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

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