HLRP: Health Literacy Research and Practice

Mission and Motivation Open Access

We Have to Talk: “Doing” Critical Literacy in Class and in Community

Rebecca L. Pearson, PhD, MPH

  • HLRP: Health Literacy Research and Practice. 2017;1(2):e16-e17
  • https://doi.org/10.3928/24748307-20170307-04
  • Posted April 21, 2017

My faculty responsibility includes continuing my own education—about my discipline and about how I can best support students, through my teaching, to the careers they want. My newest learning surrounds critical literacy, which I best understand as knowing (and being able to act on) what you need to in order to do what you want to do for yourself or others (Mogford, Gould, & DeVoght, 2010; Sykes, Wills, Rowlands, & Popple, 2013). Critical literacy implies awareness of policy options, public health evidence, industry influence on regulation and research, and the like.

Contemplating critical literacy's complexity has reshaped my approach both in and outside the classroom. As a community-engaged scholar, I spend time and energy connecting with other local professionals and residents in our rural, somewhat conservative college town. Bringing critical literacy into my work has helped me explore and redefine for myself the boundaries of that work. If building critical literacy is part of what I do, I must understand the factors that make that work more, or less, difficult to carry out. I also must know my own internal characteristics, the most relevant of which may sound childish: I don't like being told what not to do.

I make careful decisions about how to represent the active professional and personal engagement needed when we commit to solving public health issues. Those decisions are not as tough as they could be, because I'm a fan of using my “inside voice” (as in, inside my head). I know when to zip it. I also know when I'm being told to zip it, and it's especially maddening to hear it from someone who fears talking might bring change.

I started hearing “zip it” messages as a new faculty member. A senior colleague told me that in public health “we can educate, but not advocate.” Local partners shared with me that, in our small town, it's best to “celebrate” the good happening rather than raising controversy. Finally, a resident I'd never met informed me during a phone conversation that I was acting irresponsibly—and likely illegally—as a state university employee in planning to participate in a local community education event surrounding our food system.

Fortunately, I now see three things clearly. First, public health people advocate all the time. Because we can and must. The National Association of County and City Health Officials suggests “advocacy is a central tenet of public health” (NACCHO, 2016). Second, we can celebrate wins while noting continuing issues, and find ways we can work together on shared concerns. Finally, it's ok to ignore politically motivated and inaccurate accusations (and even better to build them into community conversation).

I primarily teach 18- to 25-year-old students who need convincing that they can do more than collect data, design and evaluate interventions, and try again. I tell the “zip it” stories in my classes because I know that if my students don't believe there's more they can do in public health, we'll lose them. We'll lose all the enthusiastic, activist energy of the next generation of potential public health professionals. They'll take jobs in other fields, and rant on social media about issues they care about, rather than joining a field in which they can, carefully and civilly, grapple with such issues every day.

The “zip it” moments are invaluable. And a new “zip it” moment has been happening in academia since November 2016. We are, individually and collectively, wondering if and how we can talk about what the world looks like now.

As people hearing and feeling the “zip it” message, knowing we teach and work for better outcomes, we need to know that we can and must talk—thoughtfully and well—about everything that matters. Because talking does and will matter. I believe it was not talking, about shared values and concerns, that resulted in November's decision. We are already hearing how it was, for many, an uninformed decision, with some of those likely to be most affected saying, “But that can't happen, right?” We clearly need to improve our critical literacy.

And what is the highest form of critical health literacy for ourselves in the field, if not advocacy for an accessible, well-functioning health system? The election results have shown that, within the advocacy domain of critical health literacy, we have much to learn. Those working for improved outcomes must promote social discourse skills and engagement, successfully stop self-censorship, and engage people with whom we share little agreement. It may be more important now than ever before.



Rebecca L. Pearson, PhD, MPH is an Associate Professor and Interim Chair, Department of Health Sciences, Central Washington University.

Address correspondence to Rebecca L. Pearson, PhD, MPH, Department of Health Sciences, Central Washington University, 400 E. University Way, MS 7571, Ellensburg, WA 98926; email: rpearson@cwu.edu.

Disclosure: The author has no relevant financial relationships to disclose.

This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0). This license allows users to copy and distribute, to remix, transform, and build upon the article non-commercially, provided the author is attributed and the new work is non-commercial.
Received: December 31, 2016
Accepted: March 23, 2017


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