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#CertStudy, Day 3: Why/how I learn from New Literacy Studies

This post is part of a series wherein I blog my way through studying for the doctoral certification exam in the Communication, Media, and Learning Technologies Design Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. Read the first post here.

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As I’ve written here before, the broadest conviction of my research and practice is that digital literacy is an increasingly important part of religious leadership. This doesn’t mean every lay leader or clergy person needs to be able to design a website, or produce a effective online course, or coordinate a sophisticated online marketing campaign. It does mean knowing enough about our new media ecology to understand why these processes and products might be important to the life of a 21st-century congregation.

Digital literacy is a contested term with lots of possible meanings and stakes. But I’m very grateful to my advisor for sending me, in my first semester, on a journey to better understand the recent-ish history of how literacy scholars have thought about reading and writing, both narrowly and broadly conceived.

One of the first distinctions I had to get my head around was what differentiated the field known as “New Literacy Studies” from what had come before. I’m still no expert, but I would not have wrapped my head around the problem so quickly or so well without the article I’ll spend some time with today, James Gee’s “The New Literacy Studies and the ‘Social Turn.'” Much to my delight, it’s that rare (but less rare than it used to be) academic article not behind a paywall.

Part of my task in revisiting and writing about the articles on my reading list is pulling out some big ideas and “money quotes” for my notes, so let me try to deliver on the promise of this post’s heading by doing so.

Gee begins by surveying thirteen academic disciplines that took—or came to be because of?—what he calls “the social turn.” Social turn disciplines/movements were “reactions against the behaviorism of the early part of this century and the ‘cognitive revolution’ of the 60’s and 70’s that replaced behaviorism, both of which privileged the individual mind” (p. 3). If that sounds familiar, it could be because I mentioned the move outward from there in yesterday’s overview of cognitive perspectives on learning.

Behaviorism, in the name of being “scientific,” reduced the human mind to stimulus responses. It confused symbols (language and more) with mere signals (think of Pavlov’s dogs). I first encountered these ideas in the philosophical non-fiction of Walker Percy (Message in a Bottle and Lost in the Cosmos), for whose head start I was very grateful.

The “cognitive revolution” reduced the mind to a computer’s CPU. Programming languages are truly languages, truly symbols, so that was an improvement.

But it does assume a universal and unambiguous mapping between words and their meanings, and that’s where the “social turn” movements take issue with it. These movements assert that words/language/meaning/interactions/[etc.] can’t exist outside a social context (and, Gee points out, vice versa).

Probably the most recognizable implication of this idea (and the related policy torch carried by the New Literacy Studies) is that there’s no “universal” or “value neutral” English. There are many Englishes used in many different contexts.

We’re not talking just about big-picture dialects (different English-speaking countries, say) but about the “local literacies” that are part of why, for example, white suburban kids in Milwaukee (like me) spoke a bit differently from white suburban kids from Minneapolis/St. Paul (where many of my college buddies were from). The need to acknowledge local literacies is about way more than my confusion about duck, duck, gray duck, though. It’s about avoiding telling entire groups of students that their rich sociocultural knowledge doesn’t count.

(If you’ve read David Foster Wallace’s hilarious and high-minded Consider the Lobster, you’ve been in this territory before in his essay “Authority and American Usage.” I mention it mostly because it contains my favorite teacher confession of all time, in which DFW fesses up to “a mammoth rhetorical boner.”)

OK, so the social turn disciplines say, to put it briefly, context matters to what language means and how we (learn to) use it.

With me so far? I’m gonna skip the middle section, which is a fascinating and important discussion of how the values of the social turn disciplines were coopted/embraced by fast capitalism and, ultimately, what progressive educators might do about that.

For me, the really wonderful and useful passage from Gee’s article involves the work that language does when we deploy it in our messy social situations:

What do I mean by enactive work and recognition work? Think about the matter this way: Out in the world exist materials out of which we continually make and remake our social worlds. The social arises when we humans relate (organize, coordinate) these materials together in a way that is recognizable to others. We attempt to get other people to recognize people and things as having certain meanings and values within certain configurations or relationships. Our attempts are what I mean by “enactive work” and others’ active efforts to accept or reject our attempts—to see or fail to see things “our way “—are what I mean by “recognition work”.

We attempt, through our words and deeds, to get others to recognize people, things, artifacts, symbols, tools, technologies, actions, interactions, times, places, and ways of speaking, listening, writing, reading, feeling, believing, thinking, and valuing as meaningful and valuable in certain ways. We attempt to make each of these meaningful and valuable each in themselves (“this is scientist”, “this is a scientific instrument”, “this is objective information”, etc..) and as a configuration of elements all related to each other in a specific and meaningful way (“this is a scientist at work with her lab assistants engaged in an experiment that will yield objective truth”). (8-9)

In the article, Gee is interested in “enactive” and “recognition” work for its ability to “take back our social theories from the new capitalism, while requiring us to own up to our own projects and engage with other people’s—especially ‘non-academic’ people’s—projects at a variety of levels” (13). I think that idea is pretty compelling and important.

But for the purposes of this little studying exercise and I hope for my research, the point is this: religious education in the midst of viable alternatives to belief (see A Secular Age) is about (at least) three important axes of enactive and recognition work:

  1. Educator does enactive work showing that a religious worldview makes sense. Students recognize such work as sensible or not. We who hope to pass on the faith think this piece is the most important, and we are wrong.
  2. Educator does (partly enactive, partly recognition) work of modeling moderate, critical religious belief in a world where religious diversity is a fact of life and in which religious fundamentalists of all stripes are a significant contributor to global conflict and play an outsized role in tacitly defining faith amid widespread religious illiteracyThis piece, I believe, is actually more important to the future of denominations like mine.
  3. Educator, together with students in either an affirmative, negative, or ambiguous mode, make sense of what these God beliefs mean for the business of everyday living. This piece, I believe, is where activities like Digital Storytelling, play a crucial role.

Clear as mud? Not to me either. But I remember the article a lot better and have the sketch of an argument I can refine. Thanks for staying with me!

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