Multiple literacies on main street and in the academy: A longitudinal study of two working-class, rural adolescents

Laura L. Payne-Bourcy, Syracuse University


The purpose of this study was to examine the multiple literacies demanded of two working-class, rural adolescents as they "crossed" the social, cultural, political and intellectual borders in and between their rural communities and higher education.

This study used a constant comparative approach to construct longitudinal case histories (Creswell, 1998) of the reported literacy practices of two White, working-class, rural adolescents between their senior years in high school and their senior years in college. Data gathered and analyzed over a period of four years included e-mail, face-to-face and phone interviews, as well as other artifacts consistent with Glaser's (1992) description of constant comparative analysis.

As the first generation of their respective families to attend college, these adolescents constructed meaning for objects, people, situations and events (Bogdan & Biklen, 1997) consistent with texts that they encountered in their rural settings as well as the colleges they eventually attended. In this study, "texts" were defined as books that the informants read as children, popular music lyrics, role playing games and performative texts, such as speeches offered at parties. One important lens through which adolescents in this study made sense of their lives was what Neilsen calls "touchstone texts" (Neilsen, 1998). According to Neilsen, these are texts that adolescents may revisit in order to make sense of themselves as actors in social worlds. For the adolescents in this study, touchstone texts included pieces that they wrote and read, as well as important conversations with peers and adults.

Interactions with texts, and hence identity development, did not occur in a vacuum for these adolescents. Their literacy practices and the meaning attributed to them were shaped by the social, cultural and geopolitical worlds of the adolescents as language learners. At the same time, what mattered in terms of the literacy practices of both adolescents varied dramatically for these two informants, who had similar backgrounds in terms of race, social class and school experiences.

This study pulled rural adolescents into the fierce debate about what it means to be literate. To address the scarcity of inquiry into the literacy practices of working class or poor White rural adolescents, this study focused on the "crossing" of two White rural adolescents from an impoverished, isolated region to higher education. The study demonstrated that important to their transition into higher education were access to narratives of crossing, understanding the forms of differences in the academy that they had not encountered in their rural secondary settings, and a greater understanding of the connection between academic learning and possible life paths. The study demonstrated that greater communication and collaboration between secondary and postsecondary institutions is needed to facilitate the crossing of rural adolescents. Findings from this study bear relevance to researchers, educators on the secondary and postsecondary levels, and policy makers interested in the unique needs and life worlds of rural adolescents. (Abstract shortened by UMI.)