Lindquist and Seitz’s The Elements of Literacy (1-21), Scribner’s three metaphors for literacy

A rambling response to Lindquist and Seitz’s The Elements of Literacy (1-21)

Every time I read of Sylvia Scribner’s three metaphors for literacy, I find myself relating primarily (almost exclusively?) to the “literacy as state of grace” metaphor – not because I’m a religious person (though I suppose that’s part of it), but because that “grace” has been my experience with literacy. I experience literacy as something that makes me simply enjoy life more, as something that makes me savor my thoughts as well as the thoughts of others, as something that I feel is making me a richer person.

And this time reading about the three metaphors was no different – I had the same response. But this time I also began to think more about why. I fully recognize how the other definitions – of literacy as power and as adaptation – work and are true (to their limited extent). But I think I’m realizing how those factors, how the way in which literacy as adaptation and as power, have been true for me, so to speak, but how I have been mostly unaware of them. No, that’s not quite it either. It’s 1) how perhaps other socioeconomic forces in my  life have “taken care of” those other needs (for adaptation and for power) in my life (e.g., financial support from parents and partners), and 2) how therefore I have been much less aware of the ways in which literacy has aided me (with adaptation and power). Or I have underestimated the ways in which literacy has helped me in those ways.

More specifically, I am a middle-aged woman with almost two masters degrees who has rarely in her working life made above $20,000 a year. For about eight years (in the late 1980s / early 1990s), I did make almost $40,000, but that’s only about one-fourth or one-third of my working life. And that was a case of literacy making direct profit — I was a production supervisor and then a product development specialist at a pre-press graphics company. The other times, I was able to continue to be a student/TA or work at a fairly-low salary at a Writing Center and meanwhile be financially-supplemented by parents and then by my partner. So I’m just thinking about how literacy has been to me probably just as much about “adaptation,” “power,” and “grace,” but that the latter, the third, has been the only I’ve been able to focus on, to enjoy, while the other two went unnoticed.

But then it’s interesting that that phenomenon – that being unaware of one’s socioeconomic support, it becoming invisible – is such a common experience, common phenomenon, and that it is exactly one of the reasons we need to focus on, to examine material practices and let those practices shows us what’s really going on, socioeconomically and perceptually in people’s literacy lives.

I also found Lindquist and Seitz’s discussion of the various spatial locations of literacy very helpful, especially in the way in which each helps provide insights about literacy but also obscures things.  I should’ve been so surprised (and I was — a bit) at the way President Bush oversimplified literacy (as a quantifiable and scientific phenomenon). But Lindquist and Seitz’s comparison of literacy as just as much a slippery word to define as love – was helpful, too, in that it was a reminder that there is a tendency to want to wrestle difficult abstract concepts or issues to ground in order to make them more manageable. And that that impulse is – I hate to wax psychological here, but – that that impulse is one of those human self-deluding mechanism (if that makes sense). It’s one of those things we do – over-simplify things – very often without even realizing we’re doing it AND with the sanction of society to do it (if THAT makes sense). I guess I’m thinking here about how some cultural _____ are or become self-perpetuating. We were talking in Literature and Pedagogy class this morning about how the literary canon re-produces itself, has this ability to continually recreate and perpetuate itself. And I wonder if oversimplification of complex societal problems is also a kind of self-perpetuating thing.

Whatever the reason (and I do like to get into underlying reasons – why, why, why), it’s helpful to me to simply be aware that oversimplification of literacy (and other complex, un-pin-down-able concepts) is easy to do and will continue to happen. It’s the kind of phenomenon to work against all the time.  With me, in this latest case, it was the assumption that “literacy as grace” was the my primary experience with literacy. And it still is my primary CONSCIOUS experience with literacy; it’s still the experience of literacy that I primarily value. But I also realize more how much the other factors / definitions play a part.

If we could all just be aware of what we’re not paying attention to… ;)


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