Thursday, August 23, 2012

Literacy and Power

          "Literacy" is a vexed term with copious conflicting definitions, but an attempt at a working definition is useful here as I explore it with my 1101 students this fall.  I am defining “literacy” as more than the skills of decoding and letter formation, but as reading, writing and composing practices socially situated within culture and power structures.  By using the term composing, I am including digital literacies, music, art and orality. 
            Due to their social situatedness, literacy practices are not neutral.   They are infused with world views, “saturated with ideology” (Street, 1993, p. 435) and therefore carry with them ways of forming identity and reproducing institutions (Gee, 1996 qtd. in Mahiri, 2005).  Brandt (2001) pushes us to look closely at how dominant ways of being and knowing are reproduced with her notion of literacy sponsors.  She asks us to think about who is bankrolling literacy practices in order to make generalizations about power and literacy.  Sponsors of literacy pass on their ideologies to those whom they sponsor.  If one’s literacy sponsor is not a member of the dominant group, or, if that sponsor is a member of the dominant group that is best served by keeping the non-dominant group in that position in society, she can find herself on the economic margins of society. 
             As Brandt points out, literacy is “a key resource in gaining profit and edge” therefore “the powerful work  . . . to conscript and ration the resource of literacy” (p. 21).  Think for a moment about what the music and fashion industries stand to gain from “gangster” literacy practices (Moje, 2000).  Brandt asks us to think about who gets to decide which literacies are valuable, how they are valued, and which ones not valued. She asks us to think of how that valuing is infused with issues of power and powerlessness. 

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