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Excerpt from my unpublished textbook called Everyday, Multiple Literacies, which definitely informed my work toward The Way Literacy Lives (Carter 2008) and my first-year comp textbooks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