David B. Wilkins, faculty director of the Center on the Legal Profession, recently sat down with Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, Emily Hargroves Fisher Research Professor of Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education and the first African American woman in Harvard’s history to have an endowed professorship named in her honor, for a conversation on the art and science of portraiture.
David B. Wilkins: Sara, it is such an honor to be interviewing you for “Speaker’s Corner.” You have been such a friend and an inspiration to me for so many years, and one of the things that I’ve admired the most about you is your ability to tell the story of our people and of our country and of big concepts like respect or caring or teaching through the lens of deep engagement with individual stories. And, to be very honest, you have been an inspiration not just to me in my own work but in this issue of the magazine where we’re trying to connect the personal intergenerational stories of Black lawyers with larger themes.
I’d love to just start this conversation by asking you to talk a little bit about the idea of “portraiture,” which you have created and which has developed into a rich and vibrant methodology now being used by scholars and researchers all over the world in many different fields.
There is an intentional focus in portraiture on “goodness.” The portraitist is interested in asking what is working, what is strong, what is worthy?
Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot: Portraiture is within the realm of qualitative research. It resides within the phenomenological tradition and shares many of the characteristics of ethnography, for example. One of the main things that makes it different from other methods is that it is wedded to science—rigorous empiricism, systematic description, careful attention to detail and context—but it also includes a focus on the aesthetic. Portraiture bridges and balances science and art.
It not only recognizes the tensions that are often there between art and science, between making it accurate and truthful, and making it beautiful and inspiring, but it also recognizes the ways in which science and art need one another in order to closely and deeply examine questions of the human identity, experience, and perspective in a way that captures the specific and the granular, always within a social, cultural, and organizational context.
The other thing that is very important and somewhat different from the whole tradition of social science inquiry is that there is an intentional focus in portraiture on “goodness.” That doesn’t mean that we idealize or romanticize reality or look at life through rose-colored glasses. So much of social science research tends to be preoccupied with documenting weakness, pathology, and disease. By contrast, the portraitist is interested in asking what is working, what is strong, what is worthy? Although this shift in lens might seem trivial, it makes a big difference in what you will see, what you will focus on, what you will document, how you will interpret the data and shape the narrative. The focus is on goodness in its most complex form. I truly believe that there is a way in which the focus on goodness, in fact, allows us to reveal the weaknesses and imperfections that are always part of any human enterprise.
Another thing that is unique about portraiture is that it hopes to speak to broad and diverse audiences. You are not only addressing your academic colleagues and students—you’re seeking to speak to people beyond the walls of the academy, whom you want to invite into the conversation, and who you hope will be able to see themselves reflected in the work. The perspective and experiences of people working in the field can ultimately contribute to good theory building, to breakthroughs in ways of knowing. My work, for instance, is certainly taught in the academy, but it is also meant for whoever picks up the book, finds it interesting, and wants to be engaged by the ideas and insights found in the work. Portraiture hopes to both inform and inspire. It hopes to speak to the heart and the head. My hope is that people reading the portraits will see themselves in the narratives, that they will feel identified with the protagonists and provoked to respond, even act.
Wilkins: That’s so helpful and so beautifully said. I’d like you to maybe drill down a little bit on the kinds of questions you ask to try to get at the goodness but also to reveal the broader context. As I read your work, there have been some central questions that have preoccupied you in your inquiries.
Lawrence-Lightfoot: There are always questions about how the protagonist—and I say “protagonist” rather than “subject” because that means people have agency and perspective; they are embodied in the work in an important way. How do they tell their story, where do they begin, what are the kinds of things they talk about, how do they compose their narratives and navigate their life journeys? But I am also interested in recording the silences, the hidden places. And I want to discover both the text and the subtext of their talk.
In telling their stories, people often discover something about their feelings and their perspectives that they never understood before. In the process of doing this work, you’re engaging people in a process of discovery, revelation, and insight. As one adolescent said to me several months ago during an interview, surprising himself with his fluency of thought, “Could you stop the tape and could you play it back to me? I never knew I was so smart!”
The conversations around our dinner table often reflected this yin and yang: the individual interior human experience against the backdrop of the structural, institutional, cultural, and historical forces that mold us.
Originally I pioneered portraiture because I wanted to study the culture and character of high schools, research that resulted in my book The Good High School. I had been well trained in quantitative methods. After all, I was originally a mathematics major in college. I loved numbers. I loved the discreet, clear, reliable way of seeing the world and counting things. I had also been trained in ethnography. But, neither of those approaches seemed to be ample enough—complex enough—to document the culture of these high schools. I found these school environments deeply theatrical, and I wanted to find a way to convey that sense of drama. The flatness of so much ethnography on the one hand and the numerical counting of discrete variables on the other just did not capture what I hoped to study.
So, I was trying to invent this way of seeing, interpreting, and recording that would begin to capture the theater, the art, and the science. Initially it was an act of exploration and invention, and it was not supported by my senior colleagues, who warned me, “Don’t do this now before you have tenure. It will not be seen as sufficiently rigorous or academically serious.” How could a junior scholar possess the audacity to try to invent a new social science methodology?
Wilkins: You talked a little bit about the marriage of art and science, but there’s also a deep marriage of the personal and the more observational or theoretical. For me, I encountered this in reading, from my point of view, the most beautiful book that you have written, which I’ve given to everyone to give to their mothers and to celebrate their mothers, Balm in Gilead. I wonder how you think about taking the idea of something so deeply personal—your own way of seeing the world, which was wrapped up for you in the history of not just your mother but your father and your whole family history—and using that as a lens to speak about these broader structural issues of race and class and gender and history. How do you think about putting those realms together, realms that oftentimes you’re told to keep totally separate?
Lawrence-Lightfoot: I often think about my favorite storyteller, Eudora Welty, who always said, “I never begin with the general, always the particular.” In the particular resides the general. This is a very different way of thinking about generalization. Artists of all kinds use this perspective in their work. As we get closer and closer to the specific, the particular, we discover the universal human experience. And good storytelling always requires attention to the specific details and context of a person’s experience. When we read a story well told, we often discover ourselves in it, even if the narrative takes place in a strange land, very far away.
If I’m interviewing you or if I’m talking to my brother, who is also a law professor, it immediately becomes apparent that you have deeply etched motivations for doing the work that you do—and those motivations are largely related to life stories and even more particularly to family stories.
Another reason I join the personal and the public, the micro and the macro, in my work has even older origins. I grew up in a family with a mother who was a psychoanalyst, a psychiatrist, and a pediatrician who always began stories looking from the inside out, focused on the interior landscape of a person. That’s where she landed first, and that’s what she was interested in. She was deeply introspective herself, but in her conversations with others, she would always begin by exploring individual perspective and feeling. My father was a sociologist—a macrosociologist and theoretician—who studied structural and historical phenomena, focusing on race, class, gender, and large social and political movements, exploring things from the outside in. So the conversations around our dinner table often reflected this yin and yang: the individual interior human experience against the backdrop of the structural, institutional, cultural, and historical forces that mold us.
How do I create a narrative that reflects the convergence of both these realms? It just seems to come very naturally. I do believe that these private, intimate, deeply probing conversations I had with my mother in Balm in Gilead reveal larger structural issues and expose them in a way that makes them more dynamic and less abstract and much more understandable on a granular level. Portraiture allows for that meeting of two worlds, that crossing of boundaries. I have to also say that my mother was an extraordinary and gifted interviewee. As a psychiatrist, and by temperament, she was deeply introspective and reflective and not afraid to explore ancient feelings of struggle and trauma or trace the origins of her strength and resilience. So Balm in Gilead not only reflects the soul of a relationship between a mother and a daughter, it is also, interestingly, a conversation between Margaret, the psychiatrist, and Sara, the sociologist.
The preparation and training of lawyers needs to be more humanistic, supporting an environment of teaching and learning that allows students to express their whole selves, their gifts, their life stories in preparation for their work as advocates and justice seekers.
Wilkins: In describing your parents, in addition to their personal histories and their social context, you also emphasize their professional identities. I wonder how you think that aspect fits in. I’m particularly interested, of course, in the professional background of lawyers. I know that you have painted portraits of several other lawyers in your writings, so I wonder if you have anything that you’ve learned around professional identity generally, but also in particular, around lawyers’ professional identity, as you do this work.
Lawrence-Lightfoot: There’s always a life story that is deeply embedded in people’s chosen professional identity. I prefer to call it “work identity.” But one of the things that often happens in professional training of all kinds—whether it be a lawyer, a doctor, or a teacher—is that we tend to diminish or submerge our life stories. We might forget, for instance, to use our life experiences as a catalyst for shaping our work, doing our research, or writing, as part of our pedagogy if we’re teaching or as an anchor for our care and empathy if we’re doctors. Those connections between work identity and autobiography are compelling. If I’m interviewing you or if I’m talking to my brother, who is also a law professor, it immediately becomes apparent that you have deeply etched motivations for doing the work that you do—and those motivations are largely related to life stories and even more particularly to family stories. Where does this passion, this insight, this intention, this intelligence in the work come from? How has it grown up in you and given your professional identity shape?
Your piece on your uncle John Robinson Wilkins does not come out of the blue. It’s very much part of a long, enduring, and deeply rooted family story. So, part of understanding yourself and part of doing your work well is learning about and exploring that particular story. It’s particularly important for people who are teachers because we are guiding and shaping new generations of professionals.
From my point of view, the preparation and training of lawyers needs to be more humanistic, supporting an environment of teaching and learning that allows students to express their whole selves, their gifts, their life stories in preparation for their work as advocates and justice seekers.
Wilkins: You and I were recently talking about some of the difficulties in this time of COVID—of being home, of loneliness, of dealing with death, of social unrest and protest. Many of the people reading this are experiencing similar things. I wonder what you might say to them about how to try to claim the beauty and the voice and the narrative in their own lives in these challenging times.
Lawrence-Lightfoot: Let’s begin with this: those of us who have work that consumes us, who are living in homes that shelter us with refrigerators that are full of food, must recognize that we are privileged and fortunate people. Part of seeing the beauty is recognizing how fortunate we are to be able to enjoy this abundance. During these anxious and difficult times, I have tried to develop a discipline of seeing the beauty around me. The other day I was feeling as low as I have ever felt. I was changing sheets on my bed, feeling just generally wiped out and too focused on these quotidian tasks that seem to be overtaking my life. I decided to put a gorgeous bedspread and lovely pillows on my bed and sit down for a moment to gaze at all of the beauty around me. I wanted to remember all of the stories and experiences that were reflected in my surroundings. I wanted to count my blessings. I was deep into this meditation when I heard some footsteps on the stairs. The only footsteps that sound like that are my son’s, and they sounded exactly the same way when he was 12. He’s 36 years old now and he’d come in just for a brief visit, popped in, and I thought, again, “There’s a blessing.” This is a whole kind of experience of mothering this child who’s no longer 12, who’s 36, who’s grown into a fine man. And he came in my room and immediately said, “Oh, Mom, this is a beautiful place. You’re surrounded by beautiful things.” There is a way of meditating on that which is good.
Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot is the Emily Hargroves Fisher Research Professor of Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education and the first African American woman in Harvard’s history to have an endowed professorship named in her honor.
David B. Wilkins is the Lester Kissel Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, vice dean for Global Initiatives on the Legal Profession, and faculty director of the Center on the Legal Profession.