Traditional Academic Feuds in Literacy Studies Part 6: Power and Weak Grammar

Note: This is the sixth part of a multi-part series which (eventually) will become a term paper for a class seminar on literacy.

After my last post, I started discussing the issue of Integration with some colleagues in linguistics via Twitter (in case you haven’t heard, we’re trying to start #lingchat). There are three Tweets I would like to respond to because they raise problems and objections to my analysis that are productive. Thankfully, Purdue’s OWL has already provided a resource on how to cite Tweets. Unfortunately, they’ve only done it for MLA, so I’m extrapolating an APA citation below.

Aside: I want to personally thank my Twitter colleagues @grvsmth, @NemaVeze, and @wgi_pr31ea for raising questions on this matter. Our discussions have been both productive and instructive for me. And while I argue against some of their claims here, I have great respect for their views and scholarship.

In my last post, I suggested that one possible explanation for the dissonance between McKenna et al.’s and Edelsky’s descriptions of the Literacy Studies knowledge structure–which are vertical and horizontal, respectively–may be attributed to the inadequacy of Bernstein’s model. Grieve-Smith’s Tweet raised this objection, framing it as deconstructing a binary: “This vertical/horizontal binary seems to limiting. Why not just talk about how many overlapping theories there are in a field?” (Grieve-Smith, 2013). This raises the question of whether Bernstein’s model might be better represented as a cline, rather than a binary. That is, “horizontality” might be a matter of degree rather than a binary feature. Martin (2007) suggests as much when he argues that knowledge structures may be categorized by degrees of verticality–that is, the amount that the discipline tries to Integrate ideas (“Taking Stock: Future directions in research on knowledge structure”). This seems to align with Grieve-Smith’s idea of “overlapping theories.” Wignell’s (2007) analysis of the structure of sociology offers another perspective: orthodox schools of a discipline may be vertically structured, but the field itself has a horizontal knowledge structure. This might be modeled as a funnel–where certain elements of the discipline comprise the thin, vertical spout and the less-agreed-upon parts comprise the conical lip.

I certainly cannot rebut entirely Grieve-Smith and Martin’s critique of the structuralist horizontal/vertical binary. There do seem to be degrees to which disciplines agree/disagree and overlap/dissent on issues. For example, the particular issue at hand in this analysis–the Reading Wars–are arguably over. If the issues represented in this feud are settled, does this mean that knowledge has been Integrated? It is possible that the “balanced-literacy” paradigm represents this Integration. But a more recent debate between McVee et al. v. Gredler v. Krasny et al. v. McVee et al. in Review of Educational Research(2007) shows that comprehension is a less-vertical element of the field. So perhaps the funnel model of Wignell (2007) has some merit for Literacy Studies–because while the Reading Wars are over, the Comprehension language is less established.

I only have two responses to this critique: first, deconstruction necessarily limits the predictive power of any particular structuralist theory. If we represent verticality as a cline, we can be less sure about the predictions we can make about disciplines we attempt to describe with the model. This seems consistent with the assumptions of post-positivism, the philosophical tradition from which I anchor my analysis. From this perspective, I would argue that while there is a cline of verticality, it is still useful to describe a field as more or less a vertical/horizontal knowledge structure for the purposes of understanding phenomena in a field. It would be helpful to be able to determine what the “tipping point” of verticality is in order to classify a field as either.

To this end, I want to address another problem that arose in Twitter discussions of my previous post. That is, intentionality. The progress goal of Integrated vertical knowledge structures is described adequately by Muller (2007). But is there an intention of horizontal knowledge structures? In Johnson’s (2013) Tweet lies a hint: “i think in linguistics the disparate theories all think they’re right and the other guy’s wrong? also some gaps got really big?” If verticality is measured by a level of intentional Integration by its users driven by a progress (dare I say) “narrative”, then what is the goal of users of horizontal knowledge structures? Johnson suggests that in linguistics, a horizontal knowledge structure (at Purdue, I am a Hallidayan studying among Chomskyans in a relationship with Kachruan), the goal is being “right.” Unlike Integration in vertical knowledge structures, we cannot simply ascribe the process of Proliferation of horizontal knowledge structures as the intention of their users. Linguists do not aim to create new theories; they aim to be “right.” But within horizontal knowledge structures, “rightness” is a function of power. Thus I propose that, in conjunction with the degree of Integration as a measure of verticality, the measure of horizontality may be the degree of consolidated power within the field. McKenna et al. (1990b) may or may not be right about denying a “zero-sum” feature of the Literacy Studies field (p. 11); but I argue that regardless, the degree to which a language in a knowledge structure has influence and adherents, both individual and corporate, determines their consolidated power in the field and thus their status as a horizontal-ish knowledge structure.

This framework may explain the dissonance between the degree of Integration ascribed to Literacy Studies by both McKenna et al. and Edelsky. Because more power was consolidated within Skills-Based Literacy, McKenna et al. were more inclined either to 1) further consolidate the power by silencing Edelsky (as Edelsky maintained) or 2) interpret their power as representative of the structure of the field. This latter interpretation seems more fair and admittedly accurate for the data presented in the M-E discourse. There are multiple signals from McKenna et al. that at times conflict with a horizontal or vertical structure analysis. It seems more likely, based on their appeal to collaboration (1990a, p. 6), that McKenna et al. extended their own goal of scientific progress to also be the goal of the Literacy Studies field–while ignoring the positivist philosophical implications progress espoused. Meanwhile, Edelsky and Whole Language were motivated by power because of their understanding of the discipline as a horizontal knowledge structure. This should not be interpreted as insidious; when a lower-status group seeks more power, it may be an indicator of disenfranchisement or oppression. Certainly both had reasons to believe that the field was structured the way the thought it was. But it may be that Power Consolidation and not Knowledge Integration is the cline along which the horizontal/vertical knowledge structure rests. A particular language may seek to Integrate knowledge all it wants, as Skills-Based literacy attempted to do through collaborating with Whole Language during the Reading Wars. But if a particular language seeks power in the field (not necessarily dominance, but at least equality), then the result may be horizontality rather than verticality. Power rather than Integration may be the more predictive feature of knowledge structure.

6. “Languages have relatively ‘weak grammars,’ which are ‘…explicit conceptual syntax[es] capable of “relatively” precise empirical descriptions and/or of generating formal modelling of empirical relations’ (Bernstein, 1999, p. 164)

Both Grieve-Smith and Johnson’s (2013) Tweets illustrate the sixth feature of horizontal knowledge structures: weak grammar. Martin (2007) argues that the fundamental disagreement among linguists is the definition of “language.” This, in turn, creates the horizontal knowledge structure within linguistics in part because the “empirical description” of language varies across conceptual languages in linguistics. Ginsberg’s (2013) Tweet summarizes this reality well: “Srikant Sarangi once said to me that what we do is essentially methodology. Days like this, I think what we do is terminology.” Ginsberg suggests that defining terminology is often the work required within in a horizontal knowledge structure. It is in this work of defining terminology that the phenomeon of “weak grammar” becomes evident as a mechanism in constructing the Reading Wars in general and the M-E discourse in particular.

The varying degree to which Whole Language has (Edelsky, p. 8) or has not (McKenna et al., 1990a, p. 4) been defined has long been debated. This seems an obvious feature of weak grammar. However, what is often not noted is that the language of Skills-Based Literacy also lacks terminological specificity: “Just as a skills viewpoint does not require a belief in skills hierarchies but rather simply a belief in separable, acontextualized components, so too does a whole language viewpoint not preclude an attention to form” (Edelsky, p. 9). Edelsky reveals in this passage the fact that the concept of “skills” is itself amorphous, not constrained by empirical referents or hierarchies, but nebulously defined as “separable, acontextualized components.” Likewise, just as Martin (2007) argued with linguistics, so too we find in Literacy Studies the fundamental phenomenon–that is, reading–is defined differently by each group. Whole Language defines it as a “sociopsycholinguistic process” (Edelsky, p. 8), whereas Skills-Based literacy seems to define it as a mastery of various skills (McKenna et al. 1990a, p. 3). The difference in empirical referent is, perhaps, not irreconcilable, but at the point of the M-E discourse and the Reading Wars, the difference was enough to distinguish the languages from each other.

This differing of empirical referents leads to the next feature of horizontal knowledge structures, which I will address in the next post. But first, I would like to summarize the issues addressed in this post. First, I attempted to address the hybrid explanation, recognizing that verticality is a matter of degree and less a binary of a knowledge structure. I argued that even if verticality is a cline, there may be a “tipping point” at which a given structure may be more or less a horizontal/vertical knowledge structure. Second, I contended that another way to determine this “tipping point” may be the degree to which power is consolidated within a specific language. If power is highly consolidated within a given language (e.g. the Standard Model of physics or Evolution of biology), then we may argue that it is vertical. Third, I recognized Wignell’s (2007) hybrid explanation and proposed a funnel shape as a model, where orthodoxy represents the spout and heterodoxy represents the lip. Lastly, I argued that Literacy Studies, by virtue of unclear empirical referents, illustrates the feature of weak grammar. The weak grammar of both Whole Language and Skills-Based Literacy contributed to the Reading Wars by providing space for negotiation over the definition of the fundamental phenomenon in question–that is, reading. As an extension, all relations between the fundamental concepts of the discipline were thrown into question. The weak grammar component of Literacy Studies’ horizontal knowledge structure significantly contributed to the traditional academic feud that became the Reading Wars.

Tweets Cited (Extrapolated APA Style)

Ginsberg, Daniel (NemaVeze). 28 April 2013, 8:05 p.m. “Srikant Sarangi once said to me that what we do is essentially methodology. Days like this, I think what we do is terminology.” Tweet.

Johnson, Daniel (wgi_pr31ea). 26 April 2013, 12:56 p.m. “i think in linguistics the disparate theories all think they’re right and the other guy’s wrong? also some gaps got really big?” Tweet.

Grieve-Smith, Angus. (grvsmth). 26 April 2013, 4:33 p.m. “This vertical/horizontal binary seems to limiting. Why not just talk about how many overlapping theories there are in a field?” Tweet.


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