Sunday, April 27, 2008

Literacy and Class Issues

Arnecia Patterson

Class issues occur when the equalizing effect of literacy is thwarted by pedagogy that propagates hierarchical literary frames and textual responses instead of broadening students’ familiarization with writing and writing responses. At the university level, where instructors can be stylistic and liberal, there is a chance that the classroom boundaries can widen and systemic mandates can be broken to recognize the value of myriad learning styles and how they were shaped in formative
years. Writing instruction in college and university programs can reach across class lines and empower students through familiarization of the diverse discourse communities they will encounter in their lives.

By the time students matriculate through the primary and secondary levels of English instruction they are exposed to writing instruction that privileges the goals of the teacher, the institution represented by the teacher and the formats for teaching sanctioned literature of the approved canon. Secondary school writing instruction gives ample consideration to test scores, grammatical, syntactical, structural and ideological “rightness” and to students’ abilities to achieve along these lines. Less attention is paid to how students have been socialized to approach writing and how they respond to texts. Furthermore, in writing instruction the grammatical, syntactical and structural attributes of texts are couched in a context that does not consider the identity of the students. Instead, the classist monikers: black, working, middle, upper class, thug, queer, woman, white, Jew, man, and WASP lurk nearby, influencing axiologies of writing instruction and responses to literature.

Class labels assume that students’ acquisition of primary language skills acquired through socialization influence how they learn secondary language skills in formal settings. These serve as lines of demarcation between primary and secondary language acquisition and make assumptions about how formative language skills are shaped. Critical Theory pedagogues believe there is a marginalized class of individuals who lack critical consciousness of language; however these theorists base their assumptions on what they can glean from public literate artifacts, the public transcript, without accessing the hidden transcript as Ellen Cushman did in her ethnographic study, Critical Literacy and Institutional Language (Ellen Cushman).
While Cushman lived in Quayville, an upstate New York, inner-city community where she worked as a literacy tutor and conducted a three-year ethnographic study of two adult women who looked for housing following an eviction. Cushman’s study showed the participants’ had an awareness of institutional language and successfully refined their primary vernacular language in order to make interaction with institutional “gatekeepers” more successful (267). When one of the subjects needed to phone a landlord for an apartment, she asked Cushman to “help [her] sound more respectable, you know White” (259). The participant not only had critical consciousness of institutional language, but access to knowledge (through Cushman) that would increase that awareness. Her request for Cushman’s help signals the co-intentional learning referred to by Friere’s historic text, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, that contends the “oppressed…must perceive the reality of oppression as a limiting situation which they can transform” (34). The pedagogy has to “be forged with, not for, the oppressed (whether individuals or peoples) in the incessant struggle to regain their humanity (33). This is an argument for a shift in the power dynamic of the teacher-student relationship, one that foregoes class assumptions and hierarchical practices. Wider boundaries in discursive practices can cut across class assumptions to allow influential exchanges in which the hidden transcript unfolds; students no longer need to hide unique literacy and critical consciousness is increased.
Even when class assumptions about the acquisition of language are proven, it need not follow that language use is undermined by any context. In classrooms where all students achieve highly there may be distinctions of literacy related to social and economic classes. Yet the distinctions may not undermine further language acquisition. In Lowry Hemphill’s study of high-achieving teens, she found that “students…draw upon narrative practices from their families and communities…” (294) Working-class students offered detail-rich, reflexive responses to poetry that Lowry believed reflected primary skills in oral storytelling traditions; whereas, the middle-class students “stand outside text and show ‘big idea’ understanding” (291 293). Lowry suggests that teachers keep in mind that the differences in students’ responses to discourse have value and complexity that reflect a number of factors. She recommends differences be made a part of the English curriculum through peer discussion, teacher critique and the critique of outside professionals to discourse presented in classroom practices (296 297).

In the hierarchical gender construct of Jewish culture contemporary, female writers are giving a different voice to traditional folk characters (Ruth Bienstock Anolik). Their revisionist writing practices have hardly toppled the male-dominated structure in full, but have exercised a public forum in which the entire culture can “grapple with the traditional powerlessness of women in Jewish culture, the curtailing of their authority and of their voice” (40). Additionally, re-writing the voice of tradition can recognize the intersectionality theory of socially and literary constructed labels (Karen Gaffney). Intersectionality theory is useful in analyzing the discourse of writers who recognize the effect of categories in their writing. Students could learn to identify with discourse that bears a marked resemblance with or difference to their experiences, interpretations and written responses. Gaffney looks at Dorothy Allison’s novel Cavedweller as her way of fictionalizing the labels that Allison has worn her entire life. Cavedweller is not part of the English literary canon, but Gaffney’s treatise on it offers an analytical aid in meaning-making that cuts across class labels. Through intersectionality an academic gaze is maintained while class differences are recognized. Even in the larger, institutional literary canon teaching across class differences has helped to make “an imaginative connection intended to invite alliance and coalition” (Irma Maini; Jeanne Phoenix Laurel; Jane Wood; Yasmin DeGout; Deborah Thompson. Arlene Wilner; Ary Trager; Victoria Boynton; Stephen Spencer; Karen J. Hall; Dian Killian). In a two part roundtable discussion at the Northeast Modern Language Association meeting, college English instructors are teaching literature in ways that cross-fertilize likeness and examine differences to stretch the former meaning associated with these texts.

Given what we know, what are the tenets of a Theory of Empowerment that teaches the academic discourses and the discourses needed in students’ lives beyond their educational careers? As an alternative to focusing learning on the objectives of institutions, a Theory of Empowerment suggests a problem-posing, co-intentional learning environment that is inclusive of students’ unique responses to texts, established general knowledge and the means by which formative language has been acquired and used.

For works cited, see annotated bib.

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