- Embracing Vernacular Literacies
Context is all the rage. Compositionists are currently writing about embodied literacies, formulating ecological metaphors for writing and research (ecocomposition, for instance), and finding connections between the discursive and the material (for example, applying the sociological concept of thirdspace to the teaching of writing). Shannon Carter's The Way Literacy Lives: Rhetorical Dexterity and Basic Writing Instruction is a valuable addition to this growing canon. Primarily a contextualization of her pedagogy, which, in turn, contextualizes literacy for students who have been labeled "basic writers," Carter's book describes how literacy is lived in one basic writing program. Through stories, many from Carter's own personal and teaching life, the book raises issues of the moment in the field, couching them in a call for a new curriculum and a new pedagogy that could potentially benefit marginalized students.
Carter calls her pedagogy "rhetorical dexterity," which she describes as "a pedagogical approach that develops in students the ability to effectively read, understand, manipulate, and negotiate the cultural and linguistic codes of a new community of practice based on a relatively accurate assessment of another, more familiar one" (14). In the case of this book and Carter's basic writing curriculum at Texas A&M University at Commerce, the new community [End Page 219] of practice is the academic discourse community, while the more familiar communities include groups as diverse as packs of video game and comic book aficionados, and communities of the workplace and the leisure world — communities in which "vernacular literacies" are learned and used. In order to clear the ground and to allow the field to view these vernacular literacies as legitimate academic subjects, the book attacks the "autonomous model of literacy," in which, "when one is considered literate in one context, one can expect those skills to serve one equally well in all other contexts" (27). Such a model, according to Carter, cedes all power to traditional literacy and views writing as a bundle of skills rather than as a situated activity. Carter draws on New Literacy theorists such as Brian V. Street and Paul Gee, as well as familiar names in literacy studies like Deborah Brandt and J. Elspeth Stuckey, to expose the consequences of this model and to point toward a more situated understanding of literacy.
There is a good deal of theory in The Way Literacy Lives. Consonant with her claim that writing is situated, Carter consistently contextualizes her claims. When writing about assessment, for instance, Carter details her own upbringing in assessment-obsessed Texas in the 1980s, as well as her basic writing students' more recent experiences with gatekeeping assessments. When writing about computer literacies, Carter details her brother's successful attempts to become highly literate as a computer programmer and as an electronic musician, contrasting those experiences with his unsuccessful attempts to become literate according to school standards. Carter also writes about her experience with a student who, despite a successful experience in a critical classroom, failed to question the autonomous model of literacy. This contextualization is both valuable and relevant. Nearly every point that Carter makes is hooked onto her or others' lived experiences, extending the view of academic literacy in ways consistent with her larger claim to enlarge and problematize the autonomous model.
Each chapter of The Way Literacy Lives begins with the phrase, "The way literacy …" and ends with the single words "tests," "oppresses," "liberates," "stratifies," "(re)produces," and "lives." Among the many issues that Carter grapples with in these chapters is the way in which assessment perpetuates false and harmful models, the way in which critical pedagogy tends to, in practice, cause resistance rather than change in students, and the worth and value of "vernacular" literacies, including video game literacy and comic book literacy. She also provides a full explication of her basic writing curriculum. Tying these issues together are the pedagogical approach called rhetorical dexterity and Carter's reasoned argument against the autonomous model. [End Page 220] Drawing on Street and Gee, Carter illustrates the ways in which literacies not traditionally valued...