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

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.” ( 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?