Tag Archives: Literacy

Location, Location, Location

You never know, at the start of the semester, when the pivotal moments of a class are going to take place. You design a syllabus, choose readings, and hope for the best. But in every course I teach there always seem to be moments that resonate for most of the people involved and keep coming back into the conversations in one form or another. I can’t plan for or predict what they’re going to be, because these moments have to emerge out of the distinctive interests and personalities of all the people in the course. Sometimes these moments aren’t even the things I find most interesting, but you have to recognize and ride the waves of the class.

This fall, in my Composing Identities graduate seminar, one of the moments that has had that kind of pivotal effect in the course was the week when we talked about agency in terms of material conditions – but specifically it was the readings and discussion about location and mobility. We read work by a number of people –  Kate Pahl, Eli Goldblatt, Robert Brooke, Cathy Burnett – who are exploring the importance of space and location in regard to how literacy practices develop and are perceived. While all the discussions of materiality (and the tension with immateriality) in terms of literacy practices were useful, the questions about location and mobility sent a charge through the course and keep coming up as we read other texts. How does location, and the perception of who you are in a location, shape a sense of identity? How does location the literacy practices you can engage and, just as important, shape the way you feel you can engage in those practices? How does mobility – both on the scale of moving to a new location or on the scale of moving around your community, shape literacy and identity in ways in which we’ve not explored sufficiently? How are stories shaped by place, and then how do those stories shape our sense of identity and writing? How do issues of transnationalism reshape these conversations and concerns? And how does the virtual mobility afforded by digital media add a new layer to these questions?

Clearly we’re still just exploring here. but the discussions have pushed me farther into this area of thinking about literacy and agency and I’m all the more excited to get further into it. I was interested before, but grateful for the unexpected pivot.


Polymedia and sustaining relationships

Still rolling over in my head the great conversation we had in class this week in my Composing Identities graduate seminar. Now that the class is well underway I want to do some reflecting on it here in the next few weeks, particularly as it connects to the book project. This week we were talking about agency and technology, but rather than use the lens of rhetorical affordances we focused on the emotional and social responses and uses people make of digital technology in communicating. The most productive piece for the class (as it has been for me) was a chapter from Mirca Madianou and Daniel Miller’s 2012 book Migration and New Media. We read the chapter on “Polymedia.” Madianou and Miller, define polymedia as focusing “less on the affordances of each particular medium and more on how users exploit the contrasts between media as an integrated environment in order to meet their relationship and emotional needs” (p 128). In other words, in a moment when, if you have a smart phone for example, you can easily and quickly choose a variety of ways to communicate a message (texting, Instagram, Twitter, phone call even) the choice becomes shaped less by the material affordances of the technology and more by considerations of sociality, emotion, and power. “Polymedia is not a range of technical potentials, it is a series of cultural genres or emotional registers that make these contrasts into significant differences in communication by exploiting them for various tasks within relationships” (p. 148).

To think about sociality is to consider how relationships are coordinated and sustained. Such relationships are formed within what the conventions of what Madianou and Miller call the “cultural genres of sociality,” which include the roles and expectations within relationships that are shaped by culture. For example, a mother is both someone in a personal relationship with an individual child, as well as someone acting within and shaped by the cultural genres of the role of “motherhood.” To think about polymedia literacy practices within the context of sociality is to consider how the medium and mode, as well as the message, will be read within the context of the particular relationship. The chapter provided us with a great theoretical lens for conversation and the conversation took off in great explorations of how technology mediates, facilitates, and also frustrates both relationships and literacy practices. Everyone in the class particularly liked the way the ideas of polymedia helped them think through the connections between emotion as an embodied response and as a social response and disposition. People made excellent connections to our previous discussions of rhetorical agency and emotion and cognition. I’m still tumbling these ideas over for myself and eager to see where the others in the class take them next week. More on the seminar to come soon…..

Back on the Blog II

Writing here feels much to me like the work I do in my garden. It’s often generative, certainly intermittent, and sometimes I feel like I’ve left it so long I should just give up and let the weeds take over. Still, I do find writing in here, when I feel compelled to do it, useful and lately I’ve had the bug.

The main thing that has drawn me back to the blog is my current graduate seminar on “Composing Identities: Exploring Literacy, Culture, and Agency.” The conversations we have been having in there have done a great deal to sharpen my thinking on the book project of the same name I’m working on. It is such a sharp, smart group of people who have taken the texts I’ve assigned and run with them in ways that keep challenging all of us to think more carefully and deeply about how agency and identity are shaped by forces of culture, emotion, rhetoric, technology, and material conditions. I’ll have more to say about this in coming entries.

Along with the class the other event that drew me back here was the recent Watson Conference on Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Louisville. I found many conversations there coming back to the relationships we have with our students and others when we write. In particular, the talks by John Duffy, Paula Mathieu, and Jennifer Rowsell gave me different ways to think about how agency and identity are constructed through the relationships we construct and sustain, both in and out of school John’s exploration of the implicit ethical underpinnings of our project in teaching writing and Paula’s essay on mindfulness and teaching are reminders that we’re doing more than teach skills when we walk into a classroom, we are engaged in human relationships that have implications and repercussions far beyond the writing students produce (regardless of whether we want to admit that to ourselves.) I highly recommend their articles in the special Watson Conference issue of JAC that explore these ideas in more depth.

It was an amazing conference, not just for the content but for the genuine and generous dialogue that took place throughout the three days. Mary P. Sheridan and her co-planners planned and facilitated as good a conference as I have ever attended.

That’s is for now, but more soon before the weeds grow up again.

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…..

After the Conference – The Joys of Participation and Conversation

One of the pleasures of my Fulbright Fellowship has been collaborating on the Everyday Language, Everyday Literacies conference at the University of Sheffield. Julia Davies, Kate Pahl, and all the amazing graduate students at Centre for the Study of Literacies were generous enough to let me be part of the planning of the conference, which took place last week. As in the past, I found it to be my favorite conference experience of the year.

There are several things I always love about this conference. First, Julia and Kate draw together such a diverse group of scholars to the conference. In fact, I often find myself wondering if is perhaps too diverse, too disconnected. Yet, as the conference progresses, there is always an amazing alchemy that takes place as the plenary and breakout sessions start to harmonize with unexpected and original resonances. This year people such as Mary Hamilton, Janet Maybin, Vic Carrington, John Potter, Diane Mavers, Lalitha Vasudevan, Tiffany Dejaynes, Jan Connelly and others spoke on everything from children and picture books to emotions in the classroom to the biography of the iPhone. Yet, as the conference progressed, fascinating and original connections emerged among the various sessions. I always leave after two days with a head full of new ideas and notebook full of new sources I want to read.

Which brings me to the second thing I love about the conference. It is small. It’s really more like an intense symposium than a conference. As a consequence, it’s the ongoing conversations, after sessions, during lunch, online, that make this such a generative and productive time. Rather than sitting in huge crowds and listening, the organization – and ethos – of the conference is participatory and democratic.

And that brings me to the third things I love about the conference. Julia and Kate are committed to creating supportive, participatory spaces in everything they do, from their research to their writing and that certainly includes the conference. The conversations are rigorous, but never mean-spirited. Oversized egos are never a problem, and everyone’s ideas are treated with respect.

It is always an energizing, positive, and provocative two days and I am grateful to have had a hand in helping with it. See you all next year.

Keep Calm and Carry On

When I first saw the “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters, with the dignified print on the red background with the image of the crown above, they struck me as quaint indicators of English nostalgia. The posters seemed to represent a memory of the narrative of the war and the need – and ability – to persevere with resolve and dignity. Reproduced in contemporary culture the poster seemed a funny and ironic commentary on the stresses of modern life – of overworked multitasking. It is in this context that I saw reproductions of the poster showing up (including the one on the coffee mug I gave to my wife). Soon after came the memes, everything from “Keep Calm and Shut Up” to “Keep Calm and Drink British Wine.” It was one of those participatory texts that, quite frankly, wore thin rather quickly and I stopped paying much attention to it.

Last week, I saw several reproductions of the poster. This time they were on the walls and mugs of the offices and shops of people living in Beirut. There were no memes. The words were the original: “Keep Calm and Carry On.” During the same days I was in Beirut, there was fighting – and dying – up the road in Tripoli, there were rockets fired into a Hezbollah neighborhood in the south of the city, and the war raging in Syria seemed ominously close. Yet, at the same time, people were sitting in cafes, visiting art galleries, walking along the Corniche beside the Mediterranean, laughing with their families. Yet, at the same time, they would occasionally look over their shoulders, or pause in their conversations, and wonder what might happen next, or remember the small seed of anxiety in their stomachs. Yet, at the same time, they would walk by buildings still riddled with bullets from the last war that stood next to shining new apartment buildings built in the last year. Yet, at the same time, soldiers stood on street corners holding AK-47s. Yet, at the same time, people – including me – went to work, went to dinner, went to bed.

Keep Calm and Carry On.

I usually like to write about issues of literacy and such on this blog. And, I suppose if there is a connection to literacy here it might have something to do with contexts and audience and emotion. Maybe all of that is there and maybe I will write about it at some point – I certainly have more to write about the trip to Beirut. But today I’m just thinking of that poster, those words, and a place I am so fond of, a place of dear friends, where I hope things will keep calm. And carry on.

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 and Identity – That’s the Easy Part

In a convenient confluence of thoughts and events, I’m coming up on my Fulbright term in January at the same point that I’m ready to start off on another big project. You’d think I’d planned it that way.

This is the stage at which things always seem to get a bit fraught, though. Possibly even dicey. Because I’m getting to the point where the big, amorphous idea needs to get significantly less blobby. I’ve been saying for a while, to myself and to others, that my next project is going to focus more on “literacy and identity.” Fair enough. Also accurate to say that it will take place on Earth and be subject to the laws of physics. All of that will be true, but it’s all so broad and general as to be of no use. Understand, I am a big proponent of the blobby, amorphous stage of research. For about four months I’ve been doing a lot of note taking/noodling on the page, talking with friends, pondering on walks, about the possible contours of this project. These wanderings and noodlings have been useful in helping me run out various tracks of thought to see which ones continued to be interesting and which, in the end, ended up in the high grass of boredom or impracticality or incomprehension (the latter being stored away for further, later exploration). In many ways, exploring the blobby-verse of an idea are some of my favorite times. Everything is possible. Everything is potential.

Still, there comes the time where a path needs to be chosen, a die cast, a choice made (no metaphors here I really like, by the way) etc, etc. With that choice, there is the thrill of progress. With that choice, there is also the regret of the other choices not made, as well as the anxiety that I’ve made the wrong choice. I’ll head down my path, happy enough. But could I have been happier down the other road? What if the other item on the menu that I didn’t order was really what I wanted? Or, even worse, what if the path I chose leads again only to high grass? And, to be honest, the six-month window of the Fulbright at the University of Sheffield brings with it a certain pressure as well as an amazing opportunity. I don’t want to squander this amazing opportunity and the chance to work with people I admire so much by chasing down the wrong road, setting sail in the wrong direction (still no good metaphors, but you get the idea…) In general, I’m not a person given to regret. Nostalgia, perhaps, but not regret. But at moments like this….

Maybe the image that captures it is Michael Caine, teetering with his crew on the edge of the cliff at the end of the The Italian Job, trying to assure everyone that, “Hang on, lads; I’ve got a great idea!”

It helps me empathize with the graduate students I work with who often talk of feeling a similar anxiety when about to commit to a dissertation idea. What I tell them is true enough: That any idea that intrigues them and yields no easy answers is an idea worth pursuing. I know that too. And I know that a focus is emerging out of the noodling and talking and wandering. I know that I have enough of a focus now to help me start with conversations and observations and work in Sheffield. And I know that, not knowing too much now will help me be surprised and let me follow what I find, rather than shaping my experiences and encounters to fit a pre-fabbed idea of what the research should be. I know that.

So I should trust my process, trust my interests. And that clearer focus will be the subject of future posts. Hang on, lads. I’ve got a great idea!

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.