(A) Just literacy

Tracy Hamler Carrick, Syracuse University

Abstract

This dissertation critically examines how constructions of literacy are shaped during historical moments when underrepresented majority groups seek access to hegemonic social institutions: higher education, the workforce, and the body politic. Exploring tensions between constructions of literacy as just a set of skills to be learned and the need for a just literacy that recognizes the ongoing, contested nature of social, material, and discursive struggles across and between communities of difference, I argue that prevailing discourses of segregation within U.S. political economy deeply influence the ways literacy is defined and evaluated. Furthermore, such discourses delineate the ways (textual) bodies are filtered through public spaces. In considering three transitional periods within the field--the turn-of-the-century emergence of first-year composition at elite institutions of U.S. higher education; the institution of remediation during the 1970s; and the inclusion of community service in higher education curricula--I demonstrate how fetishistic constructions of literacy, those which are disembodied and dematerialized, most directly serve the interests of scholars and teachers in composition and rhetoric as well as students from the white professional middle class. My aim is to show how the needs of under-represented groups--primarily working classes and communities of color--are left unexamined and, in some situations, boldly ignored in a relentless effort to teach the literacy practices and discursive modes that most closely resemble those of white, professional, middle-class communities. I contend that many of the literacy challenges faced by contemporary U.S. institutions can be directly linked to the prejudicial and oppressive ways that institutions--and the people within them--construct educational spaces that conceive of literacy as simply utilitarian. In addition to this critique, I call for the rigorous inclusion of embodied and materialist literacies within mainstream institutional spaces. Applying feminist Sara Ahmed's theory of embodiment in postcoloniality, I offer examples from disciplinary praxis and a case study of the Highlander Folk School to begin unfolding a theory and practice of embodied literacy, an activist project that challenges literacy educators and Euro-Western institutions to more justly address the (corpo)real processes involved in generating discursive knowledge between-not within--academic and community spaces.