jueves, 18 de enero de 2018

Collective Memory, Embodiment and Intersubjectivity of Reminiscences: A Cognitive Surface Reading on Brian Selznick’s The Marvels

Liu Zixian is a graduate of the University of Glasgow with a Master’s degree in Children’s Literature and Literacies. His primary research interests focus on material culture in children’s literature, ergodic literature, visual texts in monochrome, as well as cognitive and evolutionary approaches to children’s literature. He is a pro-active MOOC learner and has accomplished more than thirty online courses, including five specialised courses on neuroscience.
The aim of my master’s dissertation was to explore the embodiment of the fictive memory system. The fictive memory system is the faculty of the fictional mind invented by the fiction and mediated by the real reader through which the literary content functions as a vehicle for forming and developing the intersubjective connection between the mind of the real reader and the mind of the fictional character. In other words, the textually constructed memories become available and approachable to the actual mind.

My research was concerned primarily with the following questions:
(1) What are the key factors involved in forming the intersubjective experience shared between the real reader and the character in the fiction, that is, constructing the fictive memory system?
(2) How might a real reader perceive and synthesise the discourse presented in the fiction by means of the fictive memory system?
My research sets out to explore and expand upon Brian Selznick’s intention to use pictorial narrative techniques to construct the fictive memory system throughout his latest book The Marvels (2015). The Marvels is divided into three sections: the first section in pictures titled ‘1766’, the second section in prose titled ‘1990’, and a final pictorial section. Set in London, the first section uses wordless pencil drawings to depict the life stories of a legendary theatrical family, the Marvels, and ends in 1900 with a mysterious prospect of the descendent Leontes Marvel. The second section, however, recounts how the protagonist, Joseph Jervis, tries to figure out the mystery of Leontes, as well as his possible relationship to the Marvels. Two craftily parallel stories, separated by 90 years in time, heighten the work’s suspense. The third section depicts the life of Joshep as a grown-up.

Selznick indicated that the first section in his book was intended to fabricate the memories of the Marvels family for the readerly remembrance (Logue 2015), and therefore, my discussion centres prominently on how the pictures in the first section can serve as a mediator to foreground the prose in the second section. The readerly remembrance brings about a kind of empathetic conjunct attention when a real reader switches from the first section to the second section in order to make sense of the Marvel family story alongside the protagonist’s quest for understanding his connection to the Marvels in the second section. Such conjunct attention shared by the real reader and the character then lends itself to the mental functioning of the fictive memory system that can give the pictorial memories some verisimilitude for the readerly perception.

As a result of the mental functioning of remembrance, collective memorythat is, the intersubjective experience linking the actual mind with the fictional mind—appears as a constituent part of the discourse in this book, as well as an important cognitive mechanism underlying the readerly aesthetic response. The understanding of collective memory is at least twofold. In one sense, collective memory is a kind of fictitious episodic memory (Ridley 2016), which refers to the acquired knowledge and readerly understanding of the events happened between 1766 and 1900. Consequently, the first section functions as the fictive memories about the Marvel family history which correspond to the protagonist’s knowledge and understanding of his possible relationship to the Marvels. The formation of collective memory in the readerly mind relies upon the temporal structure that bridges the gap between the two scenarios separated by 90 years, which then articulates a readerly assumption about the possible relationship between the protagonist and the Marvels as a means to interpret the connections between the two sections.

In another sense, the nature of the collectiveness is mind socialisation (Bogdan 2000). Collective memory is transported between the actual mind and the fictional mind, in which case the protagonist’s assumption (this is, that he might be a distant relative of the Marvels) might convince the reader. The reader then might be engrossed in the mystery of Leontes as the protagonist did, and therefore, the riveting account of Leontes’ destiny might motivate the active readerly involvement in the second section - together with the protagonist’s investigation into his own family history. Such involvement lays the basis for the embodiment of the fictional mind through the actual mind. The protagonist’s confusion and concern about the Marvels and Leontes might be reflected in the reader’s own confusion and concern about the gap between 1900 and 1990 while reading the second section. Meanwhile, the reader might be able to impersonate the protagonist with reference to their mutual confusions and concerns of the mystery of Leontes.
A secondary purpose of this dissertation was to provide an alternative approach to visual literature research. Thus, I proposed cognitive surface reading as the theoretical lens to examine The Marvels. Surface reading, coined by Best and Marcus (2009), suggests that literary criticism should focus on the ‘evident, perceptible, apprehensible’ attributes of literary texts which are able to articulate the meaning in depth (ibid.: 9). Building on Best and Marcus’ proposition, I develop a cognitive account of surface reading that includes four rationales:
(1) Cognitive surface as an embodiment of mental states and processes through language;
(2) Cognitive surface as a cognitively latent, sensorily manifest and semantically continuous layer;
(3) Cognitive surface as a projection of the actual mind in the presence of the fictional mind;
(4) Cognitive surface as the mnemonic device.
Due to the brevity of the master’s dissertation, my examination of The Marvels addressed the primary surface that a reader might encounter in the first place, including the dust jacket, the section headings, the page break between the pictures and the prose, as well as the first pictorial section as a metafictive portfolio or a kind of artefact. The above four aspects were considered as the conjunction of pictorial narrative techniques which helped the presumption that the legendary theatrical family’s stories might be viewed as an unknown family history to foreground the protagonist’s identity as a hint. These features co-affect the readerly knowledge and understanding of the first section as the fictive memories play an important role in projecting the actual mind into the protagonist’s mind, and in internalising the fictional mind by means of impersonation.

Metafictive Portfolio
According to the plot in prose, the first section is a pencil sketching portfolio supposedly invented by the protagonist’s uncle and his husband. In this sense, those pictures should be viewed as an embodied cultural artefact in form, and as a metafictive narrative device in function. The use of metafiction blurs the boundaries between fictionality and reality (Nikolajeva and Scott 2001), while the visualised, externalised format gives metafiction some verisimilitude and authenticity of the quality of fictionality. Such blurriness serves as the first key factor to facilitate the intersubjective connection between the actual mind and the fictional mind.

Dust Jacket
The jacket seems to invent a binary opposition between a sense of fantasy maritime adventure and a sense of low-mimetic story, which, again, blurs the boundaries between fictionality and reality for strengthening a sense of suspense and mystery. A motto ‘You either see it or you don’t’ written on the cover might bear a striking resemblance to the suspenseful plotting of the two stories which left a 90-year gap. The grammatical and psychological subject ‘you’ is vague but somehow evident since it could refer to either the reader or the protagonist who is depicted on the back part of the jacket (or both). The psychological predicate ‘either see it or don’t see it’ implies the ways of readings (Vygotsky 1997)—it is possible to assume that this is an invitation for the active readerly participation in the storytelling in order to make sense of the suspenseful plotting of the Marvel family story, especially Leontes’ unknown destiny (Nikolajeva 2005).

From a readerly perspective, a key resolution to the mystery of the Marvels - and Leontes in particular-, was to understand the actual relationship between the Marvels and the protagonist, and further to figure out what might had happened between 1900 and 1990. The nominal title might refer to the collective characters (i.e. the Marvels family) (Nikolajeva and Scott 2001), in which case the book title also hints at the understanding of its characterisation as the key resolution to clarify the confused connection between the two sections in content, together with the bewildering relationship between the pictures and the prose in form. To a degree, the reader might be expected to help the protagonist understand his ‘family history’, or otherwise clarify the falsehood.

Figure 1 Dust Jacket of The Marvels

Chronological Section Headings and Blank Double-Page Spread
The section headings and the page break function as the basic temporal and spatial structures of The Marvels. The chronological sequence implied by ‘1766’ and ‘1990’ affects the way in which the relationship between the pictures and the proseas well as the connection between the Marvels and the protagonistmight be explained. The timeline of events also implies that the pictures serve as the memories of the Marvels, in which case the reader might use them as a mnemonic tool to engage in the second section in prose. It is noteworthy that the first section ends in 1900, and therefore, there is a 90-year gap to be filled. The blank double-page spread visualises the gap which then acts as an invitation for the reader to work out why it exists, and how such gap - one of the important causal factors for storytelling - might affect the ‘1990’ scenario (Nikolajeva and Scott 2001). Therefore, the highly complex organisation of such temporality and spatiality embodied by the section headings and section break lends itself to a thematic focus on the confused relationship between the Marvels and the protagonist.

Figure 2 Screenshot of The Marvels Animation (1) Source: http://www.themarvelsthebook.com/about_book.htm

Figure 3 Screenshot of The Marvels Animation (2) Source: http://www.themarvelsthebook.com/about_book.htm
The above analysis demonstrates that the mental functioning of the fictive memory system—that is, collective memory in the case of this research—arises from the mutual concern formed by the reader and the protagonist, and it is mediated through the pictorial narrative techniques alongside literary devices. The Marvels includes multiple layers of cognitive literary surfaces manifested in the form of its material and physical features. Nevertheless, my master’s dissertation revealed the primary layer and some of the interesting effects associated with the pictures. It is worth further research that explores the prose and the detailed features inside the pictures.
Best, S. and Marcus, S. (2009) ‘Surface reading: An introduction.’ Representations, 108 (1): 1-21.
Bogdan, R. J. (2000) Minding Minds: Evolving a Reflexive Mind by Interpreting Others. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Logue, C. (2015) ‘Brian Selznick: The cinematic storyteller talks about the act of visual narration.’ Scholastic Teacher, 125 (1): 52.
Nikolajeva, M. (2005) Aesthetic Approaches to Children’s Literature: An Introduction. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press.
Nikolajeva, M. and Scott, C. (2001) How Picturebooks Work. New York: Routledge.
Ridley, R. (2016) Peter Pan and the Mind of J. M. Barrie: An Exploration of Cognition and Consciousness. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Selznick, B. (2015) The Marvels. New York: Scholastic Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1997) Thought and Language. Trans. A. Kozulin. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

viernes, 10 de noviembre de 2017

It’s not what you read, it’s how you read it: Approaching critical literacy as a novice teacher

Isabel Braadbaart is completing her probationary year as a newly qualified primary teacher in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. She has a B.A. in Social Sciences from University College Utrecht, an M.Ed. in Children’s Literature and Literacies from the University of Glasgow, and a Professional Graduate Diploma in Education (Primary) from the University of Edinburgh.

                  My own exploration of critical literacy occurs at the intersection of my personal values, my academic interests and research, and my professional goals as a teacher. These are inextricable from each other, and rightly so. Research is nothing without an application, professionalism ceases to exist without evidence and systemic thought, and neither is meaningful without the personal element. This post provides an overview and analysis of my M.Ed. dissertation and the practitioner enquiry I conducted as a student teacher, both relating to critical literacy. Readers are invited to reflect on the parallels between my journey and theirs, and to consider the roles of researchers, policymakers, and the teachers in introducing, positioning and enacting critical literacy. 

Critical literacy is acknowledged as a nebulous yet vital aspect of the literacy skillset (Stone, 2017). There is a plethora of approaches and definitions, ranging from the acknowledgement of the real work texts do (Vasquez, 2010: 110) to exploring how texts do this work (Freire & Macedo, 1987) to positioning texts of social constructs (Sandretto & Klenner, 2011) to how students can learn to decode, encode, analyze and create texts (Freebody & Luke, 1990). The working definition of my dissertation positioned critical literacy as the use of literacy skills to analyze, critique and transform social norms, and highlighted its position within critical pedagogy. Critical literacy is also frequently defined by the topics with which it deals: primarily, those related to social justice issues (Vasquez, 2010). This plurality is difficult: it created challenges in focusing my work as a teacher and explaining my work to others. While there is value in multiple definitions, May (2015: 5) notes that there are potentially too many possible interpretations for educators to develop a concrete conceptualization of critical literacy. As a novice teacher, I craved a definition which positioned critical literacy as a tool and a lens, while also acknowledging how I think about and incorporate critical literacy into my own practice. I currently define critical literacy as how we use literacy as a tool for understanding and improving the world.

“We talk about it in a different way”:
 A narrative inquiry into two Scottish teachers’ negotiations of critical literacy

                  For my dissertation, I worked with two Scottish teachers over the course of three one hour workshops to explore how they negotiated critical literacy and positioned it within both their own practices and the national curriculum in Scotland, the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE). While critical literacy has been widely promoted by researchers within the field, as well as some governments (Luke, 2000) and has a positive long-term impact on students (Harrell-Levy et al., 2016), my findings highlighted a gap between policy and research and also between the awareness and use of critical literacy by teachers.

Narrative enquiry provided the framework for the research, and I focused on valuing participants’ voices and their ability to direct the conversation and narrative. The workshops were recorded and coded by myself, with corroboration and relevant discussion with participants. While the interpretive nature of narrative inquiry implies that an analysis is in no way conclusive or exhaustive, the strongest narratives which developed were the intertwining elements of structures, personal beliefs and values, and power. Structural narratives, involving the effects of an environment on teachers and vice-versa (Giddens, 1984; Bourdieu, 1972), primarily focused on the positive and negative aspects of working with the CfE, though issues such as professional development, preparation time, and class size were mentioned. We also discussed the role of personal beliefs and values in how a teacher approaches critical literacy. Indeed, a core dilemma in investigating teacher use of critical literacy is that it requires not just the adaptation of practices, but also a willingness to participate in critical reflection. The participants dubbed this a ‘mindset’. Lastly, the issue of power was a strong undercurrent, demonstrated in the almost constant negotiation required between the structural and the personal when considering any teaching approach, and not just critical literacy.

This dissertation provided tentative ideas about the challenges in inviting teachers to participate in critical literacy, outlining the importance of considering how teachers adopt new approaches and incorporate them into their own beliefs and teaching practices, and the potential of structural elements to influence this process. Not only are these ideas which could be followed up on with further research, these were aspects which I knew would play a role in my own initial teacher education the following year and expected to come across when I began my practitioner enquiry.

Critical literacy as inclusive pedagogy: Meaningful literacy for all students

                  In the final five-week placement of teacher training, we conducted a practitioner enquiry. This was an opportunity to extend both my practical and theoretical knowledge of critical literacy, while engaging in a professional practice expected of Scottish teachers. A practitioner enquiry is “an investigation with a rationale and approach that can be explained or defended” (Menter et al., 2011) focusing on teachers and their practice. It is qualitative, emic, and personal research.

My enquiry focused on exploring how critical literacy functions as an inclusive pedagogy. The two approaches go well together. Literacy skills are essential for student attainment, and “finding ways to engage students in reading may be one of the most effective ways to leverage social change” (OECD, 2002: 3). In addition to this, work in inclusive education points to the fact that the mere presence of students in school is not enough: students must also have “opportunities to participate in meaningful learning” (Florian & Spratt, 2013: 121). The nature of critical literacy highlights the real-world importance of literacy in both its approaches and topics, helping to create meaningful literacy opportunities. I therefore aimed to explore how I could make literacy meaningful for all students using critical literacy.

                  I focused on two overlapping tenets of inclusive pedagogy and critical literacy: valuing student voice and valuing multiple opinions. These linked to key questions of inclusion which I needed to reflect on: Whose voices are included and whose are excluded in my classroom? (Allan, 2003); What messages am I sending about what types of learning and learners are valued in my classroom? (Florian & Spratt, 2013: 121). Throughout the placement, I reflected daily on my own teaching as well as the students’ learning, and these provided the basis for the analysis of how using critical literacy affected my students and me.

                  Working with students in the last year of primary school (P7 in Scotland), critical literacy skills were primarily explored through an interdisciplinary approach looking at reading and writing news articles and examining their role in reporting on natural disasters. There was a focus first on understanding how a news article works as a text, and then using the text to support opinions. News articles also naturally functioned as an excellent link to the real-life relevance of texts. Exploring natural disasters and country preparedness provided opportunities for the development of visual literacy skills, as well as continuing to develop the ability to use a text to support a position. These skills were then applied again to newspapers, when examining the roles of pictures, headlines and formatting, and who makes the decisions about these elements. We also explored facts and opinions in news sources, linking this to trustworthiness and relating it, again to a real life concern: whether fidget spinners should be allowed in schools. All of these skills culminated in an assignment to write an article about a natural disaster using an information pack to select witnesses, expert quotes, and appropriate evidence to support their writing.

                  Personally, it seemed clear that the focus on critical literacy skills and attitudes engaged the class, and particularly enabled less able students to contribute and develop literacy skills. Using real texts show that you care about making what you teach relevant to the learners, and examining how texts ‘work’ empowers students through improving their ability to decode texts. A focus on visual literacy highlights the inevitability of multiple perspectives, and creates an environment which values a plurality of ideas and interpretations and removes or diminishes the barrier of traditional text for less confident readers. By valuing multiple perspectives, we value students’ voices and ideas, placing the focus and onus of learning on the students themselves – a key tenant of dialogic teaching (Sandretto & Klenner, 2011: 63). In the final written assignment, some of the less able students were using sophisticated reading strategies to plan their text as well as showing a good understanding of how to produce a news article. It is noteworthy that critical literacy was not the only approach I used which would foster inclusive education: I also routinely use formative assessment strategies, dialogic approaches, and mixed ability grouping as appropriate. However, using critical literacy as a framework for inclusive literacy teaching and learning helped me navigate how I might value different ways of being a learner, highlighting existing practices as well as new ones I could incorporate.

Reflections and next steps

                  I learned much from this enquiry, and left my placement eager to consider how I might purposefully structure critical literacy skills in my classroom. It also raised my awareness of what kind of hurdles and challenges teachers might face when trying to incorporate critical literacy into their practice and their mindset: hurdles that would have been difficult for me to imagine when conducting my initial research for my dissertation. The broad categories of structure, personal beliefs and values, and power still apply, but I can now clearly imagine the specifics of these challenges, e.g. the need to take time to establish critical literacy habits and teach the appropriate metalanguage; the potential struggles with finding space for critical literacy within a full curriculum as well as school planning and set literacy schemes; the convoluted web of practice wherein many critical literacy elements require other aspects of good, inclusive practice.
                  The importance of critical literacy is still clear to me, and this enquiry helped me return to my previous work and define critical literacy more clearly for my own practice. The challenges it presents are ones that are surmountable, and personally I see many opportunities to take it forward, even when working with much younger students as I am currently. Beyond my personal journey, there is also much which can be done both in research and policy. For instance, there is still more information needed about how we can successfully encourage and help teachers to not just implement critical literacy but imbed it in their practice. Based on my own experiences, I would argue that a focus on skills rather than topics would help clarify what critical literacy looks like, but this needs to be investigated further. Awareness of critical literacy and its value both socially and as an inclusive pedagogy needs to be increased. Part of this responsibility lies, in this case, with the Scottish government and how the CfE incorporates critical literacy, but the responsibility also lies with researchers who should make their work accessible to those who would benefit from it. Finally, we need teachers who believe in the potential and power of critical literacy across the curriculum and stages to advocate its use beyond their own classrooms.

Reference List

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Black adolescents’ identity exploration in a transformative social justice class. Education, Citizenship and Social Justice, 1-15.

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