My cousin, Casper, and Physics: A Literacy Narrative

I wrote this more than a decade ago for a textbook that went through multiple, positive, at times enthusiastic reviews before the bottom fell out of the economy and the editor and publisher decided to shelf it. Originally, they’d reached out to me in pursuit of “edgier” content for their basic writing catalog, but when the economy collapsed about a year into this process, they decided (understanbly) now (then) is (was) not the time to take risks.

Excerpt from my unpublished textbook called Everyday, Multiple Literacies, which definitely informed my work toward The Way Literacy Lives (Carter 2008) and my first-year comp textbooks (Literacies in Context 2008/9).

At five-years-old, my cousin Nathaniel had already developed a pretty sophisticated system for reading the more technical aspects of our physical world. That summer a few years ago while his siblings splashed around in the pool in their grandmother’s backyard, Nathaniel conducted what he called “experiments” to determine how solid forms may respond to different surfaces (for example, how the wheels of his toy truck created tire-like patterns in the red dirt next to the swing set, and why those tracks disappeared when he poured a bucket of chlorinated water over them).

       I know very little about childhood development. We don’t have children, though I grew up Catholic so my life has always been filled with funny, fascinating, loud, curious, messy children. I love it. I assume many children come to know their world in similar ways. Still, Nathaniel’s reading strategies seemed a little different somehow. So methodical. I have

no doubt he was consciously playing “scientist” when he conducted these

backyard experiments. Even so, however, Nathaniel’s experiments seemed to be

more than mere performance. I once watched him bounce a ball off every

surface in the backyard for nearly an hour, careful to drop the ball from

the same height each and every time-on the patio, the driveway, the garage

floor (just to be sure concrete in all spaces behaved the same way), the dog

house, a few cardboard boxes in the garage, the plastic table on the patio,

and everywhere else. Every time the ball did something new, he’d pause for a

moment or two, as though he were recording the inconsistency somewhere and

matching it up with previous data to determine what the inconsistency might

mean.

       Through his experiments, then, Nathaniel developed his own unique

“science literacy” in a sense-a rather significant identification when we

recall Gee’s assertion that “any specific way of reading and thinking is, in

fact, a way of being a certain ‘kind of person,’ a way of taking on a

certain sort of identity” (What Video Games, 3).  Of course I am primarily

concerned here with adult literacies and I have no intention of advocating a

developmental (“child-like”) perspective of basic writers. I do, however,

believe Nathaniel’s story of early literacy development to be a useful

illustration of how we may help our students circumvent the “death” of

agency that makes literacy learning so dangerous.

Learning new literacies is risky business, but the dangers threatening

agency are often quite subtle-a lesson that (eventually) became quite clear

to me as he and I watched an episode of Casper the Friendly Ghost together

later that summer. As I hope I’ve made clear, Nathaniel is smart-very

smart-and a keen observer of the world around him. But the strategies he

uses to read the physical world don’t often translate well into a cartoon

one. As anyone even remotely familiar with animated television knows, the

laws of physics by which cartoon characters are bound often differ quite

profoundly from those informing Nathaniel’s developing literacies as

described above. Wyle E. Coyote runs off the edge of a cliff to catch the

Roadrunner and hovers mid-air for several minutes, only bound to the

gravitational pull when he acknowledges it. Bugs Bunny paints a black

archway on a rock from which a train, inexplicably, zooms out and runs over

his confused nemesis.

Casper demonstrated an even more perplexing misuse of the objects inhabiting

his animated physical space as he is also a supernatural being (rather than

an engineering coyote who emotes with signs that say “Yikes!” or “Ouch!” or

a rabbit who wears a bowtie but no pants). Somehow these issues didn’t work

against Nathaniel’s understanding of non-cartoon spaces. The problem was

consistency. Nathaniel could accept Casper’s ability to walk through doors

and walls, but not if he can also catch a ball. When he asked me how Casper

played ball “like that,” I didn’t know what he was talking about at first. I

had years of marathon Saturday morning cartoon sessions under my belt, and

that inconsistency simply slipped past my highly cartoon literate radar.

Were I to read Nathaniel’s question according to a more standards-based

system (“That’s just how Caper plays ball. Memorize that rule”), I would

have been unable to help him explore the choices these cartoon makers made

as those choices worked against his own understanding that the limits of

physical space need to be consistent. That is, in part, what made it so

difficult for me to understand what he was asking at first. It seemed

obvious to me, just as any standards governing literacy in a particular

rhetorical space seem obvious (or “common sense”) to highly literate users.

However, as a “teacher” informed by a more contextualized perspective, I

must not begin with what the user can’t do but by examining what he can in

order to learn which competencies in other contexts may be making the

current one difficult for him to read. In other words, I absolutely must

acknowledge, explore, and validate Nathaniel’s other literacies before I can

help him determine the strategies that might be relevant in this new one. If

I do not, I am essentially teaching him that his judgment of reality

elsewhere has no bearing here.

       Ignoring Nathaniel’s “science literacies” and approaching literacy

as a universal standard (rather than as deeply dependent on context), would

limit him to at least two equally inappropriate options: (Option 1)

Nathaniel could blend this new understanding of the way physical space

functions in Casper’s cartoon spaces with what he already knows about the

way the world functions in other contexts.  Without developing any

meta-awareness of the situatedness structuring these two very different

literacies, this option may yield much confusion in his future attempts to

apply these blended strategies to his physical world. It may even be

dangerous if, like my mother when she was a little girl, he attempts to

manipulate real-world elements via cartoon-world principles (for example,

jumping off the roof holding a parasol, assuming the paper and other

lightweight materials sufficient to support a six-year old girl as she

glides gently to the lawn below; my mother soon learned that the fall was

brutal rather than “magical,” breaking her collarbone and several fingers in

the process).  (Option 2) Nathaniel may dismiss cartoon logic as faulty

logic altogether (asinine, not worth getting to know, and against what

matters). This second option is no less problematic than the first, however,

because it fails to teach Nathaniel how to read the possible logics (“tacit

expectations”) to which even cartoons are bound.

Conversely, when we focus on the contextualized nature of literacies rather

than an understanding of literacy as an autonomous skill-set, we can begin

to help Nathaniel identify, articulate, and then reconcile the points of

contact between the two conflicting literacies, thus developing the

rhetorical dexterity necessary to better prepare him for the multiplicity of

literacies he will likely encounter throughout his life.  If I didn’t

already know about his profound interest in and knack for understanding the

world by experimenting with it, I may have found the process a bit more

perplexing. Even so, I would have to begin with the assumption that

Nathaniel’s ability to “read” another context-whatever this other context

may be-was somehow making the current one difficult for him to make sense

of.  From this, then, I could begin to help him apply a more context-based

process of inquiry to this particular rhetorical space (mimicking the

structure of our basic writing program, as I will describe in more detail

below): value the new context, value the previous one, develop a

meta-cognitive awareness of the points of contact between these two

conflicting literacies, and continually examine the differences and

similarities between these two spaces in order to maintain agency and

competency in both.

       Nathaniel asked a question to which he really wanted an answer.

Casper entertained him; he didn’t want to dismiss the logical structure that

made it possible for this “friendly ghost” to play with the little boy. I

should simply assume that Nathaniel values this new context, even as it

challenges his assumptions about the physical world. Thus, I start this

process by helping Nathaniel locate dissonance and reconcile the points of

contact between the two contexts.

       In order to determine the system of logic by which physical space is

manipulated in Casper’s animated world, our conversation may have gone

something like this:

               Me: Can you walk through doors?

               Nathaniel: No. I have to open them.

Me:  But Casper can?

               Nathaniel: Yes. And fly through the ceiling and the walls.

Me: What about the other ghosts?

               Nathaniel: You mean the mean ghosts? Oh, they can, too.

Me: Can they pick up things, too?

               Nathaniel: Well, I don’t know. I don’t think so. . . . I

don’t remember.

Me: Me either. Maybe we can look for clues like that next time. Let’s also

look for differences between what the mean ghosts can do (and can’t) and

what Casper can do. Someone made up this story . . . actually probably

several people did. Remember, like your books? It’s pretend. When you

pretend, you can make anything you want happen. You know that. It doesn’t

really happen, but it happens for pretend and usually for a reason. Why

might the people who made up this story have chosen for Casper to be able to

catch a ball? What would happen if he couldn’t catch the ball?

               Nathaniel: He would be sad because he couldn’t play with the

little boy.

Me:  Are there other games they could play together that wouldn’t require

Casper to be able to pick something up or kick it or otherwise touch it to

make it move?

 We may have gone on to discuss the rhetorical choices the creator made in

other ways, including why Casper may be able to walk through walls. That may

have gotten us into other points of contact with the logical systems

governing other, thematically-related rhetorical spaces-the rules for what

ghosts can or cannot do based on the other stories in which they have

appeared, for example.

       To develop rhetorical dexterity, Nathaniel also has to examine why

he may have decided that Casper shouldn’t be able to catch a ball. In other

words, what led him to ask this question? He doesn’t really need to be able

to articulate those logical systems that Casper violated when he lifted that

ball, but he should develop habits of reflection that lead him to ask

himself questions about questions and think about thinking. By continually

developing this meta-cognitive awareness, he can effectively reuse some of

the literate practices that make him “science literate” (as a five-year old)

in ways that might be more appropriate for a world where the title character

is called “The Friendly Ghost.” If we determine that Casper is lonely and

just wants a friend, then we can make better sense of a number of the

rhetorical choices that may seem inconsistent when measured against the

physical (real) world but seem quite consistent when measured via a more

simplistic system shaped almost entirely around Casper’s consuming desire to

play with another young person who isn’t dead as well (or “mean”).

       Some of the strategies useful to him in one context thus become

relevant in his development of new literacies. In this way, Nathaniel may be

able to develop the rhetorical dexterity I advocate. A focus on context

rather than standards enables us to pass from one context to another more

deliberately and more successfully–adding new literacies, increasing the

capacity and flexibility of older ones.

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