Approaches for Co-constructing Literacies Research with Young People in Arts Practice and Collaborative Ethnography

Dr Kate Pahl (University of Sheffield) came to ESRI to present a work in progress relating to co-producing research and arts projects with young people. At the beginning, Kate expressed her desire to share with us what did not go well with the research, the complicated and messy details of research that academic presentations, papers and books tend to leave out. The relationship between the research and subsequent representation was a matter of concern for Kate.  She wondered whether beautiful research outputs misrepresented the complex, banal and ugly moments encountered in the research.

The presentation was based on a number of research projects Kate has undertaken in, a place she is obsessed with, Herringthorpe, in Rotherham. Her research approach is ethnographic and the focus of the research is collaborative or co-produced arts-based projects.  The aim of the research was to provide opportunities for young people to make changes in their lives and community.

The research adopted a literary slant, exploring language and representation, and sources and forms of knowledge.  In Social Parks Kate and her colleagues focused on how people in Herringthorpe used, interpreted, discussed and related to the local park.  The focus was on what knowledge resides in the park?  The research team treated the park as a ‘new’ space where community members ‘materialised language’ in local dialects and idioms, through rap, poetry and stories.  The research produced a number of research outputs, including the Reunion book – the touching story of one of the children’s nana as a fire warden in World War II – and a video about the local park.

In the SParks video academics and local residents talked about the park.  The general tone was laudatory and positive yet it was broadly reminiscent of a corporate promotional video, a blur of smiling faces and everyday people offering uncontroversial remarks. Kate found the video troubling and agreed with Harry Torrance when he described it as a banal and conservative representation of radical research.

A standout question from Kate’s presentation was how to maintain the radical nature of research both in the research process but also when communicating the findings? Typical media and formats for research are academic papers and presentations or research communication videos in pursuit of ‘impact’. There is a question whether these are suitable for the radical aims of Kate’s research? What are the alternative and radical ways of communicating research? Are these the rap songs and poems of the young people, performed in the community or published online? Or can academics also find radical ways to communicate research, ones that do not obscure, simplify or deny the reality from which they emerged?

We’d like to thank Kate Pahl for taking the time to come to ESRI to share her work with us.

James Duggan

Relationships with Theory 5 – Janet Batsleer

Here, as part of our ‘Relationships with Theory’ series, Janet Batsleer describes what she’s learned from a lifetime with theory,

Theory, huh?  It used to feel like a privilege. Now, as I live the life of a teacher and manager mostly, it can feel like a hobby/recreation.  (Something for the weekend. I’m writing this on Sunday).  Still I’m writing it because Social Theory (never credited for reasons of academic boundaries as Philosophy!) has long irritated and excited me, angered me and given me headaches.  An early book to hit the wall was ‘For Marx’ by Althusser. (How could the human be as diminished as he seemed to suggest, a mere effect of systems?); later on ‘When our two lips speak’ by Luce Irigaray (wasn’t this account of difference some flowery genital essentialism?); and ‘Gender Trouble’ by Judith Butler (OK, so argue your way out of a paper bag and show that ‘woman’ is a category of the heterosexual matrix, but I am still drawn to women…)…

At times such obscure difficult writers seemed arrogantly lacking in the urgent attention I felt was needed to the sufferings and troubles created by a patriarchal capitalist racist system the world badly needs to rid of.

Now I recognise that the theorists who have irritated and even angered me are among those who have been most creative for my own thinking/practice. So yes I want Theory which unsettles and provokes, offends even (Maclure, Adorno, Butler) as well as Theory which moves and changes as lives do, as histories do (Brown, Stuart Hall perhaps,) but I also want Theory which gives me concepts (a level of abstraction) as tools which help me understand power and perhaps how to change the world.  The Marxism/ psycho-analysis pairing was for many years offered as a fantasy of Total Theory/ Total Explanation.  That’s a seductive and scary place still (Zizek: all those post-Hegelians); a trick that offers to set in perpetual motion all three of my desires from Theory.  But better than seeking a synthesis, I enjoy the friction of the three ‘moments of theory’… it’s why I enjoy being around ESRI and this blog… and I prefer to draw on the resources of critical theory to support hunches and imaginations, suggest directions for practicing otherwise, being (a very small) part of movements away from injustice and suffering towards heteropias to be named only in their creation.

Relationships with Theory 4 – Dr. Nicola Whitton

Thus far in the ‘Relationships with Theory’ series we have had insights from Tony Brown, Cathie Pearce and Maggie MacLure.

In this post Dr. Nicola Whitton describes how she uses theory:

For me, theory is about trying to better understand the complexities of the world, and the multiple perspectives that lie within it. It’s not simply trying to explain or predict, but a tool with which to explore the different ways in which the world might be conceived. In this respect, theory is an abstraction of reality, or rather an abstraction of many different realities, but I don’t see that, in itself, as problematic. The issue for me is about how we use theory, or what we believe it can do for us, not in its essence.

My work comes predominantly from a social constructivist perspective, influenced by theories such as Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, Wenger’s Communities of Practice, and Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory. For me, theory is a way of abstracting, of simplifying, of challenging, of offering differing perspectives, of representing in different terms (I think the ‘visual’ is very important), and of providing a basis upon which to critically interrogate a phenomenon.  Theory is not just a way of understating ‘what is’, but a starting point for considering ‘what might be’ and ‘what should be’.

Abuse, Fear and Moral Panic: Children, Teachers and Carers at Risk

Heather Piper’s Professorial Lecture 2012 – ‘Abuse, Fear and Moral Panic: Children, Teachers and Carers at Risk’

Addressing an audience of academics, practitioners, students and researchers, Prof. Heather Piper gave a thought provoking insight into some of her work in the Assembly Hall at Didsbury on Tuesday 6th November.

Child abuse, and the subsequent fear that the subject engenders, has become particularly resonant in recent years. With this as a motivating factor, Heather’s investigations have revealed the extent to which preventative measures have been motivated by a cumulative climate of concern and mistrust, combining to elicit reactionary panic amongst the public and at the same time undermine and overshadow any genuine problems. Discursive narratives have stoked the fires of this now widespread anxiety, as adults that work with children are categorised as potential abusers whose predatory motives are realised by their position of conceptual power. In reality however, notions like this serve to marginalise such workers, as they are regulated, checked and vetted at every opportunity, guilty until proven innocent. Heather offered (genuine!) empirical examples from both educational and sports coaching contexts that highlight some of the measures that have been implemented in the name of this very topical ‘safeguarding’:

  • The ‘sideways hug’ has been encouraged, if a hug is itself unavoidable, eschewing its frontal and therefore sexualised equivalent.
  • Teachers and coaches should avoid being alone with a child and a door must be left open if such an interaction does take place, allowing colleagues to monitor one another, thereby collaboratively perpetuating this environment of mistrust.
  • Minor first aid is often left up to the children themselves, as children as young as four have been asked to apply their own plasters.
  • Assistance with sun cream is also discouraged as the rubbing in of lotion becomes deeply problematic in a system that advocates default suspicion.
  • British gymnastics have devised can touch/no touch charts in which the body of a child is, somewhat grotesquely, divided up into areas where touch and support is or is not appropriate.

It is the last example in particular which points to a deeply troubling preoccupation with the desexualisation of contact between adult and child. The mere fact that such guidance has emerged is itself evidence of a relentless cycle of self-doubt, in which the adult subversively becomes dependant on individual protection from the damaging spectre of accusation, irreversibly distorting the ‘protection’ of the child. This distortion has been further exemplified as vetting procedures target sports coaches of increasingly younger age. It seems as though this culture of suspicion has taken a rather bizarre turn as adolescents themselves, once characterised as a ‘vulnerable’ group here, are being exposed to an all-encompassing system of disproportionately levelled interrogation.

Heather went on to present the harrowing tale of a male schoolteacher who was accused of sexual abuse. The situation arose during a PTA meeting in which some parents expressed concern about the way in which this teacher made contact with his pupils. This general disquiet then seemed to escalate as what appeared to be conjecture rapidly turned into concrete accusation. Although the charges were based on largely dubious evidence, the teacher was found guilty of 16 counts of sexual abuse. He spent time in prison and on his release a lengthy case ensued as he attempted to clear his name. He of course lost his job, his dignity and his confidence and was forced to rely on benefits. At his lowest ebb he contemplated suicide as there seemed little hope of restitution. Eventually the charges were dropped however the damage was effectively done. It was clear that this man was neither a paedophile nor a sexual predator but he would be forever associated with child abuse because of a discursive system that thrives on lascivious attachment.

There is an inherent bravery in taking on a subject of such contemporary sensitivity. The possibility of backlash is readily apparent and Heather mentioned this in her concluding remarks. It is important to look beyond the fact that this approach is one of dissidence, as we attempt to realign thinking that has led to the unnecessary defamation of the innocent and ultimately endangers children further. This is an issue that needs significant investigation and Heather’s work has enabled the initiation of a dialogue that attempts to address a discourse that has been transcendentally damaging.

Simon Fletcher


Using Hannah Arendt to think about Research and Reform in Education

How might we resist the ‘banality of thoughtlessness’ that pervades education management, and education in general? Is it possible, as Hannah Arendt demanded, to ‘think without a banister’? 

In this Wednesday’s ESRI research seminar, Professor Helen Gunter of Manchester University gave an eloquent and impassioned critique of education management and policy, based on her recent study of the work of Hannah Arendt. Arguing that our schools are being taken away from us by privatisation, with the residualisation of basic skills for those who cannot afford to pay, Professor Gunter posed the question of why we seem to feel unable to resist. Do we belong amongst those who ‘say nothing or leave’ when faced with systemic social injustice, and thereby perpetrate what Arendt called ‘passive evil’?

Talking about her previous and current research into the practices and discourses of educational leadership, Professor Gunter identified a ‘banality of leadership’ that transforms disciplinary and practical knowledge into empty activity. The result is, she suggested, a condition akin to Arendt’s definition of totalitarianism, with characteristics such as the construction of fictitious worlds (ie schools), the practice of ‘total terror’ that blames the innocent and silences dissent, the destruction of social bonds, and a powerful bureaucracy that hides behind ‘front organisations’ such as, here, the National College of School Leadership.

Professor Gunter’s presentation sparked a lively discussion about the severity of the current condition, and the challenges facing those who want to resist. We may not have measured up to Arendt’s demand to ‘think without a banister’, but we were definitely provoked and stimulated to think differently about current dilemmas. Fortunately, we will be able to learn more about Professor Gunter’s adventures with Hannah Arendt in her forthcoming book, to be published in 2013.

Maggie MacLure

Relationships with Theory 3 – Prof. Maggie MacLure

For our third instalment of ‘Relationships with Theory’ (read the explanation and read the first one here and second one here) we take another look at how an academic has come to use particular theories and how they understand these decisions.

This time it’s the turn of Prof. Maggie MacLure:

My comments aren’t so much about why I’ve chosen a particular theory/theorist – though my current influence is Deleuze – but more about why theory is important. I’ve already written about this, so my response is to blatantly quote myself:

“[T]he value of theory lies in its power to get in the way: to offend and interrupt. We need theory to block the reproduction of the bleeding obvious, and thereby, hopefully, open new possibilities for thinking and doing […] Theory stops us from forgetting, then, that the world is not laid out in plain view before our eyes, or coyly disposed to yield its secrets to our penetrating analyses. It stops us from thinking that things speak for themselves – ‘the data’, ‘practice’, the pure voice of the previously silenced. It blocks our fantasies about the legibility of others – the idea that we can read other people’s minds or motives. It stops us from forcing ‘the subjects’ out into the open where anyone and no-one can see them […] This is a political as well as a methodological imperative. Theory is needed to interrupt the specious clarity demanded and enforced by audit cultures, whose workings could be summarized as the bureaucratic administration of banality (MacLure 2005) […]

This kind of theory doesn’t aspire to generalisation, abstraction or the condensation of complexity into categories or themes. It doesn’t ‘slide home like a bolt’, as Nigel Thrift puts it, locking its objects into the confined space of its explanations. The kind of theory I have in mind defamiliarises, complicates, obstructs, perverts, proliferates. It is the sort of theory that goes under such names as poststructuralism, postmodernism, or deconstruction […] Often capitalised as “Theory”, and frequently placed in scare quotes, it has always been offensive.”

From MacLure, M. (2010) “The offence of theory”. Journal of Education Policy, 25, 2: 277-286  online here



Relationships with Theory 2 – Dr. Cathie Pearce

For our second instalment of ‘Relationships with Theory’ (read the explanation and read the first one here) we take another look at how an academic has come to use particular theories and how they understand these decisions.

Dr. Cathie Pearce offers her point of view:

I’m not sure I have ‘chosen’ theories and theorists as such.  It’s not like they are just books on a shelf, words on a page that can be selected or chosen in the way that I might make a choice about what I’m having for dinner.  We use theory all the time – we can’t get out of bed in the morning without having a theory of some kind (well discounting this morning that is because I fell over the dog!) so accidents and everydayness apart, we have to build meanings with words and we have been doing that since time immemorial.  Theorists, philosophers and well known people do not have a monopoly on theory, they just do more of it!

So to come back to the question of choice – what exactly am I choosing?  A person, a book, a set of ideas?  And if for most us, most of the time, we have already made a choice before we choose (if we listen to some neuroscientists and philosophers) then perhaps theory is also about what lurks between the imperceptible and an imperative.  Deleuze is certainly interested in that so I might ‘choose’ to go and read what he has to say.  Theory offers imagination, irony and invention – invention of new forms of experience.  It is not just or even about explanations.  But not any theory will do. It has to be put to work and that depends on what needs to be done and undone.

“As soon as one can no longer think things as one formerly thought them, transformation becomes both very urgent, very difficult and quite possible” Foucault (1988: 154)

“The answer is always the question’s vitality” Blanchot (1982:9)



‘Beauty’, ‘generosity’ and some other words we don’t often hear

I’m prompted by Mike Neary’s recent talk at the ESRI seminar to say something about words we don’t hear used often enough in relation to education and learning. At one point in his talk about ‘student as producer’ and the Social Science Centre at Lincoln (read about the talk here) Mike referred to a learning encounter he had been involved in which was characterised by ‘beauty’ and ‘generosity. For me, those two words instantly conjured a very different world to the one of targets, ambition, standards, competition, choice, selection and so on that we currently occupy.  So I got me to dreamin’ …

And came up with some more: joy, wonder, gentleness, ease, curiosity, play, surprise, novelty, delight, freedom, soul … and, of course, the ‘L’ word

The ‘L’ word? Yes, ‘love’. Freire made no bones about it in Pedagogy of the Oppressed: “The naming of the world, which is an act of creation and re-creation, is not possible if it is not infused with love. Love is at the same time the foundation of dialogue and dialogue itself”

Oh, and as Mike reminded us, there’s ‘beauty’ and ‘generosity’.

So that’s my two pennorth, anyway. What about anyone else? What words do you think are too often absent from the contemporary lexicon of learning?

Geoff Bright