Literacy and Social Action

This Area is my treatment of the field of literacy studies.  Literacy is a concern for many different disciplines, which of course have a different take on literacy.  For neuroscientists, for instance, literacy is a human mental action or function that can be studied for how it works, what it triggers neurologically, etc.  For philosophers, thinking about literacy involves the use of written signs that somehow compete with or combine with other forms of language and communication, making words and what they convey into material things detached from speakers.

My study of literacy is an attempt to harmonize two different perspectives of literacy.  One is the study of literacy as a sociocultural phenomenon, based on historical and anthropological work that conceptualizes literacy as an evolved, human cultural practice.  This body of work has itself evolved over time, and spawned a sub-field called literacy studies.  Overlapping with this kind of study of literacy is another, the perspective suggested by the term critical literacy, which has some relationship to critical pedagogy more generally, and even more generally than that, critical theory.  What I will try to argue in this area is that, from a pedagogical perspective, critical literacy efforts, which have a commitment to fostering literacy as a type of social action (in the sense that organizing a union, staging a protest, or writing a subversive poem is social action), need to grasp some fundamental insights of literacy studies.  In addition, literacy studies as a research field is theoretically interested in literacy as social action in a different sense, in the sense of social action as a means that humans engage in cultural and communicative interaction.  Insofar as literacy studies wishes to make sense of contemporary dynamics of texts, readers, and writers, it also has to do business with critical literacy as a force and factor shaping who reads and writes and what it means to read and write.

This argument begins with some definitional works on the meanings of “critical,” “sociocultural,” and “social action” from the research literature.  First, I will review some readings that describe the pre-history of Paulo Freire and critical pedagogy, and trace how a certain idea of the meanings and purposes of literacy evolved part and parcel with late 20th Century revolutionary movements which were a reaction to modern forms of domination, political, institutional, and cultural.  Then, I will analyze some key texts of Freire himself, and subsequent critical literacy and critical pedagogy works, to demonstrate that critical literacy is full of contradictions owing to the particular sociocultural circumstances of its emergence and development.

Then, I will present readings that summarize the development of the field of literacy studies, which began by trying to apprehend the landmark shifts in human communication, cognition, and society that resulted from the spread of literacy.  This trend of proclaiming how literacy changed everything eventually gave way to an alternative view, the “New Literacy Studies,” which argued for more carefully contextualized and particular ways that literacy made a difference than the grand, universal claims of previous works.  The New Literacy Studies (NLS) more carefully and descriptively detailed the uses and effects of literacy, with studies that identified how literacy operated as a social practice in particularly situated ways– not “literacy equals this or that,” but “in this context, literacy meant this and literacy meant that.”  But that perspective is increasingly challenged by its shortcomings in accounting for the dynamics, movements, and scales of influence that actually constitute what literacy is and how it is practiced today.  I offer a reading of New Literacy Studies that the field itself contended with contradictory conceptions and roles of power and knowledge.

Then, I arrive at a more careful review of various syntheses of the critical literacy and sociocultural literacy perspectives.  These works try in different ways to reconcile the divergent theoretical frameworks, knowledge commitments, and objectives of literacy studies and critical literacy.  These various works, taken together, represent my view of literacy as social action–both a descriptive research approach and a pragmatic social project.

I end by pointing to some various avenues that I think take up this challenge of treating literacy as both a sociocultural phenomenon and as a social-critical task.  These include some forms of participatory and action research, some forms of discourse analysis, and some kinds of teaching practice.  In sum, I hope to demonstrate that literacy “can’t be neutral on a moving train,” to use Howard Zinn’s phrase, and literacy researchers and educators must recognize and act on that.

Preschool for All Kids- Now is the Time.

Alongside a federal push for Universal Pre-K, California has some political momentum towards expanding its Transitional Kindergarten or some other means of widely broadening voluntary preschool access, especially for low-income and immigrant kids.  How this will happen–and particularly how it’s paid for–are still in negotiation, but there are lots of reasons, fiscal and otherwise, why it’s a worthy investment.  This repository of links and fact sheets is a good resource for FAQs on the issue, from a pro-preschool perspective.

There are many ways to address the achievement gap (or the educational debt to non-dominant communities), but this particular idea has strong research, good sense, broad appeal, and ideal timing.  Most important of all, investing in good quality preschool means good things for kids’ life outcomes.  I’ll be particularly curious and watching for how it influences multilingual kids, immigrant families, and dual language learning programs.  But as a matter of policy we can get behind, this is one whose time has come for California.

Empire Criticism: McKnight on Wright

This is some biblical studies nerd stuff, but I’ve been very influenced by Empire Criticism, a current trend in biblical studies that reads a counter-imperial message in Jesus and Paul, and of course particularly the form that NT Wright has advanced.  Scot McKnight, a scholar and blogger whose subtlety I appreciate and interests I share, though I don’t always agree with his nuancing, edited a book on empire criticism (oversimplified: “taken too far”) and responds to Wright’s latest articulation (oversimplified: “not taken too far”) in a manner that I appreciate.  Holler back if anyone else reading this cares; to me, with my theological and spiritual interests, it’s of monumental importance.

From Common Prayer:

Make us worthy, Lord, to serve our brothers and sisters throughout the world, who live and die in poverty and pain. Give them today, through our hands, their daily bread and, through our understanding, love; give peace and joy. Amen.


Comic book: Hawkeye

Plenty of raves out there about this comic (not quite my favorite of 2013, which has to go to Building Stories, which is so good I can’t even bring myself to finish it).  But if you find the superheroes thing boring (even the movies are boring me), besides the crackling wit of Fraction’s dialogue (only Brian K. Vaughan is better, to me, right now), the pitch-perfect visual storytelling (a master lesson–one day I’ll post my thoughts about the evolving grammar of American comics, via Eisner and McCloud and Chris Ware), and the not-quite-too-cute-but-close meta-commentary (my favorite so far, in ish 11 about “pizza dog”: “this is what does pretty much every day because he is a dog”), the reason you need to read Hawkeye is that it also wants to envision heroism without superpowers, and finds those very words getting caught in its own throat.  Like young America, it dares not utter the idea of “hero” in the shadow of the monumental artifice of superpowerdom, but it also does not need to flee in the other direction, nihilistic anti-heroism.  In resisting both sentimentalism and brutal realism by vacillating helplessly between them at just the right frequencies, it’s perfectly American, perfect for our times.

Fatherhood: a confession

I had a thought today that terrified me.

Lately, we’ve been downed by flu, and trying to play keep-up and catch-up while recovering, I was mentally sapped.  So I started losing patience with my daughter, blowing up when those daily, minute acts of self-assertion that I read as defiance tipped me over into raw impatience.  I popped a balloon she loved, threw a toothbrush, that kind of stuff.  Brutish daddy.

She is all too forgiving and I apologize, which I don’t feel ambivalent about despite my breeding.  But while I openly apologize and discuss my weaknesses with my daughter, and I think that’s okay, I also know I’m still a voice of authority, and a vital one to her.  It’s hard to figure out that balance when she’s three.

The startling thought that came to me: the voice I use with my daughter when I’m upset is the voice she could internalize as the voice of authority, even the voice of God.  To me, the inner voice of God, the voice of authority, is confused, deeply confused, so that when I’m attacked, I respond with defensiveness, survivalist reflexes.  I find it hard to accept that God could be displeased with something I’m doing, yet do so out of love and at the same moment desire my well-being and restoration.  Let alone, that he could be a quietly persistent voice, steadily walking beside me, encouraging me day by day and moment by moment to course-correct on the narrow walk.  That was not the voice of authority in my youth.  I wanted to hide from authority, from fatherliness, until I could either prove myself or defend myself from its judgments.  It’s a part of why I so lack character and discipline.

Is the voice with which I speak to my daughter one that she will internalize as a faithful, persistent, encouraging and emboldening voice of inner discipline and patience, of forgiveness and renewal, of tenderness and toughness, of grace and gratitude?  Or will it be one that she hides from, fears because it is explosive and out of control, turns into accusation and blame before it pendulum-swings into regret and shame?  Do I sound more like the future abusive husband I fear, or the grace-filled Counselor I’m supposed to represent?

Tomorrow morning, we will have breakfast together.  I’ll need quite a lot of grace myself to be a different man, a new person, with her.  Hopefully, to be part of teaching her the real way the fabric of God’s universe trembles with his mercy and truth, in a way that gets in her bones.