Through elementary and high school, I thought writing and reading were easy because I was smart and bookish. As a journalism major at Ohio State, computers were just coming into newsrooms, but it never occurred to me that printed language was itself a technology. After I went back to earn my teaching certificate in Secondary English Education, I still thought writing and reading were easy and my future students could learn easily with a committed teacher like myself.
Eventually I knew I wanted to teach college writing and landed in graduate school where I read Ong’s “The Orality of Language” for the first time–alongside Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Yet it all never really set in until a reread Ong a couple years ago: Encoding and decoding alphabetic text is using a technology. Alphabetic text–indeed, any written form of language–is a technology. A technology that grows increasingly complex.
All of us begin by learning to recognize letters and then to correlate those letters with sounds. Next we begin to put letters together to create words that correlate with the spoken words we know. And we keep going until we can use all that alphabetic text and combine it with other technologies (like the space between words and punctuation) to create increasingly complex messages–often with and for groups of people using a vocabulary unique to them.
Still, even those of us who teach college writing, rarely question the assumption that writing and reading are not naturally occurring activities. We adhere to the mindset that the encoding and decoding of text is a “basic skill.”
This “light bulb moment” very much changed how I approach teaching writing and my thoughts about teaching college in general. The transmission and creation of knowledge now pivots around the technology of text, and we must always keep in mind that many of our students struggle with that technology, even as it informs their digital lives.
At every turn, I want to remind myself that writing and reading are hard because they are simply not something humans do naturally. It’s not easy making our thoughts solid or understanding the thoughts that others have inscribed on paper (or in pixels).
I absolutely must drop my egocentric view concerning the ease of transmitting knowledge. Moreover, I need to acknowledge that simply the demand for literacy (by employers and therefore colleges) can be viewed as a violent act.
I want my students to achieve their dreams: working as nurses or doctors; creating better lives for their families; building businesses of their own. However, none of that is possible until I begin to constantly remind myself that they are human beings who often do not have the same experiences with literacy that I do.
This post was written as part of my participation in a Faculty Learning Community at Lansing Community College. Our group is studying literacy in a time of developmental education reform.