Young Adult Fiction as a Tool to Assist in the Construction of Individual Identity?

“Identity is now a matter of self-construction amidst unstable times, mores, and global consumerism.” (Bean & Moni, 642)

In “Developing Students’ Critical Literacy: Exploring Identity Construction in Young Adult Fiction”, how applied critical discourse analysis (CDA) or critical literacy(?) can be used to more deeply examine young adult fiction in the classroom is explored. More, a case for using CDA of young adult fiction as a means of assisting in the construction of identity, especially that for younger persons, is made. The authors of this work, Thomas W. Bean and Karen Moni, use a content analysis of studies related to ways of implementing young adult fiction into pedagogy as well as to “post-modern adolescent identity theory” to support their assertions that critical literacy practices, when applied to young adult fiction, aid in the identity construction for young persons. Bean and Moni conclude their work by providing a scant selection of responses provided by students to sample prompts that embody the critical literacy framework discussed in the study which are meant to convey the “deep learning” that occurs when the model is applied in the classroom.

To be honest, I a not very impressed with the work of this study. In my opinion, I felt like it was a rather shallow discussion of complex ideological and pedagogical theory and practice. First, the study never truly seems to define what is meant by their key term “critical literacy.” Bean and Moni describe the aim of critical literacy when they quote another reseacrher, Morgan, “‘[Critical literacy] teaching begins by problematising the culture and knowledges in the text–putting them up for grabs, critical debate, for weighing, judging, critiquing.'” (Morgan, 1998, 157 as cited on 638) Again, this explains how Bean and Moni seek to see critical literacy applied but it does not explain to be what embody critical literacy practice to begin with. As a reader, I am left to assume that critical literacy is synonymous with CDA.

More than this, when Bean and Moni provide their review of literature discussing “post-modern adolescent identity theory” (640) and the impact of fluid entities and institutions such as the internet, shopping malls, and globalism on contemporary youth identity construction, they use other terms not properly explained such as “social actors”. When mentioning another researcher’s work, Bean and Moni state, “Dubet (1994) argued that young people are social actors, struggling with social relationships to construct positive identities in fluid times.” (641) Is a social actor someone who actively participates in social or societal activity? Or, is there more to it? That’s not wholly explained. Neither is the difference between a “positive identity” and otherwise, not to mention.

This lack of explanation of specific terminology exhibited through Bean and Moni’s work is not to say that it is entirely without merit. The idea that more involved engagement with reading assignments can lead to the development of more complex thought processes and examinations of the self and the world has been gaining momentum inf literary and pedagogical circles in the past twenty years or so. Louise M. Rosenblatt’s transactional theory revolves around exploring both reading and writing as personal transactions with a text. This theory is mindful that meaning is derived from an intersection of the personal and the sociocultural and so text can never be of one static meaning. Essentially, Rosenblatt’s transactional theory framework advocates for educators to implement teaching strategies that recognize the complexity of meaning inherent to both reading and writing practices and use that complexity to help students create and construct more informed identities. In many ways, a version of transactional theory seems to be what Bean and Moni themselves are advocating for–just more implicitly.

Using young adult fiction to assist contemporary young adults in constructing their identities–another complex term also not defined, come to think–seems to follow. Yet, whenever the researchers present evidence to support that young adult fiction when viewed through CDA, of course, does help younger persons become more informed or considerate or contemplative, Bean and Moni never really explain why. For example, when discussing the work of another study they state,”…this class read novels and then wrote songs about the deeper meanings in boos like Rudolfo Anaya’s (1972) Bless Me, Ultima. These more advance reader-response options engaged students and increased their depth of learning.” (639) In what ways? How did this study identify more engagement and deeper learning? That is never properly addressed. Other assertions such as, “Literacy, especially through multicultural young adult novels, provides a forum upon which to build cosmopolitan world-views and identities” and “Streetskaters navigate the concrete structures of urban spaces, rappers use in-your-face poses and lyrics to nail down a strong rhythmic vibe in this shifting arena, and everywhere people use technology to stay in the flow” are also made without an explanation. (642) What does a cosmopolitan world-view entail? And, how are young adult novels constructing this forum for the construction of cosmopolitan world-views? As for the latter quote, that authors’ language seems rather reductive. Also, until this point in the work, the culture surrounding street-skaters and rappers was never discussed so I am not sure where Bean and Moni are getting their evidence to support the reductions of these cultures they are making. (Somehow, I sincerely doubt a rapper today would themselves describe their work as merely “in-your face” posturing and lyrical content >.>)

Additionally, the conclusion of this work seems under-explained. Bean and Moni provide sample questions that could assist in leading a CDA of a young adult work along with a small collection of student responses to the young adult novel Fighting Ruben Wolf. Some of the provided questions were, “What social function does the novel serve?… Who is the ideal reader for this novel? How far do you accept that positioning?… How might we rewrite this novel to deal with gaps and silences?” (645) From the student responses to these prompts provided in this work, it seems there was a discussion about gender and the lack of female representation in a novel, Fighting Ruben Wolf. Though, the impact of this discussion and how it assisted or did not assist the students in constructing their identities is lacking. More, how the exploration of silenced or missing voices from a novel contributes to developing a more informed and complex view of the self is never really explained in depth? The onus for explaining why these questions can be beneficial, especially in regards to the construction of individual identity, seems to fall wholly on readers. To me, that is a major shortcoming of this work–how much of it falls on readers to interpret.

Overall, I feel Bean and Moni’s work carries much potential. Incorporating CDA of young adult fiction as a way to help student construct more complex personal identities seems like an idea that holds promise. But, how that connects to helping students navigate their identities in a fluid, consumerist, global world requires more explanation and research. I think Bean and Moni’s study attempted to connect too many large ideas in too small a space with too little explanation.

****

Bean, Thomas W. and Karen Moni. “Developing Students’ Critical Literacy: Exploring Identity Construction in Young Adult Fiction.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, vol. 46, no. 2, May 2003, pp. 638-648, chrome-extension://bjfhmglciegochdpefhhlphglcehbmek/content/web/viewer.html?file=file%3A%2F%2F%2FC%3A%2FUsers%2FKelli%2FDownloads%2FDeveloping_students%27_critical_.pdf. Accessed 13 March 2018.

Rosenblatt, Louise M. “Writing and Reading: The Transactional Theory.” CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF READING A READING RESEARCH AND EDUCATION CENTER REPORT, Technical Report No. 416, pp. 1-18. IDEALS, https://www.ideals.illinois.edu/bitstream/handle/2142/18044/ctrstreadtechrepv01988i00416_opt.pdf. Accessed 13 March 2018.

 *CrashCourse on Youtube is an educational channel. They have a few sections on Literature which seem to embody the CDA framework discussed in this article. Maybe they’re worth checking out? Here’s the latest one:

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