miércoles, 26 de noviembre de 2014

The Art of Research in Times of Crisis

(Remember that life is too fragile to be scared.
Just close your eyes and let your feelings fly away)

Empirical educational research tends to follow certain established steps and processes: initial ideas begin to take shape, the project is consolidated, a budget is planned, funds are obtained (if one is lucky enough), contact is established with schools, necessary permissions are obtained, including research ethics, a research schedule is set up and finally, one can start! We know there is a lot of work to do and that, inevitably, there will be problems and obstacles (students miss the sessions because they have band or football practice, materials are lost, the recorder stops working, a student has moved to another school…) but we also know that everything will be solved gradually, that a project develops organically and that there will be exciting and significant moments and discoveries. However, what we do not usually expect is an event of such magnitude that it envelops all the participants, researchers, teachers and students and which transforms the atmosphere and even the results of the research.

I’m referring to the current situation of crisis in Mexico, especially since the atrocity committed against the young students, aspiring teachers, on the 26th of September. This event, which was an attack on youth, education and ideals, was the final straw, or as we say in Spanish, the last drop that made the cup overflow, a cup in this case already full of injustice and violence resulting from corruption and from the collusion of the authorities with the criminal world. The students from the secondary schools we are working with are not unfamiliar with the insecurity that affects all Mexicans, but the disappearance and probable massacre of the students of Ayotzinapa has heightened their fears and anxieties about their own future.

The objective of the reading workshops we are carrying out as part of the research is to obtain reading experiences through strategies that can be transformed into methods to be used not only in the classroom but also in reading circles, libraries or other spaces where young people encounter books. The researchers have been using a methodology derived from reader response studies within an empirical qualitative research framework which implies certain ethical norms and a certain attitude and behaviour on the part of the researcher. In other words, we are trying to collect the most “authentic” readers responses possible, although it is evident that, from the start, reader response is the result of a multitude of factors, individual and collective, which affect the spaces and moments of the study. However, as a researcher, one tries to have the least impact on the response, allowing the readers to take their own paths in terms of their comments, questions and observations. A question guide helps to maintain a certain structure and direction but it is preferable to follow the thread of the conversation as it emerges from the text under discussion.

Books, as we all know, have the possibility of arousing a variety of emotions and thoughts and adolescents, as we all know, find themselves at a stage in life where all of these easily surface. These thoughts and emotions come through, inevitably, when they feel there is a comfortable space to talk about their reading. What to do then, when the conversation begins to turn to their tribulations, fears and anxieties? A girl reveals that, just as in the graphic novel we read, Justicia Divina, she would not be afraid of the “Llorona” (the spectre of a grieving woman who, legend has it, murdered her children) because there are real things that frighten her more; a boy tells us he often feels he lives in a different reality, like the protagonist of the novel we are just beginning to read (Memorias de Idhun, by Laura Gallego); another boy tells us about a story he read where a teenager has a difficult relationship with his mother and at that moment his eyes fill with tears; other female students tell us they are afraid, afraid of becoming victims of violence against women, as in the picturebook by Frisch and Innocenti; several refer to the events in Ayotzinapa.

Reading and living cannot be separated. We cannot remain objective and impassive when readers tell us their stories and feelings. Above all, we cannot do this if we also find ourselves within the nightmare which this country is living. Nor can we separate our role as researchers from the events that are happening and from the lives of the students with whom we have spent time during this project. Sometimes one asks what sense there is in collecting and analyzing data, writing papers, giving conferences, at a time when the country is being shaken by events. We ask ourselves if it what we do is really that important, if reading and talking about literature with just a handful of the millions of young people in this country is of any use to anyone.

But we should remember the words of the renown anthropologist of reading, Michèle Petit, author de El arte de la lectura en tiempos de crisis (The art of reading in times of crisis) (Oceano, México 2008), words which are based on real experiences in similar contexts of crisis:
En contextos de crisis, la literatura nos da otro lugar, otro tiempo, otra lengua, una respiración. Se trata de la apertura de un espacio que permite la ensoñación, el pensamiento, y que da ilación a las experiencias. Una crisis es como una ruptura, un tiempo que reactiva todas las angustias de separación, de abandono, y produce la pérdida de ese sentimiento de la continuidad que es tan importante para el ser humano. Las narraciones, entre otras cosas, nos reactivan ese sentimiento, no sólo porque tienen un comienzo, un principio y un fin, sino también por el orden secreto que emana de la buena literatura. Es como si el caos interno se apaciguara, tomara forma.
(In contexts of crisis, literature gives us another place, another time, another tongue, a breath. It is about the opening of a space that allows daydreams, thought, and which gives a thread to experiences. A crisis is like a rupture, a time which reactivates all the anxieties of separation, abandonment and produces the loss of that feeling of continuity that is so important for the human being. Narratives, among other things, reactivate that feeling in ourselves, not only because they have a beginning and an end, but also because of the secret order that emanates from good literature. It is as if the internal chaos becomes placated (and) takes shape.)

(EA translation)

Michèle collects the commentaries and observations of the readers in situations of crisis in different countries and shows that despite differences in contexts, there is evidence of the value that literature and reading have at these moments and that, in fact, people tend to turn to books, book fairs and libraries when there is chaos.

We confirmed this now with the comments that many of the students made about how they take refuge in books when they have problems or when there are difficulties around them. They told us that they “escape” from reality but that at the same time they learn from what they read and apply it in some way to their own situation.

Michèle’s book not only reaffirms the value of research but also gives us hope, both for the adolescent turbulence and for the Mexican crisis given it attempts to “identificar algunos de los sesgos que permiten un nuevo despliegue de las posibilidades, una posibilidad de salida de los caminos ya trazados” (identify some of the slants that permit a new deployment of the possibilities, a possibility of an exit from the paths already traced).

Let us reflect also, then, on the responsibility of research in times of crisis. It is not about trying to be a therapist or about discussing politics, but it is also not about avoiding issues or trying to maintain artificial distances. With professionalism and respect we must permit these moments, know how to listen but also know when it is necessary to move the conversation, gently, to other themes. Perhaps suggest possibilities. Share what it is possible to share, especially solidarity and hope. Rethink what research really means, again, to quote Michèle:

These days, everything needs to be quantified and everyone is obsessed with getting immediate returns, and we easily tend to forget that making detours is crucial from an anthropological and psychic point of view, particularly in critical times. […] Making a detour is vital when we need to be clever to get around pain or fear rather than face them. It is also essential for thinking and creativity.


(The title of this blog is intended as a tribute to Michèle and it is also a call to publishers in the UK and the US to translate her work, given that it is incredible that such valuable publications, for the sociology of reading, for education and for mediation are not available in English. The only text in English I could find is a short text that appears in one of the IBBY Congress websites: http://www.ibby.org/index.php?id=900 ).

miércoles, 12 de noviembre de 2014

La niña de rojo (The girl in red). Aaron Frisch and Roberto Innocenti.

Re-telling the classic short stories of the Grimm brothers or Charles Perrault with a different tone or view has been a kind of “subversive tradition” in the children’s and young adult literature, since the end of the 20th century, and it has even affected movies like Shrek. From different points of view, either dark or hopeful, an enlarged sense of humour, and all kind of literary resources such as metafiction, these stories have energized the antique genre of the fairy tales, and have made us look at the past with different eyes.

A good example is the picturebook, The girl in red, written by the American author Aaron Frisch and illustrated by the Italian Roberto Innocenti, both of whom, with a great literary quality and in an innovative way take up one of the most well-known tales, Little Red Riding Hood, once more. Although it's originally created for 8-year-old children, its complex pictures, full of social critique, jokes and soulless and filthy places, offer a great realism through the details of the environment and the characters and its ludic text, which guide us step by step, can enchant readers of all ages.

In a rainy night, a small granny, like a self-illuminated toy, tells a story to a group of children in what seems like a neglected day-care centre:

One day, Sofia, a girl who lives in a poor and unsafe neighbourhood in a big city, is sent by her mother to take cookies, honey and oranges to her sick grandmother, who also needs company. Unfortunately, on the way she runs into some jackals (a motorcylec gang) who surround her and harass her.

When everything seems lost, someone known as “the hunter”, a young and strong man saves her and offers her to take her to her grandma's house. On the way, however, he receives a call which means he must drop her off on the way. While Sofia makes her own way to her grandmother’s house, the “hero”, who is actually the wolf, overtakes her and waits to finish her off. However, given the listener’s horror and tears at this sad ending, the little storytelling granny, knowing that the stories are magical, offers her audience an alternative, happy ending.

This reminds us the term “eucatastrophe”, coined by J. R. R. Tolkien in his essay “On Fairy-Stories”:

But the “consolation” of fairy-tales has another aspect than the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires. Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending. Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it. At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairystory. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite—I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.
The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur.

The happy ending offered as other possibility in The girl in red is important, because it allows this consolation mentioned by Tolkien. It should be pointed out that this eucatastrophe is not like the deus ex machina given that the eucatastrophe appears from the elements in the story, there isn't any magic or sudden appearance.

As we read Frisch and Innocenti's book with the students in our study, we found many surprises. It was alarming to discover that the stories, specially the fairy-tales, are seldom told. In the fast world we live in there's no time to tell or to share stories. It's easier to watch a movie. Memory is also affected, as shown in the illustrations by Innocenti, in what Frisch calls “The Wood”: a huge shopping mall covered with images that incite us to buy, to live and to think in a specific way.

Our research highlighted that among the fairy tales and other stories that were mentioned in the survey as having being told to the students as younger children, the two most cited were Little Red Riding Hood (57 times) and The Three Little Pigs (67 times). However, it turned out to be quite difficult for the students to reconstruct the story of Little Red Riding Hood, because they only remembered a few bits of the story and weren't able to distinguish between the different versions. There were details that were clear, like the fact that the mother sends the little girl to her sick grandmother's house, and that the wolf intercepts the girl in the forest. Other details, such as what the girl was taking to her granny, whether the wolf eats her, or if there was a hunter or a woodcutter caused them more trouble.

It's also important to mention that, instead of the versions by the Grimm brothers or by Perrault, the actual cinematographic versions of they story were more frequently referred to, such as Hoodwinked! (2005) and Red Riding Hood (2011).

In the session on this picturebook, we first analyzed the cover, then the back cover, and finally the first pages. For the urban teenagers it was easy to identify Innocenti's urban landscapes, because they belong to their reality, to what they know, to what they see when they walk in the streets or watch the TV. Despite the aggressive images, they assimilated the visual text, perhaps because for them the walls covered in graffiti, the bars and the barbed wire seem nearer than Red Riding Hood's original wood. The different social classes, the filth and the violence are part of their own reality. They raised many questions from the observation of the images, but also unique and personal ideas, explanations for the world created by Frisch and Innocenti, which are at the same time explanations of their own world, of their fears and of what they see.

Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy Stories”. Rivendellcommunity.org. Web. PDF File.

Elisa Lamothe
Georgina Lamothe
Joselyn Silva