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Let’s Recap

May 8, 2019 in Blog, Writing

My experiences with writing this semester have definitely been a mix of ups and downs, but they all ended up rewarding me with huge development as a writer. I started off not having written a proper essay in almost a year, so naturally my writing was a bit rusty, which overwhelmed me at times. I would feel stuck on something as simple as composing an informal blog post, because I struggled to find my voice and natural flow. Once I began drafting the literacy narrative, I faced the same issue –my thoughts were disorganized and my train of thought was difficult to track throughout my writing. This confused me, since I was taking a free-writing approach to drafting. Shouldn’t a free write directly reflect my order of thinking and kick-start my flow of ideas? Alright, so why did most of my nights look like:

college essay writing 101

The idea that free-writing, followed by revising, would make writing feel more natural to me actually could not have been more untrue. When I write, my mind tends to bounce between ideas faster than I can put them into words. By free-writing without structure, I was making my writing more complicated than it needed to be. While this strategy could work for others, it definitely didn’t work for me. This was one of my first and most important developments as a writer, and it soon led to other realizations about completely different styles of writing. The work done in this course reminded me that personal writing, like narratives and blog posts, shouldn’t neglect structure and planning, while also showing me that more technical styles, like research papers or argumentative essays, shouldn’t become so  overwhelmingly structured that they lack natural flow. I think the main focus of my semester was finding this balance in my writing.

Other than that, I’m really grateful for the new things I learned about what makes certain pieces of writing stand out. I remembered learning in high school that proper grammar can really improve the quality of an essay, because you never know if your specific audience will be nit-picky about it (plus, it just makes you sound more professional and boosts your credibility as a writer). Similarly, in WRT 102, I learned so much about how to properly incorporate citations and external data into essays to yield the same effect. This helped me when I faced situations where I had to make my research writing more understandable and enjoyable to read, regardless of my audience. This was just one example of the many rhetorical strategies I had learned to incorporate throughout the year, all which made my writing clearer and boosted my confidence. By the time I began the process of composing the last essay – the researched argument – drafting and revising felt so familiar. It was a breeze.

While I did feel challenged with the actual writing work at the beginning of the year, the assigned readings we mostly had at that time in the semester countered that frustration. Not only did they educate me on the topics we were required to write about, but they also directly offered me examples of good writing. After a long time of feeling like I don’t have any time to leisurely read books, I was reminded of how much reading improves your writing, and writing often helps you appreciate what you read a lot more. I was lucky enough to already be interested in the topics covered in the readings, which were literacy and education (I focused on these for my I-search and researched argument). Reading other people’s essays made me feel less like I was suddenly thrown back into writing after months of not doing it seriously.

Through the material covered and work done in this course, I definitely feel like I’ve expanded my limits with writing. I discovered a lot about myself as a writer and how I should communicate with my audience, while also learning how to make my writing technically better. Most importantly, I’ve been encouraged to further pursue writing as a minor and make more time to read. I’m just waiting for finals to be over so I can start checking books I’m interested in off of my reading list, some even related to the topics I examined research on during the year. I have a newfound appreciation for the writing process, which had always seemed a bit tedious for a procrastinator like me. Whether I’m reading other people’s writing or working on my own, I’m more aware of the process and effort it took to get to the finished product, and I have a better relationship with this process and effort. I hope the future writing courses I take teach me just as much, if not more, than this class. Thanks for a great semester, and good luck to everyone!

Did You Go To Your Lecture Today?

April 15, 2019 in Blog, Research

It is not surprising that STEM majors are the ones most often dropped in college. Biology, engineering, and math have been known to be some of the most difficult subjects to study. Not only are they difficult to comprehend, but the careers that are associated with STEM carry massive loads of responsibility, to properly comprehend how the world works and develop future hypotheses about what we still don’t know. In examining research about what impacts STEM retention, it was evident that many scholars and pedagogical experts recognize low retention rates in STEM as a big problem. Why is it then, that not much about how we teach science and math has changed, aside from incorporating lots of technology based activities? It was shocking to me that today, in 55% of college classrooms, these subjects are still taught solely with “conventional lectures.” Only 18% are specifically centered around collaborative student work (https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2018-03/uon-llm032818.php). Numerous studies have shown the benefits of implementing alternatives to lectures in STEM education, yet little progress has been made in actually incorporating them into college curriculum.

When I thought about it, I realized that these college classrooms can get way too big to support teamwork and small group learning. Almost a thousand students at one university can be enrolled in a single biology class for a semester, making lectures with online interactive learning the most time efficient methods of teaching. The increasing competitiveness and pressure of getting into top colleges, with many more students applying for the same number of seats and acceptance rates becoming narrower, hasn’t helped this problem.

Image result for stem education political cartoon

However, what surprised me even more was that surveys have shown that hands-on learning even at large research universities has mostly been successful. It is entirely possible to implement in many schools, even though, of course, it may not work exactly everywhere.

Although my prior research on factors influencing student subject interest indicated that teachers are simply reinforcers of student passions and career decisions, the research specifically pertaining to STEM courses is a more complicated arena. In general, just because students had negative experiences with learning a certain subject does not mean that this will determine their future major or career; whether or not they pursue it is influenced much more by the way they perceive their own performance and learning environment rather than actual teaching methods. However, if we do not teach science and math in a way that prepares students for the collaboration and innovation required to pursue a STEM career, a highly negative and discouraging learning environment is created. Because subjects like engineering are already so difficult on their own, I’m finding that STEM students, despite many of them being passionate and driven individuals, are much more sensitive to their school experiences and experience a greater impact on their self-perception within their chosen major. This plays a huge role in the fact that less than 50% of students starting off with a math or science major actually graduate with the same degree or pursue a related career.

What Every STEM Kid Needs to Know

April 9, 2019 in Blog, Research

While I was doing research for my I-search essay, I noticed that almost all of the articles regarding student subject interest were about STEM subjects (despite the fact that I was only searching for information general subject interest). Evidently, student interest and motivation in STEM declining has been a significant issue, especially now when the number jobs requiring a STEM degree or skills is expected to rise. Only around 2/5 of undergraduate STEM majors end up staying in their field and completing the degree they initially signed up for (http://www.thedailyriff.com/articles/why-science-is-just-so-darn-hard-854.php).  I’m making the case that the way STEM is conventionally taught, especially in college, has been detrimental to the retention rates in the field. However, what’s even more important is how STEM courses are graded. Here’s why.

In college, one of the most common things you may hear students say after a difficult midterm is, “Hopefully there’s a curve.”Grading on a curve means that the “average” grade range of the class is set to, for example, a C, and then anyone in the above range gets a B or A, or a D/F if they’re below it. This type of grading is often implemented in difficult STEM courses, in which it is quite common for the exam averages to stay around the 50-60% range. Without a curve, students’ GPAs would completely plummet, which can obviously be discouraging and decrease retention rates within STEM majors. However, it is this same assessment and grading method that has contributed to an environment that discourages pursuing STEM long-term, and it’s something every STEM major should be aware of.

When grading with a bell curve, we are essentially setting students up to compare themselves to the rest of their classmates. They feel that they just need to hit the mark that would place them adequately “above average.” Whether they are aware of it or not, an environment of competition is promoted, which ultimately becomes a factor in discouraging completion of a STEM degree. Prior studies have shown that students attending more selective schools have a lower chance of completing the STEM degree they originally wanted to pursue. You can read about the factors influencing STEM bachelor’s degree completion here:

https://www.heri.ucla.edu/nih/downloads/ASHE2010-What-matters-for-STEM-completion.pdf

While other research shows that healthy competition can foster positive learning experiences, competition has little to no place in the world of STEM teaching. Most STEM careers require collaborative, innovative teamwork, whether it’s engineering, working at a hospital, or working in a lab. Why is it, then, that the college environment for STEM majors is the complete opposite? Competition has been recognized as a real barrier within STEM education,(https://www.nap.edu/read/21739/chapter/5#63) and it’s particularly associated with the “weed-out” courses students will take within their first two years. Not only do most of these courses implement bell-curve grading and foster unhealthy competition, but they also perpetuate the idea that the ability to successfully pursue STEM is attributed to some sort of innate talent. This discourages over half of students to continue studying their subject of interest because they begin to feel hopeless.

The articles above (especially the first one linked) offer great summaries and outlines of how the culture created by teaching and grading methods within the STEM field have direct, detrimental effects on retention rates. If you’re a STEM major, or if you’re questioning your academic path, or even if you’re not either of those things, I highly suggest you take a look at them — not to get angry, just to be more aware.

 

The Source of the Problem

April 4, 2019 in Blog, Writing

Lucky enough for me, I read Stedman’s essay “Annoying Ways People Use Sources” before the I-search paper was due. Upon realizing how easy it is to overlook transitions and flow when incorporating outside information into a research essay, I immediately went back to my I-search to do even more revising when I thought I was done. I probably would have been frustrated if I submitted an essay with poorly connected sources and unclear transitions.

As writers, it can be so easy to immerse yourself in the research you’ve been examining that you forget your audience doesn’t have the same amount of knowledge as you do. This is why we accidentally make the mistake of the “Dating Spiderman” scenario, as Stedman describes it. We may drop in a quote at the beginning or end of a paragraph, creating an unnatural interruption. We begin to build up another topic, and then we go back to explaining how the quote relates. We swing back and forth between ideas that may seem completely logical to us, but difficult to understand for the reader. Stedman advises that you make sure you guide your reader into the quote, and lead them back out of it. This is the most important piece of advice I gained from his essay. I also think a good solution to this issue is to choose less information to incorporate, but offer more analysis. That way, we feel like we have more room to elaborate on, properly introduce, and fade out of the information we include.

This brings me to the next point I applied to my writing, which was to not be an “Uncle Barry,” or a writer who thinks their ethos comes from dropping lots of data or quotes in a row. The problem with this is that you end up giving yourself proportionally less room for in-depth analysis and reflection. If the reader wanted data with no interpretation, they could just go to your works cited page and look at the articles. The purpose of your essay is to offer your viewpoint on a subject and explain how the research supports or refutes it (or neither). It may feel weird to have to exclude some interesting data in your paper for the sake of bettering your writing, but I learned I should look at it this way: if it’s a great piece of writing that communicates the subject well, then the reader may get interested in more research on it. With a good essay, you can indirectly share all of that great information anyway. In a poorly written essay with little insight, your reader may read the alllll of the quotes you list but won’t care to remember them or look for more information since it didn’t sound as exciting. In the future, I want to apply more paraphrasing to my writing, which can be just as effective as direct quotes but allow for a smoother flow of ideas.

The last important piece of advice I gained is to avoid “patch writing,” or blending in research information with your own beliefs and analysis. This can be a tricky situation, because it’s hard to remember which information was part of our prior knowledge or found in an article. This is where I feel the technical aspect of writing becomes really important. You need to utilize clear transition phrases and properly attribute the information to its source. Contrary to what we were taught in high school, it’s not the end of the world if you say “I believe” in a formal essay. If it’s for the sake of clarifying the source of a statement, then I think we should go for it. We should just remember to make sure we pair it with an outside piece of information with the author, source title, and/or journal clearly stated as well.

At the end of the day, it’s all about your audience. 

However, you don’t know each reader individually, and what they find important about a piece of writing. There will always be someone out there who won’t like your essay if you don’t adhere to clear citation conventions. While some readers, especially those who are similar to you (a.k.a. other college students) may not care if you stick to these guidelines or not, it’s better to be safe. After all, it’s more about the receiving end. If you can’t communicate your point understandably, then unfortunately, your hard work may be undermined.

 

 

The Good Type of Arguing

March 28, 2019 in Blog, Research

Argumentative essays were always my thing. I even enjoyed writing them more than I did personal narratives. I love analyzing a series of elements, extracting data, interpreting it, and then most importantly — communicating it in a way that will not only inform and persuade my audience, but resonate with them and encourage them to think more about my argument. I don’t dread writing research essays, but I do, on the other hand, cringe at the idea of trying to peruse a list of hundreds of research articles. I think that many people can relate to how confusing it may feel to try to read a giant research article written in 9-pt. font filled with numbers and statistics terms you can barely understand — and then realizing there’s at least fifty more where that came from. So, I get why Krause was telling us to cut the phrase “research paper” out of our vocabulary: it just reminds us of these more formal, tedious tasks that go into research writing. We then forget the creative and dynamic aspects of essay-writing. I’m carrying this advice into my own perspective and making sure that I’ll be focusing on the “argumentative” aspect of the upcoming essay, as to not get overwhelmed by the “research” portion.

One of my biggest issues when I write is that I can get completely lost in what I’m writing about. I start to carry a trail of thought forever and forget to tie everything together. On the flip side, I find myself being the most satisfied and proud of my writing when I communicate my ideas in a way that creates a tying “thread” through the essay. One of Krause’s pieces of advice in “The Research Essay” is to set the guidelines for your essay before you write it (demonstrated in Exercise 10.1). Although you should not create a solidified outline beforehand, it’s important to increase your awareness of your writing purpose, your audience, and the reason behind the assignment. Asking yourself questions like “What should my tone be?” and “What is my working thesis?”, and then writing out the answers to them can serve as a great reminder for when you find yourself losing touch with these essential aspects of your essay. I’m hoping that looking back at these questions and answers can help me narrow my focus and write more concisely.

I like how Krause points out the common clichés we encounter in the introduction or conclusion paragraphs of research essays (“in society…” or “throughout history” or “in conclusion”). I want to try to avoid clichés in my writing as much as possible, which is why I’m also focusing on Krause’s definition of a conclusion. Instead of being a boring, basic summary, a conclusion should make connections and maybe shed new light on the topic, now that all the evidence in the essay has been presented. It needs to make a lasting impression on the reader.

Just like I can get lost in my writing, I can get even more so lost in reading the immense amount of research and trying for days to somehow condense it. After reading the sample essay included in Krause’s research essay chapter, I realize that you can be selective with your sources and just elaborate on them a lot. Realizing this took off a huge burden that would have probably contributed to some major writer’s block at some point in my writing process. After all, I do enjoy analyzing and arguing my point. Krause’s advice for writing research essays helped clarify the rather messy writing process for me. I look forward not only to putting a lot of work into writing a good research essay, but also to keeping the writing process more thoughtful.

 

 

I(‘m)-search(ing) for…

March 4, 2019 in Blog

Starting college has made me think about what I want to do with my future more than I ever did before. I worry about whether I’ll be a good fit for the career path I eventually choose to take, and whether what I’m studying is truly what I’m passionate about. I know what I like to learn about the most, but I have my doubts like every other human being — and then I spiral into an existential enigma of “Do I even know why I like this in the first place?” I watch as many of my friends switch majors and career ideas every few months, figuring out that what they thought was right for them ended up not meeting their expectations at all. What is it that makes us choose what we want to study, or what we will not ever open up a book about?

I had a conversation about this with my best friend and she told me, “I don’t know how you could enjoy chemistry. I had Ms. __ for chemistry and I HATED it.” Then came a striking realization: if I hadn’t had absolutely amazing biology and chemistry teachers, would I even be studying biochemistry right now? Would I have the same love for writing if I hadn’t had challenging and inspiring high school English teachers who pushed me to always do better?

One area I want to investigate is the impact of students’ experiences with teachers on their interest in a particular subject. It seems like common sense that students with bad learning experiences in a certain subject area are bound to become biased toward the subject itself, yet I don’t think many of us realize the extent to which this impacts students’ career choices and studies. There are a bunch of scholarly articles and peer-reviewed studies that relate to this topic. One talks about how teachers in the UK noticed that students were taking less and less science exams for their optional GCSEs (standardized tests you take at 15-16 yrs old). They conducted student interviews to match up students’ learning experiences with science to the levels of their interest in it, and sure enough, the “non-science” students had more regressive or stagnant experiences rather than progressive ones. Not wanting to take science GCSEs is like a first step in recognizing that you don’t want your future career or degree to be related to science. It would be interesting to see how this has impacted literacy in various subjects and how we can improve learning resources to allow students to enjoy subjects despite having negative learning experiences with them in the classroom. I think there are many students out there who think they don’t enjoy a certain subject because they had one teacher they disliked, or one class they did poorly in — but they actually could like the content itself if they learned more about it.

Another topic I have in mind is something that I’ve been hearing about lately on social media. I see lots of memes and tweets where people say that they were the smartest kid in their class as a child and now they don’t have motivation whatsoever. I hear things along the lines of “I was told I was smart because I could read and I got an ego so now I don’t work hard enough;” or just how stress made them lose motivation. I would like to take a look at the effects of placing children in these “gifted” or “advanced” classes so early on in life. This one is a little bit more difficult to tackle — there are many studies on “gifted” children and their character traits, likes and dislikes, future career interests, and so on. However, not many of them are longitudinal: they don’t track gifted children’s lives over time to observe their academic and social journeys. There are, however, many popular sources like Bustle, the Guardian, Psychology Today, and of course, social media, that shed light on the issue. If I were to write my I-search paper on this, it would be more of an investigation of what the possible reasons behind this phenomenon could be, based on general research studies on higher-achieving children.

Finally, another area of my interest in education is the impact of out of school learning resources. This one is important to my life because I always remember my mom buying me math, reading, science, and “brain game” books, which I always found fun in my free time. I think that without lots of the learning enrichment I got at home and through clubs and after school activities, I wouldn’t know as much and I wouldn’t be as willing to learn as I am today. Learning outside of the classroom is especially beneficial and important to students in less privileged communities, where being inside the walls of the school building may not even feel safe. There are many available research articles, studies, and E-books about the short-term and long-term impacts of extracurricular learning. It would be interesting to look at how it impacts different kinds of communities.

 

School: What is it good for?

February 28, 2019 in Blog

If people like William Zinsser could look into the daily lives of college students in 2019, they would be shocked to see how the academic stressors they observed in the 1970s have unfolded — and this probably isn’t even their final form. Zinsser had published a piece titled “College Pressures” in 1979, bringing light to the kinds of stress young college students face in their daily lives, which he witnessed grow firsthand as the head of a college community at Yale. He depicted the lives of these students as messy and unmanageable — never feeling ahead in their work, with too little time for all the things they must do, and smothered in debt from the day they entered the university’s doors. With economic rigor and rising costs for almost every item and service necessary for life, college changed from a place people used to explore their intellect to an academic boxing rink. Zinsser watched as students’ interests shifted from wanting to learn about the world to fighting to get into that top 10% of wealth and success, which was becoming increasingly glamorized by American society.

It was interesting to read Zinsser criticize the whopping $7,000 cost of college in the 1970s and the unnecessary pressure it placed on young people to succeed. Today, with many people having to pay at least twice as much to attend a public college (never mind ten times as much for Yale), you see that students don’t even have the time to be stressed. According to the radio series “This American Life” from WBEZ Chicago, the United States currently has the highest college dropout rate in the world. This is not surprising when students need to simultaneously focus on working, paying off already accumulating debt, having a high GPA, while dealing with everything else that life throws at them. Plus — you’ve all seen the rising culture of dropping out to start successful business, or making a living through Instagram advertising or Youtube. It sounds logical that many young people want to leave behind the crushing stress of college to chase a glamorized, lavish lifestyle as a young entrepreneur and influencer.

With pressure coming in from all sides, as Zinsser mentioned — from family, friends, school, and work — how are schools supposed to take care of these overwhelmed students? Stress relief intervention programs can only go so far. How about in cities like Chicago, which WBEZ mentioned is still overridden with crime, poverty, and homelessness that children are exposed to from the moment they learn to walk. As of 2018, Chicago is only safe than 8% of cities in the United States.

https://www.neighborhoodscout.com/il/chicago/crime

What are teachers expected to do when students cannot pay attention in math because of what’s going on at home? Sure, teachers are knowledgeable on how to deal with students having problems outside of school, but it seems almost impossible to keep up with teaching, getting supplies, and offering emotional support to children with problems worse than many adults’.

WBEZ talks about focusing on developing “non-cognitive” characteristics in these students to teach them valuable life skills that can help them in their future careers. It seems like the original purpose of school has been shifting entirely with changing economic and social pressures. In troubled communities, doing this counters the excessive pressures of increased standardized testing, which would only be counterproductive for students already facing pressure in life. The purpose of school changes for these kids.

Another thing that I think is worth thinking about is how the “overachieving” honors students develop in their seemingly “perfect” path through school. I’ve heard so many people (usually on Twitter) talk about how they were overachievers when they were young and now they have no work ethic or motivation. Some attribute this to excessive stress, others for being praised too much. It’s interesting how these people, who start at the completely opposite end of the spectrum and seem to have the perfect circumstances to succeed, end up feeling a lack of those non-cognitive character traits like determination and drive. Maybe focusing on grades too much is detrimental to children in all types of life situations and backgrounds.

Work in Progress

February 11, 2019 in Blog

When I started trying to write blog posts, I would get stuck on what the title of the post should be. I spent quite a bit of mental energy trying to find the right grouping of words that would catch the reader’s attention, but not seem too over-the-top; short, but to the point — soon at least half an hour had passed, and I could finally get to typing the actual post. And then I would do the same thing over again with the opening sentence.

Many beginner writers feel the same nonsense obligation to complete their writing, in order from introduction to conclusion, flawlessly. Of course, this leads to excessive mental block, and it may even make you forget all the great ideas you had thought to write about just an hour ago. That being said, it would probably serve us much better to write our thoughts out first without thinking of structure or tone. In “Shitty First Drafts,” Anne Lamott describes the dreaded first draft as more of a messy pool of thoughts and ideas. They don’t necessarily sound good, but at least you have something to work with. According to Lamott, most great writers need to write a bad first draft in order to work upward from there and create better drafts the second and third times. This makes a lot of sense — if you write something bad, now you know how to turn it around to make it good. Donald Murray has a similar but slightly more flexible perspective. In “The Maker’s Eye,” he agrees that multiple revisions are bound to take place, and that they’re actually necessities for good quality, professional writing; however, he still acknowledges that different writers have different styles of doing so. Some people are able to do a lot of rewriting and editing in their minds before they even finish the first draft, while others like to free write and then peruse their work carefully multiple times.  The essential idea of reserving more technical aspects of writing for subsequent revisions and starting with simply getting words down on paper makes a lot of sense if we connect it to literacy. When we learned how to speak, we didn’t learn how to say the word “The” first, then how to say any noun, and then a verb, to make a simple sentence. We first learned the words and phrases that resonated the most with our brains. Similarly, when learning to write for the first time, we could have tried to put an idea down on paper, but still wrote backwards letters and misspelled words. We didn’t first develop literacy with structure — it was messy and all over the place, and we learned how to clean it up later on. Writing should feel just as natural.

Reflecting on the writing process helped me to come up with a few tips for a less frustrating writing experience:

1.)Immediately write down any connection, idea, sentence, or thought in a notebook, on your phone, etc. Sometimes, just the act of sitting down and forcing yourself to write can feel too restrictive, and good ideas may come to you when you’re doing simple tasks like cleaning or walking. Don’t lose track of them. Writing is a long process that requires a lot of thought, and sometimes the amount of time we dedicate just to sitting and writing may not be enough to fully develop our message. Take opportunity in your mind when it’s free.

2.)Know your audience. Like Murray said, “The aim of writing is communication, not just self-expression.” Knowing your audience is important to do before you go back to reread and rewrite, because you need to know how to adjust your structure in terms of who you are communicating your message to. You will likely need to implement different technicalities to make the message effective for different audiences.

3.)Take a step back. Once again, I give much credit for this tip to Murray’s ideas about revision. A good writer should keep an open mind to criticism while also doubting it a little. Put your pride aside and take criticisms, as well as praise, into great consideration, but you don’t need to let them define all of your writing (especially the praise). Don’t be afraid to take risks, but take a step back from your writing and realize that this creation you’re so proud of isn’t perfect and still needs work.

4.)Don’t be afraid to share your bad writing with your peers or mentors. Lamott talked about how she would write a shitty first paragraph or draft because “no one would see it anyway.” I think we should show people our writing and ask for their opinions even if it isn’t even close to our best. Let’s not study our writing’s development. We know that professional writers don’t sit down and write perfect works in their first try, so we know that writing an amazing first draft isn’t what makes a good writer. Good writing is about growth.

 

The Shapeshifting Literacy Sponsor

February 7, 2019 in Blog, Literacy

So, we’ve already established that different forms of literacy can develop through a variety of experiences that aren’t limited to traditional schooling. Rose presented this idea in “Blue-Collar Brilliance,” describing the formation of literacy in the common workplace. In recognizing this, we also cannot ignore the multitude of agents or means by which one is guided to their own unique development of literacy. Many of us remember our first experiences with learning to read or write in a classroom, or maybe in our homes holding a children’s book for the first time. The ways by which literacy appeared in our lives are referred to as literacy sponsors. The most basic literacy sponsors we can think of are probably our families and teachers; however, literacy’s continuously changing standards makes way for an even more complex system of influences on how we communicate. Through very unique, yet seemingly commonplace and relatable, case studies in “Sponsors of Literacy,” Deborah Brandt revealed how everything, from the expanding job market and technology to spiritual life, has an impact on our personal experiences with literacy. What was most fascinating about her studies was the revelation of “appropriation” of literacy — the way in which disadvantaged groups of people adopt ways to become literate despite the institutionalized notions that they should not have access to, or at least be as immersed in education as others. In the 1900s women became increasingly involved in clerical work and bookkeeping, occupations that, at the time, aligned perfectly within the portrait of an ideal woman doing “feminine” work (180). Many women used the various forms of reading and writing that appeared on their desks in their daily work as learning opportunities that could be applied elsewhere in their lives. African American slaves in the pre-Civil War era did the same thing, turning to Church ceremonies and the Bible as a way of expanding their literacy when the rest of American society was trying to prevent them from becoming educated (168). Minorities looked to unlikely sponsors to expand their communication skills because they were set apart from the general, institutional literacy sponsors.

Appropriation of literacy isn’t something many of us are familiar with nowadays when we look back at our own experiences. Millennials and Gen Z kids in the United States grew up in a much more progressive time period and environment compared to the ones discussed by Brandt, allowing us to access broader opportunities for developing our literacy skills. I do think, however, that we face the newer, more subtle dilemma of competition. Brandt touched upon this concept of how changing standards of literacy in the workplace, such as the requirement for college-degree writing skills, increased competition and left older forms of acquiring literacy in the dust. Today, rapidly expanding technology makes this issue even more drastic, setting new standards of being able to absorb information at a faster rate and being more self-sufficient in learning. I look back happily on my favorite sponsors of literacy as a child, which were educational computer games and workbooks. Even after school, I would do exercises in these books and games because they disguised reading and learning as a fun activity in an environment where kids saw school as something dreadful. With an increasingly competitive atmosphere, nowadays even felt by first-graders, and an exponentially growing ratio of students to teachers, technologically-based literacy sponsors have been extremely efficient in giving young students extra literacy practice on their own terms, with their own intrinsic motivations of having fun. Not to mention, careers in technology and computer science are in such high demand right now; these new technological literacy sponsors set up today’s children to be literate not only in terms of reading and writing, but also well-versed in an area that is important to ANY future career. 

The literacy sponsors that we have access to are extremely unique and are insanely reflective of economic and social change. Even when, unfortunately, one does not have access to the literacy opportunities that others do, literacy is still based on your experiences and how you apply them to your life. Even without formal education, or today — a high-tech computer or iPad — literacy sponsors appear in may different forms, and Brandt’s accounts of everyday people’s experiences with literacy shed light on just how versatile these sponsors can be, and what we can improve to make sure people can have access to the literacy opportunities that are marks of success in our current environment.

We’ve Got to Learn to Read

February 5, 2019 in Blog, Digital Humanities

How many words do we read and write until we are considered literate? Quantitative methods of measuring literacy are about as useful as using the numbers on a scale to measure someone’s health — they massively oversimplify a multifaceted aspect of our lives that is influenced by everything from lifestyle to culture to accessibility of resources. To be literate is to have fluidity and accuracy in any cognitive or behavioral process, built by consistent experiences that required our full involvement in the process. Like Rose narrated in Blue-Collar Brilliance, literacy may not always present itself as an ability to read or write, but also as proficiency in more overlooked jobs like waiting tables or using tools. The blue-collar workers he described were not deemed literate in an academic sense, but actually exhibited complex cognitive proficiency in their daily work. Their literacy was the way they could multitask, group together activities to save time and energy, and work with effortless precision and intuitive rhythm that could only be achieved through immersive experience. The point is, literacy can be applied to any type of work, and therefore shouldn’t be defined quantitatively. Because experiences shape each person differently, we can’t measure it by “how much” experience one has in a field, either; it is unique to every type of person.

Because we can’t exactly measure it, literacy is more like a learning curve or spectrum, with no precisely set start or end point. Alex Reid enforced this idea of having “no ceiling, no final destination, on the path of mastery…there is always room for improvement” (Reid 303). Having real, inner motivation to keep learning and developing is a key part of literacy; external motivators can cause the process to become too routine and block us from fully involving ourselves in those experiences that challenge our critical thinking and problem solving skills. External motivators make it easier to set an “end” restriction on our literacy when we gain the reward we were looking forward to – whether that be a grade, paycheck, etc. Literacy itself is a learning process, often one that brings out our personalized take on the activity we’re aiming to be proficient in. Huang was not “literate” in English in the traditional sense when she started studying it, yet she turned to it as a more efficient outlet for her writing because it better reflected the ideas she wanted to express. Her literacy was being able to apply intention to her words — much like Rose’s mother made “every move count” while waitressing (Rose 394).

Now let’s go back to the traditional, common definition of literacy — the ability to read and write. Are we really literate? When moving through the bustle of daily life, are we able to internalize what we listen to and read? When we are caught off guard, do we have the mental flexibility to find exactly the right words to say? Sure, we’ve been reading and writing since we were enrolled in school, but have extrinsic motivators led to more shallow experiences dealing with language and communication? Have we truly immersed ourselves in analyzing language and become masters in maneuvering through the variety of words, structures, and expressions to find exactly what message we want to express? A skilled mechanic observes different problems and situations, applies their knowledge of tools, and uses the experiences to expand their literacy in their craft. Do we do that with the words we read, and then write?

It’s okay, though. The foundation of literacy is having this rhythm and flow in what you do, and sometimes it can be hard to be in tune with ourselves to reach that flow. It’s worth thinking about applying the vastness of the meaning of literacy to its common definition. Take a step back and realize that reading and writing is more than just being able to read and write, it’s knowing how to get your message across. We have all the tools (words, expressions, sentence structure, billions of texts to read) at our disposal; we just need to use them right.

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