What is the purpose of literacy: An argument for teaching transliteracy

All, Education, Teaching, Writing

There has been a debate raging in my department about the form and function of our Writing I and Writing II classes – those core “composition” courses that all students are required to take. This requirement is a good thing. It is essential that our students learn to be good writers, and readers and thinkers, which is why I have always maintained that these are among the most important classes students take in college. The debate centers on the focus of these classes. Will the classes be research-based or argument-based? What kinds of texts will be read and/or studied to support the writing? Will there be a final exam and what form should it take?

These debates do not focus on the most important question of all. What is the essential purpose of these classes? What is our bottom line? What is the one thing we hope our students will take from these classes? This is where I always begin when designing a class with the goal that every activity and every assignment supports that bottom line goal. For my composition classes that bottom line goal is to change the way my students interact with text. I challenge them (through many activities across several assignments) to delve deeply into texts created by others, write about their ideas as well as the ideas of others in reflective and analytical ways, and engage in interactions with others about the texts that result from that reading and writing. It was only recently that I learned this work is best described as transliteracy. I support this endeavor with a series of interconnected activities and assignments that allow students to pursue questions, ideas, and topics that interest them within the framework of the specific class. Our semester divides into three parts.

We begin our work exploring the question why are we here (what is the purpose of education) with a specific focus on literacy. We interact with a variety of texts ranging from literacy narratives to treatises on education including Dewey and Freire. We culminate this unit with literacy narrative assignments that challenge students to share their personal literacy stories as well as explore the broader meaning (and purposes) of literacy (ie. not just traditional print literacy). I love the literacy narrative assignment (see 10 Ways Literacy Narratives Will Rock Your World), but my assignment continues to evolve over time and I expect will transform again next semester as students will be challenged to create life literacy narratives that draw more heavily from our texts as well as their experiences. These are issues that my students continue to be extremelty passionate about and inspire some wonderful conversations and writing.

We then shift our focus on the humanities. We read, write, and discuss the human experience using popular culture texts as the gateway to delving more deeply into philosophy, literature, religion, art, music, and history. The depth of our texts is determined (somewhat) by the level of the class although individual students will frequently pursue a question that interests them much further than I expected. This unit culminates with a research reflection assignment I call the Paper Trail. It is always exciting to see the different directions students pursue as they learn more about the many ways that humans have explored key questions about our existence over the millenia.

We conclude with two major assignments. The first is a traditional essay (because my program expects it) requiring students to frame an argument developed from the reading, writing, and discussion, and supported by a selection of texts. The second is a service learning project. Both of these texts spring from the foundations laid by the first two units. These ideas were explored as my students wrote many short informal pieces including both in-class writing and weekly blog posts. These writings are used to jumpstart conversations, inspire further writing, and kick start the more formal assignments. My intent is to model the process of creating a thoughtful treatise on a specific topic as well as to demonstrate the interconnection of reading, writing, and talking about ideas to inspire thinking.

I believe this carefully constructed sequence is a good way to support the transliteracy I want to foster in my writing classes while also avoiding the failures caused by disposable assignments and random assignments. My students take on compelling and often complex topics so I am interested and learn from their texts. Plagiarism is not a major concern for me, in part because there is so much preparatory writing, but also because it is difficult to find a canned topic that fits within the parameters of our work. Similarly, I do not worry too much about the scope of the papers (page length and number of sources) because there is so much preparatory reading and writing.

What do you think about my approach to teaching college writing? Is transliteracy a fitting goal for a writing class? What do you believe should be the focus of college writing classes?

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