Many Literacy Cultures
My language is the sum total of myself. -C S. Peirce
There are so many different viewpoints about literacy, and so many different focuses in these three readings, from Rose to Zammel to Pekham. All three share that they aim to disabuse us of the idea that literacy is a skill, a practical and technical ability learned through hard work and good teaching. Where these readings differ is firstly in where they place their focus and secondly in how much credence they give to the idea that good or better literacy leads to improved integration or power (even transforming the student themself) in the larger world. Zammel and Pekham seem to suggest that indeed education (not literacy per se) can be transformative, but only Pekham is dedicated to explaining his ‘working class contempt’ for the modernizing literacy project to which he himself was subject, describing working class English as a dialect rather than an aberration in speaking and writing, making it possible to recognize multiple, varied literacy cultures.
In reading the works for this week, I was struck by to what degree I believe that our sense of ourselves and of the world around us is shaped by language, including the language we share in myths, social interactions, and through institutions such as schools. C. S. Peirce in his considerations of language suggested that for him language was “the sum total of myself”. In saying this, he suggested that not only is language linked to a socially-embedded process rather than a neutral skill as found in the readings of this week, but that language is constitutive of what some of us in Western culture consider our most intimate and safe-guarded identity, our ‘self’. In my reading I found remnants of this view, but I would have liked it to be developed, what about you?
What comes to mind when I consider these readings taken together, is that language and literacy traditions are socially-embedded when they privilege British literature traditions, for example, or in the Humanities, the Greek philosopher tradition. This means that institutions that teach language and encourage writing are engaging in processes of incorporation, acting as powerful agencies to ‘correct’ or ‘improve’ how students write. This is then masked in the essentialist misunderstanding that separates language from knowledge, something Rose addresses when he bemoans academia’s refusal to accept remedial writing classes as equal to other English courses and rather to view them as second-class technical skills-building workshops. He addresses this by delving into the definition of ‘skill’, and linking skills to reason, connecting thinking and writing. He looks at many definitions, not only of skill, but also of ‘remedy’, a term and ideology linked to overcoming defect, then encouraging development.
My query from these readings, more broadly, goes beyond the problem of defining literacy, and beyond a recognition of the cultures of literacy that are at the centre and at the margins of our institutions. Likely, many of us will agree that literacy includes a form of readability of the text, and I find this useful, in that it assumes a dialogue between the writer and the reader (one that Bean encourages us to think about through his ‘dialogic’). But I come away from these readings with the impression that there must be multiples types of literacies, many of which are suppressed by our institutions and ourselves, and which may not be adequately addressed by this week’s reading, what about you? (This explains my opening cartoon which highlights not only that literacy cultures differ across ethnic and linguistic lines, but also across generations).
The “deficit model of language and learning” according to which some students are found to be lacking, and their deficiencies are foregrounded when grammar is used to judge writing, is part of an essentialist model of literacy. In this model, students are at fault for the gaps in knowledge, and they (through lack of performance or motivation) or bad-ESL delivery, are the problem, which through efficient reinforced habit formation over time, can be resolved. According to Zammel, “This response is shaped by an essentialist view of language in which language is understood to be a decontextual skill that can be taught in isolation from the production of meaning that must be in place in order to undertake intellectual work” (510). So Zammel calls for a better teaching of ESL so as not to undermine students’ rich backgrounds and knowledge, so as not to weaken their often successful learning and coping processes that have proved flexible given their need to understand and fit into a new context. Zammel sees the importance that culture plays in literacy, respecting the learner’s culture, and recognizing that there are cultural roots to how writing is taught. She warns that if writing is viewed as an instrument to be sharpened, teachers will continue to neglect student potential, instead focusing on their abilities, or rather what are seen as their inabilities. Do you find this difference between acknowledging the learner’s potential and their ability helpful?
Still, I wonder if to really engage in a robust and rewarding teaching-learning process that involves writing, it is important to acknowledge that school not only represents the intersection of many cultures, but that it also acts as a locus of power, and a place where students may be silenced due to this power?
I struggled with the reading by Rose because although it adeptly decoded language around literacy, and warned teachers against merely socialising students into the ‘academic discourse community’, the article did not embrace a dialogic and constructivist framework. I am glad for the analysis of assumptions implicit to how we remedy ‘bad’ writing at the university, but I find Zammel’s framework more compelling. How Zammel describes the ‘crisis’ in teaching ESL (and which she argues applies to all teaching and writing) links the production of writing to knowledge, and the production of knowledge to students and their experiences. This serves to empower students by recognising that they have agency, and that when given opportunities they may elect to either take risks or play it safe. So I started reflecting, is our role as teachers about considering how the production of certain discourses leads to the exclusion and marginalisation of other discourses and experiences, and to communicate this to students, and is this what we mean when we talk about ‘critical thinking’? If we continue to see students through the lens of the essentialist literacy model as deficient and requiring refinement, alteration, or enhancement, how can we really engage in teaching this ever-elusive critical thought? In fact, as Zammel hints (considering the work of Giroux) in insisting that students are deficient, aren’t we really saying more about ourselves and our own ideologies than anything else?
Zammel offers solutions to help us challenge prevalent modes of social reproduction embedded in education institutions that alienate ESL learners; she suggests that lively discussion, frequent reaction papers, first-hand knowledge, and research accessibility will both engage and value ESL learners, and will improve teaching and learning more generally. I question however, if testimonials, familiar or energetic sharing, and other strategies that aim at active involvement can be thought of as culturally-sensitive, or also require close consideration? Perhaps in critiquing one type of social reproduction, Zammel is replacing it with another.
Pekham, on the other hand, does not make such assumptions; he presents a framework according to which literacy replicates the status quo and education privileges the ruling classes. This means that those who do not belong to the ruling elites risk being incorporated into an education system that values the elites’ prevailing interests and worldviews. If they are successful at acquiring the new language, concepts, and approaches, they risk losing their existing identity, ending up with a ‘no-self’ through their experiences in academe. Are we as teachers complicit in producing the no-self anomie of students? I like to think instead that we develop a student’s ability to engage in ‘intellectual self-defense’ (a la Chomsky). When students and teachers take risks, we earn the opportunity to transcend the constraints of our own experiences and even at times the imposed knowledge structure of academia. Perhaps this is the only way to measure true critical thinking, through our potential and ability to develop independent minds!