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.

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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