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Power, Resistance, and Literacy: Writing for Social Justice


reviewed by Jory Brass - January 26, 2012

coverTitle: Power, Resistance, and Literacy: Writing for Social Justice
Author(s): Julie A. Gorlewski
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1617354058, Pages: 248, Year: 2011
Search for book at Amazon.com


This book investigates writing instruction at “Pontiac High”—“a primarily White working class first-ring suburb high school” (p. 21) in a rust-belt city in New York State. A teacher and researcher at the school, Gorlewski conducted observations, document analysis, and semi-structured interviews with Pontiac teachers and focal students to document how the New York State Regents Exams (The “Regents”) influenced the teaching and learning of writing.  Identified as a critical ethnography, the book was guided by two research questions:


How do teachers and students in a predominantly White working class first-ring suburban high school experience and articulate academic practices related to writing?


What factors (structural, curricular, expressed and lived identities of faculty and youth) influence these practices? How do these practices relate to social class(es) and discourse of empowerment and/or disempowerment among students and faculty? (p. 22).


The book argues that accountability policies tied to The Regents pressured the school to adopt restrictive practices of writing instruction that “exacerbate social inequality by limiting the imaginative possibilities of poor and working-class students through their experiences of writing and literacy” (p. xviii).  


The book is divided into two sections—“Power” (Chapters 1-5) and “Resistance” (Chapters 6-10)—which the author attributes to Foucault’s (1982) idea that resistance is an integral component of power relations. However, the framing chapters do not situate the study in the Foucault and education literature, but in the sociology of education, modern critical theories, and the New Literacy Studies. Taking notions of power and social class from these literatures, the middle chapters of the book document how the Regents exams shaped teachers’ and students’ conceptions of writing and definitions of themselves as writers, teachers, and learners. Chapters 3 and 4 highlight social and emotional consequences of standardized writing instruction, such as demoralized teachers, undermined confidence, student anxiety, and low expectations. Similarly, Chapter 5 confirms that standards-driven literacy instruction has narrowed the curriculum at Pontiac, replaced substantive instruction with test preparation, and privileged an anemic type of literacy that stresses facts and form over invention, ideas, and writing for meaningful purposes and audiences. Part I demonstrates Gorlewski’s ability to use critical educational literatures to frame the thematic analysis of interview data.


Part II repeats many themes from earlier chapters as Gorlewski argues that the Regents exams have replicated and exacerbated power relations that existed in working class schools prior to the standards and accountability era (p. 111, italics in original). Chapters 6-10 identify critical themes that will not be surprising to readers of modernist critical theory: control of instructional time, restricted writing and thinking, banking conceptions of education, undermined confidence, teachers’ and students’ conceptions of themselves as non-writers, misconceptions of thinking and writing, and domesticating literacy. Chapters 3-8 were rich in interview data that clearly supported these themes; however, I would have welcomed ethnographic descriptions that illustrated how power was exercised in specific social interactions among administrators, teachers, and students at Pontiac High. Compared to another critical ethnography of literacy, Ellen Cushman’s (1998) The Struggle and the Tools, this book did not offer thick descriptions that narrated research participants negotiating and subverting power relationships.


Explicitly invoking Foucault’s notion of power, the final chapters also attempted to document moments of “agency, resistance, and empowerment” at Pontiac High. However, Part II offers no more than “hints at hope, glimmers of resistance,” such as interviews with individual teachers who value “higher order thinking skills” or students and teachers who critique what constitutes “writing” at Pontiac High yet largely comply with the status quo. To offer an exception, Chapter 9 represents examples from Gorlewski’s 9th and 11th grade English classes where she encouraged youth to “exercise their agency” and to “tap into their resistance” by encouraging choice, challenging texts, and fostering dialogue. A goal of the book was to “expose glimmers of resistance, spaces in the structure of schooling where teachers and students critique the system . . . and subvert the negative effects of neoliberal reforms” (xix); however, the final chapter does not offer an optimistic summary of writing instruction at Pontiac High:


High-stakes tests are reinforcing redefinitions of knowledge (empirical, not constructivist, and situated in the authority of the state), re-socialization of teachers, and the construction of identities that reproduce working-class conceptions of knowledge, but middle-class neoliberal norms of meritocracy and individualism. Privileging an individualistic conception of learning and literacy limits the possibilities for collective action rooted in the (shifting reformulations of the) working class—collective action that might result in the realization of resistance and political reform consistent with social justice (p. 211).


At a time when literacy researchers employ social theories in inconsistent ways (Dressman, 2007), this book represents a consistent effort to use the sociology of education, modern critical theories, and the New Literacy Studies to scaffold the analysis of qualitative data. Teacher educators who identify with these literatures will find empirical confirmation of their worst fears about writing instruction in the era of No Child Left Behind. At the same time, the book’s analytical themes were so enmeshed in these literatures that I did not come away with any new perspectives on high-stakes testing and its effects on high school writing instruction. I found myself wondering if today’s regime of high-stakes testing primarily exacerbates traditional relations of power and control, as the book claims—or if other power relationships might had been intelligible and relevant at Pontiac High had the study not employed traditional oppositions of power/resistance, structure/agency, and disempowerment/empowerment?


In a similar vein, I hoped this book might work with Foucault’s difficult formulations of power. Gorlewski attributes the book’s duel focus on “Power” and “Resistance” to The Subject and Power (Foucault, 1982). However, much of that famous essay tried to redirect the study of power away from attacks on institutions, the state, and relations of economic production (social class). Ironically, the book cited Foucault (1982) in support of a study of power


in which authority, situated first in the state, then in school administrators, then in teachers, determines what counts as knowledge and literacy. This stance reaffirms a working-class approach to schooling wherein students are alienated from the labor of their learning (and their writing) (Gorlewski, 1991, p. 175).


Additionally, most of the book employed modernist notions of power, agency, and empowerment that have been critiqued for decades by Foucauldian scholars of education (e.g. Popkewitz & Brennan, 1998; Fendler, 1997; Gore, 1990, 1993). In my view, the book would have been stronger had it not alluded to Foucault—or used his work to unsettle or displace more familiar representations of power, writing, and high-stakes testing.


Power, Resistance, and Literacy offers a damning view of the New York State Regents Exams and their deleterious effects on writing instruction at Pontiac High. The book contributes to the field by documenting extensive interview data that confirm critiques of high-stakes, standardized writing exams that are well established among scholars of literacy, composition, and English education. The book may not offer a novel take on high school writing, but it represents one of the first book-length studies that document the negative effects of high-stakes writing exams. Thus, it might be a timely read for teacher educators given the emphasis on literacy and high-stakes testing in today’s educational policies.


References


Cushman, E. (1998). The struggle and the tools: oral and literate strategies in an inner city community. Albany: State University of New York Press.


Dressman, M. (2007). Theoretically framed: Argument and desire in the production of general knowledge about literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 42, 332–363.


Fendler, L. (1999). Making Trouble: Prediction, Agency, and Critical Intellectuals. In Popkewitz & Fendler (Eds.), Changing Terrains of Knowledge and Politics. New York and London: Routledge.


Foucault, M. (1982). Afterword: The subject and power. In Dreyfus & Rabinow (Eds.), Michel Foucault: beyond structuralism and hermeneutics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Gore, J. (1990). "What can we do for you! what can we do for you? Struggling over empowerment in critical and feminist pedagogy. Educational Foundations 4, 3: 5-26.


Gore, J. (1993). The struggle for pedagogies: critical and feminist discourses as regimes of truth. New York & London: Routledge.


Popkewitz, T., & Brennan M. (1998). Foucault's challenge: discourse, knowledge, and power in education. New York: Teachers College Press.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 26, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16670, Date Accessed: 10/20/2021 3:32:20 AM

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About the Author
  • Jory Brass
    Arizona State University
    E-mail Author
    JORY BRASS is an assistant professor in Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University. He is currently working on a genealogy of scientific research in English education and histories of English teaching influenced by the work of Foucault. His research has been published in Educational Theory, Research in the Teaching of English, Changing English, Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, and Pedagogy, Culture, & Society.
 
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