Review – Literacies: Fostering Writers and Thinkers The Process of Writing by Elsie B.C. Rivas
The textbook, Literacies: Reading, Writing and Interpretation, edited by Terence Brunk, Suzanne Diamond, Priscilla Perkins, and Ken Smith, goes far beyond teaching the five-paragraph essay. This textbook, which is designed for beginning college-level writers, aims to empower students by helping them to find their voice through a rigorous (but enjoyable) process of interpreting and challenging diverse texts. There are over forty readings by very different authors that can be grouped at the teacher’s discretion into suggested sequences. The sequences focus mainly on political issues, as demonstrated by some of the sequence titles: The Social Contexts of Literacy, Power and Knowledge in Everyday Life, Gender and “Truth,” Family in Context,” and Community and Individual Agency. The editors are asking students to think about complicated issues and to develop their ideas about them.
The editors reveal their openness to students with the simple statement, “Read Literacies as openly and contentiously as you can” (Guide xvi). The editors welcome the students to challenge their text, like they would any other, and show that what they really want, in addition to fostering good writers, is to foster talented thinkers. Literacies goes beyond mechanics and grammar. It teaches both those things, even includes an abridged version of MLA and APA format. However, it also demands from students and teachers that they become better writers through thoughtful inquisition and by grappling with challenging which model for them the varied ways successful writing takes form. This is a book that values students and recognizes their ability to think critically. It marries the craft of writing to purpose, and shows students that there is a point to all their writing, a lesson that they can carry with them long after they finish their composition classes.
In the introduction to the teacher’s manual, A Guide to Teaching with Literacies, the editors reveal, “Our pedagogy departs from many of the most influential recent trends in composition theory, but it shares elements with many of them” (xix-xx). The influence of both process and expressivist pedagogies can be found in the many writing prompts which accompany each reading. There are four types of questions for each reading: Before Reading, After Reading, Reading in New Contexts, and Draft One/ Draft Two questions. The Before Reading questions “awknowledge[s] two facts: that people bring their histories, experiences, and prejudices with them when they read, and that this is not a weakness but a normal trait of reading “ (Guide xxix). These questions get the students thinking about the issues before reading and examining their own expectation regarding the text. The Active Reading questions “ask students to move an idea or example through some series of contexts offered by a single reading” (Guide xxx). These questions help the students to participate in the text by developing their own interpretations. “The Reading in New Contexts questions work in two basic ways: They move from the current reading outward or from a different reading toward the current one” (Guide xxxi). Students are challenged to take ideas from different pieces and to use them in new contexts. The Draft One/ Draft Two questions especially encourage students to revise their work dramatically and energetically. The Draft Two questions take what was accomplished in the Draft One questions and take it several steps further by asking for students to use more texts, often including personal experience, into their new draft which deals with larger concepts.
Literacies has many features that reflect and promote process pedagogy very successfully. There are two other types of writing prompts in the text which especially foster process. The first are called Invitations to Write, and they do just that. They invite students to write casually about their reading and writing with questions such as: “What Does This Have to Do with My Life?” in which the students are asked to relate their reading to something personal. Other questions focus on revision, grammatical error, teacher feedback, and rereading. These questions serve as useful tools throughout the semester for students to focus on their progress and develop their metacognitive skills. Their purposes are varied but all work together to help the student become aware of the many steps involved in writing and become more sophisticated in their ability to use the steps as necessary for different writing tasks. The editors explain the purposes of the Invitations as: to get the students immediately writing and reading, to make them more self-aware of their own processes, to help them use these processes sensibly and to help them learn new tools, to demystify the process by starting conversations, and to encourage students to ask questions (Guide xxiii). Students are encouraged to find what works best for them and to continually examine their strategies. There is no one “right” way of composing, but various options which students are invited to try. Also included are assignment sequences to accompany the reading sequences. The assignments are larger essay assignments that also build on each other. Revision is encouraged by these questions that, instead of dismissing the former assignments, actually use them as springboards.
Teachers using this text are encouraged, more broadly, to be flexible and cyclical when designing their classes (Guide ix). Teachers are encouraged to listen to students’ needs and be aware of the class dynamic. The Literaciesclassroom is not one controlled by the teacher, but one where the teacher helps the students to meet their highest potential by providing them with resources and skills necessary to become better, more confident writers. Students are also offered “cognitive space” to think about their writing, both before and after they do it, through student workshops and teacher conferences (Guide xi).
This book is a wonderful text for beginning writers—it is welcoming and challenging. The reading and writing assignments are suitable for lower level writers as well as more advanced writers. My only suggestion for improvement would be to lay out the readings according to their reading sequences. Right now, the texts are in alphabetical order and can be difficult to find. The editors choose challenging and provocative subjects to explore and treat students as adults with valuable opinions. This book seems like a pleasure to teach and study.
The Politics of Thinking
Literacies explores opposing ideologies and politics by presenting writers with opposing opinions, as well as asking students to develop and challenges their own opinions. Maxine Hairston, author of Diversity, Ideology, and Teaching Writing, would be greatly opposed to the pedagogy behind this book, not to mention the ideological implications. She argues, “Writing courses, especially required freshman courses should not be for anything orabout anything other than writing itself and how one uses it to learn and think and communicate” (22). She disapproves of writing courses that deal with social or political issues. Whereas Hairston would have writing be an isolated endeavor, the editors of Literacies claim that, “Reading and writing are situated activities. They do not take place in an abstract plane, but rather involve specific readers and writers negotiating specific texts and contexts” (Brunk ix). When working with Literacies, we see that writing has a purpose beyond just making us better writers. A writing course designed around Literacies will inevitably be about more than writing; it will enable the writer to write even more skillfully and passionately, with confidence in the value of his voice. Hairston continues her argument, “ The new models envisions required writing courses as vehicles for social reform rather than as student-centered workshops designed to build student’s confidence and competence as writers” (23). Why accomplishing her goals would exclude the possibility of engaging students with important issues they will face once they step out of the writing classroom is never made clear. She also fails to explain why students should not be exposed to new and diverging ideas to inform their writing, and why they should not see their writing, regardless of their politics as tools for social reform. The editors of Literacies proclaim proudly that, “we see writing as a tool to change (not reproduce) social norms” (xx). The knowledge that social ills exist and that we, as writers, and as people, have a say about them, perhaps even a duty to change them, appears far more empowering than dangerous to the beginning writer. Countless teachers teach writing as if it’s some skill to master for the sake of getting good grades. How much more motivating would it be for writing to be taught as a tool in changing communities?
Among Hairston’s legitimate concerns is that some teachers who bring ideology into the classroom, may only want to hear opinions that reflect their own ideology, who dismiss and even demean students ideas (24). The possibility for a teacher to disrespect her students exists in every classroom; even the teacher who focuses solely on writing can demean and intimidate her students. The problem is the teacher’s approach, not the subject being taught. How to instruct students in Standard English, and how much to instruct, is a widely debated issue which Hairston also addresses. She explains, “The code words for our attempts to build the kind of inclusive curriculum that we need have become ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘cultural diversity.’ They’re good terms, of course. Any informed and concerned educator endorses them in the abstract” (28). She appears to be at a loss for ways to concretely incorporate this “cultural diversity” into a curriculum. Perhaps the only answer to this problem is to include social issues into the curriculum, to address the inherent power structures found in the classroom and the world, and to foster an array of discourses, instead of the standard academic discourse so many students are excluded from. Literacies strives to embrace diversity by acknowledging that “in the late twentieth century, it is not possible to assume that there is one general sort of literacy that suits all experiences, all audiences, all occasions” (xix). Instead of excluding them from the dialogue before they have a chance to develop, Literacies makes room for the emerging writers and the ideas they will bring to the classroom.
Hairston cites Seale who condemns English teachers who teach Composition for believing that the study of the humanities is:
based on two primary assumptions. 1. They believe that Western civilization in general, and the United States in particular, are in large part oppressive, patriarchal, hegemonic, and in need of replacement or at least transformation. 2. The primary function of teaching the humanities is political; they [the cultural left] do not really believe the humanities are valuable in their own right except as a means of achieving social transformation (38) [Hairston 27].
I agree that this is the view of many teachers of English, as well teachers of political science, economics, religion, social science, history, philosophy, and many other disciplines. I would also argue that they are right. Universities, including the writing classroom, are places for new ideas, growth and exploration. Many of the selections in Literacies may encourage students to challenge the status quo, and to look at their civilization from different perspectives. For example, reading Richard Rodriguez’s essay “Complexion,” may cause students to reexamine how they perceive people’s social class according to their appearance, and to question the social structures that value “intellectual” labor over rigorous “physical” labor. Those very political questions reveal inequalities and could lead to a transformation in some students. I can find no fault with that.
Hairston questions the ability of English teachers to effectively explore social issues. She argues, “When classes focus on complex issues such as racial discrimination, economic injustices, and inequities of class and gender, they should be taught by qualified faculty who have the depth of information and historical competence that such critical social issues warrant” (28). For Hairston, the idea of authority is primary—teachers should be authorities on the subject in order to facilitate effective discussions, they should have answers. Literacies undermines the construct of “authority” by asking students to share their ideas and value their experiences. Literacies tries to foster what they call “critical tools,” which are “new invention strategies: when students see where ideas come from, they can make new ones themselves. The readings we have chosen, therefore, are not canonical or definitive; they are suggestive” (xxvi). Unlike what Hairston fears, teachers using the Literacies text are not encouraged to force ideas on their students, but rather to foster collaborative learning, where both students and teachers are respected as authorities on the text and their own interpretations. Exploring important issues using texts which are complicated and challenging will help students by giving them models of successful writing, while also giving them a space to think about contemporary issues that affect their lives. Hairston’s idea that only so called “authorities” can work with complicated ideas, such as race, underestimates students and teachers and discourages students from partaking in the intellectual growth which is the goal of higher education.
Hairston’s critique of bringing ideology into the continues, “Multicultural issues are too complex and diverse to be dealt with fully and responsibly in an English course, much less a course in which the focus should be on writing, not reading” (31). In addition to the fact that no classroom could fully exhaust the range of issues involved in multicultural issues, her comment underestimates the value of reading successful texts. The editors ofLiteracies explain their goal in presenting so much reading to students: “It encourages students, in effect, to use texts as partners who can help them make points that their want to make, rather than simply reproduce the ideas of experts. This model treats knowledge as an open zone, full of fruitful possibilities for understanding . . . and it carries with it a democratic assumption that everyone (regardless of background or experience) is entitled to develop the skills of literacy and to take part in the process of making knowledge” (Guide xix). There is no distinction between the value of a student’s voice and the voice and authority of the text. Making such a distinction only discourages beginning writers by enforcing the notion powerlessness. Literacies aims to make students feel capable of communicating effectively in their writing. While no teacher in her right mind would tell students that they know everything, she would instruct students on how to make successful arguments and present their ideas in written form. A student has the same right as any so-called “authority” to express her opinion, and make critical analyses of others ideas. The editors of Literacies insist that all students are capable of creating knowledge.
When Hairston proclaims, “The real political truth about classrooms is that the teacher has all the power; she sets the agenda, she controls the discussion, and she gives the grades. She also knows more and can argue more skillfully” she ignores the tenets of process pedagogy (30). The traditional writing classroom, which is strictly run by the teacher, is long outdated. It is possible to give students control over the discussion and agenda; teachers can become facilitators instead of dictators controlling the students. The best feature of Literacies is that it empowers students. The editors explain their goal:
When writing is portrayed as an attempt to master authoritative voices,
students are bound to fail. If we want our writing courses to be places where
students learn how to make knowledge, we have to start by accepting the
partialness of their (and our own) perspectives, experience, and prejudice.
That’s where knowledge is made. There is no one who doesn’t have to deal
with that same partialness in his or her own writing. When we canonize
authority we pretend otherwise (Guide xxi).
This “decanonization” empowers students and teachers to tackle difficult subjects with confidence. Writing which is motivated by a desire to communicate, not just to fulfill a class requirement, is far more powerful writing, not to mention a far more pleasant writing experience. While learning how to improve their writing, they will be learning how to interpret, question, and explore varied texts. Beyond exploring political issues, it is important to change the politics of the traditional writing classroom into one where students’ abilities are fostered and their voices respected, andLiteracies strives to do just that.
Brunk, Terence, Suzanne Diamond, Priscilla Perkins, and Ken Smith eds. Literacies: Reading Writing, Interpretation. New York: Norton, 1997.
—, eds. A Guide to Teaching with Literacies: Reading, Writing, Interpretation. New York: Norton, 1997.
Hairston, Maxine. “Diversity, Ideology, and Teaching Writing.” College Composition and Communication 43(May 1992): 179-93.