Literacy in American Lives by Deborah Brandt — Introduction: The Pursuit of Literacy by

Key quotes and terms from Introduction:

“Expanding literacy undeniably has been an instrument for more democratic access to learning, political participation, and upward mobility. At the same time, it has become one of the sharpest tools for stratification and denial of opportunity” (2).

“Literacy is valuable–and volatile–property. And like other commodities with private and public value, it is a grounds for potential exploitation, injustice, and struggle as well a potential, satisfaction, and reward. Whereever literacy is learned and practiced, these competing interests will always be present” (2-3).

“Attention to the situated nature of literacy also has provided avenues for treating the ideological dimensions of literacy, the politics by which reading and writing preferences of elite groups get installed as the measure against which other versions are deemed inadequate or undesirable” (3).

“Economic transformations, as they appeared in family work, regional restructuring, communication systems, and political organization, were the engine of change in literacy learning, setting an especially brisk pace over the last several decades” (4).

LITERACY SKILL–a resource—economic, political, intellectual, spiritual–which, like wealth or education, or trade skill or social connections, is pursued for the opportunities and protections that it potentially grants its seekers. To treat literacy in this way is to understand not only why individuals labor to attain literacy but also to appreciate why, as with any resource value, organized economic and political interests work so persistently to conscript and ration powers of literacy for their own competitive advantage”(5).

CULTURAL CAPITAL–conglomeration of skills, credentials, and relationships of obligation that families and individuals use to jockey for and maintain class status

HUMAN CAPITAL–ways that individuals and companies invest in and profit by the development of intellectual capacity

LITERACY LEARNING–specific occasions when people take on new understandings or capacities

LITERACY DEVELOPMENT–the accumulating project of literacy learning across a lifetime, the interrelated effects and potentials of learning over time

LITERACY OPPORTUNITY–people’s relationships to social and economic structures that condition chances for learning and development

“To treat literacy as a resource is to emphasize that it takes its shape from what can be traded on it. This perspective attends to the competititons that surround literacy, the struggles to harness it for profit or ideological advantage, the struggles for the perogative to manage or measure it, and the ways that these incessant struggles set the terms for individual encounters with literacy. Above all, this perspective emphasizes the instability of literacy, its links to political and economic changes and to the shifting standards of value and conditions of access that accompany those changes” (7).

“Literacy practices trail along within themselves histories of opportunities granted and opportunities denied, as well as ascending power or waning worth, legitimacy or marginality of particular literate experience” (8).

Brandt’s study is based on 80 in-depth interviews conducted in mid-1990s with diverse group of people living in Wisconsin aged 10-98 years old.

Methodologies include: “open-ended autobiographical monologues, structured and less structured interviews and biographical surveys,” and “life-story research–loose confederation of historical, sociological, psychological, and phenomenlogical inquiry” (10)

“It is the persistent interest of this study to characterize literacy not as it registers on various scales but as it has been lived” (11).

Brandt utilizes “birth cohorts”–“method of analysis meant to capture literacy learning within …’material and culutural boundaries’ of a time span” to help identify “What people are able to do with their writing and reading in any time and place–as well as what others do to them with writing and reading–[which] contribute to their sense of identity, normality, possibility” (11).

Brandt also analyzed literacy learning by analyzing “sponsors of literacy.”

SPONSORS OF LITERACY–“any agents, local or distant, concrete or abstract, who enable, support, teach, and model, as well as recruit, regulate, suppress, or withhold literacy–and gain advantage by it in some way” (19).

“Sponsors are a tangible reminder that literacy learning throughout history has always required permission, sanction, assistance, coercion, or, at minimum, contact with existing trade routes” (19).

As Brandt notes, and here is the point I want to take up later, literacy sponsors “lend their resources or credibility to the sponsored but also stand to gain benefits from their success, whether by direct repayment or, indirectly, by credit of association” (19).

The sponsoring of literacy has a specific function in large political and economic arenas, which we must interrogate (21). Brandt challenges us to interrogate the “competition to harnes literacy, to mange, measure, teach, and exploit it…because this competition shapes the incentives and barriers (including uneven distributions of opportunity) that greet literacy learners in any particular time and place. It is this competition that has made access to the right kinds of literacy sponsors so crucial for political and economic well being” (21).


Forgive me everyone for my lack of reflection on this introduction and for not responding to anyone’s blogs this weekend. My husband is in town, and I have prioritized his visit. I do want to just raise one point of interest that I hope we can discuss in class tomorrow.

What interests me most about sponsors of literacy is the fact that all sponsors, according to Brandt, benefit and gain advantage from sponsoring literacy. Therefore, as teachers, we must ask what we gain from sponsoring literacy in our classrooms. The answers to this question are complex and multifaceted, but I hope we can explore them in class.



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2 responses to “Literacy in American Lives by Deborah Brandt — Introduction: The Pursuit of Literacy by

  1. Eileen E. Schell

    What do we gain from sponsoring literacy in our classrooms? We gain a pay-check for one! Brandt speakes of trading literacy as a resource. So how does first-year writing rely on trading literacy as a resource?

    First off, we respond to the institutional pressures to sponsor a particular kind of literacy–academic literacy (think of Bartholomae’s comments here), which becomes a currency as students move through the academy . We may actively work to promote critical literacies that go beyond academic literacies, though.

    But literacy sponsors also suppress, regulate, and withhold literacy, right? So to add to your question, Laurie, how do we suppress, regulate, and withhold literacy, too? The first-year writing class or basic writing class can be a way to wash people out of college, out of the “academic marketplace.”

  2. legries

    I should have been more precise with my question. What I meant to inquire about is what personal gains as teachers do we gain as literacy sponsors? In the past, I have always justified my social justice curricula by taking the moral highground. But after reading Brandt, I am beginning to question what I personally gain from my curricula. Anyway….

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