This emotionally tough week ended with a message from a student. She didn’t understand the prompt I left for the online discussion. I quickly realized that the misunderstanding revolved around the word “ethical.”
Now, I have the equivalent of two master’s degrees, so I naturally (and incorrectly) assumed that “ethical” was a word my students would understand. Sadly, I forgot to examine and unpack my own literacy privilege. I’ve taken entire classes in “ethics.” My students are just beginning their college careers. I know we want them to learn, to join the ranks of the educated, but in our rush to inculcate students into our own literacies, I think we often neglect to consider what a burden we place on them.
In “Accumulating Literacies,” Brandt says, “…what is unprecedented about literacy learning (and teaching) in the current climate is not so much a demand for literacy that seems to chronically outstrip supply, but rather the challenges faced by all literacy learners in a society whose rapid changes are themselves tied up so centrally with literacy and its enterprises” (651).
Nearly 25 years later, the situation Brandt describes has actually become extreme. The development of “web 2.0” technologies–including all that is social media and the myriad of cloud-based information-sharing practices that professionals must perform in the jobs–is exponentially expanding literacy practices. Literacy is not only “piling up” and “spreading out” as Brandt describes (652); the pace at which it piles up and spreads out is accelerating, as Daniel Keller notes in Chasing Literacy.
Brandt explains that “materials and practices from earlier times often linger at the scenes of contemporary literacy learning” (652). She is correct that old literacies and literacy practices simply do not go away and that the new practices simply build on those old ones. As part of developing her first essay on reading/writing practices in nursing, my student who struggled with the meaning of “ethical,” had excitedly explained to the class how nurses today had to enter patient notes on a tablet, something previously done on paper.
It all gets piled on “higher and deeper.” Consequently, I am being asked to help students crawl out of a hole when the hole keeps getting deeper. Personally, I not only want students find a fulfilling, rewarding career, for which they must achieve some level of “literacy,” the simple ability the ability to read and write at a functional level. I also want so much more for them.
I want them to understand HOW science works so that we don’t continue to produce climate change deniers. I want students to understand how culture and their own mind works so that they respect other cultures and the human beings who come from those cultures. I want students to understand certain threshold concepts of economics so that they can better navigate what politicians are telling them about the policies that affect their ability to live beyond the struggle for survival. And I want them to understand the range of human knowledge and wisdom that goes beyond what we can demonstrate mathematically. I want them to be literate about literature, history, art, mythology, religion, philosophy, and more–because these things give life meaning. Above all, I want them to want to learn about such things on their own when they leave college, and they need to have an unprecedented level of “information literacy” in order to be able to do so.
As an educator, I am unsure how to navigate all of these competing literacies when even more is continually coming at us and our students. However, I absolutely know that I cannot do it alone.
Brandt, Deborah. “Accumulating Literacy: Writing and Learning to Write in the Twentieth Century.” College English, vol. 57, no. 6, Oct. 1995, pp. 649-668.
Keller, Daniel. Chasing Literacy: Reading and Writing in an Age of Acceleration. Louisville, CO, UP of Colorado, 2013.
This post was written as part of my participation in a faculty learning community studying literacy and its impact on our students. The thoughts are my own and do not represent the views of my employer, Lansing Community College.