Many Literacy Cultures

Many Literacy Cultures

The New Yorker Digital Edition  Sep 07, 2009 - Mozilla Firefox 922009 90350 PM

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!


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  1. I agree totally that the questions of power, dominance, grammar, etc are valid and important and need to be addressed/redressed. BUT… I think it is also essential to remember the fact that our students have chosen to study in English. For whatever reason, here they are. So they need to be able to make themselves understood in that language. And whatever else we may do to help them to that end, that end remains fixed. Yes, we need to do something about inequalities, but not at the expense of using language to makes our/them selves understood.
    This also, of course, brings up more fundamental questions such as the purpose of educational institutions. Even the word institution implies power structures. Perhaps we should do away with institutions????? Go back to sitting around under trees discussing issues (was that Socrates? I think I’m into your area Julian!) I suggest the Dawson Peace garden as a lovely venue to try this in…..
    Of course, that leaves asides the question of evaluation….
    But, at the end of the day, our students need to be able to express themselves and make themselves understood in English. Point final….
    i tried to insert a cartoon here but it didn’t seem to want to paste, so here is the URL:

    • Thank you Sonia, I hope you did not understand by my posting that I would ‘do away with the master’s’ house’, but rather that I would want to consider how the ‘master’s tools’ were procured, sharpened, utilised (as in Audrey Lorde’s pronouncement that, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”). I guess I was asking if, and actually more how, you can use these tools for development of ideas, and indeed for critical thought itself, in a setting that often already recognises the difficulties associated with the production of proper grammar and syntax. I am not against the use of what could be considered proper English; I am instead for understanding what types of English we are promoting, in what circumstances, and under what conditions (at what cost) they are deemed to be ‘proper’.

  2. Merci Mary pour toutes ces questions pertinentes et passionnantes que tu soulèves.

    « My langage is the sum total my self »

    Le lien entre la langue et l’identité de soi est une question complexe. Beaucoup de penseurs, beaucoup de philosophes se sont penchés sur la question et ont décortiqué cette relation mieux que je serai capable de le faire en quelques lignes.
    En effet, je suis moi (autrement dit j’ai la conscience de mon identité) premièrement parce que je peux le dire (dire devient faire). Je suis moi parce que je peux dire qui j’étais et qui je suis au moment où je parle, autrement dit je peux me raconter et le récit de moi donne une cohérence (un fil conducteur) au changement permanent auquel je suis exposé (Ricoeur parle de l’identité narrative). D’un point de vue philosophique le langage est un vecteur essentiel dans la construction de l’identité de soi.
    D’un point de vue sociologique (et je pense que cette approche nous touche un peu plus en tant qu’enseignants) la langue qu’on parle porte l’empreinte du milieu social et de la culture auxquels on appartient / d’où on provient. Qu’il s’agisse de notre accent, de certaines particularités dialectales ou régionales, de note jargon, notre langage marque d’une certaine façon notre appartenance, tout comme la littéracie d’ailleurs (je reviendrai sur cette question plus loin). Vouloir à tout prix uniformiser, « standardiser » la langue (et l’institution scolaire semble tenir à assumer cette mission) peut être aliénant, parce que cela oblige l’individu à renoncer à toute marque personnelle de son langage, tout comme on l’oblige à mouler sa pensée selon certains standards. Pierre Bourdieu qui avait déjà pointé ce problème dans les années 1970, parle d’une violence symbolique. Bourdieu, qui ne s’intéresse pas directement à la question de la langue, mais il y touche inévitablement, n’arrête pas dans ses écrits de dénoncer l’institution scolaire qui, toujours proche de la culture des élites, semble indifférente à la différence et favorise le « capital culturel » des classes dominantes. (Peckham me semble par ailleurs très bourdieusien dans sa façon de penser et analyser ce problème).
    Mais, pour revenir au sujet de départ, l’indissoluble lien entre la langue et l’identité de soi, voici une petite anecdote.
    Il y a 5-6 ans, quand j’ai commencé à enseigner à Dawson, j’ai tenté un jour, de faire un cours de grammaire sur les anglicismes avec mes étudiants de niveau 102 (il faut préciser qu’à ce niveau il maitrisent bien le français ; ils sont pour la plupart bilingues). Je suis arrivée en classe avec une batterie d’exercices (le type « remedial ») convaincue que j’avais l’antidote idéal contre ce poison dangereux qui menace le français.

    Ne cancellez pas vos rendez-vous, annulez-les, s’il vous plait !

    N’appliquez pas pour une job, mais postulez !

    Ne complétez pas le formulaire, mais remplissez-le !

    Enfin, des dizaines et dizaines de « fautes » que je tenais à corriger.

    Au bout de 10-15 minutes d’exercices, une vague de vociférations et rires a commencé à déferler : « Mais, Madame, on parle comme ça ! », « Vous voulez qu’on change notre langue ??? » (voire vous voulez nous changer). J’ai réalisé à l’instant même que j’étais à coté de la réalité ; j’étais en train de commettre un acte de violence symbolique, comme dirait Bourdieu. Depuis ce jour mon discours et ma démarche ont changé. Finalement, la langue est vivante, elle n’arrête pas de changer. Ce que aujourd’hui est un écart par rapport à la norme pourrait un jour devenir la norme. L’ « anglicisme » qu’on bannit aujourd’hui finira probablement par prendre sa place dans le Robert de la langue française dans une dizaine d’années.
    Je me contente maintenant de dire à mes étudiants de faire plutôt attention, et d’essayer de tenir compte des « règles du jeu » en ce moment, s’ils ne veulent pas être pénalisés dans la vie, sur la marché du travail.

    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

    Que la littéracie soit étroitement liée à la culture et au milieu social, j’en suis convaincue. Reste à gérer le défi que pose sa pluralité.
    Et dans les sociétés multiculturelles comme la nôtre, il faudrait en tenir compte ou au moins en prendre conscience. On a à Dawson non seulement des étudiants qui viennent de cultures différentes, mais aussi des étudiants qui, tout en ayant grandi au Canada, ont fréquenté des institutions scolaires assez différentes : écoles publiques, écoles privées, écoles françaises, écoles anglophones, écoles juives… On voit leur background scolaire dès les premières rédactions. En tout cas, en français, les différences sont parfois frappantes, et je ne parle pas autant du niveau de maitrise de la langue, mais de la maitrise d’une certaine rhétorique de l’écriture, et quand je dis certaine je pense à mes repères qui sont ceux que j’ai appris dans les institutions roumaines et francophones que j’ai fréquentées ! Il y a (pour moi) ceux qui maitrisent la rhétorique et qui pensent, ceux qui maitrisent la rhétorique, mais dont la réflexion semble boiter, ceux qui pensent bien (voire ils ont des idées intéressantes) mais ne maitrisent pas la rhétorique avec laquelle je suis familière et ceux dont les textes me dépaysent complètement, ce qui me pose un vrai problème pour l’évaluation.

    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’?

    Je suis d’accord avec toi que, en tant qu’enseignants, il faudrait briser ce mécanisme social qui tente de privilégier certaines formes de discours ou certaines formes de littéracie au détriment d’autres, en général des modèles qui correspondent à la culture des classes sociales dominantes.
    Le seul problème est que, tant que les directives institutionnelles ne changent pas, on expose nos étudiants au risque d’être pénalisés, que ce soit dans la vie, sur le marché du travail ou dans d’autres contextes scolaires. Tant que les institutions se proposeront de produire des professionnels de la « parole autorisée » (Bourdieu), cela me semble un peu compliqué.

    PS J’ai un peu galéré à la lecture de l’article de Rose (ma littéracie ? mon niveau d’anglais ?), mais il y a une idée à laquelle j’ai accroché, celle de vision atomisante ( p.346) du langage qui semble moulée sur un modèle politico-économique. Je pense que c’est un problème qui touche non seulement l’approche du langage, mais presque tout dans le monde dans lequel on vit : institutions (institution scolaire y compris), monde du travail, politique, etc. Dans un souci d’efficacité, on a perdu la vision globale des choses.

    • Yes so true, it is important that we recognise off the top that there is a multitude of practices and discourses that make up language-production, and for the rest, we are faced with the challenge of figuring out how to treat this plurality, and if we elect some uniform language to decide how to avoid penalising students in all the contexts of their present and future lives. Bourdieu is perfect for thinking about this, because he refers to the complicity of the dominated, so that the cultural capital that would be represented by ‘proper’ English form is agreed to by both those who are teaching and those who are learning it. It is as you say in your understated way, ‘un peu compliqué’.

  3. Rose touched on the ‘tension’ between undergraduate education at a research institution as well as the idea that it is ‘robust enrollments that allow the research to continue in the fashion that it does. Mix that with Roses ongoing theme of anything ‘remedial’ being substandard and inadequate really highlighted the stigma that is attached to ‘inferior’ student writing. I always found it rather interesting and sometimes very rewarding to compare papers written by “poor writers,” whose ideas were present, just communicated badly… with those who were eloquent and grammatically correct etc… but had nothing to say, just excellent at the art of BS. These were always great examples to show students in IS.

    Imagine all the lost ideas… “the focus on error—which is eminently measurable…” By judging writing in this way deems the writers ideas/thoughts as substandard as well (wouldn’t it be wonderful if the ideas could be recognised and then expanded on with the professor facilitating the extraction…)

    I didn’t learn to write till university…I didn’t learn to learn till university! Learning to write requires a base knowledge which is incomplete at the beginning of university…even then, to write at Blooms upper levels wouldn’t you need to be in yr 3 or 4 to write critically? I agree that writing is a very unique skill whose development is ongoing. Writing gets better with time and opportunity and knowledge base… and as each one of those elements are added, writing improves . As lifelong learners we continually challenge ourselves but understand that our receptive language ability is always greater than our expressive abilities, this is more noticeable and understandable at the undergraduate (Cegep)level as students begin to grow that knowledge base mixed with the ability to think more abstractly about important concepts and ideas.

  4. Thank you Melanie, in speaking of ‘Bloom’s upper levels’, I think you are referring to synthesising and analysing as parts of cognition? Are you suggesting that students entering Cegep and University are not capable of these types of close examination and structuring of ideas, or only in reference to understanding the mechanics of what constitutes ‘good writing’? Indeed, it often feels like writing is a life-long project, and that we could all use some clarification on the links between good expressive abilities (writing) and good cognition (thinking)!

    • Mari, I don’t think most students entering Cegep/University are capable of these types of close examinations and structuring of ideas…But let me qualify… I think synthesizing and analyzing information requires the information base to be in place for that to happen so it really depends on what the question is and how we can scaffold their thinking to help them achieve this type of engagement. Students 17-19 years old are just beginning to be able to think abstractly and some do it better than others. To pull back and look at the broader picture/implications is a skill that improves with time and practice just like writing (well).

  5. First, I just want to comment on the theoretical sophistication, argumentative rigor, and literary elegance of Marjan’s post (which is far superior to anything I will likely produce in this forum). It seems to me that these are the kinds of qualities that most scholars aspire to in their own writing and in what they aim to impart to their students. Does this mean, though, that Marjan’s post takes part in a hegemonic discourse that silences outside voices and reinforces structures of power worth dismantling? Is it the case that analytical precision, respectful treatment of dissident views, thoughtful consideration of a reader’s need for information, and reasoned arguments against conventional thinking–qualities amply demonstrated in the above post and vaunted within academic disciplines–are actually just props in a professional performance that serve to keep outsiders at bay? Literary status markers that prevent the emergence of truly liberating and unexpected challenges to the status quo? Am I being facetious with these questions? Yes. Do I have an answer to them? No. Do I think they are worth posing? Always.

    The issues raised in this week’s readings and blog reminded me of Audre Lorde’s famous maxim that the “master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Several talks at last week’s Humanities and Public Life Conference addressed just these issues. Allan Downey, an Indigenous historian, discussed his attempts to bridge divides between Western epistemological frameworks that stress detachment and objectivity, with the story-telling traditions that are so central to his own community. David Austin, a radical historian who has studied the Black experience in 1960s Montreal, explored the way, “theory congeals experience.” Providing a biography of his own intellectual development both in and outside of the academy in the 1990s, he explained how thinkers such as Karl Marx, CLR James, Frantz Fanon, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and bell hooks, enriched, expanded, and challenged his own limited worldview, allowing him to make deeper sense of his experience, but also taking him beyond it. These theorists provided possibilities for renewal, regeneration, and re-imagination of what scholarship and activism could look like. Our Humanities colleague, Mariam Sambe, also gave a wonderful presentation on a participatory research project she lead with teenagers in Ethiopia. One that focused on the best ways to promote HIV prevention among youth. Mariam told us about how she saw the teenagers she worked with as collaborators, rather than as “subjects.” All these talks reminded me of the potential value of the work we conduct as scholars in our disciplines, but also the serious dangers to intellectual inquiry if become too complacent within their contemporary boundaries. The tension between tradition and change, between social reproduction and social resistance, is deeply unsettling, but also generative of work that becomes path-breaking.

    Since Marjan began her own unsettling post with a quotation from Charles Peirce, I will end mine with one that I believe is equally appropriate to the way we think about writing from one of his New England forebears, Ralph Waldo Emerson: “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”

  6. Julian’s quotation from Emerson is an apt conclusion to this thread; it seems to me like everyone got unsettled in the process of reading and responding to Rose, Zammel, Peckham – and each other. Thanks to everyone for these remarkable reflections, and thanks once more to Mari for her post and moderation.

    If you take a minute to reread the whole thread, the dialogue between texts and positions that emerges is so illuminating. Marjan’s beautifully sustained consideration of each of these de-centering arguments; Sonia’s “BUT” asserting an inevitable anti-thesis; Carmen’s anecdote and epiphanie – “J’ai réalisé à l’instant même que j’étais à coté de la réalité ; j’étais en train de commettre un acte de violence symbolique” ; Melanie bringing us back to the hard consequences of the normative/remedial approach with “Imagine all the lost ideas”; and Julian summarizing so clearly the conflicted role we occupy as teachers: At once morally obliged to move as far as we can to meet the students where they are – in all their intellectual, cultural, social, economic and yes, linguistic complexity – all the while under a contractual obligation to separate wheat from chaff, in the service of an enormous sorting mechanism, arguably THE most powerful social mechanism for the replication of the status quo.

    Where does that leave us? Kinda outta breath… with a lot to think about.

    For our meeting Thursday, I am thinking about how we might bring the many concepts in this thread to bear on a discussion of a few specific and concrete cases…

  7. Yes – I’m out of breath as well!! but concrete cases is what I always look for – it’s all very well for discussions to take place but unless they end up in concrete actions, have they served any purpose other than for our own enjoyment? (which is not to belittle that!) and, as Julian said, are we in fact perpetrating our own inclusion in the “empowered” elite (that was a paraphrase, I hope I didn’t misrepresent you Julian!!) and further widening the gap for the “unempowered” / disadvantaged?

  8. another thought…….
    I’ve been thinking of this topic together with the one on genres, and I remembered an “epiphany” moment that really brought the two together for me (and influenced my academic and writing careers immensely). I was working on my masters and read a book by an expert in the field, at the end of which I realized that I hadn’t understood anything she’d said. I knew I wasn’t stupid, nor ignorant, nor uneducated, and yet, I hadn’t been able to penetrate her dense style to get to her meaning. All I could think of, was: who is she writing for???? the 5 or 6 people in the world who are knowledgeable enough, not only of her subject, but of the language and ‘grammar’ she is using? I have always despised elitism, it pushes all my buttons, and I resolved at that moment to never do this myself, to always make sure that whatever I wrote was accessible to everyone, even if they were not experts in my field. I managed to write both an MA and a PhD thesis this way, and that is what now inspires me to turn this around and see if my students can get inspired when they are familiar with the form, the genre, which they are being asked to produce.

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