Literacy Studies

English 891: Literacy Studies

Course Description

This seminar investigates literacy as a social phenomenon, exploring how meaning is made not only through reading and writing but of reading and writing (Brandt). We will explore foundational and newer scholarship from literacy studies through inquiry, posing questions like

  • What is literacy? What are its events, practices, and activities?
  • Where is literacy found (in the head, the heart, the hands)?
  • How does literacy move among spaces, contexts, and languages?
  • How does a diversifying society redefine literacy as effective, creative, illegal, failing?
  • Why and for whom does literacy matter? What can or can’t it accomplish?

Scholars in this interdisciplinary field—compositionists, literary scholars, education researchers, linguists, anthropologists, social historians, and economists—have sought to examine these questions and analyze literacy through varied methods (theoretical, historical, quantitative, interview-based, ethnographic) and units of analysis (literacy data from public records, literacy acts and events, literacy practices and contexts). Therefore, the course will attend to methodologies for studying literacy and practices of teaching it, as well as the contemporary social contexts that inform it. While this course surveys several dimensions of literacy, it is not meant to be comprehensive; instead, we will examine multiple perspectives on literacy and, through your individual projects, you will pursue a thread of your choosing more deeply.

Required Texts

Articles will be posted on course Moodle page.

Besnier, Niko. Literacy, Emotion and Authority: Reading and Writing on a Polynesian Atoll. Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Blommaert, Jan. Grassroots Literacy: Writing, Identity and Voice in Central Africa. Routledge, 2008.

Brandt, Deborah. Literacy in American Lives. Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Cushman et al. Literacy: A Critical Sourcebook. 1st ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001.

Gee, James Paul. Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses. 5th ed., Routledge, 2015.

Heath, Shirley Brice. Ways with Words: Language, Life and Work in Communities and Classrooms. Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Kalmar, Tomas Mario. Illegal Alphabets and Adult Biliteracy: Latino Migrants Crossing the Linguistic Border. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2015.

Prendergast, Catherine. Literacy and Racial Justice: The Politics of Learning after Brown v. Board of Education. Southern Illinois University Press, 2003.


Conference proposal (500 words), 15%

Write a presentation proposal about a topic related to literacy. Choose a conference you typically or would like to attend. The presentation can examine a topic or question we are pursuing in class or move in another direction. We will discuss possible conferences and examine proposal models together in seminar.

Conference paper (3000 words), 45%

Write the paper your proposed. Our seminar readings and discussions will introduce you to broad lines of inquiry and critique. But for your conference paper, you’re responsible for pursuing a more specific and in-depth line of inquiry. Remember that conference papers should offer a critical contribution to scholarship on literacy.

Tower to table paper (1000 words), 25%

Following Mike Rose’s claim that we have a responsibility to “go public with what we know,” this writing assignment offers you the opportunity to use your “ivory tower” conference paper to contribute to conversations occurring around a hypothetical dinner (café, breakfast…) table. The goal is to craft a piece of public writing that could move an audience to action. Optimally, this assignment is not just an exercise, but is also a way to make our seminar work relevant to audiences other than ourselves by contributing your well-researched thinking to public debates about literacy.

Reading and writing to participate in seminar, 15%

Reading and preparation writing is absolutely required. Everyone is expected to be present, prepared, and participating during every class meeting. We will use writing to synthesize our reading in 2 ways:

Before class

Write 500 words responding to this week’s reading. This writing is informal and just for you. Bring it to class in whatever form suits you best. You will use it as a basis for your discussion contributions.

  • What interesting issues, complexities, or lines of inquiry does this reading raise for you?
  • What do you find yourself responding to most strongly? Where are your skepticisms or concerns? What questions does this work pose in your mind?
  • Given this reading: What is literacy? What are its consequences?

At the beginning of class

Write for 10 minutes.

  • What do you remember about last week’s class? What were the main points discussed and questions raised?
  • How do these points and questions relate to your before-class writing for this week?

Course Calendar

All assignments listed on a given day should be completed for discussion on that day.

Definitions: What is literacy? What are its events, practices, and activities?

Week 1 1/24 Introduction to course and to one another. Discuss

  • Scribner “Literacy in Three Metaphors” PDF posted on Moodle
  • Graff pgs. 211-233 in Literacy Sourcebook
  • Gee chapter 6 in Social Linguistics and Literacies
Week 2 1/31 Discuss Gee chapter 5; in Literacy Sourcebook: Ong, Goody, Baron, Olson, Scribner and Cole
Week 3 2/7 Discuss Gee chapters 4 and 8; in Literacy Sourcebook: Street, Szwed; Collins and Blot PDF
Week 4 2/14 Class online

Discuss Heath

Week 5 2/21 Discuss Brandt
Week 6 2/28 Discuss Prendergast

Mobility: Where is literacy found? How does literacy move among spaces, contexts, and languages? How does mobility affect how literacy is taught, learned, and studied?

Week 7 3/7 Discuss Gee chapters 9 and 10; PDFs: Brandt and Clinton, Kell, Warriner
3/14 Spring Break
Week 8 3/21 Discuss Besnier

Conference Proposal Due

Week 9 3/28 Discuss Blommaert

Consequences: Why and for whom does literacy matter? What can or can’t it accomplish? What stories or myths about literacy circulate, and how do everyday readers and writers enrich or overturn them?

Week 10 4/4 Discuss Gee chapters 7 and 12; Kalmar
Week 11 4/11 Discuss PDFs: Delpit, Young, Wan, Vieira

Conference Paper Draft Due

4/18 Monday Schedule
Week 12 4/25 Discuss final PDFs

Conference Paper Due

Week 13 5/2 Presentations; wrap-up
5/11 Tower to Table Paper Due