For the first time since starting this blog five years ago, I took a bit of a break for part of July. I’ve had a very busy writing summer, and, like many other teachers, I also like to spend some time trying to get caught up on reading books and journals. So I’m writing today to say I hope all of you have had a good summer, thus far, and I hope that the coming school year will bring some joy amid the anxiety we are all feeling about health care, education, and the state of our country. I also come with a recommendation: a review essay in the March 2017 issue of College English. “Literacy Hope and the Violence of Literacy: A Bind that Ties Us,” by Kirk Branch, is definitely worth a read.
Branch’s provocative and thoughtful review addresses four books: Paul Feigenbaum’s Collaborative Imagination: Earing Activism through Literacy Education; Michael Harker’s The Lure of Literacy: A Critical Reception of the Compulsory Composition Debate, Todd Ruecker’s Transiciones: Pathways of Latinas and Latinos Writing in High School and College, and Amy Wan’s Producing Good Citizens: Literacy Training in Anxious Times. While Branch ends up discussing each book in some detail, he sets the entire discussion in the context of the bind all literacy teachers and scholars face—between what Harvey Graff calls the “literacy myth,” of hope and faith in the power of literacy to liberate and to solve many ills, including social inequality; and what Elspeth Stuckey calls “the violence of literacy,” its power to oppress, punish, and subjugate.
I read Stuckey’s book when it came out twenty-five years ago, and I still remember literally reeling from my encounter with her rage against a system that has not only withheld literacy but also used literacy to punish people. I still remember, in this same vein, hearing an African American textile worker from South Carolina tell of being beaten in middle school when she misspelled names of bones in the body: when she told her mother what had happened, her mother said “I can’t go complain to those white people, but you don’t ever have to go to that school again.” I’m here using deliberately stark terms to illustrate the “bind,” as Branch describes, to make the point that all teachers of writing will inevitably encounter the poles of this divide. But of course, such binaries are never simple, never easy, and this one is no different. Issues surrounding literacy and our relationship to literacy are deeply complex; they are also intertwined with ideology and with the stories we tell about education in the United States. Beyond complex, really. But recognizing this complexity and resisting either pole long enough to look closely at our own goals, and to see how they are implicated in institutional systems that almost certainly work against those goals, is a necessary step in coming to grips with both “literacy hope” and “the violence of literacy.”
Branch finds admirable things in each of these books, but in the end Feigenbaum’s seems most fascinating to him:
In the end, what I find so compelling about Feigenbaum’s book is that he wholly engages the contradictions at the heart of literacy education, that he understands the ways his own teaching is implicated in the sort of violence at the heart of Stuckey’s analysis, that the necessary impossibility of achieving the goals he attaches to progressive literacy education does not mean that it will fail. (420)
As we begin a new school year (and with a Secretary of Education who is no friend to public education or to progressive literacy education), it seems especially important to reflect on the “binds” that tie us—sometimes into knots (!), sometimes into productive and useful and meaningful work with young writers. As Branch puts it, we can at least hope that these binds “tie us together, that they allow us to work with others within and outside our disciplines to understand and continually to reimagine the potential of literacy education in anxious times.”