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Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy

Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy

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08/03/2011

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Jennifer Buckner, jbuckner@gardner-webb.

edu Department of English Literature and Language Narrating Their Way Through Literacy, Agency, and Identity Abstract: In this presentation, I will examine how one student’s literacy narrative reflects the goals of a Critical Literacy class. On our campus, Critical Literacy is currently a pilot class, a result of recent course revisions that eliminated deficit type “basic writing” and “basic reading” classes. I chose to look at student literacy narratives to determine if pedagogical choices in the newly structured class encouraged critical engagement with social, cultural, and political influences, especially on their identities as “literate” college students. I rely on scholarship related to first year composition, “basic writing,” and writing literacy narratives. My argument is that Parker, the student whose work is analyzed, assumes agency over her identity through writing her literacy narrative. Her ability to conceptualize what happened in a fourth-grade English class coupled with her retrospective retelling and judgement of the event reflect her growing ability to evaluate relationships between institutional ideologies and student selfactualization. As I recognize Parker’s compositional moves towards individual reform, I highlight my own commitment to critical pedagogy which means constant vigilance over my pedagogical choices as they facilitate room for dialogue concerning literacy, agency, and identity. Literature Review Many scholars and institutions see the real purpose of first-year composition as transitioning students into academic discourse (Bartholomae, 1985). In response, basic writing courses seek to imitate the discourse of “literate” individuals. Many teachers use literacy narratives as a pedagogical tool to create opportunities for students—whose home speech communities may not value academia’s specialized discourse—to reflect on entering (or exiting) “academic” discourse communities. Caleb Corkery (2005) cautioned teachers to consider that while literacy narratives “air the cultural obstacles and sacrifices that come with learning to communicate in school, [they also reinforce] the belief that those consequences [are] inevitable to achieving literacy” (p. 62). Kirk Branch (1998) also critiqued the use of literacy narratives as perpetuating a “great divide” theory separating the literate from the illiterate, further stigmatizing the “illiterate” and focusing power on the teacher as an agent for change. Scholars have argued that self translation through the writing of literacy narratives allows writers to situate themselves in social and cultural contexts thereby having more agency negotiating transitions between language communities (Corkery, 2005; Soliday, 1994). Literacy narratives treat each students life as dialogical, enabling them to contextualize what values, practices, or tools serve to politicize their literacy. Wendy Hesford theorized literacy narratives as dialogic, enabling students to “recognize complex identity negotiations and discursive positions” (as cited in Corkey, 2005, p. 52). A literacy narrative, as dialogue between worlds, examines what Mary Louise Pratt (1990) called a contact zones, “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of power” (p. 357). Timothy Barnett (2006) enacted such an approach from a critical pedagogy perspective using personal narratives as a way into personal and social critique. Ideally, Barnett hoped that by writing literacy narratives, students would revisit these moments in order to “explore their personal lives as social artifacts and that such exploration can create opportunities for individual and social reform“ (p. 373). Methodology Barnett’s philosophy and approach echo my recent efforts using literacy narratives in a pilot section of Critical Literacy. I structured class to focus on “literacy” as a generative term, especially as literacy had been defined and represented throughout their educational careers. We examined literacy as constructed through a variety of cultural and literary perspectives. Students debated competing definitions of literacy and constructed their own literacy timelines identifying key moments that impacted their attitudes towards literacy. Finally, they inquired deeply into one aspect of their literacy (a moment, an influential person, a cultural value) writing a narrative analyzing social and cultural influences on their literacy identity.

Data Analysis and Results In the first week of class, Parker posted her initial goals for the class on her ePortfolio as: “Being able to write an essay and read it aloud to my peers, Finishing an essay without changing anything grammar, etc., [and] Getting an A in all my english classes while attending college.” Parker’s goals for Critical Literacy revealed her beginning anxieties about reading aloud in class and making grammatical errors in her writing. Anxieties such as these are common among most of the students I teach who share stories of being embarrassed by their teachers, defeated by standardized placement tests, and tracked in “dummy” classes throughout school. Further, Parker’s valuing of grammar-free essays and A’s echoes a modernist value system basing literacy achievement on quantifiable test scores and a mastery of Edited American English. A month later, Parker critically situated her historic understanding of literacy in the introductory paragraph of her literacy narrative writing: When you think of literacy what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Well if you’re like most Americans your first thought would be english, writing, and reading. How is that we think of literacy as being in this little box, and your being feed (sic.) how to read, and write. Teachers in english classes our look upon as this person who’s here just to tell us what the perfect essay is, but in today’s society it takes a genius to be able to write at level states set us at. Parker’s reference to the “level the state sets us at” reflected a cultural understanding of literacy as defined through the lens of institutional literacy programs, especially as delivered through her tracked English classes. She recognized the limitations of that perspective by characterizing literacy as a “little box.” In doing so, she named the box, claiming power over its narrow perspective. Her later characterization of literacy as “a battle that [she] must overcome” illustrated her still in conflict rather than at a place of peace. A powerlessness is evidenced in her narrative as Parker, one student in my class, primarily used passive voice to characterize literacy as affecting her, rather than her affecting literacy. Most of her sentences, even in cases where “I” is the subject rather than “literacy” or “education” described her as a victim of literacy when “labeled an I.E.P student in the fourth grade” who was “placed in classes with students who didn’t know the differences between red and blue.” She briefly represented herself as having power and agency when writing about a distressing school experience that she associated with literacy. The following passage from her literacy narrative is the only series of sentences where Parker used “I” as the subject of a sentence followed by an active verb. She wrote: I remember some time in March my class practiced for the writing test each day. I would always write in this journal and it seemed like it was never good enough for my teacher. The night before the I prayed read hard, and went to bed early so I could make my class proud. A couple of weeks later I was told I failed the writing test in class in front of everyone. All the students in my class laughed out loud, and just thought it was the funniest thing that I was the only one who didn’t pass. That day destroyed me, and every time I tried to read or write I’ll think of that day and freeze up on every writing test. Parker’s narrative illustrated agency in her sense of hope and a feeling of responsibility towards her classmates as she wanted to make them proud by doing well on a fourth grade writing test. Even as she represented herself as a potential agent of change, as the subject of the sentence and catalyst for success, she gauged her success on outside affirmation: the test, her teacher, or her classmates. Following this brief moment of agency over her literacy, Parker contrasted hope with an announcement that “A couple weeks later I was told I failed the writing test in front of everyone.” She wrote. She prayed. She failed. And they laughed. And what is the result? School literacy gained power, Parker did not. She wrote, “that day destroyed me.” Parker, as “me,” was the direct object of destruction. From this point in the literacy narrative, Parker became a victim of literacy, regressing back into “I” as an object within sentences, even through passive constructions.

Although this may seem like a poor representation of Parker’s opportunity for individual or social reform, I’m struck by her agency in framing “this horror story.” Parker wrote the words “I remember” before relaying her paralyzing fourth grade experience. Parker named what happened as she remembered. She dealt with the emotions of being “less of a student compared with everyone else” or “dumber then the other students.” Although her narrative represents how she feels “stuck in this situation because of literacy,” she chose this topic for her paper. She chose to write about these difficult moments. And in that decision, she reclaimed agency over her literacy through the authoring of her narrative. As Barnett (2006) argued, Parker’s “personal writing [provides] an important entry into an analysis of social forces” (p. 356). Further evidence that Parker engaged in social critique can be found in her concluding paragraph, challenging reductive ideas about literacy. She recognized that literacy can “differ from person to person” as “determined by our past experience.” She further implicated schools for a reductive view of literacy asking “What if schools taught us to look at [literacy] in a social way? Ways that we know best communication.” Through her literacy narrative, Parker dialogued with an ideology that had previously paralyzed her, causing her to “freeze up” in any class writing. She recognized that literacy is dialogic, “communication.” Discussion/Conclusion I would like to conclude saying that all students enrolled in Critical Literacy completed the course with the same emerging sense of agency and confidence in their literacy that Parker exhibits. Such a conclusion wouldn’t be representative, however, as William Thelin points out “If everything in a critical classroom worked as well as some accounts of critical pedagogy make it seem, we would not have a transformation of a classroom. We would have a recasting of the typical hero model of teaching, where the instructor rescues students in need of saving” (p. 127). I can not claim responsibility for Parker’s critical perspective, nor do I wish to promote the writing of literacy narratives as a one-size-fits-all pedagogical tool ferrying all students through a mythical “great cognitive divide.” Given the same critical framework, other students didn’t move far beyond passivity, reluctance and sometimes resistance to contextualizing social and cultural perspectives. My interest in Parker’s experience, and the experience of other students, is in critically evaluating relationships between institutional ideologies and student self-actualization. I’m compelled by the paralysis caused by Parker’s fourth grade writing test. Her narrative, like so many others I’ve read, reflects passivity, defeat, and discrimination. I fear that some of my own late night responses to student writing may have resulted in my being less attentive to language choices in ways that may have crippled student voices in similar ways. My commitment to critical pedagogy, however, means that I must constantly evaluate how my socioculturally influenced choices impact students. In Critical Pedagogy: Where are We Now? Joe L. Kincheloe (2007) writes that “adherence to…critical notions, many believe, requires those of us within the tradition to criticize and move to new plateaus while recognizing our own failures and the failures of those in the domain.” (p. 9) Social reform may seem futile when faced with situations like Parker’s description of fourth grade power structures where traditional literacy programs continue to be “inadequate and ineffective in dealing with the plethora of today’s societal dilemmas and tensions” (Leistyna, 2007, p. 97). Barnett (2006) offers room for hope, however, in his characterization of the purposes of critical literacy. Critical literacy brings us closer, maybe too close, to some of the core themes of our lives while at the same time distancing us from our conditions as well, so that we can see ourselves and the world in new ways and have greater opportunities to change both. Our ability to “view” the major themes in our lives, as if we are spectators from a distance, is crucial to the possibility of naming those things that limit us, of understanding their social as well as personal nature, of analyzing them and making them concrete problems to be solved rather than crippling, and vaguely held, thoughts and feelings. (p. 361) Parker’s literacy narrative allowed her a spectator’s view of crippling influences from her past. Reflecting on her fourth grade experience, she suggested that school “taught me ways to write, but never how to understand the meaning of writing.” She shifted from being objectified to constructing herself through her analysis.

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