CCR 732: Advanced Comp Pedagogy

Defining Literacy through the Body

What if we believed that alphabetic literacy was actually getting in the way of certain understandings of the literate lives of our students—not just as a subject of study, but especially as a means of study? (Halbritter & Lindquist 183)

Literacy is one of those terms that, often, can mean a dozen different things or nothing at all.

Literacy includes the reading and writing (composing) practices that contribute to meaning-making. It is the ability to contribute to and navigate with a situated discourse. It is a social act imbued with power relations. There is a difference between literacy that makes or contributes something versus literacy that understands. When we name ourselves as literate beings, we identify with a range of literate practices: reading, writing, visual, technological, community, multimodal. In some ways, the literacy conundrum—too many meanings or no meaning at all—is influenced by the shift from literacy as reading and writing to literacies as a range of understandings and practices tied to particular social, cultural, and ideological contexts.

This week in my comp pedagogy course, we read texts that focused on the opportunities presented by digital literacy narratives for us to more inclusively understand literate activity.

In “Narrative Theory and Stories That Speak to Us,” Selfe defines literacy as “a broad range of reading and composing activities, including writing, that take place both on and offline but are always situated in dynamic and fluid social systems, laden with rhetorical choices, and shaped by ‘historical circumstances, individuals’ lived experiences, and particular situations for writing’ (DeRosa, p. 3).” Here, literacy includes reading and writing practices but also moves beyond them. What I like best about this piece is the focus on identity and how literacy narratives construct literate selves. That is, Selfe extends the idea that narratives compose and construct literate being through the act of representation (the storyteller telling her story).

Halbritter & Lindquist build on, and depart from, the DALN’s project by focusing more on the scene or context (vs. the product) of the narratives. H & L ask, “[W]hat if we didn’t surrender to the inevitability of alphabetic transcription? What if we found a way to make Brandt’s audio recordings stick to those paper pages? What if we decided to value not only the hesitations and misstarts, but also the embodied performances of those we interview?” (183).

By focusing on image and sound and scene, constructing the literate self becomes an embodied process. This may not seem different from the project of the DALN, but H & L focus more on understanding “experiences of ‘lived time’” (175). That is, they’re looking for literacies in the scenes where we might not always (be willing to) look for it. Though they’re mainly imagining places outside our institutional spaces & sponsors, this focus also invites opportunities to re-imagine literacy as constructed in our often-excluded-from-writing bodies.

Hawisher et al. argue that “writing is embodied-activity-in-the-world, that it is consciousness in action, that it is saturated with affect and identity, that it is social as writers interact with others (people, sometimes animals, and even things)” (260-61). I’m drawn to the embodied aspect of writing because 1) writing isn’t a disembodied process, and 2) our literate activity can never be contained in the alphabetic.

If literacy is understood within particular contexts, it can’t exclude the bodily processes that will take up and produce these activities in very different ways. For me, then, constructing a literate self acknowledges all the composing practices—reading, writing, drawing, Tweeting, talking, walking, pacing—that contribute to the reception (understanding) and production (making) of discursive meaning.



Halbritter, Bump, and Julie Lindquist. “Time, Lives, and Videotape: Operationalizing Discovery in Scenes of Literacy Sponsorship.” College English 75.2 (2012): 171-98. Print.

Hawisher, Gail E., Paul Prior, Patrick Berry, Amber Buck, Steven E. Gump, Cory Holding, Hannah Lee, Christa Olson, and Janine Solberg. “Ubiquitous Writing and Learning: Digital Media as Tools for Reflection and Research on Literate Activity.” Ubiquitous Learning. Ed. Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2009. 254-64. Print.

Selfe, Cynthia L., and the DALN Consortium. “Narrative Theory and Stories That Speak to Us.” Stories That Speak to Us: Exhibits from the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives. Ed. H. Lewis Ulman, Scott Lloyd DeWitt, & Cynthia L. Selfe. Logan, UT: Computers and Composition Digital Press, 2012. Web.

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