Literacy in the Wild


My name is David Puerner, and this is my 3rd semester at Chico State (though I love and hate to admit it I’ve got the 6-year associates from Butte college… and you’re absolutely right, there is no such thing strictly speaking). I love English as a study because it has afforded me the ability to articulate a variety of ideas in a variety of ways, and also I suspect it has introduced me to a number of concepts that share parallels in other fields… aiding my understanding of concepts and ideas in say, Sociology, for example.
I also enjoy Sociology.
I currently work at Burger Hut on Forest avenue where I am fortunate enough to work with the kinds of fantastic individuals who will analyze passages of Walt Whitman for me on their breaks (should I ask them), and who will quietly engage in philosophical debates with me about the benefits of “Psychopathy and the psychopath’s ability to cloak his or herself within Society” to Humanity as a species while the customers in the lobby gently munch away without an iota of frustration or any inkling of what might be being discussed not more than a hundred feet away from their quiet and comfortable meal… there is something appealing to me about that. We can talk about that sometime if you like.
I very much enjoy Beareoke, I enjoy but am not great at Ballroom dance, and I’m alright on the guitar. I love Hamilton the musical, and La La Land (More than even Rogue One, which I enjoyed very much), and have a great desire to learn jazz piano and guitar.
There’s more, but I’m sure you’re all falling asleep right now. I apologize.

So: Class things

In regards to what I read in a given day, and our essay about literacy we read for Wednesday, I would say that little to no time in the last three days has my reading and writing come from a book. I’ve printed out Syllabi and academic articles for multiple classes, and have read from those sources which, I think, are more typically construed as mediums in which high levels of literacy must be employed on the part of the reader in order to achieve some level of comprehension that is productive in some way (I’m having trouble being definite describing these things. See what I mean. Lots of qualifiers).

But a lot of my day is spent navigating my iPhone home-screen and my favorite apps (Facebook, Messages, Gmail, Apple Music and …I hate to admit it, Bumble). In fact, this is the first time in three days I’ve had to open my laptop to do anything. Anytime I’ve needed access to a computer in the majority of the last three days I have had my needs met through the computer lab in the library. Twice I’ve listened to the BBC World Report, and I think that there is an element of audio literacy that is required to make the act of listening to the news while multitasking something that is “worthwhile and productive” (for me it is easy for such podcasts to become background noises from which I derive nothing of value or significance if I don’t monitor myself and engage in some form of active listening).

The most interesting thing is this: between the hours of 4pm and 9pm the bulk of my reading is occupied by reading and interpreting “tags.” As stated above I work at Burger Hut, and for those of you who have never worked in food service “tag” is the jargon we use to describe the little slips of paper that print out on “cook side” with the customer’s order. We are responsible for reading, interpreting, and turning the order into reality… and we do so under varying levels of pressure. What I mean by that is sometimes there is one customer and one tag, and other times it feels like all of Chico has dropped everything they were doing to drop and make our lives hell (I’m talking of course about volume of orders here).

In this last example I think there are layers of literacy required of an individual in order to fit within a very narrow definition of success as defined by the situation.

  1. Cultural literacy. What role are you occupying within society at this moment? And what are the expectations that come along with it? If you accidentally engage in a few tabooed things in any kind of professional capacity there can often be heavy consequences.
  2. Language literacy. Actually reading and processing the tags.
  3. Situational literacy. Understanding that the operations you must engage in to make sure certain orders all come out at the same time require the understanding that not all operations should happen linearly the way they are printed on the tag, but must be arranged in time and space so that the illusion of function, flow and efficiency is maintained and rarely burst (Bursts are how you get poor yelp reviews).
  4. Social literacy. From my own perspective, I often adjust my style to the capabilities of my fryer. Some are superstars that make my look pro as hell…. and others require a lot of help to keep things flowing. I’ve found it’s easier for me to accommodate their capabilities than it is to correct every behavior to my own personal liking, and I suspect that they too are engaging in some kind of compensation for every different cook they end up working with too (so mild irritation is likely to reciprocated across the cook-fryer divide for every alternated pairing). But reading people and making adjustments base on context and situation is social literacy, and that is a skill that can be the difference between acceptance within mainstream society, and varying levels of pariah-hood in my opinion.

Below is comentary on what I’m calling quote 3, and a couple quotes that I really enjoyed from the reading.

I’d like to focus on the question specifically (The third quote below). “Is the ability to read and write a prerequisite for achieving certain social statuses, and, if so, how are these statuses elevated by other members of the community” (Szwed 428)? These standards that we are talking about become our metric for valuing an individual within our society. In my opinion (and thanks in large part to my experiences with Sociology. These are not all my original thoughts!) regardless of whether a person is considered successful or unsuccessful by society at large, a lot of agreement has to take place. The successful person takes their interactions with our system of grading and begins to build an argument for their relative success in the future. Both the system and the individual have to agree that some definition of success must be the result of their having been measured by our grading system (part of which is defined by literacy, which I think this article has shown to be an arbitrary construct in a lot of ways that is in no way divorced from politics and a history of colonization and imperialism). Likewise a lot of agreement has to take place between a society and an individual when they have been placed on the track to “less than successful,” whatever that might mean. An individual in this case, might start to understand that their interaction with our grading metric and our understanding of literacy is proof of something lacking within their own character. In my mind, when this is believed by both sides of the equation a lot of damage is possible, both to society as a whole, and especially to the individual who’s self esteem must be undermined from the first argument made for their settling for less than maybe they’d be worth if our system of grading and evaluating were constructed differently.

Convoluted I know^

If any of you could help me out I would greatly appreciate it.

further quotes:

1. “It should not be surprising to see differences in literacy between members of different ethnic groups, age groups, sexes, socioeconomic classes, etc. Indeed, one might hypothesize the existence of literacy-cycles, or individual variations in abilities and activities that are conditioned by one’s stage and position in life. What i would expect to discover, then, is not a single level of literacy, on a single continuum from reader to non-reader, but a variety of configurations of literacy, a  plurality of literacies” (Szwed 423).

2. “We must come to terms with the lives of people without patronizing them or falling into what can become a sociology of pathos. We need to look at reading and writing as activities having consequences in (and being affected by) family life, work patterns, economic conditions, patterns of leisure, and a complex of other factors. Unlike those who often attempt to understand a class of people  by content analysis of the literature written for them by outsiders, we must take account of the reader’s activities in transvaluing and reinterpreting such material” (Szwed 428).

3. “Is the ability to read and write a prerequisite for achieving certain social statuses, and, if so, how are these statuses elevated by other members of the community” (Szwed 428)?

Finally the hard one: On Ethnography of Communication


“Dell Hymes has provided the framework for such studies, by isolating types of communication acts and by analyzing them in terms of components which comprise each act, in the light of preliminary cross-cultural evidence and contrasts. Such components include the participants in the act (as well as their status, role, class, etc.), the form of the message, its code, its channel of communication, its topic, its goal, its social and physical setting, and its social function” (Szwed 428).

Thank you for reading and putting up with me!



PS- I’m running out of steam for delving into quote #4, but a lot of it rings a vague recollection from a communication class I had to take at Butte many years ago. I was wondering if any of you could unpack a few of the terms in quote 4? Again, you’d be the best forever! Thank you

PPS- sorry about the language in this post. Just having fun with the whole academic thing.

  4 comments for “Literacy in the Wild

  1. kjaxon
    January 28, 2017 at 1:11 pm

    I enjoyed reading this so much David. I found myself reading some portions out loud to my adult son who also works in food service (and is a hell of a cook). We ended up thinking together about the literacies of the kitchen that most people would not experience (such as norms for not running into people by saying “behind” or “behind you”). And even when you think you have some kitchen literacies down, a new work space also introduces new norms: interesting to think about which literacies transfer and which don’t.

    I’ll bring in an excerpt from David Barton that does some definitional work around literacy events and literacy practices so we can work on quote 4 you mention in your post. Drawing from anthropology, these scholars are interested in how we study literacy. Calling things speech events (Hymes) and literacy events (Heath, Barton, and Anderson and others) helps us put some boundaries around a moment in time so we can study it. Barton gives the example of reading a book to a child: this is a literacy event that looks familiar in our culture: we can look at this event and start to think about goals, its social function, etc.

    I am thrilled you are taking class. I think you and Kassandra, who both have a background and interest in sociology, will add a lot to the conversations.

    Thank you! Kim

    • David Puerner
      David Puerner
      January 29, 2017 at 4:00 pm

      “Literacy events” and “speech events” sounds also vaguely like a few terms like “exigence,” “exigency” and “rhetorical situation” we covered in Fosen’s rhetoric class.

      I look up those definitions and see if they fit too!

      See you guys tomorrow,

  2. Allison Clark
    January 29, 2017 at 8:06 pm

    I liked your part about the tags…I feel that every day. I didn’t even think about that for my literacy! The students at Sutter get to write their own tho

    and sometimes they just circle the word ‘cheese’ Like WTF, you want a plate of cheese you fricken weirdo? Oh, you want something WITH cheese? Of course, cause I’m psychic like that..

    It requires a lot of communication and interpretation.

    I also feel like the school system robs students of their self esteem. I think that the average level classes, as an AP student myself, received less funding and had way less motivated teachers. For instance, the same teacher taught freshman English and AP History, and was a completely different person effort-wise. Maybe she liked history better, but still…the classes were just not comparable. My other regular level classes were like this as well, with easy work, old textbooks, and bored teachers and students.

    The system you’re talking about rings true too- average students are treated like future blue-collar workers and criminals and tend to begin to dislike school and other students who are not treated that way. It’s a self-fulfilling cycle that ultimately leads to kids hating school and frowning on those who are successful in the system.

  3. Kassandra Bednarski
    Kassandra Bednarski
    January 30, 2017 at 12:53 pm

    Hi David! I have to say I really enjoyed your blog post. I thought it was both thoughtful and sincere, in the sense that, even though I don’t know you too well, your passion and willingness to question the system will successfully guide you in your future. I’m excited to get to know you and learn from all of your helpful insights! We sociology people have to stick together!

    As for the rest of your content, I especially liked the part where you talked about audio literacy (“I think that there is an element of audio literacy that is required to make the act of listening to the news while multitasking something that is worthwhile and productive”) because I think we all a lot of the time overlook this type of literacy (I know I even questioned in my own blog whether or not audio literacy was a thing while I was tracing my own literacies) and therefore, continue the cycle of unaccessible literacies by those outside of the world of academia. I especially appreciated your distinction between effective audio literacy and simply listening… I think you used the term “active listening.” A lot of the time we use podcasts as background noise and in that sense, I’m not entirely sure if it could be considered a form of audio literacy? I only say that because literacy, to me, requires some sort of comprehension. Now, that doesn’t mean someone has to be a scholar in whatever they are reading, writing, listening to, etc. But, some form of comprehension and engagement with what you’re listening to is important. I know for me, it sometimes takes me a few hours to listen to ONE podcast just because I either find myself 1.) not listening, or 2.) listening so much so that I am constantly pausing the podcast to throw in my own two cents, think about a specific statement they said, or participate in the comment section. I think, perhaps we both would agree on this, that one of the underlying points of engaging in literacies is to gain some sort of value from it, so you making sure you participate in active listening affirms that. In another sense, we both agree that the world of literacies can be closed off at times and unaccessible just by our mere definition of literacies and by our assessment of them. However, just because we say that some sort of value should be gained from engaging in one’s literacies, doesn’t allow for society to dictate what that value must be. It could be as simple as a student engaging in programming doing it for their own personal value of enjoyment. Not every literacy should be about mastering literature or anything of that sort. It should be dictated and created by the person engaging in it and the value they put in and get out of it. And, I think you captured that point really well when you dove into the unfair school system.

    I also really enjoyed your connection between an activity you regularly engage in (work) and the different types of literacy–whether it be situational, cultural, language, etc. Again, we often times try to create a singular, definitive definition of literacy, when in reality, it should be an umbrella term with lots of subsets and types that are all dictated by the individual.

    I really enjoyed your blog as you tied in your personal experiences and the sociological themes of inequities in our school system. And all of the quotes you pulled from the Szwed reading were the foundations of expanding the world of literacies. Great job! I feel like I connected more with the reading after reading your own blog, so for that, I thank you!

    P.S. – I also thoroughly enjoy Beareoke and I hope to see you up on stage belting out one of the many good songs in La La Land one of these days!

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