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: September 2022

Ben Vandersluis: Curated Blog for Week 5

Ben Vandersluis: Curated Blog for Week 5

I have never before thought of a graduate seminar as being similar to a TV show, and yet it is the term “two-parter” that best describes our previous two classes in our Theories of Literacy course, cliffhanger and all. And so, as with any good two-parter episode, the second part must begin with an adequate recap of the first.

Previously in Dr. Jaxon’s Theories of Literacy course: Last week we read Deborah Brandt and Katie Clinton’s article “Limits of the Local,” a piece that argues ethnographic approaches to literacy have exaggerated the role of the “local” in literacy practices. There must, the authors argue, be a thingness that connects literacies across locales, a sense in which literacies have a global aspect, not merely a series of local ones. And the nature of that thingness? Well, it is actually things, objects, that act with agency in literacy events and practices—an observation made using Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory. As the authors put it, “[W]ith the help of objects, lots of different kinds of activities can be going on in and across local situations” (Brandt and Clinton 346). Or later on, “[T]hings are not just acted through or upon by readers and writers. They are also actors in themselves … They not only are endowed with local meanings by local agents but endow meaning to the locales in which they appear. They also accomplish connections with other locales” (348). In this way Brandt and Clinton argue for a view of literacy that is locally bound in the social but globally interconnected through materiality.

As we saw in Cassidy’s summary of last week’s class, this led to an intense class discussion about the agency of objects: Do objects have agency? What does ‘agency’ in this sense mean? If not agency per se, what is the role objects play in social structures? To what extent do objects constitute literacy? Many analogies were made and friendly disagreements arrived at; the whiteboard came into play; innocent bystanding chairs became the chess pieces of our debate. In the end, we never really reached the bottom of the matter. Some of us simply remained unconvinced that objects have their own agency, myself included.

As a result of our inconclusive debate, we decided to turn to the work of Latour himself for this week’s class. In addition to a further Deborah Brandt article, we would also read a chapter from Latour in which he makes his argument for object agency. This is why I have come to view this week’s class as a sequel to last week’s material: not only are we continuing with the work of Deborah Brandt, we are also returning to our debate of object agency using the work of Latour. And hopefully, this time, the debate will reach its conclusion.

We read two texts in preparation for this week’s class: Deborah Brandt’s article “Sponsors of Literacy,” and Bruno Latour’s chapter “Third Source of Uncertainty: Objects too Have Agency” (from his book Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory). We read both pieces using the collaborative reading/annotating tool Perusall®. Both of the texts prompted us to consider materiality: the implicit economic exchange present during the acquisition of literacy, and (again) the agency of objects in social contexts and power structures.

Published four years before “Limits of the Local,” we can see Brandt’s “Sponsors of Literacy” as an early attempt to broaden the scope of literacy scholarship beyond the local ethnography, focusing instead on “larger contexts of profit making and competition,” and the “structural conditions in literacy’s bigger picture” (Brandt 166). Literacy, Brandt argues, is not merely an individual development, but an economic one as well. In order to illustrate this dynamic, Brandt uses the term ‘literacy sponsor’ to describe the agents that facilitate or inhibit access to and acquisition of literacy, and who gain advantage by doing so (166). In short, everyone’s literacy acquisition comes through several sponsors during the course of their lives, and since every sponsor benefits from the exchange of literacy, no sponsor is ever truly neutral. As a result of this loss of neutrality, sponsors play a significant role in determining “what, why, and how people write and read,” although the sponsee may be unaware of this bias (168). This inevitably leads to socioeconomic inequalities. Since only certain forms of literacy are highly valued as commodities in our society, “success” (however we define it) becomes largely contingent upon one’s “access to the right kinds of literacy sponsors” (169, my emphasis).

Brandt goes on to use the accounts of specific individuals to demonstrate key traits of literacy sponsorship. These narratives illustrate a) the ways literacy sponsors mediate economic opportunities and access, b) how sponsors determine literacy requirements and thus increase socioeconomic competition, and c) how sponsees appropriate learned literacies and practice them in alternate settings (178, 182-183). Brandt concludes her article by underlining the exchange-based, economic aspect of literacy, suggesting that literacy is not merely an object of pursuit, but that literacy itself also pursues the individual. Brandt’s article thus ends on a note of object agency, which sets the stage for our reading from Latour.

It is important to note here that Latour is neither a linguist nor a scholar of literacy. Rather, his website describes him as a “member of several academies,” but most prominently known as a sociologist. Our reading of his chapter is therefore an exercise in framing our understanding of the “Limits of the Local” article, which uses Latour’s actor-network theory to make its argument for global literacy through object agency. We are also using Latour to think broadly about the thingness of literacy. And so, on to Latour.

Bruno Latour’s chapter “… Objects too Have Agency” is taken from his book Reassembling the Social, in which Latour explores the nuances of actor-network theory. In the chapter we read, Latour’s main argument is that sociologists’ typical understanding of social inequality (and therefore social power) is inherently flawed because it ignores the role of nonhuman elements. Sociologists tend to explain such inequalities by pointing to ‘norms’ or ‘systems’ or ‘culture’ or ‘society,’ a move that relies on the durability and strength of social ties between people or groups of people (Latour 67). But Latour argues that these social ties are not strong at all, but rather weak. He claims that sociologists are neglecting the material conditions that connect people in social structures, and Latour argues that these ‘things’ are what lend strength to society (68). And not only do these ‘things’ provide strength to social structures, but they also—you guessed it—have agency.

To understand the model Latour is proposing, we need to first understand the ways he is (re)defining some familiar terms. ‘Social,’ in Latour’s view, describes a momentary association between entities as they are briefly aligned within a constantly shifting network; this definition of the social thus denies any assumptions that are made based on notions of permanence/stasis (65). Also key is Latour’s use of the terms ‘actor’ and ‘agent’. According to Latour, “any thing that does modify a state of affairs by making a difference is an actor,” and agency is determined by posing the question, “Does it make a difference in the course of some other agent’s action or not?” (71, emphasis original). 

For those of us who initially balk at the idea of object agency because we think objects can’t make willful decisions, Latour’s retort is self-evident: that’s not how he views agency. He explains, “[Agency] does not mean that these participants ‘determine’ the action,” but rather ‘determination’ is seen in  “metaphysical shades,” not causal binaries (71-72). In essence, this means that a given action is not solely determined by a single human actor, even if it is the human who ultimately throws the proverbial switch. Instead, the determination of an action is guided by numerous nonhuman material factors, all of which play a role in making said action possible or impossible, more likely or less likely. In addition to being at least partial determiners of human action, objects thus have agency in the sense that they “authorize, allow, afford, encourage, permit, suggest, influence, block, render possible, forbid, and so on” (72). This idea of object agency therefore helps broaden our perception of the actors present in a given situation, human or otherwise.

We now turn to our class discussion of these texts. Since Latour’s notion of object agency served as our cliffhanger from last week’s class, it is only natural that we began this week’s discussion by picking up where we left off—this time having read some of Latour’s theory. Dr Jaxon started by observing that Latour’s theory of object agency (and the ways Brandt and Clinton used it in their “Limits of the Local”) solves a problem that we, as graduate students, are not yet experiencing in practice. We are, at present, approaching literacy more in theory than in practice, and so we are not encountering the challenges that led Brandt and Clinton to search for answers from Latour. Once we begin conducting empirical studies, which are riddled with thingness, Latour’s ideas will become more practical. Dr Jaxon used this opportunity to remark that collegiate pedagogical strategies often must strike a balance between learning about a field and learning to do the work of that field.

Dr Jaxon also noted the differences with which several of us reacted to the tone in Latour’s writing. (For an example of Latour’s tone, try these lines from p. 67: “Are sociologists of the social so foolish that they are unable to detect such a tautology in their reasoning? Are they really stuck in the mythical belief of another world behind the real world?” Or this from p. 70: “This does not mean that the sociology of the social is useless, only that it might be excellent for studying baboons but not for studying humans.”) Some of us, like Dr Jaxon and Brady, interpreted Latour’s tone as playful and light, perhaps a way of balancing out the weight of Latour’s topic and lightening the density of his words. Others of us, like Hayden, Brooke, and myself, interpreted Latour’s tone as confrontational and aggressive, perhaps even arrogant. This led us to discuss who gets to write academic prose using this kind of tone, and why? In Latour’s case: is it because he is a white male? Because he is French? Is this a privilege afforded him as an academic revered in his field? These are questions worth considering, regardless of the ways we individually interpreted Latour’s tone.

We then returned to the debate we’d left unresolved from last week: Do objects have agency? How does the role of objects affect us? Dr Jaxon began by repeating a remark from our department chair: “Of course objects matter. You don’t see people asking for a shitty classroom,” which led us to consider the ways an educational space is shaped by objects like chairs, desks, walls, windows, and teaching technologies. We then considered: If an object ‘matters,’ does it have agency? Here Hayden chimed in: “Of course objects matter, but object agency is still different from human agency. … We have to beware of anthropomorphization. We cannot impose our humanness onto things that are not human.”

Here we continued our discussion of object agency by returning to Brandt and Clinton’s “Limits of the Local.” What are we missing by focusing only on the local? What are objects doing in literacy? Tim asked whether objects function at a local or global level. Dr Jaxon responded that she thinks objects participate in a broader global context, returning again to the example of a classroom chair versus a dining room chair: the material shape and situation of those objects determine their use, and we have some global sense of that use even if it’s our first time setting foot in that classroom or that dining room.

Travis pointed us in the direction of Robert Pinksy’s poem “Shirt,” which describes the material existence of a shirt with respect to several factors of its production, ultimately leaving the reader reexamining the causal history of objects. For our purposes, this poem helped us understand the difference between the local (wearing a shirt) and the global (the abuse of factory workers who made the shirt) through the lens of materiality (the shirt itself), which perhaps is a way of understanding Brandt and Clinton’s “Limits of the Local.”

Before taking a break, we shifted to discuss the problematic nature of our academic discipline being called “English,” a term that is vague (‘English’ in what sense?) and often doesn’t describe our work in the field (since we don’t exclusively work with English language). Furthermore, finding an alternative term to describe our field is fraught, since subdisciplines within the field each seem to approach texts in very different ways. Several of my classmates used ideas from our readings to frame their thoughts on the matter. Tim suggested that the English discipline might be a way for us to better understand the local/global aspects of literacy: globally, we refer to a discipline we all generally refer to as “English,” but locally our treatment of subdisciplines may vary. (For instance, an undergraduate “English major” at Chico State may choose between “English Studies,” “English Literature,” and “English Education,” but these subdisciplines may be broken down differently elsewhere, or may go by different names.) Cassidy added that this approach might help us view the CSU system as rhizomatic regarding its variations within the English discipline. From here Brady wondered about comparable disciplines in non-English-dominant countries: do the French have a discipline called “French” that entails the same kind of work we do in English? I also observed that, even domestically, majoring in “English” is nothing like majoring in “French”; the former covering a breadth of literary-, linguistic-, and literature-based practices, while the latter is limited to a study of language fluency lightly salted with studies of culture, history, or literature.

When we reconvened after our break, our attention was entirely devoted to Brandt’s “Sponsors of Literacy.” Since many of the students in the room are also TAs teaching their own sections of FYC, Dr Jaxon asked the class how our roles as literacy sponsors affects the ways our students learn. Brady observed that by teaching certain topics or certain texts in our syllabi, we are necessarily excluding a host of other possibilities. Cassidy echoed the same sentiment regarding style guides: requiring MLA for all students means limiting their access to all other style guides, even though their own disciplines are likely to require something other than MLA. Larisa also observed that the ways we think about and analyze texts are likely to be passed on to our students. I am certain that, as the semester continues to unfold, many of us will be reminded of countless other ways in which our roles as sponsors affect the literacies of our students.

I took the opportunity here to poke at something about sponsorship that had been bothering me. Brandt’s definition of a ‘sponsor’ is conditional upon the sponsor benefiting from the sponsor/sponsee relationship. So I posed the question: is there such a thing as truly altruistic literacy acquisition? What do teachers stand to benefit from sponsorship? Dr Jaxon postulated that teachers might gain a sense of power or self-esteem through sponsorship. Hayden observed that teachers might benefit from contributing to someone else’s rise to success, a fact that Dr Jaxon echoed when she noted that her professional relationships with students (such as serving as chair on a thesis committee) get added to her CV and factor into her ability to receive raises or tenure. Cassidy also observed that the teaching doesn’t just go one way—she gets satisfaction from the fact that she learns from her students as well. Brady succinctly argued that if no languages are neutral, how can any exchange of literacy be altruistic? It seems, therefore, that my question was answered: for better or worse, there is no altruistic form of literacy sponsorship. Every sponsor gains something in the process.

Finally, Dr Jaxon prompted us with questions to connect both readings together, object agency combined with literacy sponsorship. She challenged us: Can a discussion be a sponsor? Or a software (like Perusall)? Or an object? We agreed that this was so, since each of the above can serve as a means to allow or deny access to literacy. But can an object benefit? Well, that’s trickier. Then Brady asked, “Does literacy have agency as an object?” I agreed that it does, since literacy imparts power. Not only in terms of the ability to read and write, but also because the knowledge of words themselves is power. We turned our attention to graffiti as an object of agency, since graffiti is closely connected to the identities of the artist and the audience. In closing out our conversation, the perspective of a visiting guest neatly concluded the topic: as an art major, she shared the observation that no art is ever displayed (or removed) unless there is intent behind the display (or removal) of that art. And if a thing has intent, she argued, then it also has agency. Very nicely said, and a perfect way to conclude our discussion of object agency.

This concludes my summary of this week’s readings and discussions in Dr Jaxon’s Theories of Literacy course. In the process of writing this blog, I’ve found that many of my own thoughts have already worked their way into the piece naturally, but I’d like to share one final thought, as well as some questions I have going forward.

My thought is this. During my reading of Latour’s chapter on object agency, I had a hard time wrapping my head around the idea Latour was trying to convey. I think on some level I was resistant to the idea that material things could have their own agency; it just didn’t fit with my worldview as I understood it. But then I thought of a situation in which object agency made a lot of sense to me, and the whole thing suddenly clicked. I want to share that epiphany here, which I’ve copied from the Perusall comment where I originally typed it:

An apt lens for illustrating object agency might be found in the issue of gun access in the United States. Conservatives tend to defend their access to guns by making claims like, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”—which in turn insinuates that “people” have all the agency. The position of most liberals seems to acknowledge that guns themselves contribute to the deaths they cause, that the mere presence of a firearm makes fatalities substantially more likely, even though other nonviolent actions remain available. Hence we have a situation where the presence of firearms seems to contribute to fatal police violence, to mass murder, and to suicide—and this agency is something other than the agency of those who pull the trigger.

Lastly, here are some questions I continue to ask from this week’s materials:

  • Given the role of sponsors and the lack of neutrality in literacy exchange, how do we (as educators) equitably determine the contents of our syllabi? We are not, after all, neutral agents in our roles as sponsors.
  • We’ve talked a lot about the sponsor/sponsee relationship, but not so much about relationships between sponsors and relationships between sponsees. What are the ways sponsors and sponsees affect each other, and how does this affect our understanding of literacy sponsorship?

Author Bio: Ben Vandersluis is a graduate student in the English MA program at Chico State, a pursuit he stumbled into during his quest to complete the LEAP program (Literary Editing and Publishing). He is writing his thesis on the shifting boundaries of the horror genre as analyzed through the lens(es) of cultural rhetorics. He loves horror and all things spooky, sinister, macabre, and gothic. When he’s not studying or befriending the monsters under the bed, he prefers to spend time with his wife and newborn son. And there really is a monster under the bed: that would be the cat, Linus.

Works Cited

Brandt, Deborah. “Sponsors of Literacy.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 49, no. 2, 1998, pp. 165–85.

Brandt, Deborah and Katie Clinton. “Limits of the Local: Expanding Perspectives on Literacy as a Social Practice.” Journal of Literacy Research, vol. 34, no. 3, 2002, pp. 337-356.

Latour, Bruno. “Third Source of Uncertainty: Objects too Have Agency.” Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, Oxford University Press, 2005, pp. 63-86.

Brooke Kenney: Curated Blog for Week 5

Brooke Kenney: Curated Blog for Week 5

Have you ever recommended a book for someone to read? Have you ever published or posted some aspect of your writing? Have you even re-tweeted a political opinion? Congratulations! You’re a literary sponsor. I know this seems like a huge responsibility and that’s exactly what our class discussed this week as we dove into Deborah Brandt’s “Sponsors of Literacy” and Bruno Latour’s “Third Source of Uncertainty: Objects too Have Agency” inspecting who counts as a literary sponsor, how the objects we use shape our experience with literature, and how sponsors use objects to their advantage (consciously or not). 

Let me rewind the tapes a bit so we can look at how sponsors began to evolve due to the ever advancing technology around us. Well, way back when, there was a great defeat of the printer as we know it. The mighty steam press came in and slaughtered the printer, wiggling its  flag down and taking over the economy of the print industry. With the steam press came capital outlay and with that: the death of the independent press. This shift in working conditions moved to reflect literacy as a consumer product. While reading and writing were valued as a skill of expression and connection, it soon became valued for capital gain. So, this push in schools to obtain “basic literacy skills” is really a hidden agenda for getting a contribution to the economy. As the saying goes: Ask not what literacy can do for you, ask what you can do for literacy . . . or something like that. The steam press allowed for print to be made more accessible (because it made publishing more profitable) and therefore, the form of literacy sponsorship had been altered. 

What is a literacy sponsor anyway? Brandt defines a literacy sponsor as “any agents, local or distant, concrete or abstract, who enable, support, teach, model, as well as recruit, regulate, suppress, or withhold literacy. . .” and this is the most important part, “. . . and gain advantage by it in some way,” (166). Brandt also has a great analogy to understand this by comparing sponsorship to TV. Just like how tv shows are sponsored by companies and corporations for their own benefit, so do sponsors of literacy. So, literacy became valued for monetary gain instead of helping society at large. This leads to Brandt’s second definition of sponsors as “delivery systems for the economies of literacy, the means by which these forces present themselves, to and through individual learners,” (167). Sponsors = delivery systems.

Brandt acknowledges and calls out these sponsors through her research on the “ordinary” American and their journey through reading and writing. The way we are taught to read and write shapes us as individuals and how we then in turn, become sponsors ourselves, even if it is just to your own child. The lengths people will go to “secure literacy for themselves or their children” really props up literacy as a tool of power, (169). This naturally creates competition, each individual fighting for a space in the world, a place to wiggle in their flag and declare their voice be heard for some sort of reason of gain. This kind of competition however, has shown the crucial need for access to the right kind of sponsors. Brandt looks at this through various case studies, one being the case of Raymond Branch and Dora Lopez. Both living in the same Illinois town, Raymond had copious amounts of sponsorship access with his dad being a professor while Dora had to fight tooth and nail to even keep hold of magazines to learn about her heritage. While Raymond had access to more evolved tools and more powerful sponsors, Dora was resource poor as an ethnic minority female even though they were in the same town at the same time. Their experience with literacy looked a lot different due to access to money and people. The main idea around this is that each individual’s literacy practices are functioning in different economies, which yield various degrees of sponsor powers and therefore, different monetary worth. 

The effects of sponsors can be put simply: 

  1. Facilitate access and opportunity to literacy 
  2. Create competition for literary advantage 

Brandt concludes on the idea that while we study individuals “in pursuit of literacy, we also recognize how literacy is in pursuit of them,” (183). So, the agency of sponsors plays a role in the given success of the learner. 

But what else has agency? Latour argues that objects in fact, hold a lot of it. If you read Cassidy’s blog last week, you know this was a rather large debate in our classroom. We looked into Latour because Brandt and Clinton were using him as an example to paint literacy as a thing and show its “thingness.”

I’m going to use Latour’s definition of ANT (Actor Network Theory) that describes it as “an association between entities which are in no way recognizable as being social in the ordinary manner except during the brief moment when they are reshuffled together,” (65) but I do prefer Tim’s reference to The Big Lebowski that he used, “it’s like . . . all fluid man.” Humans and objects are fluid in the world together, one not being able to exist without the other. 

Latour is reminding us that we would be nothing without objects and to not neglect their importance in our system of literacy practices and events. It is “always things. . . that lend their ‘steely’ quality to the hapless society,” (68). If objects are not actors in this space we live in then we would be able to solely act in society by the magical force of society alone. An example Latour uses is that “railings help keep kids from falling” meaning that if a kid is about to fall, they will grip the railing to stop that action. While we are the actors of agency, the objects around us are also actants of agency because without the railing, the kid would fall. We are reliant on objects as they are to us because they need us to use them in order to hold agency. This is a gray area where “there might exist many metaphysical shades between full causality, and sheer inexistence,” (72). So, ANT is not saying objects replace human actors but rather “no science of the social can even begin if the question of who and what participates in the action is not first of all thoroughly explored,” even if that means “letting elements in which . . . we would call non-humans,” (72). Ultimately, pay attention to the objects around you and appreciate them a bit more! 

Sitting in chairs centered around six tables pushed together and eating pizza, our class discussion began. There was a heavy weight of defeat as the class surrendered to Latour’s argument on the importance of objects. Alondra brought up how when she gets home, she chooses a specific spot in her home to do homework at. The objects in the spot ultimately are the deciding factor for where she is to sit and focus on her work. Travis read aloud a poem “Shirt” by Robert Pinsky that traced back the origins of where the shirt came from, displaying the agency of the clothes you wear. Hayden brought up an idea from another class where the only information about animals that we know is from humans. We don’t actually know what it is like to be an animal and this idea helped him look at Latour’s argument.  Kim brought up the fact that if objects didn’t matter then we wouldn’t care about what kind of classroom we were in. 

Of course funding plays a huge role in the learning environment one is in because the access to specific sponsors is a huge part in what we are able to accomplish in our classroom. Alondra asked for a definition of “social viability,” leading to a discussion on how sponsors are an asset to society and how we as students at this point in time are a sponsor for our english comprehension classes. Hayden mentioned the type of readings we supply to our students open up specific pathways but might disclude others. Cassidy mentioned how she is enforcing MLA in her class while acknowledging that there are other essay forms besides that one. Then,  Ben came in with the question: Is there a thing of truly altruistic teaching? Is every sponsor actually  benefiting somehow? How are we benefiting as teachers? What does a sponsor gain? Some of our answers: 

  • Experience
  • Contributing to the economic exchange and getting a paycheck
  • It feels good inside!
  • Power and feeling smart
    • ex) an older sibling watching their younger sibling play well in a soccer game and thinking “that’s all because of me! I taught him that!”
  • Learning as a learner 
  • Tenure promotion 

Hayden brought up an episode from “Friends” in which Phoebe and Joey discuss whether it is truly selfless to help someone else if you feel good afterwards.

We then talked about Literacy as an agency. “Having words to describe something is power,” Hayden mentioned. Travis asked if graffiti counted as having agency. Yes, the class decided. It has power and creates identity. It is performative and evokes emotion. Larissa’s friend brought up that in her art classes she is taught that when art is displayed it needs intent. With intent comes agency. 

Then we split off into groups and shared our literacy interviews we conducted the previous week. I got to hear from Hayden and Travis, both with great examples of how literacy has affected the lives of their parents. Hayden interviewed his dad who when asked about literacy in his life, immediately referenced sports and how we would take down stats for the local highschool games and was offered a job for writing articles about sports. This was an identity for him: a sports writer. There was also an aspect of being sports literate. In baseball for example, each position has its own literacy. The pitcher is reading signs from the catcher and each player is viewing the game from a different perspective. Hayden then acknowledged watching his father write about sports probably influenced him subconsciously with the way he viewed writing (His dad and sports as a sponsor). Travis interviewed his mom and learned that his mother viewed literacy as a function after being taught to read signs on the road while on car rides with her father. She also saw how organized her mother was throughout her graduate school and noticed how she was “always making lists.” Handwriting was a big thing in her house from lists to letters and she admired her father’s handwriting especially and believed good handwriting to be important. Both the interviews picked up active sponsors in their life as well as objects being used to facilitate this learning. We can’t escape either of them! It truly is all fluid, I guess! 

Here is an acrostic poem I wrote based off of Brandt’s “Sponsors of Literacies.”

Steam press began to 
Pave the way for the 
Only motives now
Nestled under literacies:
Self-advancement in the
Over-indulging economy. Gosh, 
Read a book, would ya? 

Here is a poem I wrote based off of Latour’s “Objects too Have Agency”

Ode to Pencil

Blood, sweat, tears
Displayed onto paper
Through your thin lines 
Of lead. To lose you,
Would be to lose my thoughts
As fast as I can speak them.
You are what roots me
To paper, a way for me to stay
On this ever circling planet. 

Some questions I have gathered from these readings and our class discussions:

  • Does the definition of “agency” play a vital role in discussing its importance? Do all arguments that surround literacy ultimately come back to our definitions of it? 
  • How do we start ensuring equal access to sponsors in the early stages of literacy learning? (K-12 education)
  • Do sponsors gain more out of literacy practices than the learners or is it an equal reciprocative relationship?

Author’s Bio: Brooke Kenney is a first year English Graduate student at California State University, Chico. Her focus is in creative writing and more specifically, poetry, where she writes about self identity and the effect traumas in life can have on the outlook of oneself. If she’s not writing, you’ll find her at her Barista job, meditating, or enjoying a nice mixed drink on her balcony. Just kidding! Probably just a beer. 

Cassidy Ulery: Curated Blog for Week 4

Cassidy Ulery: Curated Blog for Week 4

decorativeGreetings everyone! For week four of our Theories of Literacy class, we had two readings. The first was “Limits of the Local: Expanding Perspectives on Literacy as a Social Practice” by Deborah Brandt and Katie Clinton, and the second “Éclosions in Literacy Research: Rereading Brandt and Clinton’s ‘Limits of the Local’” by Daniel E. Ferguson and Amélie Lemieux, both hailing from the Journal of Literacy Research. 

Before we began dissecting the readings, Dr. Jaxon shared two videos with the class. First, we watched a movie scene from The Devil Wears Prada, where the implication of Andy’s cerulean sweater derived from the fashion geniuses that took careful time and consideration in choosing a color and style that appeases a variety of consumers. Andy disregards the importance of Miranda Priestly and team’s struggle to choose the appropriate belt for an upcoming photoshoot, which prompts Priestly to scold Andy’s lack of recognition and efforts of the fashion industry behind-the-scenes. In doing so, Priestly points out that Andy’s cerulean sweater was inspired by legend Oscar de la Renta’s gowns he curated and displayed in a 2002 runway show, followed by the infamous Yves Saint Laurent. 

The focal point behind showing this clip? Dr. Jaxon correlated the cerulean sweater to Brandt and Clinton’s argument that global literacy connections come from somewhere else. These literacies weren’t formed in our local communities, even when we think we founded them, but that they actually evolved from elsewhere such as Harvard academics. To put it simply, I took this message as a way of saying nothing is original. Everything we know and practice has been invented and stated before. Hayden made a reference to this logic, with him having a musical background, that all musicians know there is no such thing as “new music”. We might be able to make new sounds, however, originality really isn’t that original.  

To emphasize Brandt and Clinton’s claim that literacy is material, Tim made an analogy to coal miners. Stating, “everyone might have different purposes for coal, but they are all getting their coal from somewhere.” Tim’s statement reinforces literacy connections are innovations from previous ingenuities. But don’t be fooled, our class had a lively debate whether literacy really is material, if inanimate objects contain their own agency, and what can be defined as a literacy event. 

For the second video, Dr. Jaxon showed us Deborah Brandt’s Conference on College Composition and Communication 2017 Exemplar Acceptance Speech. This enabled us to see Brandt visually and hear her speak. Throughout her speech, Brandt made enlightening comments. Particularly when Brandt mentioned “writing remained in my view a manual, not just a cerebral experience (2:36), as well as “Don taught me it’s okay to be a scholar who asked obvious questions. In his class, he would raise the most basic, most earnest, most straightforward, most modest questions. But by the end of the discussion, we inevitably reached profound answers and connected realizations” (3:32). Brandt’s own experience as a student afforded me an epiphany. It’s okay to not know everything. And it’s okay, even when the student has become the instructor, to be vulnerable and honest with the reality that we are never truly done learning. Our interactions with our students and professors grant us the highest privilege: obtaining an education. 

Brandt and Clinton’s essay reflected on literacy as a social practice, where they discuss the Great Divide as problematic  – no longer being viewed as a debate in the field and no longer being viewed as social, but rather a cognitive approach to literacy. Moving away from the previously held notions of the Great Divide, Brandt and Clinton hope that “by restoring a ‘thing status’ to literacy, we can attend to the role of literacy in human action. The logic of such a perspective suggests that understanding what literacy is doing with people in a setting is as important as understanding what people are doing with literacy in a setting” (337). Giving agency to objects allows literacy to serve multiple interests, moving outside of the local context, and views “literacy not as an outcome or accomplishment of local practices but as a participant in them, as an actor or what Latour coins an ‘actant’ in its own right” (Brandt and Clinton 338).

So, what does this all mean? Latour says we cannot ignore the things in a room, the functions they serve, and that everything has agency. Dr. Jaxon pointed out that Latour believes objects, such as chairs, have agency because if we were to take them out of the room, it would change the space and the function of the space. This didn’t sit well with some of the students. There was a friendly disagreement with the premise of literacy being material and that agency can only be applied to living beings. 

picture of goat

When Dr. Jaxon asked if the American flag has agency, Hayden and Tim pointed out that it does but only if people give it power. Of course this then prompted us to research the definition of agency, and Brady referenced Latour’s example of a shepherd who has built a fence to contain his sheep while he sleeps at night. Here we see the fence having agency, as it mediates the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep. The fence has agency and is perceived as an actant, since “surveillance of the sheep is both displaced and enhanced – the shepherd’s relationship with the sheep goes on without his constant vigilance or the need for his physical presence at all” (Brandt and Clinton 353). 

Ben examined how literacy emerges from social practices that need literacy, mentioning how literacy is essentialist, where we look at literacy as a thing, a practice, and an outcome. Through some of his examples, Ben referred to Sumerian coins. Sumerians used the coins to facilitate trade, which led Ben to ask “how can literacy possibly function as a pre-existing ‘participating actor’ in that situation? Doesn’t the situation need to come first?” A useful way to analyze Ben’s question goes back to the ancient debate of what came first – the chicken or the egg. Don’t we need the chicken to lay the egg, but first and foremost, wouldn’t the chicken need to be hatched from an egg? Good stuff. 

Alondra focused on the practicality of literacy in other countries. She reminded us that if literacy is practiced differently outside of the United States would their definitions of agency in literacy change? Bouncing back to the chair example, would other countries draw the same connections to literacy and agency as we have done, if they no longer had a need for the chair? Alondra mentioned how people crave to be innovative for technology and literacy, but when is enough, enough? When is something seen as valuable in society? 

Brooke asked if we could define tools and technology in literacy. Brandt and Clinton unravel the complexities between orality and literacy. How important is technology for literacy? Brandt and Clinton debunk the myth that to be a literate society technology must be involved, stating “one was a reexamination of oral societies to show that even without the technology of literacy oral people exhibited logical reasoning, historical consciousness, skepticism, differentiation, and complex organization” (341). Simply, orality aligns directly with literacy. Alondra mentioned Indigenous communities that pass down knowledge and traditions through oral communication, a tool used to administer legacies between generations before written texts were utilized. 

In Ferguson and Lemieux’s essay, they investigate the influx of technology in school literacies. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, removing students from the physical classroom, digital platforms like Zoom were prevalent and deemed a necessity to prevent students from falling behind. However, not all were peachy keen. Ferguson and Lemieux disregard virtual platforms as beneficial, and insist that they divided students – removing them from the interpersonal and local literacy connections formed from sharing ideas with peers, the lack of casual conversations involving details of daily life, and subjected students to isolation behind a computer screen of black boxes. 

Yet, on the other hand, the asynchronous learning environment thrust onto students of all levels formed an appreciation for the new-normal of those in graduate school. As Ferguson and Lemieux state:

In the midst of newly imposed sanitary restrictions, supply shortages, heightened anxieties, and modes of survival, it seemed essential in our case to adopt asynchronous teaching practices with adapted learning outcomes. Trying this teaching disposition for the first time, I felt students could breathe and have space to develop their thinking more privately… (212). 

One thing I am certain of, it sure does feel good to resume in-person classes. Not only have my literacy skills increasingly developed, but I cherish the relationships that can only be built from continuous discourse and engaging curriculum. 

To help make sense of all the new theories and ideas presented in our readings, we took to the whiteboard. When trying to pinpoint what a literacy event consists of, weather was brought up. Ben compared literacy to weather, where it is happening on a global scale, but we tend to only care or pay attention to what’s happening locally and our surroundings. Brooke added to this idea, with her revelation that weather has agency, since it remains out of our control. We might be able to affect it in the slightest way through climate change, however, we don’t get our ideal weather daily or have full control over what happens next. photo of whiteboard notes

In addition to describing weather as a literacy event, Hayden started drawing on the whiteboard a rhizomatic strawberry plant. The strawberry plant flowers, seeds fall and create new sprouts, strawberry plants have stolons (runners), and the original plant would be considered the remote office. We see this depicted in Ferguson and Lemieux’s passage, “These material-discursive and affective shifts set the tone for éclosions to take place in individual spaces, as well as in collective virtual spaces. Here, the remote office serves as an example of a sprouting environment and the online classroom as a pathogenic ecosystem” (212). Understanding literacy is a complex adventure, but breaking it down into real-life examples helps us decode and digest the infinite possibilities and forms literacy displays. 

After our class session and reminiscing on my colleagues’ thoughts about literacy, I am left with a few unanswered questions. And I am totally open to the idea that these answers may vary, depending on who is contributing. 

  1. Is literacy a one-size fits all practice? If our individual interpretations of what literacy is or if it contains agency differ, can there be a collective definition of literacy?
  2. Literacy appears to be malleable – unique to each setting. Is it possible to predict the impact technology and asynchronous teaching will have on current and future generations’ literacy? When do the pros outweigh the cons of digital literacy? And what does that look like for each student? 
  3. At what point do our local connections have more influence than global connections? Since society is constantly evolving, when does the responsibility fall on each of us to determine which is the most appropriate action to follow? 

Cassidy bio photoAuthor’s Bio: Cassidy Ulery is an English Graduate student at CSU Chico, pursuing a concentration in Language & Literacy. She is currently teaching Freshman Composition at Chico State, where she’s able to fulfill her dreams of becoming an educator. Originally from the Bay Area, Cassidy completed her undergraduate degree at CSU Monterey Bay, and has been a Chico transplant since January 2022. When she’s not reading, writing, or grading, you can find her binging horror films and series. Cassidy plans on centering her thesis around the rise of Chicana rhetorics. 

Hayden Wright: Curated Blog for Week 3

Hayden Wright: Curated Blog for Week 3

If someone asked you if the problem of literacy inequality should be solved, what would you say? At first, the answer to this question may seem obvious: of course it should! Why would anyone want to have literacy inequality? Well, that all depends on how the term “literacy inequality” is defined. Or rather, it depends on who is doing the defining, and why they are defining it that way, which points to a major problem with definitions. As we discovered from Rowsell & Pahl’s “Introduction to The Routledge Handbook of Literacy Studies” and Bloome & Green’s “The Social and Linguistic Turns in Studying Language and Literacy,” most literacy scholars can’t even agree on how to simply define literacy, let alone literacy inequality. So how do we know literacy is unequal if we can’t define it?

picture of oceanOnce upon a time, literacy was understood simply as the skill of reading and writing. This skill, relatively new to human history, had radically changed the nature of how knowledge is constructed and stored: instead of relying on speech and memory alone, we were able to record language on a physical object that could be edited, read, and interpreted more easily than speech alone. With this skill came considerable power, something that the Catholic church saw as a major threat to their control of Europe when the printing press made literacy more widespread than ever. Once the common person was able to interpret the bible, question authority, and share knowledge with each other to organize their own ideas, it was pretty damn hard for any church to keep control over its followers, and a plethora of political, social, and spiritual revolutions followed. It seems reasonable, then, to infer that the skill of literacy is necessary for a society to advance, right? Surely everyone in the world should develop the skill of literacy, as it is a mark of functioning, intelligent, and conscious society. Literacy scholars like Jack Goody believe so. So does UNESCO. That’s why they want to get rid of “literacy inequality.”

But now as our idea of what knowledge is expands more and more in each moment, we can’t rely on only one perspective of what defines literacy, especially if it was based on a technology that was created 600 years ago. And that’s the main problem with this perspective: it’s only one perspective, namely a white European male perspective—the “western” perspective, as it is so often referred to. Not everyone shares the same values as those from the western perspective, so shouldn’t we be taking into account the ways that other cultures and societies have dealt with collective knowledge? After all, most of them were doing just fine before the Europeans invaded their land, erased their knowledge, and manipulated them for profit. Surely, then, we must expand our definition of literacy in order to understand what makes it unequal for many societies.

But there is power in a name, especially for those who do the naming. This point, along with the fact that the names of things have heavy consequences on the way policies for eliminating literacy inequalities are written and enforced, are things that literacy scholar Brian Street argues in his article “Literacy inequalities in theory and practice: The power to name and define.” In it he states that “not only is it crucial to know what we mean by [literacy inequalities] if we are to develop policy that actually works, but also because the very act of naming and defining is already an act of power, not just a separate academic exercise” (581), meaning that as long as our definition of literacy favors one culture and way of knowing over others, we cannot really call their idea of literacy as unequal. Goody’s definition of literacy is flawed because it tries to define but fails to describe, not taking into account the legitimacy of other cultures’ and societies’ literacies and value systems. According to Street, it’s an ethnocentric point of view: it puts one culture or society at the center of its understanding of how knowledge is constructed. In Street’s terms, this school of literacy studies is called the “autonomous” model of literacy because it “[uses] the power to disguise its own ideology, its own ethnocentrism” (581). To quote a male European man, “there’s the rub” of how literacy has been defined from the western perspective for so long.

Just like the way Galileo (who was, ironically, a European man) decentralized Earth from the solar system, Street wanted to decentralize the western perspective from its concept of literacy. He sees the problem with Goody’s definition of literacy and provides this solution: the ethnographic approach. He argues that if literacy scholars study literacy the way that ethnographers and anthropologists study culture, then perhaps they could get a more comprehensive grasp on what literacy can be. This led to a few changes in the way we understand what literacy is, one being the idea that literacy, like culture, “is a verb” (581); instead of defining literacy, we should be describing what it does. This leads to a shift from the concept of literacy as a skill, which implies it as a static, cognitive ability that only happens independently in an individual’s mind, to literacy events (which happen in a certain context) and literacy practices (which entail many processes) that happen socially. Street calls this new way of looking at literacy as the “ideological model” and, quoting himself, directly compares literacy to culture, remarking that “[t]he job of studying culture is not of finding and then accepting its definitions but of ‘discovering how and what definitions are made, under what circumstances and for what reasons’” (581). This would require literacy researchers to take the perspective of the cultures and communities of practice that they are studying in order to better understand what their literacy meant to them, and how they valued them. For this reason, Street preferred to describe them as plural literacies rather than a singular concept of literacy, all in the name of recognizing multiplicity in literacy that reflected the multiplicity in culture. To illustrate these points, Street uses a Buddhist story about fish and a turtle:

There was once a turtle who lived in a lake with a group of fish. One day the turtle went for a walk on dry land. He was away from the lake for a few weeks. When he returned he met some of the fish. The fish asked him, ‘‘Mister turtle, hello! How are you? We have not seen you for a few weeks. Where have you been?’’ The turtle said, ‘‘I was up on the land, I have been spending some time on dry land.’’ The fish were a little puzzled and they said, ‘‘Up on dry land? What are you talking about? What is this dry land? Is it wet?’’ The turtle said ‘‘No, it is not,’’ ‘‘Is it cool and refreshing?’’ ‘‘No it is not’’, ‘‘Does it have waves and ripples?’’ ‘‘No, it does not have waves and ripples.’’ ‘‘Can you swim in it?’’ ‘‘No you can’t’’ So the fish said, ‘‘it is not wet, it is not cool, there are no waves, you can’t swim in it. So this dry land of yours must be completely non-existent, just an imaginary thing, nothing real at all.’’ The turtle said, ‘‘That well may be so’’ and he left the fish and went for another walk on dry land. (584)

The fish are analogous to the autonomous model of literacy, who only know their own ethnocentric perspective of the world and cannot grasp the concept of dry land. The turtle—representative of the ethnographic approach—is only limited by his own vocabulary to describe what dry land is, and travels back to dry land to gain a better understanding through new terminology. Like the turtle, literacy scholars must take the perspective of the literacy communities that we are trying to describe in order to describe them.

Autonomous Ideological
Enumerative induction

  • statistics
Analytic induction

  • case studies
Ethnocentric Ethnographic
Universalist Relativist/particularist
Goody, Sen, Nussbaum, Unesco Street, New Literacy Studies (NLS), Maddox
Sees literacy as a technical (and neutral) skill Sees literacy as (social) practices
Believes in one central concept of Literacy Believe in multiple literacies
Etic Emic
Fish Turtle

In the spirit of rhizomatic knowledge, I have decided to present the class discussion out of chronological order to group the in-class comments with the concepts brought to us by Brian Street’s article according to relatedness. But, since the act of writing alphabetic text is inherently linear, I naturally reorganized the comments and questions in a way that flows together but is achronological, accentuating the interconnectedness of the separate threads and digressions of our class discussion instead of the order in which the comments and questions were made. My repeated use of the word “point” is intentional: just as there were nodes that we created together as a class on the board to map out our literacies separated by space and time, the comments made and questions posed in class were particular points in time and space that made up micro-literacy events, connected yet happening separately and in an achronological order.

Our class session began with pizza, and I played the pizza man. As I brought the pie in, people were still trickling in. Kim told us to dig in just as class started officially.

Our task today was to map out our literacies on the whiteboard as a class. This was no easy task, as Travis stated so beautifully in his blog post last week: “Trying to define literacy is like trying to map the exact form of particular sand dunes. They are always going to be sifting, shaping in and out of form like waves.” Each of us in class were attempting to measure our own dunes, ever shifting from the winds of time, and then connect them to each other in a new context. It was messy. At an early point in the process, Kim suggested we write down the nodes first and draw lines for connection later, but that was soon thrown out of the window. No easy task, but it was fun!

image of notes on whiteboard
There were many similarities between us, including books, language, identity, and a bunch of other wonderfully nerdy stuff, but also a lot of diversity between our influences, sponsors, hubs, and literacies. In reference to Street, Kim pointed out the importance of recognizing this diversity of literacies instead of focusing on whether students can perform a few select literacies that they get tested on in school. Then Alo brought up Street’s point about enumerative induction, and how we can’t reliably measure literacy with statistical data. Case studies are the way to go, it seems. But how do we go about it? Ben asked for clarification between etic and emic approaches to research at a later point in the class session, which I think highlights the main difference between autonomous and ideological models of literacy. The emic approach lends itself well to the ideological model that sees literacies as social practices, and the autonomous model seems to hold the belief that studying other cultures from an outside perspective can be objective. But on this same point, Ben raised another question: how can we really know if any outside perspective is truly objective? Don’t we all have biases? This made me think of linguistic prescriptivism vs. descriptivism, which Travis also brought up in his blog post. Like the way we use grammar, Travis suggested in class, literacies are flexible depending on the context in which they are practiced. Instead of prescribing parameters to literacy skills based on our own perspective, we should be trying to describe literacy practices based on the perspective of the culture that practices them.

In fact, Kim mentioned Dr. Judith Rodby and how she made it a point to never use the word skill to describe literacies, which implies finality—like they can be mastered and added to some type of cognitive toolbox. Instead, literacy scholars should refer to literacy events that happen at certain times and places, which make up the practices that go into a community. At an earlier point, Kim described literacy practices as value systems, to which Tim asked if we could gauge practice by various levels of participation. Of course we can! It was at this point that Kim mentioned Lave and Wenger’s concept of Legitimate Peripheral Participation (LPP), and I used my example of working at Laxson Auditorium. When I was first hired, everything seemed new and scary. They started me off with simple, inconsequential tasks, like tying on curtains to the pulley system. Eventually I was trusted with using the pulley system to take curtains in and out of the stage, which was moderately dangerous, and then finally I got to do the downright dangerous job of putting eleven-pound weights on the pulley system 60 feet in the air. Through LPP, I was able to build up the literacy events that culminated in the development of the practice of operating the curtain pulleys. 

A large portion of the class was spent talking about the literacies of school. Just like how Travis continues the practice of politely raising his hand in order to participate in class discussion, there are certain practices and habits that schooling seems to do to us as we grow up. At an earlier point in our discussion that day, Alo had Tim write “Hand Turkeys” on the whiteboard to signify the Thanksgiving schooling practices that we all seemed to share. What does this literacy say about our experiences in the school system? It points to our personal identity, how we use our own hands to create art; it points to our national identity, how US holidays are celebrated and reinforced; and it points to colonialism, how we favor some perspectives over others that are suppressed and eventually lost. But when we are in Kindergarten making our little hand turkeys out of construction paper, safety scissors, and glue sticks, are we thinking about these things? No, but subconsciously we internalize these literacies, even if they aren’t always the most useful. At some point Kim brought up how Lave and Wenger refused to study the communities of practice at school for this reason. What’s the point of understanding school literacies if they only happen at school? There is a whole wide world of literacy practices that are more interesting and consequential to our society!

But school isn’t the only institution that ingrains us with peculiar literacies that affect the way we view the world. Ben pointed out early on that his experience in the Christian church had given him a lens through which he could interpret life, for better or worse. This reminded me of Kenneth Burke’s concept of terministic screens, which can be defined as a lexicon of specialized language that experts in a field make sense of the things they see. An artist would see a bird in terms of light, color, shadow, and dimension. A physicist would think of a bird’s flight in terms of gravity, thrust, inertia, and airspeed velocity. An ornithologist would know the bird’s Latin name, its habitat, its diet, its behavior. The problem that Kim points to is that sometimes our expertise in something can sometimes make us blind to what newcomers don’t know; sometimes the best writing students make the worst writing teachers because it’s hard to imagine not knowing what they know. I wonder what Chris Fosen’s term for this is?

photo of hummingbirdAt some point, Cassidy had asked a practical question: when assigning group work in a First Year Composition classroom, should students have the choice about which groups they are in? Kim generally seemed to value building community over choice in this regard, but it connected to a part of our conversation about student agency, a subject that I personally have much invested interest in. If students do their best work on things that interest them, how can we as educators provide them the freedom to choose their topics, while also fostering the specific literacies that go into academic writing? Kim mentioned “bounded inquiry” to describe the major project that she gave her students, and that led to wonder if there was some kind of balance, some sort of “controlled agency” that students could have in order to serve their identities and support them in their scholarly and professional pursuits. Travis pointed to an English class being taught at Butte College in which students voted on five books to read of their choice for the semester. But unfortunately, some teachers don’t have a choice. Larisa pointed out the fact that many high school teachers in the US start GoFundMe accounts to buy their students new and relevant books, increasing their level of choice and catering to their interests. Perhaps Street would see this as an issue with the connection between theory, policy, and practice.

On one end, there are the theories that scholars develop in order to understand how literacy practices are learned between members of a community, and on the other hand there are the actual communities where literacy practices are actually learned. Then there are the policies and policymakers in the middle, essentially acting as the middleman between theory and practice. But while policies are communicated and enforced in the name of improving education, they can actually be counteractive to the goals of the theorists whose ideas are used to make policy. Street makes this point in his article on literacy inequalities: while policy “works under the constraint of offering an overall and more uniform view of the issue at stake,” the theory that it is based on actually “complexifies the issue with multiple meanings and definitions and varied empirical examples” (583). Part of Kim’s teaching philosophy is to always combine theory and practice. Does that mean we should cut out the policy “middleman” to reach praxis?

  • How do we reconcile the inherent opposition of the goals of theory and policy?
  • How do we work Street’s ideas on the ideological model of literacy into our pedagogies?
  • How do we put boundaries on literacies?
  • And how can we truly be unbiased in our ethnographic approaches to literacy? Can we be either etic or emic in our research, or is it actually a spectrum?

photo of authorAuthor Bio: Hayden Wright is an English Graduate student and first year composition instructor at California State University, Chico. His focus is in Language and Literacy and he is interested in learning and the creative process, writing his thesis project on interest and agency in the composition classroom. Hayden’s lifelong passion for music causes him to see the world in music-colored glasses, and occasionally you can find him wading in a body of water waving a fly rod at uninterested trout. His cat’s name is Quebert.


Brady Freitas: Curated Blog for Week 2

Brady Freitas: Curated Blog for Week 2

Hi everyone! 

During week 2 in Theories of Literacies, we explored all notions of what is constitutive of literacy by reading Jennifer Roswell and Kate Pahl’s “Introduction” to literacy studies in The Routledge Handbook of Literacy Studies. In essence, literacy is so much more than merely being able to read and write. Roswell and Pahl give a great definition on the expansive, complex, and diverse ways literacy emerges in our lives, for it:

“exists in homes [and many other places] with the varied ways that people live, speak and practice the everyday… Literacy is aesthetic, material and multimodal. Literacy is both local and global, evident in rural as well as in urban settings. Literacy changes with practices, and transmutes across borders, languages and modes. Literacy is digital, immersive and networked. Literacy is felt, sensed and associated with place” (Roswell and Pahl 1).

This is a noticeably longer take on what literacy is in comparison to the one we are used to hearing in grade school as simply the ability to read and write. As you read the definition you might think: “How can literacy be all these things?” “What happened to it just being about reading and writing?” 

Thanks to our other reading this week by David Bloome and Judith Greene, “The Social and Linguistic Turns in Studying Language and Literacy,” it works in tandem with Roswell and Pahl’s expansive and frankly overwhelming description, in order to to help us understand the reasons for such a broad take on what constitutes as literacy. These turns in the field of literacy— to the social and linguistic— are the reason why Roswell and Pahl’s definition of literacy can be so wide-ranging. 

It is important to understand in what ways these turns reshape our understanding of literacy —one that is aligned with how it is seen by literacy researchers— rather than our pop-cultural consciousness of thinking reading a book and being able to write a letter to your grandma as the things that make you literate, for example. Starting with what Bloome and Greene call an autonomous model of literacy, “the individual employs cognitive and linguistic skills, strategies, and processes that are mostly autonomous of the social context which the reading or writing occurs” (Bloome and Greene 20). Another title for this model of literacy could be the anti-social model, as it merely focuses on reading and writing skills that are outside the social and cultural context in which they occur. This model posits two ideas: 

  1. that literacy is (only) reading and writing 
  2. and that literacy is static in what is constitutive of it (i.e. literacy is not social). 

However, with the turn to recognize that language is inherently a social heuristic in which we communicate in our realms, literacy becomes a “non-trivial use of written language” where no matter what, the ways in which we— as humans— do literacy cannot be separated from the idea of what literacy means in that specific context” (Bloome and Greene 20).

This calls for a new model of literacy, one that understands the flux and social nature of literacy. The ideological model of literacy, according to Bloome and Greene, fits the social turn by a literacy that

“does not exist as a thing in-and-of-itself. Rather it is the situated, contextualized use of written language by people as they interact with each other within the social institutions and social spaces in which they live their lives. Literacy practices and events are embedded in, and constitutive of cultural ideologies. That is, a cultural ideology informs, and is informed by, what literacy practices are used in what social situations when, by whom, with what meanings, and with what social consequences.”

Similar to how I said you can think of the autonomous model of literacy as anti-social, you can think of this one as the social model of literacy. With that being said, the social turn in literacy allows for a more nuanced and accurate depiction of what literacy is, depending on the socio-historical context in which a certain literacy is taking place. Moreover, before we can turn back to Roswell and Pahl’s wide-ranging definition of literacy: it is still necessary to shift to Bloome and Greene’s explanation of the linguistic turn in literacy studies. 

The important thing to remember when it comes to the linguistic turn is the fact that language represents and organizes the social world we live in. This turn allows for the “deconstruction and reconstruction of disciplinary bodies of knowledge,” which allows for a multitude of epistemologies and ontologies to be thought up and considered, hence the fact we see Roswell and Pahl’s definition around what literacy can be, as so expansive-oriented (Bloome and Greene 22). The linguistic turn enables for the expansion of the field, while the social turn allows for literacy studies to continuously adjust and reshape depending on the sociohistorical literacy event. 

Therefore, when we turn back to the “Introduction” by Roswell and Pahl, it becomes clear that the spaced-focused, time-focused, multimodal, digital, hermeneutic, everyday, and communal literacy approaches all have a validity within the scope of literacy studies thanks to the social and linguistic turn within the field. When considering all the different approaches and subcategories within literacy studies through the lens of the social and linguistic, it is apparent that this reimagining of what literacy is, is important for a more nuanced, disparate, and accurate understanding of how we become literate beings in the world(s) we live in.

decorativeRecursively, the idea that “literacy is felt, sensed, and associated with place,” I begin to understand how place is a crucial component when thinking about literacy (Roswell and Pahl 1). However, a question I am left with from this reading is in what ways do I begin to understand the felt and sensed aspects of literacy? What does this mean exactly? 

During our class session our initial probing question into these readings was “What is the range for what this field [literacy] studies?” Of course after reading Roswell and Pahl’s “Introduction,” I was relatively overwhelmed with the rhizomatic structure that is literacy studies, all connected in some ways via the social and linguistic turn, but all doing vastly different things. This question was one we explored the meaning / answer to throughout our class time together, and one I believe which will shape the rest of the course, in order to gain a deeper sense of what the field studies. Thus, when referring back to the felt and sensed aspects of literacies, it has me thinking that they— like literacy itself— are always changing and influx, which results in me asking what ways do I currently feel and sense literacies in the places I am embedded into? 

After talking about the field a little bit we turned to schooled literacy, and ways in which we see the effects of these literacy events and practices shaping our histories of literacy in some ways. One of the largest themes from this discussion is the difficulty of breaking away from schooled literacies. For example, Alondra, a graduate student, explained how she still raises her hand when wanting to say something even though there has been no need / purpose to do this since her days in K-12. We also discussed why memorization is the test of importance on subject competency. Larisa mentioned how even in her high school English classes, which are notoriously known as a place for critical thinking and exchange of ideas through socratic seminars / fishbowls, there was still the need for supposed reading comprehension with tests on novels. Having a test based upon memorization of the novel’s material seems strange and foreign if given one in a college-level literature class. A hard question to answer as to why memorization is so important in K-12 education, but one reason that made sense (I forget who mentioned it, the irony) was the fact that standardized tests like the SAT and ACT were the determiners in getting into prestigious institutions after high school. 

Kim brought up a great question in class, which was “for those of you who are teaching English 130W [Academic Writing aka FYC] this semester, what do your students think they are doing in regard to writing, and are they learning about different disciplines / discourse communities?” As someone who is teaching English 130W this semester, I began to think about the literacy practices I was asking of students, while also questioning the literacy event that I was constructing in my classroom. We moved on from this question relatively quickly, into related topics of students (personal) needs, and ways we can support students in coming to class and doing the work. However, when thinking back to Kim’s question it is one that I am interested in exploring for the entirety of the semester and beyond, as the classroom is an important place in which instructors can deconstruct certain K-12 sensibilities, while giving students opportunities to understand and operate in college settings both materially and in designated discourse communities. With that being said, one other thing that Kim mentioned that resonated, is the fact that there should not be a first-year composition course, at least the way we have it structured now. If we are asking students to write in certain discourse communities for their majors, why the hell are we not teaching them that? 

After discussing our relationship with literacy and our schooling— something that is hard to think outside of, as it is so interconnected to our socio-historical moment— we turned to mapping our own histories of literacy. Some fellow classmates shared books, professors, and classes they took, while others shared video games they played growing up. A challenging task to rhizomatically connect your literacy practices to one another throughout your life, I initially began thinking about my time in graduate school and working backwards from there. I was hoping to eventually get to other literacy practices and events that were present when I was a kid, however, I began to think too closely on the literacy practices I have gained while in college solely. Perhaps in the future, breaking up my literacy practices by place, will help me focus and hone in on certain literacies throughout my life. 

From this week’s readings and class discussion I am left with the following questions, including the ones I have bolded in my blog post above: 

  • In what ways are my literacy practices being changed as I progress through this course? Do I feel I have gained a more keen cognizance of what my own literacy practices are (by the end of the semester)? 
  • What do you teach when it comes to literacies (for all of us who are or want to teach in the future)? 
  • How can we create effective heuristics to help us operate in certain places, spaces, and literacy events?  
  • What literacies count and which ones do we disregard? Why? And in what ways can we ensure justice for disparate, diverse, and different literacies than ones that hold hegemony in our current position in the space-and-time continuum?  

photo of BradyAuthor’s bio: Brady Freitas is an English graduate student at Chico State. His research interests include spatial and geographic rhetorics, place-based pedagogy, and practices of the everyday. He currently teaches first-year composition, with hopes to continue his passion for teaching in the future. In his free time, he likes to spend time outdoors, hanging with his dogs, and going to Whiskeytown Lake. 

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