Review – Literacies Helps Students Discover Their Own Through Those of Others by Louis Lento
When the four authors ofÂ 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, â€œdid not sufficiently challenge students to develop meaningful reading, writing, and interpretive skills.â€ Since these teachers couldnâ€™t find the text they wanted, they decided to create their own, andÂ LiteraciesÂ was the successful result.
A Socially-Conscious, Critical-Thinking Approach
In light of the authorsâ€™ criticism of the book they previously taught from, it is not surprising thatÂ LiteraciesÂ 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 â€œquestion 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.â€ The term,ratification, in this case means to use someone elseâ€™s views to endorse oneâ€™s own views, which is what the authors want students to transcend.
Methodologically-speaking,Â LiteraciesÂ emphasizes engaging in social discourse by reading actively, interpreting and responding to othersâ€™ 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 Mindâ€™s Engine
LiteraciesÂ 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 â€œInvitations to Read and Write.â€ These fifteen invitations, with titles like â€œReading Actively,â€ â€œWhat Do the Teacherâ€™s Comments Mean?â€ and â€œResponding to a Peerâ€™s Draft,â€ include several prompts that get students thinking and writing about common aspects of the reading and writing process. In the â€œWhat Does This Have To Do With My Life?â€ 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 â€œTracking a Pattern of Error,â€ â€œReviewing . . . in Your Own Words,â€ and â€œUsing Your Personal Handbook to Copyread a New Draft.â€ For instance, the â€œTracking a Pattern of Errorâ€ invitation prompts students to start keeping a record of errors that they find themselves continually making.
After the â€œInvitations to Read and Write,â€ 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 â€œBefore Reading <authorâ€™s name>â€ exercises provide 3-4 multi-part questions to get students thinking about how certain topics and ideas (that will be revealed in the piece theyâ€™re about to read) relate to their own lives. For example, the short story, â€œMaryâ€ by Maya Angelou is about a young black girlâ€™s pride in her identity. Her name is Margaret, but an older white woman decides to start calling her â€œMary,â€ which greatly angers the young black girl (â€œimagine letting some white woman rename you for her convenienceâ€). One of the multi-part questions in the â€œBefore Reading Maya Angelouâ€ exercise is â€œList some of the names, nicknames, even titles (â€œDr.,â€ â€œBoss,â€ â€œYoung Lady,â€ â€œYoung Man,â€) 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 personâ€™s status?â€ 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 â€œActive Reading.â€ 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 â€œMaryâ€ story just mentioned, one of the multi-part questions is â€œWhat 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 Margaretâ€™s thoughts and actions.â€ These prompts get students to actively reflect on the reading.
After the Active Reading exercise is an exercise called â€œReading in New Contexts,â€ 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 Angelouâ€™s â€œMaryâ€ story as an example, one of the multi-part questions under â€œReading in New Contextsâ€ is â€œWhat events cause Angelou to gain or lose power? Why? Use Angelouâ€™s experience to examine Brodyâ€™s ideas of power beyond the medical profession.â€ This exercise gives students the opportunity to flex their critical thinking muscles and use their analytical skills to make comparisons among other writersâ€™ views.
The last exercise associated with each reading is called â€œDraft One/Draft Two.â€ 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 studentsâ€™ 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 Angelouâ€™s â€œMaryâ€ 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.
LiteraciesÂ also has a section, after the core readings and exercises, called â€œAssignment Sequences.â€ (Although the readings in the text appear one after the other in alphabetical order according to the writersâ€™ 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 â€œDocumenting Sources Using MLA and APA Style.â€ 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 â€œBiographical Sketchesâ€ 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 theyâ€™ve had published. There is also a companion text,Â A Guide to Teaching with Literacies, which offers ideas for planning a course usingÂ Literacies, discussions of the textbookâ€™s major sections and pedagogical features, and essays by three teachers describing practical, hands-on classroom experience withÂ LiteraciesÂ in first-year writing courses at Rutgers University.
Assumptions of Context and Conversation
Like other college composition texts,Â 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 â€œsituated activitiesâ€ 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,Â LiteraciesÂ doesnâ€™t try to reduce those processes to mere methods or procedures, but rather focuses on the studentsâ€™ â€œself-conscious reflexivityâ€ as they â€œreconceiveâ€ 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 â€œconversational processesâ€ and maintain that people â€œlistenâ€ to what texts say, discuss with other readers the meanings they find, and â€œtalk backâ€ to those texts by writing and revising their responses to the ideas they encounter. In the case ofÂ 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 â€œexperts,â€ the authors ofÂ LiteraciesÂ provide an anecdote in the Introduction about one of the writers whose essay, â€œThe Anthropological Looking Glass,â€ 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 â€œrevise her ideas about an anthropologistâ€™s ethical obligations to the people she studies.â€ 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 hadnâ€™t considered or expected. According to the authors ofÂ Literacies, â€œin any field, an outsiderâ€™s point of view can sometimes provoke a breakthrough.â€
Variety of Potential Uses for Classroom Application
Any instructor of college-level composition could putÂ LiteraciesÂ 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 forÂ LiteraciesÂ are suggested inÂ A Guide to Teaching with Literacies.Â The three teacher essays provided in the guide describe their classroom experience withÂ LiteraciesÂ 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 â€œthe inventive work of interpretationâ€ 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 ofÂ LiteraciesÂ allows instructors to assign readings and exercises in a variety of ways. They can make selections according to their own interests or the studentsâ€™ 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.
Literaciesâ€™Â Strengths Overshadow Its Weaknesses
As a valuable resource for teachers of composition,Â LiteraciesÂ 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 â€œDocumenting Sources Using MLA and APA Style,â€ although not totally comprehensive, serves as a handy reference when the student doesnâ€™t have his or her grammar handbook nearby. And the â€œBiographical Sketchesâ€ section lets students find out about the writers whose works theyâ€™re reading. It is always helpful to know where the writer is â€œcoming fromâ€ when responding to and challenging othersâ€™ views. Finally, the layering of the exercises allows instructors to useÂ LiteraciesÂ to teach composition to new college freshman, as well as to more advanced students.
Of course, no textbook is perfect, andÂ LiteraciesÂ 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 writersâ€™ 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 whyÂ LiteraciesÂ is such a popular composition textbook in colleges such as Rutgers University, San Diego State University, and several others.Â LiteraciesÂ 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.Â London, New York: Norton, 2000.
Brunk, Terence, Diamond, Suzanne, Perkins, Priscilla, and Smith, KenÂ A Guide to Teaching With Literacies.Â London, New York: Norton, 1997, 2000.