History of the Ethnography Forum

The following is the introduction of an article written by Nancy H. Hornberger for the on-line journal, Penn GSE Perspectives on Urban Education. Please see www.urbanedjournal.org for the full version.

Penn GSE Perspectives on Urban Education
Volume 1, Issue 2 Fall 2002

Introduction from Dr. Nancy H. Hornberger

The annual Ethnography in Education Research Forum at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education was first convened in 1980. At the 20th Forum, Saturday evening conversationalists Dell Hymes, David Smith, and Frederick Erickson recalled the beginnings of the Forum and of the Center for Urban Ethnography (CUE) which hosts it. Hymes reminisced about the establishment of CUE with a grant from the Center for Studies of Metropolitan Problems of the National Institute of Mental Health, characterizing those beginnings as "finding a home" for both the center and the cluster of colleagues from anthropology, sociology, linguistics, folklore, and elsewhere, all interested in urban ethnography. Smith recalled the Forum's predecessor conference held in spring of 1978, the Colloquium on Ethnography and Education, organized by Perry Gilmore and featuring Shirley Brice Heath and Hugh Mehan as keynote speakers and Margaret Mead in what turned out to be one of her last public appearances. Both Dell and David recalled that it was Heath, then on the faculty at Penn GSE, who subsequently suggested an annual ethnography and education forum, to be modeled on the Boston University Conference on Language Development for its in-house and student-run qualities.

Thinking about the predecessor colloquium (selected papers are published in Gilmore & Glatthorn, 1982), Gilmore recalls the following:

I was a Research and Development Associate at RBS [Research for Better Schools] …[and]…had received a $40,000 grant from NIE to explore ethnographic approaches to education...which in those days was completely new to the educational research establishment. I sought the funds after having been inspired by the work of people like Dell and David and numerous others at Penn at the time (Goffman, Heath, Szwed, Labov, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Peggy Sanday and many others). Dell was very instrumental in helping me plan that colloquium and select the speakers and participants
(Personal communication, 8/28/02).

Hymes was Penn GSE’s Dean at the time and Smith convened the Forum for the next six years, 1980-1985, until he moved to University of Alaska. Erickson followed Smith as Forum convenor for 14 years after that, from 1986 to 1999, when he moved to UCLA, and I have convened the Forum since 2000. The Forum has been, from its beginnings, a schoolwide and school-sponsored event, which could not have survived without the generous support of Deans Dell Hymes, Marvin Lazerson, and Susan Fuhrman, successively, and innumerable faculty, staff and student volunteers, and well-wishers at GSE. Most importantly, the Forum has always been student-run in every detail, from the evaluation of proposals to the organization of sessions to logistical arrangements for meals, lodging, book displays, audiovisual equipment, and on and on. Heath had highlighted student involvement at the time of her initial suggestion. Fred Erickson recalls, “Shirley, in her memo to Dell, suggested doing something like [the Colloquium] annually, with extensive student involvement as in the previous conference and as in the Child Language meetings at B.U.” (Personal communication, 8/28/02). This trademark student involvement is represented in an illustrious line of dedicated and hard-working student Forum coordinators, beginning with Tenby Owens in Folklore, followed by GSE students Marge Murray, Gil Israeli, Frances Reimer, Eileen Storer, Marcine Pickron-Davis, Wendy Hobbins, Anne Roberti, Angela Reyes, and, currently, Mihyon Jeon and Diana Schwinge.

Linked from the beginning to the Center for Urban Ethnography, the Forum has maintained a consistent emphasis on urban schools. Perry Gilmore remembers:

One other thing that clearly Dell and David were both committed to was a social justice and activist agenda in their approaches to ethnography (though at the time those words were not usually used)-- a commitment to the people for whom and with whom the ethnographic work was done. .. in keeping with Dell's concern to "Reinvent Anthropology" and David's determination to purge any elitism from all of his projects and his work. From the start, David made certain there were teachers and parents presenting alongside well known scholars. He was committed to giving voice to the range of participants...community residents and practitioners as well as scholars, students and aspiring researchers. In those days we were fully committed to working with West Philadelphia schools (Dell and David had a large NIE grant for studying literacy from an ethnographic perspective...one of the first of its kind) and those community folks were very well represented in many of the sessions. (Will Smith, a young West Philadelphia singer and breakdancer - not yet famous at the time, entertained, with several friends of his, for the Forum audience - one of the Folklore students enlisted him...and we passed the hat to collect money for them!) (Personal communication, 8/28/02).

Equally, the Forum has from the beginning excelled in nurturing ethnographic research and researchers in schools. The Forum is known for its friendly and supportive atmosphere for fledgling researchers and for the spirit of relaxed and open dialogue embracing newcomers and oldtimers alike. An important and unique annual feature of the Forum in that regard are the Data Analysis sessions. In comments read at a memorial session for David Smith, held at the Forum in 2001, Fred Erickson recalled:

The other thing to which David's vision and spirit contributed was the ways in which the Forum welcomed newcomers to research… For me the hallmark of the Forum's welcome to newcomers is the Data Analysis Workshop, a kind of session which Jeffrey Shultz and Roger Shuy initiated at the Forum and which Jeff has continued to this day, with the help of Nancy Hornberger and others over the years. I know of no other academic meeting in which presenters can not only share work in progress but get wise advice on analysis in progress. Early in the Forum's history, David Smith saw the wisdom in that idea and supported it. Since David's time as Forum Convenor there have been other initiatives that also welcome newcomers--the early career scholar meetings focusing on minority issues in education that have been hosted by Michele Foster and Vivian Gadsden, the teacher research activities initiated and continued by Susan Lytle and Marilyn Cochran-Smith. These continue David Smith's vision and sense of resonance for these meetings, in the same spirit as do the Data Analysis Workshops (2/20/2001).

In addition to the Data Analysis Workshop (and the Work-in-Progress paper sessions, which present work at a stage somewhere in between data analysis and paper sessions), the Forum has over the years developed a number of plenary speaker slots, each with its own character and history becoming a Forum tradition. We publish papers from the plenary speakers at Forum 2002 together here in Penn GSE Perspectives on Urban Education. Though this is the first time, to our knowledge, that Forum plenary papers have ever been gathered together for publication, we expect and hope that it will not be the last. It seems altogether fitting that the venue for publication should be Perspectives, a kindred student-initiated effort focusing on urban education research.

The Keynote talk is the longest-standing of the Forum plenary sessions and is generally held on the first evening, a Friday (and in the early years, a second keynote was held on Sunday morning). A glance back through our (incomplete) Forum program archives reveals a distinguished roster of keynoters including, in order of appearance: John Ogbu, Frederick Erickson, Sondra Perl, Stanley Aronowitz, Laura Nader, Clem Adelman, Henry Trueba, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Regina Sirota, Patti Lather, Suzanne Carothers, Edward Hall, Shirley Brice Heath, Geneva Gay, Margaret Eisenhart, Concha Delgado-Gaitan, Jean Lave, and in 2002, Luis Moll, whose talk is featured in this issue of Perspectives.

The teacher research activities, alluded to above by Erickson, which were initiated and nurtured by Penn GSE faculty members Susan Lytle and Marilyn Cochran-Smith (now at Boston College) beginning in the mid-1980s to the present, have developed into a Practitioner Inquiry strand, with numerous designated sessions and a Saturday morning invited plenary talk. For many years, this Saturday morning plenary was delivered more often than not by the inimitable and prolific Lytle and Cochran-Smith themselves, but of recent years, outside speakers have also graced this early morning event, including Denny Taylor in 1990, Karen Gallas in 1996, Susan Noffke in 2000, Dixie Goswami in 2001, and last year Sonia Nieto and her colleagues Stephen Gordon and Junia Yearwood, presenting work from the same Inquiry Group project as is reported in the Nieto, Felix, and Gelzinis piece included in this issue.

The most recent plenary speaker tradition to emerge has been the Saturday evening conversation, which began in the early 1990s as a wrap-up session led by the Convenor, and gradually evolved into the conversation format. Erickson recalls:

For the first few years I made fairly informal remarks in that session and led audience discussion. (A title of one of my talks was "I was in the bottom reading group.") Then I began to have a guest that I would interview, with audience discussion. Perhaps the first of those guests was Ned Hall (Personal communication, 8/28/02).

The Saturday evening conversation continues to be the final session of the Forum, followed by a celebratory dinner for all. At the 1998 Forum, Fred Erickson and George Spindler held forth in a conversation/interview that looked back over the 50 or so years of educational ethnography in which George has been such an active and foundational leader and participant. Subsequent Saturday evening conversations have continued the retrospective theme and informal character of the Erickson-Spindler conversation: the aforementioned 1999 Hymes-Smith-Erickson conversation commemorating the Forum’s 20th anniversary was followed by Teresa McCarty and Galena Dick looking back (with me) on the 30 year history of the Rough Rock School in Arizona (2000); David Barton, Brian Street and I reviewing our own and others’ trajectories of ethnographic work in literacy over the past few decades (2001); and, in 2002, Kris Gutiérrez and Ray McDermott (and I) dialoguing about the paths that brought them to classroom ethnographic research. A transcription of the 2002 conversation is also included in this issue of Penn GSE Perspectives.

Gilmore, P., & Glatthorn, A. A. (Eds.). (1982). Children in and out of school: Ethnography and education. Center for Adult Literacy.