Saturday, April 12, 2008

Literacy and Class Issues

Arnecia Patterson

The sources listed below acknowledge the interconnectedness of reading, writing and identity-making in the acquisition of language and its use. Teachers and students will find them helpful in gaining awareness of the diversity of responses to language and how society, class and culture affect language learning in communities and in formal settings. Essays, research articles, roundtable discussion transcripts and one
book chapter provide an historic and contemporary awareness of the gender, economic, race and pedagogical factors that bear on literacy. These sources may be helpful to practitioners who want to know more about how literacy is shaped by class and cultural identity, how those experiences present as learning styles and what can be done to address class issues in teaching English. Sources include the work of instructors, researchers and educators with personal experiences to draw on and provide insight to their investigation of literacy and class issues.
Modern Language Studies 32 (2002) published a number of articles in various formats that examined class and race issues from different perspectives, so several articles from that issue are included here. Two research papers from Research in the Teaching of English (33) 1999 give significant, yet different, analysis of class influence on language. Chapter One of the cornerstone text of Critical Consciousness Theory, Paolo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is cited as well.

Anolik, Ruth Bienstock. “Appropriating the Golem, Possessing the Dybbuk: Female Retellings of Jewish Tales.” Modern Language Studies 31 (2001): 39-55. Anolik’s essay privileges the revisionist writing practices of Marge Piercy, Cynthia Ozick, Ellen Galford and Judith Katz in their treatment of mythical Jewish folk figures. It provides an in-depth analysis of the work of contemporary, feminist Jewish women who write in the same Jewish tradition that has disempowered and silenced women by denying them access to language. Anolik writes about how Piercy and Ozick, who treat the Golem figure, and Galford and Katz, who treat the Dybbuk figure, have transcended former Jewish classism by giving a female voice to the status of these mythical figures. She references the work of noted, feminist, literary theorists, Helene Cixous, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar and Virginia Woolf. The essay contends that Jewish folktales are more flexible and amenable to revisionist tactics than the staid, formal, male dominated Jewish texts, the Talmud and Torah.

Cushman, Ellen. “Critical Literacy and Institutional Language.” Research in the Teaching of English 33 (1999): 245-274. The author is a white Cherokee instructor at the University of California at Berkely who conducted three years of ethnographic field work. She studied the critical consciousness of thirteen African-American families, who had to obtain new housing after being evicted in Quayville, an upstate New York, inner city community. With this study Cushman wants to suggest new directions for Critical Theory pedagogues who operate from the assumptions of a “public transcript” (248) of language that does not give an authentic representation of the critical consciousness of language utilized by the disenfranchised when faced with the language conventions of institutions. Her findings contend that the disenfranchised have the ability “to move from na├»ve consciousness to critical consciousness through normative language conventions” (247). Over three years an ethnographic field study of the thirteen families was conducted through participant observation and the study of literate artifacts exhibiting the rhetorical tactics established by the subjects in their communication with institutions. The study offers suggestions to Critical Theory pedagogues to “recast their theories and practices” that could lead to oppression (249). Cushman experienced a number of evictions with her family as a girl and one eviction during the course of the study.

Friere, Paolo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972. Chapter 1 of Friere’s famous, historic text is a primary source for the study of Critical Theory or Critical Consciousness Theory examined by Cushman in her ethnographic research in Critical Literacy and Institutional Language. Paolo Friere, a Brazilian scholar and educator, was exiled in 1964 for his literary programs for the poor. While at Harvard he wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the theoretical, educational framework of Critical Consciousness Theory, “the pedagogy of the oppressed…an instrument for …critical discovery…” (33). Friere calls his pedagogy “co-intentional education” (56), a political act that transforms oppressive social structures. Friere writes that “A revolutionary leadership must accordingly practice co-intentional education. Teachers and students (leadership and people), co-intent on reality…not only in the task of unveiling that reality…but in the task of re-creating that knowledge.”

Gaffney, Karen. “Excavated from the Inside”: White Trash and Dorothy Allison’s “Cavedweller”.” Modern Language Studies 32 (2002): 43-57. Kimberly Crenshaw’s Theory of Intersectionality is the method of investigation used by Gaffney in her essay on Dorothy Allison’s novel, Cavedweller. Crenshaw, a legal scholar and Critical Race theorist espouses that intersectionality undoes the restrictions and exclusions that hold race and gender to one category at a time; thereby, ignoring the simultaneous positions individuals can hold in multiple categories. Allison, herself, is a self-described “queer white trash” who rewrites and resists the myth of white trash in her re-empowering novels, poetry and essays. Through two of Crenshaw’s theories, representational intersectionality, how multiple categories intersect to represent a cultural image, like white trash, and political intersectionality, Crenshaw’s fundamental theory that people hold multiple, categorical class positions simultaneously, Gaffney analyzes Cavedweller. She focuses on Allison’s themes that antagonistic relationships between the oppressed groups within races are constructed and perpetuated by the powerful classes, in order to maintain their power, and that they blame poor whites as responsible for their own poverty.

Hemphill, Lowry. “Narrative Style, Social Class, and Response to Poetry.” Research in the Teaching of English 33 (1999): 275-304. Think-aloud responses to literary narratives for the purpose of reconstructing narrative text worlds and recounting personal experiences while reading are the methods used by Dr. Hemphill of Wheelock College Language and Literary Department. Her subjects are ten, 15 year old Honors English students in a large, urban high school, divided into two groups: working-class and middle-class. Hemphill’s study compares the stylistic differences in narration styles of each group, contrasts each group’s response to poetry and makes associations between styles. She assesses the oral language, reading and writing skills of the subjects through peer conversation, oral narrative, think-aloud responses and written essays on literature. Her findings conclude that social class is a relevant variable in primary discourse styles, learned in early socialization, and secondary discourse styles, learned in formal schooling. The students’ responses to literature and interpretive skills reflect the influence of community and class narrative conventions and membership in different speech communities.

Maini, Irma, Jeanne Phoenix Laurel, Jane Wood, Yasmin DeGout, Deborah Thompson. “What’s White Got to Do with It?: Teaching Whiteness. Part I.” Modern Language Studies 32 (2002): 103-132. In the transcript of a roundtable presentation by English and Humanities instructors at the Northeast Modern Languages Association Convention 2000 in Pittsburg, PA discussion is about teaching the texts of European and European American writers in an ethnographic context. Professors are active teachers and scholars at New Jersey City University, Niagara University, Baker University, Howard University and Colorado State University. They present a recounting of their experiences and student responses to being assigned texts and writing on literature that investigates ethnic communities, or develops whiteness along lines of racial identity, privilege and power. Panelists discuss the complications in teaching whiteness and audience members continue the discussion in an extensive question and answer session following the panel presentation. Handouts include an annotated list of critical resources and primary texts from Jeanne Phoenix Laurel of Niagara University.

Miller, Richard E. “The Arts of Complicity Pragmatism and the Culture of Schooling.” Cross-Talk In Comp Theory, A Reader. 2nd ed. Ed. Victor Villanueva. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 2003. 655-675. Miller’s essay serves as a comprehensive link between Ellen Cushman’s ethnographic research article, Critical Literacy and Institutional Language, and Chapter One of Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Miller praises Frierian pedagogy as an appealing contribution to the field of composition while questioning its influence. He supports its appeal by pointing out the salient points of Frierian pedagogy such as the differences between the banking method of instruction and the problem-posing method: the establishment of a partnership between teacher and student that does not result in indoctrination by the oppressor. Miller states that Friere’s methods “leeches the power dynamic out of the student-teacher relationship” (659). He references the discussion of “public transcript” and “hidden transcript” in James Scott’s Domination and the Arts of Resistance and applies it to the authenticity of classroom interaction in light of teacher enforced boundaries. Can teachers accept at face value the public transcript of the classroom if students have a hidden transcript on which they record classroom experiences? Miller argues that the boundaries of the classroom do not allow an authentic interaction. Finally, Miller states that he wants a pragmatic pedagogy by which instructors can teach students “how to work within and against discursive constraints simultaneously, thereby helping them to experience the mediated access to “authenticity” that social action allows” (674).

Wilner, Arlene, Avy Trager, Victoria Boynton, Stephen Spencer, Karen J. Hall, Dian Killian. “What’s White got to Do with It?: Teaching Whiteness. Part II. Modern Language Studies 32 (2002): 133-173. In the continuation of Part I of the Northeast Modern Language Association Conference 2000 in Pittsburg, PA panelists represent Rider University, University of New Hampshire, SUNY Cortland, Wilmington College (Ohio), Syracuse University and Case Western Reserve University. Panelists talk about various approaches to teaching whiteness, how to arrange textual study, how to group readings so that discussions can build on previous readings, language use that portrays combative stances in teaching literature and a seminar on Irish Emigrant Discourse from colonial and racial contexts. Panelists continue the discussion with the audience following the presentation. There are seven handouts attached to the transcript: Final Essay Topics, Teaching Objectives, Confrontational Quotes, Student On-line, Informal Quotes, Writing to Awaken, Bibliography of Irish History and Culture as People of Color, The Irish as Black in Colonial Discourse, Irish/Emigrant Literature/Discourse, Irish Emigrant Literature Syllabus.

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