De/constructing Literacies: Considerations for Engagement
reviewed by Ryan McCarty - February 16, 2021
Title: De/constructing Literacies: Considerations for Engagement
Author(s): Amélie Lemieux
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 1433172828, Pages: 144, Year: 2020
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As the title indicates, De/constructing Literacies: Considerations for Engagement by Dr. Amélie Lemieux is an in-depth examination of the concept of literacy engagement. Lemieux employs various epistemologies including perspectives from posthumanism and phenomenological hermeneutics, and explores related concepts such as empathy, motivation, and interest. Posthumanism calls for expanding the lens beyond students as individuals to focus on their larger interactions with the world around them, while phenomenological hermeneutics examines students moment-by-moment lived experiences as they interact with texts and other objects. From this perspective, students subjectivities, emotions, and affective responses become as just as important as traditional indicators of literacy achievement.
Dr. Lemieux has had an impressive early career, and credits the tutelage of Dr. Jennifer Rowsell, an influential figure in the field of New Literacy Studies. While the book is written with an audience of researchers and doctoral students in mind, literacy engagement has become increasingly urgent as the COVID-19 pandemic rages onward. Teachers and parents alike are hungry for new insights about how to engage students in remote and hybrid contexts, and this book could appeal to literacy leaders seeking fresh perspectives. Lemieuxs own research is surprisingly practical, including classroom-based studies of high school students reading print-based and multimodal texts, making her work more accessible than one might assume given the esoteric theoretical perspectives.
Though only five chapters and under 150 pages in length, De/constructing Literacies contains enough new ideas to make it a worthy read. The first and fifth chapters include meditations on phenomenological hermeneutics and materiality, respectively, with Chapter Five largely devoted to the authors work creating Little Free Libraries at her Canadian university. Both chapters feature Lemieuxs own photographs and ekphrastic poetry. Lemieux explains that ekphrastic poetry is meant to capture a response to a scene or work of art (Keats Ode on a Grecian Urn is a famous example). Though devoting space in her book to pictures snapped with her iPhone and poems about walks around her neighborhood seems unusual, it serves to illustrate her theoretical perspective and her approach of finding creative ways to capture fleeting sensations and moment-to-moment interactions.
Lemieux repeatedly compares engagement to a rhizome, a type of plant that grows horizontally underground, creating new shoots and root systems as it spreads. From an educational standpoint, rhizomatic learning emphasizes learner agency as they develop an everchanging network of ideas and connections, in contrast to hierarchical or linear views of literacy. Lemieuxs own writing has rhizomatic characteristics; the epistemologies she chooses to examine corroborate each other, overlap, flirt, and sometimes disagree (p. 129). She also assumes considerable knowledge on the part of the reader. I found myself needing to pause regularly to process ideas, reread prior sections, or seek out further explanation beyond the text. Admittedly, it would be foolish to expect a linear reading experience when Lemieuxs central argument is that reading engagement is highly personal and ephemeral, and educators should foster exploration and creativity.
Chapter Two deconstructs research on engagement and related concepts. To her credit, Lemieuxs examination of engagement is comprehensive, acknowledging the contributions of cognitive-centered, largely quantitative research by John T. Guthrie and others, while also pointing out the inherent limitations in attempting to standardize and quantify engagement. Chapter Three recaps relevant international research and presents seven indicators of engagement synthesized from qualitative research and Lemieuxs own studies. These include ideas such as having an emotional response, imagining and adding elements not contained in the text, having a sensory reaction (e.g., experiencing how something must sound, taste or feel), appreciating the aesthetic impact of the text, and feeling empathy toward characters.
The latter half of Chapter Three and all of Chapter Four present Lemieuxs own research conducted with 88 Canadian private high school students over a six-week period. She employs multimodal tools including aesthetigrams, ekphrastic writing, and drawings. Aesthetigrams, or maps that describe the moment-by-moment lived experiences and reactions of humans reading, making, viewing and interacting with artworks (p. 67), are both a research method and a teaching approach. Students created aesthetigrams first while reading a scene from a play, and later, while watching the film version. Specifically, students list their reactions to text or media, rank them by their importance, categorize the reaction by type (e.g., as judgment, an attitude, an emotion, a reflection, etc.), and arrange them visually using color, size, positioning, and lines connecting different nodes to convey relationships. The finished product is visually similar to a concept map. Aesthetigrams value student agency as meaning makers, while building their awareness of their own affective and cognitive responses to multimodal texts. After concluding Chapter Three with a case study of a student named Julian, Lemieux examines eight additional students in Chapter Four, discussing common patterns across their responses. Though the particular play and film that Lemieux selected seems controversial and potentially triggering for those impacted by sexual violence or incarceration, the research methods themselves are fascinating, and Lemieux suggests practical applications, such as using aesthetigrams as a prewriting activity.
Even prior to the pandemic, United States researchers and literary leaders sought answers to flat or declining national standardized test scores amidst growing disillusionment with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The Common Core prioritized cognitive and textual dimensions over reader responses to reading. The accompanying Publishers Criteria implored students to read within the four corners of the text (Coleman & Pimentel, 2011, p. 4), while cautioning against having students use prior knowledge to answer questions, contradicting decades of reading research (Pearson, 2013). Though the Publishers Criteria were revised somewhat, and the standards themselves were more nuanced, the view of reading as gathering evidence was highly influential, serving to narrow the curriculum. Lemieuxs work is in many ways an antidote to a text-centric view, as reading expands beyond the four corners of the text and into students emotional and aesthetic responses. In her conception of engagement, no affective states are to be marginalized, ignored, or left behind (p. 26).
Lemieuxs work can also inform conversations in a moment when more educators are embracing asset-based pedagogies (Paris & Alim, 2017). In Lemieuxs telling, experiencing confusion, imagining scenes not directly found in the text, or linking events and ideas in ways that vary from the original narrative are not merely a failure to comprehend; they are signs of meaningful engagement in reading. Centering student experiences and valuing the meanings they make can provide an important counterpoint to deficit-centered views of schooling and students. All told, Lemieuxs work is worthwhile for researchers and others who want to explore new theories and methods to expand their understanding of engagement.
Coleman, D. & Pimentel, S. (2011). Publishers criteria for the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy, Grades 312. CCSSO & NASBE.
Paris, D., & Alim, H. S. (Eds.). (2017). Culturally sustaining pedagogies: Teaching and learning for justice in a changing world. Teachers College Press.
Pearson, P. D. (2013). Research foundations of the Common Core State Standards in English language arts. In S. Neuman and L. Gambrell (Eds.), Quality reading instruction in the age of Common Core State Standards, (pp. 237262). International Reading Association.
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