Weekly Featured Writers

Each week, 1-2 people will curate the ideas and writing from our class into a featured blog. We will use these blogs to connect with colleagues outside our course.

Dr. Kim Jaxon

Website: kimjaxon.com/me

Office Hours Fall 2022 by appointment.

Email: kjaxon@csuchico.edu

Month: February 2017

Matt Franks: Collins & Blot – “The Literacy Thesis” (A review of an old theory)

Matt Franks: Collins & Blot – “The Literacy Thesis” (A review of an old theory)

Collins & Blot – “The Literacy Thesis”

(A review of an old theory)

“The Great Divide” — Literacy, the ability to read and write, is purported to be the catalyst of cognitive, cultural, and social reformation into “modernity.”

9780511486661c2_abstract_CBOOn one side of this debate, literacy is seen as the defining aspect that allows for the construct and advancement of complex social structures, including economic and political. It is a dichotomy of literacy marking the line between the primitive and the civilized and has been the backbone of Western intellectual culture for a significant period, and still persists to this day to some degree. Collins and Blot point out that many of its claims range from incorrect to inconclusive, and this chapter takes many stabs at the insinuations of the argument that literate cultures are somehow inherently “better” than those maintained in oral tradition. The argument of literacy being the driving force of civilized society is somewhat more politically correct than the previous view: some people are simply, cognitively inferior. However, the question regarding the validity of these claims still remains.

Colonial powers forcing the adoption of language and written scripts is a real-world example of literacy used as a cultural weapon and part of a common theme placing literacy among the tools of power and domination. The ultimate goal was meant to change the mindset of target populations to a more European one politically, but also often religiously. That intended purpose was based off the assumption that literacy can act as a revolutionizing element of society on a fundamental level.

In contrast to forced adoption, one topic the authors bring up involves the preservation of disappearing languages, particularly those with no orthography. The goal is to leave a recorded format of the language for others to use in the contemporary world. The questions raised here are what is the “correct” way? and who is the effort for? The answers to these questions are significant in choosing the most appropriate writing system. In the presented case of the Tolowa, they chose a system against the wishes of linguists because not only did it perform well, but it did not look like English or a European script, something a native American tribe would likely find pleasing. This example situation speaks to the identity involved in written language and what significant changes may occur to a cultural identity during forced adoption.

In contrast with much of the previously mentioned notions of literacy as some sort of benevolent savior, the authors state that both Goody and Levi-Strauss emphasize the power of literacy asserting that it has a vast history of being used more for “enslavement than improvement” (19). Much of that domination is purported by Goody and others to be through economic, and religious functions. On religion, rituals are kept static, written and unaltered in time to control the actions of others from afar; this basically gives literacy the status of “epoch-defining” and depicts its relevance as drastically more significant than non-literacy. Collins and Blot take issue with this stance on the grounds that oral traditions are not fairly looked into in the same detailed manner as literate ones, and the issue is left inconclusive on those charges. In fact, most of the issues with Goody’s work in particular have to do with the lack of details on one side of the argument making it imbalanced.

Through the “literacy boosts cognition” issue comes another more troubling one, the connection between literacy and morality. The idea that those who could not read or write were somehow less virtuous, even criminal, sprung from the growing adoption of public education in North America and England.

Perhaps Olson’s main contribution to the debate was to say that having an alphabet led to a greater explicitness to language leading the reader to a more literal meaning. In this thinking, the understanding of that literal meaning is supposedly what allows the literate mind the capability of modern scientific thought: “logical, skeptical, and concerned with counterfactuals” (24). This would seem to state the contentious view that non-literate people cannot comprehend the literal; thus, Olson majorly revised the argument some years later softening its stance and allowing for a more nuanced appreciation for interpretation of meaning.

Some equations of non-literates to adults are made in reference to the ability to understand speakers’ intentions. The crux of the argument is that children cannot discern the difference until around the age of four to seven. Again, these are unfair characterizations as it is not said whether the adult subjects are not expressing the target behavior because it is not in their cultural traditions to do so. They certainly have the capability, and Olson eventually acknowledged that this is something we learn very early (29). Collins and Blot have less of an issue agreeing that certain literacy practices can help build a sense of self-reflection; the problem they have is overgeneralizing claims without substantial evidence.

After considering Collins and Blot’s presentation of the issue, many questions remain unchanged and in the end unanswered. Is a writing really as unalterable as some of the authors would suggest? Words can be written in stone but read in a different era with new context revising the meaning. This happens all the time, even with the knowledge of the original meaning. It would seem as if we use previous writings to fit our current purposes, not because we are unable to decipher them correctly, but because they are sometimes inconvenient to our modern sensitivities.

Or what about the effect literacy has on our cognition? Does it make us smarter? Better people? I can only think of a few readings that are likely to make one dumber… but “better people” is a completely subjective judgement call. I would imagine if some say being literate makes you a better person, then some would also say it makes you a worse person. One thing we can say is that there are documentable effects on our behavior related to literacy. So, is literacy the thing allowing us self-reflection without which we would be reduced to warring savages? I’m afraid we’ll have to find other reasons to blame for that.

Link to our notes for Collins & Blot


Keaton Kirkpatrick: Featured Blogger for Brandt’s “Sponsors of Literacy”

Keaton Kirkpatrick: Featured Blogger for Brandt’s “Sponsors of Literacy”

Deborah Brandt – “Sponsors of Literacy”


A sponsor of literacy is a broad term that applies to the resources and conditions that influence literacy practices. Sponsors are similar to the patron in a patron-client relationship, meaning a sponsor gives a writer the means to write for the sponsor’s implicit or explicit interests. There are two main kinds of sponsors that Brandt mentions. The first, who primarily shape the literacy practices of children and young adults, are other people (older relatives, teachers, priests, supervisors, military officers, editors, and influential authors). While people will always affect literacy learning in other people, Brandt goes on to mention institutional sponsors, which are sponsors that need more attention to explain.

The case example of Dwayne Lowery is given to explain institutional sponsors. Lowery worked at an assembly line of an automobile manufacture until he decided he could do more, so he went on to work at a municipal utility department. Being active in an employee union, he was able to travel to Washington, D.C. on a union-sponsored grant for union training. As his job and participation with his union continued, he observed that his literacy practices would have to shift in order to fit into the changing world, which required him to talk less and write more. His work became more competitive, reflecting the shifts in literacy at his work. This competition is an aspect I noticed in most of the points Brandt discussed with her idea of sponsors.

It can be argued that the idea of sponsors are deeply entwined with ideals of capitalism–at least that’s my take on them. Sponsors (especially those that are institutional) are constantly emerging at different levels and compete to shape what literacy looks like in the world. They give people materials and motivation to read and write for a variety of applications. For example, universities act as sponsors for faculty and students. The resources supplied (computer labs, printing services, the books at the library, and the technology used [like Blackboard] are some examples of resources), the administration’s allocation of funds, the ideals of faculty in certain departments, and the diversity of the student population are all kinds of sponsorships that impress a student and shape their reading and writing habits for a purpose. I’m sure you wouldn’t find one student who has earned a degree from Chico State who could claim that the university, its faculty, and its resources have failed to shape their literacy practices. Whether they shaped their literacy practices with affordances or constraints is another matter to research, but the idea that the university shapes literacy practices should be undeniable. The sponsors that led people to attend Chico State are other factors that influence literacy. At every level, institutions and individuals compete in some way to make their literacy sponsorships seem desirable to make more people use them. Every family likely has its own opinion of what literacy is and how it should be practiced. Each professor likely has an idea of what functional literacy is as well as their own definition and value of literacy, which they willingly or unwillingly impose upon their students. Every university tries to attract certain kinds of students by advertising their specific sponsors. At every level, there is a certain competitive aspect because literacy is influenced by opinions that are assumed right and shared often. Everyone has an idea of literacy that they think everyone else should take up to be successful; affordances and constraints for those ideas are constantly given by people in power. Literacy is based on supply and demand and shifts by the influence of those in power. It’s a commodity competing in a capitalist economy.

In contrast to the resources and ideas offered at a university like Chico State, I went to Lassen Community College (LCC), where the classroom practices and resources differed greatly. My favorite example was in a survey course for late British literature. The English degree at LCC was a brand new offering at the time (I was one of the first students to complete the program), so the first surprise was classroom size. None of the literature courses I took at LCC had more than 10 students–most had 5 or 6. The next surprise was how the professor taught the class. Initially, I thought we’d discuss literature in a literature course. I was wrong. For the majority of class, we read assigned texts aloud to each other. We never had to read anything at home. If we had time, at the end of class we had a 10-minute discussion about what we just read. Most of us in the class weren’t talkative and didn’t have the vocabulary and tools to talk about texts in college, so these discussions were usually quiet. The professor never asked us to annotate texts, never encouraged us to have complicated discussions, and never offered strategies for approaching texts (aside from modeling how to read texts aloud to each other). Somehow, I still got out of community college wanting to study English (specifically British literature). I’m guessing I didn’t know any better until I got to Chico State and realized what strategies and resources the faculty and staff at this university sponsored (collaboration, Google Docs, classroom discussions, and the library to name a few). No longer am I writing only for the professor and shaping my papers to exist only in a course; instead, I’m imagining how each paper might exist outside of the class. Specifically, I’m considering creating a portfolio (it’s a shame I haven’t made one already) as well as how I can make my academic work more accessible with digital platforms and tools. These considerations have been made because of what is sponsored at Chico State and by the faculty I’ve worked with. I’d never have thought about portfolios without my work as a mentor with freshmen; I’d never have considered writing my notes in a Google Doc with the intent to collaborate on them for a study guide if it weren’t for a class where the professor said she wouldn’t provide a study guide, but we could still work together and make one ourselves; I’d never have considered showcasing my work in multimodal formats without classes giving me the freedom and strategies to work on multimodal projects. This is all to say sponsors have influenced all of my literacy practices, though I hadn’t realized it until now.

Notes from Class

  • What is Brandt up to?

People’s literacies are dependent on the sponsors they decide to value. The responsibility relies on people providing access to literacies; they shouldn’t be secretive or kept close. Sharing is important for success.

Being a sponsor and being aware of being a sponsor is important; sponsors have influence and decide what other people care about; sponsors have a lot of responsibility and authority.

Literacy is commodity you can trade for other goods and services.

Every class/community has unique literacies that are unique to them.

  • Sponsorship and access (Raymond and Dora)

There are more layers to literacy for people who aren’t properly sponsored.

Socioeconomic factors matter

Students who aren’t sponsored well and are new to universities don’t understand their boundaries. They also don’t understand the resources available to them.

  • Sponsorship and the rise in literacy standards (Dwayne)

People who grew up with new technologies might have an advantage over those who were born without those technologies and had to learn them.

Constant job switching and learning new writing strategies is a new concept.

Staying in a field and changing literacy practices to remain in the field—is there a point when people can’t stay in the field due to literacy practices being too different from what they know?

  • Sponsorship and appropriation in literacy learning (Carol and Sarah)

Do skills in work/public life transfer to other areas of our lives? Or do we create a place in other areas in our lives to transfer the skills we learned?

There is overlap, but the question of appropriating a literacy practice to other areas of life may or may not be conscious. It happens, but how does it?

Models are important in learning new literacies.

Class passages and questions here

Reminders for Week 3

Reminders for Week 3

Friendly reminder that you have a paper/text due Wednesday (2/8): a write-up of your pilot literacy day. I would expect to see the various reading and writing practices you used throughout the day, some ideas about the purpose of those reading and writing practices, and maybe even some insights using readings or conversations we’ve had in class. What can you say about the function of your literacies? What do they do for you? What value is placed on them? How might the authors we’ve read talk about your literacies?

You can write this as a narrative, you can create a visual representation (perhaps an infographic), a short film with voice over, other ideas? Share the link with me before Wednesday’s class. If you’re writing a paper, my preferred sharing format would be in Google Docs. For sharing Google Docs, please use kjaxon@mail.csuchico.edu (just like student email).

We’re also reading Deborah Brandt’s “Sponsors of Literacy” for Wednesday. The link to the reading is on the calendar. I’ve set the viewing for “anyone with a Chico State address…” so you may need to log in to your portal. I might click on the link soon, so you make sure you can see it. Wednesdays are really busy for me and I fear I’ll hold up your reading if you wait to request access then.

Here is the link to the google doc to share our notes/passages/questions.

See you Wednesday!


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