Chapter 1, continued
Abby's Lament: Does Literacy Matter?
Literacy as a Local Act
To sort out this task is in large measure the purpose of this book.
What follows is an examination of the ways in which we understand and
discuss literacy in the broader political and cultural arenas in this country
and in our own professional discourses. That
examination--and my indictment of many of our educational practices that grow
out of prevailing beliefs about literacy--rests on the assumption that the
popular beliefs about literacy that drive public discussions of education reform
as well as the professional efforts for curriculum reform such as have been
under way in many states since the early 1980s are based on narrow and sometimes
conflicting conceptions of literacy. In
the popular mind--and in the minds of many educators--literacy is a set of
"basic" reading and writing skills possessed by individuals;
"English" as a school subject is the learning of those skills
alongside the cultural knowledge gained from exposure to "great works"
of literature (see Hirsch, 1987). These
beliefs about literacy and literacy education, which I will examine in more
detail in Chapter 2, are not only outmoded but, in a complex and increasingly
technological society, often counter-productive.
To continue to understand literacy primarily as basic skills that reflect
individual cognitive abilities simply cannot lead to curricula that will enable
students to develop the kind of understanding of literacy and the writing and
reading abilities that I refer to above. What's
more, these simplistic beliefs about literacy can be downright destructive.
Because they ignore the complex and ambiguous nature of literacy and its
social and political uses, they can result in the very kind of oppression--of
economic and political "violence"--that Stuckey so compellingly
describes. And for Abby and her
classmates and the millions of students in classrooms throughout the country,
such beliefs can lead to a superficial kind of literacy that leaves them without
the critical abilities they will need to negotiate their worlds. Moreover, they will likely leave many students with a sense
that literacy really has no central relevance to their personal lives aside
perhaps from helping them secure employment.
I am not referring to that old argument about teaching kids to like
books; the common pronouncements in curriculum documents about fostering a love
of reading and producing "lifelong" readers, while seemingly good
ideas, also rest on narrow and limited notions of what reading is and how it can
function in the life of a student like Abby.
As David Bartholomae (1990) has shown, such pronouncements also imply a
set of values about "good" and "bad" behavior, and
"good" and "bad" literature, that are troubling at best.
I hope Abby will feel compelled to read novels and poems--for
personal enrichment and enjoyment. But
if that's all her literacy education leaves her with, then we've failed her.
And I believe we routinely fail students in precisely this way.
But my indictment of literacy instruction is not simply about arguing
against particular approaches to teaching writing and reading or about assigning
blame for the apparent shortcomings of education in this country.
Rather, I want to argue for a conception of literacy that rests on the
notion of participation in the discourses that shape our lives, a notion that
implies individual and collective possibility.
Thus, in Chapter 3 I will lay out a conception of literacy, based on
poststructuralist analyses of language and discourse, as a local act of
self-construction within discourse. Literacy,
I will argue, is at heart an effort to construct a self within ever shifting
discourses in order to participate in those discourses; that effort is always
"local" in the sense that any construction of a self within discourse,
though inherently social, is mediated by a variety of factors unique to a
specific act of reading and writing within a specific situation.
My purpose in offering this conception of literacy is to provide a
framework for constructing meaningful pedagogies for the teaching of writing and
reading that address both the limitations and possibilities of literacy.
To do so, I will draw on the ideas of postmodern theorists like Michel
Foucault who have illuminated the ways in which meaning arises through
discourse. Foucault (1972) understands discourses not as "groups of
signs (signifying elements referring to contents or representations) but as
practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak" (p.
49). He and other postmodern
theorists thus help us see some of the ways in which discourse constitutes our
world. Moreover, postmodern
explorations of language and discourse reveal not only the unstable nature of
meanings of words and discourses, but also the fragmented and contingent nature
of the self. This insight into the
nature of the self and identity is crucial, since popular conceptions of
literacy rest so heavily on the idea of individuality and a conception of a
unified and identifiable self.
I do not, however, want to foreground the political and social in a way
that obscures the complexity of individual acts of writing and reading and the
possibilities for individual agency. So
much of our ongoing scholarly discussion about literacy has focused, I think, on
the oppressive nature of what we now almost unthinkingly refer to as the
"dominant discourse" and the need to protect students, especially
those from "non-mainstream" groups, from the effects of this
discourse, that it can become difficult to keep sight of individual student
writers and readers trying to carve out space for themselves in the discourses
they confront daily--in school, in the media, in their neighborhoods, among
their peers. In addition, our
collective obsession with "difference," which often refers in
superficial and even totalizing ways to class, race, or gender, obscures the
many complex distinctions among individual writers and readers within these very
broad social categories. As Maureen
Hourigan (1994) has pointed out, the "political categories" of race,
class, and gender "must and do combine in almost every instance, but it is
difficult to predict, in everyday life and in classroom situations, the
self-presentation of gender, race, and class identities" (p. 73).
It is also difficult to predict--and equally difficult to describe
without oversimplifying--how these complex "identities" will manifest
themselves in individual literate acts. And
so I will draw on the work of theorist Paul Smith (1988) to help explain how our
students might be understood as "selves" or "individuals,"
constructed within broader sets of discourses, with the possibility for agency
within those discourses.
All this discussion is intended to put forth a vision of literacy that
helps us understand the specific acts of reading and writing that our students
engage in and how we might best help them understand and accomplish those
literate acts in ways that enable them to claim agency for themselves.
In Chapter 4 I will describe my experiences with specific students,
writing in a variety of situations, to illustrate how such an understanding of
literacy as a local act of self-construction within discourse can play out in
individual lives. I take up the
same task in Chapter 5 in the context of emerging online media that have begun
to shape how we engage in acts of writing and reading in ways that may
profoundly alter not only what literacy is but also how it is valued in our
increasingly technological society. In both these chapters, the focus is on understanding how
individual texts come to be as students construct themselves through their
writing and reading in ways that matter in their lives.
I have come to believe that such an understanding of literacy is
essential to our efforts to create effective literacy pedagogies in schools,
where literacy remains, in my view, poorly understood--at least the literacy
that is enacted in typical school curricula. Thus, in Chapter 6 I will draw
implications of a conception of literacy as "local" for the teaching
of writing and reading and discuss ways in which I believe we might make
literacy instruction more relevant to our students' lives.
In the past decade I have worked alongside many English teachers at all
levels and I have participated in various efforts to reform literacy instruction
in states in the northeast, midwest, and far west.
Those experiences have convinced me that in order to foster any kind of
meaningful change in literacy instruction, conventional beliefs about literacy
must be reconsidered. In their
book, Critical Teaching and the Idea of Literacy, Lil Brannon and Cy
Knoblauch (1993) underscore the importance of educators' awareness of their own
ideological assumptions regarding literacy, arguing that for an educator to be
unaware of their "ideological dispositions"--of their own beliefs
about literacy and culture and political power--is tantamount to complicity in
the kinds of "violence" that Stuckey describes (p. 24). In other words, to teach Abby to read and write in certain
ways without a critical understanding of how those ways may compromise her own
political and economic well-being is to do a kind of "violence" to
her. It is crucial, then, for
literacy educators to understand their own ideological assumptions about what
they do and the implications of those assumptions for their students.
And this is not just a matter of abstract disagreements about, for
example, how to define literacy or what constitutes a "great book."
As Knoblauch and Brannon point out, competing beliefs about literacy
"vie for power in political and educational life" (p. 17).
That struggle plays out "in legislative assemblies, school board
meetings, newspaper editorials, and classrooms throughout the country."
In short, theoretical assumptions and ideologies shape the decisions that
affect how and what we teach in English classrooms and, in turn, how our
students come to understand and use literacy in their lives.
It is imperative, therefore, that teachers understand these assumptions
Part of my purpose, then, in teasing out a particular theoretical
perspective on literacy is to challenge the limited and limiting beliefs about
literacy that continue to drive much of the conventional English curriculum in
American schools and to address what I see as inherent contradictions in how we
understand and use literacy. I have
no illusions about my role in such an effort.
As is clear to anyone who has spent any time reading the volumes of
scholarship on literacy, theoretical perspectives on literacy and literacy
instruction are as numerous as the grammar worksheets that are still a mainstay
of teaching in so many English classrooms.
One more theoretical argument from one more educator will not by itself
change the ways in which we understand and teach writing and reading. Moreover, even as I argue for the importance of
reconceptualizing literacy, I am mindful of the complex ways in which literacy
relates to broader social and political and economic structures that remain
largely outside the control or influence of educators.
Education researcher Jean Anyon (1998) argues forcefully in Ghetto
Schooling that substantive reform cannot occur in our most troubled schools
without broad-based changes in the social and economic character of the
neighborhoods in which those schools are located--an argument that intersects
with much of Stuckey's critique. All
of which is to say that theories of literacy must be understood as one part of
an immensely complex project of possibility and empowerment, to invoke Freire
again, and they must be understood as theories with their own limitations
and potential problems.
Literacy and Change
Nevertheless, the need to understand writing and reading remains as
pressing as ever, especially as we near the end of a decade in which there are
more children in our schools than ever before.
The never-ending political battles over education reform (evident in the
recent "reading wars" over phonetic and whole-language pedagogies) and
the explosion of research and scholarship on writing and reading in the past
three decades have had little discernible effect on the ways in which those
children will learn to write and read, yet the society in which those children
live has changed dramatically in those decades.
Thirty-some years after Braddock, et al. (1963) called for more research
into composition and forty years after the passage of the National Defense
Education Act, which defined reading and writing in terms of national security,
we now routinely communicate in something called cyberspace with technologies
that must seem to many elderly citizens more fantastic than the gadgets depicted
in popular sci-fi films of the 1950s. Those
same technologies now provide instant access to information and events that are
themselves a function of those technologies.
For instance, in a bizarre kind of irony that seems to prove French
philosopher Jean Baudrillard's (1983) arguments about appearance and reality,
modern political conventions, so long a crucial part of the election process in
American society, are now shaped by television and print media in astounding
technological efforts to use those same media to shape public opinion:
television represents television representing "reality."
It all becomes, to use Baudrillard's term, simulacra.
And these events take place in a world that hardly seems to resemble the
past so often invoked at those same political conventions: a constructed present
constructing a past. Furthermore,
the east-west divide that defined the international political landscape for most
of the 20th century no longer exists, and even as old nationalist tensions
re-emerge in places like Bosnia, the staggering growth of capitalism is making
national borders virtually obsolete. The
paradigm that seemed to give shape to our understanding of the world for the
last fifty years--the paradigm within which the modern discipline of
"English" evolved--no longer holds.
As Richard Ohmann (1995) writes in his essay, "English After the
world will be very different when our students are middle-aged, but the course
of its change will not follow the master narrative of old marxism or the Cold
War narrative of democracy victorious in an epic battle against communism.
If we and our students are to be agents rather than dupes in the process,
we'll need to invent a new narrative. (p. 237)
commentators have offered their versions of what that narrative might be.
But the only agreement seems to lie in the sense that the world is very
different now than it was when educators and lawmakers linked literacy to
national security and included English as one of the school subjects considered
vital for protecting American geopolitical interests in the National Defense
Education Act of 1958.
What does it mean to write and read in such a world, and in a complex,
changing, economically defined society such as ours?
What do students need in order to be able to negotiate effectively the
kinds of local acts of writing and reading that I described above?
What does literacy mean to Abby as she enters this often frightening
world? How can literacy help her
make sense of and negotiate--and change--that world?
More than anything else, those questions motivate this book.
The longer I have taught writing and reading, and the more I have puzzled
over how my students--middle and high school kids, college undergraduates, adult
men in a prison classroom--write and read, the more I have come to believe that
literacy is inescapably local. To
ask how a student came to write an essay or how she or he came to understand a
text in a particular way is to begin to uncover the stunningly complex and
specific ways in which literacy functions in the lives of our students and in
our lives as well. It is also to
begin to reveal the ways in which the larger historical contexts about which
Ohmann writes might play out in the specific acts of writing and reading of our
students. Yet this
"specificity" of literacy too often seems lost in the discussions
about literacy and pedagogy and theory and the "discipline" of English
Studies that now dominate professional journals and conferences.
Proponents of "critical pedagogy" have taken up Freire's
project of literacy for empowerment in ways that have helped us see that our
conventional pedagogies for reading and writing can too often oppress and
marginalize rather than liberate and empower.
At the same time--for reasons too complex to examine here--such efforts
to construct "enlightened pedagogies," in bell hooks' phrase, can turn
into academic fashion and foster new dogmas that can "totalize"
students as surely as does the "dominant discourse."
If the power of critical pedagogy and the usefulness of cultural studies
are to be realized in the teaching of writing and reading, we cannot lose sight
of those individual readers and writers--like Abby--who struggle, in the
"local" contexts of specific acts of writing and reading, to enter the
so-called "dominant discourse," to confront a world that needs to be
And so I will ask that question--"How do these texts come to
be?"--of some of the variety of texts that I have encountered as a teacher
and as a citizen and as a parent, texts that reflect individual efforts to make
sense of the world through literacy and that represent acts of engaging in the
discourses of that world. In each
case, my hope in examining such texts in this way is to illuminate the local
nature of literacy in the context of its inherently social functions.
Literacy and Individual Possibility in a Capitalist Economy
At the end of my visit to Queensbury High School, Kim Marker, who was
Abby's English teacher at the time, told me a little about Abby's life: a brief
and all-too-familiar tale of strife at home, disaffection, conflict.
Abby, Sue said, was struggling with a lot more than writing papers for
her English class. Her older brother had had a variety of troubles that led to
his dropping out of school, and Abby seemed headed in the same direction.
Moreover, Abby was preparing to enter a local economy that seemed
excluded from the much-heralded American economic "recovery" of the
1990s. Her prospects for
participating in that recovery seemed limited.
What, I wondered, did Abby's English papers mean to her in such a
situation--in the midst of her personal struggles and her sense of herself as an
adolescent in a society run by adults? What
did writing in general mean to her? How
did her struggles to negotiate the complexities of her life affect how and what
she read and wrote--or even whether she read and wrote?
Such questions highlight for me another insight that often seems lost in
public and professional discussions about what students like Abby need in terms
of literacy skills: that in profound ways Abby is different from her peers whom
she nevertheless so obviously resembles. I
have been referring to Abby as if she represents a specific generation of
students facing a bewilderingly complex and changing world, and to a great
extent she does. As an adolescent
at a particular moment in time and in a particular place, Abby confronts the
same discourses that somehow shape the lives of all students: cultural, social,
economic, political discourses. But
Abby also confronts those discourses--and reads and writes herself into them--differently
from her peers. That is, she
confronts those discourses from a specific position--as a young woman from a
specific family situation in a specific time and place--and with a specific
personal background that sets her apart from her peers even as it identifies her
as like them. To acknowledge this
uniqueness in the position from which Abby encounters the world is not simply to
embrace a superficial notion of individualism and self-determination; rather, it
is to glimpse the complex ways in which Abby's writing and reading relate to her
identity and the experiences that have somehow shaped that identity.
To account for how the complexity of that identity might figure into
Abby's literacy is in large part of the central challenge of this book.
I am interested in exploring the intersections of Abby's "self"
and the discourses she confronts--both in and outside school.
In other words, how can we understand Abby's "self" as she
writes and reads her way into these discourses?
To try to answer such a question inevitably leads, I think, to some of
the sobering insights that Stuckey shares in her discussions of the
"violence" of literacy. It
can lead as well to an understanding of Abby's insistence that she is
"irrelevant"--a sense of her powerlessness and her belief that writing
won't change it. A young woman in
an undergraduate tutoring class I taught at the State University of New York at
Albany, who was a proficient writer and successful student and who very much
believed in the "power" of writing, asserted during a class discussion
about "remedial" students that what really counted in our culture was
not writing ability but money. "Successful
people can hire writers if they need them," she said.
Her comment was a kind of straightforward acknowledgement of what Stuckey
and many other critics have argued: that we cannot divorce our understanding of
literacy and its teaching from an understanding of the economic and social
structures within which we live and write and read in American society.
Freire (1988) has addressed this connection directly: "Merely
teaching men to read and write does not work miracles; if there are not enough
jobs for men to be able to work, teaching more men to read and write will not
create them" (p. 401). And as
social critic Andrew Feenberg (1991) reminds us, the role of work is central to
the lives of citizens in this capitalist society and thus must be at the center
of any efforts to change inequitable social, political, and economic
circumstances: "[I]n an industrial society, where so many social and
political choices are made by management, democratization of work is
indispensible to a more participatory life" (p. 17). Perhaps more sobering
still is the fact that, while it can be argued that teaching people to read and
write is a crucial part of the effort to create a more equitable economic
system, we have ample evidence that literacy does not guarantee either economic
or political power. In his
impressive historical work, The Legacies of Literacy, Harvey Graff (1987)
traces the development of literacy, identifying trends among various segments of
the U.S. population from the 17th Century through the present. Graff concludes from his analysis that "the contribution
of literacy to economic welfare is a major issue" (p. 346).
He cites example after example of specific ethnic and regional groups as
they made gains in literacy and school and shows that literacy itself did not
guarantee economic or political power. For
black Americans in particular, Graff writes, "the contradiction between the
promise of literacy and its reality was stark" (p. 363).
We may not need Graff's extensive study to conclude that there is no
direct cause-and-effect relationship between literacy and economic or political
power in American society. Abby
seems to understand that from her own experience.
Any teacher interested in helping students gain access to the kinds of
power of literacy that I described earlier must acknowledge the limitations of
that power and understand how literacy functions within our culture, often in
ways that marginalize and disempower. At
the same time, an examination of what writing and reading can mean in Abby's
life can also lead to a sense of possibility, a means of confronting the
economic realities that Graff documents and that Stuckey describes.
And here is where I part with Stuckey, who leaves us almost with a sense
of despair at the end of her book. Referring
to the impasse at which her argument about the oppressive nature of literacy
instruction has left her, she writes,
promote greater literacy, or we promote greater humanity.
The first choice is easy. The
second choice is not. Perhaps one
of the consequences of humanity is literacy.
Perhaps one of the consequences of literacy is its failure to end the
violence of an unfair society. Perhaps
the consequences of both are to return the responsibility for violence to its
rightful owners. That is who we
are. (p. 124)
asserts depressingly that "literacy is a blind alley" (p. 125), though
she does conclude with a sense of the possibility of change as
"incremental, local, one person at a time" (p. 126).
Such change, she suggests, can lead to reforming the system that she sees
as perpetuating the violence she describes; such change is, she writes, a
necessity. But while I share
Stuckey's outrage and remain sympathetic to her sense of the need for local as
well as systemic change, I want to resist her sense of despair and her
suggestion that teachers who simply teach within the system inevitably do
violence. I also want to resist her
separation between literacy and humanity, a problematic dichotomy that Freire
attacks in his efforts to articulate a more critical literacy and a more
empowering pedagogy. Freire
(1970/1984; 1987) has argued compellingly that to be fully literate--critically
literate--is to take control of your world and how it is constructed through
language; it is, in a sense, to destroy the false dichotomy between the world
and "the word." For
Freire, the world is not static but is constantly in the process of being made
through "the word." Thus,
to be critically literate is to control your world; to be critically literate is
to become fully human. His pedagogy
targets the very kind of oppressed people for whom Stuckey is concerned and is
intended to help them in their "incessant struggle to regain their
humanity" (1970/1984; p. 33). It may be impossible to avoid the dilemma
Stuckey defines in her book, but Freire helps us see that it is also misleading
to suggest that individual teachers of literacy working within the system cannot
help individual student writers and readers claim agency for themselves through
literacy and thus gain a measure of the power needed to effect the kind of
change Stuckey calls for. Ultimately,
literacy matters precisely because it is inextricably bound up in what it means
to be "fully human."
Adrienne Rich's statement that "we must write as if our lives
depended upon it," quoted at the head of this chapter, grows out of her
experiences as a feminist and political activist and as a writer whose work
resists the kinds of oppression that concern Stuckey.
Rich made that statement in 1992 at an awards dinner at Purdue University
honoring the work of student writers at that university. I remember the uneasiness that her remarks caused some of the
students' parents, who had come to celebrate the recognition their daughters and
sons were receiving as "authors."
Writing to resist oppression, to claim political agency, which is what
she emphasized in her talk, did not seem to be the writing that was supposed to
be celebrated that evening. Yet I
thought about the many students who were not honored that night as
"authors," students for whom writing was every bit as vital since it
is part of their interaction with the world.
Students like Abby. For
Rich, it isn't enough to write for yourself; writing is about how that self
interacts with--and improves--the world. I'm
interested in understanding what such a stance might mean for Abby and other
students who don't see the possibilities for agency that Rich finds in writing.
Rich won't let Abby off the hook by allowing her to deny her own
responsibility for taking action in her life--and perhaps working to change that
which limits or excludes or even oppresses her.
Part of what struck me so deeply about Abby was that she really wasn't
apathetic at all, and despite her protestations to the contrary, she didn't want
to give up. She desperately wants
to be "relevant." But she
cannot see how literacy can make her relevant.
This book, then, is finally about my sense of how literacy can
help Abby become "relevant" in the ways she so desperately wants--and
needs. It is about a vision of
literacy that sees Abby as at once social and individual, at the center of
discourse and yet created by discourse. It
is about the ways in which literacy reflects contradictions and complexities in
how we understand the world through language--and in how we understand ourselves
and construct roles for ourselves through language in that world. It is about the ambiguity of literacy. And it is about how we, as literacy educators, might use such
an understanding to create classrooms in which students can acquire a literacy
that enables them to claim agency and to write as if their lives did indeed
depend upon it.
In the following chapters, I will introduce some of the other students
I've met whose struggles and encounters with literacy represent, for me, both
the limitations as well as the possibilities of literacy. Many of those students believe fervently in the
"power" of writing; others, like Abby, are less certain. But at some level all of them engage in local acts of writing
and reading that reveal the daunting complexity of literacy and represent the
means for entering the discourses that inevitably shape their lives.
My hope is that their stories and my attempts to make sense of their acts
of writing and reading will deepen our understanding of what's involved in
helping students overcome the limitations of literacy and gain access to the
possibilities that I believe literacy represents.
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