On (Not) Knowing: An Introductory Statement

“For today’s youth, whose lives echo the growing centrality of popular music, film, and digital technologies, media culture—including media technologies and media texts—provides the landscape upon which they perform various forms of meaning making and identity work…For educators who are interested in transforming schools into more democratic and productive spaces, media texts provide an important point of entry into the lived experiences of their students” (Lalitha Vasudevan & Marc Lamont Hill, 2007, p. 1).

In Media, Learning, and Sites of Possibility, editors Marc Lamont Hill and Lalitha Vasudevan and their contributors investigated the multiple meanings, functions, and pedagogical values that media culture (technologies and texts) has on the identity work of young people. From studies on social and pedagogical practices of African American females’ use of photography to studies that examine digital storytelling , their edited collection illuminated a current concern in critical literacy research generally and in media studies particularly. That concern, as I will demonstrate, involved critiquing the myriad ways “media texts provide an important point of entry into the lived experiences of…students” (Vasudevan & Hill, 2007, p. 1). Such experiences, which include and move beyond youth involvement with online social networking systems to media engagements around identity re/constructions and re/configurations, hold the promise of re/imagining various spaces (e.g., online, face-to-face, in schools, in communities) and forms (e.g., digital, print, oral, visual) of literacy. Documenting, synthesizing, and theorizing about these experiences can yield long-lasting educational implications for understanding how young people take up literacy across contexts, what literacy acts they perform, and why they participate in such performances (see Fishman, Lunsford, McGregor, & Otuteye, 2005) play significant roles in “transforming schools” and increasing young people’s involvement with literacy.

Accepting Hill and Vasudevan’s (2007) claim that young people need to develop critical capacities around multiple media forms is to also accept that multiple forms of literacy contribute to the daily interactions of youth [1]. Undoubtedly, young people are participating in rich literacy activities. They are redesigning identities online. They are creating websites, blogs, and other media texts which serve to disrupt traditional conceptions of reading and writing. Additionally, young people are creating international and distanced human relationships without many of the physical and economic burdens of travel. These activities are not just about youth engagements with media culture, texts, contexts, and technologies. They are also about increasing demands, exacerbated by the reality of living, learning, and teaching within 21st century contexts (see the NCTE definition of 21st century literacy and Will Richardson’s Weblogg-ed blog post on the NCTE definition) that are placed upon people to “perform various forms of meaning making and identity work” (Vasudevan & Hill, 2007, p. 1).

Within such performances, complicated relationships around literacy and contexts emerge. For me, some of these relationships include relying on media texts to engage in literacy practices in school; using forms of literacy to critique power, identity, and acts of place-making; and using media and literacy strategies to question the social re/construction of place. In this webtext, I investigate the latter relationship by calling attention to how particular African American youth in an urban community publicly exercise critical capacities to not just read media messages, but also to construct literacy narratives grounded in sophisticated observations, engagements, and videotaping around community change (Kinloch, 2010; Vasudevan, 2009).

Perhaps surprisingly, this webtext is really not about media texts and technologies, even in its argument that countless young people rely on media and texts, or media as texts, to engage in rich literate practices. This webtext, then, is about the educative value (and ways) of engaging young people in narrating their literacy responses to gentrification within New York City’s Harlem community. In this narration, participants questioned local stories as well as surveyed people who had a connection to the area. They video recorded spatial changes in Harlem (e.g., new middle-to-upper-middle class residents, new condominiums, “old” vs. “new” physical artifacts, cultural practices) and conducted community video walk-through sessions. These things contributed to their qualitative inquiry approach to critiquing gentrification and engaging the complex purposes and strategies of literacy that, in many ways, occurred in multimodal forms. Additionally, these things allowed them to critique a politics of change through lived experiences; struggles and identities as connected to acts of place-making (see Schneekloth & Shibley, 1995; Freeman, 2006); and human involvement within shifting community spaces as mediated by media culture and multiple literacy narratives.

In the remainder of this webtext, I present aspects of the project, grounded in critical literacy and framed within participatory action research. The framing and representative videos included showcase how participants document community change through literacy strategies. This framing allows me to contemplate fundamental questions: How do youth define gentrification? What narratives of spatial change do they perform and how do these narratives work for them? In the process of videotaping each other, how do they form an ability to critique gentrification? In what ways can their definitions/narratives influence research on critical literacy and spatial change? To begin, I open the next section with a video documentary of the project.


[1] For more information about Marc Lamont Hill, visit his website; see also Lalitha Vasudevan’s blog, adolescent literacies)