Shirley Brice Heath

Frequently Asked Questions

Almost every week, young scholars write to me with questions about one or another aspect of my life as a researcher. They often want my opinions on topics that have come up in coursework or their professional work as educators, community organization leaders, or authors. I've chosen some of the most frequent questions to include here, and I update this FAQ section from time to time. If you have a question you think should be here, let me know.

1) Where were you born and where did you grow up?

I was born in North Carolina and lived most of my life before young adulthood with foster parents in North Carolina, with my grandmother in rural southeastern Virginia, and in a small town (formerly tomato "capital" of the USA) in south Florida. I spent my first year of college at Wake Forest College, but I left at the end of that year to go to Mississippi to join the work of the Civil Rights movement there. The best place to get some sense of my early life is to check out my chapter in the Handbook of Children's Literature.

2) You seem to change the focus of your work often. Why is this, and would you recommend that young scholars rethink a tendency to stick with one particular area or topic of research?

There are several possible answers to this question. The easiest is that I bore easily, and when pursuit of one research question edges into other questions, I usually follow. That's why most of my research is longitudinal. I characterize myself as a "slow" learner in the sense in which we have come to use the descriptor "slow" for cooking! The more complex answer to your question lies in the fact that I see everything I do as centered in the study of values and behaviors into which oral and written language and other symbol systems are embedded. My early work in Mexico on the history of language policy (Telling Tongues: Language policy in Mexico, colony to nation — 1972) led to my interest in what happened to language under desegregation in the United States (Ways with Words: Language, life and work in communities and classrooms —1983/1996). In both cases, State policies dictated circumstances that had far-reaching impact on values and behaviors surrounding language and culture. My research in the US with children growing up under desegregation rulings continued as I followed these children into adulthood. This story is told in Words at work and play: Three decades in family and community life (2012). My work on the history of children's literature and the essay in English relates also to matters of institutional policies (e.g., the ubiquity of the academic essay in the history of education since the early 19th century) and to the evolution of printing, illustration, views of childhood, and expectations of links between written and oral language. In my head, all these topics are connected to core questions about language and culture across societies, political and economic shifts, and alterations in family and community life.

3) Why have you been critical of the use of "ethnographic" to cover the "research" of students and teachers, and why do you seem to cling to a strong discipline-based view of "ethnography?"

"Ethnography" came about as a term to describe the genre that social and cultural anthropologists wrote after their long-term fieldwork in a specific field site. Methods applied for this work ranged from fieldnotes, recordings, interviews, artifact and document collection to historical archival work, and quantitative analyses of factors affecting everyday life (e.g., climate change, nutritional value of local foodstuffs, migration patterns, etc.). When "qualitative" as a broad descriptive term for types of research emerged in the 1990s to be equated with "ethnographic" and to exclude quantitative analyses, historical grounding, and knowledge of theories developed in prior research, many anthropologists stepped forward to clarify the range of research methods that led to the creation of ethnographies. Because much of my early work (during the late 1970s) had been in the law and legal history and medical discourse, I came to value highly "case studies" fundamental to both law and medicine. Primarily descriptive, these studies enable experts to apply their professional expertise in law or medicine and to use comparative analysis to draw conclusions. Long-respected, critically needed, and highly specific in purpose, and based almost entirely on "qualitative" methods, case studies have immeasurable value for education. They offer platforms for those who use them to apply their experience, often clinical and practice-based, to the descriptive data. Anthropologists (especially linguistic anthropologists) must bring given or a prior theories to the data they collect and then either test and expand these theories or derive new ones. This work has many contributions to make, but, in the main, the value of such research does not have the broad range of usefulness that case studies have.

I have therefore urged scholars to proceed with caution in overusing "ethnographic" and undervaluing what is to be gained from case studies. The intellectual history of any discipline should matter to those scholars who take up the mantle of a method or theory central to that discipline. Researchers from clinical fields or areas of study, such as law, medicine, dentistry, or education who take up methods or theories from anthropology, neuroscience, or psychology have an obligation to know something of the history into which they step. [See Heath, 1999 on "Discipline and Disciplines in Education Research: Elusive goals?" on this point, and see also Heath & Street, 2008.]

4) Do you think people should claim that work in the arts enhances mathematical skills or reading abilities? And, if not, why do you seem so often, especially in your public and conference lectures, to undercut the "transfer" arguments?

Proving causal influence of a single factor for one or another aspect of human behavior is nearly impossible. To do so belittles the complexity of human mental capacities. Moreover, such claims generally amount to advocacy. From the beginning of my statements about what happens in arts-based learning environments in youth organizations, I have a) focused on the essential need to delineate features of "effective" learning environments and to define what "effective" means; b) pointed out that three core features (see below) must consistently be in place for young people to report or to evidence long-term effects in their personal lives of work in the arts; c) urged evaluators, funders, and scholars to recognize that most youth-based community organizations have goals that differ radically from the aims of classrooms, drop-in centers, or short-term lesson offerings by museums, city parks programs, or community groups.

The core features that co-occur with long-term reports of effects of work in the arts characterize only certain community organizations. Only rarely can schools or other formal education institutions offer these features. First, professional artists and critics must be available on a regular basis to the young people. Second, such an association will mean that the work of the young artists carries high risk in that it will be critiqued in front of others, rigorously selected for exhibition or performance, and often paid for by theatergoers, private collectors, or city officials. Finally, the work of the young artists must go on in the context of contributing to a collaborative effort to maintain the environment of their learning. For more on these points, see Heath & Smyth, 1999, and the documentaries on the DVD ArtShow 2 Grow.

5) What has been the biggest surprise or the most unexpected finding in your research?

Wow! This is a tough question, for any problem that guides research is sure to open up more and more questions and lead to new adventures. Answers to open questions never quite fit expectations. If I rephrase your question, I'd have to say that the most unexpected or surprising work in which I've been involved was the discovery of the first collection of children's literature in English. This collection of more than 400 items -all handmade by Jane Johnson, a vicar's wife from Lincolnshire in England in the early 1800s- opened the eyes of all of us who are involved with literacy research. [Search the bibliography for my articles published in works edited by Morag Styles of Cambridge University.] The work of the creator of this early library reflects all of today's major theories of reading, child development, and visual learning. Her intuitive sense as mother/educator led her to the same conclusions as those so "current" today. The collection is housed in the archives of the Lily Library of Indiana University. Check out their website and search for Jane Johnson, the author of the collection.

6) Now that you have finished the sequel to Ways with words, do you have a next project in mind?

Yet another difficult question, for few people read monographs these days. College and university classes no longer assign these as often as was the case in earlier years. Instead students search the internet, drawing from secondary sources that are brief at best, even in their primary form, or just summarized for high points. Thus the labor of producing a well-documented book of any length often goes unrecognized now. As shocking as the statistics may be, the majority of books in most academic fields these days rarely sell more than 1000 copies. This figure does not apply, of course, to major textbooks necessary in required courses such as chemistry, English composition, or mathematics.

Thus most scholars turn now to writing articles, though the proliferation in the past decade of journals offering to publish articles has brought about “pay-to-publish” demands. New scholars now wanting to have their work published as an academic article must pay to have their work considered, accepted, and published. On-line publishing (without any hard copies available, even to libraries) has intensified the pay-to-publish flurry.

Senior scholars generally get around this situation, however, by placing their work only in refereed “flagship” journals, or those associated directly with a professional organization. In the main, these journals do not charge, and they use a vetting process that carries integrity, though the wait time for authors eager for some word from editors can be excruciatingly long because reviewers are notoriously slow to respond.

I now write primarily chapters for books that I know will be bought by libraries or for books edited by well-known editors whose works are likely to be widely read and respected. Increasingly, I also write for public or general audiences, hoping to add new information to perceptions surrounding much-loved topics such as voluntary learning, the role of sustained learning in the arts, and the literatures written for children and young adults.


Shirley Brice Heath