, becoming more and more focused on a set of issues.
The authors then talk about “jottings,” writings in the field done to capture a moment before it’s lost to memory, often in the form of mnemonics to be filled in later with detail.  Dialogue, topics, etc.  Jottings are the ethnographer’s activity but also their mindset, approaching the experience in the field with the thought of capturing for later writing.  These jottings involve
–capturing key components, fragments of talk as focal points, sometimes just as reminders of the specificity of the moment,
–sensory details, needed to later reconstruct the feel of what happened,
avoiding “characterizing scenes or what people do through generalizations or summaries,” which are often used by novices as convenient or efficient notes but not helpful for close descriptions.
–details of scenes, conversations, interactions, quotes, concrete events that show rather than tell.
–emotions– how they are exhibited, what they come out as, etc.
–general impressions and feelings, even if their significance isn’t immediately apparent.
Besides the content of field notes, field workers have to think of the occasions and places they can pull out their notebook or Macbook or whatever writing tools.  This isn’t just a practical question of what feels convenient, because the field worker has to be conscious of how the act of writing interacts with the ethnographer’s presence and participation in the field.  The fieldnote writer is torn between being present in the field and pulling away, whether physically or interactionally, for taking notes.  Where does one position oneself?  Does one begin taking notes during a delicate situation, and risk offending or scaring the participants?  Is the ethnographer distracted by the task of writing and missing the actual cues of the interaction?  Whether jottings are open or hidden, strategic and conscious jotting is a key and sometimes evolving part of ethnographic writing.  And of course, there is the ideal that the ethnographer becomes someone the participants trust and have gotten used to, standing by and writing away and recording the situation where the participants are freely doing what they would do, comfortable with the ethnographer’s work and place in the ecosystem.  But reaching that point obviously takes a long process of building trust and familiarity, and introduces a different sort of “weirdness” to the regularity of everyday life.
It’s a weird stance, a weird place to be, and one that requires my sense of judgment and constant critical analysis.  In my case, especially as something more than just a participant observer, I know the colleagues I work deserve that I am being open and honest, remaining critical and analytical of myself in order to be nonjudgmental of others, and striving to be descriptive and purposeful in my writing.  Those are the challenges of ethnographic writing, but dealing with those challenges is the work that you’re doing.
As I read the chapter, I think of the awkwardness of being a fervent notetaker wherever I’ve been.  I just gave a little talk with some middle schoolers at the school (though not the classroom) where I’m doing my observations, explaining how being a note-taker has changed my life.  (This is all tied to the course’s curriculum, which introduces student skills like note-taking in all classes).  Being an inveterate note-taker has utterly shaped the way I belong to social situations involving work, and balancing that with the awareness of faces and voices and presences that I’ve also worked at being attuned to, that’s hard to reconcile sometimes.  When I’m at the site, sometimes I don’t know whether to pull out the recorder, the scrap of paper, the laptop, the notebook, and when to simply be present and conscious.
I do know, however, that I’m guided by the ultimate goal of ethnographic writing, and that requires the tension between participating, belonging, being fully present and heads-up, and stepping back to think, to capture stories, to consider, to tie in with theory, to identify and sometimes make meaning.  That tension is a familiar one, one that I think has some close overlap between other tensions I try to hold together in my work as a teacher-coach and my work in education as a whole.  I feel like it’s an important posture to maintain, the commitment to live with and understand and learn people, but the devotion to an ongoing conversation of reflection and analysis about that living.  There are specific ways that reflection and analysis goes on, a certain kind of disciplined inquiry that ethnography entails, and those commitments are also vital.

The Cloud of Witnesses and Children

This summer I’ve had the joyful chance to help out with the children’s ministry at our church, New Hope Covenant Oakland, and under the direction and partnership of Pastor Kara Groth to tell stories of saints’ lives to preschoolers and early elementary students.  They’re not my usual age of students, having been a high school teacher and youth group leader, so it was a learning experience from me.  Fortunately, friends at the church set an example of thoughtful teaching and storytelling for kids at that tender age, the age of my daughter, which provided a tremendous example for me.  Some of the ways they teach stories are inspired by the books and materials of Godly Play, a Montessori-based Christian education approach developed by Jerome Berryman and others.  Some of the ways they teach are also just born from experience with the groups of kids they have taught, adorable and precocious and curious and unique kids.

via Godly Play UK

via Godly Play UK

Focusing on the lives of saints has been fun and fascinating.  We’ve told them stories of St. Paul and Ruth from Scripture, Dorothy Day and Fannie Lou Hamer,  St. Clare and St. Francis, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, Bishop Efraim Tendero of the World Evangelical Alliance, Desmond Tutu and Sojourner Truth, St. Paul Miki and the 26 Companions (Japanese martyrs), and others.  Those saints that I had a chance to tell stories about, I was inspired by the process of reading and research, composing stories simple enough for five year olds but spiritually meaningful.  Or maybe spiritually meaningful precisely because they are simple enough for five year olds, and still profound enough to inspire prideful old farts.  I revisited Endo’s Silencecame to appreciate the extensive catalogue and hagiography of saints that Catholics cultivate on the internet, and repeatedly reflected on the contrast between my goals and the purposeful lives of those saints the church remembers.

Communicating this to small children has been a different thing.  Godly Play involves stories played out with figures and materials, and our Sunday School room is stocked with wooden human statues, temples that can be assembled and disassembled, sand in boxes and felt underlays.  It’s tangible, beside which the spiritual is unfolded.  Christ in the flesh, God in the world, the Spirit inhabiting human lives and the material world: these are to be seen and lived by kids.  I realize how much I rely on abstractions on one hand and images on the other, and it’s taken an adjustment to think about stories differently.  Characters moving slowly across sand, in spatial relationship to each other.  Symbols that we can hold and touch.

Appropriately, the theme that Pastor Kara introduced, aligned to the church’s discipleship model, was introducing how these saints heard God’s call and saw the world through God’s eyes.  We tried to tell stories about people being sensory and perceptive about the spiritual enfleshed in the concrete.  I found that kind of thinking really necessary for me, the kind of person who has a way of intellectualizing my faith and compartmentalizing arenas of life.  No, Paul, you can’t just rely on a bunch of rhetoric and philosophy, phrasings and stories– these stories have to get down to the visible and mundane, the grounded, the kind of stuff small kids can see and understand.  Dorothy Day’s ragged coat, Paul Miki’s long trail of snow towards crucifixion, St. Clare’s bed for the sick.  How does God’s call invite us along a story that moves our feet and hearts, and how does God’s vision recast the reality around us?

Studying and telling stories about this cloud of witnesses, I also thought a lot about the daily lives of these kids and their families.  Establishing habits and experiencing disruptions.  Forming curiosities and discovering mysteries.  Lunches and movies and tan bark and scary cars.  Unbridled joy and depths of mourning.  I thought about how these stories might re-narrate help them hear God’s call and see God’s world.  It’s hard to expect immediate evidence.  My kid didn’t go home from one of our stories and radically reinterpret her life.  I don’t think it happens quite that way, quite that fast.  But i did think a lot about the stories i regularly read with her, ones with heroes who vanquish enemies and lovable losers who navigate and negotiate their way through existence.  Yes, those are the substance of life too.  But I’m so glad that alongside those stories, she has stories of a dawning revelation of things outside the hero’s journey that matter and last, of a larger adventure that begins before and extends well beyond an individual life, of a communion of saints who, remembered or forgotten, are known and loved by God.

‘Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption’ by Bryan Stevenson: Chapters 1-4.

 

Concerning our Justice System: This TED Talk from Bryan Stevenson, which I watched with the friends at New Hope Church in Oakland, is a great introduction to the message (and messenger) of Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy.  My first post about the book’s introduction is here.  

The abuses and racial injustices of America’s prison and policing systems sear our consciences.  Like the Black Lives Matter movement, Bryan Stevenson has a way of making those corruptions of the justice system into something human and stirring, weaving together memoir as a civil rights lawyer, stories of affected people and communities that are as compelling as any page-turner, and historical and contemporary contexts that captivate the moral imagination.
Just_Mercy_courtesy_Equal_Justice_Inititive_t670 The first four chapters bring us into the story of Walter McMillian, a wrongly convicted inmate awaiting execution in late-1980s Alabama who Stevenson represents on appeal, and whose case is a miscarriage of justice that could only happen in real-life because it’s too unbelievable for fiction.  Interspersed with his unfolding account of the story of the crime McMillian didn’t commit and the contorted, nightmarish social, criminal, legal, and penal apparatuses that bring him to death row, the author explains establishing his own legal practice defend and advocate for people like Walter, and the sounding drum for justice that motivates it.

What these chapters make clear is that Stevenson recognizes the critical vitality of being a witness.  What I mean is that his work demonstrates what happens when you fearlessly pursue what others spend their lives shielding themselves from.  He witnesses executions, and the words and stories of the people who wind up on the chair.  He is in the courtroom and he is in the cell block and he is in the church house.  And once, affectingly, he is arms-spread over the roof of his own car as a sufferer of illegal police profiling and persecution.  His work and his writing are testimonials, testimonies, shattering and stunning, but without soap-boxing, in touch with compassion and history, laced with faith and hope.  And so he is a witness in a way that convincingly bespeaks his subject with political, practical, professional, as well as prophetic credibility.

Read this book.

 

 

“Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes (2nd Edition)” by Emerson, Fritz, and Shaw (2011) Preface & Chap 1

I sometimes get asked by people who don’t know much about the kind of research I do what it entails.  In many settings I’m in, I’m an incurable note-taker, constantly writing, furiously.  What’s going on in my note-taking, they wonder, and how is it research?  Am I writing private judgments and opinions, copying every uttered word like a stenographer, drawing caricatures of people dressed up as superheroes?

Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes by Emerson, Fritz, and Shaw is a book I’ve been waiting to read, timed with the beginning of qualitative research I’m conducting for my doctorate.  (For anyone keeping count, it’s the fourth of five books I plan to read simultaneously and record on this blog, along with occasional journalism, academic articles, pieces of culture, etc.)  From my skimming, it will package up and remind me of what I learned from taking courses with and hanging around anthropologists as a graduate student, and what I have taken away as the intellectual practice of being-in-a-place and taking-notes-while-there, which I think is a theoretically important, rich, and potentially weird thing to do.

Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes by Emerson, Fritz, & Shaw (2nd ed)

The authors begin by pointing out classic works on ethnographic writing, analysis, and fieldwork (Geertz, Sanjek, etc) that, despite their import, don’t provide an organized introduction to the act of writing while in the field, or taking fieldnotes.   The authors describe very different uses and conceptions of fieldnotes in practice– how they’re done, why (or whether) they matter to the ethnographer, how organized or idiosyncratic they should be– which make it difficult to transparently discuss or teach how to do fieldnotes.

Transparency, or “making explicit the assumptions and commitments [held] about the nature of ethnography as a set of practical research and writing activities,” is the authors’ response to the different conceptions about fieldnotes specifically and  ethnography generally.  In that spirit, the authors are ethnomethodologists and symbolic interactionists, which I think gives them sensitivity to “mundane” practices that compel them to think this carefully about fieldnotes as a kind of habitual practice for ethnographers.  Their experiences teaching courses about taking fieldnotes and their imagined audience of not just ethnographers in anthropology and related fields, but also people in experiential education and service learning– those are interesting to me as a writing educator.  They talk about writing not only about the “critical incidents” one encounters “in the field,” but also the everyday practices, habits, and routines that get taken for granted, which is of course core to the ethnographical enterprise, but also important to learning and reflection for people who don’t consider themselves academic researchers.

The book’s organization is structured based on the actual processes by which takers-of-fieldnotes, including non-experts, experience them, beginning with the notetaker’s assumptions and stances, then moving to the step-by-step aspects of writing, describing, developing analyses, organizing, etc.  The first chapter begins with detailing the place of fieldnotes in ethnographic research, essentially the interconnected activities of being in the field and writing about it.  Here, the ideas of social worlds, the interactional accomplishments of everyday situations that are defined between people, and the interpreted meanings of interactions, those kinds of concepts that ethnomethodology and symbolic interactionism are concerned with, become developed between the ethnographer’s participation in the field and all that’s entailed in writing description.

Being in the field means the immersion of body, self, personality, in the social situation, not as objective outside observers, but as participants in the lives, interactions, and practices of the people studied.  Then, the ethnographer can understand the ways of thinking, the struggles, and the meanings of people in that setting.  But because of this, writing isn’t just noting what you observe and witness impartially, but working through perceptions and interpretations that you the ethnographer make.  The authors provide the examples of three different descriptions of supermarket checkout lines in LA to exemplify how “orientations and positionings” of the observers change the accounts, the representations in writing.  These show how fieldnotes involve selection, emphases, choices, filters and lenses of interpretation.

Therefore, fieldnotes involve a kind of inscription, a notion from Clifford Geertz, where the ethnographer takes “social discourse,” passing events happening in moments, and turns them into writing through a transformation, onto paper, of the events.  Selection, framing, and other reductions are involved, of course, and that’s why method matters.  What are we selecting for, looking for, viewing for?  And yet, even while defining those lenses, the ethnographer’s job is to be aware of context, details, factors, influences, all that might go into a “thick description” (Geertz again) that understanding people requires.

The four implications the authors draw: (1) data is always tied to the observational processes, and whatever the method is always the data at the same time; (2) the ethnographer is always looking for indigenous meanings, local interpretations, not imposed though mediated through the ethnographer; (3) writing fieldnotes contemporaneously is necessary, though not sufficient, to build the account, because the writing nearest to the occurrence maintains the character of contingency and specificity of the moment; and (4) the everyday activities, the mundane interactions, the microscopic moments– those are the ethnographer’s concern, with detail, attending to sequences, eventually leading to identifying processes, to document life.

The authors conclude by summing up some different takes on what’s involved when ethnographers write down the cultures and localities they’re immersed in– is it, as Geertz called it, inscription, putting into words a moment?  Or is that too much like “salvage ethnography,” the rough notion that anthropologists are about capturing and bottling up disappearing languages and heritages before they pass into extinction?  Is it narrating, translation, or “textualization,” as Clifford calls it?  Each perspective tells us something about what’s involved in fieldnotes, the authors explain, and yet none adequately parse out what’s involved in the daily “way of life” that ethnographic fieldnotes invites a researcher into.

As I said at the top, these are ideas I’ve been familiar with and have influenced me, but I appreciate the clarity and coherence with which the authors introduce ethnographic fieldnotes in the larger context of what ethnography is.  As a qualitative researcher (I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m an anthropologist or ethnographer formally, since my discipline lets me pick and choose what’s most useful and necessary to answer whatever research question), I am pretty aligned to these authors’ perspectives about research work.  There are more critical questions about research and communities that the authors haven’t taken up yet– in the “immersion” experience, we can’t forget that the farther and faster we “swim” into the waters, the more we push out waves that ripple through the ecology of the lake.  But I appreciate this refresher as I set up the infrastructures to take fieldnotes in my own work.

“A Review of the Literature on Teaching Academic English to English Language Learners” by DiCerbo, Anstrom, Baker, and Rivera

From the Review of Education Research, this literature review piece does the kind of job that makes me thankful for literature reviews, assembling and organizing the existing research within certain boundaries.  In this case, the authors, researchers at the George Washington University Center for Equity and Excellence in Education, gather research since 2000 that describes academic language, research on how it is taught, and the implications for teacher education and professional development.  It’s a valuable piece that puts together much of the research I read, a piece that I’ll share with others, and definitely cite in my work on academic English.  A rough outline of the piece, before some of my own thoughts:

I. Introduction: Language’s important in teaching/learning and schools, “hidden curriculum,” and CCSS emphasis.

II. Methodology: Marking the boundaries for inclusion in this review

III. Conceptualizations of Academic English in the Literature:

   A. Differentiates Academic vs Social English

   B. Explicates Features within and across Content Areas

      1. Vocabulary

      2. Grammar

      3. Discourse

      4. Science, Mathematics, History/Social Studies

      5. Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Math

   C. Addresses the Social Function of Language

IV. Research on Academic English Instruction

      1. Instruction in Academic Vocabulary

      2. Instruction in Grammar

      3. Classroom Discourse

V. Implications for Teacher Knowledge

VI. Conclusions and Research Priorities

My Commentary:

Like any literature review, or really any work covering extant knowledge, the authors/reviewers have to gather, select, and justify their selections.  Sometimes, that’s the most interesting part.  For example, from the paradigms of evidence these authors are working within (the piece is based on an unpublished report commissioned by the US Department of Education), they need to cite the “scarcity of research” to justify a broad inclusion of studies with different research methodologies, including quantitative and qualitative studies.  They cover empirical studies with various approaches, including linguistic studies, educational ethnographies, and even works of theory.  I’m presuming here, but with an audience sector that tends to privilege quantitative, gold-standard research, adding those notes about the inclusion of qualitative research is a necessary move.  But there is a feeling of, why should those have to be justified?  Qualitative studies are necessary to get at the depth and detail of phenomena like teaching and learning or structures like academic English.

Anyway, if I have any critiques of the piece, they aren’t ones where I would fault the authors for the shape of the review.  Instead, they would be things I’d add as I shared the piece with others in order to say, “this review covers many important perspectives well, but if you wanted to think comprehensively about the topic of ELLs and academic English, I’d also include consideration of these things.”

What are “these things?”  They’re related things: a somewhat attenuated discussion of “English Language Learner,” a little short shrift to social and cultural dimensions of both ELLs and academic English, and a few other perspectives that could have been included somehow.  Some of these oversights are a matter of a lack in the research, not in the reviewers, and some of it is alluded to in their conclusion.

First, while the article repeatedly specifies work on English Language Learners and not the general population, this seems more like a useful limiting or boundary line for a segment of work than an exploration of all that goes on under that label in relation to language.  In that sense, this review addressing “English Language Learners” is a little bit like the uses of the label itself: useful for focusing, categorizing, and specifying, but not quite ready to take on the full-blown implications of addressing the population of immigrants and children of immigrants.  The complexities of the population (which have huge impacts on their relationship to, and learning of, academic English) aren’t really discussed, and they could have cited scholars like Kate Menken, Laurie Olsen, Ofelia Garcia, Tatyana Kleyn, and many others.  Granted, those researchers may not always be doing work directly concerned with the linguistic or learning aspects of ELLs, so I can understand their omission from the review.  But some parts of education have a habit of ignoring the concrete social dimensions that both research and teacher instincts tell us have a primary role in student learning and achievement, such as whether groups of immigrant youth are isolated, overlooked, or embraced in a school community.  Like I said, if I were tasked to write a similar review, I know such considerations might end up on the cutting room floor, but when we talk about language and immigrants in pre-service and professional development training, I’d hope we have a bigger-picture conception.

The authors do have a useful section talking about the social function of language, which I notice draws heavily on the work of James Paul Gee.  I can understand why and I’ve done the same; Gee has a way of pulling together theory, research, and practice from language, literacy, and education research in very accessible, comprehensive, and still sophisticated ways.  There’s also work cited from Systemic Functional Linguistics like Halliday and others, who have done great work on academic language analysis with awareness of its social dimensions.  But I wonder about the missing perspectives from fields like language socialization (ie Patricia Duff) and sociocultural and other socially-inflected approaches to second language acquisition (although Lourdes Ortega and others within these schools are cited, but not explicitly discussed).  Again, their omission may have to do with research not directly addressing ELLs in P-12 schools and things like that, so it’s understandable.  And it’s a relevant question whether, when we talk about ELLs and academic English, we’re talking about second language acquisition, first language acquisition, or something that really busts those simplistic categories (see Ortega and folks like Ofelia Garcia for that stuff).  But really important thinking and research still left out, which I think is highly relevant to ELL education.

All of these concerns are triggers for my own work, and people familiar with my research projects (still in progress… grad student… ) will see these as familiar concerns coming from me.  But my work needs the knowledges and awarenesses from the research reviewed in DiCerbo, Anstrom, Baker, and Rivera’s piece, for which I’m grateful.

“Listen to Me Marlon”: Storytelling, Lies, and Truthfulness

marlon

Like one path winding through a woods, storytelling reveals reality, and obscures it at the same time.

“Listen to Me Marlon,” the well-reviewed documentary about Marlon Brando “in his own words” culled from hundreds of hours of audio tapes he recorded of himself, is a rumination through the actor’s biography on authenticity, acting, storytelling, and truth.  My wife and I saw it in Berkeley this weekend, and I would recommend it.

Brando is the actor who has influenced me most, even compelling me at one point in my adolescence to consider acting myself.  Watching the film walk through his major roles, I realized how many hours of my life I’d spent, re-watching On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire and The Godfather and even The Wild One and Guys and Dolls and his Caesar, his eyebrows’ tilt and rounded shoulder flickering silver on the screen, performing the pathos, the pain, and the animal prowl I seethed in as a young man.

I’d read five or six biographies of the man, but all when younger, and none put together all these disparate parts of his life– his apprenticeship with Stella Adler and association with the Actor’s Studio, his flirtations and family tragedies, the island in Tahiti, the political statements and alignment with indigenous peoples and Black Panthers, the on-set misbehavior and career self-sabotage and disdain of celebrity, the psychology– nothing had put it all together so well.  And the fillmmakers, it seems director Stevan Riley most prominently, deftly wove together bits of Brando’s own voice, sometimes a daydream, sometimes a mouthful of scorn, sometimes a melancholic reflection, along with newsreel and footage, to tell the man’s life with a convincing sense that here were the contradictions and hypocrisies, yet here was a coherent whole.

It was fascinating.  My wife found it intriguing, and she didn’t know much about Brando.  Meanwhile, I knew nearly every fact and detail, could predict how bits would play out and pay off later when they were introduced as part of his life, and yet still found the storytelling surprising and moving.

Of course, knowing all these various, separate facts about his life, and having gathered them in the haphazard fashion I did, I could maybe more readily smell the bit of fabrication, the bit of a creative reconstruction that the movie was.  Details left out, or introduced in sequences that made certain ugliness less ugly, certain fuzzy facts appear more transparent but suggestion or juxtaposition.

But that just reminded me that stories clarify, crystallize, cut through the fog and to the heart– but almost inevitably, some texture is lost in the clarity, some vitality swept away with the fog, some jaggedness smoothed over in the momentum of stories.  Brando himself seems to ponder this in relation to his own acting, the truth and lie of acting.  He seemed keenly aware, articulately so, of the lie that acting was, the lie that engaged deeply felt truths the way a Method actor does, but a kind of truthiness.  He was aware of himself and the Hollywood system he rebelled against as lies, and spent his life inhabiting it and fleeing it at the same time.  The way the movie tells it, he achieves a peace with that lie, a reconciliation with the possibility that the little bit of falsity and flight of escape that a movie can provide, the being transported when clouded by depression, that it was beautiful, worthwhile, something significant for him to be part of.

Indeed, the documentary itself is a nice harmonization that renders Brando’s life with much of the nobility that made me admire it when I was young, and now quite a bit as an older person, slightly wizened, wondering a little bit myself the worth of devoting life to stories/lies and reality/truth, and of course, questioning that simplistic dichotomy at every turn.  Brando isn’t nakedly romanticized, I think, and he comes across as complicated, unresolved, and sometimes insidious.  But mostly, heroic for the vast life he lived.  And of course, that’s both truth and a fabrication.