Category Archives: Literacy

It’s Not Really a Phone, Part 2

So, after years of not bothering for a variety of reasons (cost, learning curve, not wanting to get further tied to my email) I started my adventure in smart-phone land last week. And, while I know I’m not anywhere close to the first person to note a few things about it, I have a few observations. First, it’s not a phone. It doesn’t look or feel like anything I’ve ever called a phone in my life. My embodied, physical sense memory of phones is that they are shaped to fit our heads, with an earpiece and a mouthpiece. I understand that has changed, but when I pick up my new device and look at it, nothing about it physically signifies “phone” to me. And, when I make a call, I feel as if I’m holding a piece of toast up to my ear.

The sense that it is not a phone only increases the sense to me that I have purchased a hand-held computer on which I can make phone calls. When I pick it up, the first think that catches my eye is not the phone icon, but the email icon. And the first thing I look to do with it is check my email or my Twitter feed. What’s more, when I picked it out, I went with the device with the slightly larger screen because I knew I would want it big enough to be able to read articles, dissertation chapters, and the like when I was killing time in waiting rooms, etc. With this, I won’t bother with a tablet anymore (not that I was ever that fond of tablets in the first place.) So, I’m intrigued to see how the use of this portable computer shifts my reading and writing practices in the future. It can’t help but change what I do. I just have to figure out how. I’m also struck by how the mobility of the device is simultaneously virtual and physical (thanks, Brice Nordquist for that insight) and how one reinforces the other.

The final thought is how best to incorporate this technology into my seminar in the spring on “Digital Media and Composition Pedagogy.” I knew, even before getting the device, that mobile technologies had to be part of our conversation. But how? How do these devices fit into the ways that digital media make literacy mobile, malleable, collaborative, and multimodal? Is there any good scholarship yet on using mobile devices in the classroom? More to come…..

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How Does it Feel to be Literate?

In the work I’ve been doing this spring I keep coming back to questions of agency. What allows – or constrains – people from engaging in literacy practices. And more precisely, as part of this larger project, I’ve been thinking about how perceptions of agency figure into to the factors that determine agency. When do we feel as if we can participate, or that we can’t?  As Lalitha Vasudevan said at a presentation last year, “How does it feel to be literate?” Although perceptions of agency are shaped by many forces, including power, technology, rhetorical awareness, and material conditions, I’ve been focusing this spring in thinking about how embodied experiences and the emotional histories created through such experiences are often powerful influences on how people understand their abilities to engage in reading and writing. I see people who are empowered and engaged in one setting, suddenly become reticent and unable to participate in another, before anyone has even told them they can’t.

The focus of much research in literacy studies in recent years – including my own – has been on the social and institutional factors that shape literacy practices. This has been important work and I am not in any way writing against this scholarship. Yet while we’ve learned a great deal about literacy works as a function of culture and power, we’ve been less willing to engage in questions of how individuals perceive – and feel – a sense of agency in writing situations. The perception of agency, as opposed to measurable skills, is important in terms of how people respond to writing situations. In particular we have not explored emotion as much in terms of agency. I think people like Marilyn Cooper and Laura Micciche have done important work on emotion and agency (work I will discuss more in a coming post), but I think there is still more work to be done. The emotional histories and the emotional stakes for students in the classroom, for example, have a direct influence on students’ perceptions of agency, and consequently on their ability and willingness to engage in any writing task.

Talking about feelings, even if we call them emotion or affect, tends to make academics nervous. We can’t really measure them and we fear getting dragged off into the sentimental or irrational if we bring them up at all. Tom Newkirk has written persuasively about how emotion makes us nervous, and how that anxiety leads to particular ways of conceiving of writing and responding to students. And certainly in all the writing I have done on issues of literacy and identity over the years I have been more comfortable writing about social factors such as class or race or gender than I have about emotion. Yet every experience, every decision, every perception, is filtered through emotion. Every action has an emotional component that is social and rhetorical – even if it is the display of detachment and rationality (also embodied emotions). As I have talked about this work this spring, I have found the responses of people to be thoughtful and generous and lead me to believe that I am moving in a productive direction.  So my posts in the near future (if I keep my promise to myself to write more posts) will be exploring these ideas about emotion, embodiment, transformation, community, and perceptions of agency (among other things). Stay tuned.

 

Popular Culture and Representations of Literacy – Out in Paperback!

Five years ago Amy Zenger and I published a book about the everyday literacy practices represented in popular culture, specifically in mainstream movies. We found that, when you pay attention to these representations, you begin to see interesting patterns that reflect cultural attitudes about who is allowed to read and write, in what settings, and for what social goals. I loved writing this book. Not only was it intriguing to work through these ideas, but I’ve never had more fun writing a book than I did working on this project. It’s a book I’m proud of, image_previewand liked writing and talking about. The only problem at all was that Routledge initially only published the book in hardcover – making it prohibitively expensive for most people to buy, and certainly out of the range of most students. So I was delighted to find out that Routledge has now published a paperback version of the book! I don’t know if this will result in the book getting a broader reading, but I’m just happy that there is a less expensive version out there (versions, actually, with the e-book out too). Not cheap, but less expensive, and that’s a start.

What we found in the book was that movies – from romantic comedies to dramas to action blockbusters – are filled with scenes of people of all ages, sexes, races, and social classes reading and writing in widely varied contexts and purposes. Yet these scenes go largely unnoticed, even by literacy scholars, despite the fact that these images recreate and reinforce pervasive concepts and perceptions of literacy. We argued that in popular culture representations of literacy we can see a reflection of the dominant functions and perceptions that shape our conceptions of literacy in our culture. I have found that this project has changed my sense of how literacy is perceived in the culture, and has also offered me representations of literacy that I draw on in my teaching time and I again.
And I keep seeing these patterns of literacy representations, from recent superhero movies to the films being discussed as award-winning favorites.

I won’t go on and on here, tempting as it may be. And I apologize for the shameless self-promotion. As I said, I’m fond of this book and get carried away talking about it. I understand the economic forces that publishers face and I want to make it clear that Routledge has been a splendid publisher to work with over the years. I have no complaints about them, at all – and with the paperback edition of this book, one more reason to be pleased to publish with them. Sorry to go on and on. But I am so happy to see the book out in more accessible and less expensive versions.

Literacy in a Material World – in the Writing Center

As I mentioned in my previous post, working in a writing centerreveals the fluid nature of materiality/immateriality when we think about literacy. The material context of literacy can be immediate in a writing center. Students sit down with a draft, an assignment they’ve been handed in class, maybe their notes or a book they’re writing about. Their material text is the focus of their concern and it quickly becomes the focus of our concern as well. The classic image of writing center work is the consultant and student sitting at a table, leaning toward each other, talking intently about the draft in front of them. It provides the focus of the conversation and work on the draft is the central motivation for the student.

What’s more, how the consultant responds to the material text has been a oft-discussed part of writing center scholarship over the years. Should it sit in front of the student or between the student and consultant? Should the student read aloud from the draft? The consultant? If the consultant writes on the draft, does that appropriate agency from the student as a writer? These are all questions that have been on the minds of new consultants to our Writing Center that I’ve been working with the past couple of weeks. If we focus on the images in the writing center, the questions about the text, and the concerns of the student about the draft, if would be easy to imagine that the material artifact is central to our concerns.

Yet, even as the consultant works on the text in front of her, there is a powerful tradition among writing center scholars and consultants that maintains that the material text is not the most important element of the consultation. As I mentioned before, writing centers often drag out the oft-used Stephen North quote that their job should be to produce “to produce better writers, not better writing.” It’s a compelling quotation and I don’t disagree with it – and I’ve pulled it out myself more than once in teaching new consultants or talking about our Writing Center with faculty. Yet, as the students in my Writing Center Theory and Practice course proved the other day, pull out the term “better writers” and begin to unpack it and you quickly find yourself in the realm of the immaterial considerations of literacy. We try to tell ourselves that we know what a “better writer” is, and how to help a student become one. Still, every attempt at the definition leads us to the kind of abstraction that we recognize as elusive and endlessly contextual.

In much of Writing Center scholarship, this conflict between the material text – and the student’s focus on improving that text – and the immaterial goals of creating better writers – often ends with either a lament about students’ inability to get beyond their focus on the material text understand or a somewhat condescending satisfaction that we know what is best for students (even if they don’t recognize it) and should continue to work toward our immaterial goals.

What if we took a different approach? What if we made the tensions between the material artifact on the table and the immaterial concerns of the consultant part of the explicit conversation during the tutoring session? What if the first set of questions consultants’ asked not only addressed the students’ concerns about the draft that motivated them to come to the Writing Center, but also at the less tangible questions about writing that concern us? What if we did a more explicit job of grappling with the abstractions with students first – and not just at the conclusion of the session – and used that as the framework for considering the material text?

If we think that students are intelligent and deserve our respect, let’s not play games about the agenda taking place during a consultation.

More soon.

Literacy in a Material World – Or Not.

The number of administrative emails I’m getting means the summer is clearly about to be over and the new academic year is on its way – the large wave I can sense just beyond the horizon. So, after a summer away from the blog – with some work and some play – I’m drawn back here to start trying to work through some of the things that I’ve been kicking around since May.

In work terms, the highlight of the summer was time spent at the University of Sheffield, both at the Center for the Study of Literacies conference, and in talking with people about plans for my Fulbright there in January. Once again, the conference was a great experience. Small, focused, yet full of surprises, I found myself filling page after page of notes from people like Jennifer Rowsell, Lalitha Vasudevan, Cathy Burnett, Guy Merchant, and Jackie Marsh.

This year the presentations and conversations kept coming back around to the connections/issues/possibilities of how we conceive of literacy as constantly moving between the material and the immaterial. Whether it is the pondering of what being “literate looks, sounds, or feels like” (from Lalitha Vasudevan) or the ways in which children on playgrounds embody in their play the texts they’ve been reading/playing online (Jackie Marsh), or the question of how we think of literacy when it inhabits both the material and immaterial at the same time. This final idea, or the fluid nature of literacy in terms of the material and immaterial has been sticking with me since the conference in July.

Jennifer Rowsell gave a splendid and thoughtful talk about the fluidity of literacy as it exists in the material and immaterial simultaneously. On the one hand, a text, in whether on paper or screen is a material object, and requires material resources to produce. Yet what is produced is simply representation, marks or images on a page or screen that are only meaningful – or bothered with – as immaterial representations of other ideas or things. Literacy is not a material thing. It’s a concept, a skill, an argument. Yet it is perceived by the creation of things. Her talk had been thinking about how the strength of print in particular is its ability to represent the immaterial – emotions, ideas, dreams – and yet can only do so through writing words that are material, but always incomplete representations. And one implication of this fluid sense of the materiality and immateriality of literacy is that it helps explain some of the confusion and conflict that exists in the culture at large when conversations turn to literacy. On the one hand, because there are material artifacts, it seems as if literacy is something we ought to be able to define, categorize, assess, know when we see it. Yet, because all we are seeing in the artifact are incomplete representations of the immaterial, because it is impossible to determine what being literate looks and feels like, any method devised to categorize literacy through work with the materiality of texts inevitably is either simplistic and unenlightening, or contextual and complicated to the point that it isn’t useful (like a map in a Borges story) or is rejected as impractical by institutions interested in efficiency and summary. I think anyone in literacy and education has felt the frustration of others outside the field who push for material and direct – and simplistic – assessments of texts we know to be complex and nuanced.

There are also implications in other areas of our work too. For example, as director of a Writing Center I’m not above trotting out the old chestnut about how the goal of Writing Centers is not just to create better writing, but to create better writers. It’s not that I think that’s a bad philosophy (though I think as many have pointed out there are complexities there that need continual unpacking). But it is the case that when we talk about better writing or better writers, we are also dealing with a situation where a constellation of  material and immaterial concerns come together in subtly complex and shifting ways. The simple concept of having a draft the student wants to improve moves quickly from the material text the student and consultant are reading to the immaterial goal – and perception – of “improvement.” And this is just the start and doesn’t even begin to get at issues of embodied responses, the immaterial presence of the instructor who wrote out the material assignment and so on.

There is much, much more to work on here and I’m only musing on the surface for now. In the meantime I want to point anyone toward the much, much smarter exploration of some of these issues that will be coming out soon from Jennifer Rowsell, Guy Merchant, Kate Pahl, and Cathy Burnett.

For me this conversation came along at a the perfect time as I begin to ponder a new project that will bring me back to the territory of literacy and identity (more on that to come in time.) And, as won’t be a surprise to some who know me, I also found that it connected me back to popular culture and literacy issues (and more on that to come sooner).

Once again, my thanks to the organizers of the conference (Kate Pahl and Julia Davies) and the all the participants who talked of such a range of ideas and perspectives with generosity and insight. More to come soon.