Literature Summary – Chapter 13: Postmodernism and Literacy Studies

Routledge Handbook of Literacy Studies, 2015 – Chapter 13: Postmodernism and Literacy Studies

Four scholars from Columbia University, Lalitha Vasudevan, Kristine Rodriguez Kerr, Tara L. Conley, and Joseph Riina-Ferrie, have contributed to the chapter, Postmodernism and Literacy Studies. In their introduction, they are careful to define the title to this essay. Postmodernism is a large concept, and encompasses a socio-cultural philosophy that influences historical research, the arts, modern education, as well as the study of literacy. They quote Berger and Luckmann (1966) by stating that postmodernism is concerned with undoing the fixity of the perception of an objective reality and doing so by bringing forth multiple perspectives, orientations, and points of view. They state that our perception of life and the social order in which we live has been created by humans and, as a human construction, we are capable of deconstructing as well as re-constructing this social environment. They are quick to explain how the issue of power is intricately woven into the context of what we learn, how we perceive ourselves in the social order and what information is gathered to influence our opinions. Inequality and unjust social practices can be created, reinforced or disbanded, depending on the perception of this behavior, therefore, much is at stake with regard to who controls the “grand narrative” of a culture.

The gathering of literacy data and the consequences of that data shaping social understanding is central to the research in this chapter. Modern-day adolescents are the age group the writers study and they frame their research along four central themes:
1. They identify key elements to the postmodern study of literacy.
2. They review studies that have been influential in postmodern literacies.
3. They examine studies that have embraced new media and other new technology.
4. They recommend various new literacy research methods that take advantage of the changes in today’s social culture, with an emphasis on new media tools, as well as a deeper understanding of literacy learning in people’s lives.

The authors use a wonderful metaphor to describe a postmodern approach to the deconstruction of social literacies. They write, Postmodernism’s inherent skepticism seeks to look beneath and beyond what is presented, to peer not only under the surface or behind the curtain, but to take the curtain itself apart. (p. 208)

With regard to “taking the curtain itself apart” or, in other terms, taking a close examination of societal knowledge, postmodernism removes the assumption that literacy practices are neutral and universal. The realization that literacy pedagogy is context-dependent and that school curricula can include multiple literacies reflects a postmodernist perspective that is in line with current societal changes.

An examination of literacies from a recent historical perspective, starting from the 1980’s, is the next topic. Earlier views of literacy assumed a common skill-set that was linear and sequential. The social changes that occurred at the end of the 20th century, fueled by new technology, allowed multiple new paths of information to develop. These new avenues, in which literacy learning could occur, created even more opportunities to examine social culture. New media such as video games and tools such as blogs and podcasts, became more accessible and increased the global, digital worlds where literate engagement was shared. Recognizing that
multiple paths toward literacy were evolving brought forth a concern for “criticality” in relation to new literacy studies.

Criticality involves the intellectual discernment of materials and research for academic purposes. A postmodern view of the issue encourages educators to consider a multiplicative approach to new media integration in their classrooms. The authors cited numerous examples where instructors placed popular culture items in traditional assignments, with the hope of engaging adolescents in deeper learning. One example was to pair the Godfather movie with a reading of the Odyssey. Another example was to match hip-hop songs with canonical poets. An observation written by an instructor who had completed a video project with adolescents made a strong point regarding how youth are engaging literacy. He wrote:
The failure of programs to address the media as the predominant language of youth today, or to recognize the social and cultural contexts in which students live, has resulted in a profound disconnect. It’s a disconnect that occurs between the experiences that most students have during their time in school and those they have during their time outside of school. Until corrected, this disconnect will lead to the increased alienation of low-income urban youth from the dominant social, political and economic mainstream. (Goodman, 2003)

With regard to addressing this disconnect, the authors suggest that participation can be a successful resource, noting that a participatory approach is also considered a characteristic of postmodernism’s focus on literacy studies. One of the best examples of participation is the ability of youth to create cultural productions that reach across the digital world. They have access to online tools that allow them to create visual and audio content which can be shared. They can create websites and blogs as well as share music and videos they have created. This is participation on a scale that allows them to design their own environments and to gather information from a multitude of sources. Instead of passively receiving information, they are participants in the social structure of their own education.

The authors conclude with a section offering recommendations for practice. They reiterate the use of multiple literacies as technology expands and evolves. They list new tools that invite users to engage in literacy sharing, such as mobile devices and customizable media
platforms. They encourage the use of participation, with an emphasis on criticality, when selecting educational resources for learners. In an ever-shifting, evolving landscape of literacy study, they see a postmodern approach as the most adaptable choice for student engagement.