Learning to become a better poet: situated information practices in, of, and at a Japanese tanka gathering
Seisen University, 3-16-21 Higashi Gotanda, Shinagawa-ku, Tokyo, 141-8642, Japan
Department of Communication and Media Studies, Rikkyo University, Toshima-ku, Tokyo 171-8501, Japan
Tomomi Shigeyoshi Sakai
This paper contributes to the growing body of practice-based and empirical approaches to information science research that examines the ways members of a community engage in mundane and everyday information-related activities. Using empirical data from the fieldwork of a group of Japanese poets in their monthly gathering, this paper unpacks the embodied practices and their features in relation to the practical interests that the members of the gathering work out to accomplish. By taking the research tradition of ethnomethodology (Garfinkel, 1967), this study addresses how practitioners make use of available information as resources to constitute their action and activity as well as how such information is produced and made intelligible. We pay particular attention to the situated practices from which collective and collaborative learning arises.
It is clear both in the growing body of information research literatures and at the biannual Information Seeking in Context (ISIC) conferences that the notion of context has gained increasing attention in conducting empirical research studies in various social settings. This trend is not merely a new turn to the social aspects in information science; it has long been of interest (Cronin, 2008). As we understand it, the turn is the recognition of the situated and embedded nature of information behaviour and the reconsideration of the theoretical stance and analytical viewpoint behind the research. Furthermore, it is the understanding that information behaviour cannot be reduced or attributed to the matter of a mere individual. One example is a recent focus on the collaborative aspects of information behaviour, as reviewed in Foster (2006) and Talja and Hansen (2006). Reddy (2010) also argue that the previous models in information behaviour viewed information behaviour as embedded within individual needs and therefore overlooked the collaborative aspects of information behaviour. A similar epistemological view is also evident in sense-making on collective grounds (Hertzum, 2008) and in the concept of communicative participation (Johansson & Sundin, 2007). Closely related to this paper are the empirical studies of practice turn in information research under social constructionist perspectives and discourse analytical orientations. As introduced and summarised by Talja and McKenzie (2007), the point of argument would be 'in which information is created, shared, and negotiated and is also oriented toward gaining a deeper understanding of how groups organize their work practices through interacting with texts, coworkers, technologies, and other objects of the material world' (Talja & McKenzie, 2007, p. 101). In terms of learning and knowledge management within communities, practice is defined as 'the detailed mundane activities through which individuals in situ become skilled workers or learners' (Talja & McKenzie 2007, p. 101). This paper responds to their call for 'more analysis of language, discourses, texts, and documents in action' (Talja & McKenzie, 2007, p. 101), although we depart from constructionist accounts by taking an ethnomethodological approach. As we will discuss later, though often seen in a similar vein, ethnomethodology is incommensurable in several respects. We chose to conduct research on a monthly gathering of a group of Japanese tanka poets where information is made available, handled, exchanged, and embodied in the process of learning to write better. This is our preliminary study from the first year of a two-year ethnographic project.
Tanka is a traditional genre of Japanese poetry, written with 31 syllables in a five-seven-five-seven-seven pattern. While the history of this form can be traced back to the Japanese imperial court in the seventh century, tanka has gained popularity in the modern era to the extent that it is practiced among a wider population today. As one of the major genres of Japanese literature, tanka has been introduced into compulsory education in Japan. The subjects that tanka poets contemplate when writing can be very broad, including shaping aesthetic thoughts out of abstractions, the subtle beauty of everyday life, highly emotive love, and self-disclosure.
Tanka poets prefer to get social in one way or another. Many belong to a tanka society (or several) and congregate in an utakai gathering, an occasional session of tanka poetry reading wherein poets recite and discuss their latest tanka works with a wider audience that often involves, but is not limited to, their society affiliates. An utakai gathering is small, often held in the living room of an associate member or in a small conference room (the most notable exception would be the ceremonious utakai hajime by the imperial family, traditionally held at the Imperial Court on New Year's Day). Some utakai gatherings are rather competitive, involving blind submissions and members of the audience judging the poems on a numeric scale. Other gatherings, including the one we observed, are organized such that, first, each participant orally performs his/her tanka poem with poetic utterances, and then everyone exchanges thoughts and comments.
The utakai gathering we observed consisted of amateurs who, by definition, either lacked the commercial endeavours or were not making a full living out of crafting poems. Almost all of the regular members had less than five years of experience in tanka writing. Some were novices. Participants organized a monthly utakai in which they gathered around the table and shared their latest tanka works, generally three to five poems per poet, which they had crafted for the gathering and prepared on a handout. The gathering usually consisted of six to seven tanka poets but was open to all and occasionally welcomed an extra participant or two. Utakai was an important part of their 'serious leisure' (Stebbins, 2009) that involves 'systematic pursuit of an amateur, hobbyist, or volunteer activity sufficiently substantial, interesting, and fulfilling for the participant to find a (leisure) career there acquiring and expressing a combination of its special skills, knowledge, and experience' (Stebbins, 2009, p. 764). Oftentimes, it was only after attending the utakai gathering that participants submitted their poems to be published in a monthly journal published by the society in which they were members. The exception was one female poet, whom the participants occasionally called a sensei, an honorific term that acknowledged a certain level of mastery in writing tanka poetry. Having more than 15 years of experience in tanka writing with acclaimed publications, she was without the need for quality control and support. She offered practical advice to the rather inexperienced members regarding how to write a better poem. She also often provided an introduction to the history and culture of the tanka world. For young poets, the utakai gathering was therefore a chance to hear from future readers as well as a mode of learning to improve as writers of tanka poetry. A short-term expected outcome of the gathering was an additional revision to the respective poems. In the long term, the gathering was expected to improve poetic competence. In addition to the learning and knowledge sharing, there was also the fun side of utakai. Participants enjoyed the gathering itself; some did not hesitate to travel more than three hours in the evening after a day's work. A relaxed mood pervaded the gathering, with occasional laughing and joking. The gathering was nonetheless focused, with minimal interruptions and distractions during the allocated time for a given utakai (generally two to three hours), depending on the number of attendants. As an example of some of the practices the participants embodied while remaining focused during the gathering, they turned off the ringers on their mobile phones, did not text, avoided side talk, and, based on our analysis, paid close attention to the conduct of their fellow members.
Data, research method, and analytical viewpoint
The following material is derived from fieldwork we conducted at a series of utakai gatherings of a group of tanka poets (as described above) over a period of 12 months. We found the observational method necessary and useful for two reasons. One was that, as suggested by Reddy (2010), participants may verbalise to the researcher what they are expected to do, but not what they are actually doing. Another reason was that we adopted ethnomethodological policy of fulfilling 'unique adequacy requirement' (Garfinkel, 2002, p. 175). At the start of our research, at least two of us had no competence in crafting tanka poems and were barely familiar with the customs and culture of tanka poetry and utakai gatherings. Either one of researchers, or occasionally both, sat in the gathering and observed the ways the gathering was being organized to understand and document what the participants were trying to achieve from their point of view, and, more importantly, what makes a good tanka poem. Shinichiro spent considerable time with one of the poets outside the gathering as well, to observe practical matters in preparation and revisions of tanka poems. In this way we became familiar not only with the setting and the members, but also with the phenomenon under study in a recognizable and identifiable manner. In addition, we recorded every utakai gathering with a digital audio and video recorder when permitted, following Harvey Sacks: 'If you can't deal with the actual detail of actual events then you can't have a science of social life' (Sacks, 1992, p. 26). Audio-visual materials allowed us to repeatedly scrutinise the doings of the gathering and information-related practices thereof.
The interrelation of the role of information and serious leisure would best be examined by understanding the social world of members, as suggested by Lee and Trace (2009). In this paper we adopted ethnomethodology, an analytical viewpoint that addresses the empirical and observable materials of organized activities. Since ethnomethodology is meant to explicate methods 'whereby members produce and manage settings of organized everyday affairs' (Garfinkel, 1967, p. 1), it is an adequate and relevant viewpoint for understanding the practices that participants engage in from within. Originally emerged from sociology, ethnomethodology resonates with the growing body of literatures under the practice turn, social constructionism and its applications in everyday-life information seeking in particular. As summarised by Talja et al. (2005), constructionists 'assume that information, information systems, and information needs all are entities that are produced within existing discourses, i.e., linguistic and conversational constructs' (2005, p. 90). Discourse analysis is chosen to explore the social, cultural, or organizational aspects, rather than merely focusing on the linguistic aspects (Talja & McKenzie, 2007). The above characteristics seem evident in ethnomethodology as well. McKenzie (2009), for example, draws on conversation analysis, the study of talk-in-interaction that developed from and is associated with ethnomethodology to explore workplace interactions. However, we depart in two ways. One is that, whereas constructionists position themselves theoretically by organizing their analysis around a core theory that is derived from an established framework, ethnomethodologists, in contrast, attempt to capture the aspects of indigenous methods that the members of society use and through which social actions are achieved in the mundanity of everyday life. In other words, whereas a constructionist raises a theoretical question, an ethnomethodologist studies people's practical actions and practical reasoning in their own right. As suggested elsewhere (Ikeya , 2010; Sakai , 2012), this view is crucial to 1) sustain the premise that information behaviors of any kind are not independent and isolated from other work and everyday activities and 2) to consider their embedded and collaborative nature. Another is that we are to describe configurations of interrelated and relevant elements that organize activities that members of the gathering engage in the work of learning to write a better poem. By work, here we are referring to Garfinkel (1986):
The idea of 'work' refers then in a very ordinary sense to all the things that people have to do to accomplish the activities they engage in and all the things that people have to do to get their activities done may be part of an organised system of paid labour or they may not. So for us, the idea of 'work' refers to anything and everything that people do wherever and for whatever purpose they do it for. (Crabtree et al., 2012, p. 24)
Thus, while we too analyse talk, whereas McKenzie (2009) identifies the interactional characteristics of the organization of the turn-taking system and its relevance in an institutionalised setting, thus focusing on the work of institutional talk, our focus would be on the work of learning to write better through talk.
In this paper, we exhibit illustrative vignettes and excerpts of conversations that illuminate the noticeable moments from our data whereby information practices can be seen in the course of the practical action and activities in which the participants engage. We chose these vignettes to represent 'perspicuous settings'(Garfinkel, 2002, p.181) under investigation.
A perspicuous setting makes available, in that it consists of, material disclosures of practices of local production and natural accountability in technical details with which to find, examine, elucidate, learn of, show, and teach the organizational object as an in vivo worksite. (Garfinkel, 2002, p.181, emphasis original).
Names were changed to maintain privacy.
Understanding the work of others
The expected nature of the gathering was that participants were to comment on others' poems at first glance. Participants of the gathering rarely, if ever, had a chance to prepare for the utakai session other than writing a poem of their own for their handout. Handouts were typed and printed, which suggested that the poems were written before they left their homes, or in longhand and photocopied, which suggested that the poems were written at the last minute. It was widely accepted to keep their works to themselves until the day of the gathering. It was not surprising that one conspicuous information practice in this context was information seeking. Participants were often put in a situation in which they first had to make sense and gain a better grasp of others' work in order to say something about the poem. However, it was also found that information seeking did not occur in isolation. Rather, it is interrelated with other information behaviour, namely, information sharing and information creation, as well as with the use of artefacts that surround the participants. In this section, we address the following two key activities that embody the practices of this intertwining through which understanding was worked out regarding the works of the other: the situated use of a dictionary and the elaboration of further information through talk.
Situated use of a dictionary
One salient example of mundane information seeking in the utakai gathering is performed through the use of electronic dictionaries that several participants brought with them. Participants show a strong preference for using an electronic dictionary over a traditional paper dictionary for several practical reasons. One is because of its physical property; one participant told us that she found a regular dictionary too heavy to carry around. This participant had multiple dictionary apps downloaded on her iPhone that saved space and weight. Another reason for this preference for electronic dictionaries is the ease of on-site use. Participants demonstrated their competence to type fast and can quickly search their electronic dictionaries without distracting others from the conversations taking place. Most importantly, participants find the electronic dictionary to be a good, reliable resource of lexical information they can keep close at hand.
Participants are taking turns commenting on a series of poems. It is Maki's turn to comment, followed by Akiyoshi. Akiyoshi has her iPhone with a Japanese-Japanese electronic dictionary installed. Maki, on the other hand, has no such reference at hand.
Maki: Now, the third poem, 'Kids begin kitsuneken'. (According to an online dictionary weblio, it is 'game of chance similar to rock-paper-scissors, where the different hand gestures symbolise a fox, a hunter, and a village head'.) I don't know what it is, but I assume it's one of the games kids play.
At this moment, Akiyoshi pulls out her iPhone, opens a dictionary app and inputs kitsuneken.
Maki: As for 'Magnolia leaf' (the next line of the poem), I assume kids were attaching magnolia leaves to represent fox ears. This series of poems makes me think of the colours of autumn. I can see the scenery of autumn.
While participants in this session are all native and fully competent Japanese speakers, there are of course words and games they have not heard of (it turns out that 'kitsuneken' is a game endemic to a specific region in Japan that none of the other participants had ever heard about). Electronic dictionaries are often placed within their reach; however, participants use them only at certain times. More specifically, the dictionaries are used only when one encounters an unfamiliar word and has difficulty in guessing its precise meaning from the context due to limited syllables in tanka poetry. The timing within the context of taking turns also occasions such a search temporally, such that Akiyoshi still had time (and a device in hand) to conduct a search before it was her turn to speak. Therefore, a dictionary search involves knowing what to look for and when to use the dictionary. Furthermore, it involves the following practical question in an utakai gathering: What exactly do I need to know to make sense of this particular tanka poem?
A few minutes after Maki speaks, Akiyoshi takes her turn.
Akiyoshi: I just conducted a quick search on kitsuneken. It's one version of a game of rock-paper-scissors.
Maki raises her head, looks at Akiyoshi, and nods.
Akiyoshi: So kids go like this, like a fox?
Akiyoshi raises her hands above her head and gestures to symbolise a pair of fox ears. Sasaki also raises his head, looks at Akiyoshi. He then quickly turns to the handout and makes a note of what has just been shared next to the poem being discussed.
Whereas the first vignette exhibits information seeking and searching within and by an individual, this vignette exhibits information sharing which is subsequently performed that enables the participants to become familiar with something they were unfamiliar with. It is apparent from Maki's utterance, 'I don't know what it [kitsuneken] is' that Maki, though still able to make an assumption, does not yet know what 'kitsuneken' is. Therefore, by informing Maki with a result from 'a quick search on kitsuneken', Akiyoshi shares the finding that she has gained through a dictionary search. Furthermore, note the way Akiyoshi formulates her finding. Akiyoshi paraphrases and relates 'kitsuneken' to 'rock-paper-scissors', a popular and universal version of the game that any Japanese person is expected to know. Akiyoshi's information sharing is thus directed to invoke the common-sense knowledge that Maki is also expected to have. Maki nods as Akiyoshi shares the finding, indicating her realization that she now has a sense of what Akiyoshi is telling her. The content of information sharing and this act of paraphrasing are therefore recipient-designed, selected to accommodate the relevance of what to tell and to whom to tell it. This vignette also exhibits information creation (Trace, 2007), a form of record keeping in which information sharing materialises. Sasaki, who is sitting next to Maki, also shows that he finds this information noteworthy. Just as dictionary use occurs at a certain time, so does note taking; i.e., it occurs when one finds particular information valuable and thus containing something new. Information sharing therefore embodies a contributing value and invokes the production of a document as an organized record, in this case, through annotation to the printed matter.
Elaboration and asking for further information through talk
In this section, we focus more on the discursive conduct through which participants exhibit their practical reasoning to each other. The next vignette is from a different gathering of the same group.
Maki thematised her recollection of an art class in high school in her poem, and it is now Takano's turn to comment.
Takano: I wish I had a heart-warming art class like this one. Now what is this 'Arias?' as in, 'The skin of Arias?' (Under the alias of 'Arias', it is the statue of Ariadne from the Greek mythology, widely found in art classes in Japanese high schools.)
Maki: It's the plaster statue, which is prepared in every art class.
Akiyoshi: It's for the sketches.
The exchange embodies collaborative information seeking (asking a question) and retrieval (getting an answer) in action through which participants elaborate on information as a joint achievement. Just as participants know when and how to conduct a search, they also know when, who, and how to ask orally. As we have seen in the first vignette, when a participant finds a word unfamiliar and hard to understand, one way of resolving this is through a dictionary search for relevant information, including a clear definition of the word. However, while a dictionary provides a general definition of a word, the actual use of words may go well beyond dictionary definitions. Words can be contextual and indexical to the writer and thus may enclose a specific intention behind its use. Above all, a word may not be in the dictionary, as in the case of pronouns. In cases as such, it may be more practical to ask the writer directly than to look up the word in the dictionary. 'What is…?'; 'what do you mean by…?'; 'when do you see…?', and 'how does it feel to…?'are frequently heard phrases when a participant asks a question about a word. In this instance, 'Arias' is a commonly known figure among those who had taken an art class in high school. For those who had not, Takano being one of them, 'Arias'is an enigma unless informed otherwise (though later in the gathering, Maki stated that it was intended to invoke the reader's imagination). So, Takano is seeking information on a word that requires further explanation, and it is the discursive organization through which this poem's connotation of 'Arias' is sought (asking a question) and, in return, identified (getting an answer). Note also that collaborative information sharing is bound up subsequently with collaborative information seeking and acquisition, i.e., when Akiyoshi adds extra information about the statue of 'Arias', indicating that she too had attended an art class and is therefore is entitled to tell.
Offering advice to others
Building on the collaborative nature of discursive practices we have examined in the previous section, we now turn to offering advice. As stated in the section titled 'The setting', the goal of the gathering is to revise the latest poems each poet has crafted. In addition to sharing thoughts and comments, participants at times formulate practical advice for writing a better poem. Once participants accomplish a shared sense of understanding, they can then use this understanding as a resource to expand their comments and advice. Word choice is often discussed in detail, making distinctions with regard to the degree of adequacy. If the word is as good as it can be, then it remains; if not, there is room for substitution. This is where the knowledge and/or technical mastery of tanka poem writing become conspicuous.
Suggestions for the art and skills of expressing oneself
Because tanka poetry is an art with qualities of language, choosing the right word requires a certain degree of technical competence. It is different from addressing and fixing grammatical errors that any participant with a mastery of Japanese language can quickly judge in a given poem. Suggesting word choices and their proper ordering structure requires mastery of tanka composition. Such mastery is apparently asymmetrical between two contrasting groups of participants. Oftentimes, young poets share their impressions and comments on the works of the others without suggesting any alternatives. On the other hand, Saega, an acclaimed and experienced poet, offers advice to the young and inexperienced poets. Saega suggests words to substitute in addition to expressing her thoughts about the respective poems, thereby serving as a writing mentor.
Saega takes her turn to comment on Akiyoshi's poem:
on SaturdaySaega: 'Blue', 'sky', and 'brightens'. If you want to use all three they are to be used to express something very special. You better not use 'blue', 'sky', and 'brightens' together. They give the impression like a picture drawn by children, something like colouring the sky with a blue crayon and there goes Mr. Sun. Yes, you better express this like an adult here.
the power shovel swings
digging the dirt
the blueness of the sky
Saega's suggestion addresses the adequacy and legitimacy of a word choice: why this word now? Saega identifies wording issues in the last two units of the poem. She suggests that 'sky', 'blue', and 'brightens' should not be put together unless there is a compelling reason. Adulthood is invoked both to name the problem and to suggest alternatives that Akiyoshi is entitled and expected to use. At this moment, however, Saega does not provide an alternative that replaces the words she finds problematic. Her suggestion is rather abstract, and she does not tell Akiyoshi exactly what to do with the words. It is through subsequent discussion that the alternative emerges.
Saega: Why 'sky'? What do you mean by that?
Akiyoshi: This tanka is about the early summer. I looked up at the sky and I thought the blueness of blue was thicker. And I heard the power shovel pounding and digging. So I imagined that every time the power shovel digs, the sky becomes brighter.
Saega: Then, 'the early summer, whenever they dig in the ground during the early summer', well, 'becomes blue' or whatever would be better. Why don't you make it that way?
This vignette exhibits the moment in which the collaborative information behaviour is mutually elaborated and sequentially developed as the conversation unfolds between the two participants. The exchange involves a variety of information activities that are achieved collaboratively through talk, i.e., seeking, acquiring, sharing, and the creation of new information. Saega asks Akiyoshi her reasoning behind choosing 'the sky', in order to gain further understanding of Akiyoshi's poem. Akiyoshi replies that she conjured images of 'sky', 'blue', and 'brightens' together when she was working at a construction site. Hearing this, Saega suggests replacing 'the blue' with 'the early summer sky'. Note that this phrase, 'the early summer', is the exact phrase Akiyoshi uses in the beginning of her reply. It is evident that Saega finds it to be relevant information from Akiyoshi's answer that she uses to formulate advice. After this exchange takes place, Akiyoshi welcomes and incorporates Saega's advice into her revised version. For Akiyoshi, the outcome of this exchange serves as valuable information for a necessary revision. The final version, which was later submitted to and accepted by the periodical tanka journal, was written as follows:
the power shovel swings
to dig the dirt
the sky will soon be
in the colour of the early summer
This paper demonstrated the details of the situated and embodied nature of information behaviour over the course of understanding, commenting, and giving advice in an utakai gathering. In addition to how information is being put to use, we explicated what counts and found as information in the first place. In line with the empirical studies of practice turn, the vignettes and our analysis reveal the organization of 'work practices through interacting with texts, coworkers, technologies, and other objects of the material world' (Talja & McKenzie 2007, p. 101), though we have explored it in the leisure setting and treated work in an ethnomethodological sense. The findings also suggest that information activities may occur simultaneously, sequentially, and orderly; therefore, they may be examined together, rather than theoretically being isolated and narrowed down (Ikeya et al., 2010). Thus we argued not to add yet another approach to the turn, but to suggest a unique and distinctive contribution to understanding social aspects of information behaviour from within.
Although not central to this paper, our research may be relevant to communities of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991) and discussions of knowledge management in information science (Davenport & Hall, 2002; Hara, 2008). The relationship between communities of practice and ethnomethodology is yet contentious (Fox, 2006), however the ethnomethodological analysis can contribute to respecify the notion of practice (Hindmarsh, 2010) that is argued to have been lost in contemporary literature as the 'communities of practice' proliferate (Amin and Roberts, 2008). In this paper, we have identified practices that shape, use, and share knowledge that is both tacit and explicit. It is through these practices that one gains entitlement to share the relevant knowledge and that one can use such knowledge the right way, talk about it the right way, and provide the opportunity for others to learn. For the participants at the gathering, none of the practices that assemble information-related activities' e.g., using the dictionary for information search and sharing the finding, asking questions for information seeking and acquiring new information as a consequence, making use of technical competence and knowledge in relation to finding relevant information through talk-depicted in this study are (found to be) remarkable. This, in turn, evidences that they assemble the naturally occurring and mundane activities of the gathering in its organizational terms. After all, they are 'seen but unnoticed' (Garfinkel, 1967, p. 118) features that participants work out for their practical purposes and interests in learning to write a better poem and thereby learning to become a better poet.
We wish to express our appreciation the members of the utakai gathering. We also thank two anonymous reviewers and Norihisa Awamura for their comments and recommendations on the manuscript. This study was supported by Grants-in-aid for Scientific Research by Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, research project number 24530667.
About the author
Shinichiro Sakai is an adjunct lecturer at Seisen University, Tokyo, Japan. He can be contacted at: email@example.com
Ron Korenaga is a professor in Department of Communication and Media Studies, Rikkyo University, Tokyo, Japan. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tomomi Shigeyoshi Sakai is an independent scholar in sociology and a tanka poet. She can be contacted at: email@example.com