Last night, I started writing a post about the discussions we had in my Language & Literacy class. How after three hours of mapping out definitions, one of my classmates described literacy as the “black box” of Rhet/Comp. And how literacy discussions within our field are so loose and complicated and sometimes limiting that “literacy” often seems like an unattainable concept.
Then I started watching the State of the Union. Obama talked about higher ed—giving more money to community colleges, decreasing college tuitions, and allowing teachers to teach in more creative ways. When Obama said, “Higher education can’t be a luxury; it is an economic imperative,” I started thinking about the importance of literacy education.
In many ways, literacy is a way to talk about the political uses of language. In “Redefining the Literate Self: The Politics of Critical Affirmation,” Min-Zhan Lu discusses the political dimensions of being literate. She writes that the ideal literate self must focus on ending oppression, grapple with our own privileges, approach histories more responsibly and respectfully, and affirm a yearning for individual agency (173). To do this, she explains, we have to change the way academics see and read other academics.
I would add to that a necessity to change the way we see and read the value of our students, our classroom practices, and our institutions. When people see systems as broken (and when, admittedly, those systems are broken), when people devalue particular languages and literacies, and when economic success is hinged on the mastery of certain literacies, we hurt our students by ignoring the politics of literacy.
As Richard Marback reminds us, if teachers are respectful of their students’ positionalities (and languages), we better position our students to learn. Marback writes, “For equality in schools to become a real possibility, we must in public dignify each other. To dignify each other, we must deliberate about the attitudes and goals we want in our schools” (29). I connect this to Obama’s call to respect the work done within colleges and universities, to recognize the importance of preparing twenty-first-century students to become productive (and engaged) citizens.
In order for literacy education to be successful, we have to negotiate our values and opinions about what literacy means within the field of Rhet/Comp. Obama makes a clear argument about teaching students skills, and at the bare minimum, literacy education is about reading, writing, and communicative skills. In a twenty-first-century society, however, literacies describe something more. Being able to communicative effectively through various media—written text, videos, images and sounds, in print or online—is absolutely necessary for twenty-first-century students to engage with, and contribute to, cultural and political discourses.
Lu, Min-Zhan. “Redefining the Literate Self: The Politics of Critical Affirmation.” CCC 51.2 (Dec. 1999): 172-194.
Marback, Richard. “Ebonics: Theorizing in Public Our Attitudes toward Literacy.” CCC 53.1 (Sept. 2001): 11-32.