A [new] literacies dissertationThe paradox surrounding the literacy practices in academic research
While the existence of new literacies –the modern understanding of the ways in which individuals communicate with each other– is recognized and discussed, their production has not yet gained acceptance as being a valid means of intellectual discourse in an academic world still narrowly focused on print-based text. Academic research, for example, continues to take the form of traditional literacy practices and seldomly acknowledges practices of research that cannot be captured by the historical definition of the term. Institutes of higher education hold on to an outdated understanding of the term “literate”, and seldom acknowledge research practices falling outside its traditional definition, jeopardizing their relevancy and obstructing the formation of a connection between art and knowledge. To be literate, however, individuals must engage in the consumption and production of diverse language forms, not just one.
An important step will be widening the literacy practices doctoral students interact with. As the culmination of a PhD research program, the dissertation should push scholars to move outside familiar well-beaten paths in order to gain new perspectives that enable new questions, and the possibility of change. As a language and literacy education scholar, this researcher (a doctoral student at the time) examined the paradox surrounding the literacy practices in higher education –specifically the products of academic research– by producing a dissertation written solely outside privileged linguistic forms. Her dissertation and the defense opened to the public as a popup event at a local art museum. This presentation focuses on the art of its making, taking a close look at diverse writing processes that support research in new literacy forms. The researcher provides snapshots of her original work, unpacking the ‘text’ from the lens of an author throughout the writing process.
Hello, my name is Dr. Rachel Kaminski Sanders. I am an Assistant Professor of Literacy from the University of Texas at San Antonio. With the need for increased attention on writing instruction in mind, my research in new literacies focuses specifically on its production. I received my doctoral degree in language and literacy education after producing a dissertation written outside the privileged linguistic forms. I seek to broaden the types of scholarly research compositions accepted within higher education, an area I feel is imperative to advancing academic research in the ever-broadening practices of literacy.
2 Title Page
As a language and literacy education scholar, I’m here today to discuss the paradox surrounding literacy practices in higher education – particularly the products of dissertations – and the making of a new literacies one. We will be taking a close look at the diverse writing processes that support research in other language forms.
3 Defining Literacy
Let’s first discuss what we mean by the word, literacy. The term was treated exclusively as the cognitive ability to read, until the end of the 20th century when literacy was recognized as both reading and writing (Lankshear & Knobel 2011; UNSD 2020; Venezky 1999). Despite the revised definition of being literate – the ability to both read and write – instruction focuses primarily on the former (The National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges NCW 2003; National Writing Project & Nagin 2003). Further, in the traditionally received definition, being literate refers only to written language, the reading and writing of print-based text (paper-based sources such as books, articles, posters, etc. that privilege the linguistic mode of expression). But as the ways in which society communicates continues to change, literacy continues to take many different language forms, which is why the definition of the word is more complicated than it was a century ago (Alvermann 2011; Coiro et al. 2008; Gee 2015; Lankshear & Knobel 2011; The New London Group 2000; Street 1984).
The term ‘new literacies’ applies to both the guiding beliefs or ideals that characterize the new understanding (one beyond typographic forms) of what it means to be literate in present day, referred to as the “ethos stuff” by Lankshear and Knobel (2011), as well as the new hardware and software of communication practices, referred to as the “technical stuff”. While new practices have been introduced by the technos of these literacies, the word ‘new’ is used to identify the literacies outside the perceived meaning of the term. According to Gee (2015), literacy is exhibiting the use of languages through Discourses that include beliefs and practices, such as a movement of a part of the body to express a socially meaningful gesture. Many of these new forms (such as visual arts) were already in existence and even practiced centuries before what is now the commonly accepted form of literacy, written language (Bateman 2014; Schmandt-Besserat & Erard 2008). Literacy has not so much changed, rather our perspective of the term has.
4 The Paradox
Despite the revised definition, these once marginalized literacies are still attempting to gain value in an academic world whose practices (syllabi, course materials, assignments, publications, presentations) overwhelmingly remain narrowed to the use of print-based texts (Coiro et al. 2008; The New London Group 2000; Dalton & Proctor 2008; Flood et al. 2008; Wilber 2008). Institutes of higher education hold on to an outdated understanding of the term “literate”, and seldom acknowledge research practices that cannot be captured by the historical definition of the term, jeopardizing their relevancy and obstructing the formation of a connection between other language forms (such as the arts) and knowledge. To be literate, however, individuals must engage in the consumption and production of diverse language forms, not just one.
5 Case in Point
Take for example the culminating piece of a PhD research program, dissertations. A “nontraditional” format is often defined by graduate school guidelines as three written chapters instead of a 300-page book. While there are a growing number of dissertations encompassing mediums (rap albums, graphic novels, plays, etc.), that extend beyond the classrooms where students are trained to meet the skills demanded in the 21st century, academia continues to emphasize “written” research, or print-based text, even though the term “text” is not limited to written language. There are very few, if any, research studies written (broadly defined) predominantly outside of written language forms. In fact, arts based researchers are often required to make hybrid products, submitting a traditional paper in addition to a creative work, in order to be accepted as scholarly work.
For example, Hannah Blevins Harvey’s (2006) dissertation was a 455-page write-up of a performance study. Dissertation hybrids like Harvey (2006) suggest new literacy practices (such as works of art) are only acknowledged by institutes of higher education as intellectually valid if presented through traditional literacy practices (written word). Put another way, other language forms are only acknowledged as intellectually legitimate if presented through written language. As Hughes & Vagle (2014) argue such practices reflect the “not-enoughness discourse” prevalent in the academy (Ibid., 245). Hughes (2011) was required to reformat her own dissertation written as a magazine publication, at the time a ‘radical’ departure from tradition (Hughes & Vagle 2014).
Cultural interventions have already begun. Scholars like Sousanis (2015) and Carson (2017) provide important examples of how nontraditional dissertation forms enable individuals to produce research products that accommodate diverse ways of thinking and extending literacies practices beyond academic silos, yet both remain within the practice of the written language while none exist solely outside of it. Because ‘writing’ is no longer considered to be fixed to one linguistic form, the term ‘research’ can no longer be confined to the formulaic structure of print-based text often privileged in higher education. An important step to redefining the term ‘research’ will be widening the literacy practices doctoral students interact with. As the culmination of a PhD research program, the dissertation should push scholars to move outside familiar well-beaten paths in order to gain new perspectives that enable new questions, and the possibility of change.
6 The Call
New literacy scholars have been calling to broaden practices for several years. Still, these scholars dedicated to the study of new literacies use the same written based argument they are hoping to break out of, bringing attention to the contradiction even within their own field. Even scholars in fields outside of literacy are also calling into question the privileging of written language in academic institutions, including ones from the fields of qualitative research, the arts, race, ethnicity, and gender, as well as dress and fashion –an indication that the need for expanding literacy practices is not localized to a specific field but is interdisciplinary and crucial to advancements in academic research.
Because research is so much based in reading and writing practices, an emphasis on the new understanding of the term would be meaningful to all scholars. Perhaps then, perspectives about its perceived meaning can change.
7 Advisory Committee
As a means of addressing the paradox surrounding literacy practices in higher education, I sought to write a dissertation using new literacy practices, helping me to develop as a new literacies writer, and better informing my practices as a literacy scholar, or what Eisner (1976) argues is “educational connoisseurship”. My dissertation and defense opened to the public as a popup exhibition at a local art museum.
Writing a new literacies dissertation required the support of a new literacies writing process. The writing process, as NCW (2003) argues, is a series of actions in which the writer must “struggle with the details, wrestle with the facts, and rework raw information and dimly understood concepts into language they can communicate to someone else” (Ibid., 9). Practices surrounding all aspects of the dissertation (and not just the product itself) had to be reconfigured to support new literacies: from the selection of my advisory committee members to the assortment of coursework in my program of study, from the writing of the prospectus to the publication venues of such work.
For one, collaborating with faculty members across disciplines, colleges, and academic institutions was a necessity as they possessed the requisite expertise that made an irreplaceable contribution to the advisory committee and my work. Therefore, the selection of its members included scholars from the fields of language and literacy education, qualitative research studies, dress and fashion as well as arts and the humanities.
Additionally, research into nontraditional research outlets that can accommodate the inclusion, and subsequently dissemination, of new literacy forms that require the active, visual and spatial complexity to produce the nonlinear compositions of knowledge is imperative. As a nationally recognized educational program and research institution, museums can potentially provide the partnership institutes of higher education require in order to engage in the production of diverse forms of communication that can impact educational programming and policies. My internship with the Head of Exhibition Design at Georgia Museum of Art enabled extensive opportunities for institutional and public collaboration and an escape from the academic silos. Educators need to become more inclusive of the funds of knowledge brought forth by the various literacy practices of a diverse student population rather than continuing to support guidelines that police them.
Let us now take a behind the scenes look at this work…
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Rachel Kaminski Sanders
Rachel Kaminski Sanders received her doctoral degree in language and literacy education after producing a dissertation written outside privileged linguistic forms. She seeks to broaden the types of scholarly research compositions accepted within higher education, imperative to advancing academic research in the ever-broadening practices of literacy. With the need for increased attention on writing instruction in mind, her research in new literacies focuses specifically on its production.