Hearing Voices in Textual Spaces:
Resisting discourses of Literacy

by Kathryn Alexander

The question that prefaces this presentation asks; how do the urgent conditions or exigencies of situated context determine particular commitments to the emergent discourses and ideologies of a discourse community?

And as we are shaped and written by our exigencies, how can we actually critique or reconfigure these discourses and genres -- if in fact they do hold the DNA of contexts, urgencies and motives of our initial responses --

In this presentation I wonder about my perception -- dare I say finding, that literacy educators and instructors who work from an emancipatory feminist perspective, are refusing the metaphors of text, of literate practices of writing and reading, and instead privileged and re-symbolized their textual genres as oral activities of listening, speaking and networking and coming to voice.

I want to trouble the powerful saliency of voice in this context, as I see it emerging from the politics of feminist practice and theory, and the lived testimonials of learners that shape the reception of these practitioners. For this presentation I will explore the relationship between the evolution of uniquely feminist speech genres and a curious resistance to the explicitly textual activities of literacy practice -- teaching, writing and reading.

Since 1991 I have been involved with what I can now call, thanks to John Swales, the "text-ways" of a community of Canadian feminist literacy workers.

My dissertation will be analyzing the genres that have evolved from the aims of this community to develop a network where women involved in literacy could speak together from a feminist perspective. The members of the Feminist Literacy Workers Network chose not to identify themselves as 'teachers' or 'educators' but rather as feminists and literacy "workers". They developed what I call "geographically distributed "textual" community with the assistance of a unique set of texts called the Wandering Books. Although the Wandering Books were simple journals for collecting women's experiences and ideas about literacy, they were always referred to as places -- spatial locations for hearing, listening and speaking together. I was initially made aware of the Feminist Literacy Worker's Network through my own participation in 1990 with its Wandering Books I also attended the FLWN's first national conference in 1992, and at that time was struck by the powerful centrality of women's "voices" as a source of theory and practice in that situation.

First I will provide some background on The Wandering Books project and The Feminist Literacy Workers' Network. According to the first publication of the Feminist Literacy Workers' Network, "A Chance to Talk: The Birth of the Feminist Literacy Workers Network," the "genesis" of the network occurred during the Literacy 2000 Conference at Douglas College in New Westminster during October 1990. The section headlined "A Little Background" begins with this sentence: "...a call went around the cafeteria. All women in literacy who consider themselves feminist and who want to form a network of support, come to this table and eat lunch together (FLWN, 1993, 2). Any woman working in the field of literacy as students, tutors researchers or teachers were invited to join. The vision of women speaking with one another through a distributed network about their work in literacy are fixed early in this genesis story which echoes in almost mythical terms the power of women's voices speaking to one another across diversity and geography. So began the exciting discussions and plans to bring together a diverse group of women from every region of Canada who work in the literacy field" (FLWN, 2). The FLWN ur-narrative takes up the beginnings of the Wandering Books in a similar fashion:

In the meantime, a "Wandering Book" began to circulate among a loose network of women. The idea of the book was to provide a forum for women in literacy to tell their stories and to share their feelings, thoughts and experiences of literacy work with other women. The list of women interested in the "Wandering Book" and in the network grew. Soon there were several Books circulating and the momentum for a national conference and a founding meeting was high" (FLWN, 1993, 2)
Calling themselves the Feminist Literacy 'workers network,' these grassroots educators set in motion a set of traveling journals, which consisted of blue legal size hard bound accounting ledger books. These traveling journals were called The Wandering Books" and were set up in chain letter fashion, to criss-cross Canada and parts of the USA collecting the "voices" and experiences of women working in literacy. The co-ordinators of the project received addresses of interested educators and literacy practitioners and set up mailing lists for each journal, so that eventually there were more than a dozen Wandering Books in circulation.

The lists were organized so that each woman who received the Wandering Book would find the list of all the names and addresses for her book on the inside cover. After she made her entry, she was to photocopy it and send the excerpt to the coordinators and then pass the book onto the next woman on the list.

The first entries came with suggestions for how to respond and in particular I found the following statement intriguing:

A short plain entry is fine! This is a conversation. Some of the comments will be short. . . . I am trying to assure that people next to each other are not in the same cities so that they do their talk in the book and not on the phone." (Sept. 19, 1991" Evelyn Battell) It is ironic that the "books must do the talking" and not the participants!!!
Text as "Voice"

Curiously, despite an almost total initial reliance on the Wandering Books as a generative vehicle for the establishment of the network, the FLWN has sustained an persistent reluctance to acknowledge that the network was a virtually a textual community" Many of the genres it developed to sustain the Wandering Books are informed by explicit and complex structured text types such as chain letters, journals, newsletters, instructions for writing the Wandering Books" conference proceedings and finally culminating with a web-site in 1998.

The metaphors that the FLWN develops for its network are oral/aural - -- using the verbs of talking, and hearing, conversation and networking to describe most of its textual activities. For example, the first conference developed through the themes collected from the Wandering Books project was called "A Chance to Talk". The stated purpose of the conference was "to provide a chance for us to talk about the issues facing us as feminists in the literacy field. We hope to identify common experiences and develop perspectives that will enrich our lives and strengthen us in our work" (conference materials, May 1, 1992) Two years later in 1995, and a second report was published. Its title also reflects the speaking/network theme; "Staying Connected: A Chance to Talk Again(FLWN, 1995). The final published document before the FLWN disbanded in Feb. 1998, was called "The Strength of Networking: Feminist Literacy Workers' Journal. (March, 1997).

The concept of voice is now so global and ubiquitous that it could be considered a prevailing discourse in various forms of educational and feminist research. Some of the ways in which voice is theorised is tied to a reclamation of narrative as a neglected and absent source of epistemic and ontological authority in making knowledge claims. In other ways voice comes to stand for the evocation of difference, multiple perspectives and diversity in cultural representation. Voice can also stand in for iterations of individual, situated, contextual experience.

I have identified some of the ways that the FLWN talks about voice. First is an important conviction that women's voices need to be heard" because they have been either silenced or excluded from the cultural record. The second is that the inclusion of different voices" in this case, those of women in literacy" will provide important new insights into common place understandings that shape literacy education and the workplaces of those who work in literacy. Third, that the inclusion of women's voices might introduce the politics of gender and social issues that affect literacy educators and their students. The practitioners are also linking their experiences of powerlessness and being with out voice in their workplace context with the issues of victimization and powerless of their students. Partly this has to do with the prohibition to speak of feminist issues in educational contexts of literacy work. Finally, the Wandering Books provided spaces that disclosed debilitating issues of violence, abuse, racism and trauma that continually intruded on the "teaching" spaces of these practitioners. This in turn revealed the shared continuum of these issues in many women's lives including those of instructors.

I'm in the throes of trying to write a report on my year's research on poverty and literacy" trying to make sense of it, map it out, do what I am supposed to do. As usual, I am overwhelmed by my felt understanding and afraid to claim it as knowledge because it is felt. I'm trying to describe oppression and I'm 3/4 sunk in it myself.

part of my task is to describe the concrete effects of inequality -- class, sexism, racism, 'labelism,' etc. -- what about the hidden injuries. I identify a lot with people who are marginalized by poverty and lack of education. I know that many of them share my experience of not being able to find my voice, or to believe that my opinions would have much credibility anyway. I learned as a girl to doubt and devalue my knowledge and to "lay low" (book one, Feb. 23, 1991)

I see here that the issue of voice is both personal and political, and in terms of feminist praxis, becomes an organizing framework with which to sort and articulate feminist pedagogy and practice. FLWN inherited the concept of voice from a range of discourses. When I look in the bibliographies of some of the publications of some of the professional participants in the FLWN" I can trace the lineage of discourses that may shape and inform their discursive positions about voice. What is significant is not that these are inherited, but how the presuppositions of these discourses are at work churning beneath the surface of practice.

The following is a selection from clearly visible academic sources: feminist Adult Education theory (Kathleen Rockhill, Jenny Horsman, Betty-Anne Lloyd); Freirian and critical pedagogy theory (Friere, Apple, McLaren, Giroux); feminist qualitative research methodologies such as ethnography and narrative research (Stanley, Kirby and McKenna, Lather, Glaser, Maguire); feminist sociology and philosophy (Patricia Hill Collins, Dorothy Smith).

I note that there are a number of other discourses that have developed the concept of voice as a framework for analysis -- and that they may provide secondary sources which inform the educators and practitioners in FLWN: the expressivist child centred tradition in composition and writing across the curriculum theory; testimonial and narrative traditions in grassroots, feminist and cross-cultural education; moral education and feminist philosophy (Code, Alcoff and Potter, Greene, Noddings, Gilligan, Belekey et al); feminist pedagogy (Lewis, Grumet; Luke and Gore, Gore, Lather, Stone); critical feminist discourse theory (Lee, Tannen, Poyton, Smith); post-modern research methodologies (Lather, Denzin and Guba, Tierney and Lincoln, McLaren).

How Voice functions as a binary concept

It is worthwhile to consider the success and salience of the concept of voice in organizing and focusing the political and pedagogical ideologies of the FLWN across its larger non-academic community. I think that "voice" like the word "community" has almost universal appeal, because it connotes sharing, democracy, communication, equality, expressiveness -- placing those with voice in agentic relation for those usually from those who "lack voice". "having a voice" then often seems to be shadowed by the companion concepts of silence, difference, and situated experience. Here "voice" is a binary construct -- it must always conjure its lack -- to have a voice = not to be silenced, not having voice = not to be a self. Thus to refer to voice, may also simultaneously gesture to the silencing conditions that deny, dominate or repress the hearing and intelligibility of expressions about different kinds of cultural knowledge and experience.

The feminist literacy theory then has picked up on this particular theme from a variety of sources; literacy theory, critical pedagogy, feminist literary theory, radical feminism -- "silence = illiteracy; voice = power" holds some "isomorphism" with the experience grounded politics of feminist literacy practitioners because of the resonance it holds with the actual statements of women in literacy programs, even thought it is also a hotly contested metaphor and statement. As Jenny Horsman puts it "the suggestion that these women who are labeled "silent" lack voice because they are "isolated from self" fails to convey the materiality of the unequal power dynamic within which many have lived. (Horsman, 1988, 125) Nevertheless, no matter how contradictory they are -- "giving voice" "breaking silence" and "writing the self " become mutually entwined metaphors that have made their way into feminist education, literary and research discourses.

Voice versus Voicelessness

Having a voice also means being someone, being granted the status of personhood and having a "self" that deserves respect and response, a self that knows. Here voice refers to epistemological authority and ontological validity. I found this to be an important concern within feminist philosophical scholarship. Lorraine Code, in her book Rhetorical Spaces: Essays on Gendered Locations. provides analyses from feminist epistemology and narrative theory to explore the binary of voice/voicelessness. She ties voice to the production of knowledge, of being perceived as a legitimate knowledge maker. Code challenges the construction of "difference" as a problem only for those who are required to provide "identity" papers when they make their ways to cultural and institutional spaces not intended for them.

In an interesting reversal, Code notes that having to insist upon having a voice indicates being inferior epistemological subject who must revert to the narrative experiential expression of their status, versus a certain privileged "voicelessness" that claims the superior status of warranted observable fact. Code asks, what difference, then, would it make to take stories seriously; and how would it open up spaces where feminist voices would be clearly audible? Stories challenge the anonymous and universalistic pretensions of dominant theories and open up spaces for self-reflexive theory making. Because they pre-suppose tellers and listeners, they are good candidates for shaping revisionary projects and transformational agendas. ( 167) bell hooks' Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black takes up the transformational and activist strategy of "talking back" where finding one's voice becomes a social and political act, that transforms the object ( woman, black, voiceless) into an active speaking subject. hooks writes:

Once again, the idea of finding one's voice or having a voice assumes a primary status in talk, discourse, writing and action . . . Speaking becomes both a way to engage in active self-transformation and rite of passage where one moves from being object to being subject. Only as subjects can we speak. (hooks, 1989, 12, cited in Fay 1997, 43)
Hooks's "oppositional thinking and "pedagogy of enactment" is discussed in Eminent Rhetoric by Elizabeth Fay" as a deliberate strategy that recognises the power that teachers have to stimulate different thinking by being confrontational, and by opposing normative thought. Fay points out that hook's pedagogy purposely creates a space where students may come to voice through risk, rather than through the provision of "safe places" for empowerment. "Hooks' pedagogy opposes feminist theories that advocate safe places in order for women to speak out because those spaces do not exist in the social reality of the adult world. (Fay, 1997, 44) My sense here is that in order for there to be eventually a pedagogy of risk, that there may first have to have been some pedagogy of nurturance to coax out the notion that one has a voice worth expressing. However Fay's concern is an interesting one" that some feminist pedagogy and theorizing will produce false expectations that there can be such things as safe learning spaces for women.

By contrast Fay critiques the non-differentiated pedagogical treatment of empowering student voices advocated by Peter Elbow. Her critique is that teachers of writing who use "voice" based pedagogy, believe that voice leads to active learning when it engages the student passionately. "Voice" implies instant contact, lack of protective distance, and an inroad to an unmasked persona." (Fay, 37). She sees this as a paradoxical notion that voice can be both the "revealer of the sincere self, and "yet somehow univocal and undifferentiated because we are all emanations of that natural man with his natural voice, the man who needs no mask." (Fay, 37) Fay's critique seems to imply that in many instances "Voice" functions as another example of the "voicelessness" that Lorraine Code describes earlier in the paper. She identifies the function of this use of "voice" as belonging to the discourse of what James Berlin categorized as the rhetoric of expressionism" which rests on the assumption of the unified self, a self that Code would remind us is not the situated, specific, diverse other. In this instance the "voice" that would be encouraged conforms to the speaker as any-body -- anglo, middle-class, conservative, genderless: the student, the worker, the citizen (Fay 39)

To Summarise:

As of January 1998 the FLWN as a functioning organization is no longer running.

The following passage cited from a FLWN member was one of the first postings on an web-site where the FLWN had hoped to publish the Wandering Books, and continue their mandate of "talking and hearing one another. The utterance sustains the motifs of dialogue, voice and speaking, even in a highly textualised, technical medium which is not oral/aural in any respect. The speaker is attempting to explain the choice of the FLWN to shift resources from a published newsletter format to an electronic web-site. This move was a last ditch effort to sustain the "network" capacities of the textual community that was identified as FLWN, now envisioned entirely as a virtual community, linked by web-linked networking, still calling for the sharing of women's voices and experiences. The first part of the passage explains the Wandering Books and their role, importance and disappearance. As mentioned, the second part justifies the move to a new electronic medium for networking.

We started four books which were to be mailed from one to the other and would contain our thoughts for whatever day they found themselves under our pen. A few amazing monologues and conversations were written and a few of us received in the mail some rich and varied journals. Eventually, there were many books started but most disappeared or died on various desks. Were the women too busy? too afraid of writing? too unsure of themselves to believe anyone wanted to hear their thoughts/experiences? Let's hope it was the first. FLWN has close to fifty precious entries that managed to make it back. No Wandering Book as such will be published. However, FLWN will use some of the entries to spark discussion in this open forum.

Every time I'm with a group of feminist literacy workers, we talk about the dream of a way/place/time to talk. Conferences can be too short, Wandering Books get lost or forgotten, networks need the nurture of frequent contacts. Perhaps the Internet, offering instantaneous, cheap and, if necessary, anonymous communication, will allow us to do just that: talk to each other. This forum is a place to start. Evelyn Battell, January 1997

Although the Wandering Books were "lost" and will not be published they are still called up as a "precious" symbol of sharing and hearing women's voices. The electronic mail-list is metaphorically linked to the Wandering Books, only it is a permanent "Wandering Book" that is offers "instantaneous, cheap, and if necessary, anonymous communication". The activity that is envisioned by participation with this new Internet network is that of "talking" even though the technological medium is not "speech" but typewritten text, even more removed from contact with women speaking together than was writing in a journal. Here "voice" functions as the last tangible link for an increasingly disembodied and disintegrating network.

The Feminist Literacy Workers' Network developed their genre the Wandering Books to facilitate an explicit intention to "hear women's voices". This focus on voice was informed by the centrality of the role of "talking with one another" as a form of praxis in adult literacy, the women's movement, and grassroots community organizing. The genres that emerged from the FLWN, including the Wandering Books are shaped by the ideological and discursive implications of "voice" and so the forms, contexts and situations of the emergent genres, whether they were successful or not in supporting these aims, will reflect this concern.


Code, Lorraine. (1995). Rhetorical Spaces: Essays on Gendered Locations. Routledge: London

Feminist Literacy Workers' Network. A Chance to Talk: The Birth of the Feminist Literacy Workers' Network. Prepared by Helene Blais and Sally Gelard. FLWN: Toronto. 1993.

hooks, Bell. Talking Back

Horsman, Jenny. Something on my mind besides the everyday. women's Press: Toronto. 1990.

Horsman, Jenny. 1999. Too Scared to Learn: Women, Violence and Education. McGilligan Books: Toronto.

Lather, Patti. (1997). "Creating a Multilayered Text: Women, AIDS, and Angels". in Representation and the Text: Re-Framing the Narrative Voice. Eds. William G. Tierney and Yvonne S. Lincoln. SUNY Press: New York. pp. 233-258. Lloyd, Betty-Ann, Ennis, Frances and Atkinson, Ennis. (1994). The Power of Woman-positive literacy work: program-based action research / Women in Literacy Speak: The Power of Woman-positive Literacy work / Listen to Women in Literacy--The power of woman-positive literacy work. Canadian Congress For Learning Opportunities for Women (CCLOW) Halifax: Fernwood Press.

Miller, Carolyn R. (1984, 1994) "Genre as Social Action". Genre and the New Rhetoric. Ed. Aviva Freedman and Peter Medway. Taylor and Francis: London.

Rich, Adrienne On Lies, Secrets and Silence. Selected Prose 1966-1978. W.W. Norton: New york.

Liz Stanley in Knowing Feminisms: On Academic Borders, Territories and Tribes. Sage Publications. 1997. London and New York.

Swales, John M. (1999). Other Floors, Other Voices: A Textography of a Small University Building. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: New Jersey.

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