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  • EcologyKeyword Essay
  • Janine Morris

Within community literacy scholarship, ecological perspectives are used to characterize the literacy and language practices of various groups. Director of the Lancaster Literacy Research Centre, David Barton draws from biology to theorize ecology as the study of “the interrelationship of an area of human activity and its environment. It is concerned with how the activity—literacy in this case—is part of the environment and at the same time influences and is influenced by the environment” (29). The reciprocal nature of ecologies, and the way they account for the distribution, influence, and movement of organisms within and between environments makes ecology an ideal term for characterizing the relationships among groups, technologies, and cultures that influence the ways individuals learn, communicate, and interact with one another. In this keyword essay, I will highlight the appropriateness of ecology for describing networked communication and literacy practices, as well as offer an overview of how compositionists and community literacy practitioners have used ecological approaches in the work they do.

It is necessary here to distinguish an ecological approach from one that is exclusively environmental. In 1989, environmentalist David Orr defined ecological literacy as “the demanding capacity to distinguish between health and disease in natural systems and to understand their relation to health and disease in human ones; knowledge of this sort is best acquired out of doors” (334). Ecological literacy in this respect is concerned with reading the natural environment. Orr’s call for increased environmental awareness and attention to the ways humans impact environments remains increasingly urgent. However, this keyword essay focuses instead on how scholars and practitioners have adopted ecological metaphors to characterize literacy environments. The ecological approach I examine aligns more closely with that of ecocomposition theories than those of the ecological literacy Orr defines. In their Natural Discourse: Toward Ecocomposition, Sid Dobrin and Christian Weisser define ecocomposition as “the study of the relationships between environments (and by that we mean natural, constructed, and even imagined places) and discourse (seeking, writing, and thinking)” (6). Dobrin and Weisser’s approach does not exclude environmental concerns but instead makes the role of language and discourse central in making those concerns visible. As Rhonda Davis suggests in her discussion of ecocomposition and community literacy, “while ecological literacy and the pedagogical approaches that result do not focus exclusively on environmental concerns, they have the potential to expand participants’ awareness of such concerns” (80). [End Page 85]

Literacy and Composing Ecologies

Before turning to ways that community literacy practitioners have used ecologies to explain the work they do, it is important to understand how ecologies have come to characterize writing environments and literacy practices. Margaret Syverson’s The Wealth of Reality: An Ecology of Composition provides a theoretical framework for studying composing processes by situating them within ecological systems. Using biological and cognitive theories, Syverson explains how concepts of distribution, emergence, embodiment, and enaction appear in writing environments and complicate our understanding of how writers compose. Syverson’s definition of writing ecologies extends beyond those of writers like Marilyn Cooper, whose approach to ecologies, according to Syverson, “is rather sketchy and limited to social interactions via ideas, purposes, interpersonal interactions, cultural norms, and textual forms” (24). Instead, Syverson’s definition of composing ecologies is grounded in multidisciplinary theories of complex systems, which involve a “network of independent agents—people, atoms, neurons, or molecules, for instance—[who] act and interact in parallel with each other, simultaneously reacting to and co-constructing their own environment” (3). To ground this theory, Syverson draws from biology and physics, while also looking to cognitive science, communications, philosophy, and economics (2). Adopting Syverson’s ecological approach requires theorists to “take into account the complex interrelationships in which the writing is embedded; the people and texts that form a larger conversation in which the writer, text, and reader participate and from which the ‘ideas’ emerge to take written shape” (6). This expanded understanding of the writing process goes beyond looking at the writer, text, and composing situation as discrete elements and requires a more integrated and networked view of writing.

Because Syverson’s approach accounts for multiple components of a writing situation, including psychological, material, social, and cognitive...


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