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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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.