alternative literacies in school and beyond: multiple literacies of speaking and writing

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  • Introduction

    Alternative Literacies in School and Beyond Multiple Literacies of Speaking and Writing JENNY COOK-GUMPERZ University of California, Santa Barbara

    DEBORAH KELLER-COHEN University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

    Richard Ohman, in a recent discussion of contemporary literacy, pointed out the fact, missed by most, that the idea of literacy contains both conflicting as well as shared notions of discourse and community. He comments:

    Literacy is an activity of social groups, and a necessary feature of some kinds of social organization. Like every other human activity or product, it embeds social relations within it. And these relations always include conflict as well as cooperation. Like language itself, literacy is an exchange between classes, races, the sexes and so on. [1985685]

    Ohmans view suggests that, if we are to continue to use a socially productive notion of literacy, we must assume that alternative uses and definitions of literacy are always possible. To focus on alternatives is not to turn away from the idea of a shared community of discourse. Rather it is to introduce an awareness of the situated specificity of the produc- tion of talk and writing into any discussion. We join talk to writing in this theme issue because of a growing appreciation that the spoken and written word are dialectically related in literacy interactions. This un- derstanding has becomecritical to any discussion of alternative literacies since the speech-writing matrix varies depending on the community in which it is embedded.

    In the public life of language, the moment-to-moment production of talk has always had a different intellectual status from the products of pen and printing press. Any traditional definition of literacy has stressed the essential difference that occurs when ideas generated in talk are transposed or reconstituted in written form. In contemporary society, talk is interaction; written language is solidified by institutional arrange- ments of social relations necessary for its production.

    Literacy has always had at its center a conflict between oral and written rhetorical traditions. In an earlier period of cultural history, the differences between the two codes assumed less importance because the

    Anthropology and Education Quarterly 24(4):283-287. Copyright 0 1993, American Anthropological Association.


  • 284 Anthropology & Education Quarterly Volume 24,1993

    oral was seen as a primary medium of communication. What we can call the rhetoric of spoken language provided the dominant metaphors for all self-expression (Fleischman 1990). The first article, by Deborah Kel- ler-Cohen, sets the historical stage for a consideration of spoken and written practices in this country. In the colonial era it was the spoken word to which writing looked, establishing the patterns of much of its use.

    However, over the course of several centuries, the modern world became dominated by the printed word (Eisenstein 1979). The social organizations that grew up around the early printing presses and shops have a faint echo in the personal-computer journal and hacker's world of computer software, but their impact on the technology of information then was as great or greater. However, recent changes in the technology of communication have meant that the hegemony of the written word is becoming less secure. In the past decade or so, sociolinguistic research has taken on the task of reexamining the underlying logic of orality which governs a great deal of our thinking and writing strategies. As three of the papers show-those by Roger Hewitt and Moira Inghilleri, Catherine OConnor and Sarah Michaels, and Jenny Cook-Gumperz- the logic and aesthetic of spoken language continues to shape much of our daily social understanding as well as classroom practice. While the experiences they report seem to go against much conventional educa- tional wisdom, a focus on how oracy exists as a guiding force in the social construction of literacy provides a central theme for this volume.

    Literacies of Schooling and the Oral-Written Language Continuum

    The idea that speaking and writing are controlled by very different rhetorical styles and traditions of language usage appeared, until the last decade or so, to be an established truth within American education (Heath 1989; Lakoff 1982). Such a division between speaking and writing has not always been maintained in educational practices. Shirley Brice Heath (19811, in looking at the history of writing instruction in America, has described how the teaching of a written standard only gradually evolved during the past century or more. The teaching of writing fo- cused on the ways in which written language forms are distinguishably different from spoken, a practice that Deborah Keller-Cohen points out is still very much a part of the public conception of literacy today. At the same time, establishment of a standard written language was seen as providing a neutral ground between spoken and written vernaculars which could give schooling the support of common language frame. During this century, both the teaching of standard English and the concerns with defining a common culture went together. But the out- come of this process was the creation of school literacy requirements in which control of the written standard became the approved evidence of a literate person. The rising power of schooling throughout this century, as a process of selecting talent, made school literacy into the ultimate

  • Issue editors Introduction 285

    arbiter of educability (Cook-Gumperz 1986). Several writers have traced the process by which a tradition of written text making, later called expository prose writing, once established as a necessary achievement of a schooled literacy, became an institutional force in the shaping of schooling (Clifford 1989; Collins 1990; Ohman 1985). Increasingly, stu- dents who were unable to present successful written texts as demonstra- tions of their knowledge were considered to have failed a critical test of schooling. As Collins describes it, the creation of a "universalistic, con- text-independent and functionally general [process], evaluated by tests under prior assumptions of differential achievement. . . slowly became the norm for all literacy.. . . It has turned a prior diversity of literate practices into a stratified literacy" (Collins 1991). The division of writing from speaking as the ultimate exercise of knowledge both began and completed a process of information control through demonstrative writ- ing and the written text. The notion of a schooled literacy that is separate from everyday-life literacy but that determines school achievement and advancement, once created, has continued to shape educational prac- tices.

    Aspects of prescriptivism still cling to the notion of literacy as the appropriate and relevant use of written language. As product and process of schooling, schooled literacy continues to be based on the selective power of written language to demonstrate knowledge and the ability to use this knowledge across a range of contexts. The history of instruction in schools shows continuing concerns with good writing and correct language. A renewed interest in the use of nonstandard lan- guages and their many social contexts focused on how linguistic judg- ments of socially appropriate and rhetorically powerful language were made (Labov 1972). These arguments, together with a growing need for educational equity, shaped the program of the sociolinguistics of school- ing during the 1970s and early 1980s (Gumperz 1986) which introduced a reexamination of the relationship of oral language usage to the prod- ucts of schooled literacy.

    Multiple Literacies in Schooling and Beyond

    The idea of multiple literacies suggests that other voices need to be heard and not disenfranchised by a single view of correct language as schooled literacy. A new understanding of literacy has emerged re- cently, one which recognizes that literacy is a hegemonic and counter- hegemonic instrument, one creating and maintaining power as well as enabling resistance. However, literacy has always exerted some norma- tive force on the practices of written, spoken, and read language/prose. Language, by its very nature, is a normative system of shared conven- tions where the constraints of a common syntax, semantics, and lexicon are part of the collective ordering of social experience. Written language creates by its use an extended but nebulously defined community of understanding. As Jack Goody suggested more than two decades ago,

  • 286 Anthropology b Education Quarterly Volume 24,1993

    "writing technologizes the intellect" (Goody 1968). Written language can target a different "sense of community" from the face-to-face lan- guage generated by oral discourse. In a society with widespread literacy, the community generated by writing precedes the interactive grouping of people by providing intellectual bonds of belonging and membership. From this perspective, there is no escaping the proposition that the uses of literacy are central to its very constitution. Literacy can be about a shared community discourse, about changing public identity and con- trol, but it can also be about being controlled by others through Fou- cault's notion of "normalizing discourse," as Alissa Shethar's article illustrates in detail.

    The development of a schooled literacy that grew up around the devel- opment of Western patterns of schooling gradually privileged one lund of literacy. Literacy was not tied exclusively to just one sense of gram- matical correctness, as the term grammar school usually suggests to us. Rather the original sense of a common literate discourse was based on a notion of social democracy in the making- a community discourse available to all.