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A DAY WITH JACKO: An Experience of Fieldwork In School
This paper was drawn from the initial experiences of doing doctoral fieldwork, in 1980. These initial experiences and the initial theorisations made raise a range of methodological as well as educational issues that are common to the experience and will be discussed following the paper. The paper was written for a doctoral study group session held at the Centre for Applied Research in Education, University of East Anglia in 1980.
It provides an illustration of narrative research which has become an important strategy in representing key dimensions of everyday life in ethnographic and more generally in qualitative research.
School functions largely as a container suppressing youthful energies, clumsily moulding a zest for life into passive citizenship (1). In school everything is on a timetable. You can't go to the toilet without permission - preferably written. Written replies from 188 fifth year pupils - just over half of the entire year - revealed that about 80% were highly critical of, and basically negative towards their experience of school; indeed, a third of all replies exhibited hostility, even outright hatred. Only about 5% were enthusiastic with only minor criticisms of their school life. It seems to me people tend to seek out excitement and are not naturally tolerant of imposed routines and boredom. Individuals find many ways of dealing with both boredom and routine. Jacko, in the following extracts, finds his solution in 'messing about' and 'having a laugh'
He has been described to me as a 'complex character', 'bright', 'lazy', 'troublesome' and one who knows 'where to draw the line'; he call 'bring you right up to the boiling point and then cave in'. Jacko always kept me at arms length, wanting at once to repel and to attract my attentions, The following are extracts of a day with Jacko. 1 want to try and evoke something of his experience of school and of me and of my experience of being a researcher in school. These extracts are from a fairly early stage of attempting to penetrate the everyday experience of school and represent a day of being with Jacko.
MEETING WITH JACKO
1. I lean against the ridged radiator, beneath a window pock-marked with rain, Casually glancing sideways, out there 1 see Jacko, cheeks swelled with laughter, mates small and thin dancing away from the swinging of his hold-all, a giant swotting flies. Only thirteen, but five foot ten and twelve to thirteen stone.
2. The five-to-nine bell goes. Jacko fills the open door of the office seeming
in a hurry.
I ask yet again. "Do you mind if 1 follow around with you?''
3. ''No. Come on." He's off. "I want to catch up with my mates.'' He runs. 1 run along behind, jumping puddles.
4. Jacko, his mates and 1, sink into the cross currents of pupils drawn to the teaching blocks, crushed at the entrance, then spilt into the eddies of pushing shoving pupils, some moving towards the stairs, others to the several classroom doors of the ground floor.
5. We advance up the stairs past faces, some laughing, some serious. I barely see Jacko and his mates ahead.
6. A descending teacher, eyes alert, carries an empty space before and behind him. Unsure how to greet me. We pass.
7. Entering the tutor room, a chemistry laboratory, under the gaze of Jacko's mates, I feel inverted - watched, examined. Where shall 1 sit?
8. Carol, a girl I know, smiles, invites me to Jacko's group.
9. The tutor, a teacher I know well enters. He ignores me.
"Jacko. All of you, come and sit at the front.''
No one moves. 1 feel uneasy.
"Come on now!''
"But there's gas taps at that table.''
"I don't care, I've told you to sit down here. Now do it.''
Carol moves, the rest follow and I am last.
10, After the formalities of the tutor period - registration, reading a pupil news letter - the teacher approaches smiling. "So you're following Crawley around today?''
"Yes," I turn away as best I can.
"Good luck," the teacher retreats to the doorway where for the remaining time he blocks the escape of three girls who push against him.
11. After following Jacko to the far side of the classroom, he promptly escapes, laughing, stands just outside the doorway talking to mates, glancing occasionally toward me.
I ask Terry, "Jacko is in this lesson, isn't he?''
12. A boy asks, "Are you writing a book?''
Yet another, "What's the title?''
And yet another, "What's it for?''
I3. During my explanations Jacko returns, carries a chair to place at one remove from me. He shares sandwiches with a girl.
14. Carol, talking to friends, glances to me, smiles, continues, gossiping.
15. The teacher enters. Young. Bearded. Hair long. Stooped.
With a group of boys 1 continue talking about the need to know what pupils think about school.
"Carol, quiet! I said quiet! Get out of here! Stand outside the room! "
"But I ... ?"
"Don't argue with me. Outside!''
She stomps out.
I catch the glances of those 1 know around the room, eyes raising, grimacing.
16. Avoiding the glances of the teacher, Jacko's mates doodle, chatter and swear they are working as the lesson progresses. Jacko occasionally sings, is sent to the other side of the room, continues singing and is finally ejected from the class. We go to the houseblock.
17. "Do you mind if 1 follow along with you?''
We had earlier talked about this. His mates had asked if we should go to the school's smokers corner. Jacko had said "Why not?" I assured them teachers wouldn't find out from me who had been there.
I8. Approaching the centre of the tarmac playground we become the locus of running jumping pupils. Jacko splits away from me.
"What are you doing here? Are you a teacher?''
"Who are you?''
"He's alright." A tall fifth year 1 know prances around. "I know all about him.''
"Who's got the fags?''
"He won’t tell on us.”
19. Huddling together, a queuing of hands, ready to grasp the cigarette from the elder boys’ hands. The girls hang around on the edge. Within this, I explain several more times who 1 am and what I'm doing - the locus of a dozen dangling conversations. "Tell them, this school is crap." No one waits to explain why. "It just is." Eyes dart toward an approaching teacher. Seeing me, 1 am later told, he felt confused, embarrassed. He leaves.
20. The pressing and hovering round together dilutes. In twos and threes friends split off, the playground empties.
"0h, it's because they've had their ciggies now.''
"Who are you? What are you doing here?''
21. Two girls in Jacko's class 1 do not know approach. "He's following Jacko around.''
Some boys laugh. "You must he queer then,''
The girls seem angry. "it's not right following people around. You'll hear private conversations.''
"Look, I asked him if he minded. He can get away from me any time he wants. See," 1 point to him in the distance, "I’m not with him now.”
"It isn't right."
I'm angry but control it. I walk away, as they walk away, drifting apart, It feels like failure.
THE PHYSICS LESSON
22. Jacko came to fetch me from the houseblock office.
"Are you sure you don't mind? It seemed to me you wanted to get away from me, that you'd had enough.''
"No, I don't mind. Are you coming?''
“OK . "
23. As soon as we enter the physics laboratory he rushes ahead to sit with his mates, all turn round, giggling, to watch my approach. Their table is full.
.24. There is a spare stool at the table opposite theirs. I decide not to drag it across to their table. At that point they turn away from me.
25. A girl comes up to me. "Will you interview me next time?” I promise to try and remember. A promise never kept.
A young, boyish looking teacher enters.
The girls ask me it if I have a name for the book, how long I’ve been at the school, what I think of the school, why I chose that school.
The teacher interrupts.
"Quiet please. Let's get started now."
I look toward the teacher.
"Oh, never mind him," says one of the girls and we continue our discussion.
26. The girls 1 argued with in the playground approach. "It isn’t right following people around like that."
"He could always say no."
"No he couldn't."
"Of course he could.”
“So what if he’d said no….”
"Then I wouldn’t have followed him.”
Still they seem dubious but the anger seems to have left their faces. They go to their own table.
"Now, look, if we don’t finish thing on ‘relative densities’ we won't be able to do a practical …” The lesson begins as through nagging and humour the teacher wins attention.
27. Despite warnings to Jacko and his mates to stop playing – which they strongly denied - the teacher manages to complete the first part of the lesson. He places on his desk the equipment necessary for a practical experiment on surface tension.
“Clear the tables…”
28. Jacko and his mates stand. Books are slung from one to another.
They laugh. People wander up to get equipment.
29. There is a scuffling. I look to see Jacko and a slightly built lad punching each other. There is a gathering crowd around the fight. Several girls cry out, "Don't do it Jacko!''
The smaller boy falls to the ground. Jacko boots him and boots him.
The teacher pulls Jacko back. He doesn't resist.
30. As !he teacher leads the two lads out of the room a crowd develops round me. "Did you see it start?''
"Don't you think it was tight of Jacko?" A girl asks.
"Tight. Tight, "she grasps my arm, "you know, mean.''
"0h, yes. Yes it was mean.''
31. I leave them lo search for Jacko and the teacher. Outside I see Lennie, one of Jacko’s friends who had left, the room with the teacher and the boys.
"I think Jacko's run away.''
"Because he's frightened.''
"I'll go and find the teacher anyway.''
"But you can't. Someone should look after the class. They'll riot."
JACKO ON THE CARPET
32. The witness, Lennie, says, "I beard Hilly say, 'You fat bastard’,
and so 1 told Jacko." But Lennie is unsure whether it was 'bastard' or.
some other swear word.
In the corridor a trembling Billy, lip fattened, tells me, "I said 'fat blob'".
33. Jacko says calmly, "I don't mind my males sayin' it. But he’s not a mate."
34. The deputyhead's door opens. He hesitates some seconds seeing me lounging against the wall talking to Jacko.
35. When he calls Jacko into the room, 1 follow. At one point the deputyhead says, "Would I be right in thinking it wasn't 'bastard' you objected to, but 'fat'?''
36. After a break for lunch the matter is continued in the headmasterts office.
The seriousness of the offence is outlined. There is the possibility Billy's
parents might want to press charges in court.
However, the headmaster recognises the embarrassment overweight might cause him, since he himself is overweight. There follows a brief lesson on diet.
37. Towards the end the headmaster peruses Jackols files. Each document from 'respected teachers' exasperated at Jacko's behaviour brings a rise in his voice. Finally, Jacko leaves with a warning,
"The matter is serious.''
38. Once Jacko has left the headmaster turns to the housemaster.
"There may come a time when we need to expel him. Have you had a psychological report on him?''
"No, but it would tell me no more than 1 already know.''
"That's not the point. It's the procedures that count. We'll, need them to convince the governors we've done everything." His gaze then includes me. He grins. "Those are our most respected teachers he's crossed. Miss Hartley, for example.''
The housemaster nods. "Miss Hartley has one serious defect. She expects her homework in on time. And Jacko doesn't like that one little bit.”
39. Later, in his office, the deputyhead says, "It was handled wrong. He should've started with the files.''
40. Later still, in his office, the housemaster says, " I think if' you hadn't been there he would've shouted a lot wore. Did you notice? He went on about procedures. Idon't like that. The less procedures the better. Like I said to him. I believe basically in labelling theory. You've gotta try not to label them. The less that gets written the better.''
41. At the day's end 1 feel 1 have seen and beard too much. In talks with the housemaster he begins to formulate the plan to lecture the class on what has happened, to tell them he feels they were implicated as well. They set it up with their constant teasing of Jacko. He feels I should not he around to witness the lecture.
I agree. But in the end he does not give the lecture. "I chickened out John. Perhaps it's best to let them sort it out themselves. They all seem subdued. Perhaps they've learnt. I think life gives the lessons. Do you know what I mean?''
As a researcher, through my time at the school. I have begun to earn the right to wander from group to group, clutching at 'data', ready to turn people's lives into explanatory types or illustrative anecdotes. I become a threat belonging neither to one group nor another. In one situation I am embraced by glances and friendly talk, in another I am rejected, pushed back, locked out by averted glances. There are degrees of permissable intimacy which mark the boundaries between acceptance or rejection on any particular occasion. Since teachers and pupils lock each other out of their private conversations they stand like hostile camps, sentries posted 'Halt, who goes there?' And I must declare myself (12, 19, 21, 25), ask permission to he around (2, 8, l7, 18, 22), and justify myself (18, 2l, 26).
The threat I pose must be subverted through humiliation or rendered impotent (21), challenged (21, 26), escaped (10, 11, 13, 21, 23) or explained and made acceptable (12, 19, 25). I am also an opportunity for fun. I become Jacko's fool. Teachers were often reluctant to see me any other way than as a member of their own profession or as friend (10). Confusion frequently resulted (6, 9, 10, 19, 34).
We are continually on the look out for those who will stop us from doing what we want to do (15, 18, 10), or being what we want to be. A teacher becomes annoyed at the troublesome pupil and expels the pupil from the class or the school. A pupil becomes upset when a desired image of the self is undermined by an outsider. We call each other names to recognise, intimidate, repel or attract each other. School is organised around names which repel each other or tie each other into the power relations of commander and obeyer. As we hurl names at each other we seldom allow the other time and space to he different. Explanations are erected like fortresses or aimed like guns. The psychologist's report is a spear to throw at Jacko.
Each day in the routine points back or forwards to other days when much the same happened. Every incident of everyday life takes its force and meaning by being episodes from a greater drama which has its roots in the social and political history of schooling, the biographies of families and the desires, needs, anxieties and frustrations of individuals. The extracts from a day with Jacko cannot be understood unless the reader refers to his or her memories of being at school, to histories and sociologies of school and society and to further personal knowledge of Jacko, his friends, his parents and his school (2). With what knowledge and experience the reader has the extracts are capable of multiple interpretations depending upon the readership viewpoint, biases and sympathies - as in the case of reading any narrative. Furthermore, the authority of the writer may be challenged why these extracts? Why this style? The spaces between the extracts are not quite silent because a variety of implied causal connections and inferences scream out to he made. Yet this ambiguity is not weakness but strength. Through the ambiguity the reader is drawn into the interpenetrating web of interpretations. Each interpretation constructed out of critical appreciation, inferences and experience makes a stand which has to be defended against alternative interpretations. Awareness of self and of the contribution these extracts make to the critical understanding of research in schools is increased by the continual challenge to interpretations, Contrary to the Popperian (3) notion of growth of scientific knowledge, interpretations are not, tested and deemed false but challenged and deemed potent or impotent, rich or barren, enlightening or mystifying, exciting or dull. Truth is the light cast into the shadowy corners of everyday explanation, the exploration of connections and patterns individuals and groups would prefer to conceal.
The researcher as portrayed in the extracts is a wandering participant in the
lives of others who comes to know and to carry aspects of each group's understandings,
attitudes and feelings about members of other groups. I learn too, the stories
each relate about the other and the extent to which these match and relate to
incidents, I have witnessed (30, 40 and compare 31 and 33), A time comes when
I feel I have seen and heard too much (41). The feeling of 'too much'
arises from the knowledge I cannot share with those whose lives 1 have wandered through.I have become, above all, a bearer of confidences. To preserve the confidences of all I must be ready to break the ties which commonly lead to sharing experiences. The problems further increase when I as researcher become I as author, the one who can, potentially, break all confidences and allegences, Yet I am asked to become the voice by which their experiences can be told to others (19) I am instructed in what to see and how to explain by glances as much as by words (15, 19, 25, 26, 30,38, 40, 41).
In times past, minstrels, players, fools, madmen and poets were the self-alienated wanderers charged with being the voice of the people, recounting, interpreting and disclosing experience. The researcher as wanderer, I feel, continues this tradition. Such a person becomes alienated from all groups and hence is an individual whose individuality emerges from the systematic self-estrangement that must he made from alliegences to any particular group (4). Thus the researcher's ultimate responsibility is either to society, nor to any one group, nor to any theoretical perspective, nor even to any one individual. The responsibility is to the articulation or and enrichment of human experience. If observation, description, analysis and explanation cuts across alliegences, traditions and illuminates shadowy intentions and motivations it can contribute to the advancement of self-knowledge and create a basis for initiative and action. Too often, in everyday life, the complexities leave us impotent and speachless (41). School too often withdraws from participating as opposed to imposing - and research fails if it does not articulate the ambiguity of individuals learning from experience. A researcher is expected to understand (30, 41), but many kinds and levels of understanding are possible. How might a vehicle for understanding be made? Jacko's housemaster appeared to feel that 'life' teaches the lessons and thus 'life' is the vehicle for communication and understanding. But ‘life’ is a product of a multiplicity of historical intentions which is left unexamined and unarticulated by the housemaster’s decision. The extracts provide a number of possible avenues of exploration - the hostility between teacher and pupil, between child and adult, the secret discussions behind closed doors, the impotence to control one's day and so on. The research endeavour thus must leave enough tracks and uncover enough avenues so that interesting possibilities are not foreclosed.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. E.g. Wardle D. (1974) The Rise of the Schooled Society. The
history of formal schooling in England. Routledge and Kegan Paul
2. E.g., Woods, P. (1979) The Divided School. Routledge and Kegan Paul
3. Popper considers truth is unattainable, however, he argues that knowledge can be increased by setting up hypotheses in a manner that leaves them open to falsifiablity. Thus in proving one avenue of conjecture to be false we foreclose on that possibility but adhere to those conjectures which have for the time being, withstood systematic attempts to disprove them. See Popper, K.R., (1963) Conjectures and Refutations. Routledge and Kegan Paul
4. I have argued in a previous paper that pupils and school experience has tended to be defined in terms of problems needing to be solved. The emergence of individuality - its facilitation and hindrance - is a little researched topic. See, Schostak, J. F.’The Revelation of the world of pupils’, Cambridge Journal of Education, Autumn 1982.
Further Comments - written 2003
There are a number of issues raised in this very early paper of mine. The one's that I will comment on are:
(This section is still under development. It is hoped to be finished by December 2008)