Meme #1 #WResearcher 1 ‘What do people talk about when they talk about literacy?’

The Meme

Thinking about either a small segment of a current research project or the overall scope of a current research project, your invitation here is to

  • write in plain English, let the academese lapse for a while – maybe novel words, stronger verbs, sassy sentences will find their way in,
  • write to develop a single idea or concept, or to convey a novel insight, or to describe the project overall.
  • write for an audience who would not ordinarily encounter this idea – an interdisciplinary colleague, your cousin or gran, a friend since primary school who took another path, or a person in government, industry, community organizing who you want to be in conversation with about a shared concern, or write (in turn, not all at once) for multiple audiences,
  • write no more than two pages, ideally about one page (250 words/page),
  • write before looking at samples: Research in Plain English,
  • write generatively – this is about pushing, finding, exploring an idea.
And post – click on the hyperlinked How here or go to the How tab to learn the details on joining in part of the process.

‘What people talk about when they talk about literacy?’

This was the title of my MA thesis. It echoes the title of a collection of short stories, by Raymond Carver, that at the time I was reading and loved: ‘What do people  talk about when they talk about love?’

 My area of research is adult literacy.  I completed my Doctorate while worked in FE am now working in HE (holding on by my fingertips). I am acutely aware of my minority status as one of the 1.2 BMEworking in HE. And – because I am a woman – determined to open my own doors.

I am now getting started with a research project with my students at University of Hull registered on a University Diploma course. I want to explore their ideas about teaching language and literacy.  

I am curious about ‘What people talk about when they talk about literacy’. Depending on who is speaking they may talk about

·         illiteracy or lack of (functional) literacy – politicians and policy makers are keen on this

·         falling standards in reading and writing – they never define precisely when standards started falling and from what to what – politicians and policy makers and the press like this

·         the rogue apostrophe, to which my response is always of the things I like about literacy is subverting it – this is a popular one that educated people talk about and Linda Truss)

·         the desire to be educated, good parents or to see their children do well (students often talk about this)

·         the frustration they feel at having to reconcile the irreconcilable  – what students want, what they as teachers feel their students need and what they are required to do (teachers often talk about this)

·         the space between thought and text (me! But not mine I just think it a beautiful definition and share it with other researchers – it should be more quoted)
All writing is derivative. It prefer ‘holding hands’ to ‘standing on shoulders’. I am conscious of ideas and voices woven so completely into my own that I can at times no longer discern where my own voice starts and stops. 


  1. Hi Carol,many thanks for the straightforward blogpost. I was marvelled by your honest writing and also by your bravery. After a PhD you go on to an MA!! I guess that I will not stop once (if) I finish the PhD. I'm passionate about learning, but right now I am so wishing for a bit of breathing space, if you know what you mean?I so read you re: being a woman and minority status. To add to that I also have an accent(!), but I will not go into detail, because I would like to reflect on your research: Fascinating! Can I say I am with you: researching the voice of the people – looking at their own perceptions…which often in times mingle with yours. I'm so with you. For my PhD I used narrative inquiry as both a method and methodology. Now, as I write up I am faced with that very same issue: their voices and mine do blur in the experiences and attitudes they re-create as they offer offer their narratives of experience to me. I look forward to learning more about your project.

  2. Hi Chritina,thanks for the comment. I must confess that I completed the MA long before the PhD but wanted to revisit some of the ideas I explored in my final thesis. Literacy – conceptions and representation of – remain an interest for me. So this was a reminder for myself. At them moment – post PhD I am working on organising ideas into a central theme.I am most interested in narrative inquiry – as both method and methodology – and the bluring of voices. In part the issue for me is one of integrity. Ensuring that those who offer the 'gift' of their experience are engaged with – critiqued if necessary but also respected.

  3. Hi Carol – Thanks for putting the language of "the space between thought and text" into my head – and for noting the holding hands imagery as stance / foundation / ways of moving in your work, in doing your work. What you've said about press and policy makers is spot on – I've lost track of research we pulled together for a Phd-school course on literacies (starting point was Shirley Brice Heath) that worked to address the whole "sky is falling" / "bottom is falling" alarmism of US & UK press and public policy makers in late 1980s/early 1990s. While that might be nice to lay hands on again, I'd much prefer following what you're pulling together in your research and blog posts!

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