Monday, January 23, 2012

Friday, January 20, 2012

Morrell / Urban Literacy Ed - 2

Popular Culture in Theory and Practice

In Chapter Two of Linking Literacy and Popular Culture – an introduction to popular culture – Ernest Morrell considers what literacy educators can learn from having a clear definition, a theoretical framework and an historical perspective of cultural theory. The chapter serves to demonstrate why “the relationship between mainstream media and social attitudes” has been central to Morrell’s research and teaching. Morrell argues that an “understanding of popular culture . . . is needed for effective teaching, and for critical citizenship.”

Chapter Two provides definitions of concepts connected with popular culture, including the Neo-Gramscian Hegemony Theory – outlines the chronological development of cultural studies – and examines the need for literacy educators to develop a broad understanding of cultural theory.


Neo-Gramscian Hegemony Theory

Morrell attributes the term hegemony to Antonio Gramsci, a theorist who “pushed upon Marx’s idea of ideology as false consciousness.” The OED defines hegemony as “Leadership, predominance, preponderance; esp. the leadership or predominant authority of one state of a confederacy or union over the others” and cites its original use as a “reference to the states of ancient Greece, whence transferred to the German states, and in other modern applications.”

In the context of cultural studies and pop culture, Morrell initially describes hegemony as referring generally to “the strategies, ideas, and beliefs that the dominant class would promote in order to manufacture consent among subordinate classes.”  The word is tied a political concept developed by Gramsci and other theorists to talk about pop culture and explain “the absence of socialist revolutions in Western capitalist democracies.”

Later in the chapter, hegemony is fully defined in the specific context of neo-Gramscian hegemony theory (NGHT) – where popular culture is seen as a site of struggle between the forces of resistance of subordinate groups in society, and the forces of incorporation of dominant groups in society.”

Ernest Morrell
So hegemony here is meant to imply “a process in which a dominant class . . .  leads [society] through the exercise of moral and intellectual leadership.” Morrell emphasizes that popular culture, as related to NGHT, “is not an imposed 'mass culture', or a 'people's culture', it is more of a terrain of exchange between the two.”

Morrell’s focus on NGHT is found to be a concept central to the information in Chapter Two as it concerns understanding critical theory. Morrell elegantly speaks to the basis of critical theory with the following: “Rather than accept any knowledge as absolute, critical theorists assumed that all knowledge was ideological and, therefore, sought to unpack the inherent power relations in all knowledge asking constantly, whose interests were being served and at what cost.”

History of Cultural Studies

In his review of the historical development of cultural studies, Morrell reviews the efforts and conceptual contributions of several researchers. He begins with two of the most famous Frankfurt School theorists, Ted Adorno and Max Horkheimer, and their view that the culture industries (which include popular music, film, television, and print media) were “tools by which the dominant classes could standardize art and culture, thereby constraining critical thought and controlling the actions of the masses.” Adorno, Horkheimer and others studied the ill effects of mass consumption of popular music, television, and film, and the ways in which “media culture could be used as propaganda to sway the public mood.”

Morrell speaks of Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart, and Stuart Hall as theorists who “sought to develop a tradition that celebrated the everyday mass culture of the working class that was denigrated in elite social contexts and in dominant social institutions such as schools.” These British theorists saw pop culture as “a celebration and site of resistance.” Hoggart is noted as author of the seminal book, The Uses of Literacy and as founder of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS).

Pointing to a key difference between the theories of the Frankfurt School and the Birmingham Centre, Morrell writes:

“While Adorno and Horkheimer located popular culture in the works of the culture industries, Hoggart, Hall, and Williams located popular culture in the everyday activities of working class peoples. Whereas the Frankfurt theorists saw popular culture as a tool for social control, the British cultural theorists saw popular culture as a celebration and site of resistance.”

Morrell stresses this central dynamic in cultural studies. “The same culture that represents working class resistance can also be marketed to reinforce social inequality,” he says, explaining, “the two sides to this discussion of popular culture as each having something important to offer to educators interested in teaching popular culture.”

Detailing the work of Raymond Williams, Morrell notes the import of his book, Sociology of Culture – “an historical analysis of the social organization of culture in terms of its institutions and formations.” Williams demonstrated that “the concept of culture had come into existence as a holistic protest against the fragmenting effects of industrialism,” and therefore concluded that all pop culture “belonged to a common heritage of opposition.”

Morrell documents pop culture as examined in American cultural studies and educational research, citing the contributions of Docker, Storey, McCarthy, Mahiri and Giroux. These theorists situate pop culture “in its resonance with oppressed groups while arguing for its position at the center of discussions of education and social change” and promote the study of popular culture “as a mechanism for social change.” Many of the American cultural theorists describe the “multiple, conflicting purposes of popular culture in contemporary society.” Morrell believes:

“that the more young people are given opportunities to explore these various roles, the better consumers and producers of popular culture they’ll be.” 

Henry Giroux is pointed out as having addressed “the crisis confronting youth . . .  where they are enmeshed in a culture of violence coded by race and class.” Giroux argued for a critical media literacy and examined “the negative connotations of youth culture promoted in popular media that propel youth toward mistrust, alienation, misogyny, violence, apathy, and the development of fugitive cultures.”

The Need for a Broad Understanding
of Cultural Theory in Literacy Education

In the final pages of Chapter Two, Morrell makes the case that, “it is important for English teachers to develop a broad understanding of the history and development of popular culture.” He lists several reasons, chief among them – to enable productive discussions between teachers and learners about pop culture “as a simultaneous site of resistance to and cooptation by the culture industries,” and to help literacy educators make the case for the inclusion of popular culture in the mainstream curriculum.

Link to the Henry Giroux Home Page

Quotes from Henry Giroux

As a concept, youth represents an inescapable intersection of the personal, social, political, and pedagogical.
-- from Fugitive Cultures

The futures we inherit are not of our own making, but the futures we create for generations of young people who follow us arise out of our ability to imagine a better world, recognize our responsibility to others, and define the success of a society to the degree that it can address the needs of coming generations to live in a world in which the obligations of a global democracy and individual responsibility mutually inform each other.

Justice is the merging of hope, reason, imagination, and moral responsibility tempered by the recognition that the pursuit of happiness and the good life is a collective affair.

Where I grew up learning was a collective activity. But when I got to school and tried to share learning with other students that was called cheating. The curriculum sent the clear message to me that learning was a highly individualistic, almost secretive, endeavor. My working-class experience didn't count. Not only did it not count, it was disparaged.
-- from Border Crossings

The class and racial war being waged against young people is most evident in the ways in which schools are being militarized with the addition of armed guards, barbed-wired security fences, and "lock down drills." As educators turn over their responsibility for school safety to the police, the new security culture in public schools has turned them into "learning prisons." It would be a tragic mistake for those of us on the left either to separate the war in Iraq from the many problems Americans, young people in particular, face at home, or fail to recognize how war is being waged by this government on multiple fronts.

Instead of providing a decent education to poor young people, American society offers them the growing potential of being incarcerated; buttressed by the fact that the U.S. is one of the only countries in the world that sentences minors to death and spends three times more on each incarcerated citizen than on each public school pupil.

Any discourse about the future has to begin with the issue of youth because more than any other group they embody the projected dreams, desires, and commitment of a society's obligations to the future.
-- from The Terror of Neoliberalism

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Net Worth: PBS' Kids Online

Reflections on PBS' Kids Online - 2008 / PBS Frontline E-Guide

My initial reaction to Kids Online is to submit that the title is culturally clunky. I have personally discontinued generalized use of the word kids because teenagers tend to resent it. Many of them see the term as belittling, and rightfully so. The dismissive sounding kids is often associated with babies and small goats. Appearing in Frontline’s title, the word’s connotations color the entire discussion about Internet use and young adults. 

Why can't they be like we were -- perfect in every way?
What's the matter with kids today?

-- "Kids!" from Bye Bye Birdie

Dislikes . . . likes?

Kids Online is from 2008.  The information presented in the hour-long documentary, while still pertinent in the broad scheme of things, is out of date. Repeated references to MySpace seem particularly anachronistic (though to be fair, no one in 2008 could have predicted the raw and ruthless machinations of Mark Zuckerberg and his infamous FaceBook friends which effectively forced out all competitors). I was disappointed in the PBS program’s failure to address, or even mention, the digital divide – the gap between individuals and communities that have, and do not have, access to new media and information technologies. 
As a generalized overview of the cyber revolution’s social impact, Kids Online has plenty to recommend it. I find the information on parent and teacher attitudes toward young people quite revealing. Additionally, the segments of Kids Online centered on the downside and dangers of social networking sites – peer pressure, cyberbulling, identity confusion, low self-esteem, addiction – offer very valuable insights.

The Netscape


The central thesis of Frontline’s documentary is clearly established: today’s teens, the first generation to grow up on the Internet, are immersed in a “virtual world that's largely hidden from their parents.” Early in the program we are told that, for adolescents, the Web is three things:  a place for self-expression, a place to complain about adults, and a place to connect with each other. A subtle but important point here is that young people perceive the Internet to be a place. One student featured in the program describes MySpace and FaceBook as fun because they are "a section of the Internet that’s your own."

Critical to understanding the impact of the Internet is recognizing the compelling core aspect of the medium as an instant fame generator. Though alluded to throughout PBS’ documentary, this facet of the Net is not explicitly acknowledged. I submit that beyond a view of the Internet as a tool for self-expression or self-publishing (ie. a diary, a sketch pad, a camera), young people perceive it to be a place to self publicate – that is, publically promote one’s identity, image and influence, directly (without regard to the notion of novelist, painter, song writer, filmmaker, and the like) – and thus they sense the social significance of the Web’s model of a world where anybody could, and everybody should, become famous overnight.

The Kids Online thesis suggesting that many of our youth are growing up in a virtual vacuum, “outside the reach of their parents,” is perfectly supportable. However, the associated supposition, that today’s teens are the first generation to come of age in cyberspace, is a less defensible argument.

Government offices, military agencies and large commercial institutions have utilized computer networking for generations. The system now known as The Internet was active as early as 1982. By the mid-1980s, doctors, business managers and other professional people were routinely making "mobile phone" calls. Tim Berners-Lee’s baby, dubbed WWW, was born in 1990, and it was in 1993 that America On-Line turned the geeky, science nerd cyberia into a popular hangout by hyping prepackaged homepages and chatrooms, secure email, and “safe surfing” zones for the nervous Net novice. So today’s teens – while the first generation to have never known a world without the Web – are not the first group of adolescents to grow up socializing on the Web.  They are, however, certainly the first generation socialized by it.

Without a Net

With more than 650 million users around the globe, FaceBook is the world's favorite online activity. Social networking can be enormously entertaining, but the Internet is potentially a grand platform for a teen to play out the awkwardness, insecurity and vulnerability of adolescence.

“The Internet is always a willing listener and it’s very seductive” offers Parry Aftab, founder and Executive Director at Aftab says young people’s desire to share their personal thoughts, feelings and frustrations, combined with “the immediacy and the power of the technology to allow them to act on impulse, that’s when everybody gets into trouble.”

Trouble in the electric schoolyard is cyberbullying, fighting, showing off, emotionally withdrawing, sharing inappropriate photos, sexting, gossiping and the like. Of course, these are the very same schoolyard troubles that existed BC (Before Computers), only now the neighborhood noise, nonsense and nastiness can go viral – being widely broadcast to the world and placed on the Web’s permanent record.
Most troubling about the brave new playground problems examined in Kids Online, is the fact that the grown-ups responsible for protecting, preparing, cautioning and counseling children are virtually absent from the picture. At several different points throughout the documentary, a pained parent or indignant instructor is indicting the out-of-control kids, even while confessing to being willfully ignorant of web culture and contentedly clueless about computers. During one interview, a veteran high school instructor of three decades betrays not a trace of shame nor sheepishness as she divulges that the teens she is assigned to teach are using technology to do things in her classroom that she has simply never (not in thirty years) learned to do – flatly announcing, “I just let them take over.”

This digital era dereliction of caretaker duty plays in the background of every scene, yet curiously, PBS’ program never focuses in on the issue. Since Frontline’s narrative docu-dramatizes the idea of holding youth responsible for doing adult things online – the lack of any discussion about parents playing hooky and educators eagerly dodging their responsibility to get schooled on technology is as conspicuous as the actual absence of adults in our children’s increasingly electric lives.  This year marks the 30th birthday of the Internet. While widespread cell phone, PC and Internet use may be a relatively recent thing, it is not so new that parents and paid professionals have an excuse to pretend it’s all too hi-tech to handle – or to act as if they just can’t comprehend computers, which Americans have commonly used in banking, business and telecommunications for decades – or to make believe that young people, kids, can just be dropped off on the side of the information super-highway and left alone to figure out the digital revolution for themselves.

Net Effect

The notion of teacher as presenter is only briefly touched upon in the documentary. It’s too bad this subject was not pursued a little further because the relationship between education and entertainment holds a special fascination for me. As I have come to see it, edutainment is an open acceptance of the teacher’s role as theatrical artist, or what I have, in that context, described as an “experience administrator” and an “aha moment manager.” The educator, just like the theatrical director, is tasked, not with the delivery of old ideas, but the generation of new ones. This requires the creation of an environment in which the information and ideas presented are brought to life within the hearts and minds of the class/audience. It seems obvious that an instructor would benefit from the basic training actors get in public speaking and deportment. Less obvious is the educator’s need for skill in the dramatic art of crafting a moment.

Net Gains

There is a basic question underpinning every scenario in PBS’ documentary: Why do good teens make bad choices? First, I would insist that teens are moving so quickly -- through such an intense physical, emotional and social developmental phase – that their crazy growing brains are bound to make some bad choices. Secondly, it is a well-known phenomenon that people will say and do things in cyberspace that they would not say or do in the real world. This aspect of life on the Web has been termed the "disinhibition effect." The Net is disinhibiting to users of all ages. The new millennium’s fresh spectacle of online inappropriate behavior, indecent activity, personality conflicts and poor choices has nothing to do with the present generation’s lack of character.

Net Worth

At the turn of the century, I did investigative Web experiments and Net installations exploring cyber-identity. I joined chat rooms and message boards. I built and maintained long-term blogs. For nearly a year, I went deep inside the gaming world of Travian. So I can confirm that the set of personal and social identity issues brought forth in PBS’ documentary are on target. We know that adolescence is a time of self-discovery and identity formation. Teens are driven to experiment with their personality – to try on different roles – so the Internet is a natural fit. This connection may begin to explain why Mr. Zuckerberg’s personal wealth is now estimated to be over 17 billion dollars.

In 2010, PBS produced a television special – similar to Kids Online, but more impressive and powerful. It is called Digital Nation. The FrontLine special was launched in conjunction with a dynamic website that hosts an ongoing discussion. Digital Nation contains newer data and a deeper, richer analysis of information age issues than Kids Online.



"Telephone Hour" from the musical, Bye Bye Birdie

Is it true about Kim?
I just knew it somehow
I must call her right up!
I can't talk to you now!

-- "Telephone Hour" from Bye Bye Birdie

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Monday, January 2, 2012

Morrell - Urban Lit Ed - 3

Multiliteracy and Motivation

Morrell’s Case for
Popular Culture in Urban Literacy Education

Ernest Morrell gets down to (what in my old neighborhood, people called) the “nitty gritty” in his third chapter of Linking Literacy and Popular Culture. Here, Morrell is asking urban literacy educators to discover the connections – not between popular culture and urban schools – but between urban language arts learners and learning.

What is the case for popular culture in urban literacy education? Even if one views literacy in the broadest sense – why focus on Lady Gaga instead of Lady Macbeth? Why hoops over Hamlet? While pop culture may be a valid specialty area of “media studies,” considering time limitations, what justifies its use in the general language arts classroom?

Morrell suggests that in light of our understanding of multiple literacies, popular culture solves the problem of engagement. Language arts educators can ‘meet students where they are,’ so to speak. It’s not a matter of one type of text being better than another – it’s about motivating students. Additionally, Morrell says it’s about relevance, and cultural relevance. Popular culture stands at the intersection between multicultural ideals – and the intentional diversity, equity-seeking and empowerment aspects of the social justice framework.

Morrell makes his case in Chapter Three by addressing two questions: (1) What is literacy education? (2) How do we motivate urban language arts learners? While the chapter is obliged to follow an academic structure of research references, these notes freely reflect on Morrell’s main message: we can motivate urban learners by connecting to the sophisticated cognitive activity young people already employ in their relationship to popular culture, and use the immediate relevance pop culture has in young people’s real lives to build bridges back to great literature and traditional language arts standards.

“No systematic effort toward change has been possible, for, taught the same economics, history, philosophy, literature and religion which have established the present code of morals, the Negro's mind has been brought under the control of his oppressor. The problem of holding the Negro down, therefore, is easily solved. When you control a man's thinking you do not have to worry about his actions.”
Carter G. Woodson


Morrell explores several arguments that lay a conceptual foundation for the theory of multiple literacies and the potential for utilizing film, sports, music, gaming and other forms of pop media to promote literacy development in urban schools. The point being made is that there are many kinds of literacies. Pinning down the precise number and individual scope of the multiplicity of newly understood literacies is difficult. This is due to what Jim Burke characterized as our “evolving notions of literacy.”

There are so many literacies, the lifelong learner must now possess literacy - literacy. Burke, referring to the general area of critical media literacy, says that in our “increasingly complex world of multiple literacies” urban learners need to develop “textual intelligence.” Importantly, his concept of text implies a definition that sees it, as Heather Coffey generously defines text: “[any] vehicle through which individuals communicate with one another using the codes and conventions of society.” Books, yes – but movies, songs, pictures, conversations, and even attitudes are considered texts.

So communications literacy is textual intelligence that includes the realm of the cultural and the socio-physical – leading Judith Langer to describe literacy as, “the ability to think and reason like a literate person within a particular society.” Along with the artifactual, documentary component to popular culture, Morrell contemplates popular culture’s ideal component – ideas, values and attitudes as well as everyday life and language. While not spelled out in his third chapter of Linking Literacy, in subsequent writing and speeches, Morrell has clarified his thinking on the five key literacies, listing:

  • Academic Literacies
  • Critical Literacies
  • Civic Literacies
  • Community Literacies
  • New Media Literacies

Morrell advises that young people are already involved in “many rigorous and relevant literacy activities that are related to their participation in youth popular culture.”

“While acknowledgment of the relationship between education and culture is important, unless the relationship between culture and the socioeconomic conditions within which it is produced is recognized, the so-called at-risk conditions common to peoples living under siege will persist.”
Sandy Grande (Red Pedagogy)


A theory of educational psychology central to Morrell’s work is the Expectancy - Value Theory of Motivation. This Eccles and Wigfield model holds that motivation is a function of two characteristics.  The first one is confidence. Confident in their ability to perform a task, people are more likely to be motivated to do it.  The second characteristic is relevance.  When a person feels that an activity is relevant, he or she will be more inclined to participate.  So, to motivate urban learners, the questions literacy educators must ask are these:

  • What is it that urban learners already do well, and have a high degree of confidence in, that I can draw from? 
  • How can I situate the content in something that is relevant to students in a real way?

Morrell notes that incorporating popular culture in the literacy classroom is also motivating because it promotes critical consciousness. This work positions young people as intellectuals and researchers, investigating the things that they care about in the community. 

“Popular culture involves intellectually rigorous literate activity,” writes Morrell. While many in education claim there is a distinction between popular culture and high culture, “obviously deciding to focus on the latter given its superior rigor, content, and worth to humanity” – Morrell challenges these ideas, insisting “popular cultural consumption and production are intellectual activities that coordinate with the goals of secondary English teaching.”

Beyond academic value, Morrell makes the case that popular culture addresses the issues of multiliteracy and motivation in urban literacy education.