One of the great gifts this spring has been the opportunity to sit down and talk with brilliant, insightful people and just have the time to explore ideas together. Last week Cathy Burnett generously made time to talk with me and I learned so much in our conversation together. We were talking about student literacy practices, but particularly about how factors of embodiment, emotion, technology, community, physical space, institutional power – among other things – all swirl about and figure in to how people read and write (or don’t read and write). We kept coming around to two particular questions. We can know that all of these factors – and more – shape literacy practices and perceptions of agency at any given moment, yet how do we understand which of these factors is most at play in that moment? What’s more, even if we begin to understand what is happening, how do we write about it?
Both questions are ones I have been struggling with this spring, but the second one was one Cathy and I were particularly wrestling with. The problem with writing about research is that it so often flattens out the multiple phenomenon taking place into a singular, straightforward narrative. One reason for this is that the research itself can sometimes be focused fairly narrowly. But, even if a researcher is trying to take into account multiple forces and multiple perspectives in a setting and set of events, the linear nature of writing tends to peel away the multiple possibilities and imply a focused, linear, cause-and-effect explanation for what is being written about. As Gunther Kress and others have noted, the nature of print literacy, by moving us through one work after another, pushes us toward linearity, toward cause-and-effect thinking.
Is there a way to disrupt the way writing about research pushes us toward this way of thinking, or representing events and people? Could the affordances of digital media help us to create multimodal texts where video, image, sound, and words can reflect more fully the multiple factors at play? Should we be creating installations more than writing articles? But, then, how are those texts or installations available for people to access? Or to store? Or, can we write from multiple perspectives, multiple theoretical stances, about the same moment, perhaps even coming to different conclusions that disrupt an inclination to come too easily to simply, linear explanations for what we see? Would writing in multiple genres, as Tom Romano has long advocated, help us disrupt singular arguments and encourage us to pay attention to gaps in thinking, to emotions, to contradictions? Is there a Rashomon for researchers that will help us do for writing about research what such approaches have done for literature and film? And what does all of this imply for how I’m going to approach writing about my current research?
Thanks, Cathy. All this and so much more to think about.