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 forthcoming 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. 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?"
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, historical archival work, 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?
Oh, yes, always! The next project has been underway for some years with Shelby Wolf, my long-term collaborator on children’s literature research and studies of children learning through being immersed in the arts within their schools and also within museums and outdoor environments. Our next book will be published through Tate Museums in England. The book illustrates and tells the stories of a dozen children (several from newcomer families in England and all living in under-resourced communities) who spent three years studying the art works of Tate Museums. In this book, now titled Developing an aesthetic eye: The solid foundation of unsteady ground, we show what lies behind the “aesthetic eye.” The book illustrates how children view and appreciate visual portrayals and also yearn to understand the biographies and contexts of artists. The children (ages 7-11) move from first acquaintance to familiarity and a sense of expertise about how they look, interpret, and think about visual art representations they come to know through Tate Modern.
In the book, we address the tough question behind the romanticism that often surrounds talk of children and art: “Why do we care?” Long-standing answers to what the arts do have centered in easy phrases such as “build appreciation,” “ensure future audiences,” “provide incentive for creative industry,” or “expand children’s horizons.” Behind each answer lies a thousand complex needs of art museums, arts supporters, and educators, all of whom “know” art for and with children is somehow good for young and old, the individual and society. However, we see much more happening when children are able to sustain and grow in a relationship with both process and product as art. Long-term studies of children leave no doubt that the visual work of looking closely at art with professional artists who listen, ask questions, model, and exchange stories with children brings substantial benefits. Individual children develop problem-solving and story-telling propensities and get to know the value of informed conjecture. They learn how to craft expressive form and build an array of technical skills that enable them to put their fertile imaginations into lines, shapes, colors, words, stories, questions, and hypotheses. At some level, art does transform consciousness.
However, only since the turn of the 21st century have such expressions become more than abstractions and lofty generalizations about the value of the arts. Now new fMRI technologies available to neuroscientists not only confirm such abstractions, but they enable us to know how the visuospatial work of the brain of the child interacting with art contributes to language and metacognitive development. These studies add to our long-term behavioral data – stories of children crafting expressive forms as they engage repeatedly and reflectively with art.