My Own Literacy: How Institutions Have Shaped Me
This, right here, is absolutely crazy.
I’m pressing buttons on a keypad to produce words. Better yet, I’m using words to create a story. A story! Not spoken word, a story; events explained throughout an electronic document using curvy symbols and prominent spaces.
And what’s even more crazy, is that I can learn from these symbols on this page. It can teach me new theories, ideas, perspectives. I can travel to far away places, draw pictures, and even feel emotions. All from just these little symbols.
I am literate. I have my own style of literacy. Style. It’s something I acquired, retrieved from watching my parents, my teachers, my friends, my TV and my music, and everything else I found to be ‘cool’. It was planted by an idea, cultivated through the people I looked up to, and blossomed into my own idea, my own style. This flower is the basis of one way I read, write, and communicate. In its entirety, there is aforest of ideas that provide the entire foundation of what makes up my literacy.
Literacy is a curious concept, of which has several meanings. The most basic understanding of literacy, is the ability to simply read and write. However, James Paul Gee says otherwise. He says literacy is the product of two important terms: discourse and acquisition. Discourse is our “identity kit”, the role that we assume for others to recognize. Acquisition, unlike learning, is a process by which we subconsciously ‘pick up’ something through exposure (Gee 1, 3).
My discourse, for example, may be that of a musician. I may use terms such as crescendo, and carry a harmonica with me wherever I go. When I dance in public I may dance like a rockstar, or when I sing to the radio, I may always be on-key. Being a musician is my identity kit. It is a part of who I am, how I speak, and how I communicate. That discourse is a big part of my literacy.
On the other side of Gee’s literacy coin is acquisition. To reflect back to the musician analogy, my music taste was not something I learned, but acquired. I acquired the ability to decipher between major keys and minor keys, and the muscle memory to hold a D chord. Through my years as a music student and a musician, I have become literate in certain musical areas, such as swung jazz, smooth classical, and folk rock.
To move away from music, literacy has more to do with the way we read, write, and communicate. As Deborah Brandt notes, our development throughout literacy has been eased or guided by sponsors, “any agents, local or distant, concrete or abstract” who receive an advantage from guiding the sponsored, often times, economically (Brandt 166-170). A big proponent in my literacy sponsorship is private schooling, or private institutions.
My schooling began within private institutions. My very first school, St. Patrick’s, was a Catholic school I attended for pre-school. Following my single year there, I moved to St. John Vianney, another private school, where I stayed for the next four years. It was through Catholic schooling (in my developmental years) that I solidified both what I thoroughly enjoyed about reading and writing, and what I did not.
A lot of what makes up the way I speak and write was acquired from my parents. Simple things, such as the inflection of my words and my ‘lingo’ I acquired from my parents, both wildly different people. My dad was born and raised a surfer near San Fernando Valley, my mom in San Jose to a Catholic Mexican family. My dad was a very well-cut and firm man, relatively strict and stoic, my mom was a free-spirited and emotional woman. Ironically, my mom had a temper and was the primary disciplinarian in the family, upholding values such as faith, trust, and transparency.
Why does this matter? Well, St. John’s wasn’t the slipper to our foot per se, and our values were challenged quite a bit. In the “money talks” private school system, the school seemed to hold those who donated more to them to a lower disciplinary standard, which found both my sister and me in the principal’s office more often than not. Simply enough, religious private schools are sponsored by the notion that all students are to be driven and pushed toward the faith of the school, which can lead to disagreements, to say the least. Judgement on issues such as wrongdoing, or sin as they would call it, often differed from parent to administrator.
Despite the high standard and solid foundation of learning I experienced there, I quickly lost my faith in religion rather quickly, and from seeing my parents openly argue and voice against school administrators and high-ups in private school’s social hierarchy, I found that the way I saw my own sponsorship of literacy shouldn’t be left in the hands of corrupt institutions.
St. John’s was a massive sponsor in my development of literacy, a major proponent of incorporating religion in people’s lives. While I gained a sense of fulfillment from a belief in God, the school gained an ethical contribution to its own secular branch: a following. However, the school also received more students, which meant more income for the school. Similar to what Deborah Brandt describes as economic sponsorship, as more people would come to the church for their children, they would often donate. Much of our learning surrounded the faith, and as a result, the church would acquire more income.
Religion serves as an incredible ethical guide for many as a type of moral compass, but is also a powerful economic tool that leads to a massive accumulation in wealth for many of its institutions, something I’ve come to realize as we hear more and more about churches (and cults) such as Scientology.
My family was not an extremely wealthy family, in fact we were at a lower class than most of the families I schooled alongside and subsequently played baseball with, which only meant that politics that I experienced in my place of education would only continue into the baseball league I played in, as much of the sponsorship there pushed toward income rather than having fun, or outright talent of the players.
A “pay to play” league they call it, I only ever made one all star team, despite being one of the top performers in all of my championship-winning teams. Pay-to-play institutions were relatively common where I was from, and those who were unable to pay the fees, were cut from the best teams, and given the least amount of access to equipment, field times, and tournaments. As Dianne Hoffe says in an article about pay-to-play leagues, “we believe that pay-to-play remains a bad idea. Whether priced high or low, with or without fee waivers, the policy is indefensible from a legal perspective, a student’s perspective, and from a societal perspective” (231).
Despite the obvious politics, we were lucky enough to avoid the immediate fallout of the No Child Left Behind Act during its induction years, so when I finally left private school in the fourth grade, I found myself in an absurdly different educational environment. I was yearsahead of many of my peers in reading, writing, and math skills. For example, an article addressing the NCLB Act by Theoni Smyth states that “teaching to the test”, a policy in which teachers ask students to learn information only for it to be spewed for a single test and move on, is “eliminating the opportunity for teachers to teach students higher-order thinking skills” (Smyth 134). It was extremely disheartening to leave only to find standards plummet in the public school system, as often times, it wasn’t because of the instructor. I did, however, experience a bit of comic relief when I walked into my first college class to hear our professor exclaim “how the hell did you guys make it out of that mess?”
I found out several years later that we left private school because of the rising tuition costs, and as a result my family had to work longer hours at work. My sister and I would have to walk to the community library a few blocks away from school, where we, like many other students, would wait for our parents to retrieve us after their 10 hour work days. On the upward climb of the impending recession, money was tight, and my sister and I (being only a year apart, nearly to the day) were reaching that ‘difficult’ age. Our parents were also getting a divorce at the time, which only amplified our already dynamic hormonal fluctuations.
Public institutions I attended from middle through high school were extremely competitive. The ‘goal’ of high school is reinforced to us almost every single day, to prepare us for college. Espen R. Moen, an economic professor in Norway, notes in his article about job competition “[education inflation] creates a ‘rat race’, where workers invest in education partly in order to achieve a better ranking… [these] investments in education may exceed the socially optimum level” (694). As the pressure to be prepared for college rises (and subsequently the standards of literacy in primary education), students will begin to go to college because they feel like they have to in order to make enough money. This defeats the entire purpose of higher education. Higher education isn’t intended to be a job-maker, but a way to expand & challenge students’ ways of thinking.
And what Mr. Moen describes is completely true, in many ways high school is like a “rat race”, especially for those that were in extremely competitive areas such as my own hometown. As an American institution, it embodies Brandt’s idea of sponsorship, as it harbors the push towards higher education in students’ minds to make more cash.
High school, especially in the Bay Area, was sponsored by the tech industry. Most of our teachers and administrators made assumptions that we would be moving on to become workers for the growing tech industry, as engineers, designers, or coders. A massive shift from written documents and tests to online programs took place as a push to promote computer literacy. Along with AP testing, new language classes (which included computer languages), and classroom applications, the competition to become tech superstars was a heavy burden to bear. The rising standards to suddenly compete for AP credit became overwhelming for many students, resulting in many of them failing other classes, myself included.
However, with the pressure to succeed as scholars came the push for creativity. Or rather, extracurricular activities that would help bump our transcripts above others. Having been encouraged by my friends after they heard me playing guitar in a high school elective class, I joined a band with some upper class men. We would play at school events, rallies, and in churches. My high school thoroughly enjoyed having creativity involved in the making of school events, and even became locally famous for an annual rally we held called “Make A Wish”, a group I was heavily involved in. My friends and I would visit classrooms all throughout school to serenade students, and bring the gray, monotonous school day a bit of color.
Like all other high schools, Branham had to compete for funds with larger schools in the district, and with the growing rate of students taking AP classes, they hoped it would not only improve standardized test scores, but increase the amount of funding being funneled into the school. It was no secret to us as students, that during our time in high school we were like lab rats being pumped full of knowledge only to contribute to capitalistic competition in the public school system. And while our dominant discourse, school administrators, used AP students to compete to better prepare us for college, the engine under the hood was for economic gain. The gain our sponsors received from the push for AP credit was economic stability.
High school had a tremendously fantastic time teaching students about capitalism. It was not taught, but acquired. While I was not completely aware, we were taught that with hard work and proper education would provide us with more money, which in turn, fostered competition. Money. I’m sure we’ve all heard it, the statement that “textbooks are never written by losers.” Very frequently we would read our books to find the word communism in deep, bold font. It was surrounded by protesting context and a billion reasons why it did not function properly.
On the flip side, the winning system of capitalism was spoken of in high regards, colored blue like our Star Wars heroes’ sabers, battling the ugly red communism. The fostering of pro-capitalist beliefs is not summarized by textbook fonts and competition, but an entire web of a system dedicated to ensuring our trust in the system. This is entirely sponsored by those who create the curriculum for the entire American educational system, as they receive more members of society who are proponents for their beliefs, and less who fall away from the pack.
Going to college has been fostered in our understanding that it is something we simply must do to find employment, which is a capitalistic belief. Alongside my activity in sports, has cultivated the belief of earning, not being given. That if we fail as students or as athletes, it is solely because we did not work hard enough, and not because educational institutions or coaches did not teach at a higher caliber.
And while I always found this to be absolute truth, it’s not until now that I find that belief was grown in American institutions, and that our education is competitive with not only other schools in our district, but between each other for collegiate education. You must be ahead of the pack to earn access to higher learning. In a way, you could call it Educational Darwinism. Only those who work the hardest to get their money will be the happiest.
College is the last stepping stone along the educational stream. And because of this, there is a transition from the preparation of the next level, to the preparation of tangible life occurrences. Since I’ve been here, the belief that ‘working the hardest gets you the best’ has been challenged. My capitalistic mindset has been dissolved, and my perspective on college has changed. What I’ve found is there isn’t a massive difference in the standard of literacy, versus the way literacy is brought to us.
All aside from the level of writing we must adhere to, and grasping material, I’ve become more literate in the way the real world isoutrageously expensive. I’ve become more literate in the economic reasons as to why books are so expensive (supply and demand, baby), why critical thinking has such a huge emphasis and why our education is guided with an agenda.
I had come to believe that you find something that you really, really enjoy, and if you work hard to pursue that, then you will get it. And the harder you work, the more likely you are to do your thing you love. However, I look at myself now; I’m in a state college after graduating from school. I’m majoring in business. I work a retail job, and I no longer play baseball. As a kid, I never wanted to work retail. I never wanted to spend more time in school than I needed to, and I definitely did not want to be a businessman.
But I fell to the belief that this is what I needed to do. I work a retail job because I need to make enough money to go to school. I go to school because I need a degree to get a better job, and I’m getting a business degree because I need to understand capitalism to the furthest extent I can in order to do what I love successfully. Why am I doing this? Why does success have prerequisites?
But that is how my the way I view literacy has changed. I’ve been challenged. Almost every single class we walk into, one of the first questions professors ask their students is “why are you here?” Silence. Almost always, there is silence. Of course the question is rhetorical, we all know that we came here to get better jobs, but the longer we stay, the more we realize it is less about a job, and more about a way of thinking. Our dominant discourse (professors/faculty) lay out a path for us to take, and there is a goal for us at the end of the semester. Something we should have grasped throughout the course, something that would expand our literacy in just one more small way, all through being sponsors of the way we wrote, thought, and created our work.
I am literate. However, I continue to expand the realms in which I am literate every single day, whether it be within a single discourse, or over a plethora of others. Each way my literacy is expanded is sponsored by institutions, whether it be educational, economic, or societal. Institutions I experienced are very much what they are: American. And as I continue beyond primary education and beyond a teenager, I have only scratched the tip of the literacy iceberg.
But I digress. Regardless of what I learn, why I learn it, or how I am taught, these are all merely curvy symbols and prominent spaces on an electronic document, all with a simple purpose: to tell a story.
Brandt, Deborah. “Sponsors of Literacy.” College Composition and Communication. 49.2 (1998) 165-185. Jstor. Web.
Hoff, Dianne L. “Pay-to-play: Fair or Foul?” The Phi Delta Kappan. 88.3 (2006) 230-234. Web.
Gee, James Paul. “What is Literacy?” Teaching and Learning. 2. (1987) 1-9. Web.
Moen, Espen R.. “Education, Ranking, and Competition for Jobs” Journal of Labor Economics. 17.4 (1999): 694-723. Jstor. Web.
Smyth, Theoni S.. “Who Is No Child Left Behind Leaving Behind?” The Clearing House 81.3 (2008) 133-137. Web.
The Genre of Photography: A Picture Speaks a Thousand Words
Malibu Creek State Park is cold at night. Despite the gloves, beanies, several sweatshirts and Under Armor attire we packed, the icy breeze slipped into our collars, cuffs, and between the stitches in our coats.
We travelled an hour inland in the middle of the October night to capture an interesting art idea I had read about online, called steel wool exposures. What you do, is take steel wool, a material used for cleaning and sanding, and insert it into a cooking whisk. You then tie a string to the end of the whisk, and light the wool on fire. What happens next, is the best part: steel wool reacts to heat by bursting with sparks. When you spin steel wool over your head, sparks shower all around you into a majestic rain of fire. If he times it right, a photographer can create the illusion of an explosion of fire-rain.
We were going to Malibu Creek to get a reflection of the sparks off the water. We helped my roommate into my 3mm thick wetsuit, and he dove into the cold, dark abyss. I balanced the $1200 camera on a half-submerged rock, and snapped away. Many hours of broken equipment, chapped lips, bruises, and burns later, we emerged with a few great photographs.
The key here is that I used the internet to figure this out. Without the use of online forums, photo examples, camera specs, advice, and countless of other sources, there is no way I would’ve been able to accomplish anything that night. The photography community mentored me.
Moments like these will come to be shared by tens of thousands of others who too call themselves photo-takers. Different types of photography occupy different ‘genres’, these ones are called long exposures, while another kind may occupy one called portraiture. As a discourse community, a group with shared values, goals, lexis, participation methods, and expertise, it is obligated to occupy a genre of communication (Swales 24-26). Photography makes up a discourse community, inherently named a community of practice, as it is brought together by the practice of photography.
All discourse communities occupy ‘genres’ of communication, and by genre, I mean any classification you may encounter. As Kerry Dirk, a genre theorist, simplifies: genres are things we encounter and are quite familiar with, not from what they are, but from the response they illicit from us. She uses the analogy of a chick-flick versus a horror movie, as one will give us dreamy sighs and another will give us nail-biting fear, respectively (Dirk 254). Genres serve a purpose of managing our expectations as readers, viewers, appreciators, and other types of -ers.
That being said, genre is being discussed by many as more than just a form of classification. Amy Devitt, a professor at University of Kansas, writes “text and textual meaning, whether literary or rhetorical, are not objective and static but rather dynamic and created through the interaction of writer, reader, and context” (Devitt 699). What this means is that genre transcends the simple ‘chick-flick vs. horror’ idea, and towards the idea that genres are created by writers, readers, and its context. But how does this apply to the way photographers communicate?
To be completely frank, most photographers communicate like so:
Or like this:
Instagram and Flickr are some of the most common photography sharing websites out there, which often times incite a lot of conversation. What is unique about Flickr, is that it shares the specs and settings that the camera used while the photo was taken, using data taken from the photograph’s ‘metadata’, essentially it’s extra unnecessary information. David Crandall explains in an article outlining Flickr’s social ties using GeoTags, “photos uploaded to Flickr include the time at which the photo was taken, as reported by a clock in the digital camera, and many photos are geo-tagged with a latitude-longitude coordinate” (Crandall 22436). It often looks like this:
This type of information occupies a genre within photography that outlines the specific goal that is: photographers aim to improve by basing their work off of others. The settings at which a camera captures a picture determines how a picture will look through how bright/dark it is (also called a photo’s exposure), it’s depth of field (how flat or deep does the picture appear), and it’s grain (the noisy little dots that pop up when a camera’s sensitivity is bumped to high levels). This information is critical to finding the quality and the equipment necessary for capturing a good image.
Sounds simple right? Maybe so, or probably not, but how does this play into genre?
Camera specs are normally given in a very technical format. Here is an example from an online forum called Reddit, where photographers share and discuss their images:
Notice the text “f/3.5 774.4 sec 28 mm ISO 100”. This kind of text is common among photography discussions, and it, similar to what Devitt says, is dynamic in the sense that it invokes several things: it gives the reader a sense of what was necessary to take the picture.
He now knows that the photographer left the shutter open for 774.4 seconds in order to capture the shot, and was likely standing pretty close to his subject, as 28mm of focal length (the size of the lens) is relatively small. He knows that the picture would have very little grain, because ISO 100 is an extremely low setting of sensitivity, and f/3.5 means the lens was open wide.
While this would occupy a genre that you could call “photography talk”, what it does is transcend to give the reader a visual for what was necessary to capture an image. The overall goal of photography is to create art that invokes a response. The art within itself has its own genre, but from a literary point of view, I can now see what lengths the creator went to, to capture the image that he has shown me. A linguist and anthropologist named William Hanks notes about communities of practice, “a key element in any practice-based theory of discourse is the grounding of generic works in their indexical context”, and continues to say “indexical centering is a primary part of the interpretation of discourse because it connects the evaluative and semantic code with the concrete circumstances of its use” (Hanks 682). By pointing out the “indexical context” of the works, being the time, place, and conditions of the work, he insists it is pivotal in connecting the work itself to its purpose.
Let’s take my own, quite recent photo as an example:
I took this photo in Joshua Tree National Park. I sat in the ice cold desert until 4:30AM, when the moon had disappeared to give the sky the most amount of clarity I could get. I placed my camera beneath a large Joshua tree, and set my camera settings to f/3.5, 30 sec at 28mm and 1600 ISO.
What this tells a reader within the photography community, is I opened my lens wide, and sat behind my camera for 30 seconds beneath this large tree in the middle of the night. What this will give a fellow photographer is an opportunity to capture a similar image of a tree and the Milky Way with similar settings. He now knows what it takes to create the same amount of art.
This information, when coupled with a photograph, exemplifies some interesting points. It shows the art; the photograph is the most important part, it is the primary medium for the creator to communicate with his/her subjects. The information itself, is like a ‘behind the scenes’ of the creation. Many photographers spend tens of thousands of dollars for great equipment, travel thousands of miles, and endure brutal conditions to capture images.
Pointing out the ‘behind the scenes’ really exposes several goals and values of photography. For one, to experience the world. There are many travel bloggers who take pictures and write about their adventures to give people a sense that they could too experience incredible places. They do it to show perspective. While a certain view of a subject may not really show its beauty, another can give it a sense of scale, or show its inner workings. Many times, like a painting, it is to create something from nothing. An ugly view of a Los Angeles skyscraper enveloped in smog can embody a blank canvas, the camera can be a paintbrush, and the person behind the lens can be the painter.
What goes into a piece of art transcends visual art like photography, painting, dance, etc. An English composer named Alexander Brent-Smith says it himself:
“Is there any man so entirely lacking in curiosity that he has no desire to go behind the scenes and find out how the trick is done? If you plant a young tree in a field, before you have had time to fence it round, a clumsy cow, prompted by a desire for knowledge, will have pushed it down, to discover, I suppose, how it managed to stand upright” (Brent-Smith 214).