Feminist post-structuralism by Carmen Luke: a plain language edit

Entry #9 Challenge Accepted!

At a meeting last week, my Literacy Learning professor, Dr. Susan Walsh, suggested that it would be interesting to see if I could do a plain language translation of a particularly dense article we read for class: Luke, C. Feminist Post-Structuralism in Guzetti, B. (2002). Literacy in America: An encyclopedia of history, theory, and practice (Vol. 2). 189

Disclaimer: I’m calling this a plain language edit and NOT a plain language translation because, given the limits of time and cost, I did NOT do the following:

  • contact the original author for clarification
  • research my audience
  • test a draft version with a representative sample of my audience
  • hire an illustrator and graphic designer to express ideas that I felt would come across more clearly in images than in words

What I did:

  • I used personal pronouns such as “you” and “we” to engage the reader.
  • I broke long sentences with multiple ideas into shorter sentences each containing one idea.
  • I used the simplest words I could find.
  • I turned negatives to positives where possible and, where it was NOT possible, I emphasized the negative so it could NOT be overlooked.
  • I used the same words to mean the same thing instead of rephrasing.
  • I reorganized information to keep subject matter together.
  • I removed information that, otherwise, would have required extensive research and explanation (assumed knowledge).

Given the subject matter, I took my audience to be people like me, first-year graduate students studying literacy. We all have at least one university degree but they are in various fields and it may have been many years since we have read academic work.

Feminist post-structuralism by Carmen Luke: a plain language edit

To understand feminist post-structuralism, you have to know a little bit about an earlier theory called structuralism.

What is structuralism?

Structuralism is a way of explaining the world. It began in the 1600s during a time called the Enlightenment. During this time, people began to explain the world around them using reason and science. They looked for truth by doing calculations and experiments. The structuralists believed the following:

  • Each of us is in control of our own life.
  • We are more than just our bodies.
  • Language has true, fixed meaning.
  • We use language to express ourselves.
  • We can control language.
  • Knowledge is truth.
  • History is a series of events that lead to an ideal state.
  • Power is in the hands of one person or group and is used to punish.

What is post-structuralism?

When you see post in front of a word, it means after. Post-structuralism means after structuralism.

Post-structuralism is a social theory often linked to the work of Michel Foucault.

Who was Michel Foucault?

“Michel Foucault was a French philosopher and historian. His best known works are Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality.” This quote is from bio. True Story where you can read more about Michel Foucault.

Post-structuralism and history

In addition to coming after structuralism, post-structuralism is also a response to it and a criticism of it. For example, post-structuralists do NOT see history as a series of events that lead to a goal but a cluster of events with NO beginning and NO order. Instead of one thing leading to another, post-structuralists believe that things happen by chance. Mass literacy, for example, came about because two things happened to happen at the same time:

  • Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press
  • Protestantism was taking hold in Europe and with it the belief that every person should have access to the Bible

Post-structuralists also give as much importance to what history does NOT say as to what it says. It looks at the people and events that are left out of history.

Post-structuralism and knowledge

Foucault argued that society makes its own knowledge using history, politics, and the circumstances surrounding events. Knowledge is closely related to Foucault’s concept of “discourse.” Discourse, for Foucault, is knowledge and practices that are accepted by society and used by society to define objects in the world. So, according to Foucault, knowledge can never be thought of without also thinking of the context in which it is made and the power relationships within that context. For example, the knowledge of particular courses of study can only be thought of in relation to schools. Knowledge and practice build on each other and confirm each other. Knowledge-as-discourse is a system of theories, ideas, and statements about objects in the world that we accept as true. We believe these things to be true because the rules and procedures surrounding them lead us to believe it. For example, we believe the information written in textbooks to be true because of the way our society treats education. Society has handed over most education to schools. Schools and the school system are top-down organizations filled with power relationships and given legitimacy through legislation. Therefore, if a group of highly-educated, powerful individuals says that a certain textbook should be taught in schools, we—parents, students, and teachers—believe the information contained in the textbook to be true.

Because knowledge is made by society and depends on context, it is changeable. In fact, knowledge can be different for different people at the same time.

Post-structuralism and power

For post-structuralists, power and knowledge go hand in hand.  Like knowledge, power is made by society using history, politics, and the circumstances surrounding events. All social relationships are power relationships. Think of parents and children or judges, juries, and the accused. We accept these power relationships because they are supported by the knowledge and practices that we, as society, accept. We use power as much as others use it over us.  For example, teachers have power over students. Teachers decide

  • what questions are asked of whom and how they are asked
  • how to give out information and how they want it interpreted
  • where students sit in the classroom
  • how students are tested and how those tests are graded

At the same time, others have power over teachers, such as

  • principals
  • school boards
  • departments of education
  • society at large as expressed in the culture of education in particular society

Everything that has to do with education—educational theory, practices, rules, laws, and policies—creates power relationships between everyone who is involved in the education system.

Power and knowledge build on each other and change relationships in the process. For example, the current education system including the Minister of Education, the Department of Education and certain universities together have the power to decide who gets teaching credentials—the B.Ed. Teachers’ unions and school boards have the power to give teaching jobs to some people with B.Eds. Those people become teachers. Teachers have power over students as already described. Also, a large group of people and organizations have power over teachers including

  • the Minister of Education
  • the Department of Education
  • the teachers’ union
  • school boards
  • school principals

Students also have power because it is what they produce, and how they produce it, that becomes the knowledge that feeds the power structure. Teachers and others in the education system interpret this knowledge and use it to create new ideas such as what it means to be “at risk” or “special needs;” new policies for dealing with such students; and new subjects to be taught such as English as a second language.

Teachers power relationships change as their circumstances change:

  • They may help to develop courses of study so may be seen as experts.
  • They may play leadership roles.
  • They may leave their teaching positions to become principals, or part of the school board or department of education.
  • They may run for office and be appointed Minister of Education.

Note: Rather than explaining the above in words, if this were a true plain language document, I would work with a graphic designer and illustrator to create a graphic representation of these changing power relationships. I am not such a person and the limited options given me by Microsoft Word, and my limited ability in using them, were not adequate.

Post-structuralism and language

For post-structuralists, language is the way we know what we know. Language does NOT have fixed, true meaning. Language gives meaning to what is going on around us including how we see ourselves, how we see the world, and how we live our lives.

Post-structuralism and the self

Instead of referring to you and I as individuals, post-structuralists refer to each of us as “the subject.” They believe that each of us is a product of society—that we are forever changing depending on our circumstances and surroundings.

Post-structuralists call our sense of self “subjectivity.” Subjectivity includes our thoughts, our memories, our dreams, and our emotions. This subjectivity comes mostly from our circumstances, surroundings, and the knowledge and practices we see in society.

But in our everyday lives we see more than one kind of knowledge and more than one way of doing things. There are many and often, they are in conflict. So we, as subjects, are always negotiating—choosing one position and then another constantly. One moment we choose the dominant position, the next we rebel, and the next we try to bring conflicting positions together.

Remember, because knowledge is created by society, it is always shifting as well. Everything is fluid. Nothing is fixed. And we are part of society as well, so we can change knowledge and the ways we do things. Knowledge forms us. We form knowledge. Everything is constantly changing.

Feminist post-structuralism

Feminist post-structuralism and history

Feminist post-structuralism adds another layer to post-structuralism. Remember, we said that post-structuralists give as much importance to what history does NOT say as to what it says—that it looks at the people and events that are left out of history. For feminist post-structuralists, what is mostly left out of history are the lives and experiences of women. Feminist post-structuralists look for those silences that represent women and their stories.

Feminist post-structuralists argue that history as we know it, the stories of “great men” and events, leaves out local histories, and the voices and memories of women and people of colour. They have also begun to rewrite history showing how the rule of men and colonialism worked together to silence women and people from all but the Western cultures. In this way, they show that what was once thought of as truth is really just one way of seeing the world.

Feminist post-structuralism and language

Remember that for post-structuralists, language is the way we know what we know. Feminist post-structuralists argue that because of a long period of time during which words to describe women, girls and their experiences were hidden or “included” in words like “he,” and “man,” women lost their voice, their self-expression.

Because, as we said earlier, post-structuralists believe that language gives meaning to what is going on around us including how we see ourselves, how we see the world, and how we live our lives, the absence of words to describe women mean that women do not even have a true sense of ourselves. We have been denied an education, a voice, and have been unable to write ourselves into history. Feminist post-structuralists are trying to take hold of language for women but their words still reflect the male way of speaking.

Reflections on Language

Notebook entry #8

I have spent a lot of time thinking about language both as part of my Literacy Learning class and because I refer to myself as a plain language consultant. So this week’s notebook is about some basic questions surrounding language:

  • How is language defined?
  • Is language uniquely human?
  • Is identity formed through language?
  • Does language limit us?
  • What does this mean for plain language?

How is language defined?

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary Second Edition has seven definitions of language

  • “the method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in an agreed way
  • the language of a particular community or country
  • any method of expression (body language; sign language)
  • the faculty of speech; a  style or faculty of expression; the use of words, etc; course, crude or abusive speech
  • a system of symbols and rules for writing computer programs or algorithms
  • a professional or specialized vocabulary
  • literary style”

Is language uniquely human?

Apart from the third definition of language listed above, this would appear to be so. After all, language is primarily defined as “the method of human communication” and the other definitions point to words or other systems unique to humans. Brent Davis, Rebecca Luce-Kapler, and Dennis Sumara in Engaging minds: Learning and teaching in a complex world touch on this when they state: that “there has been an emphasis on the uniquely human ability to use words to refer to words, which is the quality that distinguishes mere communicative capacity from the powerfully recursive phenomenon of language. (Many species have been demonstrated to have sophisticated communication systems, but only humanity seems to have developed the self ­referential and recursive use of words—that is, language.)” The authors go on to say that from an ecological postmodern perspective, this view of language as uniquely human has led to “troublesome consequences of humanity’s language­-based habit of thinking itself apart from and superior to the natural world.” (176)

Is identity formed through language?

Many writers have stated that language helps to define each one of us as individual human beings. In her doctoral dissertation, Troubling experiences: Female subjectivity and fear in teaching, Susan Walsh asks the question, “How is language implicated in how we come to know ourselves and how we make sense of our lives?” (169) Likewise, Davis et al in Engaging minds ask “Is identity constructed by language? Or does language arise in the need for human subjects to communicate?” (157) and “… is the self really in existence prior to language, experience, and education? Or might it be that who one becomes is the product of cultural influence and social interaction?” (168)  A little further on they state that “within language, humans have the capacity to create senses of personal identity and to theorize about that act of creation.” (168) “In other words, all these technological elaborations of language are enfolded in every human subject’s experience of self.” (170) And in fact, “Language appears to be the most important self­-making technology. As a tool of consciousness, language greatly enables our limited capacities to gather ideas and to note relationships.” (171) Davis et al state that humans use language to “[shape] the worlds in which they exist and the identities that they assume in those worlds.” (176)

While all of this sounds wonderful — like we are in control of our destinies as long as we are in control of our language, Patti Capel Swartz points out in Bridging Multicultural Education: Bringing Sexual Orientation into the Children’s and Young Adult Literature Classrooms that we are not always in control of language and that sometimes it can, intentionally or unintentionally be used to lead us to define ourselves in negative ways. Swartz speaks of “… the power of language …” (12) and states that even “children can understand and need to understand that words can be effective weapons, and that seemingly innocuous words, particularly sexist language, that reflects constructions formed through employment of binary oppositions, can be used to hurt and to control.” (14)

Swartz argues that the binary oppositions in language are largely responsible for the growth of “homophobia, racism, sexism, classism and other ‘isms’ [that are] used to denigrate particular individuals or populations ..” (14) But she goes on to say that “even very young children can engage in interrogation of the constructions of language that reinforce binary oppositions…” (14)

In this way, Swartz is telling us that while language can define us in negative ways, even young children have the power to master it so that language works for them and not against them. It is simply a matter, Swartz says, of “[unlearning] the prejudices and … deadly biases” (14) that language and culture transmit.

Carmen Luke, in her discussion of language in Feminist Post-structuralism argues on the one hand that language is not a “transparent window to the real [with] the meaning fixed in the linguistic signifier…” (189)  but, unlike Swartz, she argues that individuals, “the subject” do not have “autonomous control and choice over ‘authentic’ self-expression through language.” Rather, she argues that “the gendered politics of language preclude authentic voice and self-expression.” (190)

Luke agrees that language does define us for she says, “Language gives meaning to social reality, including the way social subjects make themselves, others, and the world intelligible. Post-structuralists thus argue that language—signs organized in discourse—provides discursive subject positions and subjectivities through which we live our lives and make sense of the world.” (190)

She goes on to say that “feminist post-structuralists have sought to reclaim language and speaking positions for women, although their ‘speech’ bears the residue of the language and genres of the father.” (190)

Does language limit us?

As we’ve seen, some say yes, some say no. I understand that languages that uses gendered terminology can be limiting, and I understand that language can be used equally to empower and to disenfranchise, to give voice, and to silence.  However, I also believe, as Swartz does, that we can master language and the way to do it, is to understand its limitations and uses.

What does this mean for plain language?

Plain language writers and advocates have long understood the limitations of language—that gendered pronouns are acceptable to some and alienating to others, for example. We understand that our readers’ (listeners’) understanding of the language we use depends on its context—where it is read or heard, by whom, under what circumstances etc. But we must never be complacent, we must understand, and I think we do, that our audiences are neither homogeneous nor fixed. What worked last year may not work today. What worked with one group of teenagers may not work with another.

Because we as individuals and groups are fluid, and because language is fluid, we must continuously test, and retest, the words and phrases we choose and be ready to adapt constantly.

Transliteracy, plain language & post-structuralism

Notebook entry #7

On Thursday, October 27th, Mount Saint Vincent University held a panel discussion entitled Transliteracy: Information Literacy, Digital Fluencies and Pedagogical Strategies as part of its Literacies as Ways of Knowing series.

I looked forward to this discussion because I thought it would teach me loads about information technology. As I sit here writing this blog on my laptop, I have my smartphone to my right and a cordless phone to my left. I can easily spend all day on the computer writing, checking and responding to emails, checking the news on Facebook and Twitter and following the various links I find there. Still, I know I am barely scratching the surface of what new technologies offer. So I was really keen to learn more about all this digital stuff.

But I learned that that’s not really what transliteracy means. According to Production and Research in Transliteracy, the group that coined the term, it means “the ability to read, write, and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks.”

So transliteracy is about being able speak, read, write, use sign language, and interpret messages from a wide variety of technologies, including those that come free with our own bodies, and to use those technologies to convey our own messages. In short, it’s about people talking to people however they choose to do so.

That made me think of transliteracy in a completely different way and brought me back to plain language. I think the key to all this is communication. Yes, there are more ways to communicate than ever before but it’s still communication. That means plain language writers like me have more research to do.  We already try to find out as much about our audiences as we can but some things we may have overlooked, and certainly things our clients overlook are

  • How do members of our target audience want to get information?
  • Where do they look for information?
  • How do they organize their own information such as appointments, tasks, etc.?

For example, a legal-aid lawyer friend of mine told me that her clients keep all their information on their mobile phones. These are often single parents of young children who travel by public transit. Yet all the information given to them by government is either on paper, in the form of a booklet or brochure, or on the web as a PDF version of that paper.

Imagine going home after a stressful meeting. You’re on the bus,  juggling your purse, a stroller, a child or two, and paper. The best time to read that information may be on the bus as the children may be occupied or sleeping. When you get home, you may not have a computer with which to access the PDF files and your papers may be soggy from rain or tears, crumpled, torn, or lost.

In that situation, wouldn’t you want a mobile phone app? And wouldn’t you want that app to be free? And wouldn’t you want that free app to be accessible on your phone, not just on the higher end more expensive phones?

We have to be careful that, as one panel attendee said, we don’t let the technology drive us, we drive the technology. For example, on October 15th my family and I attended  Nocturne: Art at Night in Halifax. It was wonderful to be downtown with so many people taking in the free art shows but we didn’t get the full experience. That’s because this year, Nocturne developed an app for iPhone and iPod Touch that made the experience more interactive. Not having these devices, we could not participate.

I ran into a similar situation at Halifax Citadel in the summer. Some museum installations had QR codes that offered more information about the installation, often a video. But to get the information you needed a mobile phone with a camera and specific software. Because my phone is two years old, it does not have the software and I was unable to get the added information.

In both cases, I think those who added the apps and the QR codes thought they were a doing people a great service offering them added information and experiences on a platform that they are already using. I mean really, who doesn’t have an iPhone?

So here’s where I bring in our classroom discussion about post-structuralism. In class, we talked about the various ways people are privileged or lack privilege and how, those that have privilege are blind to it.

I think that may be what’s going on with the four forms for communication I’ve talked about: the paper, the PDFs, the apps, the QR codes. How much has privilege blinded the information providers to the barriers the platform itself puts up to the information?

Bureaucrats work with paper all day and have computers at their desks and printers that they can use. Many have computers at home. Many carry brief cases and travel to and from work and appointments without their children. So having some extra paper is not a burden and if it gets wrecked, it’s no big deal, they’ll just get the PDF off the web.

Artists seem to love Apple products and it didn’t come as a surprise to me that both the Atlantic Film Festival and Nocturne had iPhone apps. Because they see these devices so often in their everyday lives, they are blind to the fact that not everybody has them and because they see it as an added bonus, they don’t notice that people may feel left out if they don’t have the device.

Finally, QR codes are a great way to put added information into a museum installation, particularly videos, without having to set up monitors and listening posts. I’m sure curators see loads of people in museums taking pictures of each other and installations with mobile phones so they may have assumed that all phones have the same capability. And, like those behind Nocturne, they may see it as an added bonus. But that may not be the way the patron who has paid the same entry fee as someone else feels when they cannot get the same experience because they don’t have the correct device or software.

So while many people a the Transliteracy panel discussion seemed to discuss transliteracy from the viewpoint of the receiver of information, I look at it from the point of view of those who provide information. It is up to us to do two things:

  • make sure that we understand the reasons behind using particular technologies to give information to people and to make sure that these technologies are a good fit
  • be conscious of our own privileges and how they may blind us to barriers others may have to receiving information in particular ways

Plain Language Q & A

Notebook entry #6

For this week’s entry I have decided to go back to my first three notebook entries and answer some of the questions put to me by my Literacy Learning professor Dr. Susan Walsh.

Is plain language assumed to be neutral?

That depends on the document’s intended audience. The goal of plain language is for the person reading the document to understand it on first reading. If I’m writing a manual for Nova Scotia snowplough operators, I try to find as much out about them as I can and target my writing accordingly. So in that case, no, plain language is not neutral. If all the Nova Scotia snowplough operators are white males in their 50s who watch baseball in the summer, football in the fall, and hockey in the winter, then I can write to them and leave whole swaths of people out. I can use gendered pronouns and sports metaphors, and popular culture references going back to the ’70s. The document will be fairly easy to test as my audience is a small, almost homogeneous group.

The difficulty comes in writing for “the general public.” In my experience, these documents are mainly aimed at adults in Nova Scotia who are affected by a particular government service. And here I do try to be neutral. How?

  • Use language that is gender-neutral; avoid gendered pronouns and opt for the singular “they” or dispense with pronouns altogether.
  • Use the simplest terms possible and write in the active voice in order to reach the least literate in the target audience. In my experience, no one has ever complained that a document is too easy to read.
  • Use images such as illustrations, maps, charts, and comic strips if these will convey the message more clearly than words alone. The goal, again, is to reach those members of the audience who may have trouble with written text.
  • Test the document with a small group that is representative of the target audience and use their feedback to remove any barriers to understanding.

Who is “the general public” and to what extent is this (seemingly) homogeneous entity actually raced, classed, gendered in terms of literacy?

Often when I ask a client, usually workers in a government department, who the target audience for a particular project is, the response is, “the general public.” When I get this response, I know I am dealing with an audience that is definitely NOT homogeneous. For example, I am currently working on a new edition of the Nova Scotia Driver’s Handbook. For this project, I know a few things about my target audience:

  • They can be from any race and many users of this booklet will be new immigrants to Canada from countries with whom Nova Scotia has no reciprocal driver’s licence agreement. For many, English will be a second, third, or subsequent language.
  • Everyone in the audience plans to drive a vehicle in Nova Scotia, therefore they will have access to one but that does not mean that they own their own vehicle. A driver’s licence could be a condition of employment where the employee is expected to drive a company car.  So members of the audience can be from any “class.”
  • My audience is male and female.
  • All readers are 16 years of age or older as that is the minimum age allowed for a Nova Scotia learner’s permit. Since they can come from anywhere in the world, I do NOT assume that they are reading English at a Grade 10 level.

Is there an assumption that language is a vehicle for transporting ideas from one person to another in a neutral kind of way?

The short answer is  yes. In my work, the message comes from my client and is transported through my words and any images I suggest to the audience. As discussed above, there are ways to try to do this in a neutral way.

Who created the categories of readers referred to in Reflections on Literacy?

I had heard of these levels through working with Diane Macgregor, Communications Nova Scotia’s plain language specialist but I see that they bear a strong resemblance to the levels reported on in the 1994 International Adult Literacy Survey  (IALS) conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and Statistics Canada released in 2000 (www2.literacy.bc.ca/facts/inCanada.pdf). On this website, literacy is divided into 5 levels but levels 4 and 5 are merged as the site breaks down the Canadian population as follows:

  • “22% of Canadians are at level 1. People at this level have difficulty reading and have few basic skills or strategies for decoding and working with text. Generally, they are aware that they have a literacy problem.
  • 26% of Canadians are at level 2. These are people with limited skills who read but do not read well enough. Canadians at this level can deal only with material that is simple and clearly laid out. They often do not recognize their limitations.
  • 33% of Canadians are at level 3. They can read well but may have problems with more complex tasks. This level is considered by many countries to be the minimum for successful participation in society.
  • 20% of Canadians are at levels 4 or 5. People at these levels have strong literacy skills, including a wide range of reading skills and many strategies for dealing with complex materials. These Canadians can meet most reading demands and can handle new reading challenges.”

What are the complexities of labelling people as “good”/”poor” readers, etc.?

First, I don’t think individual adults should ever be labelled this way and that is not how plain language is used. However, tools like the IALS are helpful when we design documents that are intended to give information to a wide range of people. It is useful to know that a certain segment of the population has such difficulty reading and working with written text that we might abandon that method of transmitting information in favour of offering videos for example. This was done by the Nova Scotia government during the H1N1 pandemic of 2009. At immunization centres across the province people were required to watch a short video that explained the risks and benefits of the vaccine. Someone in government must have realized that handing printed brochures to people containing the same information would not constitute informed consent in the same way that the video would. It is also helpful to know that most of us, particularly when dealing with information outside our own area of expertise, fall within the 81 per cent of  Canadians  with less than “strong literacy skills” rather than the 20 per cent who seem to be able to handle everything.

In reference to legalese, medicalese, etc., would you agree that is is what [Judith] Baker calls “professional language”?

No. In my first post, when I said “Lawyers spend so much time talking to other lawyers that they’ve forgotten how to talk to everyone else … [and that] the same is true of the medical profession, the financial sector, and government,” I meant that the language is less about the necessary words and phrases for doing the job and conveying meaning and more about the comfort that comes from using jargon and convoluted sentence structure as a show of belonging to a particular privileged group. To me, professional language, as Baker used the term, is a mechanic saying “carburetor” to refer to that particular part of a vehicle as that is the correct name. Often lawyers, doctors and other professionals move beyond precise terminology to elevate their own speech and writing. For example,

  • legalese -“Compensation will be in the amount of $100,000.00 per annum.”  instead of “You will be paid $100,000.00 a year.”
  • medicalese – signs in hospitals would be more helpful if they read “kidney care” instead of “nephrology.”

How do [Judith] Baker’s and [Lisa] Delpit’s articles relate to plain language work?

I think Baker and Delpit are practising a kind of plain language in their work by reaching their students in the language that those students use on a daily basis. From here, Baker and Delpit bring their students to “standard English” and allow them to find the contexts in which to use it.

We have to remember that we all benefit from plain language.  As the IALS shows, 81 per cent of the Canadian population has less than “strong literacy skills.” Almost 50 per cent have ” difficulty reading and have few basic skills” or “limited skills who read but do not read well enough.” Those who have strong literacy skills still benefit from “material that is simple and clearly laid out” because we aren’t always at the top of our game. We get tired. We get bored. We’re not motivated to digest the information being given to us. Plain language is about ensuring your audience understands your work on the first read and not putting up barriers to that understanding.

To quote Hippocrates, “The chief virtue that language can have is clearness, and nothing detracts from it so much as the use of unfamiliar words.”

Know your audience and write accordingly

Notebook entry #5

I’ll admit I had a little trouble with the latest assigned reading for my Literacy Learning class. It was Feminist Post-Structuralism by Carmen Luke published in Literacy in America: An encyclopedia of history, theory, and practice (Vol.2) edited by B. Guzzetti.  I read it twice. I think I got something out of it. But mostly, I was frustrated at the dense language and the amount of assumed knowledge contained in the text. So, I decided to look at it from a plain language perspective.

One of the first things I ask when I take on a plain language project is: Who is the audience? I want as much information about the end users of my document as possible. How old are they? How much formal education do they have? How much time do they spend reading? What do they read for pleasure? What words do they use in day-to-day speech?

Since I can’t ask Luke these questions. I thought I would try to deduce her target audience from the language used in the article.

One of the ways I did this was to run the first section of the article, approximately 220 words, through two online readability tools. Both use a variety of readability formulas including the  Flesch Kincaid Grade Level.

Here’s what plain language expert William Lutz, Professor Emeritus of English at Rutgers University had to say about this readability formula:

“The Flesch Readability Index is expressed as a school grade, such as 5 meaning the fifth grade. The grade level means that readers at that grade level are at the limit of their reading ability and could just cope with the text. The Flesch Readability Index is based on a 50 percent correct answer score on a comprehension test of the text being assessed. Thus, a grade 5 reading level means that readers at that grade level would score only 50 percent correct on a comprehension test, while a grade 16 reading level means that college graduates would score 50 percent on a comprehension test of the material.” (p. 4 of an affidavit Lutz gave in American Council of Life Insurers, et al. v. Vermont Department of Banking, Insurance, Securities, and Healthcare Administration, et al.)

The portion of Luke’s article that I ran through the two online readability scorers, Text Readability Scores on AddedBytes and The Readability Test Tool showed the text to be at about a grade 17 reading level. Thus, according to Lutz, a university graduate would score 50 per cent on a comprehension test of the document. From that, I assume that Luke intended the article for people with more than one university degree.

In looking up the publication the article was published in, I found this: “With its 400 entries researched by experts and written in accessible prose, Literacy in America is the only reference tool students, teachers, and parents need to understand what it means to be and to become literate in 21st century America.” (http://ebookee.org/Literacy-in-America-An-Encyclopedia-of-History-Theory-and-Practice_1353762.html)

So, my assumption was wrong. This article, by virtue of its inclusion in this book is intended for students, teachers, and parents. I know for a fact that not every parent of the children who attend the same school as my children has a university degree. I’m guessing that the number of parents with university degrees depends largely on where the school is located.

Readability scores are only one way to examine a document. They can result in documents scoring at grade levels above that of their intended audience because of long but necessary words which may be explained within the text.

So let’s look at another way of finding out whether Luke’s article is likely to be easily read and understood by the target audience, particularly students and parents: are unfamiliar terms well explained?

Ideally, we’d have to poll a group of students and parents to find out what the unfamiliar terms are, but since I can’t do that, I’ll use my own experience in reading the article.

My first difficulty came in the first sentence: “Post-structuralism is commonly associated with the work of French theorist Michel Foucault.” (187) I have a degree in political science and another in journalism but I have never heard of Michel Foucault. Perhaps I didn’t take the right courses in university. So … off I go to the Internet to find out who he is.

Then I learn that feminist post-structuralism “has its intellectual roots partly in ‘French’ feminism” (187) followed by a list of names of people I’ve never heard of. Also, I’m distracted by the quotation marks around the word, “French.” Were these people not really French? Were they pretending to be French? Why? No explanation. In fact, within the first 200 words of the article I am given the names of 13 people I’ve never heard of with the only explanation being that they were either taking a feminist view of Foucault’s work (I didn’t really delve into this. It seemed pretty complicated) or they used “dominant structuralist paradigms in the social sciences.” (188) Now I have to look up structuralist and paradigm. These aren’t words I come across everyday.

There were plenty of difficult words in this text. Some of them wouldn’t even come across as difficult in a readability formula. Like “telos,” as in “the telos of progressive accounts of history.” (188) My spell-checker doesn’t even regard this as a word. It doesn’t exist on Thesaurus.com which asks me if I mean “tell,” or “trellis,” or “talon” or one of 37 other options. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary definition of “telos” is “an ultimate object or aim” but when I read “the ultimate object or aim of progressive accounts of history,” I still don’t understand.

Now, because I am a graduate student and I have been assigned this reading, I am motivated to dig deep into the text to find the message the author is trying to convey.

I definitely would not try that hard as a parent who wants to understand what it means to be and to become literate in the 21st century. I’d probably stop reading by the end of the first paragraph, dismissing it as too much work.

So what have we learned? Either my first assumption was correct and the article is indeed intended for an audience of people, not only with more than one university degree, but degree in subjects that would make them familiar with all the names and terms contained in the article. Or, the author did not know that the intended audience included students and parents who may not be familiar with these terms and names.

In either case, I still don’t think this article meets the plain language test. That’s because of another thing Lutz said in his affidavit: “Since a person’s normal reading level is not the same as his highest level of education, people usually read three to five grades lower than their highest level of education.” (4)

This gets a little difficult when we get beyond grade 12 but, for the sake of this blog post, let’s just add a grade level for every year of university. A graduate of a regular 4-year university undergraduate program should be reading at a grade 11 to grade 13 level. That’s grade 16 minus the 3 to 5 grade levels Lutz says most people read and it’s 4 grades below that at which Luke’s text is written. And that’s for a university graduate.

But  what if not all university graduates read at this level? The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police website, Literacy and the Police: Target Crime with Literacy,  states that “42 of [every] 100 working-age adults in Canada has lower literacy than is needed to cope with the increasing information demands of our society.” Further, that 2.6 million Canadians with low literacy skills have post-secondary education.

They’re not talking about the ability to read a text like Luke’s here. They’re talking about the ability to get through the amount of information we see in our daily lives. I’m guessing there are a lot of parents in this group.

Does “standard” English perpetuate inequality?

Notebook entry #4 2011-10-09

It’s been almost 100 years since George Bernard Shaw published his play, Pygmalion. In it, Shaw sends up British society by changing a woman’s class simply by changing the way she speaks and dresses. Cockney Liza Doolittle is destined to live forever in an unheated tenement making a meager living selling flowers until Professor Henry Higgins decides to use her in an experiment. He bet that he could change her destiny through “phonetics,” teaching her the “correct” way to speak English.

How is that different from what some in literacy are doing today? As Lisa Delpit does when she says, “All we can do is provide students with the exposure to an alternate form, and allow them the opportunity to practice that form in contexts that are nonthreatening, have a real purpose, and are intrinsically enjoyable. If they have access to alternative forms, it will be their decision later in life to choose which to use. We can only provide them with the knowledge base and hope they will make appropriate [emphasis mine] choices.” (Language Diversity and Learning in Beyond heroes and holidays: A practical guide to K-12 anti-racist, multicultural education and staff development, Lee, E., Menkart, D, and Okazawa-Rey, M.N. eds p. 157)

Isn’t this the Henry Higgins school of thought? OK, maybe it’s progressed a bit. In a preface to Pygmalion, Shaw makes no secret of the fact that he believes that there is one way to speak English and all other ways are wrong: “The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it. They spell it so abominably that no man can teach himself what it sounds like.” (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3825/3825-h/3825-h.htm) Delpit, on the other hand, respects the language her students come to school with and uses it to teach them, or make available to them, alternate forms of speech including that of the dominant culture.  But the end appears to be the same; only a certain form of English is acceptable to those who hold the keys to power and success. Learn to use this language and you will get ahead. Shaw may simply have seen that as learning to speak English correctly, while Delpit sees it as using an accepted form.

But if everyone learns to speak and write like those in the dominant culture while maintaining their “home” languages, what is gained and what is lost? Aren’t we still accepting the “systemic form of inequality” inherent in the language we speak? (Andersen and Hill Collins p. 61)

Because language (or at least accent and dialect), in my view, is as much a systemic form of inequality  as race, class, and gender  as stated by by Margaret L. Andersen and Patricia Hill Collins in Systems of Power and Inequality published in Race, class, and gender: an anthology (p. 61)

If you don’t think so, try this: would Americans have elected to the presidency a man or woman who said: “Donch y’all be axin’ what yo’ country can do fo’ you. Ax what y’all can do fo’ yo’ country.”? Would such a saying have become famous and quoted 50 years after it was said? Would anyone who speaks like that even be elected to minor public office? Would they be promoted to higher levels of management?

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states:

15. (1) Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

It goes on to say that such discrimination is allowed where it is intended to improve the “conditions of disadvantaged individuals or groups including those that are disadvantaged because of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

Note that while “national and ethnic origin” is present in the legislation, language is not. And, I wager, it never will be. Why? Because, as Shaw so aptly demonstrated almost 100 years ago, language can be learned. But there are two problems with this. One is pointed out by Shaw himself when he has Liza tell Higgins:  “You told me, you know, that when a child is brought to a foreign country, it picks up the language in a few weeks, and forgets its own. Well, I am a child in your country. I have forgotten my own language, and can speak nothing but yours.”

How long will it be before students who have mastered “standard” English forget their home languages? What is their perception of those who have not mastered the switch? Do they in turn become part of the dominant culture by virtue of their language? Is this a good thing?

The other problem is that the dominant culture gets to change what counts as “standard” English without warning. One who is new to the group, risks betraying their origins if they fail to keep up with the new lingo. So, not only is language a systemic form of inequality, it is one that is constantly being tailored to keep people out of the dominant group.

Disagree? Try this fun quiz. The following is a list of financial terms from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. Jot down your best-guess definition. Then go to the Glossary of Financial Crisis Terms  on the bank’s website to see how well you did.

  • Asset-backed commercial paper
  • CDO squared
  • derivative
  • hedge fund
  • haircut
  • liar loan
  • moral hazard
  • repo
  • special purpose vehicles
  • tranche

As an added bonus, once you checked the definition, how easy was it to understand?

Want to help someone learn? Learn from them first.

Notebook entry #3 2011-10-02

It seems a little trite to say, but I really do believe that in order to teach anyone anything in any way, you have to learn a little from them first.

I am not a teacher in the formal sense of the word. I do not have a BEd and I do not have a class of people to whom I am responsible for imparting knowledge. So when I read the suggested readings for my Literacy Learning class this week, I initially felt distant from them, that they did not relate to my experience.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I am a teacher of sorts but I am separated from students by a document. I have “taught” snowplow operators the rules and rituals they need to do their jobs. I have “taught” farmers about transporting their produce and fuel. I have “taught” recreational vehicle riders rules and best practices related to riding ATVs, snowmobiles, and dirt bikes. And I have “taught” tourists and students about Nova Scotia history and our democratic system of government. Sometimes I do this without ever meeting them, and that’s a shame. My writing is always  better when I can get to know my audience.

That’s how I related to this week’s readings. I particularly enjoyed those by Lisa Delpit and Judith Baker. Both women wrote about the importance of learning from their students before they can teach them. I particularly enjoyed Judith Baker’s respect for her students’ “home” English (51) and how she used her students’ understanding of that form of English as a basis for teaching “formal” English, as discussed in Trilingualism, a chapter in The skin that we speak: thoughts on language and culture in the classroom.  It was interesting to see how Baker’s respect for the way her students spoke opened their ears to the different forms of English they speak and hear around them. It also gave them the confidence to choose which form of English to use in different circumstances.

“As young people become less fearful of being manipulated or disrespected, I think they can become engaged in the study of their own language competence,” Baker wrote. “They can weigh their options, choose how they want to speak and write in each new setting.” (59)

Baker also found that when “formal” English held real meaning for her students, they were able to use it correctly and naturally. This happened when her students gave presentations related to their technical classes. “… had I not seen the student in this other language dimension, I would not have realized how easily they moved within it or how eager they would be to do so.” (60)

Delpit wrote about the importance of not confusing “dialect intervention with reading instruction.” (160). She illustrates her point with the example of a student who clearly understands the meaning of the sentence he is reading but, in the teacher’s opinion, mispronounces the words and so reads the sentence “wrong.”

Delpit also writes about the different ways different cultures tell stories and finds a bias in education in favour of the “white” way of doing this.

Delpit concludes that “if teachers hope to avoid negatively stereotyping the language patterns of their students, it is important that they be encouraged to interact with, and willingly learn from, knowledgeable members of their students’ cultural groups.” (157)

I think George J. Sefa Dei was getting at the same thing in his conversation with Meredith Lordan published in Language, Linguistic Discrimination and Polyvocality: Bringing Language into Discussions of Discrimination and Racism published in The poetics of anti-racism.

In speaking about different accents and dialects, Dei says, “There is … the obligation on the part of the listener to work with what is being said.”. He adds, “There’s … a punishment if one speaks in a different accent or in ways that others claim they can’t understand or hear.” (33)

I agree with him but only to a certain point. That is, when we are in a position of teaching, however we may define it, we must be open to listening and learning from those we purport to teach. So, in that sense, it is, as Dei says, our obligation to work with what is being said by the learner.

However, as a teacher, it is also our job to speak and write as clearly as possible to our audience taking into consideration the way our audience understands. That is why, in the field of plain language, testing is so important.

If I create a document aimed at a specific audience with the goal of them learning a specific thing or accomplishing a specific task, it is up to me to make sure they understand. It is not up to my audience to learn to understand what I have done. If my audience doesn’t understand, it’s my fault, not theirs.

So how do I find out if my document works? Testing. This is very rarely done but it is so important for letting us know whether our documents work. PlainLanguage.gov has a brief but helpful section on its website dedicated to testing documents for plain language.

After testing a document, it is important not to criticize the audience, but to fix any shortfalls we have in making the message clear.

As Diana Athill said: “Writing shouldn’t come between the reader and what’s being described. It should be as transparent as possible.”