Robert Sharples has provided this guest post. Rob is a third year PhD student at the University of Leeds, supervised by Jean Conteh and TLANG co-investigator James Simpson. He is based in London, where he investigates the experiences of young migrants in schools. His research is funded by the ESRC. You can contact him by email at email@example.com.
As I work through the many drafts of my thesis, revisiting data and trying to pull the myriad individual narratives into a coherent whole, I have been struck by how involved the participants have been in the process. My own rationale and purpose came through most strongly when I looked at the data individually – as an interview that I had arranged, a photograph of something I had spotted, a field note I had written or a classroom recording I had orchestrated. It was only in retrospect, when I brought these different elements together and tried to understand how they captured the environment as a whole, that the young people’s effect on the study became clear.
This post describes one way that my study was co-constructed, through the language that I was exposed to by the participants. The study was centrally interested in language (and translanguaging) as a tool for negotiating migration, and when I saw young people using different scripts I would ask to photograph them. The picture below shows one example, my name transliterated on a mini whiteboard. It was taken in a quiet moment at the back of a Thursday morning maths lesson, as the rest of the class worked on converting between millimetres and centimetres. Eyob, Afnan, Sana and I sat quietly; the two girls (Sana from Afghanistan, and Afnan from Somalia, both 16) wrote idly on their white boards. The more I showed interest, the more scripts they added to the boards.
I took a series of photographs and made brief field notes to capture the context. When Eyob (17, from Eritrea) turned to the others and said ‘saboor’ I wrote that down too and asked what it meant. Afnan explained (it means ‘patience’) and in an interview later that day I asked them why they were reminding each other to be patient. The stories that emerged, of young people who had been to school in other countries but whose learning was not recognised in the UK, who doodled on whiteboards because the class was covering material they had studied in primary school, felt like a prize catch for the research.
It had begun with a propitious moment: a lull in the class, a researcher showing interest, a group of friends with comparable experiences, all brought together. It proceeded through many small iterations: I showed interest and another script was introduced, until a fuller picture of the young people’s repertoires was made visible. Then Afnan did something unusual: she introduced a script that didn’t fit with what I knew of her background and that suggested a history previously inaccessible to the adults in the school.
The text was in Turkish, and it begins ‘I love you so much’ (a rough translation of the second line, which is partially obscured and includes non-standard syntax and lexis, is ‘My friend until the last day on earth’). As she began to translate it for me she blushed bright red and went silent – clearly I was not the intended audience for the contents, only for the script. It emerged that Afnan had spent 18 months in Turkey after leaving Somalia (longer, in fact, than the 12 months she had spent in England). When I asked her teachers nobody knew that she had lived in Turkey or been to school before, though combing back through notes I found a reference to her telling a cover teacher about the subjects she had studied in Somalia. ‘Saboor’ took on a new light: Afnan had reason to be patient. She was now into her third school system, with much more of an education history than we had realised or were responding to.
What emerges is a sense of how the research was co-produced. As I analysed the data from that maths lesson I brought together different data types and reconstructed the sequence of events – the turns of speaking, the narratives and questions, the sketching, writing notes and taking photographs. What I found was a series of junctures, moments at which the young people made decisions about what to draw into the conversation and what to leave out. The most momentous decision was Afnan’s, when she introduced Turkish and triggered a series of questions and retellings that would make that part of her story public, even if only within our small group. It was something that she had perhaps edged towards before, mentioning her studies in Somalia to a cover teacher, and perhaps would release to a wider audience in the future, but for that moment I was the audience she had available. I was an adult but lacked any of a teacher’s authority. I was interested and would reliably ask more questions, but like the cover teacher, perhaps I was a usefully marginal figure that could be used as an intermediate stage in Afnan’s own process of sharing her story with a wider audience.
There are many examples like this in the data: young people who use the study as an opportunity to present themselves in a certain light, to test out new senses of themselves or to emphasise what they carried with them that was still important. We often talk about participants as co-researchers in our project, but working with these young people has made me question whether we are instead the audience for the stories that participants want to be heard.