Review – Literacies: A Textbook of Empowerment by Cassandra Gonzalez
In her article, “Multicultural Classrooms, Monocultural Teachers,” Terry Dean discusses the plight of both teacher and student in regards to multiculturalism and the often problematic classroom situations it entails. Dean’s primary claim is that “with increasing cultural diversity in classrooms, teachers need to structure learning experiences that both help students write their way into the university and help teachers learn their way into student cultures” (23). It is essential for Dean that because the multicultural classroom is becoming somewhat of the norm, teachers need to approach their classrooms with the mentality that the learning experience should be a collaborative effort between themselves and their students; dealing with it cannot be a one-sided effort on the students’ part. For Dean, the main problem that occurs in these classrooms is the cultural dissonance that “minority” students experience when they enter the academic “mainstream” world. As incoming freshmen, they must learn not only the discourse of the academic world like the rest of their peers, but they must also become familiarized with the culture of “mainstream” America; a culture that, up until the point of entering a college classroom, has been somewhat at a distance for these students.
There is a certain sense of separation brought on by this cultural dissonance, and for a lot of these multicultural students, learning becomes a hurdle, and their performance in the classroom is affected on many different levels. Whether it is language differences, or even just different expectations and assumptions about classroom dynamics and student responsibilities, multicultural students are left in the dark when it comes to the unique culture of the university classroom. Dean makes an interesting observation about these students pointing out that “working-class and farm children must struggle to acquire the academic culture that has been passed on by osmosis to the middle and upper classes. The very fact that working-class and farm children must laboriously acquire what others come by so naturally is taken as another sign of inferiority” (25). Because they must start from scratch, so to speak, multicultural students can often become discouraged and frustrated with the university classroom, and the feeling of inferiority that is at the core of that frustration is the primary vehicle towards poor performance. If a multicultural student sees himself as inferior to his peers because of his lack of authority and knowledge, he is less likely to participate in class discussion and group activity. This is the student that falls behind in one of the most important aspects of the college experience; that is, the opportunities to practice speaking about certain subjects and issues that the student will eventually become specialized in. In other words, they lessen their potential at becoming articulate in their field of study. If they cannot be articulate, they cannot participate and will not be respected for the knowledge and contribution that they bring to discussion. Dean addresses this issue in her article and claims that “the more articulate students can be about these issues, the greater the chance the students will feel integrated in the university” (34). Students cannot become articulate if they do not feel secure in their knowledge and their authority over that knowledge; this insecurity will not only be evident in their speech, but it will also be obvious in their written work as well. Dean asserts that teachers must become aware of the fact that “when we teach composition, we are teaching culture. Depending on students’ backgrounds, we are teaching at least academic culture, what is acceptable evidence, what persuasive strategies work best, what is taken to be a demonstration of the “truth” in different disciplines” (24). Composition teachers don’t just teach academic culture, they are a representation of it. For most multicultural students entering college, their first encounter with the culture of academia is through their teachers, and these students learn to embrace the university culture through the examples of these teachers. In return, teachers must also learn to embrace the cultures that students bring with them into the classroom, cultures that are a huge part of their landscapes for learning.
A lot is being asked of multicultural students entering the university classroom; consequently, a lot is also being asked of teachers as well. In order to properly appeal to multicultural classrooms, teachers need to examine not only their approach to this growing situation, but they must also consider the tools they use as vehicles for their particular pedagogies. This is a major concern for teachers, especially those that are new to the university classroom.
The tools used for organizing a classroom are vital and help ease the way for many beginning college composition teachers. Perhaps the most crucial of these tools is the textbook. Choosing a textbook is in itself a difficult task. It doesn’t seem likely that a teacher who does not believe in what he/she is teaching will sound convincing to his/her students; thus, a textbook must coincide with the teachers’ particular philosophies, and classroom ideals. In addition, teachers who face a multicultural situation must take into consideration what Terence Brunk, Suzanne Diamond, Priscilla Perkins and Ken Smith, the authors of Literacies: Reading, Writing, Interpretation, call the varying “processes of interpretation” (xxvii). In the introduction to their textbook, these authors explain to their readers, “in literacies we offer a series of reading and writing practices that support the process of interpretation” (xxvii). For the authors, interpretation is something that is not assumed or expected from their readers. They make it clear in their introduction that they understand that their readers are using their book as a tool for becoming more strategic interpreters, and explain to their readers that “good readers abandon the safety of ratification and risk an encounter with another person’s ideas and experiences in exchange for the opportunities of new thinking and growth. This back-and-forth process, with its exchange of meanings and its possibilities for making new ones, is interpretation” (xix). The authors do not assume that this level of critical thought already exists in the minds of their readers, and they know that perhaps for many of their readers, their textbook will be their first encounter with this sort of critical thought. They appeal to their readers on a humanistic level not just an intellectual one by asking them to “make sure that their regular interpretive practices engage the best elements of their own judgment and experience,” taking the time to remind students of the fact that the process of interpretation that is involved in the act of reading and writing stems largely from the “regular interpretive practice” that comes with real life encounters and experiences. Most importantly, the authors of Literacies make a profound appeal to their readers when they tell them that “you can make knowledge, not just recall it; you can combine ideas and examples in fresh and interesting ways, not just repeat the combinations that others have made” (xxvii). For many students entering the college classroom, particularly the multicultural student, the idea of being able to “make” knowledge in the academic sphere is a major discovery; it creates a sense of empowerment that allows students to begin to feel like an authority over their own knowledge.
In the framework of this idea of empowerment, for the most part, Literaciesworks well as a textbook. It is organized in such a way that it provides for its readers a very physical experience of the interpretive process that it advocates throughout the whole. It uses process-oriented activities and assignments that allow students to actively participate at all times and at every level of the writing process, while at the same time keeping in mind the varying reading and writing backgrounds of its readers; this is what the authors of Literacies call, “…the process of bringing together literacies that are strangers to each other” (xxii). Whether it is the essays that invite “active reading,” or the invitations to read that ask students to “sit down with one of them and write informally as if they were talking on paper,” the book works hard to break down the writing process for its readers and lives up to the three main ideas in its title: reading, writing, interpretation (xxix).
The organization of the textbook is coherent throughout. Each essay begins with a set of “Before Reading” questions that are used in such a way that it is clear that the authors have taken into account the multicultural student by acknowledging the fact that people bring with them their prejudices, biases and cultural histories when they read; this allows students to understand that this is a normal part of being a human being. This is an extremely important idea for multicultural students who may often feel inferior because of cultural differences. Dean speaks of this concern in her article and believes that “…most often, it is not the home culture that causes the problems, but a fear on the part of students that elements of that culture will not be accepted in the university environment” (36). By acknowledging the fact that people will read a text through different lenses of experience, the authors of Literaciescreate a safe and inviting learning environment for students with different cultural backgrounds.
Take for example the opening essay of the textbook, an essay entitled “Mary” written by Maya Angelou. The essay is an autobiographical piece from Angelou’s memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It is about a little black girl named Margaret that deals with issues of identity and race as she describes her experience with a certain white woman named Mrs. Cullinan whose kitchen became her finishing school. Margaret must deal with the fact that one day Mrs. Cullinan decided to call her Mary instead of Margaret because it is shorter and she does not have time to waste her breath on a little black girl with a long name. The piece deals with issues of schooling asking the readers to ask questions such as the following: Why do we learn certain things? How much choice do we have in the things that we learn? How does race and social class affect our perception and the choices that we make? The Before Reading questions that precede the essay ask the readers to think about some of their personal experiences in this context. The questions include some that ask, “How do you choose an appropriate from of address? How do the forms of address indicate a person’s status?” (Brunk 2). These Before Reading questions are posed in a way that serves to guide the reader toward using their own experiences and histories as a starting point before they go on to the perspectives presented in the essay. The questions work to help students recognize that every culture has its unique set of values, expectations and assumptions. Students dive into the essay with this type of seed planted in their minds as they begin the process of interpretation. This sort of active reading is helpful especially to multicultural students because it gives them a framework for learning how to approach a certain type of text. The Before Reading questions for this particular essay also ask the reader to think about the form of the essay, “Write an account of a childhood experience, perhaps a time when you were blamed for something you didn’t do. How do you encourage readers or listeners to interpret the story as you intend? Based on your observations, how should a reader approach an autobiographical text like ‘Mary’?” (Brunk 2). Questions such as these help students to begin to consider audience and intention. They aid the reader in learning to identify the writers’ specific techniques, and they allow them to be able to relate to certain aspects of writing such as narrative techniques, plot sequence, etc. through their own experiences and in their own contexts. These sorts of questions create a dialogue between the experiences of the readers and the words of the writers, necessitating an active participation on their part. Dean recognizes the importance of this type of active learning for multicultural students. In her article, she quotes James Cummins’ theoretical model for helping students mediate between cultures. Cummins states that in order to help these students deal with cultural differences in their classrooms, teachers must reflect a pedagogy that “promotes intrinsic motivation on the part of students to use language actively in order to generate their own knowledge” (27). Literacies takes this aspect of the multicultural student that Cummins speaks of into account and reinforces it throughout the book. By using the Before Reading questions before each essay, teachers are giving the student a starting point for learning to not only read actively but to think critically.
Once the readers have answered the Before Reading questions and have finished reading the essay, they are given three separate activities that work together to get them to begin thinking about writing a paper, and ask them to contemplate the issues that have been addressed in the essay. The first section of activities is called Active Reading. This section of questions helps readers to begin the process of interpreting the meaning of the essay. In every instance of Active Reading questions throughout the book, readers are asked to trace a certain image, detail or concept by listing its occurrences in the essay or it will ask readers to think about a particular perspective the writer has and how that perspective shifts or changes throughout the piece. For example, the Active Reading questions following Maya Angelou’s essay ask questions such as, “Find several places in Angelou’s essay where her views about herself or other characters change. How does Angelou signal these changes? What knowledge do you bring with you to help you understand the changes?” (Brunk 8). The reader is being asked to not only recognize the views of the writer as they are portrayed in the essay, but the reader is also asked to recognize their own perspective and how it informs their understanding of how the perspectives are similar or different. Additional questions in this set of Active Reading questions ask the reader to “list as many physical traits, furnishings, and customs of the Cullinan house as you can. How do Mrs. Cullinan, her guests, and her employees respond to them? What do their responses suggest about the people who live, work, and visit there? What does the story say or imply about the moral values of Mrs. Cullinan and her friends?” (Brunk 8). With questions like these, the textbook offers readers an opportunity to understand the possibilities of meaning that a writer puts forth with the specific words and images that he/she chooses. Readers can begin to understand that writing is a craft that entails more than just a large vocabulary and involves certain techniques that can be learned once they are recognized. More importantly, readers are being taught to engage a text as active readers.
The next type of question sequence, Reading in New Contexts, extends this idea of active reading even further. These questions ask students to practice the process of interpretation across several essays. The idea of a dialogue between texts is presented in these questions. According to the authors ofLiteracies, the intention of the Reading in New Contexts questions is to “apply a text’s special concepts or terms to another Literacies reading”; a trait, that according to them, comes almost automatically to good readers (xxiv). While it is essential for the reader to become familiar with textuality and its uses in reading and writing, the reader does not need to be labeled as either good or bad. The author’s of Literacies use the label of “a good reader” at several points in their introduction. By doing this, they somewhat alienate those readers that perhaps have not yet read enough to recognize the concept of textuality. Whether a person is a good reader or a bad reader is not a judgment that should be made on the part of the author’s. Their intention is good with the Reading in New Context section, but they do not succeed in explicating its purpose. Students do not need to feel alienated from the craft of the academic discourse more than they already are, especially if they are multicultural students.
The final set of questions seems to work as the final step towards aiding the reader to begin the writing process. These questions are called Draft One/Draft Two questions. There are several features that each set of Draft One/Draft Two questions have in common. Like the rest of the question sequences, they ask the reader to be an active participant in the interpretive process. They are process oriented in the sense that they reinforce the work the reader has already completed with the previous question sequences, and they emphasize revision. They allow students to be exposed to different forms of writing such as journals, personal essays, and other “experimental” forms. Most importantly, these questions ask the reader to make their own personal statements about issues addressed in the essays, placing them in the position to respond to ideas and to practice authority over subjects of academic importance. This is where the framework of empowerment comes full circle. The reader gains a sense of accomplishment at working through every aspect of a particular text, and recognizes his/her own abilities at synthesizing concepts and generating knowledge.
An added feature of the textbook is a section called Invitations to Read and Write. This section consists of fifteen invitations that ask the reader to participate is several different ways. They reflect on certain aspects of the reading and writing process that the author’s of Literacies consider to be “common” (xxix). While it is true that there are certain strategies of the writing process that a majority of writers find helpful, these strategies are by no means “common.” For example, the categories in this section are labeled as follows: 1. Reading Actively; 2. What Does This Have To Do With My Life; 3. Taking a Second Look at the Reading; 4. Getting Started on an Essay; 5. What Is the Assignment Really asking?; 6. Integrating Quotations with Interpretation; 7. What Do the Teacher’s Comments Mean?; 8. Asking Your Own Questions; 9. Organizing, or Making Relations Clear; 10. Checking Your Progress; 11. Responding to Peer’s Draft; 12. How Do you Deal with Error?; 13. Tracking a Pattern of Error; 14. Reviewing…In Your Own Words; 15. Using Your Personal Handbook to Copyread a New Draft (xxx). While some of these categories are extremely helpful for students, such as numbers 2, 4, 12, 13 and 15, others such as “Getting started on an Essay” aren’t as easily realized by students that have a really hard time starting an essay. The textbook does not offer a practical solution for getting started. It merely states that the reader needs to get started; it does not give the reader ideas on how to go about it. The author’s tell their readers, “If you have no idea where to begin, try writing in detail about something you do not understand” (xxxv). This statement would only serve to confuse and overwhelm readers that have always experienced a sense of anxiety over how to go about starting the writing process. It is not very informative, nor is it very helpful.
While the author’s of Literacies fail to be inclusive and instead alienate the reader with labels of good and bad at certain points in their introduction, and while some of their explanations of what they offer the reader are not consistent with their idea of the process of interpretation, their larger intentions for the textbook succeed as a whole because of the reader that they are targeting. They are aware of the multiculturalism that is a huge part of the classroom dynamic today, and they succeeded at creating a textbook full of readings and assignments that are geared toward that dynamic. One of Dean’s major claims is that the composition teacher that succeeds at helping students with cultural transition does so by “helping students acquire academic discourse while retaining pride and a sense of power in the discourse they bring with them” (31). Literacies works as a textbook that does just that. Through its choice of readings and its series of questions, it asks its readers to be in constant dialogue both with what they read and with the personal experiences and histories they bring to those readings, and ultimately provides for its readers a chance to create a sense of empowerment for themselves. The author’s constantly reinforce this dialogue throughout the book and they remind their reader’s that “everything is up for grabs, then, when you think about what you read: and that is the power, and the risk of the encounter. Reading like that can change a person” (xvii).
Brunk, Diamond S., et al. Literacies: Reading, Writing, Interpretation. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2000.
Dean, Terry. “Multicultural Classrooms, Monocultural Teachers.” College Composition and Communication 40 (1989): 23-37.