Review – Literacies Helps Students Discover Their Own Through Those of Others by Louis Lento
When the four authors of Literacies: Reading, Writing, Interpretation(Norton) constructed this text for college students in early composition courses, they were all teachers at the Rutgers University Writing Program. Terence Brunk, Suzanne Diamond, Priscilla Perkins, and Ken Smith were trying to replace a text that, in their words, “did not sufficiently challenge students to develop meaningful reading, writing, and interpretive skills.” Since these teachers couldn’t find the text they wanted, they decided to create their own, and Literacies was the successful result.
A Socially-Conscious, Critical-Thinking Approach
In light of the authors’ criticism of the book they previously taught from, it is not surprising that Literacies invites students to challenge what they read in this text, even though many of the writers are experts in their fields. Students are encouraged to reflect on the beliefs of others and, when necessary, to assert their counter-ideas to those beliefs. According to the authors, the text is designed to get students to “question boundaries, to grapple with other literacies, to dare to speak within and across academic fields and areas of experience, and to compose essays that go beyond ratification.” The term,ratification, in this case means to use someone else’s views to endorse one’s own views, which is what the authors want students to transcend.
Methodologically-speaking, Literacies emphasizes engaging in social discourse by reading actively, interpreting and responding to others’ perspectives, thinking critically with an integrative mindset, and continually revising essays to produce multiple drafts. The approach of the text should, therefore, align well with composition courses based on both process and social pedagogies.
Exercises and Assignments That Spark the Mind’s Engine
Literacies is packed full of rich readings, engaging assignments, and handy resources. Before the core readings and associated exercises begin, there is a section at the beginning of the text called “Invitations to Read and Write.” These fifteen invitations, with titles like “Reading Actively,” “What Do the Teacher’s Comments Mean?” and “Responding to a Peer’s Draft,” include several prompts that get students thinking and writing about common aspects of the reading and writing process. In the “What Does This Have To Do With My Life?” invitation, for example, one prompt asks students to write about connecting schoolwork with life experience and using that knowledge to deepen the value of their schoolwork. Another prompt asks students to write about how a seemingly academic reading illuminates their lives. There are also invitations that introduce a systematic approach to copyreading, with titles such as “Tracking a Pattern of Error,” “Reviewing . . . in Your Own Words,” and “Using Your Personal Handbook to Copyread a New Draft.” For instance, the “Tracking a Pattern of Error” invitation prompts students to start keeping a record of errors that they find themselves continually making.
After the “Invitations to Read and Write,” the main readings and exercises begin. The readings are the works of well-known writers (including Susan Sontag, Adrienne Rich, and Richard Rodriguez) from a wide range of academic disciplines, writing genres, and cultural experience. These essays, short stories, and interviews, with their diverse perspectives and varied styles, offer something for everyone. Students should, therefore, be pleased to find readings that they can get passionate about. There are four exercises associated with each reading: one before the reading, two after the reading, and then an exercise that prompts students to begin writing essay drafts.
The “Before Reading <author’s name>” exercises provide 3-4 multi-part questions to get students thinking about how certain topics and ideas (that will be revealed in the piece they’re about to read) relate to their own lives. For example, the short story, “Mary” by Maya Angelou is about a young black girl’s pride in her identity. Her name is Margaret, but an older white woman decides to start calling her “Mary,” which greatly angers the young black girl (“imagine letting some white woman rename you for her convenience”). One of the multi-part questions in the “Before Reading Maya Angelou” exercise is “List some of the names, nicknames, even titles (“Dr.,” “Boss,” “Young Lady,” “Young Man,”) that you have been known by or that you have used to address other people. How do you choose an appropriate form of address? How do the forms of address indicate a person’s status?” So before students even start reading, they are prompted to contemplate certain ideas. This seems like a good method for firing up the analytical neurons in order to start engaging in active, rather than passive, reading.
Immediately following each reading is an exercise called “Active Reading.” The exercise comprises 3-4 multi-part questions that ask students to recall certain details about the reading they just read and to come up with their own interpretations about the reading, or parts of the reading. For example, after the “Mary” story just mentioned, one of the multi-part questions is “What does the story say or imply about the moral values of Mrs. Cullinan and her friends? Discuss two or three passages in which their moral values influence young Margaret’s thoughts and actions.” These prompts get students to actively reflect on the reading.
After the Active Reading exercise is an exercise called “Reading in New Contexts,” which provides 3-4 multi-part questions that prompt students to think about the reading they just read within the context of other readings they have read in the text. To continue using Angelou’s “Mary” story as an example, one of the multi-part questions under “Reading in New Contexts” is “What events cause Angelou to gain or lose power? Why? Use Angelou’s experience to examine Brody’s ideas of power beyond the medical profession.” This exercise gives students the opportunity to flex their critical thinking muscles and use their analytical skills to make comparisons among other writers’ views.
The last exercise associated with each reading is called “Draft One/Draft Two.” This exercise, comprised of two multi-part questions about the reading, is designed to get the student drafting an extended piece of writing. The first multi-part question spurs a first draft, and the second multi-part question suggests a revision for producing a second draft. For example, the first question might focus on details from the reading as well as the students’ own experiences, whereas the second question might extend those ideas into a broader picture and ask students to consider their other readings. In the case of Angelou’s “Mary” story, the first question focuses on what characteristics make a family function well in a small community, whereas the second question takes the idea to the next level as the student considers how families relate to the larger social communities around them.
Literacies also has a section, after the core readings and exercises, called “Assignment Sequences.” (Although the readings in the text appear one after the other in alphabetical order according to the writers’ last names, rather than grouped thematically, there are thematic categories.) The Assignment Sequences section presents a list of the readings related to each thematic sequence, along with a paragraph describing the theme of the sequence (such as Sequence 4: Ideas of Assimilation) and what the student should learn from the sequence. Then there are 3-4 assignments that ask students to write an essay focusing on specific ideas found in the readings of that particular sequence.
Also included, near the back of the text, is a handy reference called “Documenting Sources Using MLA and APA Style.” This section helps students with such research tasks as using in-text citations, quoting a long passage or part of a passage, listing works cited, and other reference tasks. A “Biographical Sketches” section provides mini-biographies of the writers whose readings are included in the text. Students can find out the year each writer was born, where they were educated, what their interests and backgrounds are, and what titles they’ve had published. There is also a companion text, A Guide to Teaching with Literacies, which offers ideas for planning a course using Literacies, discussions of the textbook’s major sections and pedagogical features, and essays by three teachers describing practical, hands-on classroom experience with Literacies in first-year writing courses at Rutgers University.
Assumptions of Context and Conversation
Like other college composition texts, Literacies, is based on certain assumptions about writing, reading, language, knowledge, education, and culture. One of the assumptions in this text is that reading and writing are “situated activities” that involve the negotiation of specific texts and contexts between specific readers and writers. The authors believe that reading, writing, and interpretation are processes with a contextual character. Therefore, Literacies doesn’t try to reduce those processes to mere methods or procedures, but rather focuses on the students’ “self-conscious reflexivity” as they “reconceive” their own acts of writing.
The book develops from the premise that good writing evolves from a conversation between text and reader. The authors look at reading and writing as “conversational processes” and maintain that people “listen” to what texts say, discuss with other readers the meanings they find, and “talk back” to those texts by writing and revising their responses to the ideas they encounter. In the case of Literacies, the readings were chosen to represent many different ways of interpreting experience and the world.
To drive home the efficacy of their conversational, critical-thinking approach and to answer those students who question whether they should be challenging the “experts,” the authors of Literacies provide an anecdote in the Introduction about one of the writers whose essay, “The Anthropological Looking Glass,” appears in this text. Nancy Scheper-Hughes, although an expert on a particular village in Western Ireland, considered the feedback (which was often angry) of the actual villagers who read her book about their village, even going as far as to “revise her ideas about an anthropologist’s ethical obligations to the people she studies.” And even though many of the villagers disputed the book, some began to examine the difficult social problems that the book revealed. Through this seemingly unequal exchange between an expert anthropologist and the people she studies, both sides taught each other things they hadn’t considered or expected. According to the authors of Literacies, “in any field, an outsider’s point of view can sometimes provoke a breakthrough.”
Variety of Potential Uses for Classroom Application
Any instructor of college-level composition could put Literacies to good use by either designing a whole course around the text, or by using the text as a reader to complement his or her own curriculum. The text lends itself well to a variety of classroom activities, including whole-class discussion, group discussion, in-class reading and writing, peer review, even student presentations on citing sources according to MLA conventions. If students have an especially strong to reaction to a particular reading, the instructor could let them express those reactions in their own writing, rather than having them answer the specific questions in the provided exercises.
Other potential uses for Literacies are suggested in A Guide to Teaching with Literacies. The three teacher essays provided in the guide describe their classroom experience with Literacies in first-year writing courses at Rutgers University. One teacher suggests that rather than getting bogged down in futile pro vs. con arguments, one could use this text so that students can share in “the inventive work of interpretation” by being alert to how the writers in the text shape their writing. Another teacher suggests that one could design and use a three-assignment sequence to prepare students to bridge the gap between their personal experience and the demands of academic writing. The third teacher maintains that one could use the text to structure assignments and class activities to help students move beyond simple editing to substantial rethinking and revision based on rereading the challenging readings in the text.
The flexibility of Literacies allows instructors to assign readings and exercises in a variety of ways. They can make selections according to their own interests or the students’ interests; they can randomly select one reading (and its associated set of exercises) from each of the thematic sequences; or they can have students work on all of the readings and exercises in a particular sequence, where they are focusing on one specific topic for several weeks. Of course, any combination of these alternatives is possible, as well as many others that the creative course designer might come up with. Being able to adapt their use of a text according to the level of the students, the level of the course, the monotony factor, or a number of other reasons is important to composition instructors.
Literacies’ Strengths Overshadow Its Weaknesses
As a valuable resource for teachers of composition, Literacies has a lot going for it. The readings, written by diverse writers with a variety of stylistic, thematic, and interpretive approaches, are rich and engaging. The exercises that prompt students to write, rethink, and revise are dynamic and thought-provoking. The section on “Documenting Sources Using MLA and APA Style,” although not totally comprehensive, serves as a handy reference when the student doesn’t have his or her grammar handbook nearby. And the “Biographical Sketches” section lets students find out about the writers whose works they’re reading. It is always helpful to know where the writer is “coming from” when responding to and challenging others’ views. Finally, the layering of the exercises allows instructors to use Literacies to teach composition to new college freshman, as well as to more advanced students.
Of course, no textbook is perfect, and Literacies is no exception. The organization and content of the exercises, for instance, are somewhat artificial and redundant (with the Before Reading, Active Reading, Reading in New Contexts, and Draft One/Draft Two structure always repeating itself with similar prompts). Also, navigating within a thematic sequence of readings can be slightly annoying since the readings are not grouped together by theme, but rather are located in the text alphabetically by the writers’ last names. And for the instructor wanting to focus his or her course around this text, good luck in getting through all the readings and exercises in one semester. Lastly, some students might need a bit of hand-holding by the teacher until they start getting comfortable with the challenge set before them. These are small prices to pay, though, for an excellent text that expands the reading, writing, and interpretive skills of students.
This is probably why Literacies is such a popular composition textbook in colleges such as Rutgers University, San Diego State University, and several others. Literacies stands out among the crowd of existing texts because it gives students permission to question others and challenges them to assert their authorial voices. Kudos to Brunk, Diamond, Perkins, and Smith for producing such a solid, engaging composition text.
Brunk, Terence, Diamond, Suzanne, Perkins, Priscilla, and Smith, KenLiteracies: Reading, Writing, Interpretation. London, New York: Norton, 2000.
Brunk, Terence, Diamond, Suzanne, Perkins, Priscilla, and Smith, Ken A Guide to Teaching With Literacies. London, New York: Norton, 1997, 2000.