OK, I asked the students in my graduate seminar on teaching composition and literature to write a literacy narrative–the story of how they learned to read and write. Since they wanted an example, here is mine. I first wrote it as part of my dissertation back around 2001. This has been updated to reflect more recent developments. I chose then to write it in third person, which I find still seems good to me, because even now I feel rather alienated from quite a bit of my own writing–so much is done to meet quite rigid criteria. –Grant -writing, for example!
So. Here it is.
From an early age she loved pictures, especially in books that were visually busy, like those by Richard Scarry, or books that described things, like field guides to amphibians. She would pore over these for hours on end, memorizing the pictures and words. She can still remember them, from hellbender, reticulated quartz, to cumulo-nimbus. She grew to think of words as captions, as handles with which to grab bulky trunks of reality. She never did learn to sound out words, as she usually learned the whole word all together, but she learned to fake it for school.
She knew how to read well before starting school, and so was frequently chided for reading ahead in the group assignment or wandering off to hide under a table with books on secret codes, strangler figs, or little boys named Pablo growing up in large, hungry families. The complexity of the world fascinated her, and she loved adding more and more details to the universe growing in her head in the same way she like to add more and more detail to pictures, until she had filled a page with curling tendrils of graphite that were random, but balanced.
Learning to write was odd. She did not like lined paper–books had no lines and the lines felt confining. So she wrote very small, so as to have more room around her on the page, until teachers forced her to only write with crayons so she would have to write large. She shuddered every time she touched a line with her crayon or pencil. She reverted to tininess as soon as possible, which was middle school. One day a teacher insisted on changing the words she wrote because they “didn’t make sense.” To her they had been exactly right, but now she can’t remember any more her original understanding. She only remembers that it is lost.
At that time, her writing was mostly good, because she rarely talked, but read lots of long novels, like Dracula, and Wuthering Heights. She also read a lot of fantasy and of course, the field guides and dictionaries. Her prose ended up being rather dense and filled with peculiar words like axlotl, pestiferous, and her construction was rather Victorian. The teachers seemed to like it and her. She also was enjoying art class, in which she always had at least one idea to work on and tended to take a long time about finishing up because she wanted her work in the world to exactly match the idea in her head.
In high school she ran into trouble and Some of it had to do with writing. She still was reading very well and always had things to say in class, in spite of dirty looks from her classmates. Unfortunately, the high school teachers did not like her writing. They though her words were finicky, her ideas tangled, her transitions invisible, and since she clearly had read and understood, they thought she was lazy. She did however take a drafting class, where she learned to write very very neatly, which seemed to slightly improve others’ attitudes toward the substance of her writing, as well as the form. In English class, she resigned herself to earning Cs.
This unhappy state of affairs continued through all four years, so that in college, in spite of excellent test scores of various types, and an abiding delight in reading, she did not major in English. She majored in biology; lab work was fun and she still got to read things like field guides. Biology turned out to allow little time for electives, and so for a while she switched to anthropology to mask the fact that she was actually taking many art studio and history classes, and aesthetics, and other things her parents felt were not financially wise. These art classes were very helpful because, besides teaching her about art, they taught her about what she now knows as rhetoric. She learned about audience, and context, and how to communicate an interpretation or argument. She learned that while sketchbooks and other kinds of practice are very helpful, drafting is at best a gamble and often an expensive one. Once you strike off a piece of wood or stone when sculpting, you couldn’t very well put it back, and starting over took more money (squeezed out of an already tight budget) and usually did not produce the same result. Drafting was best done with little scraps of metal and wood, or inside the head where anything was possible.
Because she liked the professor, she took a class on semiotics and realized that she might have something useful to say about language after all, and English classes could be very good indeed. Perhaps she could then get a job like his in which she was paid to read books she liked and talk about them. So she decided to major in English, figuring that she would work the art in somehow, thus avoiding a potentially traumatic debate with her parents over Job Prospects. Of course, by now she had reached her junior spring, and so she squeezed all of the requirements into three semesters and one summer. As she would often read two-five books in one day for fun, she did not see any difficulty with this plan, except that some of the classes she might want to take might conflict with each other or be unavailable. She majored in English, and though she still had some of the same trouble as in high school, she managed well enough to graduate with moderately good grades. She also enjoyed finally meeting people in class who loved books as much as she did.
After working at a few poorly paying jobs while living at home, she realized that she had to find some work that would pay more and not kill her soul with boredom in the first six weeks. Around that time, she heard that her old high school need substitute teachers. She remembered how cruelly these poor souls had been treated when she was enrolled, but decided that since she knew many of the students already and knew the school rules, she would be safe from the worst difficulties. Over the protests of her youngest sister, who was still in the school, she started teaching, and finally found work she enjoyed. Thoughts of how much better college had been than high school led her to set her sights on being a professor, and thus to head off in search of an advanced degree.
Graduate school was rather a shock.
On the one hand, everyone was interested in reading, and being smart was valued, and professors treated students more like colleagues. On the other hand, some people were afraid of looking stupid, and some people were focused very narrowly, and some people like to argue to make themselves look smart. Like anything, it was neither good nor bad, but it was different from any other experience she had faced, and so was harder in that way. She loved the work—all the reading and analyzing and discussing–and she decided not to worry about looking stupid, or about people whose motives seemed self-aggrandizing. She consciously resolved to resist a narrow focus because it seemed to make people rather sour, and to make new ideas scarce; she also was very stubborn and refused to give up the fun of her comic books and artwork and all the other interests she had accumulated over the years.
At first she studied literature, and everything went pretty well. But after a while she started teaching writing, and took classes about how to do that, and things got very complicated. She studied theories about how writing worked and how it was best to teach, and while they sounded good, none described what worked best for her when she wrote something herself. In fact, her way of writing was not mentioned at all, except sometimes as an example if an immature way to use language. Well, this made her feel rather doubtful of her approach and she gamely tried to adopt the process described in the books and theories. Her writing started disintegrating, and professors were impatient, having the same reaction as those high school teachers, thinking she was just not working very hard.
This was upsetting of course, but as mentioned, she was stubborn and she decided that she did not accept this approach to writing and not only that, she decided to prove her way was just as good, though different. At first she was angry and impassioned, because the more she studied some of these theories about writing, the more she understood that they weren’t really about writing, but about thinking. The people making these theories believed that thinking and words became one—at least for any complex topic in the mind of any grown-up person.
Around the same time, a long-held interest in Asian culture began to coalesce around China. She studied Buddhism and Daoism, and rented many films and bought many books. She felt curiously at ease in the culture. Many of the books she read mentioned the difficulties Westerners, especially Americans, had in relating to Chinese culture and people. She kept waiting for this discomfort to make itself known, but it did not. Here and there she had chances to meet Chinese people, and became very close to some of them, who told her she was Chinese at heart, that she understood poetic logic, that her way of thinking, especially about language, was very Chinese. She did not feel particularly qualified to judge this herself, but as she began studying Mandarin, she felt at home in it, and enjoyed learning each character, slowly but surely.
After being in school for very nearly thirty years, she managed to combine very nearly all of these experiences into her doctoral dissertation.
Well, writing the dissertation was harder than anything else because there was so much to think about and as usual, none of it wanted to be arranged into neat and orderly rows on a series of neat and orderly consecutive pages. But, the Graduate School was quite strict about this, and wanted double-spacing and one inch margins on top of that, so she decided it was not worth the time or effort trying to argue for the necessity of side-bars, call-outs, and all the other textual apparatus she really would have preferred. At least she was allowed footnotes.
Eventually, after many many revisions, it was done and she was released into the fun-filled … terribly busy … curiously satisfying world of composition. She got a job teaching writing at MIT where she was stuck teaching science writing, which got a bit dull, but was among people who like herself might not be so comfortable writing at all. And they appreciated comic books, SF and speculative fiction, and few people were scared of computers. So it wasn’t bad. Eventually though she realized that writing was so un-valued at this place that she would never get very far in the very explicit hierarchy of the school. In fact, they would not even put writing teachers on the committee concerned with writing requirements.
After a job search that was less painful than what most experience, almost as much fun as taking the Graduate Record Exams over and over and over… she took a job at a smallish, western, state university. The first year she wrote mainly comments on student essays, and they were most of her reading. The second year she was tricked talked into becoming director of composition, which (sadly) she had some talent for. Or at least didn’t hate as much as some people seemed to. She struggled to start writing again that year, because a pre-tenure review was looming. Thanks to the faculty writing group, she produced two articles, one of which (so far) has appeared in print. But writing was still a struggle. It was still a terribly boring conclusion to much more interesting thinking and reading and talking.
Finally, appallingly late in the game, (even later than for Peter Elbow!) something shifted. After getting involved in several mailing lists, writing every month for webzine, leading far TOO MANY grant proposals, proposing too many conference papers that were accepted, and then–and this seems to have been the most important point… finding something to explore that was even more interesting than her dissertation subject had been, she found that she didn’t mind writing so much. In fact, she even kind of liked it.
Maybe because she worked so often in collaborative way, which accorded much better with her sometimes intensely sociable nature; or maybe because the subject alone was so compelling (for more on this, read about the Book Project). Or maybe she had become so insanely busy that she could no longer think so much ahead, she had to think while writing, she had to stop resisting and let her entire cognitive process shift. In one way, this was a grievous possibility to consider, because it might be that all she gained in writing she had lost in visual/kinesthetic creativity. Or maybe not. Maybe learning is not a zero-sum game. Maybe one can gain skills without losing others. It’s something she’ll have to wait and discover.