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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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.”

Reflections on Literacy

I started this blog as a way to promote myself as an independent plain language writer. But, like many first-time bloggers, I lacked the time, focus, and discipline to keep it going. What I do have is a basket-load of good intentions. I will complete the incomplete pages of this blog … someday … soon?

But, for now, I will use this space to fulfill a requirement of my first course in the Master’s of Education in Literacy program that I started just last week. My first course is Literacy Learning I taught by Dr. Susan Walsh. One of the requirements of this course is to keep a notebook, making entries once a week. In the notebook, and on this blog, I will “reconfigure [my] beliefs and understandings about what it means to be a teacher/learner of language and literacy.” The notebook entries must bring together at least two of the following:

  • required course materials (readings)
  • my own experiences with language and literacy
  • other reading resources or class work
  • at least one lecture from the MSVU Literacy as Ways of Knowing lecture series

Notebook entry #1 2011-09-19

For this entry, I will bring together the following:

I only began to think about literacy in the last five years when I began working as a plain language consultant. My work involved taking complex messages from government and turning them into language accessible to “the general public,” or a particular audience usually perceived as having lower literacy skills than the government workers with whom I contracted. Literacy, for me, was defined as the ability to read and understand a written document. From there I began to understand “the general public” as having various levels of literacy:

  • excellent readers – those who can read anything as long as it is written in an official language that they understand
  • good readers – those who can read most things but have some difficulty with complex texts
  • poor readers – those who can read if they work at it. They have a better understanding of documents written simply and clearly
  • non-readers – I would have called these people illiterate

What I discovered during my first class with Dr. Walsh was how narrowly I had defined literacy. I have always been considered to be someone with a flair for language. I learned to read before I went to school. In elementary school, I was moved out of my regular class to study Language Arts with the grade ahead of me. In university, my English professor asked me to major in the subject. I went on to work as a  journalist, and later, a freelance writer. By this time, I came to consider myself as pretty darn knowledgeable about the English language. But I walked into Literacy Learning I for the first time and learned that I didn’t know the basics: that there are six dimensions, I like to think of them  as three pairs of dimensions, of English Language Arts:

  • viewing and representing
  • listening and speaking
  • reading and writing

All this time I thought of literacy as reading. It was only very recently that I even considered writing as literacy. I have played with representing insofar as that can be done on paper, but that was the extent of it. I had never even thought of the remaining dimensions. That was my first eye-opener.

Then I read Friere’s The Importance of the Act of Reading and my eyes were opened further. Until I read it, I thought of reading as reading the written word – decoding letters and punctuation to find the meaning behind the symbols. But Friere begins by talking about reading the world. While he talks about it from his personal experience as a child in Brazil reading the world around him, I realized that we all read the world before we read the word, and we derive meaning from the things we see around us.

When I was a child, and my family had taken a day-trip somewhere in southern Ontario, a specific neon sign ( I don’t know what it said) against the night sky told me that I was close to home. I immediately felt warm and comfortable and usually fell asleep soon after seeing it and woke up in the driveway of my home. Likewise, after a long car trip, my own children see a tall building near MicMac Mall and know that home is near. If they have been bickering, they stop. For a few minutes, everyone in the car is quietly content.  What we saw in our minds was a sign that said: “You are almost home.” Until I read Friere, I never thought of those experiences as reading. Now I can’t stop thinking of all kinds of activities as reading:

  • infants read facial expressions before they read anything else
  • we are expected to read body language without anyone teaching us and we are judged harshly if we are unable to do so
  • long before there were meteorologists, farmers and fishermen read the weather
  • my brother-in-law can read space and instinctively know how one thing fits into another until he has built a shed, laid a floor, or installed a door

I agree wholeheartedly with Friere that we need to be able to read the world before we can truly read the word. We need some understanding of the world around us before we can see how that world is reflected in the squiggles on paper called writing.  The world and the word must meet. If they don’t, there can be no understanding.

Dr. Harste touched on this during his lecture when he said that children focus on what interests them. “If a kid can’t see himself in literacy, he’s not going to be literate,” Harste said.  Because my interest is in communicating important and complex messages to people deemed “less literate,” I took his message to heart. Somewhere along the way, too many people were missed on the road to literacy. For some reason, the lessons stopped resonating with them and they stopped seeing themselves in literacy.

Harste said something else during his lecture that also struck a chord with me. He said that if you want your child to sound like a teacher let him hang out with teachers and if you want your child to sound like a lawyer let him hang out with lawyers. His point was that we all learn the pragmatics of language, the rules of language use in a context, from that context. I believe this is true but that is has also become the bane of modern communication. Lawyers spend so much time talking to other lawyers that they’ve forgotten how to talk to everyone else, which is why even the most literate among us have trouble deciphering legislation, regulation, and contracts. The same is true of the medical profession, the financial sector, and government. All of whom have forgotten that the end users of their documents, “the general public,” need to see themselves and need to see their world reflected in those documents for them to be able to read and understand them. In my view, among the so-called “educated,” too much effort is placed on pragmatics and not enough is placed on semantics — what does the document actually mean?

I used to think that you needed to listen before you could learn to speak and that you needed to read before you could learn to write. Dr. Harste and Natalie Goldberg have shaken that belief as well. During his lecture, Harste showed a slide of three pages of “writing” by preschool children. Without a a recognizable word on any of them, everyone in the lecture theatre was able to spot the one from the United States, the one from Israel, and the one from Saudi Arabia. The children, who couldn’t read yet, already knew so many things about writing. It was clear from the examples that they knew what the letters of their language looked like, they appeared to know which direction to write in (left to right or right to left) but more importantly, they knew what writing was and they knew what it was for — to convey meaning. Later examples of early writing showed that children were immensely creative with their writing; one invented a letter for “s” when is sounds like  “z,” and another invented a punctuation mark to convey sadness.

Goldberg’s advice to writers? Writing is a voyage of discovery. Yes, it has structure but that structure cannot be imposed from the outside. Through writing, the writer discovers the structure and allows it to grow organically.

Both Harste and Goldberg appear to be in agreement that one learns to write through the act of writing without external constraints or limits. This appears to apply equally to children just entering the world of letters as it does to adults. What is sad for me, is that so many people appear not to have had that opportunity. Perhaps the constraints and limits placed on them at school stifled their vision of themselves as writers. Sadder still, is that their other literacies (visual, digital, environmental, cultural, musical, technological, etc.) are granted less or no importance and these people are therefore deemed “low-literacy,” or “illiterate.”

It seems to me that our challenge is two-fold:

  • to redesign the way reading and writing is taught in schools so that more people see themselves in literacy and stay on the road
  • to recognize and accept other literacies and use these to communicate important messages to the public

I will leave the first item to the teachers in the class. I believe the way to address the second item is to spend as much time with adults considered to have poor literacy skills as Harste spent with young children to find out how they read their world. We can then use that information to design ways of communicating complex but important everyday information to them. This may mean that rid ourselves of the notion of “the general public” and communicate to smaller audiences. It will be expensive, but I think it will make us all more literate.