Feb 16

“New” Literacy Studies, Old Composition

As itself an act of composition, Jacqueline Jones Royster and Jean C. Williams’ “History in the Spaces Left” navigates the consequences of the narrative erasure of Black people (and a plethora of other marginalized people) from the composition of history and the dominant histories of composition. Royster and Williams, after generously but incisively dissecting white-dominated texts like James Berlin’s Rhetoric and Reality, Stephen North’s The Making of Knowledge in Composition, and Susan Miller’s Textual Carnivals, locate the consequences of white-washing histories of composition in dominant assumptions about students of color here and now.

Noting the hegemonic conflation between “basic writing” and young Black writers, Royster and Williams turn to “the shadows of composition history” to expose the ways that “basic writing” was a concern discussed at CCCC conferences in the 1950s, when the “basic writing” student population was predominantly white (571). This reconstruction of recent interlinkage between African American history and composition studies is extremely generative not only because of the reparative recovery (as opposed to whitewashed re-covering) that it represents: many white activists advocating against imperialist teaching styles in higher education assert that the rise of concern about “basic writing” was associated with the 1960s increase in POC population in public colleges and universities. Re-situating “basic writing” anxiety as a white anxiety about white abilities that subsequently became a white anxiety about students of color who became conflated with “basic writing” is a more precise — and more effective — way to articulate the ways that ability is racialized in the academy.

In a similar vein, Kate Pahl and Jennifer Rowsell — in the first chapter of Literacy and Education, present a textbook-style account of new literacies which frames literacy as a “social practice” (9). They imagine the ways that marks on a page (or on a computer screen) are “inscribed” (and in another spot, they say “infused,” giving appropriately fleshy language to literacy practices) with cultural experiences (10). This chapter indirectly elucidate the ways that the operationalizations of hegemonic understandings of literacy as an “objective” set of skills in actuality soaks literacy in a bleach that infuses it fundamentally with cultural identity… just those privileged ones that are rendered unmentionable and invisible. In resituating the definition of literacy as fundamentally about cultural experiences and identities, a social definition of literacy exposes the whiteness associated with the particular skill sets rendered legible by dominant notions of literacy. The need to decenter school as a primary site of literacy is a crucial takeaway of this chapter, largely because schools invalidate “narrative as a form of knowledge” (16).

Pahl and Rowsell’s chapter is largely informed by the idea, articulated by Brian Street in “Autonomous and Ideological Models of Literacy”, that an autonomous model of literacy “disguises the cultural and ideological assumptions that underpin it” (1). This disguising can be articulated as a corollary to compulsory heteronormativity and compulsory able-bodiedness, for example, which render cishet and non-dis/abled identities as the normate and anything/anyone deviating from that norm as hypervisible. In a classroom context, this autonomous model of literacy can easily be found in the hypervisibility of non-“standard” Englishes in which only white, middle class, able-bodied-articulated Englishes have the privilege of being unremarked-upon.

In these texts, I don’t think that the authors don’t so much politicize literacy as they expose the ways that notions of literacy are already inherently politicized. From Royster and Williams’ re-centering of Black participation in composition history to Pahl, Rowsell, and Street’s de-centering of the classroom as a site of some sort of supposedly apolitical, “correct” literacy, these readings resituate New Literacy Studies as stretching beyond the typically-figured association of NLS with an (again, often supposedly apolitical) digital technologies. Moving forward, I’m curious about the relationship between these (decidedly not identity-less and power-less) digital connotations of NLS with the kinds of direct, social-/power-based analyses recovered here as the original driving impetus of NLS.

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