Arts, Humanities and Social Studies Group
Research Focus Areas
These are the initial draft explorations of specific research focus areas in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Studies branch of the Ph.D. in Urban Education proposal. The various areas should be read as part of a larger interdisciplinary context that refers back to the overview statement for the AHSS Group.
Literacy Studies Research
Literacy studies is an interdisciplinary field encompassing foundational research in the social sciences and humanities. In bridging a diversity of contemporary and historical issues of human communicative performance, literacy studies incorporates developmental studies in the pragmatic uses of language of individuals with psycholinguistic and sociohistorical considerations of symbolic interactions in everyday life. Literacy studies derives insights and inquiries from linguistics, psychology, anthropology, English Education, composition studies, and the sociology of education. As an interdisciplinary field, contemporary literacy studies acknowledges and documents the plurality of modes and means by which oral and literate practices enculturate individuals in communities, families, schools and institutions.
Broadly conceived, literacy studies is constituted by three main and intersecting branches: 1) comparative historical investigations of particular cultural contexts of literacy and practice, 2) emergent literacy, as studied by psychologists and sociolinguists documenting the varieties and commonalities in the acquisition and development of gesture, symbol and language , and 3) sociological and anthropological studies accenting the specific modalities of orality and literacy in their variations within and between contemporary discourse communities.
Historical and Comparative Literacies
Comparative historical studies of literacy detail the demographic patterns of literate culture, the relations between oral and literate activities within a social setting, the varied presence and purposes of genre, gendered reading practices and the influence of distinctive economic and technological influences. Topics under scrutiny often give critical focus to the rise or decline of print culture, the history of the book, publishing, and the material cultural that gives shape, content and form to literacy. Studies in this vein provide crosscultural, ethnographic field studies, international educational policy and the relations between community development, poverty and economic and social change.
Historical and comparative studies share with sociological and anthropological inquires an abiding concern for the variations, differences and modes of salient symbolic activity within and between particular communities. Crosscultural frames of reference afford portrayals of the multiplicity of functions, roles and social differentiation into which oral and literate activities are integrated. Sociological and anthropological studies of literacy also provide descriptions of the place of literacy within economic, gender, caste and class hierarchies. Contextualizing the place of literacy within cultural dynamics at large offers a working sense of the significance of the development of literate identities, the status of writing in relation to oral tradition, and the relations of family, kinship and membership within often overlapping linguistic communities.
Emergent literacy studies includes examination of the place of language, literacy and literature in the lives of children and in the communities in which they reside. Literacy studies presuppose the capacity to develop pedagogic attention to that which by virtue of its everyday, ordinary nature, might have eluded conscious recognition. To that end, it is critical that emergent literacy educators learn to look at children, to note their words and actions and to consider the intentions and meanings revealed by their talk, play and artistic productions. We draw upon the arts to bring a freshness and acuteness of vision to our everyday experience, and consider how the arts can be woven through curricular events, sedimenting within the curriculum the intention of schooling to introduce children to new ways of thinking about the world and about the possibilities of their own lives.
Literacy is loosely defined as the ‘state of being literate,’ ‘having a knowledge of letters’ and also as ‘versed in literature or creative writing.’ The word, especially the printed word is clearly privileged over other ways of knowing and of learning to make sense out of our experiences. Yet, there are other, rich ways of learning about the world. We may trace the development of the child’s linguistic/literacy experiences from its roots in the intensely personal face-to-face interaction of infant and parent to the shared reading experiences of adult and child, and finally to the school aged child as an independent reader. From the earliest moments following birth, the baby is engaged in relation with another. The psychological process of bonding between parent and infant takes place within the context of holding and gazing, activities which accompany caring for the baby’s physical needs. Infant and parent are positioned closely together, in face to face interaction where the infant learns to read parental love and attentiveness in her/his attentive face. The parent’s face is the infant’s world, therein s(he) reads vitality and engagement in the world beyond the self.
Infants will work to pull their parents into their affective world. Typically, as the baby grows, nonverbal communication is increasingly accompanied by verbal exchanges, with the baby’s cooing matched by the parent’s use of `baby talk’ or `motherese.’ Students of emergent literacy observe how face to face interaction is increasingly supplemented by an alignment of parent and child. Both gaze upon the world together, attaching names to objects, thus securely fixing them with the child’s world. Daniel Stern suggests that language development takes place within a dialogic process between child and adult; the process of learning to speak creates a new way of `being with’ between adult and child. Language becomes an important means of creating shared experience.
Beginning with the early childhood years, children’s development and changing psychological needs may be supported by literacy experiences which address the developing inner life of children, while helping them to negotiate central concerns. The adult’s role is to create a ‘holding environment; within a framework of books and shared literacy experiences which can support children’s emotional and intellectual development. As children grow they can follow increasingly complex story grammars and narrative sequences, reading further meaning into stories through illustrations, dialogue and prior knowledge. The adult as reader gradually takes retreats as the child becomes an independent reader, able to read the printed words alone, and able to create an enveloping space between self and story. The role of the adult becomes increasingly one of co-constructor of meaning. Within this context, independent reading includes the possibility of shared reading, mediated by the discourse between child and adult, and increasingly among the personal and social worlds shared between children.
Working within an expanded notion of literacy suggests also that teachers attend to the transitions, developmental, social, and geographic that children make as they move between the cultures of home and school, and as they negotiate the passage to adulthood. We explore the subtle transitions that we hope children will make as they move from home to school, and to the wider world beyond school. We are reminded, too, not only of our obligation to honor the homes and communities that have contributed to children’s foundational experiences (literacy, social and developmental) but also of our pedagogic responsibility to expand children’s range of experiences and expectations beyond the familiar and expected. We invite children to explore this wider world as represented by local and internationally renowned cultural institutions, folklore and the ‘indigenous knowledges’ that reside within local communities.
Significant research attends to the social, cultural and cognitive factors present within literate activities. Both experimental, quantitative and qualitative, ethnographic studies have contributed to a fuller appreciation of the multilayered nature of conditions and relations that establish literate activity within a discourse community. Aspects of psycholinguistic and neurolinguistic processing have advanced knowledge of individual differences in the acquisition and use of grammatical, syntactic and semantic elements of language. From a cultural perspective, ethnographic projects have analyzed variations in the social texture and developmental milieu in which individuals and groups are socialized and transmit salient forms of literate interaction. Students of literacy frequently address research questions inquiring into the contextualized purposes, motivations and interrelation of participants within a literate activity, including the particular uses and activities carried out with written symbols. Research in the field evaluates and interprets such areas as the contribution of prior knowledge, the exchange between experts and novices, dialectal and subcultural affiliation, and the transitions from contextualized to decontextualized, school based knowledges.
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