Saturday, September 22, 2012

Representing Foucault and Feminism Via A Bunch of Research Questions

I want to do some thinking in this weekend’s post towards an essay I am writing about the gendered discourses of power at work around, in and through preschool teachers, which shape and are shaped by early childhood teaching as feminine labor.  I am going to try to brainstorm my way through connections to Foucault (via Weedon, 1997 and Bartky, 1992 for now), language as representation (Hall, 1997), and movements in gender and language studies to understand gender as working through multiple discourses, which particularly act to erase multiplicity and highlight difference (Baker, 2008).   Some of my notes on these are pictured here.   

 From these I want to see how well I can get this to work with the research idea I have been playing with about teacher labor in preschool.

So where are the discourses of preschool labor located?  How do I recognize them?  One publicly available place I have been thinking about is in curriculum materials, including the ways that teachers, administrators, companies, district officials talk about, embody and act on and around the curriculum.  The OWL curriculum and surrounding sites of dialogue a packaged set of materials, resources, teachers manuals, and pacing guides used in many public preschools  in the large urban area I am working in, is one such set of texts.  

Thinking about discourses, language, power, representation, and gender, some questions I may ask to build my lens for reading the OWL are:

What is the common sense relayed by OWL curriculum and surrounding discourse?  And how particularly is this stuff represented?

What is erased? (with my interests, particularly in terms of labor)

What languages are used or associated with the curriculum (language of teacher’s manual, language of materials, language of authorized children’s books) (… hmmm… language doesn’t feel like quite the right word, but I think this is the way Stuart Hall uses it…?)

Whose meanings about preschool, teachers, labor are represented in OWL?  

How are/might these meanings be countered, negotiated and/or sustained through activities working through, around and within the curriculum discourse?

How does the curriculum attempt to control the bodies of teachers?

In what ways is the discourse gendered?

What is the relationship between the discourse and power?   What are the material implications for preschool teachers?

How are my roles and authority as writer, researcher, student, early childhood teacher, mother, feminist, college lecturer implicit in the particular storied answers to these questions?


Baker, P. (2008). Sexed texts: Language, gender and sexuality.  London: Equinox. 

Bartky, S. (1992). Foucault, femininity and the modernization of patriarchal power.  In J.P. Sterba,  J. A. Kourany, R. Tong (Eds.). Feminist philosophies: Problems, theories, and applications, (pp. 103 – 188). Edgewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Hall, S. (1997). Representation: Cultural representation and signifying practice. Sage.

Weedon, C. (1997). Feminist practice and postructural theory. Malden, Ma: Blackwell.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A Study in Dictionary

I used to own a dictionary.  As a child I had a big green and white one, with colored pictures on creamy white pages.  It was the kind of book that just felt good to flip through.  There was a huge purple speckled paged dictionary at my grandmother’s house.  We had pocket dictionaries and pre-smartphone, hand held techno-dictionaries.   In the library at my high school and in the public library too a dictionary that would be too big to fit on a shelf, sat like an idol on a pedestal waiting for the faithful.  

Now I don’t think there is a dictionary in this house.  Not a paper one.  We do still have books.  At every corner, spilling off every shelf, nightstand, corner of flat space, but not a dictionary.   We have Google instead, and Wikipedia, and the red squiggle line in Word.  

The dictionaries as symbols of languages in my life come with contexts and histories that shape some of who I am.  As much as any words themselves it’s the context surrounding them that create meanings.  In my read of another chapter of Baker’s Sexed Texts this week she wrote about how more contemporary researchers in gender and language studies have moved to see  these social constructs of gender through, especially the importance of context and ways that gender is taken on, particularly through language.

In a chapter of her book, Feminist Practice & Poststructuralist Theory, Chris Weedon, creates very particular constructions of poststructuralist feminism and other feminisms (radical, Marxists, etc).  She builds a history of understanding the way women have been positioning through either negation, essentialized or fixed particularly through the projects of rationalism and humanism.  For Weedon poststructural lenses offer a more complicated, multiplicitious, power conscious and context-based understanding of gender.   As I spent time yesterday in Atkins Library interacting with three feminist dictionaries, I was thinking of the work similar to reading Weedon that this genre study into feminist dictionaries does for me as a student of feminism.  As Weedon tours feminisms and names the theories at work for constructing gender and difference, the dictionaries, work as part of a metagenre, which shows the thinking behind language in particular conversations.  In looking at dictionaries of Maggio, Kramarae and Treichler and Daly, I construct for myself understandings of how language works for these three feminists, as representative of larger movements in the field.

MJ Hardman writes about the material power of language in her work with speakers of the Jaqi language.  She explores the ways the non-sexist language constructs the everyday lives and power structures for and of women, and the contradictory structures created when outside languages (of conquerors) moves into the context.  She explores the particular contexts of words, including the people and location and history surrounding the social work they are associated with.  In looking next at selections from feminist dictionaries, I am wondering about the ways context is constructed or hidden by dictionaries. 

The Nonsexist Word Finder: A Dictionary of Gender-Free Usage (Maggio, 1989)
Maggio’s describes her goal to change words that are no longer useful, while for Maggio this may or may not change social issues, the language itself can become more socially useful.

A Feminist Dictionary (Kramarae & Treichler, 1996)
The excerpts below exemplify the goals of Kramarae and Treichler to counter traditional dictionaries by making visible women’s words, critique of languages of privilege, make visible multiple ways of knowing, to counter traditional processes of authorization and to inspire research and further thinking.

 Webster’s First new Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Langauge (Daly, 1987)
Below are examples of Daly’s work in this dictionary to connect words to women, through unbinding their definitions and disrupting the contexts and histories attached to them, making them undone.

Commonly these dictionaries  displace for the most part language from everyday life, partly fixing it in the traditional format of dictionary.  Each counters the dominant dictionary form, though: Maggio by demanding word replacement and change.  Kramarae and Treichler by exploding each “definition” with multiple forms and authors.  And Daly by critiquing and revisioning dominant forms for new and subversive purposes.  

In a  critique of Mary Daly’s work by Jane Hedley notes the parallels and differences in theory and political work between Daly and Andrienne Rich.  Hedley sees Daly’s binary-flipping work in revisioning language as useful only to a point, while Rich’s revisioning of language use as connected to everyday life as having more impact on the situations of women.  I think Hedley’s critique works to some extent for all three feminist dictionaries, possibly as they are contained by the form of dictionary in itself, even as they undo the form.  I wonder to what extend Elgin’s working of theory through novel puts power back into the everyday experiences (even if they are not completely common to my world everydays) of women.  Does this drawing on the day to day do similar political work to Adrienne Rich, or being fantastical are there still limits?  In some way the fantasy element may do greater work than ethnography or dictionary building or research article, since Elgin lays precise claim to the fact that her story, her theories the lives of these women are completely fiction.  The rest, I think Weedon would say (and sometimes me), is fiction too- it just pretends to be non.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Not Quite a literacy narrative

 In the First Year Writing course I am teaching this semester we have been reading mentor texts to support our own work in writing literacynarratives.  Four that we have been reading are Amy Tan’s Mother Tongue, AnneImbrie’s Words Become Us, Carpet is Mungers by Megan Daum and Living Like Weasels by AnnieDillard.  The first two pieces by Tan andImbrie are as one might expect about

And writing
Things we think of as literacy

These two pieces are creative, personal, academic,narrative, theoretical and for many of us “good reads.”  With their help we can start to see okay,yes, a literacy narrative might be about how literacy is part of my life… whatit has to do with me. 

Then at the suggestion of my wise friend Cindy Urbanski wealso read two more pieces from Daum and Dillard.  Neither piece seems to be directly related toreading and writing or language particularly. So then we start to think…. Well a literacy narrative is just anarrative.  Can be about anything?  Huh?

A look on Google defies this answer many a writing teacherhas assigned a literacy narrative and guideline after guideline mentions thatthe piece should be a narrative about one’s experiences with reading andwriting.   Where do carpet and weaselscome in?

I entered class on Tuesday with all of these thoughts on mymind.  Not totally sure why these two pieces are literacy narratives.  I was both curious and scared to figure this out with my students.   As we talk in small groups I came up with a question, what is our broadest definition of literacy? What does it mean to read and write? Some ideas begin to surface. Literacy is about

Making meaning
Sharing ideas
Symbolic thought
Creating stories we live by

Oh!  So it starts tocome together, the reason why the weasels fit in here.  Just as the words I type here are representations or symbols of my thinking, the weasels are symbols of a theoryabout experience.   So is thecarpet.  So are the words.

And you know how when you learned the word “meme” or “pedagogue”or “kvetch” you then hear it everywhere? Well, this week alongside thinking about literacy narratives with 1101students, I have also been reading for the gender and language studies course Iam taking.  In one of these, Lakoff andJohnson goes right to the idea of metaphorical thinking, they map the ways ourlives are narrated by cultural-specific metaphors.  The metaphors not only describe our lives butcreate them as we live out the metaphors of our culture. 

M.J. Hardman and Lisa Perry describe views of women asshaped by language.  I particularly latchonto her making visible the derivational naming of women in English.  In English women in word and idea are derivedfrom men and are marked that way by language like

Once the French femme
The Bachelorette
Not hardly leather
When Harry Met Sally (See the subject position of Harry?)

Does it matter?  Well,if a metaphor describes what something is like, narrates an idea togenerate connections in our thoughts, what if something or someone is know onlythrough being not quite enough like something else, a diminutiveversion, not even lucky enough for a metaphor of her own.  Just derivation.  
The words matter. They hold the intention of social thought behind them.  They do things and create things in theworld.     

Donna Wilshire writes about metaphorical thinking as a primarysource of feminist activity in that metaphors offer a different kind ofworldview that can and has challenged the literal and linear mindness ofpatriarchy.  Metaphors get messy, theydon’t tell us exactly how things are, they make visible the stickiness ofunderstanding .

Today as I am writing up the literacy narrative work as an assignmentI am wondering how I can make this writing and work recognizable enough in the academiccontext, where linear and literal rule, while also creating space for play withour own conceptions of literacy, academy, and our understandings of what getsto count here and why.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Yall, See Here Now! Thinking Further About Essentialism and Native Tongue

 It’s an essentialist argument about what language is… about how it works.  It’s like she has this belief about how certain kinds of language are right or proper…. And so they like…. Hold some kind of power… I mean I know words do hold power… but like she is not questioning that power in terms of …. It’s about social class!  Okay, this guy who says ‘See here’ rather than ‘Perceive this’ on page … lets see ….  

Imagine the above with rambling hand motions to accompany the rambling tone.  Imagine these spoken and emoted into a room where no heads nod in affirmation.  That would be a picture of me last week speaking into the Language and Gender class I am taking this semester.  Everyone had their copy of Suzette Hayden Elgin’s Native Tongue open in front of them, but the discussion wasn’t all that open to my go at critique.  For the rest of class I scribbled sideways notes into my daybook to try and peel back the stammer and see the idea under there.  So here I am again with another try at articulation-away from the in-class-ego-talk, so that I can make visible this question I have in terms of the arguments about language, power and gender being made in the science fiction novel, Native Tongue.  

 In Native Tongue Elgin assumes that language holds power to change material circumstances.   She assumes that this power is contained in knowledge of language use, and particularly knowledge of the best, clearest, most articulate language.  She thus assumes that there exists a best, clearest and most articulate form of language.   In the novel Elgin ties this authority with language to a particular group of people, the Linguists, who are for the most part a ruling class in a hierarchically organized culture.  The non-linguist characters could be analogous to working class peoples (though there are even more hierarchies within and within and within).  In the novel’s world, these characters do not have the facility with language that the Linguists, both female and male, do.  

When I put this up next to the ways that language works in my life, it feels like maintenance of current systems of power.   In another reading I did for class this week, a chapter from Sexed Texts, Paul Baker gives his tour of early research in language and gender studies.  His basic claim is that while all of this early work is historically interesting and useful in making critical turns toward the current discipline, it still does the theoretical and political work of maintaining understandings of gender through essentialism.   According to Baker, this period of research saw traits of women or gay people or men as bounded together in firm categories of difference.  The characteristics of categories could be known through essential and “true” qualities.  

Elgin similarly frames language itself in essential ways.   Language in Native Tongue has a true and pure nature, which can be mastered and put to creative use.  I am with her (to a point) on thinking that language holds power in the world.  My question is more about the essential qualities of this power.  I believe that power through language is socially constructed and that no pure and best or true or clearest language exists naturally.  It’s all contextual.  

Elgin’s argument is that the Linguist’ language is superior to others, not just culturally constructed superiority, but materially is better: better at doing things in the world, better at changing reality.  Well.  I do see (perceive!) how some language use is socially constructed as better, clearer, more articulate.   There is as a material reality to the ways that, for instance, Standard White English functions as a language of power, but this doesn’t mean that the Standard White English is naturally a better dialect or that language users, teachers and theorists should go along with this socio-historical creation uncritically.

Native Tongue sees the creative opportunity of language and is itself a critique of power relations, but it is not a critical examination of how power works through language (and other tools) and to whose benefit.   Elgin does an imaginatively intellectual job of naming and disrupting gender hierarchies at work in our own culture by hyperbolizing them in the world of Native Tongue.  She does this useful and interesting work, though, by sustaining notions of social class boundaries, which maintains the normalizing of all gender traits as white and middle class, marginalizing all others.

In the end of the novel, through the powerful work of their language use, the upper class, Linguist women begin changing reality to the material advantage of upper class, Linguist women.  Meanwhile, Michaela, the only heavily narrated non-Linguist, working class woman, is left to be an awesome listener and to do the dirtiest labors of murder.