Harvard Educational Review
  1. Pregnant Bodies, Fertile Minds

    By Wendy Luttrell

    New York: Routledge, 2003. 238 pp. $23.95.

    In her new book, Pregnant Bodies, Fertile Minds, Wendy Luttrell succeeds in recasting the image of pregnant teenage girls from societal problems to logical, savvy, struggling young mothers-to-be. Combining traditional ethnographic methods with multiple methods of gathering girls’ self-representations — including self-portraits, media collages, and drama — Luttrell provides a stunningly believable picture of a particular group of pregnant teens and their reinterpretation of their identities in a postmodern world.

    Minds is the product of Luttrell’s five-year study of a public educational program for pregnant girls called the Piedmont Program for Pregnant Teens (PPT). An ethnographer and mother who has studied the intersection of motherhood and education, Luttrell arranges her analysis into three succinct parts. The book first sets a context for studying pregnant teens — a much-maligned group who are both inscribed by society’s disapproval of them as “bad” and their idealized role as inherently “good” mothers. Luttrell tackles the stereotype of bad mothers by teasing apart society’s conflicted views about teenage pregnancy:
    At the heart of America’s “war” against teenage pregnancy lie conflicts about changing social conditions — efforts toward reprivatization, changing forms of social welfare, and profound changes in the structure of race, class, and gender relationships brought about by globalization — that resonate with and evoke individual feelings and conflicts about dependency, nurturance, and protection. (p. 37)
    In Part Two, Luttrell launches into the heart of the matter: How do these girls see themselves and manage the conflict of teenage pregnancy? The beauty of Luttrell’s methodological approach is that it allows the reader access to the girls’ stories while allowing the reader to decide for him or herself what to make of the phenomenon. Several pieces of artwork produced by the PPT girls appear in this section — some in full color. Building on the various collages and self-portraits, Luttrell reveals several themes about the very conflict described in Part One. Most poignant are the ways the girls deal with the dominant representations of teen pregnancy. They develop what Luttrell calls “body smarts,” a way of both expressing grief for their loss of innocence and demonstrating their insight about how they are viewed and how they view themselves.

    Luttrell’s role as curator of the PPT girls’ artwork and dramatic performances reveals how commonly held interpretations of teenage pregnancy can be problematic. Through the lens of psychology, Luttrell uses ethnographic data from the girls’ process of creating the artwork to understand their meanings. For example, many of the girls’ media collages included pictures of money, credit cards, and luxury brand names, suggesting a certain attitude about consumerism and materialism — what Luttrell calls “money talk.” In many cases, the girls explained their use of such symbols and their desire for money as necessary to care for their babies. Luttrell interprets this money talk as part of the larger class-based and racialized discourses:
    Perhaps part of what animated the girls’ focus on money echoed back to earlier experiences of separation and loss in relation to their own mothers. . . . My point is that within this ethnographic context, the girls’ “money talk” may reflect our respective class-based structures of feeling (my middle-class-based sense of guilt and fear of failing, and the girls’ poor/working-class-based sense of envy and of exclusion), and may also be wrapped with deep seated and ambivalent feelings about maternal-child bonds. (p. 88)
    Other themes explored through the artistic creations of the girls include idealized motherhood, developing a sense of racial selfhood and identity, and defending their morality. The girls’ dramatic play-acting, an activity Luttrell facilitated to gather stories from the girls, revolved around the “pregnancy story” and often included trips to the local health clinic. Luttrell recounts an emotional moment where she is drafted by the girls to portray a pregnant girl confronted by a judgmental nurse. Despite the make-believe context of the skit, Luttrell isn’t able to be tough enough to conceal her vulnerability and burst into tears in the face of the mean nurse being portrayed by one of the PPT girls. The girls are at first impressed by her realistic portrayal, but when Luttrell reveals that she was “intimidated,” they share feelings of empathy but explain that a girl in this situation can never “let on” feelings of shame and fear. This kind of morality play revealed the very real conditions of the PPT girls’ lives and the ways they chose to represent themselves in various contexts.

    Part Three of Minds provides words of wisdom and potential roadmaps for further ethnographic research and for practitioners working with youth. Luttrell suggests the importance of engaging participants themselves in the work of representation in order to avoid the trap of assuming too much authority as researcher. In chapter six, “Entering Girls’ Worlds,” Luttrell explores the messiness of fieldwork across differences and her own journey of interpreting the data, saying,
    Other sorts of ethnographic data would have been informative and opened up ways to understand the girls’ identities and self-making. . . . But it was important to me that the self-representations activities I designed took place in the context of school because I want educators to be able to adapt such activities to classroom settings. (p. 150)
    Luttrell hints that the work of teachers is also laced with the challenges of representation by offering these activities as pedagogical tools. She reminds her audience of the importance of art in learning and the power of play and drama in adults’ understanding the worlds of teenagers in and out of crisis.

    What seems most clear about Minds is that it reaches its goals with elegance and verve. Luttrell has written a book that is accessible to a wide audience and relevant across several disciplines.

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    Book Notes

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    A Student’s Guide to Methodology
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    In the Deep Heart’s Core
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    Using Data/Getting Results
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    Pregnant Bodies, Fertile Minds
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    Lessons to Learn
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    Case Study Research
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