Trajectories of Persons and Practices: Sociohistoric Perspectives of Disciplinary Development. The Case Study of Terri Ulmer

Chapter 2 | Theoretical Perspectives and Methodological Approaches

Data Collection

Data collection was aimed at developing a detailed sense of co-researchers’ richly literate lifeworlds and the kinds of literate practices that texture those engagements. The initial data collection (e.g., interviews, collection of sample texts, and observation) focused on a literate activity that each of the co-researchers identified as being important or significant to them, a literate activity that they wanted to talk about. Some of the co-researchers identified out-of-school literacies on which to focus. In Charles’s case, this was his engagement with extracurricular journalism. For Kate, the focus was on her engagement with fan activities (primarily her fan fiction and fan art). In Lindsey’s case, the early focus was on the various kinds of journaling she was involved in. Other co-researchers gravitated toward disciplinary activities. In Terri’s case, it was the wealth of her literate activities as a health care professional. For Alexandra, the initial focus was on the reading, writing, and other textual activities she was involved in with an introductory engineering class she was taking at the time she started participating in the study. Early interviews frequently discussed the co-researchers’ engagements with their selected activity in broad, more general terms, including their histories of engagement with those activities.

To develop a sense of co-researchers’ broader literate landscapes, literacy history interviews were also conducted early during each case study. These literacy history interviews were something like the kinds that Brandt (2001) conducted with her participants as a way to get a sense of their various experiences with reading and writing. The initial interviews employed a protocol of specific questions designed to elicit information about co-researchers’ past and present literate activities for a wide range of purposes (e.g., “What are your earliest memories of reading and writing?” “What kinds of texts were readily available in your home?” “What kinds of reading and writing are you currently engaged in for school and non-school purposes?”).

Subsequent interviews on both the focal literate activity and other literate activities mentioned during the literacy history interviews led to more focused interviews about those literate activities, and included collection of sample texts in whatever representational media were appropriate (e.g., hard copy and digital prose inscriptions; drawings; illustrations; videos), and, when possible, observations of co-researchers engaged in aspects of those activities. Co-researchers were invited to share any texts, however “major” or “minor” (Witte, 1992, p. 249) they felt they were; these texts were whatever they thought might be relevant or that they wanted to talk about.

Collection of sample texts allowed for text-based interviews with co-researchers. These interviews involved having the text available during the interview in whatever form of representational media seemed relevant (i.e., a digital copy on a laptop or desktop, a hard copy of a text or image, etc.). This was a key move that allowed interviews to focus on co-researchers’ actings with specific texts and textual activities rather than on their involvement with literate activities more generally. Those interviews tended to employ questions addressing textual invention and production (e.g., “What can you tell me about how you created this text?” “What materials did you draw from in putting this text together?”).

Attention to specific activities and the practices at play was a crucial move in order to start understanding the kinds of things foregrounded in mediated discourse theory, not only the specific practices themselves, but also what semiotic form those practices were taking, other practices they were working in conjunction with, and the potential tensions and synergies among those practices.

These interviews were often process- and practice-based in order to make visible the processes and practices co-researchers employed in creating and acting with texts and documents. Process tracing involves having co-researchers create retrospective accounts of their writing processes in order to elicit information about drafts, notes and various other "minor" texts (Witte, 1992, p. 249), artifacts, technologies, and persons involved in the invention, production, and circulation of a particular text. Practice tracing involves having co-researchers describe how those particular texts, discourses, technologies, and artifacts were used during particular literate activities, with an eye toward making visible what Miller and Goodnow (1995) refer to as persons' "actions that are repeated, shared with others in a social group, and invested with normative expectations and with meanings or significances that go beyond the immediate goals of the actions" (p. 7). In addition to providing a means to generate detailed accounts of processes and practices used for specific tasks, these tracings also have the potential to illuminate processes and practices that co-researchers might be drawing from engagements in their near and distant pasts or that they imagined themselves using for some future activity. When co-researchers mentioned processes and practices associated with other literate activities, those activities became the focus of additional interviews. As with the interviews conducted on the co-researchers’ initial selected activities, data collection regarding other literate activities included collection of sample texts and documents associated with those activities, practice- and process-based interviews centered around those texts, and observation when possible.

Rather than have co-researchers draw pictures of their textual processes and practices, as Prior and Shipka (2003) have successfully done, co-researchers were asked to describe processes and practices involved in their invention and production of various projects by talking about how various texts and materials were employed. In addition to helping trigger and support co-researchers’ memories of the processes and practices they employed in the production and use of these materials, some of which had occurred many years before, this form of “stimulated elicitation” (Prior, 2004) during the interviews also helped to make visible co-researchers’ tacit knowledge of text invention and production.

We paid particular attention to moments when co-researchers opted to talk about instances of difficulty or of learning something new. One of the key challenges to talking about specific practices is that mature practice is often so fluid that persons are only tacitly aware of what they are doing and what is involved in accomplishing the action, which can make it difficult for researchers to get a firm sense of what it involves. As such, a key principle of sociohistoric research (Latour, 2005; Vygotsky, 1987, 1997; Wertsch, 1991) is that persons become much more consciously aware of action and practice during moments of genesis— when persons are in the process of participating in or learning practices that are somewhat new or unfamiliar to them—and in moments of disruption—when a person’s usual practices are disrupted. During such instances, when participation in practice slows down and persons become much more consciously aware of what they are doing, it is much easier to get a sense, from the participants’ perspective, of action in-the-making.

During text-based interviews, co-researchers frequently referenced discursive practices and inscriptional tools they acted with to create the stacks of collected texts in the office; they also frequently picked through the stacks of documents to select sample texts as a way to make a point or provide an example. This prompted us to start videotaping interviews and taking still photos in order to keep track of specific texts co-researchers indicated. This ongoing series of interviews over extended periods of time provided opportunities for the kinds of “longer conversations” and “cyclical dialogue around texts over a period of time” that Lillis (2008, p. 362) identified as crucial for understanding practice within the context of the participant’s history. It was frequently the case that we delayed scheduling interviews in order to give co-researchers time to locate and retrieve materials they had stored in their home or other locations. In addition to the focal texts for the process tracing interviews, all of the other collected materials were made available to co-researchers during interviews by placing them in stacks within reach of the table where we conducted the face-to-face interviews. Still later interviews tended to move recursively back and forth across the materials for all of those engagements. Data from these formal interviews was supplemented with co-researchers’ responses to dozens of follow-up questions we developed while examining the interview recordings, analytic notes, and texts that co-researchers had brought to the interviews or had provided at other times. These follow-up questions after the formal interviews were sometimes emailed to co-researchers or sometimes were saved until the next scheduled formal interview. Data from formal interviews were also supplemented with dozens of informal conversations throughout the data collection period. Notes were kept on these informal conversations, which occurred during chance meetings on campus or when co-researchers stopped by the office.

To identify each co-researcher’s literate activities and the practices involved in each activity, thousands of pages of inscriptions (e.g., collected texts, key sections of transcripts of audio and video recordings of interviews, interview notes, and analytic notes) were read, dozens of hours of audio and video recordings were listened to and viewed, and hundreds of photographs were examined in order to develop a sense of these co-researchers’ various literate activities and the practices they used to accomplish them.

2.06 « PREVIOUS | NEXT » 2.08