Telling different stories differently: The possibilities of multimodal (counter)storytelling with African American adolescent boys

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Research questions

Three main questions anchor this dissertation and reflect the essence of the broader story that I explore in the subsequent data chapters. Below, I introduce these questions with a brief description of the context from which they emerged. Underneath each main question, I have listed the supporting sub-questions which were important in uncovering the nuances across the three main domains of inquiry: space, story, and practices.

The first question looks closely at our group as a space, a realm of inquiry that emerged across time as salient and generative of the two following questions. While I initially sought to understand how the youth would respond to and counter deficit constructs of African American boys, using a range of modalities, I soon learned that the central feature of this study was not solely about resisting discourses but rather about the possibilities that emerged when youth were engaged in co-constructing a space for (counter)storytelling 5 in which to engage literacies and technologies. Therefore, as the study progressed, I focused more intently on our space by asking: How did we co-construct a learning space through stories and (counter)stories?

What are the dimensions of this space (e.g. across race, gender, age)?

How did we engage with different modalities in this space?

In addition to exploring the space in which our (counter)storytelling was enacted and constructed, I also wanted to better understand what the nature of the (counter)stories were. I framed this layer of study by asking: What stories emerged in our co-constructed, out-of-school, discursive space?

What stories are constructed and told?

What (counter)stories are constructed and told?

What role does race play in the boys’ stories and (counter)stories?

How do the boys embody racialized discourses and epistemologies in their stories?

Finally, moved by recent debates on knowledge construction, modalities, and representation6, I explored the concept of knowing in our space. In particular, I was interested in how we, as a group and as individuals, engaged the concept of knowing with each other, about information, and across the literacies and technologies in and of our space. I asked: What are the ways in which the nature of knowing is made visible and enacted in our space?

How do the boys and I engage the multiple modalities of our space in the practice of knowing?

In what ways is knowing constructed in our space? By whom? For what purposes?

I wove my research questions throughout the dissertation and across the data chapters (detailed below) in order to focus my inquiry as well as structure the data representations that are included. These questions have evolved over the last two years and currently reflect the issues that were most salient to me as I navigated my way through the crafting of this dissertation.

“Telling Different Stories Differently”:

A Conceptual Framework

In developing a framework for this study, I sought out theories that would support my desire to interrogate and disrupt the deficit dominant discourses about urban African American boys and their literacy practices, and which would support my practical understandings of the possibilities that technologies held for diverse representational modes of meaning making. In Critical Race Theory and New Literacy Studies I find questions and critical insights about the processes of knowledge production and representation that resonate with my history as a practitioner. Both theories also reflect my intent, upon entering graduate school, to find approaches to research with urban youth that would address the fact that youths’ perspectives, on a range of issues related to the law and education, are missing or silenced. Deborah Cameron (1992), while writing about her investigations into the relationships between race, power and language with a group of youth, asserts the following about the nature of knowledge: “There are two questions that need to be asked about knowledge. Who is it made by, and who is it made for?” (p.117). Considering the dimension of knowledge representation, I add, “How is knowledge constructed, and how is it represented?” I conceived of this dissertation as action oriented study that would contribute new knowledge about how literacy and discursive practices are situated in the out-of-school lives of a group of African American boys living and growing up in an urban area. Together, CRT and NLS inform how I am conceptualizing and engaging the concepts of knowledge production and dissemination in this study, and form the base of my conceptual framework of “telling different stories differently.”

Critical Race Theory

Critical race theory has its roots in critical legal studies (Crenshaw, Gotanda, Peller, & Thomas, 1995) and “provides educational researchers with an interdisciplinary, race-based interpretive framework aimed toward social justice” (Parker, Deyhle & Villenas, 1999, p. 32). Legal scholars have long questioned the constitutionally based ideas of equity in light of the racism and hegemonic class structure that persists in the legal doctrine of this country (e.g. Bell, 1980, 1987; Crenshaw, 1988)7. Central to this critique is the question of whose ideas and experiences are reflected in the policies by which we are governed. Delgado (1995) identifies another related aspect of this theory when he claims that racism is a normal and embedded feature of American culture. He further proposes storytelling as a way to “analyze the myths, presuppositions, and received wisdoms that make up the common culture about race and that invariably render blacks and other minorities one-down” (p. xiv). As a philosophy (of disrupting the dominant discourse) and a practice (of telling stories) this theory additionally holds that that the importance of stories is in the experiential context they provide to the seemingly neutral concept of race (Ladson-Billings, 1998).

Although initiated as a critique of the law, CRT has application for research in the social sciences, including education, especially for interrogating the underlying assumptions of race embedded in schooling practices of tracking, discipline, and even instruction; a critical race theory of education provides a tool for dismantling beliefs about fairness, meritocracy and colorblindness in schooling (Parker, Deyhle & Villenas, 1999). With an explicit focus on race – on how race is socially embedded, as a social construction, as a lived reality – and its shifting manifestations, this theory creates an epistemological space in which to recenter beliefs about education from a race-based perspective. Embedded in this race-based methodology is a methodological commitment to ascertaining the social construction of realities through stories.

The methodological implications of CRT are captured in Gloria Ladson-Billings’ (2003) call to action:

CRT understands that our social world is not fixed; rather, it is something we construct with words, stories, and silences. But we need not cave into social arrangements that are unjust; we can write against them. (p. 203)

She invites researchers to “write against” the assumptions about race on which policies and laws are based by adding new voices and realities to the “stock stories” (Guinier and Torres, 2002) that legal and educational doctrines draw on. Solorzano and Yosso (2002) have further developed Critical Race Theory as a methodology and write that:

as a theoretically grounded approach to research that (a) foregrounds race and racism in all aspects of the research process. However, it also challenges the separate discourses on race, gender, and class by showing how these three elements intersect to affect the experiences of students of color; (b) challenges the traditional research paradigms, texts, and theories used to explain the experiences of students of color; (c) offers a liberatory or transformative solution to racial, gender, and class subordination; and (d) focuses on the racialized, gendered, and classed experiences of students of color. Furthermore, it views these experiences as sources of strength and (e) uses the interdisciplinary knowledge base of ethnic studies, women’s studies, sociology, history, humanities, and the law to better understand the experiences of students of color. (p. 24)

Their framework is especially useful in this study of race through literacies, and recursively literacies through race; once again, I understand both race and literacy to be socially constructed and situated. Solorzano and Yosso (2002) also present the challenge to think not only against, but also beyond dominant discourses, a point that resonates throughout this dissertation. In the context of education research, they decry an urgency to understand the “experiences of people of color along the educational pipeline” (p. 36) such that the research literature begins to reflect nondominant and often marginalized epistemologies. In addition to counter-storytelling, the authors propose the inclusion of “ oral traditions, historiographies, corridos, poetry, films, actos, or by other means” (p. 37) to challenge the deficit stories that are prevalent about the individuals and groups who are “othered,” discursively and otherwise.

Social life is bound up in ways of knowing and ways of telling and critical race theory purposefully centers race in these processes. In this dissertation inquiry about literacy and learning in the lives of African American boys, I actively centered the boys’ voices and practices as we explored the ways in which race was salient in the institutional discourses they negotiated and that they storied. I see this study to be in conversation with critical race theorists who engage in this de/re/construction philosophy by intentionally and collaboratively constructing stories. In this case, I engaged in this intentional and collaborative construction with a group of boys whose stories, like others’ about the intersections of race and literacy, are largely marginalized in educational research – based on experiential knowledge.

New Literacy Studies

Like CRT, New Literacy Studies (NLS) similarly challenges the supposed neutrality of literacy, arguing that “literacies are positioned in relation to the social institutions and power relations which sustain them” (Barton, Hamilton, & Ivanic, 2000, p.1). In large part, the mission of NLS is to expose the underlying values and beliefs and change this dominance by describing the multiple ways that different literacies circulate across different discourse communities (Barton & Hamilton, 1998; Hull & Schultz, 2002; Street, 1995). NLS also includes a tradition of recognizing the “social nature of literacy and secondly … the multiple character of literacy practices” (Street, 1995, p. 2). In addition, NLS understands literacy practices to “incorporate … the ideological preconceptions that underpin them” (Street, 1995, p. 2), and in doing so contests the understanding of literacies as neutral and instead largely dependent on contexts (in which they are practiced) for meaning.

Additionally, NLS provides another epistemological space in which to consider the ways in which meaning is represented. By insisting on an examination of the social practices in which literacies are engaged, NLS presents a methodological call for a focus on context. The research presented in this dissertation was located out of school. Hull and Schultz’s (2002) caution against the tendency to dichotomize in and out of school literacies echoes this focus on context; the concept of literacies across space and time (Schultz, 2002) is also important in considering where and in what ways literacies are practiced. Thus, although the boys and I were located outside of school, I adhere to an understanding of literacies as circulating8.

Furthermore, centering the NLS theory of literacy in this study – alongside CRT – further complicates the nature of representation, as suggested by the concepts of multimodality and digital epistemologies. Kress (2003) suggests a multimodal theory of literacy that recognizes the “increasing multiplicity and integration” (Cope & Kalantzis, 2000, p. 5) of modalities wherein not only does reading and writing “have to be newly thought about,” (Kress, 2003, p. 35) but so do the very notions of communication and representation.

The recent work in digital epistemologies also contributes to this conceptual frame, as located broadly in NLS discourses. Lankshear and Knobel (1998, 2000) raise questions such as “what counts as knowledge?” and “what can we know?” within the context of increasingly multimodal and digital semiotic landscapes that we, and especially youth, come into contact with on a regular basis. They write about the ways that digital realms are shaping our epistemologies and open up conversations in this study about the systems of knowing that were in play. Kress’s multimodality theory resonates with digital epistemologies by recognizing that, given the increasingly multimodal landscape of adolescents’ lifeworlds, the use of literacies to make meaning and have it be heard is competing in the “attention economy” (Lankshear & Knobel, 1998). This literacy grounded understanding of technologies, in particular, is important for making sense of how I engaged and made available technologies in this study. Once again, as an avid explorer, myself, of technological realms, I entered this study with the possibilities of technologies on my mind.

Together, CRT and NLS offer conceptual and methodological tools for researching and representing the stories about literacy and learning in the lives of urban youth differently than what is currently available. With the reflexive stance advocated for by practitioner inquiry, the convergences of these theories call for the centering of the boys’ stories, seeking out multiple modes of representation, and research that is collaborative. There are important divergences among them, as well, as CRT pays close attention to race and NLS to literacy, however I see the divergences to come together in productive ways to inform this framework. Both divergences and convergences are reflected in the three main tenets that ground this conceptual frame: (counter)stories, multiplicity, and researching with.

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