Ethnography, authentic inquiry, and As If Learning Mattered

For the last few weeks of orals reading, conversations with colleagues and students, and general grad studenting, passages of Richard Miller’s As If Learning Mattered keep popping up in my mind like new vocabulary words that I’ve heard once and now suddenly see everywhere.

This one, namely:

…research on educational history has been further constrained by a profound sense of “embarrassment” about how little is actually known about the implementation of educational principles, and about what was taught and what was learned. To probe beyond the central, most visible documents of debate, legislation, and public policy only further exacerbates this sense of embarrassment since probing of this kind inevitably reveals that there is no necessary or direct correlation between what gets said about education and what actually happens in the schools” (17).

Last semester, I did a lot of thinking about method|methodology and about the project of studying human beings and human behavior. As a shy humanist with training (and a sense of comfort) working with texts instead of with people, and as a person who reads most ethnographic accounts (or, really, any research involving people and interpretations of human behavior) with a heavy dose of skepticism and a bit of a gross feeling, I spent a large chunk of my research methodologies class feeling very conflicted about what I was hearing (and probably overly vocal about this fact…)

I didn’t object on the grounds that I think that ethnographies can’t be “objective” or that what academic research is aiming for is some sense of objectivity, of course. I’m firmly disinterested in “objectivity” as any kind of authentic goal for research, and I’m suspicious of any project that doesn’t make almost over-the-top qualifications about all of the reasons that what the researcher reports (and what is obscured) is shaped by his or her own identity, place in history and time, culture, etc. etc. And in some ways, a method|methodology that we studied — authentic inquiry — is an attempt to do this qualifying. Students are “co-researchers” instead of subjects. Interpretations are interpretations rather than facts. Things change. Generalizability is called into question. The method | methodology invokes William Sewell’s idea of “thin coherence” in which discernible “patterns” are contingent and contestable classifications that speak only for that local context at a specific moment in time (defining “moment” as a millisecond rather than a decade or a day). A journal article is like a photograph of a moment rather than a proclamation of The Way Things Are And Shall Remain.

I really think that this is the best that we can hope to do, and it still gives me pause.

How can anyone’s account of what is happening and why actually tell us anything other than something about the person who is accounting it? How can educational research ever be anything but “me-search,” and why should we pretend that it is? It’s not, by the way, that I think there’s anything inherently wrong with “me-search.” I think it’s an extraordinarily valuable exercise in faculty development, and I happen to think that faculty development is extraordinarily important despite the academy’s insistence on undervaluing it.

But, like a teaching philosophy or a statement of purpose, the practice of research writing feels so much more falsely stable to me than we seem to pretend that it is. This tension, then, that Miller notices between “what gets said” and “what happens” in schools feels impossible to resolve.

I think this is what draws me to textual or cultural criticism. This is ultimately why I’m still in an English program, despite the fact that sometimes it feels like the department doesn’t really know what to do with Comp Rhet students. Literary criticism always starts with the premise that the critic is not “reporting” what “happened” as much as she is interpreting a version of what happened based on what she was able to observe, and that ability is shaped inherently by the critic’s identity. So, a movie critic’s job isn’t to say “this is what happened in this movie” as much as it is to say “here is a way to think about what happened in this movie, and here is why I liked it or didn’t.” The point is to make interpretive, debatable claims. And in the ecosystem of criticism, it is this conversation and critics being in conversation that forms the methodology. This is a process that is not possible in quite the same way when the “text” is a human being, since only the people who are in the room can really comment on what they interpreted to happen when they were in the room. Right?

I digress enormously…

The reason that I’m thinking about all of these things in relation to Miller is to balance his claim that no one is studying what students and teachers say against his claim in Chapter 5 that “the ethnographic approach always embodies the author’s attempt to control the rebellion of the material, and the outcome is always a visible, suspicious, often clumsy attempt to master the material and make it behave” (191). When we study something, we categorize it, we make generalizations about it, we make a theory of the case: even if our methods are rigorous, and skeptical of absolutism or even generalizability. We do these things not to suggest some sense of capital-T Truth to the reader but to make claims, and to make our data legible as evidence of those claims.

But how do we actually measure “what happens in schools?” Miller measures it by archival materials: “textbooks and book collections produced by educators alongside their reforms, personal accounts of the educators’ teaching practices, moments when educators quote students in their texts, and, in one case, course evaluations” (21). Why do these things tell us “what happens in schools,” though? Why do we think that students — who have been told that good learning happens in very particular ways, and that certain things should happen in schools and others shouldn’t — would be any better judges of “what happens in schools” than someone who may have formally studied the way that people learn or than someone who have had more access to many models of ways of knowing? How do personal accounts of educators’ teaching practices (told from the vantage point of the educators in question) tell us about how students perceived the same event discussed in these accounts, or how parents would, or how employers would, or how other teachers would? What does an analysis of textbooks tell us, other than something about the biases and ideological lenses of the person analyzing them?

To me, it feels like the conversation between teacher, student, other researchers (and perhaps outsiders) is what might produce a valuable set of contradictory and complementary readings. But this is not the way that dissertation work is done; it’s not how journal articles are written or how conference papers materialize. This is not ethnography, really.

We work as siloed, specialist experts who produce things that other siloed, specialist experts read.

We critique or analyze things instead of making them.

We mean “a contingent, temporally specific snapshot version of ‘what happened’ interpreted through a very specific and ideologically blinded human lens” when we say “what happened.”

We do me-search.

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