About three years ago, I was working in our local Writing Project office putting returned books on the shelf. Ways with Words stuck out to me as I shelved books on revision in high school classrooms, conferencing with elementary school students and teaching ethnography in first year writing. My friend and fellow Writing Project teacher, Sally Griffin, who had been studying mills in Gastonia, North Carolina, had mentioned this book to me multiple times. Standing at the bookcase with an odd moment after facilitating a professional development workshop and before my graduate class, I picked up the book and realized that this was about young children, their families and literacy. Flipping through the beginning pages I saw Piedmont and South Carolina and stowed the book in my backpack.
This was the summer that my child was one year old. I can remember one day sitting with him in the sagging recliner chair we liked to nurse in, with smart phone off to the side and book thrown open on the armrest. While Luke gulped down milk, I tried to swallow back my academic romanticism as I read about somebody else in the world thinking about young children and their words as vital to literacy or cultural studies. I didn’t know then about Foucault’s power/knowledge or the possibilities of reflexive research. I read Shirley Brice Heath calling a two year old child’s street talk poetry and making it central to her academic analysis. That this book was on the Writing Project shelf along with all of the books written by and for teachers of older students, gave me some idea that my work too could have some place in the conversation.
With Ways with Words published in the early 80’s a shift in the conversation of qualitative research started happening. Heath studied the ways young children, their families and schools in mill towns in South Carolina constructed ideas of literacy. She built relationships with people in the communities she names as “Roadville” and “Trackton” and spent in depth time in each place, participating and documenting daily life with her gaze particularly bent toward language and meanings. Kamberelis and Dimitriadis (2004) mark this work as a turn toward interpretive qualitative research, where meaning was seen as locally and socially constructed.
Kamberelis and Dimitriadis go on to talk about other shifts in possibilities in qualitative research theories of practice. While I am framing my research in the chronotope, Power/Knowledge and Defamiliarization, which they associate with post-modern and post-structural theory, I am winding over to my thinking about Heath in this post because her work is connected to my history as researcher of young children and to my current approach, critical post-modern as it attempts to be.
In 1983 when Shirley Brice Heath was participating (though she didn’t write it up that way) in mill village communities in the Piedmont, I was four years old in another mill town a few counties away in the same state. From my grandmother’s house on Smith Avenue, we would often take the winding narrow road through the “mill hill” to town rather than going up to the stoplight to Main Street. On the far end of Smith Avenue, away from the “mill hill” my grandmother often pointed out to me the now flat corner where the big Smith House used to stand. I think I was in high school when my Papa mentioned to me that his granddaddy had owned all this land, all these houses from Smith Avenue all the way along the rail road toward the mill. And though my family had moved over the years into other kinds of work, mostly teaching, I remember feeling embarrassed with the idea that my family had held this ownership status.
My history of white and class privilege is intertwined with my history as an early childhood worker and as a woman in complicated ways that have interesting implications for any work I take on as a researcher. Kirsch and Ritchie (1995) call for including and theorizing narrative within research as ethical practice to collapse illusions of objectivity toward multiplicity of perspectives. I’m down with this thinking, and beyond showing the multiplicity of myself, I want to figure research participants as subjects, and narrate with them the tensions of their identities in the way that others have (Hull, et al, 1991; Trainor, 2008). Like Cintron’s ethnographic work in Angels Town (1997), I want to show the collision between identities, location power structures from which no perfect multiplicity or dialogic escape is possible.
Cintron, R. (1997). Angels Town: Chero ways, gang life and the rhetoric of everyday. Beacon Press.
Heath, S. B. (1983). Ways with words: Language, life and work in communities and classrooms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hull, G., Rose, M., Fraser, K.L., Castellano, M. (1991). Remediation as social construct: Perspectives from an analysis of classroom discourse. College Composition and Communication, 42, 299 – 329.
Kamberelis, G. & Dimitriadis, G. (2004). On qualitative inquiry: Approaches to language and literacy research. NY: Teachers College Press.
Kirsch, G.E. & Ritchie, J.S. (1995). Beyond the personal: Theorizing a politics of location in composition research. College Composition and Communication, 46, 7 – 29.
Trainor, J.S. (2008). The emotioned power of racism: An ethnographic portrait of an all-white high school. College Composition and Communication, 60, 82 – 112.