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Adult literacy clients as authors: A feminist poststructuralist perspective

Sharon Williamson Smith, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Many adult literacy program, especially those seeking to address issues of equity and empowerment, invite their clients to become authors by articulating their life experiences, ideas, and opinions in talk and in writing that is published. Recent theorizing about identity raises issues about the empowering capacity of this widespread practice. To address these issues, I borrowed theoretical perspectives from feminist poststructuralism that allowed me to see what happened when clients were positioned as authors in light of positionings leading to salient identities other than author. These positionings were shaped by discourses, local ideologies, and speech acts. The study focused on a small group of literacy clients who interacted with each other and with tutors in adult basic education tutoring sessions and Authors Workshops sited in a public elementary school in a New England city. I used an ethnographic approach to collect and analyze my data which was complemented by conversation analysis techniques borrowed from sociolinguistics. The theoretical perspective and the methodology enabled me to trace the moment-by-moment construction and interaction, through talk, of the various identities that became salient for participants. Identities from three categories, Authorship, School, and Family, became salient and interacted with each other. These identities were linked to the five cultural discourses operating at the research site: the Traditional Education, Liberal Empowerment, Therapeutic, Welfare Reform, and Traditional Marriage and Family discourses. School identities, linked to the Traditional Education discourse, most often interacted with Authorship identities; however, it was not always in tutors' talk that the Traditional Education discourse expressed itself. Clients sometimes chose the student identity. Both the Welfare Reform and Traditional Education discourses interrupted the author identity as clients, lacking a high school diploma, felt thwarted in their job searches. Implications of the study for research include the power of feminist poststructuralist theory as an heuristic and a justification for researching liberatory classroom practices. Implications for practice include the advisability of siting Authors Workshops in a community rather than school context and the use of feminist poststructuralist theory to reveal how clients and practitioners are “discoursed” so they can, together, help make practices such as Authors Workshops actually, not just potentially liberatory.

Subject Area

Curricula|Teaching|Adult education|Continuing education|Womens studies

Recommended Citation

Smith, Sharon Williamson, "Adult literacy clients as authors: A feminist poststructuralist perspective" (2000). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9988842.