A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Beyond Critical Pedagogy in Basic Writing: A Review of The Way Literacy Lives: Rhetorical Dexterity and Basic Writing Instruction by Shannon Carter

Review of Shannon Carter, The Way Literacy Lives: Rhetorical Dexterity and Basic Writing Instruction (SUNY, 2008)

Sara Chaney, Dartmouth College

Enculturation 7 (2010): http://enculturation.net/beyond-critical-pedagogy-in-basic-writing

Hedged in by politics on one side and pragmatism on the other, teachers and scholars of basic writing are lately unsure of how we should discuss basic writing and, even more to the point, if we should continue to discuss basic writing at all. Several decades of inquiry into basic writing and the so-called “basic writer” have obliged us to confront how our line of inquiry potentially stratifies the student population, reproduces race- and class-biased standards of literacy, and reductively categorizes incoming college students according to binaries that are insufficiently descriptive of both how students learn and, as Shannon Carter nicely puts it, how literacy lives. These realizations led at the turn of the millennium to mainstreaming debates that have never found real closure, and those committed to teaching the students who fill basic writing classrooms across the country are still navigating a minefield around what Linda Addler-Kassner and Susanmarie Harrington have termed “the dilemma that still counts.” What goal should we prioritize: identifying and addressing the needs of students in front of us, or helping them see how these needs have been culturally and institutionally structured in ways that are beyond their individual control yet have a profound effect on their individual lives? Can one of these goals be met without first addressing the other? Or might it be possible to design a basic writing curriculum that empowers students to challenge the institutional values that stigmatize them while still sustaining the program itself?

Into this tangle of complex questions that have come to define the subfield, Shannon Carter’s The Way Literacy Lives: Rhetorical Dexterity and Basic Writing Instruction has entered. Boasting local specificity and theoretical breadth, Carter’s book presents what she calls a “pedagogy of rhetorical dexterity”—an approach to teaching basic writing that draws on students' vernacular literacies to help them navigate the new literate communities of practice they will confront in college. With the help of a theoretical framework drawn from new literacy studies, activity theory, and critical literacy, Carter argues that what Brian Street terms the “pedagogization of literacy” has potentially damaging effects on basic writers, whose embrace of “an autonomous model of literacy” makes it difficult for them to recognize the ideology concealed behind literate standards that disregard and even denigrate the literacies they know best. Accordingly, Carter’s pedagogy of rhetorical dexterity “attempts to develop in writers the ability to negotiate the school literacies celebrated in the current social order in ways that are as ethical and meta-aware as possible” (18). Identifying the originality of her contribution to basic writing studies in how her work enables us to “represent literacy differently, beginning in our classrooms,” Carter productively shifts the rhetorical focus that has dominated much prior conversation in the field (15). Rather than primarily concerning herself with whether and how we should represent the basic writer (in scholarship, pedagogy, and writing program administrator [WPA] work), she turns her attention to how we might represent literacy to the basic writer as she has attempted to do, with an interest in “helping change the way literacy education functions and the way ‘basic writers’ are defined…[while] understand[ing] the limits of my own power to effect change” (5). While Carter’s theoretical approach offers a compelling case for a new orientation to basic writing, her own methodology and use of evidence are at times less convincing. Nonetheless, her book has much to offer, particularly in its smart and compassionate application of an eclectic range of theory to the continuing challenges of the basic writing classroom.

In her first chapter, “The Way Literacy Tests,” Carter uses her own upbringing in Texas public school systems and transition into her present role as a professor and WPA to illustrate the powerful shaping effect of local and state-wide governing structures on literacy practices. Tracing the evolution of state-mandated testing in the Texas school system, she demonstrates how these tests (and the definition of literacy as a testable, isolated skill that justifies their use) uphold literacy standards while “violating the principles of good writing assessment” (3), ultimately creating a constrained, bureaucratic context for writing instruction that broadly misrepresents literacy as an autonomous, decontextualized skill. In her working environment at Texas A&M-Commerce, Carter explains that while the program works against such misrepresentations, “standardized testing remained an integral part of outcomes assessment” (12). Within these constraints, Carter sought to politicize basic writing without making her program “unnecessarily vulnerable to the arbitrary systems of institutionalized oppression that claim to ‘identify’ those ‘not ready for college-level literacy’” (11). The resulting curriculum focuses on what Carter terms “rhetorical dexterity,” an approach to basic writing that teaches students to value their expertise in vernacular literacies and to leverage that expertise when navigating new circumstances, ideally with a greater awareness—of both “the artificial binary between the ‘literate’ and ‘illiterate’…[and]…literacy itself as an activity system”(19).

Chapter Two, “The Way Literacy Oppresses,” briefly reviews the genealogy of basic writing scholarship as an activity system, attempting “to identify the input, output, and tools used to accomplish said output” in each new curricular model for basic writing (26). Carter turns to an analysis of the autonomous model of literacy as itself an activity system that “shapes the basic writer’s understanding of how literacy functions and, therefore, complicates and, at times, thwarts their ability to acquire new literacies” (29). In her analysis, she draws on a range of texts—from Scribner and Cole’s study of the Vai to Elspeth Stuckey’s work on the “violence of literacy”—to dismantle the autonomous literacy myth, arguing that literacy is neither an individual skill nor a prerequisite for individual progress. Carter marshals a thorough review of new literacy studies scholarship to conclude that we are all, in fact, illiterate in some areas. The significance of our deficits “is determined less by need and more by the value society places on the area in which we may be considered literate” (34).

It is this situated and ideological understanding of multiple literacies and literacy standards that, according to Carter, most critical pedagogy to date has not adequately addressed. In Chapter 3, “The Way Literacy Liberates,” Carter supports her argument through discussion of Texas A&M-Commerce’s earlier basic writing curriculum, which focused on helping students understand how the pedagogization of literacy has affected their lives. Arguing primarily on the basis of one case study of “Ana”—a blind, Mexican student in the program—Carter claims that a critical-literacy-based curriculum does not push students to challenge the unquestioned value of literacy itself. The curriculum pushed Ana to critique her own lack of access to traditional literacy education but not to critique the dominance of school-based literacy standards altogether. In the conclusion of the chapter, Carter locates her position on critical pedagogy in relation to Russell Durst’s 1999 critique of liberatory pedagogy in Collision Course: Conflict, Negotiation and Learning in College Composition. Like Durst, Carter is loathe to impose politics on her students and finds in the pedagogy of rhetorical dexterity a route to empower students as writers without imposing on them her political goals.

Chapters 4 through 5 lay out the scholarly groundwork and justification for a pedagogy of rhetorical dexterity in greater detail, first by using a combination of new literacy theory and case study analysis (in this case, of her brother’s schooling experiences) to demonstrate how the pedagogization of literacy separates in-school and out-of-school literacies at an early age with potentially dire consequences. Carter maintains that “traditional literacy education failed [her brother] Eric” because it did not provide him with the ability to draw what she terms “points of contact” between the literacies he did possess (in this case, in video games) with those he did not (standardized reading tests) (80). In the remainder of Chapter 4, she moves beyond a review of her brother’s story to an extensive discussion of two recent works: Deborah Brandt’s Literacy in American Lives and Cynthia Selfe and Gail Hawisher’s Literate Lives in the Information Age. In a focused review of several case studies from each volume, Carter demonstrates how access to literacy-as-currency is unequal (Brandt) and out-of-school literacies are changing at a rate with which it is difficult for the schools to keep pace (Hawisher and Selfe). Carter draws the case studies together to argue for the centrality of “meta-awareness” in all instances of literate participation, concluding that “The meta-awareness we value, the levels of understanding that make innovation possible, are available to our students who develop rhetorical dexterity” (93). Chapter 5 goes on to continue her sweeping critique of the autonomous model of literacy as it appears in many contexts, from E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy to David Bartholomae’s “Inventing the University.” Critiquing “an autonomous model that separates skills from content, content from context, and even, as I will argue, orality from literacy” also, according to Carter, limits basic writers’ ability to draw on former expertise in the writing classroom (113). By the end of this chapter, Carter seems to leave the reader with an implied definition of literacy that is so broad as to contain most any arena of student competence. The breadth of this definition is ultimately, we are meant to understand, preferable as a pedagogical framing device for basic writing, since it offer students a metacognitive framework that will allow them to make connections between previous and present learning.

Chapter 6, the final chapter of the book, is devoted to a description of the “rhetorical dexterity” curriculum and student responses to it. Carter proposes that her curriculum—one that asks students to examine “the process by which newcomers become part of a community of practice”—will foster in students a metacognition about their own multiple literacies that will enable them to develop greater rhetorical dexterity (126). Carter describes a sequence of six writing assignments designed to achieve this end. Beginning with a literacy biography assignment (focused particularly on how the student has learned to perceive the "rules of literacy"), the sequence moves through three essays investigating the structure and rules of a familiar (or, vernacular) community of literate practice. After analyzing a literacy of their choice, a workplace literacy, and a leisure literacy (127-30), students turn in their final two essays to a reconsideration of school-based literacies. In their fifth essay, they consider how their analysis of other communities has prompted them to rethink the literacy rules of school, and in their final essay, they compare and contrast a vernacular and academic community of practice. Carter concludes with a review of student feedback, noting that students begin the term knowing that the rules of writing change, but not really understanding how or why (133). By the end of the class, they are “able to redefine literacy in terms more in keeping with the way literacy lives” (141).

The Way Literacy Lives declares itself to be involved in at least two important and timely undertakings, efforts that clearly break new ground in the subfield of basic writing. First, in attempting to theorize within rather than around the paradoxes of basic writing scholarship, Carter seeks a path for teachers and scholars that could accommodate the dual commitment to critical pedagogy and institutional pragmatism that the field often demands. Carter also offers her reader new ways of thinking about how path-breaking work in emerging literacies could be applied to the context of basic writing specifically. Her review and synthesis of important work in new literacy studies and activity theory, while it may not offer as much to those already familiar with this scholarship, is presented with care and lucidity that could offer much to those new to the field. Carter’s curricular interest in rhetorical dexterity and metacognition also has broader relevance for those interested in new literacies and, particularly, teaching for transfer. Although Carter does not address this issue directly, her curricular focus on metacognition (a term that comes up often in discussions of transfer) takes an important step in connecting scholarship on the transfer of learning to classroom practice, and in this regard, her work is prescient.

While the theoretical frame of Carter’s work is coherent and its potential relevance compelling, the evidence used to support her argument is somewhat less convincing. Carter’s primary use of narrative-based evidence—ranging from semi-autobiographical anecdote, to case study, to summary of other major literacy ethnographies—certainly helps her to situate theoretical problems in specific local contexts, but some readers may find it challenging to differentiate between various types of narrative evidence and assess the exact relevance of each to her argument. For example, in the range of narratives that comprise the work, it at times becomes difficult to distinguish (either methodologically or theoretically) between the case study of Anna—the blind, Mexican student—and the personal story of the author’s brother, as each is subsumed by the ambitious eclecticism of Carter’s larger work. A bit more reflection on the significance of her methodology (which she suggests is linked to Richard Miller’s form of the “institutional autobiography”) would help readers assess the value of Carter’s conclusions without flattening out the diversity of her many examples.

In sum, not only does The Way Literacy Lives rise to the challenge of portraying the complexities of basic writing with considerable success, but the book also stands to be of interest to writing specialists beyond the subfield of basic writing. Carter’s pedagogy of rhetorical dexterity offers a thoughtful approach to how WPAs and the writing teachers they work with might tap the literate strengths of basic writing students and "teach for transfer" of literate abilities more intentionally.

Works Cited

Bartholomae, David. “Inventing The University.” Journal of Basic Writing 5.1 (1986): 4–23. Print.

Brandt, Deborah. Literacy in American Lives. Cambridge UP, 2001. Print.

Durst, Russel. Collision Course: Conflict, Negotiation, and Learning in College Composition. National Council of Teachers, 1999. Print.

Harrington, Susanmarie and Linda Adler-Kassner. “"The Dilemma That Still Counts": Basic Writing at a Political Crossroads..” Journal of Basic Writing 17.2 (1998): 3–24. Print.

Hirsch, E. D. Jr., and James S. Trefil. Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987. Print.

Miller, Richard E. Writing at the End of the World. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2005. Print.

Scribner, Sylvia and Michael Cole. The Psychology of Literacy. Boston: Harvard UP, 1999. Print.

Selfe, Cynthia L. and Gail E. Hawisher. Literate Lives in the Information Age: Narratives of Literacy From the United States. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004. Print.

Street, Brian V. Social Literacies: Critical Approaches to Literacy Development, Ethnography, and Education. Nw York: Longman, 1995. Print.

Stuckey, J. Elspeth. The Violence of Literacy. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 1991. Print.