A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

A Review of New Literacy Narratives from an Urban University

A Review of New Literacy Narratives from an Urban University: Analyzing Stories About Reading, Writing, and Changing Technologies by Sally Chandler with Angela Castillo, Maureen Kadash, Molly D. Kenner, Lorena Ramirez and Ryan J. Valdez 2013; Hampton Press

Johanna Schmertz, University of Houston-Downtown

Enculturation: http://www.enculturation.net/new-literacy-narratives (Published: August 31, 2015)

Scholars who have integrated the tools of narrative analysis into performance studies have concluded that identity is constructed through storytelling performances (e.g. Bruner 1990; Wortham 2001; Reissman 2000). In the fields of literacy and composition studies, the idea that story and performance create who we are is assumed more than it is articulated or explored. It does manifest, however, in our longstanding belief in the importance of literacy narratives as pedagogical classroom tools.

Scholarship on literacy narratives suggests that when we tell stories about our own literacies, these stories exhibit typical storytelling patterns, complete with protagonists, conflicts, turning points and resolutions. These patterns are often situated in a larger cultural myth that Harvey Graff has called the “literacy myth,” wherein literacy becomes a kind of Holy Grail which positions its seekers in predictable roles like hero, outsider, or victim (Alexander; Bryson; Williams).

Identity stories, then, intersect with story forms taken from dominant cultural narratives or from more local home discourses.  To change a culture—or an identity—we need to change its stories. Only the participants in a discourse community can change it, so they need to be able to examine the stories they tell. It is here that New Literacy Narratives from an Urban University steps in. Subtitled “Analyzing Stories About Reading, Writing, and Changing Technologies,” New Literacy Narratives comprises a set of case studies conducted at Kean University by Sally Chandler in which five student co-authors use narrative analysis to theorize their own stories about their interactions with literacy and technology.

For Chandler, the tools of narrative analysis, particularly as it is practiced in psychology and the social sciences, can be used by students to examine their own literacy narratives. Literacy narratives constitute “exemplary spaces for heteroglossic discourse” (Rabin) and as such are artifacts of not just the identities themselves but also the cultures which enclose them. Chapter One provides an illustration of how literate identities grow (or fail to grow) in response to a culture’s “mainstream stories” about literacy. It uses a case study of student and co-author Lorena Ramirez to introduce readers to narrative analysis’s concept of “story forms,” in particular the “small stories” that emerge out of interactive storytelling and both parallel and counter the larger, polished stories in which they are embedded.

Chapter One also places Chandler’s work in the context of new literacy studies, which argues against the notion of literacy as an autonomous, discrete set of skills separate from the communities in which it operates. New literacy studies encompasses the full range of communicative practices in which members of a community participate, including those mediated by computer technologies. Chandler argues that stories about online activities—digital literacy—can “provide more opportunities for escaping the big cultural exclusions created by mainstream stories” such as the literacy myth (292).

University research increasingly includes students as participants and co-researchers. Chandler and her co-authors provide an excellent model—and argument—for doing so. The practice of inviting students into the research process is generally justified in terms of the apprenticeships and learning opportunities it affords. For Chandler, research with students does more than provide students with extra learning opportunities. It is also the feminist thing to do, as it erodes the hierarchies between researchers and research participants and—particularly in the case of human subjects research—generates stronger, less biased research, because that research has been validated by its subjects.

Chandler looks for a model sufficient to her task, and finds it in participatory action research (PAR). In Chapter Two, Chandler introduces readers to the premises and rationales of PAR, such as the purposeful overlapping of collective action and collaborative reflection. She notes that participatory action research is a socially constructed site of meaning-making in which reflective writing and talk count as data, and conflicts between different retellings of a story provide “clues to identities, rather than bad data” (63). In addition, PAR results in a written product that reaches both expert and novice researchers: “methodologies written by researchers who are in the process of becoming experts can provide important supplements to books by individuals at the top of the field” because they spell out steps and assumptions that are often taken for granted in more traditional research performed by field experts (8).

Chandler outlines the parameters of the study in this chapter. The study begins with interviews about students’ traditional and digital literacy experiences, based on questions Chandler and her students adapted from Cynthia Selfe and Gail Hawisher to include opportunities for participants to reflect on how these experiences contributed to identity development.  Transcriptions from recorded interviews are written and analyzed for storytelling patterns by the students themselves, using approaches derived from narrative analysis. Particular attention is paid to speaker hesitations and digressions in these interviews, because these can contain “unstories”—places where the speaker’s repertoire of cultural narratives reaches its limits. In a method suggested by Catherine Reissman, new interpretations emerge through a series of drafts of transcripts of these recorded conversations.

Chapter Three presents “strategies for identifying key stories and selecting sets of stories; for using transcripts as part of analytic process; and for identifying, classifying, and interpreting story structures and language choices” (77). These strategies identify markers of agency and identity in oral interviews. They enable Chandler and her co-researchers to determine  “when and how storytellers took interpretive control of their stories, and what kinds of story structures gave them (or not) this kind of agency” (81).  The theoretical concepts introduced in this chapter are supplemented by a very useful glossary at the end of the book.

The five subjects and coauthors of Chandler’s study are students from Kean University, an urban, public commuter university that reflects many universities today. They are a culturally mixed group of first-generation college students with varied experiences with digital literacy. Their literacy narratives and analyses comprise Chapters Four through Eight. 

In Chapter Four, Chandler and Lorena Ramirez (previously introduced in Chapter One), identify ways Ramirez asserts agency through her stories about literacy, an agency shaped around family beliefs and cultural “rules” about success and literacy. This chapter introduces the concept of “springboard stories”: recastings of stories of failure or hardship as positive lessons that yielded future benefits. A useful contribution of Chapter Four is its complication of the so-called “literacy myth.” While Ramirez acknowledges its presence in her stories and the myth’s power to limit and constrain her voice, she is also empowered by it—it provides a framework for assessing and adjusting her circumstances.  This complication is a useful corrective to literacy studies’ insistence on the ways this myth disadvantages immigrants and other cultural minorities, a corrective that also underscores the value of having research subjects actively participate in studies about them.

Chapters Five and Six introduce theories of life course development research through two middle-aged returning students, Molly Kenner and Maureen Kadash, who grew up in the print generation and did not engage with computers until adulthood. Life course development research suggests that we learn our preferred patterns for relating life experiences in early childhood; by early adulthood we have acquired a set of scripts that both authorize and guide our subsequent growth. Kenner’s stories in Chapter Five reveal a stance that authorizes her to create her own stories and ‘talk back’ to texts with racist cultural agendas.  When it became necessary for her to develop digital literacies—a challenge because of her age—her self-authorizing stance allowed her to take on vulnerable subject positionings that “support the reinventions of self that learning requires” (159).

Kadash’s stories (Chapter Six) include written literacy autobiographies from previous classes in addition to the interviews and transcriptions performed for Chandler’s study.  Taken together, they demonstrate that “the ‘how-to’ of identity work takes place through interconnected story series, rather than in a particular, big story revelation” (198). Chandler and Kadash identified and classified themes connecting her key stories, and Kadash then built onto these themes, through “invention stories” that were prompted as she and Chandler collaboratively reimagined her key narratives through the tools of narrative analysis. Like researchers who have studied the use of written literacy autobiography assignments in the classroom (e.g. McKinney and Giorgis; Carpenter and Falbo), they conclude that “repeated retellings and new combinations of identity stories work to support identity shift” (197), but they add that literacy autobiography assignments need to be supplemented by narrative analysis and talk, and that “movement between reflective writing and documented conversations might . . . support the kinds of identity growth that would allow students to think across discourses and master practices across technology platforms” (200). 

The book next examines the connections between traditional and digital literacies through two digital natives, Angela Castillo and Ryan J. Valdez.  Valdez noted from analyzing his stories that he valued traditional and digital literacies in different ways, with the result that they were entirely disconnected from one another in his construction of his identity.  His traditional text-based literacies were rule-bound and his description of them halting and superficial, his digital literacies flexible, collaborative and self-authorized (227). Becoming aware of this conflict in his storylines was not enough to help him adopt the literacies required of him in graduate school.  What he and other students needed, Valdez and Chandler argue, was “new story structures” authorizing connections between his range of literacies.

The most revealing application of the tools of narrative analysis to digital literacies comes with Angela Castillo, the subject and co-author of the book’s final case study (Chapter Eight). Castillo’s literacy narratives suggest her identity was very much shaped by her digital literacies. Her family provided few constraints on the use of computers, one result of this lack of constraint being that Castillo’s adolescence became a time of trying on new digital identities in concert with her friends. Key to the continuing development of her identity, however, is her ability to witness that development—and her evolving strategies for impression management—by examining the digital traces of online selves she has left behind in blogs, facebook posts, and other social media. Castillo sees her use of technology to construct her identity as a form of writing—a self-authorized interpretation of literacy learning that “identifies the performance of literacies with the performance of self” (247-8).

New Literacy Narratives reflects the work of Selfe and Hawisher’s Literate Lives in the Information Age (2004) in many ways: it uses student literacy narratives as primary data; it takes an ethnographic case study approach; it considers digital literacy as critical to any contemporary formulation of literacy; it positions its student subjects as co-researchers; and it takes as a central premise Selfe and Hawisher’s conclusion that literacies, including digital literacies, are systems occurring in complex “cultural ecologies” in which identity categories like race and gender provide differing access. Chapter Nine, the final chapter, wraps up the book’s argument that storytelling patterns associated with one’s home discourses and stage in life provide structures for representing identity, and small stories emerging through conversational retellings help revise that identity. Chandler and her co-authors conclude that Angela Castillo’s stories indicate that opportunities for personalized cultural appropriation of stories may be increasing in light of literacy practices associated with the internet.

New Literacy Narratives can serve different purposes and audiences: a primer in the use of tools of narrative analysis for students, teachers, and literacy researchers; a demonstration and revision of PAR methodology; an engagement with the premises of new literacy.  Because the book also an example of pedagogy in action, in which each of the participants had to “reinvent the wheel” for themselves and in their own way, it provides no tidy resolutions. It is, after all, a story. As such, it is incomplete, refracted through the perspectives of its tellers, and subject to revision. As Chandler and her students note, “It is important to remember that theoretical stories are, in themselves, stories” (84).

Works Cited

Alexander, Kara Poe. “Successes, Victims, and Prodigies: ‘Master’ and ‘Little’ Cultural Narratives in the Literacy Narrative Genre.” College Composition and Communication 62.4 (2011): 608–633. Print.

Bruner, Jerome. Acts of Meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990. Print.

Bryson, Krista.  “The Literacy Myth in the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives.” Computers and Composition. 29 (2012): 254-268. Print.

Carpenter, William and Bianca Falbo. “Literacy, Identity, and the ‘Successful’ Student Writer.” Identity Papers: Literacy and Power in Higher Education Ed. Bronwyn Williams. Logan, UT: University of Utah Press, 2006. 92-109. Print.

McKinney, Marilyn and Cyndi Giorgas. “Narrating and Performing Identity: Literacy Specialists’ Writing Identities.” Journal of Literacy Research 41 (2009): 104-149. Print.

Rabin, Lisa. “Literacy Narratives for Social Change: Making Connections between Service Learning and Literature Education.” Enculturation 6.1 (2008): http://enculturation.net/6.1/rabin

Riessman, Catherine Kohler. “Analysis of Personal Narratives.” http://alumni.media.mit.edu/~brooks/storybiz/riessman.pdf. 2000. Retrieved 7 Aug 2014.

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

Wortham, Stanton. “Narratives of the Self.” Narratives in Action: A Strategy for Research and Analysis. New York: Teachers College Press, 2001. Print.

Williams, Bronwyn T. “Heroes, Rebels, and Victims: Student Identities in Literacy Narratives.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 4.4 (2004): 342–345. Print.