Encyclopedia of Educational Innovation

Living Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters, Richard Heraud

Arts-Based Educational Innovation and Poetic Inquiry

  • Melisa (Misha) Cahnmann-TaylorEmail author
  • Kuo Zhang
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-2262-4_49-1


Challenging authoritative narratives to understand “exotic” others, anthropologists increasingly turn toward a variety of new, investigative forms to investigate social science questions and understandings. Educational scholars often refer to innovative and creative methodologies as “arts-based research,” embracing the highly individualized, humanistic, and evocative aspects of inquiry. From the perspective of educational scholars and poets, this entry focuses on one of the many exuberant styles of arts-based research: poetic inquiry. This entry identifies the prevalent classifications and contributions of poetic inquiry; tensions regarding validity, quality, and impact; and the possible paths for researchers to become skilled ethnographic poets.

Classifying Poetic Inquiry

Situated in a postmodern-interpretivist position, poetic inquiry refers to the use of poetry for research purposes, where poems can be used both as pathways for collecting, analyzing, and constituting data as well as where a researcher’s own poems may partially or fully represent a study’s findings. As one of the earliest pioneers, Laurel Richardson introduced poetic representation as a research method in the 1990s through presenting her sociological data in poetic form with the aim of extending dialogic interaction with readers as well as allowing emotions to enter research in the social sciences. In the early 2000s, Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor asked educators to consider the craft, practice, and possibility of poetry’s contributions in educational research, pointing to its impact on the ways in which educational scholars collect and analyze data as well as how they represent findings. Since then, numerous education scholars in the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and elsewhere have employed various classification systems to discuss how researchers use poetry, when, where, with whom, and to what ends.

Based on a 1082-page annotated bibliography elaborating the use of poetry in social sciences, Canadian scholars Prendergast, Leggo, and Sameshima (2009) classified poetic inquiry into three main categories: (1) researcher-voiced poems, those written from the researcher’s own experience; (2) participant-voiced poems, those written from interview transcripts or solicited directly from participants; and (3) literature-voiced poems, those written by the researcher inspired by disciplinary literature and theory. Similarly, University of Auckland scholars Esther Fitzpatrick and Katie Fitzpatrick have convened scholars to describe poetry’s ability to transform the scientific, evaluative, and objective pressures in educational inquiry into something beautiful, often personal, and evocative of disciplinary feeling. Distinguishing whose voice is represented in the poems, the extent to which the lines were found (e.g., in an interview or literature) versus creatively generated by the scholartist, adherence to formal qualities (e.g., a sonnet or villanelle), “free verse” or wholly new products such as the “prose poem,” much of the poetic inquiry in education has focused on naming and renaming the processes and products created when researchers engage in poetic practices.

Classification endeavors are both useful and controversial. For example, although a data poem may focus on “participant voice” or “literature voice,” ultimately the researcher is the one shaping which words are selected and in what order, implying the researcher’s voice is always ever-present regardless of whether a poem is “found” in another source or newly generated from one’s imagination. Likewise, the utility, aesthetic quality, and ethical responsibility of presenting art made from others’ voices is one that is often raised in poetic inquiry discussions at annual meetings such as the American Educational Research Association and among members of the Council on Anthropology and Education. Questions regarding authorship, attribution, validity, and consent have been raised regarding the creative work researchers may engage in as they review interview transcripts and other data sources which inform both scholarly and creative writing. Similar questions have been raised in discussions of conventional qualitative inquiry, but they become more personal when selections from an interview transcript with a student or teacher are integrated into a poem that a researcher writes and claims as her own. Whose words, whose story?

It may also be useful to classify poetic inquiry into two separate categories: scholarship that includes researcher authored poetry as discussed above and scholarship which analyzes participant-generated poems as research data. In these latter studies, the researchers write traditional academic prose for analysis and to represent findings. Several studies adopt this approach, focusing study of participants who may be students or clients writing poetry to acquire language, literacy, and/or wellness and recovery. It is rare but not surprising that few studies rely on participants’ generated poetry as data in nonclassroom or nontreatment contexts. However, does work focused on poetry data constitute poetic or conventional inquiry? Since the whole research procedure doesn’t involve writing poems by the researcher(s), this kind of scholarship tends to be more conventionally qualitative and less reliant on arts-based processes though analytic attention is given to poems generated by others and how they inform educational questions and themes.

Just as questions about the similarities and differences between poetic and conventional qualitative inquiry arise, so too questions regarding the similarities and differences between poetic inquiry and poetic craft as practiced in the literary world. For example, to what extent should ethnographic poets classify poems according to long-standing literary terms (e.g., elegies, persona poems, ballads) or invent new language for poetic forms adapted to social science contexts and purposes? These and many other questions arise as researchers classify poetic inquiry practices and products that occur during many phases of qualitative work.

Where Poetic Inquiry and Ethnography Meet

Many poetic inquiry practitioners emerge from the field of anthropology where ethnographic practices are often inspired as much by great literature as by noted social science texts. One of the earliest noted ethnographic poets, Ruth Benedict, wrote poems under the pseudonym Anne Singleton while studying under the famous anthropologist Franz Boaz. Since then, noted anthropologists Dell Hymes, Ruth Behar, Renato Rosaldo, and many others have embraced poetry as an essential companion to ethnographic fieldwork practices and inspired educational ethnographers to follow suit.

The field of anthropology in general and educational anthropology in particular have drawn explicit, disciplinary attention to the cultural borderlands between poetry and prose, as well as between scholarship and art. When ethnography meets poetry, researchers have created multiple terms to refer to the varied ways that poems become integrated with an ethnographic project, such as field poetry, ethnopoetics, fieldnote poems, ethnopoetry, ethnographic poetry, anthropological poetry, and performative autoethnographic poetry. There are multiple ways for researchers to conduct poetic ethnographic studies. Firstly, carefully documenting field notes during extended and focused study often includes attention to resonant images, quoted speech, and emotional experiences which in many ways mirror the kinds of documentation and observations engaged in by many creative writers. An important distinction is that poetic ethnographers often sustain focus in an area they have also deeply investigated empirically and theoretically. An outstanding example of this kind of merged attention is contained in the body of work of esteemed poet and anthropologist Renato Rosaldo where poems compliment his poetic ethnographic prose. In Rosaldo’s numerous poetry manuscripts, he recreates moments in the field, such as a turning point as an early scholar that included the tragic death of his wife, followed by the care for their two young sons, aged 5 and 1, during and beyond fieldwork in a remote Philippine village. Likewise, Nomi Stone’s masterful work uses poetry to reflect on her ethnographic fieldwork in varied settings, most recently in military training camps for soldiers preparing to work in Middle East conflict zones.

Secondly, poetry can provide important tools for processing and reflecting on recorded “data” as well as a form of “note-taking” that ultimately can become a kind of data itself. Many ethnographers prefer to adapt verbatim texts to poetic structures. Referring to such work as “found poetry,” the researcher assures readers of the poems’ veracity: tracing poetic content to what participants recorded words or lines of poetry retrieved and borrowed from theoretical prose or other documents. Use of found poetry may be attractive to researchers wishing to preserve aesthetic moments during fieldwork in their authentic form; however, tensions arise regarding the extent to which a “found poem” can be successful – where an ethnographic poet may document something that is both “true” to an original source and aesthetically impactful. While poets and poetic ethnographers are encouraged to “adjust what was ‘truth’ (with a lower case t) in the original and detailed accuracy and ‘Truth’ (with a capital T), that is, the depth of feeling and music in the original situation” (Cahnmann 2003, p. 33), the veracity and validity of the research project may be called into question. However, if left untouched, what was “true” may result in questionable poetic quality.

Another choice ethnographic poets make is to use researcher-generated poems as a means of member-checking and sharing work with participants for their feedback and to further elicit thoughts, feelings, and experiences. In this case, the construction of the poems is usually seen as a reflective, dialogic, and interpretive process to uncover hidden truths, expanding the emotional resonance and revealing the researcher’s own identity and positioning. Excerpts of such work may be usefully made in a researcher’s discussion of methodology, but in practice, this may cause participants unintended discomfort, burdening participants as early readers of unfinished work or work that may also be overly vulnerable: an undesired mirror to experiences shared by participants but without intentions of having them reflected back in return.

Poetic inquiry is also frequently adopted in autoethnographic studies where the researcher includes himself or herself as a study participant due to close connections to the subject of study and relates personal experiences to culture at large. As Prendergast, Leggo, and Sameshima (2009) summarized, autoethnographic researcher-voiced poems make up approximately half of studies in her review of those employing poetic inquiry. The nature of autoethnography makes it particularly powerful in understanding the lived experience with topics that may not otherwise be fully disclosed, such as the nuances of studying a second language as an adult learner (Cahnmann-Taylor 2016), Rosaldo’s experience of great personal loss during fieldwork discussed earlier, or an international graduate student’s experience of pregnancy (Zhang 2018). These and many other ethnographic poets include poems that are both personal and based on data collected through interviews and participant observations with others sharing similar, though not precisely the same, subject positioning or research context.

The integration of autoethnographic poetry with poetry informed by others’ experiences may be important for grounding a project’s validity and complexity. When autoethnographic poetry is overly focused on the researcher’s self, questions arise as to the extent to which the researcher’s life adds meaningful contributions that are important to the field. For example, poetic inquiry into the lives of public school teachers who are also mothers of school children may be based on an educational researcher’s own experience of teacher motherhood but usefully informed by interviewing other teacher-mothers. Balancing inquiry into one’s own experience with that of others may expand a project’s complexity and validity; at other times, focusing on the unique researcher’s experience may provide more cohesion and insight to a particular experience. This is not unlike comparing research which includes a case study of one participant versus a case or ethnographic study including numerous others. A similar tension exists among poets who refer to self-focused work as “confessional,” an aesthetic that has fallen out of favor for many contemporary writers who find such poems to overly inflate the self’s importance, overlooking the self as an unreliable narrator. Influenced by postmodern theories and fractured experience influenced by digital technologies, ethnographic poets, as well as poets in creative writing departments, increasingly turn toward more fragmented and experimental forms and fictional characters that challenge first-person narrative lyric modes.

In spite of the various ways of integrating poetry into ethnographic studies, an important question for all ethnographers and poetic inquirers is the extent to which any scholar or poet can plan to write about a predetermined subject under study. In comparison to found poetry where a project may be to render found texts in lyric form, other forms of (auto)ethnographic poetry may be more difficult to control and plan in advance. Having a poetry plan in advance on a series of topics to systematically match a research agenda can remove essential surprise and insight that comes from the unconscious or suspended knowledge when drafting new poems. To some extent, the successful ethnographer/poet himself/herself mustn’t overly plan or control where the poem’s content will arrive, lest the writing appear to be contrived and lacking genuine surprise, what many arts in education scholars, following Maxine Greene’s work, refer to as wide-awakeness. This remains an ongoing, parallel tension in both ethnographic and poetic worlds: the importance of embracing surprise and improvisation, as well as the importance of planning and structuring the work.

Finally, poetry and ethnography are fields entertaining ongoing questions concerning the differences between “poetry” and “prose.” Increasingly, there is greater value on training ethnographers, like all great prose writers, to consider poetic tools such as metaphor, figuration, rhythm, and resonant imagery among others to enhance academic writing’s impact as well as to impact the ideas generated themselves. Impactful educational ethnographies written by great educational ethnographers such as Shirley Brice Heath, Michelle Foster, Sofia Villenas, Frederick Erickson, Marjorie Faulstich Orellana, and others use powerful and resonant language in academic prose to understand educational phenomenon. Though rarely stated, poetic and impactful educational ethnographies are often written by scholars actively reading poetry and literature which informs the breadth and impact of the writerly strategies they use. Likewise, many poets blur the lines of prose and poetry in poetic essays, “flash fiction,” “prose poetry,” and even the “verse novel” – forms that question the false construction of genre binaries. Ethnography that attends to its literariness, making the language rich and evocative, inclusive of metaphor and the qualities of creative writing, compresses and shares the emotional and symbolic qualities of fieldwork, illustrating “old” social science themes in new, evocative ways. Hybrid genres where poetry and prose meet may be able to attract wider and more diverse audiences who may be less likely to read book-length ethnographies or ethnographic research reports. By reading poems and poetic prose, readers/audiences of educational scholartistry are invited to participate in the full emotional range of educational experience and generate new reflections and associations based on their own life experiences.

How Does One Become a Skillful Ethnographic Poet?

Characterized by conciseness and compression of words, poetry has the capacity to capture the essence and depth of human experience and enables the lengthy and complex data to be presented in a shorter form, but how does one learn to write it and write it well? Many poetic inquirers in education and related social science fields have sought extensive training in craft through poetry writing conferences, Masters in Fine Arts degree programs, and mentorship outside of their academic social science degree programs. Others have engaged in self-study through reading and writing poems. Trained more or less, many poetic inquirers may feel uncertain about their qualification to be writing and publishing “good” poetry and perhaps settle for poetry that may be “good enough” for an academic journal or book home. Recent discussions deliberate the “principles” (see Cahnmann-Taylor and Siegesmund 2018) for best practice in arts-based forms of inquiry and opportunities to create degree-bearing programs with the ability to explicitly train for success in this emerging genre.

Considering the audience for poetic inquiry might consists of art critics, research participants, community members, scholarly researchers, and the general public, it is important for authors of poetic inquiry to decide whom to write for, why, in what form, and to what end. Arts-based researchers who author poems find one another through sections of journals that host poetic inquiry including Harvard Educational Review, Journal of Language and Literacy in Education, Journal of Latinos and Education, and many others. Increasingly, panels of poetic inquirers meet at professional conferences in education, qualitative inquiry, and creative writing, exchanging strategies as well as reading lists and inspirations. In these contexts, poetic inquirers debate evaluation criteria of research poems, considering the relevance of topics and forms, the appropriateness of theoretical constructs, and the depth of data and time in the field as well as other ethical, aesthetic, and scholarly questions such as: (1) Do the poems indicate self-reflexivity about subjective values, biases, and inclinations of the researcher? (2) Do the poems convey thick description, resonant details, and multivocality? (3) Do the poems provide a significant contribution theoretically, methodologically, practically, and aesthetically? (4) Do the poems consider situational ethics and responsibility to communities under study? (5) Do the poems meaningfully connect and add to existing literature that is academic, literary, or both?

Difficult for most researchers who aren’t skilled to write, read, analyze, or critique poetry, poetic inquirers in education often remain non-mainstream. In a policy and practice climate preferring precise findings and statistical measurements, it is “difficult,” as the famed poet W.C. Williams is quoted as saying, “to get the news from poems,” just as it’s difficult or impossible to get statistical significance and achievement data from poetry. However, one doesn’t turn to poetry for “data” or “the news” but for new, resonant insight and feeling about what has been carefully observed and rendered on the page as artful science or scientific art. While great poems and lines of poetry are quoted well beyond the lifetime of the writer, most current references to ethnographic poetry in today’s climate is to discuss methodology rather than recite the poetry as a means to deliberate and build on its findings.


Based on these strengths and limitations discussed above, poetic inquiry in its numerous classifications and forms provides researchers a unique and meaningful genre in which to contemplate the voices of researchers, human study participants, and nonhuman objects considered in any educational inquiry. Although poetic inquiry can help us in the pursuit of truths, this empirical innovation is optimal when researchers follow the wise dictum from Emily Dickinson to “Tell the Truth, but Tell it Slant.” Inventions with “truth” may indeed get poetic inquirers closer to the feeling of stating something meaningful and revelatory in the ways that much conventional inquiry practices cannot.

While what’s new is often alluring, many arts-based researchers warn us against turning to poetry for the sake of novelty or as merely as an escape from prose. Rather, innovators in educational research who turn to poetry do so out of a love for the art form and the ability to render the personal, emotional, and/or resonant information learned during educational inquiry. Through poetry, some educational scholars are better equipped to persist and thrive in areas of inquiry, deepen relationships with human participants as well as the nonhuman materials in educational contexts, and offer a unique contribution to the fields of study in which poetic inquirers work.



  1. Cahnmann, M. (2003). The craft, practice, and possibility of poetry in educational research. Educational Researcher, 32(3), 29–36.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Cahnmann-Taylor, M. (2016). Imperfect tense. San Pedro: Whitepoint Press.Google Scholar
  3. Cahnmann-Taylor, M., & Siegesmund, R. (Eds.). (2018). Arts-based research in education: Foundations for practice (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  4. Prendergast, M. C., Leggo, C., & Sameshima, P. (Eds.). (2009). Poetic inquiry: Vibrant voices in the social sciences. Rotterdam: Sense Publications.Google Scholar
  5. Zhang, K. (2018). Being pregnant as an international PhD student: A poetic autoethnography. In M. Cahnmann-Taylor & R. Siegesmund (Eds.), Arts-based research in education: Foundations for practice (2nd ed., pp. 67–81). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of GeorgiaAthensUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Tatiana Chemi
    • 1
  1. 1.Aalborg UniversityAalborgDenmark