This is a book of stories about parents and their children, and in one chapter, about a grandparent and his grandson. These have to be stories, because in the kind of research you are about to read, “n” is mostly one, and never more than three. In any event, even when the subject of research is more than one, persons can never quite add up.
Guy Merchant takes us through the story of his un-named grandson, so with them we can experience the multimodal moves between an Iron Man soft toy, Spongebob videos, and the grandson’s story writing. “For all its playfulness,” he concludes, “this is sophisticated work.”
Sarah Prestridge tells the story of her son Cooper who from ages eight to twelve, spoke with his mother about the online game he played with his schoolfriends out of school time. Fortnite is a shooter-survival game where players collaborate in “victory-informed strategic game play” to fight off zombie-like creatures. She also spoke with him about connecting with his friends through SnapChat. Present in these spaces is something largely absent from school, Prestridge says, a sense of participation she calls “contribution.”
Mother Kathleen M. Alley writes jointly with daughter Cassandra R. Skrobot about the anxiety disorder Cassandra experienced during College. “In narrating our experiences, we were able to represent the complexities of grappling with anxiety disorder as a subjective whole, as well as the parent-child relationship in our stories.”
Alaina Roach O’Keefe writes about her son, simply named “E.” Between the ages of two and five, she collected “80 discrete points of observational data…2160 hours of observation…1977 units of data (1184 photographs and 64 videos)…, 12 Shutterfly books, 29 pieces of artwork,…[and] 627 emails to/from the Early Learning Centre.” This was to create a comprehensive picture of E’s literacy practices, in order to disentangle a particular mix of digital and non-digital tools.
Lourdes M. Rivera, a career counselling educator, writes jointly with her daughters Nora Rivera-Larkin and Dahlia Rivera-Larkin about the systematic dialogue in which they engaged about their future careers. “With the example of my two daughters,” concludes mother-researcher,” I see two very different approaches to engaging them.”
Joanne O’Mara and Linda Laidlaw’s story is about how academic mothers talk with each other about their children. Joanne has a boy and a girl, and Linda has two girls. But we are not told their names or anything more than that “they represent a number of diverse positions in connection to health, heritage, and disability.”
Then, in the last chapter, Bogum Yoon re-analyzes data she collected while her sons Junsuk and Junhyuck were in beginning ESL programs at school. The family migrated from Korea to the United States when the boys were in grades four and five. Her reanalysis from a “new literacies” perspective highlights identity dilemmas that the boys faced while learning English.
Parent-child research is by no means new. This book stands in the tradition of some famous parent researchers. Michael Halliday (1975) studied his Nigel’s acquisition of language in the context of his wider semiotic universe. Gunther Kress studied his Michael’s meaning in image (2003, pp. 42–43). In each case, the research depended on being close to the child for the ordinary interactions of everyday life—unusually close, in fact, as parents are, and this is the point.
This book explores the methodological implications of parent-child research. Its counterpoints are some conventional research expectations that become at least awkward, or perhaps impossible when studying human realities which are literally this close to home.
In the interests of “objectivity,” academic practice tends to have us lose our subjects in one way or another, or at least lose their subjectivity and the intersubjectivity of researcher and subject in the research encounter. The most obvious way to lose personhood in research is counting by the criterial generalities of “n” students—n children, n girls, n ten-year olds, or n Hispanics—and so to homogenize by these or any other such social abstractions (Kalantzis & Cope, 2016a). Another research move is to “anonymize” identities, to strip away the grounded specificity of experience, as if other cases could ever possibly be quite the same.
The virtue of the stories in this book is that they keep us grounded. We can see what is general in the context of what is richly particular. Even though we don’t know all the names of the research subjects, they are identifiable in the singularities of their experiences. However, for this, the research is fraught in conventional research terms. Counting by category and reporting on distanced and anonymized experience starts to seem easy, by comparison.
In their overview chapter, Sandra Schamroth Abrams, Mary Beth Schaefer and Daniel Ness speak to the possibilities of less hierarchical structures of knowledge making, where “child-researcher and parent-researcher work together to co-construct knowledge…Striving for ethical symmetry in child-parent research means that the child and the parent must confront and negotiate new positions.” However, the chapters that follow tell of practices that prove harder than this sounds.
Guy Merchant doesn’t tell us the degree to which his grandson offered to collaborate in an activity that might in any sense be called research, from the child’s point of view at least. And for his part, he says, “I can never quite be sure if I’m mortgaging my familial role to my professional interest—or just simply taking advantage of him, because he’s there, a ready-made and biddable research participant.”
Sarah Prestridge doesn’t tell us whether her Cooper likes being involved in her mother’s research. But we do hear from her that “he is pretty used to me asking ‘weird’ and wonderful questions.” He must know that, weirdly, his mother is an academic.
Kathleen Alley’s Cassandra is a co-author, however the voice of the anxious researcher is Katheen’s. During recorded discussions, Kathleen says, “if I ever sensed any resistance, I quickly offered Cassandra an opportunity to talk with me at a later time or not at all.”
In studying her two-to-five-year-old “E,” Alaina Roach O’Keefe acknowledges that there was an unavoidable “power imbalance…by very virtue of my position as an adult with authority.” Apparently, it was “E” himself who insisted on this anonymization of his name.
Lourdes Rivera describes her co-author daughters’ reluctance at times to be involved. “She can be impatient and annoying at times,” they said of her in the third person for the paper.
Joanne O’Mara, and Linda Laidlaw write about their own academic sharing, mother-to-mother. “[I]n response to their own desires not to have the details of their lives ‘over-shared’ we choose not to reveal that which could identify them individually, and we focus our shared gaze on our autoethnographic interpretations as researcher-educator-parents.”
When Bogum Yoon asks her sons, now in their mid-twenties, to reflect on their experiences in their mother’s research while they were at school, “they simply expressed that they were ‘busy.’”
So, it’s complicated. To the great credit of these authors, they honestly expose and analyze the complications.
The challenges addressed by the authors in this book are in essence methodological. However, we want to argue that these are not peculiarly challenges to parent-child research; they are challenges to the epistemologies and discourses of research writ large. From these methodological anxieties, we can learn some things that perhaps should make us anxious about research in general, or at least certain kinds of research.
Research in a conventional understanding is the process of communication of observable meaning. The researcher faithfully counts (quantitative research) or tells stories (qualitative research). Their records should be as “true” to the reality they are describing as possible, influenced as little as possible by the moral and theoretical predilections of the researcher.
From an “ethnographic” point of view, a researcher is a traveler into a strange land, making discoveries new to them, though of course these are ordinary to allegorical “tribes” in which their subjects live. Indeed, from the point of view of the research subject, it is the researcher who is strange for their making the subject strange.
Having arrived and set up camp in the ethnographic jungle, it is the responsibility of the researcher to be faithful to what they discover. They must reproduce what they hear rather than to impose their views. Somehow, Somehow, it is assumed that the researcher can bring their reporting into alignment with the meanings of their subjects.
Call this empiricism or positivism if you will. Whatever the name, its purported objectivity is always illusory at best, delusional at worst.
How could such objectivity possibly be the case with parent researchers and child subjects? Of course, it could never be, because the researcher is so obviously an interested party. In the nature of adult-child caring, age and role differences are structured into the relationship.
But all research faces the same problem, in the structuring of differences: expert versus subject; rapporteur versus reported; educators versus learners. Or, to reuse a distinction made by Edmund Husserl (1954/1970), the systematic getting-to-the-epistemic-essence that is science versus the casual, minimally reflective, everyday experience of the lifeworld.
The problem with research in general, which parent-child research brings to light with a particular poignancy, turns on a model of communication in which the researcher strives to meet the mind of the subject on terms which are true to the subject’s reality.
This is a problem of definition where communication is conceived as shared meaning. In research, it is supposed, subjects share their meanings. Through the researcher’s careful observational gaze, it is assumed that the researcher will be able to share with some degree of objectivity in the meanings they have encountered.
But meaning is not like this.
Let’s take Umberto Eco’s model of semiosis. Here, there is a message sender, a message expression containing information, and an addressee who receives the message. Of course, Eco is not so naïve as to consider semiosis to be straightforwardly a process of transmission. His system is full of wise qualifications. There may be ambiguities in the message. The sender may have ideological biases that they do not acknowledge, dooming the message to failure even before it has been received.
But these are deviations from the ideal from the sender’s perspective, failures to achieve congruence of meaning on the part of the addressee. Notwithstanding the complexities and the hazards, if the message sending proves successful, it must be because something remains of the message that is transmitted and shared.
Barring these aberrations, the “normal” state of communication remains sender => message => addressee (Eco, 1976, pp. 140–142). In this line of reasoning, normal research is meaning expressed by subjects => messages received by the addressee. So, researchers angst a great deal about the rigour and validity of their observations, and the truth of their reportage to the meanings they set out to discover.
Before we respond to Eco, a diversion. We’ve just finished a pair of books discussing this problem of communication (Cope & Kalantzis, 2020; Kalantzis & Cope, 2020). We have given these ideas the name “transpositional grammar,” extending earlier versions of our thinking in the areas of “genre” (Cope & Kalantzis, 1993) and “multiliteracies” (Kalantzis et al., 2016).
So, dear reader, you will need to forgive us, this question of parent-child research has given us an alibi to work over these ideas again. By “transposition,” we mean meanings that can be swapped out. This can happen across two vectors.
The first vector is meaning form. We can swap out meaning forms between text, image, space, object, body, sound and speech. Any and all of these forms can be used to mean the same things. Meanings can be expressed alternately in any of these forms, or any combination. But these meanings are never quite the same. Different forms have different affordances, which is why we use forms in combination to complement each other. Hence: multimodality. We see this vector of transposition happening richly, ubiquitously, in all the chapters in this book.
The second vector is meaning function, here we identify five cardinal functions, where “this” is any meaning you might wish to choose. Reference: What is this about? Agency: Who or what is doing this? Structure: What holds this together? Context: How does this fit with its surroundings? Interest: What is this for? Any and every meaning, no matter what the form of its representation, can be parsed for all of these functions. Here, we can swap out one orientation to meaning then another, as we change our attention to one of its meaning-functions, then another. Then, within each function, there is considerable movement.
An example of reference: something can be viewed in its complex, whole, singularity (an instance); or that same thing can be viewed as one of more than one (a concept). We can swap out one for the other. In traditional grammar, we would say this is making a singular into a plural. Or, in Vygotsky’s (1934/1986) psychology, this is a move from complex to conceptual thinking.
An agency example: To you, I am a you. This is first and second person in traditional grammar. In our transpositional grammar, self and other are always being transposed. Your you is my me. When I hear you speak of me, I make a transposition. When I feel for you, I make a transposition.
And following on from this transposition, an example to the simultaneous presence of interest: if my purposes in relation to yours are good for both of us, they might be considered empathetic; if they are not, they might be considered antagonistic.
So, to this word “transposition” again. Against the categorical fixities of structuralism, every meaning is on the move. Indeed, more than that, it is expectantly impatient to be moved. Not fixed points, meanings are the range of things that they could in any moment become. But against the bewilderingly indefinite deferrals and the ineffable differences of post-structuralism, for a transpositional grammar there are distinct patterns in the movability. These, we want to trace.
Now, apropos of family research, to speak of our grand-daughter Sophia. We tell the following story in our “Adding Sense” (Kalantzis & Cope, 2020) though at the time the story is set, we never thought the story would become research, let alone to recruit Sophia as a co-researcher. Perhaps, even now we have written it up, it is still hardly research.
A picture first, then the story that goes with the picture.
Sophia, aged two and a half, wanted to make a present for her Papou (Greek for grandfather). Her teacher helped her make an artwork, there in My Little Village, Sophia’s preschool on Avenue A, “Alphabet City,” in New York’s East Village. (“A” is for assault. “B” is for battery. “C” is for crime. “D” for death, they used to say for each of these Avenues, before the East Village became fashionable.) Sophia said what the picture meant and her teacher wrote for her. It was for Papou’s birthday.
Later her Papou had the picture framed, in pink because he knew it was at the time her favorite color. (By five, she was in partial gender revolt; blue had become her favorite color, and she couldn’t understand why Papou had framed it because by then, she had learned to do “better” pictures.)
What is this picture? Sophia is representing something she and Papou have seen together, though not in New York City, but at Papou’s place in the country. Papou’s gender game is not to be scared of these beautiful, delicate things—you can take one gently without hurting it, and it will walk up your arm, funny feeling, but be brave! Look at these creatures with love and care. Be a scientist!
From representation to communication, there is a transposition: from the embodied meaning in the feeling of a praying mantis on the skin of your arm, to a painting; from Sophia’s experience to her speech; from Sophia’s speaking to her teacher’s listening and writing; from art as communication to the interpretative aids of title, date and descriptive gloss following the conventions of art and galleries, with an explanatory gloss after the title, all pointing to the artist’s intent; from the gesture of the gift to birthday rituals and “papous” of Greek, a language whose presence in New York is at once exotic for the polis and normal for the cosmopolis. Sophia must have told the teacher what a “Papou” was, and the teacher must have liked that, not to have translated it into English.
These are just a few vectors of interest in a polyphony of multimodal transpositions.
Now, we want to come back to Eco, and the problem we see in his definition of communication. His definition of communication as meaning—he concedes this much—demands some sage qualifications. On the receiving end of the message, there is “unpredictable decoding” resulting in “interpretative failures” on the part of the addressee, some of which, perhaps, “the sender would never have foreseen.” These may result in “aberrations” that are a “betrayal of the sender’s intentions.” And even though we are participants in “vast…probabilistic matrix” of meaning, the messages are not indeterminate (Eco, 1976, pp. 140–142).
But there are no such failures in Sophia’s painting. Sophia’s and Papou’s meanings are nevertheless profoundly different—and this is how and why they work. They are a series of person-to-person, self-to-other meaning transpositions.
In our transpositional grammar, we develop a rhetorical view of communication. Now, these disjunctions in meaning are no longer failures, betrayals, or unfortunate circumstances of unpredictability. They are the rhetorical norm. We want to reverse these fundamental presuppositions about the intersection of interests in meaning.
The crux of the matter is not about what can be the same; it is about the differences. The ground of meaning is a not a place of architected, in-common sameness. It is a common ground where differences meet—innocently or benevolently at some times, not so innocently or maliciously at others. Messaging purports, impossibly, to be transmission and communion. Rhetoric, in contrast, is an appeal based, for better and sometimes for worse, in differential interest.
Kinds of rhetoric might be found in evidence in information that one person has but another doesn’t; an explanation that a person seeks; or an arguable orientation to some matter. In each case, the reason for participation is the difference. We don’t have communion; we have common ground premised on the negotiation of difference.
Returning to the Sophia story, we find the meaning, but not in the false hope of isomorphism that accompanies the word “communication.” Communication in this sense cannot be more or less effective by virtue of its faithful transmission of meaning, because there can be no such thing. But the meanings-in-difference can be articulated and understood.
The practice of meaning in Sophia’s experience of praying mantises is multimodal, and the meaning happens in the work of transposition. Any account of meaning must extend way beyond the making and the seeing of the picture and the reading of its text. Then, on a functional vector, this is not just an act of communication because the meanings integrally depend upon and anticipate acts of representation and interpretation.
On the common ground of meaning, we find teachers negotiating meanings with students, parents with children, artists with audiences, writers with readers, drivers with passengers, doctors with patients, builders with inhabitants, priests with congregations, sellers with buyers, men with women, bosses with workers, rulers with ruled. We also find researchers negotiating meanings with their subjects.
In every case, the meaning of participation in meaning is the difference. In every case, rhetoric takes form in multimodal transposition, moving across most or all of text, image, space, body, sound and speech. And functional transpositions: I, by empathy, can place myself in my meaning in the position of you. Some rhetorics may be solidary in this way, others antagonistic, and at any moment, any of these expressions of interest can lapse into any other.
Some of the differences that rhetoric brings together may prove to be unconscionable, when for instance the forms of rhetoric reflect and reproduce inequalities, authoritarianism or prejudice. Other rhetorics may be conscionable, representing necessary or transitory inequalities—parents and children, teachers and learners, experts and lay people, for instance. But even these momentarily conscionable rhetorics of inequality are fraught in a world where all-too-often they align with or refract unconscionable rhetorics designed to perpetuate inequality.
The result is that, in their rhetorical play, some differences of interest may be complementary and generative—we will call this “productive diversity” (Kalantzis & Cope, 2016b). But equally, the result may be in other moments of rhetorical interaction what Habermas calls “distorted communication” (1970/1985, pp. 310, 316). This may be deliberately so, an appeal to interests that is deceptive to the extent that its consequence is to serve one interest at the expense of the other, while purporting to share.
Whether more or less obvious, rhetoric has the capacity to wish away differential interests, as much as to put them to productive use. One such rhetoric is objectivist empiricism.
We do pedagogical things with Sophia, too. And again, this was not because we ever thought we might some day turn them into “research.” We do them out of curiosity, to see what kinds of new tools are being designed to support learning. We have been prompted to reflect on these in a researchy way now just because we have been asked to write a foreword for this book.
First, there was Mel Chemistry. We were interested in this subscription chemistry set for its multimodality and digital media supports. Every month for a year and a bit, a mysterious box from Russia turned up in our mailbox. (We did wonder how it was possible to get such a strange chemical cocktail through the mail from the United States’ erstwhile Cold War enemy.)
In each box were two sets of gloves, one for the child and one for the parent—only to be done with adult supervision, said the instructions sternly. Two experiments per month, little bottles of chemicals with scannable labels, with the paraphernalia needed to do the experiments: petri dishes, vials, and candles if heating was needed. The interesting part for us was the multimodality. The instructions came in words with diagrams as well as YouTube videos, and in 3D visualizations of the molecules in using a VR viewer for the Mel Chemistry app that we had download onto one of our phones.
“How old are you, Sophia?” we asked her each time we started work on our “lab” (the laundry in our house). Twelve, she said, though she was only nine at the time, a standing joke about the parental advisory on the packets. We were being bad quasi-parents.
As for the chemistry, the magic and the drama of colors and fizzes was fun, but the chemical formulae given to us to explain the reactions were inscrutable. The YouTube videos of how-to-do the experiment were nicely made but proved slow and boring (interestingly so, we thought), and the quickest route to understanding how to do the experiment was the step-by-step diagram. Sophia wanted to look at this, not the videos.
And, showing single molecules in their (marvelous!) three-dimensional movement gave no clues about their transformation in chemical reactions. But perhaps that is just too hard, the gap between molecular representation and reaction too great? The representations of the molecules, we thought, were more like structuralism, and reactions more like what we call “transposition,” the imminent changeability of everything, and these patterns of possibility. You can see, we could never have been on the same metaphorical research page as Sophia.
Then in painful academic mode, we had Sophia write up the experiments (she protested!), and sent them to her other academic YiaYia in Australia (Yelland, 2006). The result was more a description of what we did, with photographs, than anything deserving the name, science.
Then there were three forays into computing, fascinating also for us as educators, but in ways they never could be for Sophia at her age. What was interesting to us was how eccentrically different these three were.
The Piper Computer kit had Sophia assembling a beautiful, improbably wooden Raspberry Pi computer using anachronistic “blueprints,” walking her through various electronic components and switches with a Minecraft story about the end of the universe—but there was not much coding in the conventional sense.
With littleBits Sophia also assembled a computer, then programmed using Scratch, a visual coding software designed for children. She loved the sound synthesis part of this, and even managed to program a piece of music she had been learning in her violin classes.
Then you could send a link to friends and family, and smart little animated game “apps” popped up on people’s phones. Magic, but only because the nice graphics had already been coded by an expert. This, we thought, was a revealing return to didactic pedagogy, a reversion to learning-by-copying. But then again, that’s what coders do—copy, adapt and combine already-available snatches of code.
Along the way through these various forays into learning with Sophia, there was no question of isomorphism between Sophia’s meanings and ours. We chose the pedagogical things to do. She couldn’t have known they even existed for the choosing. She couldn’t have seen into these things the ways we did, and we wouldn’t expect her to.
Sophia did these things with us, not because she had decided with us to do them. We gave these to her as Christmas and birthday gifts. (Was that overly serious?) They were fun for her to do and she liked doing them with us. But also at times they were boring and a chore because we had asked her to. Willingly doing them was her gift to us. Thank you Sophia, you are a lovely girl. We can’t be objective about that, but it’s the truth.
It’s too late now, but here is our declaration of interest, not a conflict of interest, but wishfully a matching of complementary interests: we are educators. Now that we are writing about these interests in a book about “research,” we suppose our interest has become research of sorts.
We’ve called our chapter “the problem of empathy” in honor of Edith Stein. But to know her theory, we think you need to know something of her. Too often, the lives of scholarly authorities are lost in the abstract generalities that they generate, though the abstract generalities can only make sense in the context of the lives of their makers. (We tell this story at greater length in Adding Sense (Kalantzis & Cope, 2020).)
Between 1915 and his death, Edmund Husserl worked on successive drafts of a second volume of his masterwork of phenomenological theory, Ideas. It was not published until after his death. Initially, the manuscript was assembled and revised by Edith Stein, his doctoral student and research assistant. Stein’s dissertation was published in 1917, On the Problem of Empathy. Husserl’s work and Stein’s became closely intertwined.
Stein: “A friend tells me that he has lost his brother…I become aware of his pain…[because] his face is pale and disturbed, his voice toneless and strained. Perhaps he also expresses the pain in words.” This is not my pain, but I become pained, for him. Stein asks, “What kind of awareness is this?” Her answer: “the act of empathy” (Stein, 1917/1989, p. 6). Or, to rephrase, empathy is a solidary meaning, a transposition between other and self, expressed multimodally.
Husserl: “Such an intersubjective experienceability…is thinkable only through ‘empathy,’ which for its part presupposes an intersubjectively experienceable Body.” In this way, “reciprocal empathy” is “unified into a nexus which constitutes intersubjective objectivities,” the objectivities of society and history, “when we live with one another, talk to one another, shake hands with one another in greeting, or are related to one another in love and aversion, in disposition and action, in discourse and discussion” (Husserl, 1952/1989, pp. 101, 118, 192).
The problem now is to wonder is how much of the second volume of Ideas is Husserl’s, and how much is the work of his empathetic research assistant. No matter how great the assistance, because she was a woman, Husserl didn’t support examination of her habilitation thesis which would have allowed her appointment to the university as a professor.
A Jew by birth and an atheist while working with Husserl, she converted to Catholicism in 1921, taught in several religious colleges, then joined the Carmelite Order in 1933, assuming the monastic name of Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Stein 1987/1993). When the Nazis came to power, for safety’s sake the Carmelites transferred her to a monastery in the Netherlands. After the invasion of the Netherlands she was arrested by the SS and sent to Auschwitz. She died in the gas chambers in August 1942.
Edith Stein was made a saint by the Catholic Church in 1998, controversially for some Catholics, because they said she had not been martyred as a co-religionist. Rather, she had been murdered for her Jewish “race” (Cargas, 1994). Stein’s entry to sainthood was on the basis of a miracle where the father of Benedicta, a little girl in New York who had swallowed enough Tylenol to kill her sixteen times over, prayed to her namesake, and the child miraculously recovered—a transposition by empathy, it might seem, of which only saints are capable.
We like this word “empathy.” It captures something that is charming about the writing in this book. Its writers are invested in their subjects. The stories told are about the co-construction of meanings. They are about the transposition of self and other. This involves co-construction of meanings, for sure, though not where the terms of participation in meaning are the sameness of equals. Rather, the meanings are in the irreducible differences. The meanings are also in the movement, the transpositions.
The truth of this book is the truth of intersubjectivity of researcher and subject. The challenge we face is how to make these exchanges of meaning productive rather than antagonistic. As the editors and co-authors of this book say, the process of meaning making is “critical-dialectical.”
But surely, this is the challenge of all research, to create productively empathetic relationships. Here we have to make a contrast between the solidary interests of empathetic mutuality on the one hand, and on the other, the antagonistic meeting of differential interests.
The pundits of “research ethics” harp with painful frequency about what can go wrong in the unequal relations of researcher and research subject, as if we were all just about to become guilty parties. But they don’t tell us about research empathy, or the sociable exchange of meanings where the differences are themselves the meaning.
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