Wednesday, October 9

webs, words

yesterday, friend and colleague Priya hosted a pseudo-studygroup where we spent a few minutes talking about our midterm essay topics, a few minutes eating lovely soup and rice, and plenty of minutes doodling on tiny orange gourds.

as I doodled, I turned various themes from English 591 over and over and over in my head. I am supposed to be writing a midterm about ecological models of composition and posthuman notions of agency. why? well, why not? the purpose of midterms, I suppose, is to remind yourself that you have been learning marvelous things for eight whole weeks. a thousand words or so of response and interpretation is supposed to be proof that you've internalized some of that information along the way. there's also a grade to be sought, somewhere in there. but when have I ever thought much about grades?

in pondering writing as an ecology and the weirdness of posthumanism today, I went back to a few old reading responses I wrote for the history of composition class I took long, long ago, last summer. one of these posts was all about literacy. what does that tall, potent noun actually mean?
the dictionary would say it's the ability to read and write. okay. read and write what? does doodling with sharpies on the skin of a pumpkin count as writing? how do we judge one's skill at such a task? or any task? what is it for? says who?

standards of literacy aren't simply written in stone by all-powerful standard-bearers, I don't think. they grow gradually and become institutionalized over time, until we have people running around sighing that "to heart" a thing sounds uncompromisingly tacky and that if you do not know how to use a semicolon properly you have failed significantly.

a year ago, reading decades' and decades' worth of composition theory, I found my head being filled with more expansive, fluid definitions. literacy can be more than reading and writing. it might comprise any ability. and abilities aren't just static things that you carry around in your pockets, are they? you don't just pick them up off the shelf. you have to practice. and that means a process--adaptation and re-adjustment, again and again. your practice will change as you change, as the world changes.
to be literate in anything is also to be capable of becoming more literate, as needed. literacy is never just a set of skills. it's also the other skills you can build using the skills you have. tools that help you make other tools. scaffolding and support systems that grow out of your abilities. we could use whatever metaphor you like, really. pumpkin-doodling literacy grows out of other kinds of literacy--artistic experience, patient creativity, hand-eye coordination, and past practice applying sharpies to unconventional surfaces. you could say the theme of this pumpkin-doodle suggests an artist who is literate in at least some of the american cultural traditions surrounding halloween--black, purple, webs and spiders. sharp teeth and slitted nostrils. you see, pumpkin-doodling is not a skill by itself. nothing is anything all by itself. and just so, lingual literacy is not merely knowing how to read, write, and speak. it's everything you can reach and touch and change because you know how to read, write, and speak.

and if you know how to read, write, and speak in a certain way, according to certain rules--that's another level of literacy. for reasons I'm still figuring out, different groups value different kinds of literacy in very different ways. sometimes it almost seems unfair. how many languages does the universe expect us to learn? and for what? (default grad school answer: it depends.)

our own strongest literacies, no matter how hard-won they may have been, often seem so simple to us. when others don't exactly get it, or if they have a harder time than we remember having, it can be oh so tempting to give up on their ever learning or ever reaching the place we've reached. and maybe it makes sense that no one else will ever collect exactly the same set of literacies you've collected... but hey, you aren't going to collect the same set of literacies as anyone else, either. someone else might be a better pumpkin-doodle artist than you've so far become.

the writer and scholar Mina Shaughnessy included this quote from Leo Strauss in one of the articles I read last summer: "Always assume that there is one silent student in your class who is by far superior to you in head and heart." such a tricky assumption, even if we open up the word "class" and let it mean the whole world. such a stance of humility comes sometimes more easily than others. luckily, I am not the last word on what makes a sharpie-decorated pumpkin look awesome. and--despite all the grading and evaluation I'm expected to do in my position as a writing instructor--I am not the only judge there either.

all this may or may not have anything whatsoever to do with the topic I'm working with for my midterm. oh well.

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