Sponsors of Literacy in Contemporary Culture: An E-Interview with Dr. Deborah Brandt

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Dr. Deborah Brandt is a Professor of English at University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of The Acts of Writers, Readers and Texts (1990), Literacy in American Lives (2001), and Literacy and Learning: Reading, Writing, Society (2009). Dr. Brandt identifies her research interests as  social and economic histories of mass literacy; the status of mass writing within late twentieth and early twenty-first century culture; diversity, equity, and access in literacy learning.

I first became interested in Dr. Brandt’s work in 2005 as part of a two semester independent research project I undertook under the direction of Dr. Mark Faust at the University of Georgia in the final year of my Ed.S. studies.  Dr. Brandt’s work informed this research project and the three initial questions I sought to examine:

  • What different kinds of literate communities exist, and how are they sponsors of literacy?
  • How do these literate communities and literacy sponsors shape lifelong reading?  How do they affect cultural perceptions about reading?
  • How do books and reading define culture?  How does culture define books and reading?

As part of this two-semester research project, I replicated (in my fledgling researcher way) Brandt’s research study on a small scale and explored the results of the data I collected.  I would post my paper here via Slideshare, but under the terms of my IRB, I am not allowed to publish the work, but my findings were fairly consistent with those of Dr. Brandt’s even though my interview pool was much smaller.

Brandt takes a critical and sociolinguistic stance on literacy.  In Literacy in American Lives, an ethnography of the literacy histories of eighty Americans, Deborah Brandt critically examines literacy learning, literacy development, and literacy opportunities through the critical lens of sponsors of literacy:  “…any agents, local or distant, concrete or abstracts, who enable, support, teach, and model, as well as recruit, regulate, suppress, or withhold literacy—and gain advantage by it in some way…sponsors are delivery systems for the economies of literacy, the means by which these forces present themselves to—and through–individual learners.  They also represent the causes into which people’s literacy usually gets required” (19).  Brandt views literacy a “valuable—and volatile property” (2) that can potentially help individuals gain “…power or pleasure, [accrue] information, civil rights, education, spirituality, status, [and] money” (7).

Brandt maintains in Literacy in American Lives that these sponsors of literacy are agents who “…support or discourage literacy learning and development as ulterior motive in their own struggles for economic or political gain” (26).  By looking at sponsors of literacy in the lives of an individual, one can more easily see the economic forces at work in a person’s literacy learning history.  Most importantly, Brandt feels that the analytical lens of sponsors of literacy reveals the connections between “…the ways money gets made and the way that literacy gets made” (26).  By looking at the sponsorship of literacy in an individual’s life, one can see how acts of literacy learning reflect the social and economic conditions of an individual’s life and to trace the changing conditions of literacy learning across generations.

Five years later, I am still very interested in Brandt’s work and would like to engage in new research to revisit these questions, but I now would like to expand my definition of “literacy” and examine how people acquire and use other forms of literacy besides the traditional forms of reading and writing.  In particular, I’m interested in looking at how people acquire and use multiple forms of literacy (with a focus on my expanding definition of information literacy) and how I could use the concept of transliteracy to theorize my findings.

Dr. Brandt graciously agreed to participate in a mini e-interview with me this last week and to share that e-interview with all of you via my blog.  Below is the transcript of that e-interview:

1. Who or what do you feel now functions as primary sponsors of literacy (traditional as well as emerging/new literacies) in today’s society?

In all of these answers, my inclination is to say “it depends.” It depends on who we are talking about, where we are talking about, and why we are talking about it. The great big sponsors of literacy throughout history have always been religions, states (including schools and military), and commerce and I don’t really see that changing. These are the big catalysts for literacy learning and the agents of change and appropriation.

2. What economic, political, and/or cultural forces do you see impacting who (individuals or institutions) functions as primary sponsors of literacy?

Because our economy has shifted from manufacturing things to manufacturing symbols (mostly, written symbols which both deliver and manage services),literacy has been drawn much more directly into work in this country. The productivity of the country (its ability to compete globally) depends much more on the mass literacy of its citizens. So I think that is why we see technologies being used to stimulate people’s appetite for communication (these are the underlying skills the economy wants and needs and so it entices people to develop their communication skills during their leisure time so that eventually these skills can convert into labor), why the schools are being pressured more than ever to produce highly functioning literates, and why the “goodness” of literacy is seen less in terms of morality or (democratic) nation-building and more in terms of what it can do economically. In saying all this I do not mean to advocate for this view of literacy but only to suggest the pressures that create it. Because literacy has been so drawn into economic competition, we will inevitably be in literacy shortfall–in perpetual literacy crisis. There will never be enough. And this puts enormous pressures on teachers and students.

One of the big shifts that come along with literacy for productivity is the growing importance of writing. We will see much more attention to writing in schools in the coming years.

3. Last fall, the Knight Commission released a report and > recommendations on “The Information Needs of Communities in a  Democracy”. I was wondering your thoughts and/or reactions to Recommendation 6 —do you feel these new  literacies will be an essential form of “cultural capital” in today’s  society? Do you think we may see a widening gap in segments of  society in terms of access to these forms of literacy? (I’m thinking people who don’t have access to broadband at home or school and/or a place to access the Internet at a public library).

We know from history that changes that are introduced into literacy and communication rarely result in changes in the social order–the routes to access and reward for new literacies will take predictable forms that favor the already privileged. Also, as in the past, even obtaining high levels of technological skill and experience will not inoculate people against discrimination by gender, race, class, age, or other sources of stigma. But this means that our democratic institutions (schools and libraries particularly) have to work hard and thoughtfully to mitigate these forces. The gaps are complicated. One big gap is generational, creating problems in schools where older teachers struggle to keep up with technologically innovative students. We have to find better ways of allowing young people’s skills developed outside of formal institutions to flow more regularly into school. We have to make sure schools and libraries invite critical and active uses of media that strengthen our democratic potential. Wouldn’t it be great if people could go to their school or public library and get into conversation (by video conference or by internet) with people from all over their society and their world? This is certainly a period when educators and librarians and others could really re-imagine education and what is possible with new technology to distribute access and reward more equitably and to make sure that these incredibly powerful resources are used to better people lives and increase our capacities for democracy and justice.

Works Cited

Brandt, D. (2001).  Literacy in American Lives.  New York:  Cambridge University Press.

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