History -- The Road Less TakenIn 1971 I was a graduate student at Northwestern University, starting my third year towards a PhD. I had passed my qualifying exams, and my dissertation proposal was accepted. I planned to study education by using quantitative methods to observe changes in dependent variables resulting from the manipulation of independent variables in an experimental group of subjects. To test the significance of any changes observed, I would compare these dependent variables with those of a control group. I had just received a full fellowship for my third year of study, and was one of 12 students selected by the Graduate school as an NU Scholar. I was on the academic onramp to the Quantitative Research Interstate.
The NU Scholars met every Monday for dinner and conversation. Five NU Scholars were in physics. In our early meetings faculty from the physics department, and visiting physics professors from around the world, joined us and made brief presentations about quantum physics. I was stunned by the vision of "reality" that they described. They were disolving the surface of the skin of "reality" that had seemed so solid to me. They were imagining the nature of particles, impossibly tiny, deep within invisible (to my eye) atoms. The solid world around me was actually jumping with energy, way beneath the blinders of my narrow vision. By comparison, the work that I was doing seemed like a contrivance inside an artificial world view that modeled reality as a machine. It began to seem to me that I was creating a false world I could control, rather than learning to see a complicated, emergent reality that constantly manifested moment to moment.
Was there another way to study education? Yes, there was. Another NU Scholar was an anthropologist. I learned that some educators were working to adapt ethnographic methods to the study of education using culture as a metaphor. It was not a perfect fit to quantum physics. Yet it offered fascinating approaches to understanding human society. I was introduced to two anthropologists who opened the door for me. Paul Bohannan, who would become president of the American Anthropological Association, became interested in education when he saw his son's American History textbook. The absence of many cultural groups from this official history, and the scant representation of First People in particular, led him to work with a publisher to write a more complete US history. He encouraged my interest in using anthropological methods to study education. His wife Laura became my mentor. Her novel, Return to Laugher (written under the pseudonym Elenore Smith Bowen) drew me in when she described the most concrete technical advice she received from her mentor at Oxford, before going to study the Tiv in Nigeria. Bring cheap tennis shoes, the water runs out of them better. What could be farther from the tight definitions and measurements I was imposing on my experimental design? Could education be studied from the perspective of culture, individuality, and community? I was enthralled by a research method that was open ended, that studied the world as it is, and valued a research situation that was naturally occurring. Most alluring was the role of researcher as unobtrusive and respectful, rather than controlling and intervening.
I began to realize that connection might work to scaffold inquiry. By implication, there is no such thing as an independent variable, when doing research in a naturally occurring environment. In the real world, an element you try to isolate as independent and manipulate to change is still a dependent variable, responding continually to complex situations.
Eventually I met with my dissertation advisor to change my dissertation topic. Dr. Roy Wood came with me to the NU Scholars, and I explained to him that I wanted to go in a new direction. He listened carefully and gave me his permission. But he very seriously explained that if I did this, I would never get a job. He was right, but not completely. I have never looked back.
Searching for methods for doing a different kind of research, I was excited when my department opened a video lab for research. I loved the idea of making a video record, and being able to revisit and study an event. We worked on questioning strategies for teachers. We trained people to use different kinds of questions (fact, probing, etc.) and videotaped them when they role played as teacher-student dyads. The idea was to expand the teacher's ability to engage students with different kinds of questions so as to widen the nature of classroom discourse. I spent many hours working the cameras, struggling with cords and tripods to get the shots I wanted.
About this time, Edward Hall arrived at Northwestern as a visiting professor. I enrolled in his class, and borrowed his 8mm film camera to experience using a camera with portability. On Sunday morning I went to a church near my apartment, and from the street filmed parishioners as they left the service. I saw them greeting the pastor and one another. As I played the footage back again and again in a small viewer outside his office, I saw more and more of the nuance in human behavior. I looked for a way to use this tool in research. His book, The Silent Language, inspired me to look at silence as a variable of culture. Eventually I did a study of silence during teacher led discussions in a high school classroom, and compared these data to the laboratory data I had collected on the same topic. The natural data opened a new avenue for thinking about teacher led discussion, by factoring in silence as a pause to give students time to respond to questions, and to allow more time for the verbal pause as students spoke and paused and began to speak again. We began to allow students more time to process and consider a response to a question, as well as considering the prompt provided by the teacher. I wanted to find more ways to document events, and return to them for study and reflection. A moment of occurrence is just too rapid to be fully absorbed.
My dissertation was published as an article in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence as "Models of adulthood: An ethnographic study of an adolescent peer group," by Cynthia Porter-Gehrie. I used traditional field research, qualitative methods for my dissertation.
I did get a position at the University of Illinois-Chicago in the Department of Policy Studies in the College of Education. I was methodologist on an ethnographic study team on Urban School Principalship. I shadowed principals during the school day, making detailed field notes which were transcribed into field data. Numerous conference presentations, journal articles and a book, Principals in Action-The Reality of Managing Schools, flowed from this project. It was the first systematic study of the principal's job in an urban school system (Chicago Public Schools.) I learned volumes about how to document in school settings, and gained a broad perspective on the school as a complex organization. But I felt that the real juice of these experiences was leaking out of the research container. I did not have a tool that could capture and hold what was happening in the field.
By the time the book was published, research funds in Education were deeply cut. The system of research in education eventually bought in to quantitative research as the only acceptable research method. The experimental method now rules the kingdom.
I entered the world of public service. I served as parent administrator for my children's parent run pre-school. When my children were in primary school, I documented innovative teacher's projects using writing centers, computers, and the Reggio Emilia approach to learning. I learned to use a computer and author multimedia documents. I used photography to create documentation reports for not-for-profit groups such as The Kohl Children's Museum and the Illinois Nature Conservancy. As co-chair of the League of Women Voters for Winnetka-Kenilworth-Northfield, IL I worked to organize community education field visits and canoe tours for rennovation of the Skokie Lagoons. We also sponsored a community meeting on deer control at the Chicago Botanic Garden. The Friends of the Chicago River, which includes the Skokie Lagoons, gave me the "Spirit of the River" award.
Simultaneously, in the early 1990s, full video portability became both available and affordable. When it finally arrived, the Sony TR3 camcorder was lightweight, had portable and rechargeable batteries that fit into the camera (not on a heavy hip belt), a "steady hand" feature so that the image was stable, recorded on durable Hi-8 cassettes, and produced a strong image that was viewable on VHS tape. I spent two years as an intern at the Earth Network in Highland Park, IL, where I worked my way from writer, to producer, to camera work, and finally to editor, creating shorts for local tv broadcast.
My first independent production was for the Chicago Park District, The Park in my Neighborhood. It documented the training and performance of a group of neighborhood children serving as tour guides for visitors attending the opening of a musical production in a renovated outdoor theater. It was screened at the Chicago Historical Society to an overflowing audience.