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.


We need the languages of the world

Notebook entry #2 2011-09-27

“Schools alone cannot save languages …but schools  can kill them more or less alone. Of course schools reflect the rest of society.”

Tove Skutnabb-Kangas makes this powerful statement on page 6 of “What is happening to the languages of the world”, a chapter from her book Linguistic genocide in education – or worldwide diversity and human rights?

It’s a statement that’s difficult to argue with. Mary Young‘s article, “Anishinabemowin: A way of seeing the world, reclaiming my identity” shows how the Canadian residential school system tried to wipe out her language.

But it wasn’t just the native languages that were under attack in Canada. My mother tells me that she and her friends were not allowed to speak their own languages at school. She grew up in Hamilton, Ontario. She and her friends spoke Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, and Russian at home and a mixture of these languages amongst each other. They were only allowed to speak English at school and that is the only language she is comfortable speaking now.

My friend, Diane, grew up in Cape Breton and told me that children were punished for speaking Gaelic in school.

French was almost wiped out in the Maritimes with many former Leblancs now calling themselves White. Again, English was the language taught in school.

But what my mother, my friend Diane, and assimilated Acadians have in common is that it was not just school that killed their languages. Their own families were complicit. In order to give their children the best start in life, they encouraged English to the detriment of their own languages. Speaking English meant future success. It was believed that their own languages would somehow hold them back.

My father’s family went further and changed their name from the Polish Bucki to the Scottish Buckie. My former parish priest is a White from Chezzetcook. His name was changed years ago from Leblanc.

Perhaps names didn’t change in Cape Breton but, according to Diane, many tried to wipe local expressions from their speech.  For example, Diane tells me that it was  common in Cape Breton to ask, “How are you yourself?” as it mimics the Gaelic speech pattern of “Clamar a tha thu fhein?” Rather than celebrating this richness, Cape Bretoners were “educated” out of using it so that their English sounded more like that spoken in Halifax.

So, it is not only the “Third  world elites” as Skutnabb-Kangas quotes Debi Prasanna Pattanayak as saying, who “deride the mother tongues in their own countries as dialect, slang, patois, vernacular, and condemn them to marginal use, or completely ignore them” (13). It is anyone who sees the dominant language and culture as something to which to aspire, something that will improve one’s lot in life.

This is what makes Mary Young’s father so remarkable when  he matter-of-factly asserted at the dinner table: “Intanishinabemowin nun awind oma biiting (We speak Saulteaux in this house).”

Faced with the forced residential schooling of his children, and other hardships forced on Canada’s First Nations peoples, Young’s father did not take the “If-you-can’t-beat-’em-,-join-’em” attitude that so many others did. Instead, he held true to his values in his house.

What made him fight the system? When others were freely giving up their language and even their family names to the dominant culture, what gave Young’s father the courage and strength to maintain his linguistic identity and, therefore, preserve it for his family?

I think this is an important question to try to answer in light of Skutnabb-Kangas’s discussion of the rate of language disappearance in the world today (pp 46-59). Because we may not have heard of many of the threatened languages such as Kila, Bung, or Njanga, or because they are spoken by very few people, does not make their loss any less important.

Languages, particularly minority languages, are important for two reasons:

  • They contain unique ways of seeing the world.
  • Their loss may be the harbinger of things to come.

Mary Young says, “I do not believe anyone can learn to speak and fully understand the Anishinabe language because it contains the world view of the Anishinabe people.”

Is this not true of many languages around the world? Is this not true also of English? Does English contain a world view that the world’s people are being unwittingly co-opted into? The current state of the world is not good. We live in a world of over consumption of material goods, of extreme disparity between rich and poor, of rapid environmental degradation. Did the English-language world view bring us here? If it did, how do we change it without the world views that are present in other languages?

Finally, perhaps we cannot save many of the world’s endangered languages but we can use their loss as a lesson. What’s next? If we lose Cayuga (Canada), Dalmatian (Croatia), or Penrhyn (Cook Islands), how far behind are the languages we take for granted — French, Croat, Thai?

French is already threatened in Canada outside Quebec. The demise of the long-form census has made it more difficult for francophone organizations to get the data they need to justify their requests for francophone services such as schools. Funding is being cut to many francophone organizations, and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird’s business cards are now in English only, a departure from federal government practice.

So, yes, perhaps schools have been instrumental in killing languages. But they didn’t do it alone and they didn’t do it without the express wishes of those who wield economic power.

And schools have been instrumental in the resurgence of francophone and Acadian language and culture in Nova Scotia and throughout the Acadian diaspora in the United States. Teachers from Nova Scotia’s Acadian communities teach French in schools in Louisiana and Maine. This growing resurgence has led to the next Congrès mondial acadien being held simultaneously in Quebec, New Brunswick, and Maine, something that has never been done before.

Promoting and supporting minority languages in schools and other community activities is costly. The debate as to whether it is worth the cost is ongoing in Canada and in the Maritimes in particular. If  we’re not careful, the resurgence of the francophone and Acadian culture could die again if those in power decide it just isn’t worth the cost.

If it can happen to French in Canada. It can happen to any language anywhere. Do we want to live in a world with only one language and one world view?