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[Text]ure: Weaving Together an Understanding of New Literacies
The dissertation is the seminal piece of a PhD research program, yet few students have produced one in a format solely outside the written word (see Carson, 2017; Sousanis, 2015). This creates a contradiction between scholars who acknowledge the importance of new literacy practices, yet do not accept their production as true intellectual work.
To have a better understanding of this paradox, I needed to examine the literacy practices within education. The body of work in Cultural Studies (Grossberg, 1996; Hall, 1996; Schirato & Yell, 2000; Slack, 1996; Slack & Wise, 2015) analyzes the everyday and commonly accepted practices within a particular culture to detect the underlying political powers that function within that culture and to call attention to how those powers implicate problematic consequences involving the marginalization of individuals based on gender, sexuality, race, class, as well as other areas in an attempt to trouble previously received, or accepted views of such practices through the means of an intervention.
As Hall (1996) would argue, in order to understand the commonly accepted practices within education, I would need to take a closer look at the historical trajectory of the written word. Or rather, I would need to develop an understanding of the articulations, or the complex connection of elements linked together to form a conditional unity of literacy (Hall, 1996). To do this, I began by analyzing the definition of the word literacy, which ties together both reading and writing, two distinctive practices which each contain their own history and components. The word literate is not one thing but rather a combination of practices, beliefs, and relationships. Thus, I had to analyze these elements separately by researching the history of reading practices as well as writing practices including the associated technologies. In addition, I analyzed both written and oral languages including the origins of the educational systems from Western Europe to America.
Writing today is common practice but it was not always that way. The practice was historically restricted to those in power, who used the written word as a form of control (e.g. interpretations of the bible, branding of slaves, as well as others) (Churchill, 2004; Cornelius, 1983; Edgar, 1998; Gee, 2015; Kurlansky, 2016; Monaghan, 2005; Smith, 2002). Consequently, the practice of the written word in higher education was limited to that of the dominant culture, white Christian males, contributing to a culturally received view of the written word as the more superior form of representation. The historical articulations linking males to public spaces (such as institutes of higher education), and the mind (including the written word and science) and females to private spaces (such as the home), and the body (including arts and fashion) are particularly problematic (Monaghan, 2005; Tseelon, 1995; Schirato & Yell, 2000).
As the ways in which society communicates continues to change, literacy continues to take many different forms. Being literate has broadened from print-based text to all representational forms of communication — which is why the definition of the word literacy is even more complicated than it was a century ago (Alvermann, 2011; Coiro et al., 2008; New London Group, 2000). The meaning of literacy has broadened from a once narrowed view as a singular, autonomous concept with a fixed point to a plural, complex concept as a continuous process (Lankshear & Knobel, 2011; Gee, 2015; Street, 1984). Yet, practices in higher education remain narrowed.
I suspect, as a result of my research, new literacies practices have been deterred in higher education because of the articulations linking the superiority of the written word and the inferiority of other representational forms such as the arts. Institutions accept without question traditional practices deeply rooted in marginalization, thus continuing forms of repression. It is not only important to question commonly-accepted ways of doing things but to also call attention to the problematic consequences of such practices.
Higher education’s acknowledgment of the intellectual validity of representational forms other than the written word could help to disarticulate the privileging of traditional literacies and rearticulate the intellectual legitimacy of new literacies. Rather than merely recognizing oppression, research in the field of cultural studies calls for the extension of practices to empowerment. Society must work to become more inclusive of the practices and beliefs brought by a diverse population rather than continuing to support guidelines that police them. These cultural interventions not only require historical and political motivation but also timeliness.
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