"The whole movement of life is learning" (Krishnamurti). "To be an act of knowing, then, the adult literacy process must engage the learners in the constant problematizing of their existential situations" (Freire). "Once you learn to read, you will be forever free" (Douglass). "I can learn anything I have the desire to learn" (White, S.G.).

Friday, March 22, 2013

Temporal framework

Tunnel of Skulls in Sao Paulo
This week I intended to blog about time.  Connecting time and literacy practice in a way that reveals the temporal properties of text, e.g., the Tunnel of Skulls graffiti, was something I had never before considered.  I thought it would be an excellent topic to explore in our blog.  Throughout the week, my post morphed into something very different as I read and connected ideas on time, culture, and literacy.  Eventually, I had to stop, complete the assignment, and hit the Publish button.   The result is a tangled journey that eventually comes back to literacy and text.   

I thought I would begin with ways I see a temporal framework woven into our lives (the temporality of life?).  I am acutely aware of the passage of time as I age.  I am a  multi-tasking, schedule-driven kind of person.  Time, in a linear sense, has a  past, present, and future.  I also think of it as a resource that I "use."  I hate to "waste" time.  Lemke (2004) refers to this kind of time as energy, the kind of time we measure with metrics such as minutes, hours, heartbeats, seasons.  I think of it as "clock" time, though clocks may not be every one's measurement tool.  Bill talked about his friend who measured time in terms of  incarceration periods.  Most of us use a watch, calendar, or smart phone to keep a schedule.  Some people use chunks of time, such as morning, afternoon, or evening.  In other words,  metrics represent the tempo of time: time does not exist at a constant rate for every one and every thing.  We discussed this in class class, citing different tempos such as heartbeats or protons and electrons in an atom.  I have different clocks running in my life: the weekly schedule of  VCU classes, my daily routine, my breathing when I practice yoga.

Another property of time is spatiality: places in the past, present, and future where we existed, exist, or will exist.  Lemke says we create these spaces when we occupy them in time (2004).   My way of framing spatiality is in terms of music.  Music is sound: a wavelength (tempo) located on a particular frequency (space).   Sound occupies the space; we can recreate that wavelength and frequency and hear the same note. In another way, we can return to a place in time  through our memory.   Spatiality can be art, like reverse graffiti in the Tunnel of Skulls.  The artist cleans away soot each week to reveal the past, to show us that the skulls are still there.  If skulls represent death, then death is future and past.  "I wanted to bring a catacomb from the near future to the present, to show people that the tragedy of pollution is happening right now" (Alexandre Orion, graffiti artist).  Spatiality can be seen in our blog.  It occupies a space in the virtual world.  We can put ourselves in any post at any point in time.  We can edit that post (change the past?) but it will still exist in its original form somewhere on the Web.   Our blog is multi-dimensional, existing in one space while we exist in another.  Spatiality can be past, present and future; in can be multiple, connected places in the virtual world.

If we look at time with a critical sociocultural perspective, we can see how the dominant culture imposes a tempo on society.  We need to get to work by 9AM, we need to drive 65 mph,  we need to meet deadlines and maintain schedules.  We speak of the "hectic pace of life."  We sometimes need a "day off" to spend time occupying a quiet space. We move through spaces, often in a blur, trying to keep up with the imposed social tempo.  Perhaps we can "slow down" on the weekend and enjoy a different pace with family and friends.  Different groups, cultures, and countries have different tempos.  The tempo of life in Prince William County is not the same as the tempo in San Salvador (as I'm told).

I read an interesting book called A Geography of Time (Levine, 1997), recommended to me by another ESOL teacher as a possible way to explain why many adult ESOL students are late to class.  In Geography,  Levine and his research team studied time in 31 countries and developed broad profiles depicting the "pace of life."  Some of the metrics in the study included walking speeds and clock accuracy (maintaining schedules, arriving "on time" to meetings, etc.).   A composite score ranking "the overall pace of life" was assigned to each country, with a low number being a quicker pace.  Of  31 countries studied, Switzerland was  # 1, the United States was # 16, and Mexico was # 31 (Levine, 1997, p. 131).

Levine correlated different variables with the pace of life ranking. One interesting correlation existed between  "faster" countries (those with lower scores) and larger economies.  Levine delves further into the pace of life issue by exploring how it applies to individuals.  He categorized the way people experience time as either living in the future, the present, or the past.  A future orientation means the individual spends time preparing for what comes next.   I consider myself to be someone who lives in the future.  Most of the people I know dwell on what will happen tomorrow, next week, with their retirement, etc.  We hear everyday on the news how our financial future is bleak and we need to take action.  There is a focus on what will happen next, not what is happening now.  Most of the fast paced countries have people who live in the future. (I'm over-simplifying Levine's work in an attempt to be brief.) Imagine the power and influence of a quick-paced country of individuals who live with a future orientation.  These Cultures imbue power and set the fast (efficiency-oriented?) tempo that correlates to their larger economies.  OMG, I'm about to enter Gee's  "new work order-fast capitalist" Discourse!

The temporal framework of a culture is powerful.  I experienced this first hand when I moved to Hawaii.  There was a perceptible slowness to life.  No amount of Mai Tais could help me get in sync with the local tempo.  I was irritable and felt  misunderstood.  I did not like living there (the space) despite it being one of the most beautiful places on the planet.  I was not well liked at work, I was accused of being impatient and pushy.  Literacy tasks were challenging because I was unsure of what was expected of me.  Indeed, time is connected to literacy in a profound way.

When I think about the various countries and cultures of adult ESOL learners (my program has over 50 countries represented), it seems logical that some may come from differently-paced countries and  be living with a present-mindedness.   I think this affects their ability to set learning goals, plan a course of study to complete a GED, or decide upon a career path--all very future-oriented tasks.  I'm making broad statements for the sake of brevity; my point is that some literacy learners may experience time in a different way than I do, than their employer does, than Northern Virginia does.  I am teaching by my clock, and it's out of sync with students' clocks.  I'm already "in the future" when I walk into the classroom; students are "in the moment"--or at least they will be when they finally arrive (smile).  Perhaps a present-minded person can't plan for the future any better than a future-minded person can navigate life without a calendar. 

In my view, the temporal framework of a culture creates tension on literacy practices.  Whether in a classroom or at work, we are immersed in the pace of life around us.  What is around us may or may not be in sync with our tempo and spatiality.  We can see, feel, and experience temporal-spatiality in  different ways such as art or this blog.  We can perceive it when we cross into a differently-paced cultures.   In my experience it takes time to adjust our personal clocks, and I'm not sure everyone can do this successfully.  Maybe I need to go back to Hawaii, drink a few Mai Tais, and conduct some research!

Aloha! Susan     

Lemke, J. (2004).  Learning across multiple places and their chronotopes.  AERA Symposium.
Levine, R. (1997).  A geography of time. New York: Basic Books.


  1. Well done, Susan. What a nice way to spend a few minutes reading. I enjoyed this, and the Mai Tais sound lovely. I must confess when I posted this morning, I saw how long your post was and I actually thought, "I don't have the time to read this now", afterall my Saturday morning routine awaits. Thankfully my Saturday afternoon involves a husband cutting grass so I have a little "time". I think I could write a quite lengthy reply, but in the interest of time I pause and gather my thoughts. The book sounds like a great read, trying to understand other people's concept of time, might be enlightening as it causes me stress as I, like you, am so time oriented. I agree that teachers walk into a room thinking about the future and the student is in the moment, even though I had never taken the time to think about this. I spend so much time with students asking them about their futures and feel so helpless while they just look at me, or pull the professional athlete response out to satisfy me (as if!). Another thought about the tunnel of skulls is the time involved in just going back regularly to re-scrape the images. The dedication that artist must feel to their project to donate that amount of time and commitment is not something that I can even begin to wrap my mind around. See you Monday!

  2. Okay, speaking of time - I am always amazed at the amount of time my classmates take to research ideas we discuss in class (perhaps my resistance comes from doing this at work most days - I want to "turn-off the search engine" i.e., my brain, when I get home) So after reading Susan's reflections on temporality, I felt I should at least provide a bit more framework for the comments I made during class about the symbolic nature of skulls to different cultures. Interestingly, I stumbled on the following excerpt concerning the symbolism of the skull:

    "transcendence of temporal existence" -the inclusion of the skull makes explicit the essential finiteness of man and the limitation of human knowledge. A metaphor for understanding, to that of GOD.(human vision and knowledge is necessarily limited by time and place, while GOD can see and know all things at all times). retrieved from: http://www.designboom.com/history/death.html

    This gave both the Tunnel of Skulls and the discussion of time a little different twist for me. In addition to the death created by smog, I saw a statement about humanity's limitations - our busyness adding to our demise (the tunnel pollution caused by our pace that requires everyone to drive - and arrive - quickly, to our deaths?) And let's just forego looking deeper into why it is so hard for us in Western cultures to take a siesta, or enjoy the beach with one of those Mai Tais! Thanks to both of you for your insights!

  3. Susan - I am with you on the Hawaii thing. I've been doing a lot of reading about learning and time - specifically am hooked on the C4LPT blog and the Social Learning Centre's gurus. Their mantra is about learning being social and informal as well as formal and the importance of taking control of one's learning, breaking the 'classroom' paradigm. I think about this with adult learners especially as they are exposed to so many learning opportunities OUTSIDE our classrooms - and I just don't hear enough teachers talking about how they allow that outside learning in.

    One small example was our discussion about using mobile devices for learning, which goes something like this: "I can't use mobile devices with my students because they don't all have them." Well - what about those that do? How much reinforcement about control of one's learning could take place if we meet each student where they are - seriously?


Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on this post. Diverse opinions are welcomed.