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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Part of what has vexed me in my first three semesters of doctoral studies is how to connect my interests in religious education and my advisor’s expertise in literacy studies.
I’m not likely to ever have a job teaching reading and writing per se, especially to young people. And even the highly specialized areas of reading and writing (broadly conceived) that I do teach—i.e., digital literacies in ministry settings—are a little too instrumentalist to be very interesting to very many people in a research context.
Increasingly, what gets me most excited, and what meshes well with the literatures I have good institutional access to, is the notion of making meaning (by/while/through) making media. Quite a few folks in religious education and digital religion have spent time with these questions, particularly in the context of “networked publics,” aka social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, plus online forums for religious people and that kind of thing.
What I have to offer from my positioning as a student of Lalitha Vasudevan (and also of Nathan Holbert, in a slightly different tradition), is experience with what Lalitha and her colleagues call “research pedagogies“—multimodal participatory ethnographic research within “created spaces.” Let’s break that down:
- Multimodal refers to the process of combining/crossing/juxtaposing multiple cognitive tasks, modes of expression, genres, and media to interpret, critique, and create “texts” in the broadest sense. Creating multimodal artifacts in the research pedagogies framework means recording “pieces of the cultural narrative of the research space … to trace how the cultural dynamics within a research space evolve. By embodying additional narratives about the research in this way, the focus and directionality of the ethnographic gaze shifts; … adolescents produce knowledge in embodied, tangible ways” (p. 189). In other words, studying young people making stuff allows you to learn about the young people partly by looking carefully at what they’ve made—and listening carefully to what they tell you it means.
- Participatory means “youth and adults are guided by aims that are emergent and negotiated” (p. 189). In a necessarily limited but nevertheless real way, both the objects of learning and even the trajectory of research is an act of co-creation between researcher and participants. This is not ethnography as a “fly on the wall.”
- Created spaces are where you do research when you’re pretty convinced that institutional spaces are missing something important. In practice, they are often open-ended after-school programs or camps or informal relationships in community spaces. People with the research pedagogies ethos, like lots of folks in New Literacy Studies, need these spaces because they have ethical and pedagogical convictions that don’t lend themselves to manageable study in business-as-usual classrooms, especially in the era of No Child Left Behind and beyond. If you care about local and culturally relevant literacies, for example, it’s hard to get much traction in “schooling model” classrooms increasingly hogtied by “yearly high-stakes testing cloaked in the language of accountability” (p. 6 in Media, Learning & Sites of Possibility).
OK, so research pedagogies is the “how” (and “where”), but where’s the “why”? Let me briefly sketch an answer to nod toward the post I thought I was writing today.
To review, the question is why would someone interested in religious education questions use the methods of literacy researchers, and the research pedagogies methods in particular.
In a general sense it has to do with that idea that literacy is better thought of as a social practice than as an area of content knowledge or even an academic skill per se. Especially in an increasingly digitally mediated world, literacy just means (or if not “means” then “significantly impinges upon”) how we go about our business as social beings.
We write each other text messages and compose elaborate selfies and have to decide in emails whether to have a confrontation in that medium or redirect it to an in-person conversation. Point being: literacy, broadly conceived, is an increasingly important tool in how we make meaning.
And more specifically, in the course of our lifelong learning of the literacies we need to navigate our social worlds, we perform our identities via the agentive/constructive process of encoding and decoding meaning in the “texts” we “read” and “write.”
So if a group of religious learners gather to (in the macro sense) tell stories by (in the micro sense) engaging multimodal literacy practices, what they’re really doing is putting the cultural texts and practices of their religious tradition in conversation with the texts and practices of their broader lifeworlds.
If you sit in space designated in some way as “religious” or “holy” and you tell a story in response to a prompt about a “meaning-full” moment in your life, and if you grapple with how that moment changed you, and you begin to appreciate how the process of telling your story is itself constructing the meaning of your story, and along the way you’re telling bits and pieces of it to your friends and getting advice about communication techniques from your mentor (and hopefully vice versa), and if when you finish your story it’s shared with members of your wider religious community and …
Well you get the idea. If you’re doing all that, you’re exercising your agency to construct your religious identity in the context of community and your own unfolding life story. It’s faith formation at the “intersection” of your story and the Great Story (to borrow an idea from the church I serve).
It’s deep, reflective, relevant, empathetic work, and a religious educator and/as research pedagogies researcher could do a lot worse than to be a co-participant in that unfolding process and be a part of figuring out—from a jointly negotiated frame—what it means for the storyteller’s life and faith—and for the life and faith of the storyteller’s community. We haven’t cared much about that latter directionality, notice, and that’s to our detriment.
OK, next time I really will say more about dynamic theories of identity, which is what I really meant to do today.