deborah brandt

New DML Post: Narratives and Metanarratives of Libraries as Sponsors of Literacies

I have authored a new post that is part of a larger ongoing series I’m composing and researching for DMLCentral.  In this second post, I do some additional foregrounding of inquiry and reflection that will inform research and exploration of how this concept plays out in different kinds of libraries and communities.  These concepts and the fieldwork I hope to do resonate deeply for me, and I hope they will for you, too.

Reading and Writing the World: School Libraries as Sponsors of Transliteracy, CIL 2010

In this brief talk that is part of a larger presentation with Bobbi Newman and Matt Hamilton at Computers in Libraries (CIL)  2010 on Monday, April 12 at 11:30 AM in E102, I will discuss how librarians can use the frameworks of participatory librarianship and sponsors of  literacy to conceptualize the ways we can integrate transliteracy seamlessly into our library programs.   I also hope to post a video of this talk on YouTube later this week.  You can visit the resource page for this talk at .


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

""Reading", a CC Licensed Photo from

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.


Information Literacy and Inquiry as Disruption to School Culture Oppressed by Testing

My Media 21 project is inspired by the work of Wendy Drexler and Dr. Michael Wesch; this tweet from last week’s NEIT Conference reflects an essential question driving my Media 21 project:

As my Media 21 students have shared some new research reflections in the last week, I have felt both overjoyed and frustrated by responses.  How is it that some students have seen the last 15 weeks as the most challenging and rewarding learning experience of their lives that they hope will continue second semester while others have viewed the learning experiences more as a chore and something to simply “get done”?  Why do some students embrace reflection and original thinking while others chafe in the face of learning experiences that do not reflect the knowledge banking nature of today’s test driven educational climate?

In reflecting and returning to a reality that I faced when I adopted a literacy as inquiry stance as a classroom teacher in 2002, I am revisiting my studies of literacy as inquiry with Dr. Bob Fecho at the University of Georgia.  Just as some students resisted a learning environment I created that valued questions, not black and white answers, I see this resistance in some of my Media 21 students who seem to prefer learning activities that value regurgitation of facts rather than questioning or critical, creative thinking.  This question came up during Dr. Wesch’s keynote at NEIT:

In my corner of the world, my answer is “More than you might think.”  While some students are liberated by choice and free thought, others feel threatened by a learning environment that is inquiry driven and participatory in nature.    I can’t help but think that this phenomenon is easier to comprehend when you consider today’s students are among the first generation to grow up in a test driven school culture that is contradictory to inquiry.

What is inquiry? Here are qualities identified by classmate Sharon Murphy in Fall of 2002:

• Dis-ease. There are many questions raised without answers.

• Establishes more than the teacher as validator of knowledge/work.

• Feeling of responsibility to yourself and the class.

• Recognizes classroom as a complicated, non-laboratory place filled with complex, caring human beings.

• Fights culture of school that wants THE right answer.

• Doesn’t hide what is occurring in class and makes class part of determining what is occurring.

• Patience- doesn’t give up too quickly and realizes community/learning/inquiry doesn’t happen overnight.

Does this sound like the learning environment many school librarians crave yet find themselves hungering for it in the current educational landscape?

In revisiting my initial reading of Pedagogy of the Oppressed of 2002, Paulo Freire says the oppressed are often “hosts” of the oppressor (48) because they are so immersed in the culture of oppression.   Does this description fit today’s student who must buy into the testing culture so privileged (whether by choice or force) by public schools?  Does it also apply to many classroom teachers whose careers are judged by test scores and perhaps even our profession as school librarians as we are called upon to tie our programs to student achievement in order to “survive”?  How does the assimilation of the discourse of testing impact how students transactions with information and how they construct knowledge?

The current test driven culture values knowledge banking and correct answers; standardized curriculum and conformity to ways of knowing and learning are the hallmarks of contemporary American education.  In many schools, students and teachers feel pressured to “cover” knowledge precisely and efficiently.  Contrast these values to those Freire asserts:

“For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and reinvention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other”(72).

So what does this all mean?  Right now, some key ideas are resonating with me:

My big question:  how can inquiry driven learning and an inquiry stance on information literacy positively disrupt students who are entrenched and oppressed by the testing culture?  How can participatory librarianship support inquiry and students who find conversations about learning troublesome rather than empowering?   How do we address their “dis-ease” they feel as they are pushed out of their comfort zone?  How can school librarians and libraries be more effective sponsors of information literacy and transliteracy?

Digital and Media Literacies as Cultural Capital in a Democratic Society

Recommendation 6 | The Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy via kwout

Think that social media and social networking are passing fads?  Do you believe digital and media literacy aren’t essential literacies because they are not heavily assessed on a high stakes test?  Does your learning community  view information literacy as a secondary literacy?   Take a look at the report from the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. In the introduction, the commission underscores the importance of information literacy, which includes new literacies,  in today’s society:

The information revolution is benefitting those in the middle class and up and, in a different way, many young residents of urban and suburban communities. They have never had greater access to more relevant information. But many Americans are in danger of remaining or becoming second-class citizens in the digital age, whether because of low income, language barriers, lack of access to technology, limited skills and training, community norms, or lack of personal motivation. The poor, the elderly, rural and small town residents, and some young people are most at risk. Those who belong to more than one of these groups are especially vulnerable.

The  commission provides fifteen recommendations for improving access and use of information by Americans and how these efforts can increase individuals’ ability to fully participate in a democratic society.  The warnings in this report remind me of Deborah Brandt’s ethnographic study, Literacy in American Lives , in which she explores how cultural institutions and individuals function as “sponsors of literacy” and how access to certain kinds of literacy either increase or limit one’s participation in a democratic society.

In June 2005, I wrote the following response after reading Literacy in American Lives as part of an independent research project I conducted under the direction of Dr. Mark Faust at the University of Georgia:

This critical and sociolinguistic stance on literacy is reflected in the work of Deborah Brandt.  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).  These literacy sponsors are analogous to Bakhtin’s concept of  “thousands of living dialogic threads” because an examination of a person’s literacy sponsors, “… exposes the deeply textured history that lies within the literacy practices of institutions and within any individuals’ literacy experiences.  Accumulated layers of sponsoring influences—in families, workplaces, schools, memory—-carry forms of literacy that have been shaped out of ideological and economic struggles of the past” (56).  All literacy sponsors, past, present, and future, shape a person’s literacy learning, literacy development, and literacy opportunities.  Through her analysis of the literacy sponsors and literacy experiences of the subjects of her research study, Brandt concludes that economic and political interests, not the democratic ideals and principles set forth by America’s founding father, heavily influence American literacy experiences and learning inside and outside of the public school system.  Whereas literacy was once rooted in religious and democratic ideals, the aim shifted to “…nation building, social conformity, and civil responsibility” (28).  Furthermore, Brandt warns that, “The more that private interests take over the educational development of our young citizens, the less of a democracy we will have.  The more that the school organizes literacy teaching and learning to serve the needs of the economic system, the more it betrays its democratic possibilities” (205).  Interestingly, public school libraries were absent from mention in the research study as a literacy sponsor.

Another idea that stood out for me was the relative absence of the library as a relevant literacy sponsor in the lives of the participants interviewed by Brandt.  While the American Library Association prides itself on literacy advocacy and as a “…cornerstone of democracy in our communities” (Kranich), very few of the participants identified public libraries as a major literacy sponsor in their lives; no participants mentioned the public school library as a literacy sponsor.  The gap between classes, which Brandt asserts is maintained and exacerbated by the status of literacy in our culture (169), was reflected in library use by participants.  While public libraries did “…signal cultural value” (151)  and a means of self-education (152) to some of the participants, public libraries were primarily accessed by those in urban areas who had easy, safe, and free access to the library (151).  The lack of access to libraries in rural areas reflects the historical trend of literacy being least accessible and spreading the slowest to, “…. remote rural areas and newer, poorer industrial areas—a geographic and political legacy that, even today, in the United States, helped to exacerbate inequalities by race, regions, and occupation”(Brandt, p. 88).  I could not help but wonder if this finding would hold true if the study were to be replicated?  In this age of massive library budget cuts and closings, one wonders the impact on the role of the public library as a literacy sponsor and to what degree these closings and budget cuts may impact access to literacy and the mission of libraries to provide equal access to learning (Kranich).

In conclusion, this reading has left with me with more questions than answers.  The idea of literacy as a commodity that perpetuates existing inequalities in American society is deeply troubling to me, particularly when I consider Brandt’s theories in light of my own life and my life as both a librarian and English educator.

Nearly five years later, I still feel troubled by the idea that those who don’t possess literacy (in this case, digital and media literacy) will be “left behind” and limited in their ability to fully participate in our society.

While Brandt’s work focused on traditional print literacy, I am now wondering what results such an ethnographic study would yield about information literacy.  Who or what is shaping how people acquire and use information literacy?  Media literacy?  Digital literacy?

More than ever, libraries (public, academic, school) must carry  the banner of these new literacies and be that influential and positive sponsor of literacy in the lives of American citizens, particularly for those who may not be part of mainstream culture and who will rely heavily on the services, educational opportunities, and access to information that libraries can provide.  Will we withhold access to these literacies through filtering policies and research assignments that do not cultivate higher level thinking skills and application of these literacies?  Will we deny access to these literacies through budget cuts, library closings, and the elimination of certified school librarians in K-12 schools? Will we privilege print literacy over transliteracy? Like Brandt, the Knight Commission posits digital and media literacy as essential to democratic ideals; if we continue to filter information and reduce quality services, we will only perpetuate the inequities that exist in those who have information literacy and access and those who do not.

Recommendation Six speaks directly to educators and school librarians and calls for the integration of “digital and media literacy as critical elements of education at all levels through collaboration among federal, state, and local education officials.”

It may be tempting for teachers and administrators who are themselves uncomfortable with new media to view digital and media competencies as “addons” to basic learning in “reading, writing and, arithmetic.” These competencies are, however, new forms of foundational learning.

The consequences of neglecting this challenge can be dire. Students who are deeply immersed in the world of online communication outside of school may find classrooms that marginalize new technologies both tedious and irrelevant. For students who lack online access at home, schooling that fails to provide digital and media skills threatens to leave them at a profound social, economic,and cultural disadvantage.

Are our schools providing our students the advantage through well-rounded information literacy instruction and learning activities that value digital and media literacy? Or do we privilege traditional literacies at the expense of this cultural capital our students need? As leaders in our school communities, a role we should be embracing, let us blaze the trail to create a culture of inquiry that encourages students to use these literacies as a lens for understanding more deeply how multiple kinds of texts function within our society. This report reinforces the need to position the standards for learning already established by AASL and ISTE as mainstream standards that are integral, not optional, for all students.  As school librarians, let us act upon the proclamtion from President Obama to cultivate information literacy as a central literacy;  let us not waste this opportunity to be positive and significant sponsors of literacy, of transliteracy, in the lives of our students.

Many thanks to Bobbi Newman and danah boyd (a member of the commission) for their blog posts drawing my attention to this important report.  I also encourage you to take a look at Bobbi’s most excellent SlideShare presentation on libraries and transliteracy:


Bakhtin, M. (1981). Discourse in the novel. In The Dialogic Imagination: Four essays by M.M. Bakhtin (pp. 259-422). Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

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

Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. (2009, October). Informing communities: Sustaining democracy in the digital age. Retrieved from The Aspen Institute website:‌anon.newmediamill/‌aspen/‌kcfinalenglishbookweb.pdf

Kranich, N. (n.d.). Libraries: The cornerstone of democracy. Retrieved June 24, 2005, from American Library Association Web site: