Yasmin Gunaratnam, Ulla McKnight, Aisha Edeor-Lawal, Nicole Evangelou-Georgiou, Melitini-Penelo Havoutis Andrew Jemmott, Abigail Joseph, Rhianne Phillips, Kaila Stone
Studying sociology can feel like learning another language. There are new strange words and different schools of thought with their own vocabularies. Somewhere along the line we also become writers of sociology. How this happens is often implicit, especially in the British context where modules on composition or academic writing are not a core part of the curriculum and are outsourced to specialist units. As the seasoned US sociologist Howard Becker told our colleague Les Back in a 2014 interview, he learnt about writing by trying to write like the sociologists he had read. He didn’t so much plagiarise as impersonate. Most, if not all of us, will have done this. It’s by mimicry that we gain more confidence and hopefully, discover our own sociological voice. There are other ways of experimenting with writing that can help. Here we share our experiences of poetry in the classroom.
Inspired by Peter Kaufman’s blog post on Poetic Sociology, we’ve been using a short exercise in a first year undergraduate core module on methods. In preparation for a lecture on finding literature and writing sociologically, students are asked to do a basic literature search and to ‘Write a short sociological poem using the literature that you have found’. The students have a week to write their poems. They bring them to smaller, group-based workshops and read them aloud to their peers and workshop tutor.
Many of the students embark on the workshop assignment with some trepidation. After all, writing and reading poetry is deeply personal and self-revelatory. For many this will be a new experience. Presentations are often prefaced by qualifications and self-deprecation. Some are wary. “I found it really fun actually, especially the poetry aspect as I was a bit sceptical and afraid of it” wrote one student. The content and style of the poems is hugely varied, from a stripped back scholastic summarising of themes, to the evocation of a biographical back-story, to those that challenge the reader with direct questions. One student who was investigating why homelessness had risen rapidly in Greece over the past few months, posed several provocations throughout her ten stanza long poem: “Even so should their country not offer a so called home?/Where was the government when they were seeking empowerment?/Taken on the role of Kronos, a god who swallowed his own children/These so called people, should they be forgiven?…”Another writer was interested in media representations of disability. Her poem was a condensation of themes:
Tragedy of impairment
Objects of curiosity
In the reverie of the task, writers learn about moving between different scales of analysis and how they might situate their topic—and sometimes personal and intimate experiences—within a wider framing, putting their sociological imaginations to work. More practically, it can be difficult when you are new to sociology to wade through multiple themes, ideas and perspectives in the literature, identify a centre of gravity, and tease out a path towards it. Poetry can help students to clarify their own initial interpretations of what they are reading and to condense, refine and articulate their thoughts and questions, so that as Joan Bolker puts it, original ideas are not lost in ‘mental gymnastics’ (p.5).
It was striking that in some poems, it was possible to see a progressive focusing down on the research problems that interested the student. The causes of homelessness was the focus of this student’s literature search and she included references to the literature within the body of the poem:” An unfair expression of power/Poor economic conditions/Poverty remaining an inevitable consequence (Asheka, 2012, p.7)/ For those who fall to the bottom.” Slavery and its different historical and cultural formations was the topic of the next excerpt. The poem began with pointing to the social context and threat of particular words: “Slavery/A word that humans aren’t proud off/Negro slavery/A term that makes humans uncomfortable, regardless of skin colour”. As the poem developed, the writer explored Indian slavery and ‘white servitude’. She went on to ask:
Valued by the European
Because they were cheapest and best?
How did it begin?
“Using poetry in a sociology class—either by having students write it or read it—may seem odd to some people” Kaufman observes, “but poetry and other forms of literature (short stories, novels, plays) can be wonderful supplements to the traditional sociology curriculum.” Kaufman has described ‘found poetry’, where poems emerge from playing with and jumbling up the words and structures of a published text. Lecturers and tutors can also use this technique to write poems for students to encourage them to read a text (here is an example). We’ve discovered that this use of found poetry can be a good ‘curiosity device’, offering a welcoming entry into an article or book, especially one that is layered and complex.
The more open poetry exercise that we have been using in our methods module does not exclude found poetry, so it has been interesting that most of the poems have been written afresh and with what the poet Jackie Kay has called ‘a closer knowing’. These poems include perspective taking and bringing themes from the literature into local contexts or the different linguistic and cultural traditions of the students. “My research question was “Why is corporal punishment in Afro-Caribbean families so harsh and is there a sociological and historical context to this phenomenon?” is how one student introduced his poem. The poem was partly written in Jamaican Patois as an exchange between a mother and son, with shifts in language signifying cultural and generational differences:
Mother: Don’t mek mi guh for di belt!!
Child: But Mum, I can feel all your pain, and it’s deeply heartfelt!
Mother: Yuh talk too much!
Child: But talking is healing, if only you would just tell me the things that you are feeling
Mother: If yuh can’t hear yuh go feel…
Child: But you’re meant to my Mother, not a woman of steel
The belt goes Slaaaappp!!
Child: Ouch! Ouch!! Why did you hit my like that?!?
Mother: Mi fed up of yuh talking, too much back chat!
Child: How could you treat me like this?
Mother: Don’t mek mi kill you with licks! Words cannot save yuh, mi know all of yuh tricks!
Child: But I have no protection, and not even Jesus will save me from the rod of correction!
Mother: Yuh right about dat! If yuh wasn’t so hard ears, mi wouldn’t have to act!
Child: But I’m so sorry Mum, I won’t do it again
Mother: It’s too late now bwoy, mi guh beat yuh just di same!
Child: Please don’t Mum, just give me one more chance…
Mother, No mek mi call yuh Faadah!
Child: Oh no don’t call my Father, he hits even harder than a colonial slave master!
In poems like this, parts of the dialogue could almost be that transcribed from an interview or jotted down from an ethnographic observation. By paying attention to the place of the writer in a poem it is possible to reflect upon the relationships between thinking and observation and ‘self and world’, as described by Mills (2000/1959, p.4) in the ‘The Sociological Imagination’. In the following extract from a poem about Caribbean migration to Britain, the writer uses both the ‘we’ and the ‘I’ to situate herself in the writing, moving between the past and the present:
How did we get here?
The volunteers came over
In the Windrush years,
Ambitious, optimistic and
Wet behind the ears.
Interesting name that,
I think it describes how
Wanted people of that era to be:
Like the wind,
Felt, but not seen.
Which takes us to our current
Forever defending one’s right to be
Within Britain’s cultural hegemony.
We supposedly live in a post-racial
Where everyone is colour-blind and
Police continue to instigate a sense of
We must always ensure our white masks
Do one’s best to look formal
To avoid the damning fate
Of being deemed subnormal.
Is this real?
Am I imagining the sickening
Internal tensions caused by
Meted out microaggressions?
The question of whether and how students can own their analysis is one that comes up time and again. When to write in the first person? How to get off the sociological fence? Is it OK to express opinions? Working with poetry early on in a course can be a way of addressing these dilemmas concretely. It is also possible to investigate the trade-offs between objectivity and subjectivity in research, which continues to be a key source of debate, especially in feminist methodologies. “Student Mothers in Higher Education” was the title given to a poem in which the writer described the enduring and often unseen material and emotional challenges for student mothers that accompany initiatives to widen participation to Higher Education.
The parents to children; were children themselves.
Entrance to Higher Education,
Practical application of their aspirational outlooks,
‘How?’ they cry,
The Access: The Widening Participation, still a work in progress.
Guidance and Choice often sparse.
Resources not at an arm’s length
Or are there but inadequate.
Yet they persevere.
The skilled juggler of two contradictory roles,
From these beginnings, of exploring oneself in relation to a topic and literature, the goal is to reflect upon the process of reading and writing and to describe and elaborate upon how the experience of finding and interpreting sociological literature might inform the student’s approach to how they think and write sociologically. Importantly, poetry can help with the problem that the philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1994) described, of bringing subjects to life and of being attentive to what is ambiguous or shadowy:
One’s always writing to bring something to life, to free life from where its trapped…. a spark can flash and break out of language itself, to make us see and think what was lying in the shadow around the words, things we were hardly aware existed. (p.141)
The student community of which we are a part is richly multicultural and for many the journey to university education has been bumpy. We have found that poetry helps to convey differences, experiences and feelings that might not otherwise come up in class. It can contribute to initiatives to diversify and ‘liberate’ the curriculum not only in terms of content but also by encouraging greater student participation. Specifically, with our module on methods, we have seen how students can be prompted to experience the methodological and ethical dilemmas arising from what feminist philosopher Donna Haraway calls ‘situated knowledge’, where knowledge is recognised as partial. In Haraway’s words, such practices allow us “to become answerable for what we learn how to see” (p.583).
Along the way students inevitably encounter those questions that animate us all: ‘What sort of sociologist am I? and ‘What sort of sociologist would I like to be?’