07 SES 04 C, Literatur and Intercultural Education
In education, and not least in literature education, there is always the potential for critical moments, where critical can be understood as something burning and urgent, challenging, and transforming. This study centers around critical literacy (Freire, 1970/1996; Vasquez, 2016) and its focus on transformative aspects of reading—on reading as taking action and seeing oneself as an agent with self-empowering potential.
The paper reports on an ethnographically inspired field study of a literature project at a special residential home for incarcerated youth. With its theoretical base in critical literacy, and as a case where issues about empowerment and marginalization is brought to its head, the purpose of the study is to explore the ways that versions of “the critical” in relation to reading are performed in observations and interviews with students and teachers within the framework of a literature project for young people in custody.
Anne Wilson (2005; 2007, cf Bhaba, 1994) uses the concept “third space” in her ethnographic studies on literacy in prisons to refer to an "in-between" cultural space that bridges the gap between the outside world and the world of prison. Prison education can act as such a third space, in which imprisoned people might redefine themselves as students (Wilson 2005).
The overall research questions are: How is reading/non-reading performed? In what relations is “the critical” produced? Can the critical be understood as a third space?
Critical literacy studies address and problematize the ways in which literary and literacy education can reproduce oppressive and marginalizing structures of literacy and reading (Janks, 2010; Vasquez, 2016) and what counts as language. However, at the same time, there is an idea within critical literacy that reading can function to transform the lives of students and empower them to stand up to oppressive structures (Freire, 1970/1993; Janks, 2010; Luke & Freebody, 1997). More specifically the study aims at investigating this inherent tension in critical literacy between a critical position towards on the one hand a view of reading as a cure and as enlightenment and on the other hand a view of reading as being able to develop, empower and transform students. In both society in general and the field of education in particular, there seem to be an unquestioned truth that reading literature does good, and even makes us better persons. Historically education, and in particular literacy, has been regarded as key to individual, societal, and moral improvement (cf Graff, 1979). Literacy education currently finds itself within a regime of competitive educational assessments, which fuels worried debates about the civic and moral problems connected to low literacy in and out of school (Edwards, Ivanič, and Mannion, 2009, Larson, 2007). Literacy is seen as transferable goods in the human resource model of education (Hamilton, 2016; Wahlström, 2016), accordingly used as a measurement of and a surety for economic development and individual prosperity, as well as for the most fundamental social abilities, democratic citizenry, and intellectual growth. Policies and standardized curricula to enhance literacy nationally and globally are hence often mired in discourses of adolescent deficit and family failure (Franzak, 2006; Vasudevan and Campano, 2009). Imprisoned people tend to be conceptualized as being at the bottom of the literacy deficiency pile (Wilson, 2007).
An earlier study on reading projects at detention homes (Author, 2017a) shows that when reading is turned into policy, there are always marginalizing effects involved, and power relations are frequently obscured. The present study explores the multiplicity, complexity, and ambiguity that are produced in practice: how lacks and needs and strengths and capabilities are sometimes created together.
The study draws on a transactional approach and is methodologically inspired by actor-network theory (ANT) (Latour, 2007; Mol, 2002) to trace and unpack the ambiguous and sometimes contradictory ways in which critical aspects of reading are enacted. In line with ANT, actors that take part in making up social phenomena are regarded as produced in relations with performative effects, a notion that is applied to all materials, not only human and not only discursive ones (Law, 2009). This approach draws attention to the way materiality and multiplicity result in questions about “multiple realities” and sometimes “conflicting realities” (Author 2017b), and helps to make visible how critical aspects of reading are created or performed in different relations, involving certain actors while excluding others. The fieldwork took place primarily for a period of two weeks when 30 students and 13 teachers took part in a reading project at the special residential home, however interviews and additional in-class observations were made in the months following the reading project. During the project, the novel Starless Nights [Stjärnlösa nätter] by author Arkan Assad was read aloud in different reading groups consisting of 4-7 students and 2-3 teachers. Ethnographical methods were used for data collection, consisting of observational data, transcripts from in-depth interviews with 4 students and 6 teachers, meetings minutes and written evaluations, pedagogic working material, photographs, as well as students’ drawn and written work. The analysis is conducted in several steps. Firstly, moments or narratives in which notions of critical literacy are more or less explicitly performed are selected from the material. Secondly, the actors in the notes or narratives are identified, and thirdly, their positions in relation to each other are drawn to see how critical aspects of literacy are created or performed through their relations. The critical effects of reading were at times difficult to align and make coherent. Therefore, I explored the possibility to think about the critical as multiple (Mol, 2002). The analysis shows that the critical can be empowering and oppressive at the same time. That is, it can align with or refuse to align with dominant literacies or institutionalized expectations of development and improvement.
Reading and non-reading are performed in various ways and often with ambiguous and contradictory effects. The analysis shows how reading can be positive and negative, liberating and oppressive at the same time. Saying yes and saying no. Wanting (to) and not wanting (to). Being a reader and a non-reader. There are also different versions of the critical enacted in the material. In light of the findings, the paper juxtaposes and discusses two different versions of ”the critical”, and although not completely separate, they are in tension with each other. Critical one involves instances of empowerment by transformation, development, and growth. Critical two involves empowerment by resisting transformation. However, this resistance does not prevent participation in the reading project. With these results in mind, I argue that a reading project of this kind can be viewed as a critical space, where new ways of performing critical aspects of reading are made possible and where opposing and conflicting positions on education meet. In this space the ambiguous parts of both critical one and critical two are allowed to take place, and there is room for different kinds of readers to take part in reading in different kinds of ways. In order to create and negotiate a new space of this kind, where there are opportunities to stretch boundaries and try new things and ways of being, to reformulate oneself and one’s relation to reading and literature, the paper proposes a distancing from standardized curricula and learning outcomes. Moreover, a theoretical and methodological argument is that when allowing a more heterogeneous set of actors to take part in analyses it will open up new ways and relations in which critical literacy performs. The study is of relevance to literacy and literary didactic research in European countries, as well as elsewhere.
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