The Positioning of Adult Learners: Appropriating Learner Experience on the Continuum of Empowerment to Emancipation

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This article offers a critical analysis of discourses and power structures and the ways they operate in two instructors’ adult education and ESOL classrooms. The instructors defined learner experience in specific ways and subsequently used those definitions and drew on their learners’ experiences to define their curricula and pedagogy. They conceptualized learner experiences in ways that potentially empowered or emancipated learners from existing power structures. The data presented are part of a two‐year study of different lifelong learning and adult education contexts in the north‐eastern and mid‐western USA. Data sources included survey, interview, artifact collection, and observation methods. Data analysis was guided by a sociocultural theory of literacy development (The New London Group 1996New London Group. 1996. A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66: 60–92.[Crossref], [Web of Science ®], , [Google Scholar], Gee 1996Gee, J. 1996. Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in discourses , (2nd edn), London: Falmer. [Google Scholar], 2003Gee, J. 2003. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, New York: Macmillan.[Crossref], , [Google Scholar], Barton and Hamilton 1998Barton, D. and Hamilton, M. 1998. Local Literacies: Reading and writing in one community, London: Routledge.[Crossref], , [Google Scholar]), Holland et al.'s (1998Holland, D., Lachicotte, W. Jr., Skinner, D. and Cain, C. 1998. Identity and Agency in Cultural Worlds, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. [Google Scholar]) theories of figured worlds and identity development, Bakhtin’s (1963Bakhtin, M. M. 1963. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Edited by: Emerson, C. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. 1994 [Google Scholar], 1975Bakhtin, M. M. 1975. The Dialogic Imagination, Edited by: Emerson, C.and Holquist, M. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press. 1998 [Google Scholar], 1979Bakhtin, M. M. 1979. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, Edited by: Mcgee, V. W. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press. 1994 [Google Scholar], 1986Bakhtin, M. M. 1986. Toward a Philosophy of the Act, Edited by: Liapunov, V. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press. 1993 [Google Scholar]) theory of dialogism, and Foucault’s (1963Foucault, M. 1963. The Birth of the Clinic: An archaeology of medical perception, Edited by: Sheridan‐Smith, A. New York: Vintage. 1975[Crossref], , [Google Scholar], 1980Foucault, M. 1980. Power/Knowledge: Selected interviews & other writings, 1972–1977, Edited by: Gordon, C., Marshall, L., Mepham, J. and Soper, K.New York: Pantheon. 1980 [Google Scholar]) conceptualization of power. One instructor offered her learners a chance to empower themselves, that is, to find gratification by learning to appropriate mainstream ways of acting, thinking, believing, and using text. The discourse that promotes such instructional efforts is predominant in lifelong learning and adult education. In this discourse, referred to at the outset as one of coherence, learner experience, as a resource for language and literacy development, is essentialized as dispositional, meaning that correct or proper attitudes and beliefs are necessary for empowerment. The other instructor practised a reverse discourse, or what Gee (1996Gee, J. 1996. Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in discourses , (2nd edn), London: Falmer. [Google Scholar]) referred to as a liberatory literacy. She positioned learners to critique the Discourses they encountered, including those they participated in, as movement toward emancipation, toward communicative competence or a critical stance in the world. In effect, learners reversed the panoptic framework and turned the gaze back upon existing power structures. In this case, learner experience was valued for the experiential positioning it offered learners.