EXPLANATION OF FORMAT AND USE
SOME NOTES ON METHOD
I had the idea for this project and used it to apply for the Fulbright Distinguished Award in teaching after a series of conversations in my 12th grade English classroom at Terra Linda High School in the fall of 2014. Although the class is formally titled “Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition,” the course is much more than a study of the formal qualities of literature and strategies for how to write about it. Like what I think good humanities scholarship looks like, we used the text as a way to explore our own lives. Reading John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany led us to an examination of faith, its mechanisms, and what exactly we can do with it. Throughout our study of Sophocles' Oedipal Cycle, the students analyzed the rights of the states and the rule of law versus a higher moral code. As we moved into our study of the French Revolution, British Romanticism, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I noticed that our conversation had evolved beyond the mere scope of our texts. The students began to discuss the ideas as such.
Essentially, the conversation revolved around ideas of citizenship, participation, and identification. I teach in Marin County, north of San Francisco, and most people think they understand what the socioeconomic demographics look like. However, like most places, Marin is much more complicated up close, and San Rafael is not, for example, Tiberon or Mill Valley. It is most like my own hometown of Costa Mesa in Orange County – a close mix of traditionally middle class and socioeconomically disadvantaged communities. In fact, I’ve always been interested in the place where these two groups interact, where they rub up against each other. Of course, there is friction, and sometimes something more, but I’ve found that mixes like this produce thoughtful and socially aware young people. Students from San Rafael and Costa Mesa and other similar places understand the experience of others in an immediate way, and they are empathetic and sympathetic that I predict they would be otherwise.
But the world is very complicated and these students are still working on figuring out their personal philosophies, not to mention their very identity. In my classroom, we were having conversations about what makes someone an American. Some students felt that it had to do with some familial or cultural legacy. For them, to be American was to lay legitimate claim to a specific heritage. Others felt that almost by definition, to be an American one had to participate in American culture and society – the political institutions, social movements, etc. These students felt that American identity was a performative category. By participating in America, they demonstrated that they were American. Another group claimed that to be an American, one had to self-identify as an American. For these students, American was yet another mental category, a state of mind. And there were many, many more.
Throughout the application period for the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching, these topics kept appearing. The students were fascinated with identifying the issues around being an American. They began grappling with the problems of scaling individual opinions up to all 323 million of us. We also spoke about how national identities and philosophies can – or must – evolve over time, and that America must change as the world does. Most importantly, they were eager to understand the world to better understand themselves and vice versa. Instead of my initial idea of exploring the impacts of diversity on Finnish schools, I decided to indulge these classroom conversations further. For a young person, in their last year of compulsory education and about to enter the adult world beyond it, the mechanisms of e pluribus unum are complicated. I am 34 years old, and it still is to me.
What I intended to do was to use Finland, the Finnish experience, and Finnish education as a mirror for my students, something to hold up and allow them to reflect on it – thereby reflecting on themselves as well. I intended to use Finland as a neutral space to discuss America and the world. Furthermore, I have had a sustained and ongoing interest in young democracies. 99-year-old Finland is certainly that, but more as well. It is a place that, like America, can seem flat and static from far away, but on close inspection is etched with minute complexities and riven by internal conflicts both new and old and as complicated and dynamic as anywhere else on earth. In short, Finland is the world.
EXPLANATION OF FORMAT and USE
The contents of the pages that follow do not look like traditional scholarship. There is little in way of normal academic analysis by yours truly. As I said above, the original objective was to create a mirror of sorts to reflect the American experience. I wanted to exhibit a light hand in its crafting, concerned a heavier one would produce a fun-house mirror.
Instead, I opted for what I felt was a more value-neutral format, placing excerpts from academic research alongside fragments from my fieldwork and interviews and photographs from throughout Finland. The resulting arrangement attempts what cultural theorists call “parataxis” – placing elements side by side without particular order or hierarchy. The conversation between the research and the interviews and the photographs may feel disjointed or multivocal, but that is the aim. What I intended to do was produce a body of research that offered a sort of texture for the Finnish experience, a sense of the whole that, upon close inspection, revealed the internal rifts present in Finland and in America as well. Gaps in both columns are deliberate and temporary. As conversations with Finns continue, gaps will fill and more will obviously develop.
Instead of converting this research into a piece of formal and traditional academic work - a journal essay, a qualitative study, etc. - I'm deliberately and thoughtfully choosing this avenue instead. First, I had began, several times, writing that sort of thing. It is not that I didn't find it rewarding or valuable or useful in the field of study. It was all of those things. What I think is more important, however, is to not impose my American point of view and sensibilities upon the work I've done in Finland. Finland is, as of this writing, 99 years old. The country is still quite young, too young to be boxed in a defined by the likes of me. In my work with young people, I tend to offer problems more than solutions, hoping the students find their own way out. I hope this organic document has the same effect.
In the future, I plan on adding a third column with further fragments from conversations with my American students. Once added, hopefully the conversation between the three columns (with the possible addition of a fourth – research on the American side of things) will be complete. Most importantly, I want this project to be evolving. So, if you have comments, suggestions, or additions – whether you are a researcher or student or one of my original interviewees – please do contact me and you can be a part of this living document. Furthermore, each page is easily downloadable or printable - feel free to convert to PDFs for ease of navigation. Additionally, I have much more than the conversations presented here. If anyone was interested in navigating the entire archive, that can be arranged.
I hope this project can be used by humanities teachers in the United States, especially those at my school or in those who have the same types of motivating conversations, and in Finland, especially those whose students and teachers appear here, to have conversations about civic and national identity, social and national obligations, the role of Finland or America in the world, and the relationship between the individual and larger constituent communities. In terms of specific activities, teachers could use the research excerpts as the basis for student writing prompts, offering the interview fragments as a possible counter-response. Additionally, composition teachers can use this project as a repository of source material for argumentative or persuasive essays around one of the many topics discussed. However, any of these sections can be pulled out and used to start classroom discussions around one of these thematic sections, a separate primary text, or even the ideas themselves. Furthermore, I want this material to be useful for researchers in Finland and the United States, especially those in civic education, history of education, and educational psychology. At the end of each chart, I have offered a handful of questions teachers can use to guide discussion or prompt writing. They are merely suggestions. All is permitted.
If you are interested in using any of these research materials, take. Take liberally, and cite accordingly.
SOME NOTES ON METHOD
Before I arrived in Finland, I worked with teachers and students in California to develop a set of questions that would directly correspond to the conversations we had in my classroom. I supplemented these questions with suggestions from my mentor and faculty advisor at the University of Helsinki to develop a set of core questions that would serve as the baseline for my conversations throughout my time in Finland. Midway through my project, I was inspired by the ongoing work of Alistair Ross from London Metropolitan University, whose work is far more comprehensive, refined, and analytical than mine. The work I’ve done in Finland owes much to what Professor Ross has done throughout much of Europe.
In terms of sampling – and this is very much a non-comprehensive, non-quantitative, and strictly qualitative study – I attempted to get a wide range of variables. I was able to speak with students and teachers from all four cardinal directions and the interior of Finland. Because one in five Finns live in the capital area, there is a disproportionate amount of interview materials from Helsinki and the surrounding communities. I’ve been particularly interested in the case of Karelia, so there are more interviews from the East. Additionally, because my school in California is a heterogeneous suburban school, I wanted to focus on that type of school in Finland. In terms of other groupings, I spoke with students from all income levels in Finland, with students who had just arrived in the country less than a month ago and who spoke less Finnish that I did to students whose families had lived in Finland since time immemorial. Mostly, I focused on mixed classrooms and schools, places where all these groups were blended together. Special time had been given for what I call Finland’s “internal others” – in particular the Swedish-Speaking Finns, which was fruitful, and the indigenous Sámi people, which was fascinating but less directly useful here.
My conversations were conducted almost entirely in English - English-language proficiency, especially in people under-40, is incredibly high - while a few were completed with the aid of a translator. Those accustomed to working with non-native English speakers or those learning the language might not be put off by the grammatical inconsistencies, verbal missteps, and fragments. These imperfections are preserved for fidelity and accuracy, and so this project should be considered under the umbrella of a great, big "[sic]."
Of course, though, this study and my means of questioning are incomplete. Inherently incomplete. Populations and the multiple identities individuals adopt are always evolving. Therefore, consider this work a snapshot at best, a moving image, a short clip of what Finnish identity looked like, called itself, and saw in its future.
ALL VIEWS AND INFORMATION PRESENTED HEREIN ARE MY OWN AND DO NOT REPRESENT THE VIEWS OF THE FULBRIGHT PROGRAM OR THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE.