Theoretical Notes on Academic Literacy

Literacy can mean different things, and placing the modifier academic before it certainly does not lighten this concern. Presented below are our Writing Program’s beliefs about academic literacy, intended to respond to assumptions about literacy as well as attitudes about students and their learning that are counter-productive to the aims of writing development at UAF.

There have been several turns in the study of teaching writing and the latest is a turn to the social and public. First-year writing courses are required in a majority of higher education programs; they are at once a gate-keeping mechanism and an opportunity to reach students during a transformative period in their lives. At UAF English 111x and 211x or 213x are required core classes that are opportunities to introduce habits of mind to the student population, recognizing that we play a role in fostering active citizens and future contributors to our communities. Though this page  is not intended to provide an historical perspective to a field that has shifted and grown, we believe that it is important to situate First Year Writing, literacy, and our curriculum as a social project and an asset to continuing education at UAF. In general, our Writing Program shares traits with those across the Lower 48, where programs have shifted emphasis from an individual’s or author’s perspective on writing to a social perspective of texts and writers.

Schooling is tied to either social reproduction or social transformation, and we should make every attempt to work along this spectrum of social change in our work with writers acquiring academic literacy. No one writes in no-place or no-situation. What writers write and how they write is inherited from, and also contributes to, their particular scenes of writing as well as their understanding of themselves and the world.

This social turn emphasizes no one genre of writing over another. For example, our curriculum does not value argument over narrative or narrative over argument. This refusal is based in our belief that writing occurs in contexts that constantly change and always differ–contexts that involve multiple genres for multiple audiences and purposes. This kind of understanding about language and texts is a rhetorical perspective, and in this guidebook this perspective will often be referred to as the “rhetorical situation.’ The rhetorical situation takes into account audience, purpose, writer, and context to consider how and why a text acts in the world — whether that text is an ad in a magazine or a critical academic article. Writing at UAF should challenge students to apply this rhetorical knowledge of how and why various writing/texts are produced, received, distributed, and circulated to aid students in practicing writing texts more deliberately, effectively, and precisely. This take on process creates a social writing process rather than a cognitive process for an individual writer.

Oftentimes, literacy is understood as a skill whose presence or absence defines an individual as either literate or illiterate. New Literacy Studies has expanded this definition. Literacy, researchers argue, is far more social than an individual decoding words from a page, writing them down, and having an authority decide that this practice deems the person literate. So, rather than framing literacy as a skill; instead, literacy has been found to be made up of a series of social material practices aimed toward action in given contexts. In our teaching of academic literacy, we should attempt to help our students acquire it based on how literacy practices actually work in the material context of people’s lives, which include but are not limited to academic study. Decontextualizing literacy will not help students develop as informed, deliberate communicators. A teacher cannot remove literacy teaching from its social effects, i.e. literacy is ideological.

“Meaning is primarily the result of social interactions, negotiations, contestations and agreements among people. It is inherently variable and social.’

For more on the ideological nature of literacy, see James Paul Gee’s Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses.

Because literacy involves the mutually constitutive practices of reading and writing, we strive to design our writing courses to encourage interplay among the assignments. We select difficult readings to engage our students in considerations of complex academic/public issues, and we try to design problem-posing prompts, which require students to consider these readings from various angles. Some instructors assume that, for a text to be difficult, it must be linguistically challenging, stylistically dense, and/or thematically complex. Others assume that such texts must be “literary.’ Think William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature,’ or Toni Morrison’s Beloved. We believe that the definition of difficult texts should be expanded, because we have found that they come in various forms–they may even be multimodal!–and fall into different generic categories. We also believe that texts which might seem simple at first glance often contain complicated ideas that require careful analytical attention. Examples might include: the Civil War-era parlor song “Jeff in Petticoats’; Charles Brower’s personal narrative Fifty Years Below Zero; or Frederic Remington’s painting Coming to the Call. Albeit in different ways, all of these texts (because we consider paintings and songs to be textual) demand that readers confront difficult questions about history, politics, and/or identity. They ask readers to adopt different perspectives and think about the world in unconventional ways. All texts have features that can be analyzed and drawn on in regard to their social function (what, how, and to whom they communicate).

Oftentimes, what makes academic literacy difficult to teach is that this process of learning happens for students over time, and is acquired through practice in rhetorical situations. Sometimes we teach the same thing, again and again. This doesn’t mean we are failing. Returning again to previous material provides opportunity for synthesis. Teaching academic literacy does not involve taking a prescriptive orientation to a writer’s language use or social conventions. The features of academic genres change as writers respond to disciplinary and social context. This means that teaching academic literacy is a process of helping students recognize and respond to these changing contexts.

“At its essence, the Framework suggests that writing activities and assignments should be designed with genuine purposes and audiences in mind (from teachers and other students to community groups, local or national officials, commercial interests, students’ friends and relatives, and other potential readers) in order to foster flexibility and rhetorical versatility.’

For more on the roots of these strategies, see the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing, published by the Council of Writing Program Administrators.

At the same time, as writing teachers we meet students during a period of transition, which means we have a responsibility not only to ground students in the university’s changing expectations of their written communication but also to expose them to new knowledge and practices for their continued writing improvement. We aim to help students distinguish between choices and errors. That is, language and writing function as mirrors and tools and what appears to be an error may actually be a reflection of the context in which something is written or said. Alternatively, an error may be a choice that intends to reshape that context in some way. Knowledge about academic literacy and its practices can transfer to contexts outside of writing classrooms because the writer learns the reasons behind what they are doing when they write. Students acquire this knowledge as they gain more exposure to the genres of their discipline. Students learn in first-year writing the tools, questions, and habits of mind that are critical for success in college. As such, we draw on strategies advocated by research into undergraduate education at research universities.