Posts Tagged 'critical thinking'

July BAND Discussion: My Favorite Nonfiction

As noted yesterday, I’ve decided to join the conversation of BAND (Bloggers’ Alliance of Nonfiction Devotees), which poses a monthly question about nonfiction for all bloggers to answer. July’s question, asked by Kim of Sophisticated Dorkiness, is “What is one of your favorite types of nonfiction to read? OR What is one of your favorite nonfiction topics to read about?”

Kara the Pirate reading Bourdieu

Though I love reading a range of social science literature and social theory, the type of nonfiction that I would take to a desert island with me would be writings on critical literacy.

Critical literacy, as I understand it, is an approach to teaching and learning that understands literacy as a social action. Readers are not passive recipients of a text but active meaning-makers who should be encouraged to ask questions and analyze what’s happening in a story. Especially questions about how power is portrayed in the story and why that may be so. Critical literacy scholars say that texts are never neutral and encourage students to contemplate the way a text could be re-imagined and re-designed.

Let me give an example of the kinds of analyses to be found in critical literacy writings. In an essay on the standard story of Rosa Parks found in children’s texts, critical pedagogist Herbert Kohl identifies the flaws in telling this tale as a tired woman who one day got sick of segregation and stayed in her bus seat, sparking the civil rights movement. Kohl rightly points out Rosa Parks had been a leader actively fighting segregation for years before 1955. Moreover, leaders of the Montgomery black community had already planned a bus boycott and were waiting to initiate it until they found “someone who had the respect of the community and the strength to deal with the racist police force as well as all the publicity that would result from being at the center of a bus boycott” (Kohl 44).

Kohl argues that the story of Rosa Parks should be put “in the context of a coherent, community-based social struggle. This does not diminish Rosa Parks in any way. It places her, however, in the midst of a consciously planned movement for social change…” (46).

I know many community organizers who could make the same criticism, but what excites me about critical literacy scholars is that they’re applying the type of critical thinking I love to a topic that inspires my creative brain.

Another positive attribute of critical literacy is that it’s not just about written analysis. It’s about using these analyses in educational practice. In his essay on Babar, for example, Kohl shares reflections from the conversations he held with a third grade class about the colonialist influences of Jean de Brunhoff’s Babar. The Critical Literacy in Practice (CLIP) podcast hosted by Vivian Vasquez, is a great source to listen to other examples of educators holding these kinds of discussions with children.

I set my life goal of writing and publishing radical children’s books well before I ever heard the term “critical literacy.” In college I noticed a curious thing about anthropologists. They discuss at length the ways people have been socialized to think and act certain ways. Lots of anthropologists also want to be part of positive social change on the issues they study. Yet I rarely experienced conversations connecting the dots in those two points to the idea that we can positively affect society by changing the way we socialize children. Putting that argument together with my tendency toward imagined worlds, my plan for radical children’s books came into being.

And to my delight, Herbert Kohl, (whose book of essays on children’s literature I’ve been reading this week, can you tell?) made a call for such books 16 years ago:

I want to plea for the creation of a radical children’s literature that projects hope and provides youngsters with the sense that social forms are constructed by people and therefore that the world can be made into a finer, more caring place. (Kohl x)

From this quote the root of my love for critical literacy as a type of nonfiction: people who write on this subject share one of my greatest passions, and thus they speak to my heart.

What type of nonfiction do you love?


Kohl, Herbert. Should We Burn Babar? Essays on Children’s Literature and the Power of Stories. The New Press, 1995.

What I’ve Learned Since College

My ability to criticize neo-liberal policies and ideologies is definitely a result of studying anthropology (strengthened through participation in clubs like AU Trade Justice and friendships with people like Andrew). I left college with some serious skepticism about anything that focuses on individuals as the source of large-scale social change—especially when the primary directive for the individuals wanting to make a difference is through shopping (i.e. fair trade or green consumerism). Why the skepticism? Because these idealistic outlooks usually obscure the ways that government policies and global economic practices need to be changed to achieve the large-scale goals they are talking about.

The problem with this anthropological perspective is that idealistic people tend to take it as a personal condemnation and a belief that individuals can’t do anything useful to address the enormous injustices of the world. (In my mind this response is kind of similar to the way that some individuals react to discussions about injustice in the first place—getting defensive and angry because they feel that you are blaming them. See “Systems Not People” for a critique of this type of defensiveness against feminism).

To be honest, I consider the “but if you’re saying this solution isn’t good enough then you’re saying we can’t make a difference” response un-nuanced, unimaginative, and annoying. However, I’m willing to admit that in my undergraduate years I didn’t have very good suggestions for individuals who asked “what can I do?” after actually recognizing structural causes of injustice. It’s a question I’m still asking myself daily, because I do believe that we each have a role to play in creating a better world. As I’ve taken this anthropology show on the road I’ve seen many people wanting political change and a fair amount fighting for it, which has taught me a few lessons that I’m slowly sorting and processing. The major one, which I sort of knew in college but hadn’t understood fully or first-hand (especially since I lived in a city where there’s no end to non-profits telling you about the individual difference you can make in the world’s problems): whatever I can do to address injustice won’t be done alone. Real change requires collective action and power.

As I said, I’m still processing what I know about that last statement, and why I know it, so for now I’ll write a bit about what implications this lesson has for anthropology. To me it suggests that people who want to be public anthropologists need to do more than “give back” to the communities where they work. It means that these anthropologists need to commit themselves to social movements (large or small) that are fighting for positive change in those communities. Yes, this conclusion is not very specific as it’s totally dependent on your locality and research topics and there’s lots of nuance to social movements, etc. etc. Nevertheless, I think it gives more direction to public anthropology than the basic tenets of “helping your research participants” or “making anthropological viewpoints more widespread.”

Of course there are some anthropologists who will argue that involving oneself with activism is beyond the duties of researchers, or perhaps even against scholarly principles. What would I say to those anthropologists? Keep your ivory tower! Keep your scientific distance! I don’t want it. Because I don’t think just “doing no harm” is a strong enough directive for anthropologists—or human beings in general.

Between Criticism and Reflection

Thoughts, like energy, are never destroyed. They are transformed…

I received some responses from (adult) people of the youth media project that came up in my last post. The responses included some surprise and objection, and also an opening for discussion. What follows are some of my own clarifications and follow-up thoughts.

First, everything I write is multi-layered. The reactions to the post are what stimulated the thoughts below, so that is the example I’ve drawn on to discuss them here; however, my thoughts actually culminated from a variety of experiences in writing and thus refer to all those experiences, whether that’s explicit or not.  Similarly, in the last blog post, my reflections on words like participatory came from experiences in many places and programs, but I had been thinking about them because of the article I’d written about Voices Beyond Walls, so that was the example which I used. I’ve been told by one reader that the whole post can appear to be about VBW. When I read it, on the other hand, I see two paragraphs about myself as a journalist, two paragraphs about the project, and two paragraphs contemplating youth work and “participation” in general. And my friend Ansel, who commented on the post, probably sees something else, too–he commented on NGO effectiveness and journalists’ effectiveness. All readers come from different places and perspectives and that makes my areas-for-improvement in writing all the more challenging.

With more distance, I can see that I shouldn’t have written the EI article if I didn’t feel I was the best one to write it. Why didn’t I make that decision at the time? I had originally suggested I write an article before I became a volunteer with the program. By the final week of the workshop I felt uneasy with my promise because as a volunteer I had seen the kids could’ve done it themselves, and there was indeed time to—in the Gaza workshop the kids did do their own video interviews with each other about the project. But three weeks (the length of the workshop) is a short time for me to get comfortable with people unless clear communication is established. When the leaders didn’t respond to my suggestion to have the youth in the West Bank create a photo-story I didn’t know what to do. My original offer was still on the table, and I didn’t object to Voices Beyond Walls’ overall program, so I wrote the article. It’s only after creating my own space to reflect on that act, as well as the other article I wrote about a youth camp in Palestine, that I felt more clearly about how I should and shouldn’t have acted as a journalist.

Regarding the content of my criticism in the post, I tend to analyze my work and that of others at the point where discourse and meets reality on the ground. I am critical when there is a gap between the two. That doesn’t mean that everything that happens on the ground is awful and terrible, yet readers/listeners often equate my words with having that opinion. I’ll put it clearly: Voices Beyond Walls ran two workshops for teenage kids who got the chance to make short films from beginning to end in three weeks. That’s great. They also did so with limited resources in an occupied country. Taking a look at the process and details of that work does not take away from the overall accomplishment.

My contemplation of what “participatory media” means is not the first time where what I’ve written has been taken as wholesale rejection of a project or action. (See the reader’s comment on my article about fair trade.) On the one hand, I could blame such interpretations on the fact that we are accustomed to comprehending the world in simplified good/bad terms. My belief that people are capable of more nuanced perspectives well before adulthood is why I work with youth. On the other hand, as I develop as an educator, I’m going to keep writing and reflecting critically, because these acts are central to how I live. Thus, I also must improve my writing skills. The responses I’ve gotten to critical writings tell me that I need to find a way to convey what I’m saying so that people can hear the larger argument without getting caught up in trying to identify whether I totally approve or totally disapprove of the topic. It’s not an easy lesson to teach myself but I will keep trying.


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