Discovering My Left Hand: Conducting Language Arts Research in Nigeria

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Having been nurtured in the counting culture in Nigeria, my discovery of qualitative research methodology was as novel and subversive as using my left hand, which is considered a taboo in many Nigerian homes. This paper relates my initial attempt to
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  LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 9, No. 2, Spring 2016 | 513 Discovering My Left Hand: Conducting Language Arts Research in Nigeria Alexander Essien Timothy, University of Calabar ABSTRACT Having been nurtured in the counting culture in Nigeria, my discovery of qualitative research methodology was as novel and subversive as using my left hand, which is considered a taboo in many Nigerian homes. This paper relates my initial attempt to deploy a qualitative methodology, especially art as a research tool, in investigating why Nigerian senior secondary school students and teachers hated Oral English. That study provided a canvas for the exhibition of art in my inquiry. I  live and teach in Calabar, Cross River State, in the South-South geopolitical zone of Nigeria. Calabar was formerly in the defunct Biafra Republic. I lost one brother in the Nigerian civil war of 1967-1970. I lived in a refugee camp where, daily, children died, even my kid brother. My village lost more than three quarters of her citizens. After the civil war, some communities had no inhabitants. They had all died in the civil war. So, I was familiar with numbers and quantities. All my life, numbers and enumeration had dominated. Nigeria was a British colony until 1960. Colonization bequeathed to Nigeria three key phenomena. First, it amalgamated culturally and linguistically diverse people into one geopolitical entity christened Nigeria after the adventurous River Niger that transverses several countries before washing into the Atlantic Ocean. Second, colonization gave us the English language, not only as the language of instruction, but also of communication in all sectors of the economy; a language of access to knowledge and opportunities, a language of governance and economic transactions, a language of social interaction  514  | LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 9, No. 2, Spring 2016 Alexander Essien Timothyand power brokerage, and as a language of unity. Above all, English has become a language for gaining global citizenship (British Council, 2011).  Third, colonization left Nigeria with a British-inherited system of education that extolled positivist thinking and quantitative reckonings. The complete rule of quantitative methodology (positivist measurement) is not only rooted in colonialism, but also in three decades of military rule. Thus, it was nurtured by a system that left room for neither alternative nor choice. Fortunately, democracy and globalization have ushered in an increase in the free flow of information and the dissolution of intellectual borders. There is, therefore, a real threat to positivist hegemony. And my discovery of the left hand represents such a threat. Currently, the resistance to post-positivist epistemologies, therefore, seem to arise, primarily, from ignorance, or more precisely, from unfamiliarity with qualitative methodologies and ethos. It is neither “politics” nor “PR” as Finlay (n. d.) would suggest. My experience and that of some of my colleagues who were initiated into this new way of inquiry is that we usually have an uphill task trying to convince some local editors that our work is indeed “empirical.” Thus, the resistance is likely to wane as knowledge and practice of qualitative research increase.  The Encounter I first encountered qualitative research in February 2013, soon after I was appointed a lecturer in one of the universities in Southeastern Nigeria. I had previously been a teacher of English at the secondary level for 24 years. The only research tools I knew and could use were the quantitative ones. When I discovered qualitative research through a Fulbright scholar from the United States of America who served in my university, I not only discovered a new research paradigm, but I also discovered myself and reclaimed my arts and those of my participants. I became subversive. I began to query the legitimacy of statistical dictatorship. A poem declared my insurgency: The Faceless Percentages Of the faceless percentages, the grotesque “half”sand the point twos and two thirds of the vanquished by AIDS,is a baby, my sister’s only baby, that once sweetened their home  LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 9, No. 2, Spring 2016 | 515 Discovering My Left Hand: Conducting Language Arts Research in Nigeriabut later broke their hearts and that sad home.In that sterile statistic is my sister, whose daughter’s bones nowrefuse consolation for an avoidable grave,my sister who now has a label, another christeningPLWHA, who has lost a name, a face, a home, a marriage and her first joy and dearest grief.In that barren number is my brother, my elder brother, tender, loving, gentle preacherwho died preaching the fear of HIV, afraid his parishioners would find out,colluding with a brother, that’s me, afraid his wife would find out, too.And a physician, true dear friend, afraid his colleagues would think he too belongs to the number.Oh yes, my brother’s daughter, years before he himself succumbed to AIDS and became just a digit. Now she is a number in the valley of bonesQualitative research taught me reflection. I never knew my thoughts could be data. I remember, one day, while sharing a thought with the Fulbright Scholar who introduced me to qualitative research, she asked, “Have you written it down?”In perplexity, I asked, “Written what?”“What you’ve just told me, of course!” A grin tugged the sides of her mouth.“What…what for? Why? I said I was just thinking…” I stammered in confusion.“It’s your data. Your thoughts…when you ruminate and reflect on your actions and others’ or on data you have collected, conversations you had, memories they trigger, write them down.”  This was new. Before now, I had always been taught that data was what one got from others through surveys and interviews. Thoughts as data? Well, that was really strange. I knew that the researcher was expected to keep aloof from the research. Every intrusion of self was considered injurious to data collection and capable of contaminating the result. In my training, researchers made efforts to desensitize the research participants from even being aware that they were involved in a research study. The reliability and validity of findings would depend on how unobtrusive you were.  516  | LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 9, No. 2, Spring 2016 Alexander Essien TimothyWhat I was hearing now was that you have to tell your participants up front what your intentions are and even share with them your comments and your reflections about their responses. This demanded a new way of thinking as well as a new way of engaging and accounting. I found beauty in this research culture, in the openness and respect that would characterize the relationship between the researcher and the participant. The participant is no longer a mere research subject, but a partner who can share not only in the research process, but also in the product. Even the forms in which research may be conducted and reported are malleable enough to accommodate a wide aesthetic spectrum. I discovered that participants might respond not only by merely ticking some confined spaces in a survey, but also by writing prose or poetry or songs; they could talk or draw or take photographs, or even use sculpture (Deacon, 2000).  This is science finding expression in art, and art basking in science. This is liberty. Left Hand as Taboo It is a taboo in all parts of Nigeria to offer your left hand to anyone, even your enemy. Children who are born left-handed embarrass their parents greatly. Parents go to great pains and put their children at greater pains to make their left-handed children right-handed. When libation is poured to the ancestors, it is done with the right hand, but when it is offered to the wicked ones, the left hand is used. The left hand is considered cursed. But why does the left hand fascinate me? Discovering My Left Hand Imagineyou were born in a community where everyone is so right-handed that whenever hand   is mentioned, one thinks only of the right   hand.Imagine that one day someone shows you your left hand and teaches you to use it.If you embrace that knowledge,members of your community view you and your knowledgewith suspicion, alarm and disdain. What options would you have?  LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 9, No. 2, Spring 2016 | 517 Discovering My Left Hand: Conducting Language Arts Research in NigeriaYou can jettison the troublesome left-handedness andrevert to your familiar, accepted right-handedness; or you can ignore the cynicism, labour to be skillful in yournewfound left-handedness and hope that your skill might eventually attract interest if not sympathy and acceptance. Deploying My Left Hand: A Study of Oral English Teaching in Nigeria  This new understanding had to be tested. This new way of thinking had to be applied. So, I decided to deploy my left hand in a research concern I had planned to conduct in the familiar quantitative way. It was an examination of students’ and teachers’ attitudes towards Oral English. Oral English is one of the components of The English Language Curriculum for Senior Secondary Schools published by the Nigerian Educational Research Development Council (NERDC). The components are:(1) Vocabulary Development(2) Oracy Skills (comprising Spoken English, and Listening for Comprehension)(3) Literacy Skills (comprising Reading for Comprehension and Effective Study, and Writing for Effective Communication)(4) English Grammatical Structures The major national examination bodies (West African Examination Council [WAEC] and National Examination Council [NECO]), whose syllabuses inform the actual interpretation and teaching of the components, examine these components. English-language text publishers derive contents from the national curriculum and pattern their books to closely address the examinations. Although Nigeria’s English Language Curriculum proposes both productive and receptive skills, teachers and textbook writers gravitate towards examination requirements. A case in point is the Senior English Project for Senior Secondary Schools (Grant, Olagogke, Nnamonu, & Jowitt, 2011), Book 3. It includes the following items under Listening and Speaking:
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