August 26, 2013

Literacies and Fallacies

Category: Digital Citizenship
students setting up equipment to film in classroom

As someone who inhabits multiple learning worlds in libraries and public schools, concepts of literacy–traditional and emerging–are central to my work as I think about pedagogies that inform literacy practices in these spaces.  Educational policies and curricular standards, economic factors, local and federal legislation, and political mandates are increasingly a driving force in the literacy practices championed by libraries (public, academic, K-12) and public schools.  As library and educational organizations craft programming and curriculum in response to traditional literacy mandates like grade-level reading as well as contemporary literacies like digital, new media, and information literacy that are receiving an increased level of attention, I worry we may be missing important blind spots in efforts that are well-intended but narrowly informed by limited definitions that may marginalize those who do not come with the dominant academic and cultural capital that is often privileged in these learning spaces.

Critical Literacy: A Perspective for Framing Our Work

My experiences as a practitioner contextualize how I think about literacy and learning through critical literacy perspectives, theories that explore the dynamics and issues of power, identity, privilege, and agency shaped by “…one’s historical, economic, ethnic, racial, and gendered positioning” (Hull 4).  When I look at policies and practices of multiple literacies being advanced by both libraries and school districts, I can’t help but wonder who is excluded or left on the fringes when we push certain kinds of practices and a narrative of these literacies as the surefire path to academic success and economic mobility.  In the rush to implement “best” practices, do we consider who gets judged and labeled when they don’t adopt these mainstream practices of multiple kinds of literacy?  Are we considering other ways literacy practices may look outside the dominant narratives that are legitimized and replicated?  Are we as librarians and educators asking who really benefits when we perpetuate these literacy practices?  Do these literacy policies and practices foster participatory learning spaces that provide diverse access points to participation for all learners?  Are we critically evaluating the design, methods, and findings of research reports that are used to justify literacy policies and practices?  My questions come from a place of concern that as practitioners, we may not be looking at all possibilities and implications of literacy policies and practices.

Critical Literacy: Deborah Brandt’s “Sponsors of Literacy”

Much of my thinking in this vein of critical literacy is influenced by Deborah Brandt‘s ethnographic research and precepts of “sponsors of literacy.”  Brandt is professor emerita of English at University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of The Acts of Writers, Readers and Texts; Literacy in American Lives; and Literacy and Learning: Reading, Writing, Society.  Brandt’s research interests include social and economic histories of mass literacy; the status of mass writing within late twentieth and early twenty-first century culture; diversity, equity, and access in literacy learning.  I first became interested in Brandt’s work in 2005 as part of a two semester independent research project I undertook under the direction of Mark Faust at the University of Georgia in the final year of my Ed.S. studies.

In Literacy in American Lives, an ethnography of the literacy histories of eighty Americans, Brandt takes a critical examination of literacy learning, literacy development, and literacy opportunities through the critical lens of sponsors of literacy, a concept she defines as “…any agents, local or distant, concrete or abstract, who enable, support, teach, and model, as well as recruit, regulate, suppress, or withhold literacy–and gain advantage by it in some way…sponsors are delivery systems for the economies of literacy, the means by which these forces present themselves to–and through–individual learners.  They also represent the causes into which people’s literacy usually gets required” (19).  Brandt views literacy as a “valuable–and volatile property” (2) that can potentially help individuals gain “…power or pleasure, [accrue] information, civil rights, education, spirituality, status, [and] money” (7).

These literacy sponsors are analogous to Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of “thousands of living dialogic threads” (Bakhtin 276) because an examination of a person’s literacy sponsors “…exposes the deeply textured history that lies within the literacy practices of institutions and within any individuals’ literacy experiences.  Accumulated layers of sponsoring influences—in families, workplaces, schools, memory—carry forms of literacy that have been shaped out of ideological and economic struggles of the past” (56).  All literacy sponsors, past, present, and future, shape a person’s literacy learning, literacy development, and literacy opportunities.

Through her analysis of the literacy sponsors and literacy experiences of the subjects of her research study, Brandt concludes that economic and political interests, not the democratic ideals and principles set forth by America’s founders, heavily influence American literacy experiences and learning inside and outside of the public school system.  Whereas literacy was once rooted in religious and democratic ideals, the aim shifted to “…nation building, social conformity, and civil responsibility” (28).  Brandt provides a warning that echoes concerns being voiced by educators today:  “The more that private interests take over the educational development of our young citizens, the less of a democracy we will have.  The more that the school organizes literacy teaching and learning to serve the needs of the economic system, the more it betrays its democratic possibilities” (205).  Brandt’s assertions speak to the current national concern about corporate interests and their role in the continued emphasis on standardized testing.  As conversations about college and career readiness drive standards adoption, new assessments, and debates about the value of higher education, Brandt’s cautionary statements speak to educators and librarians who see libraries and public schools as cornerstones of democracy, social justice, and equity.  These concerns should make us take more than a glancing pause when we think about who and what drives what is valued as literacy as well as the ways people acquire and use multiple kinds of literacy.

Brandt makes explicit connections between economic forces that drive what counts as literacy and is validated in culture; she makes the case that a framework of sponsors of literacy can reveal “…the ways money gets made and the ways that literacy gets made” (26).  Brandt’s conceptualization of literacy as an economic and political commodity speaks to S. Craig Watkins’ research and work in critical design literacy, a process that “applies the protocols of design thinking to practice social innovations that lead to social transformation.”  As Watkins points out, literacy must be more than just about career and college readiness; his conceptualization of critical design literacy is consistent with Brandt’s view of literacy as something more transformative and that critical design theory “…strives to prepare students for participation in their community.  There is something extraordinarily empowering about seeing the world through the lens of critical design, a lens that encourages students to do what designers do: develop the skills to change existing situations into preferred ones” (Watkins, “Why Critical Design Literacy Is Needed Now More Than Ever“).  Critical literacy lenses like Brandt’s can make visible “…the ways in which power relationships help to determine which literacy practices are available to a given community, which are dominant and privileged, and which are marginalized…a focus on power offers an understanding of the agentive ways in which dominant literacy practices are adopted, appropriated for new purposed, or rejected” (Perry 64).

By looking at sponsors of literacy in the lives of an individual, one can more easily see the forces at work in a person’s literacy learning history and how that may shape current and future literacy practices and opportunities.  By looking at the sponsorship of literacy in an individual’s life, one can see how acts of literacy learning reflect the social and economic conditions of an individual’s life.  The lens of sponsors of literacy also provide us guideposts in tracing the changing conditions of literacy learning across generations and what that history might mean for future generations if the discourse is not disrupted in meaningful ways.

Sponsors of Literacy as an Interpretive Lens for an Inquiry Stance

While Brandt’s work has been rooted primarily in print literacy, I’m interested in using her theoretical framework to look at the ways libraries and schools function as sponsors of literacy in the context of digital, new media, and information literacies.  How might a lens of sponsors of literacy help us critique our practices and decision making processes more thoughtfully as we consider economic, cultural, and technological forces that shape our policies and services?  How might critical literacy theories help us better understand the ways people access and use digital, new media, and information literacies across multiple learning spaces?  How might this framework also better understand the ways people leverage these literacies across multiple boundaries (Connected Learning, “Kris Gutierrez & Bill Penuel – Assessing Connected Learning Outcomes“).  How do we as practitioners negotiate the tension between disrupting dominant practices (in the spirit of Paulo Freire’s work) and honoring the responsibility of scaffolding people’s access to the kinds of cultural capital they need to succeed academically and economically without sacrificing their identity or sense of personal agency?  How do we make more visible their literacy discourses and honor the value in those literacy practices?  How might a perspective of sponsors of literacy help us critique the narratives about multiple kinds of literacy in professional circles and in popular media?

The roles of librarians and educators are being remixed and re-interpreted by the challenges, issues, questions that reflect competing voices and interests.  The work we do will be more organic and strategic if we have the humility and courage to challenge our assumptions about literacy and learning and to interrogate what we believe to be true.  Taking an inquiry stance on multiple literacies is often messy and uncomfortable but necessary if we are to evaluate and unpack our practices to meet the needs of all learners.  Dwelling in inquiry dovetails with the discursive processes of theory informing practice and practice informing theory.  Looking at our work through this critical lens and contemplating the ways in which we are functioning as sponsors of literacy positions us to be more reflective practitioners who are co-learners and to be more intentional in creating inclusive literacy experiences and opportunities.

Banner image credit: danxoneil


Bakhtin, M. (1981). “Discourse in the novel. In The Dialogic Imagination: Four essays by M.M.     
     Bakhtin” (pp. 259-422). Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Brandt, D. (2001). Literacy in American Lives. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Connected Learning. “Kris Gutierrez & Bill Penuel – Assessing Connected Learning Outcomes |” N.p., 14 Feb. 2013. Web.

Hull, Glynda A., Larry Mikulecky, Ralf St. Clair, and Sandra Kerka. “Multiple Literacies: A Compilation for Adult Educators.” California Adult Literacy Professional Development Project. California Department of Education, Adult Education Office, 2003. Web. 15 June 2013.

Perry, K. (2012). “What is Literacy? – A critical overview of sociocultural perspectives.”  Journal of Language and Literacy Education [Online], 8(1), 50-71.

Watkins, S. Craig. “Why Critical Design Literacy Is Needed Now More Than Ever.” Web post. DMLcentral. N.p., 1 May 2012. Web.