Literacy Histories

Literacy Histories

A common assignment among composition teachers is the literacy biography. I’ve never assigned one, I seldom like reading them, and am always hesitant to disclose my own. The basic trope is simple: describe, from your earliest memories, your relationship to writing. What usually comes out of these assignments is a variety of arcs where a person either did not like writing and grew to like it—or liked writing and school made them hate it, or permutations of these extremes where specific situations where writing was involved were either rewarding or soul-crushing.

What I hate about these assignments is the way that “writing” (rather than thinking or communicating) is given privilege—and the way that they encourage people to tie a neat little bow around their life to date, and call it “done” as they tackle a new chapter. However, what I hate even more is when such a neat package is made of other people’s experiences. I’ve been meaning to comment on some articles from C&C for a while; I suppose this is as good of a time as any. I hate myself for being so contrary about this stuff—but I can’t help it.

Literacy Practices and Literacy Events of a 21st Century American Child (Quicktime Movie) by Kara Poe Alexander (University of Louisville) was completely inaccessible to me on my PC. I finally watched it on my Mac today, and it was interesting to me how the child is portrayed as the embodiment of her families dreams and desires (regarding literacy). I think the film says much more about the filmmaker and the child’s parents than it does the child. The multi-modal nature of learning is admirably stressed, and of course the implication that this sort of learning is unique to the “21st century” hangs behind it. How did we ever learn to cope with sound and images without electronic toys for kids? I see nothing of any generalizable value about this “study”—unless the point is that the upper-middle class always strives to perpetuate itself through learning practices.

#FFFFFF, #000000, & #808080: Hypertext Theory and WebDev in the Composition Classroom by Michael J. Cripps, York College (City University of New York) proves its own point nicely. From the abstract:

The empirical referent for the project is a Hypertext Theory and Practice course taught at Rutgers University from 2001-2003. Students read hypertext theory, learned about web development, and attempted to build elements of theory into their academic essays. This project examines the many challenges involved in teaching students to bring together the purity of hypertext theory (#FFFFFF) and the messy practice (#000000) of composing academic hypertext. While the models section of this hypertext demonstrates that students were capable of enacting multilinearity and employing elements of visual rhetoric, the praxis section reveals important learning (and frustrations) that occurred along the way. Some of these difficulties are clearly tied to the particular circumstances under which the course was offered; others may be endemic to any effort to teach academic hypertext composition.

There is nothing in the structure of this well crafted essay that demonstrates any advantage for hypertext in the construction of academic texts. It’s an essay, nothing more—shaped into an attractive hypertextual “shape” which contributes nothing to its content.

The main essay of the group that caught my eye, though, was Toward a Rhetoric of New Media: Composing (me)dia by Ellen Cushman (Michigan State University). This essay does uniquely address the problem of representing indigenous peoples through new media technologies. It uses texts, movies, and graphic representations to mold a problematic take on new (me)dia. Though it suffers a bit from a confusing interface (a big problem for macromedia stuff) and dumps you off in strange places from time to time, it does not correspond to the traditional linear ordering of an essay. Though I’ve got some nits to pick with it, I think it is a much stronger move in a productive direction.

But it’s also possible that I think that because of some moments in my own “literacy history.” I met Ellen Cushman a few months ago—I found her charming and engaged with literacy issues, so I am predisposed to like her work as well. Much of the material she quotes in her presentation was already familiar to me—John Rollin Ridge in particular, because I have prepared a web site of his poetry. And I wonder about the story she heavily relies on—the traditional story of Sequoyah.

The “given” (his)story of Sequoyah is that he transformed the Cherokee nation by “inventing” the syllabary and teaching it to the people in a few short years to give native peoples the “power” of written alphabetic literacy. Even Sequoyah’s relatives dispute this story. A Cherokee student of mine wrote a wonderful paper on that in one of my classes. What “native peoples thought” is not necessarily as lost as Cushman claims it is—I did a lot of work in the American Native Press Archives, that deserves much closer study by those concerned about these issues. I think that our understanding of the past is increased, ultimately, only through real immersion in these artifacts rather than by recasting the argument in new modal forms. But then, that’s just my opinion. I remain very skeptical of the role of re-written literacy histories to shape the future—especially when they are cast in the mold of “new” media.

I think the real strength of Ellen Cushman’s essay is its flirtation with hyper-unintelligibility. It offers no real tightly packaged reflection, no neat narrative arc, no real resolution. Regardless of any dispute I might have over some of its founding “facts” the personal nature of its reflection makes it a wonderful read.