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: March 2017

Power and Stratification

Power and Stratification

The area of literacy studies already seems so contested and polluted with ideological ideas it makes it a difficult subject to jump into to. Further, those ideological strains often pull heavily on sensitive cultural strings, especially within U.S. society, and playing with them risks reopening old wounds or toying with those still bleeding. However, there may be a necessity to reexamine how we as a society value individual literacies; the status quo has done little more than stratify sectors into cultural/social groupings, whether forced from outside or as an in-group decision, deliberate or not.

Literacy undoubtedly is intertwined with some kind of power; yet, the source is uncertain. Is it innate? Or do we simply ascribe it value? Some have claimed it is an entity in its own right. If that is the case, literacy itself would be the possessor of that power bestowing it onto others, which it obviously cannot do alone as an intangible object. With no will of its own, that power must transfer to or have begun with the wielder – a literate person. This concept gave rise to the ideology that literate people are somehow “better.” An old idea and one I find repugnant, but it does raise the question: Can a person with a particular literacy perform acts that a person without that literacy cannot? Without that literacy, is there no other way?

Moreover, I think one’s literacies, like relics on a shelf, illustrate their social and educational background, factual or assumed. In other words, one’s real or interpreted literacy “sponsors” are outed. Therefore, assumptions are also likely made of the person’s character and promise in a similar fashion as one’s clothes, hair, or choice of tattoos. This returns to the point made earlier regarding the stratification of society. It would seem that there is a naturally occurring impediment built into advanced society structures, which some claim are results of literacy, blocking those without particular literacies from entry where they are used.

Bilingualism in Literacy

Bilingualism in Literacy

The socially embedded nature of literacy is such an enormously large concept and category that it is impossible to fully cover it in one blog post. It is something that can be written about for decades without being entirely understood or explored. So I certainly won’t come to any definitive conclusions here today. What I want to do, instead, is to synthesize the concepts of sponsorship and bilingualism, especially as it pertains to the duty of composition instructors the linguistic heritage of students.

Because literacy sponsors have such a tremendous impact on the literacy practices and events of students, they have to take responsibility for the biases and beliefs that define their views of what literacy is. This might sound like an obvious statement, but as we saw in Moll & Gonzalez and Dyson & Smitherman’s articles, literacy sponsors (i.e. teachers, family members, and media sources) are the elements that influence whether or not students maintain their dialects and culturally embedded language practices. These practices are incredibly valuable, not only to students and their families, but also to our culture (whether we acknowledge it or not). After all, the United States is one of the only countries in the Western world where bilingualism is the exception, not the norm.

I believe it is our responsibility as writing instructors to teach grammar in so far as it relates to fluid thoughts and the presentation of critical thinking. But when a focus on grammar begins to impede a student’s voice it becomes problematic. We can see this through the students who become frustrated and unable to write because they are afraid of making grammar mistakes or afraid of using the wrong words. This happens even at the collegiate level of writing. Therefore, even though understanding the culturally based linguistic practices of students is a skill that can only develop over years of practice and study, we owe it to our students to allow them to express themselves in ways that respect the cultures they come from. We can certainly help them learn how to write in a variety of voices in order to appease the audiences that will demand linguistic conformity, but we can also teach them how to subvert the cultural norms by maintaining their heritage and linguistic voice.

But let’s get to the real talk. As a very white, very monolingual person, in many ways I do not feel qualified to teach bilingual learners how to embrace bidialectalcism. I feel that students would have more to teach me about their dialects and their ability to express ideas than I could ever hope to teach them. I value the research of people like Moll & Gonzalez and Dyson & Smitherman, but I also feel like much of these concepts must be learned from practice, not textbooks. As long as a teacher creates a class where students can embrace their own literacy practices while also learning how to adapt (not assimilate!) to “traditional” linguistic practices, I think students can continue to value and expand their local literacy practices in meaningful ways.

Identifying Literacy

Identifying Literacy

One thing that has stood out to me about literacy is that how little I know about it. As each day passes I find new ways in which literacy is used in my life. In Brandt’s article, Sponsors of Literacy, she discusses how literacy effects individuals in the job market. It is not just the different means and methods that literacy effects the job, but how other individuals can share the tools needed to excel in a particular field. This can be done with the sponsors knowledge or without.

What stood out most to me was Brandt’s conclusion, “I am not advocating that we prepare students more efficiently for the job markets they must enter. What I have tried to suggest is that as we assist and study individuals in pursuit of literacy, we also recognize how literacy is in pursuit of them” (Brandt 183). This passage suggests that we have a broader understanding of literacy. This awareness of how broad literacy is will help students pay more attention to, and then take advantage of what could be to their advantage.

Moll and Gonzalez continued this idea of taking advantage of your surrounding literacies with the concept of “funds of knowledge”. They also recognize the often-overlooked potential of literacy resources right in front of students. This could be anything from knowledge of construction or even a second language. If individuals are made aware of how vast and beneficial different forms of literacy are, then they can use them to their advantage. They can make sponsors of not just teachers or supervisors at work, but also family and people in their community.

In my own experience, I also started noticing areas within my job that I would have never thought could be considered literacy. Usually it was a simple task, but important enough to be taught at fire academy’s. For example, when I back an engine up to turn around, I give a set of hand signals to the driver. A nonverbal form of communication that was put in place because of accidents that had happened in the past. These simple hand gestures prevent damage to not only an expensive vehicle, but to other property and more importantly, human safety. It seems like almost daily that I am recognizing tasks in my life that I hadn’t previously thought were a form of literacy.

Literacy and Institutions

Literacy and Institutions

One of the concepts that has resonated with me is the idea of personal literacies. Before this class I had always thought of literacy in the traditional sense of simply referring to reading and writing. However after doing the pilot study and reading the assigned texts I could see that simple answer, while much more palatable than the truth, was not at all representative of reality. The idea that people can have personal literacies if both fascinating and exceedingly problematic. While it is fascinating that people can function with society with diametrically opposed literacies it is incredibly problematic from an institutional standpoint.

In the manner that they currently function the institutions that facilitate the development of literacy, at least in the great divide sense of the term, primarily schools, work with the proclaimed goal of creating literacy for the betterment of society and the members of it they are bequeathing their knowledge thereupon. This sounds lovely on the surface as the notion of a society where everyone can communicate effectively is relatively pleasant. However, given that there is no one way that dominates how individuals best acquire the various literacies that they do within a life time, the idea of forcing a singular “ideal” literacy upon the masses in one fixed way becomes incredibly problematic. Though founded under (likely) noble intentions, the institutions that facilitate the development of this sterilized, uniform, “best” literacy end up causing more harm than they do good. Further they reinforce the status quo and maintain that the current balance of socioeconomic power remains stable and stagnant. This is clearly problematic but so is the version of our society that completely lacks these institutions.

At this point these institutions are so integral to the structure and regulation of our society that it is difficult to imagine what it would look like without them. By this I mean that our society, as well as many western societies, has used these institutions as a means to shape society at large’s ideal citizen that it would be the fall of our society as it currently looks if they were to disappear, though this honestly might be a good thing (pretty sure there was something along the lines of institutions shaping citizens into cogs in an Althusser reading but I’m not positive). These institutions, in an ideal world, clearly need alteration in order to accommodate a wider socioeconomic background and to address a larger variety of literacies. However, in terms of facilitating this sort of change at the scale necessary of a country like the United States the sheer amount of infrastructure and curriculum that would have to be altered and paid for is shocking, and given the American citizen’s typical reactions to tax increases unfeasible. Not to mention that the institutions would have to accommodate 10s of millions of individuals all needing different forms of instruction, a beautiful idea but one that does not seem remotely practical. All this to say that literacy seems deeply tied to the institutions that facilitate it and altering that structure or finding a more effective and encompassing way to facilitate different literacies seems like an incredibly complex and volatile problem.

What I Know About Literacy, is That We Don’t Know Much About Literacy

What I Know About Literacy, is That We Don’t Know Much About Literacy


Literacy varies from person to person; not just in their levels of literacy, but also in what literacy practices are relevant for each individual. Literacy is contextual. Literacy is social. Literacy only has as much value as a society attaches to it. Written text does not have inherent value or meaning; the value and meaning of a text only exists within social context. It is society that determines the varying values of different literacy practices. Where one society may value an individual’s ability to write creatively, another may value concise and precisely communicative literate practices. Literacy is not practiced in a void; even if you are reading or writing alone in a dark room, literacy remains a social practice. In the case of reading, one only understands a text by how it is situated socially; the text’s meaning is determined by the social context of the reader and the writer. A text that travels between social contexts will take on new meanings as one society’s valued literacies influence the reader’s understanding of the text. In the case of writing, one’s literacy socialization directs everything the writer is doing. The writer is always writing within or in response to the dominant literacies of the society of which they are a part. What is valued in a text has been determined and ingrained in the writer by their social context. The writer is also writing with an specific audience in mind (usually one that reflects the valued literacies of the dominant culture) and in this way too is participating in a social practice. Literacy doesn’t just happen on its own; it only happens when a society encourages it or requires it. Whether it be a single individual that facilitates another’s acquisition of literacy practices or something more amorphous and abstract like a social zeitgeist that values particular literacy practices, literacy only happens due to, what Deborah Brandt dubs, “literacy sponsors” (166).

While “Great Dividers” may disagree, there is no clear distinction between literacy and illiteracy; it’s not that black and white. Literacy is a spectrum and most individuals in some form or another practice it. The illiteracy scare stems, not from a growing population of illiterate individuals, but from a growing number of literacies that do not seem to reflect the same practices that are currently lauded within society. Ethnographic research performed by New Literacy Studies (NLS) scholars show that individuals who might be deemed illiterate by the society as a whole actually perform a number of literate practices in their day-to-day lives. These individuals often come from historically disenfranchised groups. In a way literacy acts as yet another social means of oppression. While these individuals may be performing a number of literate practices within their community, these practices are not the same as those practiced by the majority, their oppressors. By devaluing the literacy practices of minority and disenfranchised groups, society has dubbed these practices “wrong” or something other than literacy. Thus, individuals from these groups are left with a choice; either conform to the practices of the majority or limit one’s own upward mobility in society by sticking with their own socially undervalued literacies.


Brandt, Deborah. “Sponsors of Literacy.” College Composition and Communication, Vol. 49, No. 2, National Council of Teachers of English, 1998.



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