In Chapter 1 we identified four dimensions of educational criticism: description, interpretation, evaluation, and thematics. This chapter will address the first two dimensions – description and interpretation. We begin with description because it represents a foundation for interpretation, evaluation, and the development of themes. The aim of description is to help readers see and hear what the critic has experienced. It seeks to engage readers by allowing them to situate themselves in relation to that experience. Description provides an account of events and situations experienced firsthand. In order to capture such experiences, the critic’s use of description is often expressive in character. Interpretation explores the meanings of what the critic has described. In doing so, interpretation typically involves the critic’s antecedent knowledge – analytic tools, models, interpretive frames, and theories – in order to extend descriptive data and link them to other work in the field. As such, interpretation overlaps with description. Critics and other researchers, for example, describe what they believe is worth describing, and this belief alone rests on conceptual assumptions and expectations. However, description and interpretation each take a different emphasis, and their

distinctive characteristics and aims are instructive for understanding the form and function of each. With respect to form, one useful distinction drawn from the teaching of writing is the difference between showing and telling writing. Showing

writing expresses the qualities of a person, place, or event through firsthand examples and vivid accounts that are concrete and specific. Showing writing is descriptive. Telling writing attempts to explain the meaning of what has been observed. Its form is often abstract and propositional. Its function is to account for the qualities described by providing order, coherence, and structure. An educational critic, for example, may describe the chronology of a classroom lesson together with interview quotes describing the teacher’s aims or intentions. The critic may then move into a more interpretive mode by addressing the relationship, in this case, between the intended and actualized curriculum. In Chapter 3 we called this the instructional arc. Thornton (1988) calls this relationship “curriculum consonance.” The distinctions we are making are also similar to a distinction originally used in

linguistics (Schwandt, 1997) and later in anthropological and sociological case study research. This distinction is between an emic and etic perspective. The emic perspective reflects the research participants’ point of view, what we earlier called “seeing with.” The emic includes what Geertz (1983) called “local knowledge,” or knowledge that is distinctive to a particular cultural group or local setting. Educational critics seek to portray local knowledge largely through description. This local knowledge is interpretive in the sense that participants make sense or “interpret” their own experience. But the critic’s role in an emic approach is to describe, not theorize. The etic perspective (“seeing about”) represents the researchers’ perspective,

which is often the point of view of disciplined-based knowledge. It includes theories, concepts, language, and explanatory models often drawn from the critic-researchers training in the arts, humanities, or social sciences. In this sense, etic perspectives are forms of applied connoisseurship realized through interpretation. An etic perspective on standardized testing, for example, could be from the students’ and teachers’ perspective, and may include concepts such as distraction, chore, interruption, and perhaps for some, a guessing game. Mathison’s (1993) early research on this topic took an etic perspective by focusing on what she terms “lay theories” (pp. 55-67). In her follow-up studies, however, she drew on anthropological concepts such as “ritual” to provide an emic perspective on the same phenomenon. She writes: “It is not difficult to demonstrate that standardized testing is a repetitive, stylized, performative act, one that is conducted by a designated person at regular intervals and that involves the manipulation of symbols. These are the essentials of a ritual” (p. 59). In listing some of the similarities between testing and other rituals, Mathison points to the “fit” between her focus (participants) and broader concepts. She also gains a set of analytic categories whereby each item on her list can be used to group or sort different types of data.