Monthly Archives: January 2008

Way With Words

“You’ve lost your way with words,
Or at least that’s what I’ve heard.
You’ve lost your way with words,
And to me, what could be worse?”

~The Starting Line, “Way With Words”

Having a way with words—being able to express things with intelligence and eloquence—is an important thing. Of course, words have always been the beloved tool of poets, authors, and bloggers, but they certainly do not reach their limit there.

Everyone can use a way with words. It conveys a sense of credibility and confidence. It helps scientists publish their findings. It helps leaders deliver moving speeches. It helps historians decode antiquated written sources. It helps web designers create clean layouts that still convey maximum information. It helps teachers express a foreign idea to students in a relatable way.

But not just in the professional sense does our use of language help us. It is our way with words that allows us to calm a panicked friend or intrigue a lover. It is how we introduce ourselves and explain apologies. It is how we contextualize the stories of our own lives.

The better we can use words, the better we can say what we mean.

What’s more important than that?

Blogs in Class?

Here is an essay of mine that praises the blog as an educational tool in the English classroom. Although it seems redundant in the Edublogs community, I can always hope that some crotchety, “I don’t understand computer stuff” type of teacher will stumble upon it and reform. This piece compares the eve of wired classrooms with the eve of writing itself as a technology, showing how we’re in the middle of a second, riveting, knowledge revolution. Hooray for blogging teachers everywhere!

The Beauty of the Blog

Technology saturates our world. Gone are the days where computers and their many uses were reserved solely for the super smart or gearheads among us. New things made possible by recent technology are morphing even seemingly low-tech fields like never before. Blogging in the language arts classroom is a perfect example of a new thing that is making a change in an area of study that is not traditionally technology based. In the field of literacy education—teaching students to read well, write fluently, and think critically—things are changing fast. This is not, however, the first time that literacy has been altered by technology. The first time was at the dawn of the written word, when writing itself was considered a technological innovation. Both that ancient period of change and the one that we live and breathe in right now have much in common. Just as the first forms of writing did in their era, today’s weblogs and online forums are changing the way that literacy evolves in academic settings.

To compare the literacy revolution of today with that of the past, it is necessary to fully understand the impact that the very invention of writing had upon society as a whole. In his influential essay “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought,” Walter Ong describes just that. He discusses the invention of writing as something that changed, radically, how people thought: “Writing separates academic learning (…) from wisdom (…), making possible the conveyance of highly organized abstract thought structures independently of their actual use or of their integration into the human lifeworld” (Ong 27). Whereas people once communicated orally, passing knowledge from one to the other in a simple, hear-and-remember process, the new technology of writing gave people the power to record a piece of knowledge and re-examine it again and again in its textual form. This separated the creator of an idea from the idea itself for the first time, which allows for abstract thought, critical discussion, and objective interpretation (Ong 25). It is difficult to imagine society without these processes, since they are fairly synonymous with today’s notion of higher learning and thought. But writing and its consequences were indeed revolutionary at the eve of their invention: “Writing was an intrusion, though an invaluable intrusion, into the early human lifeworld, much as computers are today” (Ong 21). The invention of writing forced orally based literacy practices into a whole new, much larger realm.

Now we stand on the cusp of another intrusion of new technology. Ong argues that this one will also irreversibly alter the way people use knowledge, stating “Print and electronics continue with new intensification and radical transformations the diaeretic programme initially set in motion by writing” (Ong 29). Dennis Baron, another notable writer on literacy, makes a similar assertion in his essay “From Pencils to Pixels: The Stages of Literacy Technologies.” This is already seen in Baron’s opening sentence: “The computer, the latest development in writing technology, promises, or threatens, to change literacy practices for better or worse, depending on your point of view (70). In the early days of writing, the ability to put ideas on paper was the center of a literacy revolution. Today, the ability to put ideas in an infinitely reproducible and shareable format is the center of another.
The idea of computers influencing literacy, though defended adamantly by Baron and Ong, may seem like a strange one at first, especially for one who does not normally think of technology and literacy practices as cooperating agents. As Baron puts it; “Most people think of writers as rejecting technological innovations like the computer and the information superhighway” (72). So, how can we validate the claim that computers are intrinsically linked to literacy? Where do writers fit in the online world?

Let’s return to our example of blogging in the classroom as a concrete realization of the predictions made by the aforementioned essays as well as this one. A “blog,” or “weblog” as they were first named, is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as “A website that displays in chronological order the postings by one or more individuals and usually has links to comments on specific postings” (Weblog). This definition is an important one, as it has much to do with the future of academia.

Biz Stone, author of multiple books on blogs and their increasing influence on society, makes an eye-opening observation—“With major institutions like Harvard, Dartmouth, and Wellesley, as well as several high schools, middle schools, and even elementary schools realizing that there’s something [to the use of blogs], blogging is unavoidably headed into the trenches of learning” (179). Some of the finest academic institutions in our nation are discovering the beauty of the blog. Let’s take a closer look at how this works and how it relates to the new literacy revolution.

The basic idea of blogging is much like the common classroom practice of keeping a personal response journal. Traditionally, most language arts students have been expected to keep a journal at one time or another. This journal, kept in a notebook or folder, is a compilation of personal responses to the course reading material. It may also include quotations or references to outside sources that relate to the reading or the ideas inspired by it. A blog is essentially the electronic, internet-based version of the same thing, except that it has evolved some new features. A blog can be accessed at anytime, by anyone who has access to it at any internet connection. Viewers of a blog can immediately respond to what they read by commenting on it, and the author can write back. Blogs are a living, community-shaped entity that students and teachers alike can treat as a test site for new ideas. Blogging students turn their personal webspace into a thinking tool.

But there is also a broader discussion to be had about educational blogging. The blog shows us two aspects of new technology: one threatening aspect and one inspiring aspect. Incidentally, these same concerns were also held by the people who first encountered the technology of writing. The threatening aspect is the potential for fraud. The inspiring aspect is active learning inside a bigger world.

Fraud is a very real problem in the online realm. Baron reminds us that “anyone with a computer and a modem can put information into cyberspace” (81). This is a dangerous thing, especially if the person adding information has an extensive knowledge of how to alter that information. The contents of a blog, or of any web-based resource, always have a potential for corruption. The online world, so instantaneous and anonymous, makes it difficult to track and monitor every move of every user. This potential can be frightening, and it leads us to the question “How do we know that we can trust anything that we read online?”

The same uneasiness about fraud rocked the early writing world. Initial writing provided no means of authentication, such as signatures (Baron 76). People had no way to prove that the writing held in their hands was also written by their hand. Even once the signature was put into use, many documents still ended up in fraudulent endeavors. The invention of watermarks, dates, serial numbers, differing paper qualities, and stylistic analysis came about subsequently, to try to prevent incidences of fraud (Baron 76). Similar provisions are being made to electronic texts, including blogs: “special adjustments can be made so that passwords and permissions create a gated blogging community” (Stone 183). The ability to keep only classroom eyes on a classroom blog helps ease fear of fraud, much in the same way that written documents with signatures and identification numbers assure us of their official nature. Still, the truth remains that anytime, anywhere, to anyone, the far corners of the internet are open for use and modification.

While we must be careful to control the potential abuse of this technology, it also offers possibilities to embrace. One great thing about the freedom of viewing and distributing information is that it provides new ways of learning and expands our world. Again, these same qualities were seen at the advent of writing.

Throughout his essay, Ong strongly argues that writing’s emergence into an oral culture turned flat, stagnant ideas into living, developing ones. Ong states that writing has a “potential for being resurrected into limitless living contexts by a limitless number of living readers” (22). Thanks to writing, anyone who holds a specific text in his or her hands has the power to read it, think about it, and discuss it with others. Since texts can be duplicated, the size of the audience can certainly come close to limitless. Every audience member has an input on the ideas generated by the text, and adds to the canon of criticism upon it. In turn, the ideas surrounding a text become far greater than the text itself, and they give birth to new insights.

Writing also accomplished what Baron calls “bridging time and space” (75). The author of a text may have been from a faraway place and might have died a century before, but his ideas can still be accessed as long as the text still survives. This quality of the written world allowed, and still allows, us to gain the viewpoints of thinkers from extremely diverse time periods, places, cultures, and social statuses. Ong says of this, “Writing is a time-obviating, context-free mechanism. (…) Writing is a consciousness raising and humanizing technology” (31).

New technology, specifically classroom blogging, is having a similar effect on literacy. Time and space can now be bridged in ways never before thought possible. With writing, anyone with a text had access to its ideas. With the internet, anyone has access to anyone’s ideas, as long as they have an internet connection. Also, the time of physical transfer has been obliterated. No copies have to be printed and distributed; no time transpires between the uploading of new material and the first viewer’s eyes resting upon it. Students with blogs can essentially hold class with one or all classmates, anytime and anywhere: “From their seats. From their bedrooms. From any web connection anywhere in the world at any time of day or night” (177). Online discussion actually makes it feasible for thirty students in thirty different countries to be educated as one classroom over one semester.

Student bloggers get feedback on their ideas not just from one teacher, but also from all of their classmates and anyone else that they choose to invite. The feedback comes in a steady stream throughout the life of the blog, not just in one letter-grade at the end of the semester. Blogs are a place where students can reflect, generate, and discuss ideas. With this interaction taking place, the world expands and diversifies before students’ eyes: “When feedback and interlinking begin to take place among the blogs, the opinions, ideas, and content becomes knitted together into a whole that is greater than the sum of its individual parts. And that’s when blogging really comes alive” (Stone 180). The online world invites students and teachers of literacy to make use of it, as it intensifies the best, most revolutionary traits of writing itself.

Baron says explicitly what most of us understand as inevitable truth—“Computer communications are not going to go away” (75). For this reason, writers and thinkers must embrace new technology. They must come up with their own innovative uses of the innovations set before them. And, we can see while considering classroom blogs, that this is already happening. The very word “literacy” takes on a slightly different meaning every day, as we all contribute to our expression of what it means to us. Now that we can share and develop those expressions faster, easier, and in a much larger realm, perhaps the definition of literacy will shift more quickly than we expect it to. Baron tells us, “Once writers—in a more ‘modern’ sense of the world—discovered what writing could do, there was no turning back” (75). Again, we are finding incredible new possibilities in technology, and there is certainly no turning back. There is only moving marvelously forward into a global classroom, the new birthplace of literacy.

Works Cited
Baron, Dennis. “From Pencils to Pixels: The Stages of Literacy Technologies.” Literacy: a Critical Sourcebook. Cushman, Ellen, et. al., ed.s. New York, New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001.
Ong, Walter J., S.J. “Writing Is a Technology that Restructures Thought.” Literacy: a Critical Sourcebook. Cushman, Ellen, et. al., ed.s. New York, New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001.
Stone, Biz. Who Let the Blogs Out?: a hyperconnected peak at the world of Weblogs. New York, New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2004.
“Weblog.” The American Heritage® Science Dictionary. Houghton Mifflin Company. 02 Dec. 2006.

Literacy = Power

The following is my case for literacy in academic essay form. For those who are interested, see the lengthy post below. For those who just need an abstract, here are my basic points.

1. It is beneficial to all students to master standard English, since (fair or unfair) it is the dominant discourse in the United States.
2. Adopting a dominant discourse as a second language or code can be detrimental to one’s sense of identity, and as a result must be taught with care and sensitivity. However, if taught effectively, literacy opens many of society’s doors.
3. The dominant discourse is the language of those in power, and in order to either gain or challenge the powerful, this same discourse must be used. Hence, students gain influence in our society when they gain literacy skills.

Working the System: Literacy as the Path to Power

If you listen hard enough on a grey Tuesday morning, you can almost hear the question echoing through the hallways of America’s schools: “Why do we have to learn this?!” Resentful (or just honestly curious) English students everywhere want to know the reason behind the ever-growing pile of books, writing exercises, and class discussions that they face week after week. They want to know how literacy relates to their lives. Too often, teachers respond with the explanation, “You need to pass this class to graduate,” or, worse, “Because I said so.”

There is a better, deeper answer to give language arts students about why they should care about their education. Simply put, those who can read, write, and speak within an academic discourse are those who have access to power. This is a truth that is an integral part of our society, whether we approve of it or not. Using works from theorists Richard Rodriguez, James Paul Gee, Lisa Delpit, and David Bartholomae as a guideline, I intend to discuss the strong connection between education, literacy, and power. This connection will be used as an argument for the study of English, in hopes that even the most hesitant English students may find some practical inspiration for their day-to-day coursework.

In his article “The Achievement of Desire,” Richard Rodriguez gives a personal account of his educational experiences. He begins as a very young child barely able to speak English, and ends up as a respected scholar. Though his journey is not without its own hardships, Rodriguez serves as the perfect case study for the path to power by means of literacy. The power related to the fluent use of language comes in many forms. For Rodriguez, it ultimately manifests itself as the ability to express the wisdom he gained from his experiences.

From the very early stages of his education, Rodriguez begins to change: “with ever-increasing intensity, I devoted myself to my studies. I became bookish, puzzling to all my family. Ambition set me apart” (Rodriguez 431). The change that overcomes Rodriguez already as a boy introduces a very important component of literacy: its power to shape the individual. In his essay “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics,” James Paul Gee talks about discourse as not only a way of speaking, but also of being (526). The way that language is used can shape identity. For Rodriguez, this meant that his identity was changing away from one accepted by his family and toward one accepted by the academic community. The way that this change influenced Rodriguez’s life down to the most intimate level proves Gee’s point that “What is important is not language, and surely not grammar, but saying (writing)-doing-being-valuing-believing combinations. […] Discourses are ways of being in the world; they are forms of life which integrate words, acts, values, beliefs, attitudes, and social identities…” (526). Changing a discourse modified not only the way that Rodriguez spoke, but also these other factors that Gee lists as part of a discourse. Through discourse, Rodriguez was changing the shape of who he was altogether.

The change of identity that happens through the adoption of a discourse happens in a certain sequence. Every person begins with an initial, home-based identity. Gee calls this the “primary discourse” (527). He goes on to propose that any newly acquired discourses are therefore secondary discourses; of which there are two types, dominant and nondominant. The dominant discourses are those that academics try to master. Incidentally, they are the discourses that, when mastered, can be used to gain “acquisition of social ‘goods’ (money, prestige, status, etc.)” (Gee 528). The support for this definition is largely apparent in our society, as the most lucrative careers—medicine, law, business, and technology—all operate within a dominant discourse: standard English. The change that Rodriguez goes through is in this distinct direction—from primary discourse to dominant secondary discourse. He is moving in the direction of power in the form of social goods. Gee defines “literacy” as “the mastery of or fluent control over a secondary discourse” (529). If we, too, accept this definition, we can see literacy and power as one and the same.

Naturally, the idea of freer access to money, prestige, and other social goods is an appealing one to most of us. Once one ponders the simple connection “mastery of dominant discourse equals power through social goods,” he or she can begin to wonder why there might be a struggle at all to persuade students that literacy is an admirable goal. Truly, if obtaining skills in academic discourse led straight to the bank with no outside complications, there would be no resistance whatsoever to literacy training. But, complications do exist, and they make the process of literary education anything but simple in certain scenarios. This is why literacy training is, at times, a difficult and controversial business.

There can be conflicts, especially in non-mainstream students, between their primary discourses and the dominant ones that they are asked to acquire in an academic setting (Gee 543). Since discourses surround identities, this conflict can swell into a full-blown crisis. For example, if a poor black student is raised to believe that wealthy white people are his oppressors, he may find it very disturbing to use an academic discourse which is characteristic of a wealthy, white culture. Such an extreme difference in discourses can cause education to be a choosing of sides; where a student must choose to sacrifice his home values and culture for an education, or vice versa.

Returning to our case study, we can see a clear conflict, just as described above, in Rodriguez’s situation. Throughout the process of acquiring his dominant discourse, Rodriguez remained unhappy, plagued by the discourse he had left behind: “I intended to hurt my mother and father. I was still angry at them for having encouraged me toward classroom English. But gradually this anger was exhausted, replaced by guilt as school grew more and more attractive to me” (435). Though he truly desired to master the academic discourse, Rodriguez was a longtime “Scholarship Boy: good student, troubled son” (432). This loss of one identity to gain another is a tragedy of literacy, and—according to some theorists—it cannot be avoided, except by outright refusing to obtain a dominant discourse.

There are those who proudly reject this view, however, and Lisa Delpit is one of them. In her essay “The Politics of Teaching Literate Discourse,” Delpit maintains that it is indeed possible for non-mainstream students to gain mastery in a discourse without rejecting their sense of self (552). She uses several illustrative examples of successful people who began within a nondominant discourse but successfully transitioned into a dominant one without damage to their primary identities. The examples are inspiring, but they are exceptional. Delpit explains that special conditions are required for such success: “Teachers must acknowledge and validate students’ home language without using it to limit students’ potential” (553). In other words, to transition successfully, a student must understand the value of the primary discourse as well as the dominant one. The role of educators is instrumental in this process.

In Delpit’s examples, the teachers “put in overtime to ensure that the students were able to live up to their expectations” (549). Rodriguez’s experiences may support the theory that involved teachers can ease a harsh transition. Though he admired his teachers, his efforts were more centered on becoming like them instead of becoming a new version of himself (Rodriguez 445). Perhaps if Rodriguez had an instructor who taught him to value his cultural roots in concert with academia, he would not have suffered the emotional pain and alienation that he mentions throughout his memoir. This is a strong testament to the value of teachers, as well as to the good education which students should expect from them.

The conflicts that are associated with acquiring new discourses, whether subtle or disruptive, do not have to be categorized as a negative aspect of education. In fact, the journey through such conflicts can be one of the most positive things about literacy. Even Gee, from his realist stance, argues that “conflicts, while they do very often detract from standard sorts of full mastery, can give rise to new sorts of mastery” (544). A new mastery can definitely be seen in the purposeful, sensitive language of Rodriguez’s writing. Although he initially had problems with identity and guilt, he came out of his education with an ability to voice the things he had learned in the process. As he puts it, “If, because of my schooling, I had grown culturally separated from my parents, my education finally had given me ways of speaking and caring about that fact” (Rodriguez 449). Despite his struggles, Rodriguez emerges an academic who can record his experiences in a way that others within the academy can understand and therefore, relate to—something that would not have been possible had it been delivered in a primary discourse.

The positive results that Rodriguez found from his education are an example of why Delpit advocates for non-mainstream students to acquire an academic discourse. Some critics of Delpit would argue that students cannot be empowered by adopting the language of those who oppress them. Delpit, however, stresses that being within the discourse of an oppressor is what truly gives power: students can then criticize a culture from its own system of philosophy and communication (552). Gee also implies that criticism of a dominant discourse is only effective when the criticism comes from within that same discourse: “Any discourse concerns itself with certain objects and puts forward certain concepts, viewpoints, and values at the expense of others” (538). The very nature of a discourse, as described here by Gee, is defined by its high level of exclusivity. Criticism, like all other forms of expression, must conform to the exclusive mannerisms, values, and viewpoints belonging to the discourse that one wishes to denounce.

Both Gee and Delpit speak of dominant discourse as a possible criticism tool, and they have an incredibly convincing point. All discourses are specialized, and only recognize arguments from within themselves. Considering that, as well as the fact that those in power use dominant discourse, it is nearly impossible to effect change if one is outside the dominant discourse. In “Inventing the University,” David Bartholomae also concedes this point, calling those who are able to use academic discourse as “writers who can both imagine and write from a position of privilege” and change political and social relationships (515). He goes on to explain that—while a person may have excellent ideas—the ideas of a writer will not be widely recognized unless they are delivered in the appropriate code, the code of those in power (521). Just as Rodriguez became able to share the complex cultural and psychological implications of his education, anyone who acquires a dominant discourse will be granted the chance to express his or her views in a way that cannot be dismissed by those in power. For, if they did dismiss it, they would be dismissing their own beliefs, values, and logic.

Power comes in many forms. It can mean money, expensive suits, and expensive wine, the power to get what one wants and needs. It can mean success, prestige, dignified nods on the street, or admiration from peers. It can mean giving voice to one’s dreams, ideas, and most sacred values in a way that the world can relate to. It can mean being able to demand attention from those in authority. It can mean paths to understanding and critiquing the inner workings of establishments, cultures, and people. It can mean self-realization. All these are things that we have seen in the case-study of Rodriguez. Any or all of them can be accessed with true literacy. Literacy is power.

Returning to the question that began this discussion—“Why should students care about a literacy education?”—I can now offer a response. That response, fortified by the ideas of Rodriguez, Gee, Delpit, and Bartholomae; is this: Literacy allows a student to work the system. By “system,” I mean the rules of mainstream society. By “work,” I mean to use to one’s own advantage. If one wishes to change or participate in society, she must invoke the discourse of that society, or she will fail to be recognized. As Gee puts it, “you can’t be let into the game after missing the apprenticeship and be expected to have a fair shot at playing it” (529). Fair or unfair as it may be, this condition is built into our society and cannot be changed. The system cannot be destroyed, for it is far too long-standing and far too large. Therefore, the only way to have any power at all is to make the system work for you. And the only way to do that is to become literate. With literacy comes the power to do as we wish within society; whether that wish is to bring volatile change, to gain status and wealth, or merely to participate quietly and thoughtfully in mainstream life. Acquiring dominant discourses, acquiring literacy, is access to such power. And that, I think any student would agree, is a very desirable prospect.

Works Cited
Bartholomae, David. “Inventing the University.” Literacy: a Critical Sourcebook. Ed. Ellen Cushman, Eugene R. Kintgen, Barry M. Kroll, and Mike Rose. Boston: Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2001.
Delpit, Lisa. “The Politics of Teaching Literate Discourse.” Literacy: a Critical Sourcebook. Ed. Ellen Cushman, Eugene R. Kintgen, Barry M. Kroll, and Mike Rose. Boston: Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2001.
Gee, James Paul. “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction and What is Literacy?” Literacy: a Critical Sourcebook. Ed. Ellen Cushman, Eugene R. Kintgen, Barry M. Kroll, and Mike Rose. Boston: Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2001.
Rodriguez, Richard. “The Achievement of Desire.” Hunger of Memory: the education of Richard Rodriguez. Boston: D.R. Godine, 1981.

(Mostly) Denouncing the Praxis II

This Saturday, I’ll be taking the Praxis II–the exam that Wisconsin (and several other states) requires for teacher certification. Earlier in the year, I dutifully purchased a study guide for the test. Now that I’ve logged some major time wading through this book, I have some things to say.

The first thought that came to mind when I began to read through the content was something like, ‘Wow, this book really reminds me of the worst English classes I’ve had.’ There is no better way to kill the joy of poetry than the following:

“This excerpt is an example of a five-line stanza, so you can rule out choice A immediately because it is not written in couplets. The rhyme scheme is abaab, so choices B, C, and D are viable options. Next, you have to identify the metrical feet of the poem. An iambic metrical foot begins with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. A trochaic metrical foot begins with a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. Each line of this excerpt begins with an unstressed syllable and contains five feet, indicating that choice C, iambic pentameter, is the credited response.” (Kern, Cliffs Test Prep–Praxis II: English Subject Area Assessments)

BORING. That poor poem.

I do admit that, if any human being on Earth must really learn the ways to categorize the meter of a poem, it ought to be an English teacher. I do admit that having the academic tools to examine the structure of a piece of writing gives credibility to our field. And, yes, I pride myself on being knowledgeable about literary and linguistic nuances. I think what bothers me is the fact that someone could memorize every term in my study guide and still be a horribly bland teacher who is completely absorbed in the “what” and never reaches the “why” of anything.

I would like to add to my list of complaints that knowledge of the entire traditional literary canon is up for assessment, within a 66 question window. And most works referenced cover 3-5 questions, leaving me with the certainty of encountering about 16.5 works of literature on the test. While I have taken credits upon credits of literature courses, I find it rather likely that a few parts of the canon may have slipped me by… Here’s hoping that I’ve read the 16.5 books/stories/poems that ETS decides to throw at me. Is this really valid assessment?

Despite all the aforementioned, I will hone my literary knowledge to its finest degree in preparation to give the Praxis II people (Where are you, you fiends?!) exactly what they want. I’ll play the game. Still, I remain convinced that one cannot multiple choice his or her way into good reading, writing, or teaching.