Archiving and Re-Narrating Selves in an Online Writing Course




Archives are primary sources for creating knowledge, not just storing what is already known (Gaillet, 2012). As both a repository for narratives of literate selves in community and a tool for creating them, the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives is ideally positioned for students to create knowledge about literacy. If a digital archive is a “digital resource that collects and makes accessible materials for the purposes of research, knowledge-building, and memory-making” (Enoch & VanHaitsma, 2015, p. 219), an online writing course may be considered a kind of archive as well: it stores readings, exercises, discussions and class writings while enabling students to chart their own paths through it and contribute to its shape. This piece applies principles of narrative and archive theory to an upper-division online writing course. Following Jerome Bruner’s (2004) precept that “Any story one may tell about anything is better understood by considering other possible ways in which it can be told” (709), students in my class navigated and curated the DALN in order to stage and then restage their identities. They cultivated critical thinking and new identity repertoires by retelling their original narratives in ways that acknowledged their own performances. By adding both sets of stories to the DALN at the end of the semester, students in an online writing course laid the foundation for ongoing self-revisions as well as made those selves publicly accessible for the construction of new narratives of literacy.



When we ‘write’ self, however we do it… we track the elusive and shifting traces of the person who bears our name. The self part and the writing part are inextricably bound together, for when it comes to self, we cannot help but make what we say we find. —Paul Eakin (2015, p. 12)

A life as led is inseparable from a life as told⎯or more bluntly a life is not ‘how it was’ but how it is interpreted and reinterpreted, told and retold. —Jerome Bruner (2004, p. 708)

As Paul Eakin and Jerome Bruner tell us, we make the selves we tell through story: the stories we tell about ourselves shape who we are, and can become. In a similar way, the stories we tell ourselves about our relationship with literacy shape that relationship. Literacy autobiographies⎯which expose for self-examination the role literacy plays in our lives⎯are a “crucial discursive vehicle for identity formation and representation” (Selfe et al., 2013, p. 1) because they help students “achieve agency by discovering that their experience is, in fact, interpretable” (Soliday, 1994, p. 511). Because of their power to help students interpret their literacy experiences, literacy autobiographies and literacy narratives have been assigned across a wide range of gateway or introductory courses, where students are poised at the threshold of new literate identities: basic writing classes (Soliday, 1994), professional writing courses (Ryan, 2001), introductory teacher education and TA courses (McKinney & Giorgis, 2009; Mortimer, 2001), and apprenticeships for new writing associates (Carpenter & Falbo, 2006). 

If literacy autobiographies can help students see that their experiences are “interpretable,” they are also performances, constructions of self emerging from a context, and depend in part on how others have described their own experiences. They should not simply rest as given “truth,” but rather be opened to reinterpretation and retellings. Accordingly, Bronwyn Williams (2003) and Kara Poe Alexander (2011) have called for literacy narrative assignments to be designed in ways that encourage students to re-evaluate the identities they construct through their performances. And Sally Chandler et al. (2013) suggest that re-telling our stories can open our experiences to better stories and stronger identities.

The pedagogy I describe here answers such calls by asking students to retell their literacy stories in new ways. In a predominantly female, online, and primarily asynchronous advanced writing class focused on the topic of literacy, my students created, explored, and revised their literate identities by shaping them with and against narratives they found in the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives (DALN) and told each other. Challenged to retell their literacy narratives from a new perspective after time had elapsed, and after reading some scholarship about literacy, my students met this challenge through a range of reflective performances. This chapter describes how I used the affordances of archives⎯the DALN and an online writing environment⎯to strengthen a pedagogical framework that foregrounds the acts of interpretation, citation, and performance. By virtue of being archived in the framework of an online classroom, and re-archived in the DALN, the course’s literacy stories and the students who wrote them became participants in a kind of expanded and ongoing virtual classroom on the topic of literacy.

A Pedagogy of Performativity

The course I discuss here was an upper-level writing elective with a large contingent of transfer students. In the university’s curriculum, the course is intended to help students master (or reboot) their academic writing skills. My definition of academic writing is probably more nuanced than my university expects, however. In particular, it crucially involves reading, or the ability to engage complex scholarly sources and come to understand writing as a completion of the act of reading (Bartholomae & Petrosky, 1987).

In more theoretical terms, I regard academic literacy as a process of excavating and rereading texts buried under other texts, a kind “archeology,” or “a regulated transformation of what has already been written” (Foucault, 1969, p. 156). Adding Judith Butler’s theory of performativity to Bartholomae and Foucault, I conceive of academic writing as argument that moves forward in part by looking back to acknowledge its sources, thereby consciously situating itself as part of a citational history of related utterances. For me, the value of a piece of academic writing lies precisely in its ability to foreground the citational chains of which it is a part, offering the possibility of more conscious transformations and redescriptions.

In translating this theoretical framework into pedagogical practice, I try to help students understand reading as a constructive act and writing as a performative reinterpretation of previous writings (their own and that of others). Thinking of my online course as a kind of archive, and my students as both archivists and contributors to that archive, has extended my theory and pedagogical practice. An archival pedagogy should encourage students, student researchers, and researchers of all kinds to reflect on how literacy and identity evolve together over time and across communities. It should also make those citational chains visible by fostering a hermeneutic process that moves forward (constructively) by looking backward (interpretively).

The Online Course as Archive

Online writing courses are “inherently archival” (CCCC) and contain a “document trail of interactions,” which students can study, evaluate, and adjust as the course progresses (Harris, Lubbes, Knowles, & Harris, 2014, p. 109). Where the context of a face-to-face course is largely spoken and therefore evanescent, the context of an online writing course is easily accessible/recoverable because it exists as a written record to which students can repeatedly return and resituate themselves over the course of the semester. Access to the archive of an online class is of more limited duration than is the case with other archives; for students the course acts as an archive for only a semester, though for teachers it can be saved, minus student contributions, over the course of multiple semesters, enabling them to study the written record of each class in order to revise the next version of it.

By asking my students to upload successive versions of their literacy autobiographies to the DALN⎯a pre-existing archive of literacy narratives that they can review or add onto in the future, if they choose⎯ I’ve extended the life of the “archive” of my online writing courses. In this way, two kinds of narratives are joined: narrative as a technology of the self (Eakin, 2015; Selfe et al., 2013) as instantiated by the literacy narrative itself, and narrative as a container of history (White, 1990), by embedding pieces of my course and the selves it helped produce into the ongoing history of the DALN.

I suggest that because an online course is a kind of archive, online writing courses should be studied as archives. Jessica Enoch and Pamela VanHaitsma (2015) argue that a digital archive is a “digital resource that collects and makes accessible materials for the purposes of research, archive-building, and memory-making” (p. 219). Online writing courses facilitate all of these: they store much of the thinking and writing of teachers and their students and, like other archives, serve as “primary sources for creating knowledge” (Gaillet, 2012, p. 39).

One key precept of archive studies relevant to online courses and the DALN is that both the act of constructing an archive and the act of making sense of it are narrative constructions (Manoff, 2004), or in Derrida’s words, that “archivization produces as much as it records the event” (1995, p. 17). An archive is a narrative construction created by the archivist who has selected and organized what is to be recorded, thereby bestowing significance upon it. Similarly, an online course may be seen to comprise a layering of multiple narratives, even when “narrative” is not addressed specifically or named as such in the actual course:

  1. the teacher constructs one narrative by selecting and ordering the content of the course in a particular sequence,
  2. students create another through their own written engagement with course readings, discussions, and assignments provided, and
  3. the reflective practitioner examines the resulting archive and takes it though a new iteration and a new class.

When it comes to interpreting the archive in scholarly research, that too is structured by narrative principles, such as the sequential ordering of otherwise unrelated events or artifacts. Hayden White (1990) argues that history itself is the transformation of archived events into a narrative, and that this narrative cannot help but be a subjective creation. Also, if, as Paul Ricoeur (1991) suggests, narrative is constituted by the intersecting life-worlds of the speaker/writer and audience, “a narrative researcher does not collect narratives, but instead jointly participates in their construction and creation” (Loots, Copens, & Sermijn, 2013, p. 110). Bearing such points in mind, researchers who work with archives need to explain how they go about constructing their own stories from those archives. As Sally Chandler and her students note in their project on literacy narratives, “it is important to recognize that theoretical stories are, in themselves, stories” (2013, p. 84). As a reflective practitioner, and as a researcher confronted with the task of connecting all the narratives that attach to my online course, rereading and reframing the “archive” that I and my students have built together, and framing it against the backdrop of another archive, the DALN, I sought a dialogic approach and found it in the methodologies of narrative research.

Methodology: What Narrative Research Says

Thus we are forever rescripting our pasts, making sense of the things that happened in light of subsequent events. This is true not only as narrators of our own lives, but also of the lives of others. —Molly Andrews (2013, p. 215)

The path through any narrative is rhizomatic, containing multiple points of entry and hence multiple paths (Loots, Copens, & Sermijn, 2013). This means that the stories students tell about their literacy will be performances created in response to a range of social, discursive, and experiential contexts, subject to reinvention and redirection as new contexts arise. The online environment is an important part of the context that frames my students’ and my stories. Like the rhizome, and like the DALN, which David Bloome (2013) describes as “unruly,” an online course provides students multiple points of entry and an opportunity to create subjectivities asynchronously, somewhat anonymously, and with handy reference to their previous performances. It also permits students to examine and reflect upon how the course’s discursive and social contexts shape how they have unfolded their stories over time.

My method of reading my students’ work acknowledges the rhizomatic nature of narrative as well; through multiple points of entry I needed to be able to create “plots” that describe what I find, plots/pathways that enabled me to return, revisit, and reshape as new connections are made. I took an approach that narrative theorist Corinne Squire (2013) describes as typical of narrative researchers: “The simplest approach is to begin describing the [pieces] thematically… moving back and forth between the [pieces] themselves and generalizations about them in a classic ‘hermeneutic circle,’ using a combination of top-down and bottom-up procedures” (p. 57).

In practice, this meant that I moved back and forth between my data (the material archived in my course and the DALN) and my interpretations of that data. Theories would emerge from my comparing one student’s work to her other work, or to another student’s work, or by comparing a student’s work before and after my course interventions (such as assignments, discussion responses and paper comments). When a pattern emerged, I would test it by going back to the evidence, moving back and forth between data and interpretation until a coherent story developed, with characters joined in a common enterprise in which each student played a role.

Through this recursive dialogic process, I learned that there was a story to tell about women’s use of the literacy narrative as a self-building strategy in online contexts.  (Although the few males in my online class did very interesting self-building work, it did not overtly include the theme of writing as a means for protecting and maintaining a voice.) I settled on a selection of writings from four female students: Darby, Vanessa, Navodka, and Tara. Each of these women used the vehicle of the literacy narrative both reflectively and reflexively, in ways that illuminate the potential of the literacy narrative to restage identity. Two different versions of each woman’s literacy narrative appear in the DALN and are accessible through a search using the keyword “retelling” as well as through the hyperlinks included here.

The Students and the Course

I’ve taught online courses in a range of subjects—advanced writing, gender studies, and film⎯for several years. My students in these online courses are overwhelmingly female, many of whom need the flexibility of online instruction in order to meet a range of work, family, and school obligations. The women at the center of this piece took an online advanced writing elective populated by interdisciplinary humanities majors, future teachers and social workers, and English majors. These women seem to share a common feature besides competing demands on their time: perhaps because of the gender roles they are expected to inhabit, they tend to associate writing with creating identities and voices that otherwise could not exist, in some cases seeing it as an outlet for survival and in others simply as a vehicle for creative expression. Each of them “struggled to find a voice in a public setting [and] found one with pen and paper” (Kowis, 2016b, p. 1). They tend to relate literacy to identity, using it to find a voice. As one such woman insightfully observes in her literacy narrative, growing up female can both force and enable women to lead a passive life in which reading and writing play a compensatory role (Southworth, 2016). In addition, the digital literacies students have already been exposed to (social media, email, online discussion forums, etc.) have naturalized public archivings of self in ways that “pen and paper” cannot, empowering students who might otherwise feel voiceless to become “both users and producers of archives” (Purdy, 2009, p. 34).

I wanted my students to learn about literacy as a topic, articulate their relationship to it, and self-monitor both their reading and writing processes. I organized the readings, discussions, and writing assignments into three sections of the course archives, according to which of the following questions they helped answer:

  1. What is Literacy?
  2. What is a Literacy Narrative?
  3. What about the “Narrative” Part of Literacy Narrative?

In the beginning of the course, students read a literacy autobiography by Barbara Mellix (1987) in which she reflects on her multiple uses of language and literacy, frequently quoting from her previous writings. This reading introduced them to literacy as a topic, suggested the deep (often fraught) connections between literacy and identity, and provided them with a strong example of the genre.

Next, students charted their own path through the DALN, using the search term “identity” and others of their own choosing. They shared their curated exhibits as a basis for interviewing each other, looking for common themes and possible story structures of their own. In a subsequent class-wide online discussion, they reflected on what they had learned about literacy and identity through these exercises. They then wrote their first literacy autobiography.

After an interval of a few months in which they read academic articles on literacy and the interactions between narrative and identity, students wrote a second, completely different, literacy narrative from a perspective absent in, or different from, that of their first life story. This second “retelling” was guided by a prompt in which I suggested to students that they might revise their stories with an eye to revising their identities, following a precept of Jerome Bruner (whom they read) that “any story one may tell about anything is better understood by considering other possible ways in which it can be told” (2004, p. 709). They contributed both stories to the DALN, using “retelling” as a keyword or as part of their title, and concluded the course with a portfolio. (See Appendix for assignments).

Throughout the course, I encouraged students to see all the course content as part of the literacy world created for the purpose of the class, and therefore available for their use: they could cite themselves, stories in the DALN, course readings, prompts and feedback from me, posts from class discussions, and interviews with their group members. In other words, the course was meant to be understood as an archive they could draw from and interact with. The online format of the course lent itself well to self-monitoring and reflective identity work because of the fact that all assignments, discussions, and class interactions were archived in one place: the course shell.

Darby, Vanessa, Navodka, and Tara

The women I’ve selected for a closer look represent a range of ways female students have narrativized their lives through my course, against the backdrop of the DALN and across both tellings and retellings. In my reading of the larger narrative these stories tell, Darby metonymically represents the female writer who consciously and deliberately writes her way from subjection into subjectivity in what she refers to as a “therapeutic measure against my history” (2015b, p. 5). Archetypal as she/her story may be, she also exemplifies the student who is able to critically examine her own narrative constructions of self, seeing them as the fruit of a subjective but fully intentional writer. The other three women develop different facets of self-construction and performance. Vanessa’s entire trajectory through the course is a kind of self-building performance, one that mirrors the relationship she constructed with an ex-boyfriend through writing. Using her interactions with classmates and the course in much the same way she used written interactions with her ex, Vanessa’s construction of a literacy success story is “an intersubjective accomplishment” (Bucholz & Hall, 2005).  Navodka incorporates a wide range of classmates’ voices and contributions to the DALN in both her first piece on reading and her second, playfully reflexive account of writing. In both cases, she explores what Walter Ong (1986) calls the “supreme power of literacy,” concluding that her introversion and literacy mesh to enable her to construct an identity that spans time and space. Tara reflects on the tools of narrative itself in order to deliberately slow them down and transform her story.

From Subjection to Subjectivity: Darby

In the end, autobiographies are a reflection of the mind of the writer. There is an innate intimacy to the act of retelling memory, and also an impossibility for objectivity. —Darby Brady (2015a, p. 5)

Like any narrative, a literacy narrative is a performance that selects and foregrounds one set of details and memories out of other possible sets. The organization of these details into some sort of sequence in order to create a meaningful whole is referred to in narrative theory as emplotment. Emplotment requires the prior existence of previous plots, cultural story forms, and archetypes commonly shared in one’s culture.

Darby’s work in my course demonstrates an emplotment of identity that relies on common narrative conventions yet reflects on its own narrative performances. Her first narrative, “Literacy Autobiography,” centers on a childhood trauma (Brady, 2015b). She prefaces it with a line she attributes to Maya Angelou: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” She explains that she learned that her words had no value from growing up in a household with an abusive father and a mother who bound her to silence. She personifies herself as “the floral wallpaper on our dining room wall, muted and pleasant” (p. 3). Going to school was both a physical and emotional escape, and when she read Maya Angelou’s autobiographies she “discovered a sister who knew me and had witnessed what I witnessed” (p. 3-4). Writing became her voice and her identity, a way of telling her own story to herself that she has maintained up to the present.

Darby’s second literacy narrative, “The Impossibility of Objectivity in Narrative,” is a narrative analysis of her first (Brady, 2015a). She begins by explaining that autobiographical writing is made up of selected memories told from a particular vantage point. She states that after reading Jerome Bruner’s (2004) “Life as Narrative,” she could not escape acknowledging that cultural/historical factors influencing her state of mind have made her account partial and subjective.

She proceeds to use a formalist framework suggested by Bruner (2004) to analyze her first narrative. She identifies what Bruner would call the mythos of her piece, its roots in what are understood to be universal human themes. She analyzes a passage as follows: “When I wrote, ‘I maintained my sense of obedience by keeping my mouth closed but released my pain through poetry. Every word I’d wanted to say and every argument I wanted to have I wrote down instead,’ I was conveying the universally identified and understood battle for independence while straddling the line between obedience and defiance” (Brady, 2015a, p. 2). After identifying her use of a recognizable narrative mythos, she goes on to analyze how her word choice and repeated metaphors (the floral wallpaper) reflect this universal theme.

Darby concludes by considering that her story was filtered through the eyes of her childhood self, and that while it is her truth, the other witnesses and participants in her story would have different perspectives. She does not wish to write those stories, but she considers that possibility. Darby’s ability to use elements of narrative theory to describe how she emplotted her story suggests that students can cultivate critical thinking and new identity repertoires by not just telling their literacy narratives but also revisiting them to observe how they’ve been told.

Self as Intersubjective Accomplishment: Vanessa

As I racked my brain to remember… something to make my story the same as the others or even make up a story, I realized I do not need their stories. —Vanessa Patterson (2016a, p. 1)

Like Darby, Vanessa sees literacy as therapeutic, something that lets her “express my thoughts and not keep them inside me and torture me” (Patterson, 2016a, p. 1). The identity Vanessa creates from my course is what Mary Bucholz and Kira Hall (2005) term an “intersubjective accomplishment” as much as it is an individual creation. While it is she who constructs and owns that identity, her story is a kind of co-creation made possible by the repertoire of story forms available to her through her classmates, the DALN, and her narrative positioning relative to her audiences.

Literacy narrative scholars note that their students’ literacy narratives follow common cultural “master” narratives, performing, for example, the roles of prodigy, victim, and literacy winner (Alexander, 2011; Williams, 2003). Vanessa began my course playing the role of literacy “rebel” (Williams, 2013). As preparation for writing their first literacy autobiography, I presented students with the following question: “You’ve now had several encounters with the stories people tell about literacy’s influence in their lives: Mellix, the DALN, and your interviews with each other. How does/did hearing the stories of others help you define your own experiences?” In the subsequent online discussion, she said exposure to all these stories was unhelpful and confusing: unlike everyone else, she had no memories of how her literacy developed, and she hated reading and writing. 

This claim was clearly not a recipe for success in an advanced writing course, much less a class centered on the topic of literacy.  So her “rebel” performance provoked concerned responses from her classmates and me, responses that somewhat predictably invoked another cultural narrative: the literacy success story or, as Harvey Graff (1991) would describe it, the literacy “myth” that proposes that increased literacy leads to increased success. Her classmates and I encouraged her to look outside schooling for her use of written language, suggesting that literacy was situational, purposeful, context-dependent: she just had to look harder for it. If she did, she too could be a literacy winner/write a good literacy narrative/earn a good grade/graduate/achieve her dreams/etc.

Vanessa responded to her classmates’ and my schooling with the revelation that literacy was in fact crucially linked to her identity, but that it was not linked to a historical past but rather located in the immediate and ongoing present. She shares with the class a story of how she constructed a new self and a new relationship with an ex-boyfriend through a series of daily emails. She also finds a story frame for the literacy-as-success-story that she believe she needs in an anonymous DALN literacy narrative, found and shared by one of her group members, called “Writing Is My Therapist” (2014). These dialogues become the base of her first literacy autobiography, “Literacy, Life and Me” (Patterson, 2016a). In it she describes how the history of her emails provided a kind of history of her own evolving self as she attempted to pick up the pieces after her breakup.

Vanessa reads these emails as an archive she is expertly positioned to narrate. Each daily email served as a kind of “journal entry,” revising and elaborating on the ones before it, such that over time she could see her emails developing a beginning-middle-end structure and exposition of a central point that propelled her forward to the next email. She describes how, as a result of her emails, her ex-boyfriend renewed phone contact and “eventually after each phone call and emails analyzing our discussions and asking questions and getting answers, we finally arrived at a good place” (Patterson, 2016a, p. 3). Her boyfriend told her she should be a writer.

In this first literacy narrative, Vanessa performs a reformed, transformed, literate self who is positioned relative to the expectations of others (her ex, her classmates, the DALN, myself) and emplotted across epiphanies that serve as turning points. Noting the patterns in others’ stories, she writes, “in all of the narratives I read they all began as mine did, with the frustration and the anxiety and the hate, but in the end there was an understanding and an appreciation for it [literacy]” (Patterson, 2016a). In the end, Vanessa finds a way to tell the same story as others do, but without “making up” a story.  Creating the success story she needs to better fit the circumstances in which she finds herself, in “Literacy, Life, and Me” Vanessa constructs a narrative that goes beyond herself, changing her relationship to both the class and her ex in ways that actively cultivate her own agency.

In the interval between her two literacy autobiographies, Vanessa read essays by Walter Ong (1986) on literacy, Jerome Bruner (2004) on self-narration, and Kara Poe Alexander (2011) on literacy narratives. In her second essay, “Retelling My Story: Understanding How Literacy Saved My Life,” Vanessa recasts her first literacy autobiography as a representative literacy event, a “little narrative” (a term she takes from Kara Poe Alexander) in which she had cast herself as the heroic protagonist (Patterson, 2016b, p. 5). She revisits her previous observation that the successful experience of writing emails to an ex demonstrated that “literacy is my autobiography” (p. 2). She writes this second narrative as she imagines she might tell the story of her experience in my class at some point in the future, characterizing her first piece as an “old assignment” that causes her to struggle to “remember” the circumstances that surrounded its writing (even though there were less than two months between the two versions).

Audio File 1. An audio file included in Vanessa Patterson’s DALN submission [Transcript]

Reading the first literacy autobiography from this imagined future perspective, she re-evaluates the lesson she learned about her initial confusion and resistance to the topic of literacy (what I have called her “literacy rebel” performance). She decides that the reason she could not summon up memories of literacy, the way her peers and the contributors to the DALN did, is not because literacy is of her present moment, her day-to-day life, which is what she had theorized in her first literacy autobiography. Instead (another epiphanic turning point) her inability to recollect early literacy moments showed that she had “interiorized the technology of writing so deeply that without tremendous effort [she] cannot separate it from [herself] or even recognize its presence and influence” (Ong, 1986, p. 23). She notes, “It’s funny how you catch things the second time around” (p. 5), an acknowledgment of the benefits of rereading. Vanessa’s “intersubjective accomplishment” now brings academic writers Bruner, Alexander, and Ong into her understanding of her own literacy. As such, she narratively positions herself to become the hero of my own “success story” as a teacher: an “intersubjective accomplishment” for both of us.

Distance(d) Learning for Engaged Introversion: Navodka

A major part of who I am is defined by what I have read and written; I am defined by literacy. —Navodka Carter (2016a, p. 1)

Navodka chose “introvert/introversion” as one of her search terms in her exploration and curation of the DALN. She found and connected with a video, “Reading and Introverts,” about how reading and writing enable the development of an inner self and a sense of power for introverts (Dotterman, 2013). She explored the connection between literacy, identity, and introversion through both of her literacy narratives. The first, “Who Am I Without Literacy,” focuses primarily on reading (Carter, 2016a). She observes that reading is bound up with her earliest memories and is inextricable from her sense of self. It is an “internal library” where she and her sister stored “pets we did not have, games we did not play, and lives we did not lead” (p. 3). It provides information that gives her something to say when she joins an oral conversation.

Like Vanessa, Navodka has read Walter Ong’s (1986) essay “Writing Is a Technology That Restructures Thought” and questions the possibility of writing a reliable literacy narrative at all: how, assuming one has “interiorized” literacy in the way Ong suggests, is it possible to examine a self that might exist apart from that literacy? She concurs somewhat reluctantly with Ong’s claim that literacy assumes a “supreme power” (1986, p. 23), noting it has shaped her in ways she might not be capable of recognizing. Observing that she experiences through reading things she is too reserved to do in reality, she wonders if literacy has reduced, rather than expanded, her identity (Carter, 2016a, p. 2).

Navodka’s second essay, “Retelling My Story: Literacy and Me: Who I Am In Five Pages,” continues her theme of introversion, but it is more playful and both argues for and performatively demonstrates how writing gives her a voice she would not otherwise use (Carter, 2016b). The second essay appears to resolve the existential crisis posed in the first. She begins at a traditional starting point for literacy narratives, early education, and explains that her first grade teacher learned to engage her despite her introversion through worksheets and small writing assignments: “these written tasks helped my teacher see that I wanted to participate, but I had to do so in other, nonverbal, ways” (p. 2). She brings her writing into the present, saying that writing is still her preferred mode of communication because it helps her organize her thoughts without interruption. Returning to Ong’s (1986) claim that writing is “unnatural,” a “technology that restructures thought,” she retorts that “talking to people in a crowded room and making conversation with complete strangers is unnatural for me; chiming in on an online discussion board with complete strangers or inputting my opinion on a blog for class is completely natural” (Carter, 2016b, p. 3). She then makes the point that for her, writing is the equivalent of speaking, dramatically shifting her narrative position by addressing the reader directly: “You were here because I invited you in. I love writing because it helps span the distance between time and space” (p. 4).

Audio File 2. An audio version of Navodka Carter’s narrative, included in her DALN submission [Transcript]

After this point, Navodka’s writing becomes self-reflexive and experimental, and she wonders if she lived in an oral culture, such as those described by Ong, “would my stories still be the same?” (p. 6). By ironically subtitling her essay “Who I Am in Five Pages” (my suggested page minimum), she seems to acknowledge both the necessity and impossibility of containing a self in a written archive. Placing herself at a distance by performing another iteration of self, she uses writing to solve the problem that writing has created. Writing allows her to engage with the problem Ong poses, over time and across the archive of her identity. And the fact that her literacy narratives were generated in an inherently archival medium (the online course), and enter a new archive by way of being uploaded to the DALN, means that she has extended her identity into a larger public space, a benefit that Comer and Harker (2015) ascribe to participation in the DALN.

Technologies of Self and Slow Aesthetics: Tara

My story is unlike any she has written before. —Tara Kowis (2016b, p. 6)

It’s frequently asserted that generational knowledge and the sense of a common history are being erased by continually emerging technologies of communication. In “Self and Self-Representation Online and Off,” John Paul Eakin (2015) disagrees with this premise, reminding us that narrative persists through all forms of human expression and is a “technology [that] is capable of contracting to satisfy daily digital interventions and of expanding to measure the life course” (p. 11). For Eakin, narrative subsumes and survives other technologies. As we have seen, Vanessa’s daily emails with her ex, and her incorporation of them into a larger life narrative, validated this capacity of narrative to shrink and expand to contain a range of stories. She realized she did not have to make up a story to tell a story about how literacy shaped her identity: narratives about literacy already existed, and she had life experiences that both fit and illuminated those narratives. Narrative became a technology of the self for Vanessa, her email archive and the materials of the course serving as the contexts she drew from.

By contrast, Tara already seemed to take it for granted that narrative is a kind of technology of the self and does not appear compelled to construct a master narrative of her literacy for my course. A writer of fiction, she was comfortable choosing the little narratives that she finds most revealing, looking for how she can expand the genre of the literacy narrative. She seemed to understand that her autobiography will be selective, structured by critical incidents in her life that she will foreground or omit as they reinforce whatever theme she chooses to represent her story. As we will see, she counters the speed of technology by slowing it down, understanding that she can manipulate narrative with the help of other technologies.

In “Literacy: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” her first literacy autobiography, Tara explains that her group’s explorations in the DALN led her to see two common themes: positive early positive family experiences with literacy, and aversive patterns associated with schooling (Kowis, 2016a). She identifies these narratives and from them creates a third narrative she calls “the ugly.” She describes how she worked through a “bad” experience with reading in grade school (being forced to read aloud in front of the class) to reading aloud to herself (good), and from there to reading and writing her own material (ugly, but still good). Her narrative scope was small and her emplotment tight, with a chronological plot structure (fourth grade⎯>fifth grade⎯>high school) that mirrored the dialectic resolution of her argument (bad + good = ugly). She concludes that for her, literacy will always be an “ugly” process of engaging in a “daily struggle with new techniques and visions.” These “new techniques and visions” will play a role in her second literacy autobiography.

In my written response to “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” I noted that it was clear to me that Tara had consciously crafted her piece as a story and asked her to consider two things: 1.) How she had emplotted her story, defining “emplotment” as “arranging events into a narrative leading to a particular end point in the present moment,” and 2.) What kind of self emerged from her emplotment. In “Living in an ‘Ugly’ World,” her second literacy autobiography, she experimented more consciously with story as fiction (Kowis, 2016b). Her story is told from the perspective of Xander, a fictional character whose existence/non-existence depends on where Tara is in her struggle with the “ugliness” of writing. (At the beginning of the story, he has just been thrown into the trash.) The remainder of the story is Xander’s account of the ups and downs of Tara’s creative process though journals and story ideas. 

In this second story, Tara’s father plays an important role as a literacy sponsor (Brandt, 1998), or in the terms of narratology, a donor (Propp, 1968). The key turning point in Tara’s narrative⎯and the moment that gives birth to Xander⎯comes about when Tara’s father surprises her with a typewriter they had examined together in an antique shop. In On Slowness: Toward an Aesthetic of the Contemporary, Lutz Koepnick (2014) explores a “slow” approach to creative work, a “deliberate exploration of the specificity of [one’s] respective tools of mediation… so as to unlock untapped modes of experiencing the real” (p. 13). With the typewriter as her new writing tool, Tara engages in a kind of aesthetic slowness. Xander reports that when Tara sat down with her “new” typewriter, she “began to type what she saw outside her window. It felt like nothing she had written with before. Although she was ecstatic to have her new typewriter, she realized that this new machine would add an ‘ugly’ element to her creative process. She had to relearn how to type” (Kowis, 2016b, p. 5-6). Xander is created (and periodically destroyed and recreated) through a process made deliberately difficult. Tara’s typewriter represents the “ugliness” of the creative process that she described in her first literacy autobiography. Another kind of donor or sponsor, the typewriter is a tool that slows down time and makes her attend to her surroundings in ways she was unable to do before. Xander “lives” to the extent that Tara is able to focus on the tools that create him, taking stock of her own processes of mediation.

Sum(mon)ing Up Selves in Dialog

Through writing literacy narratives with and against their own stories and those of other contributors to the DALN, students in my class created dialogic, intersubjective selves. Darby uses elements of narrative theory to describe how she emplotted her story and came to an awareness of how she had used literacy to rewrite trauma. Vanessa co-constructs an identity in relationship to others and her own writing by continually returning to her own words after the passage of time. Navodka consciously uses the distancing of time and place created by literacy and online learning to create, and archive, a self that has permanence beyond the moment of its utterance. And Tara uses stock plots and narrative devices to theorize her own writing process as a narrative of its own.

Each of these women became conscious of the connection between storytelling and identity-formation, came to see writing as integral to their identities, took control of her self-stagings through revision, and begin to see literacy as an idea worth developing theories about. As their teacher, and subsequently as a researcher, I attempted to be dialogic as well, creating a narrative from their narratives and moving recursively back and forth between the different selves we created separately and together. I hope all of us⎯including the readers of this piece⎯take from our interactions with texts the sense that archives and selves are not finite, and work together.

Vanessa, Take Two

I conceive of literacy as performative and best understood as an archeology that uncovers and exposes prior readings. Thus, I hope to encourage a pattern of critical thinking where students uncover buried texts, expose them to daylight, and revise them for present contexts. As I (re)read the archive that is my online course, it is clear my students have gained strategies for approaching complex texts. I do not know if they take from my courses the value of returning to a text to reinterpret it. However, I have some evidence suggesting that they do.

I was able to follow the work of one student⎯Vanessa⎯into an online class she took with me the following semester, a film survey course. In this film course, Vanessa did well in general, catching onto and applying film terms and concepts well. Where she set herself apart from the other students (who had not taken the course I describe here) was in the archeological approach she took to the course’s final assignment, which was to be a close reading of any one of over 20 films students saw for my course. More than any other student in the class, Vanessa treated the task of interpretation/close reading as both a recursive and constructive act involving retracing old pathways to forge new ones.

Vanessa was one of only two students (out of 50) to pick Citizen Kane, a film that explicitly poses the problem of the connection between story and identity. Citizen Kane proposes knowledge, particularly knowledge about another person, to be a kind of archaeology. The film begins with a reporter’s question about the identity of Charles Foster Kane and the meaning of his last word “Rosebud,” continues through several partial narratives of people who knew him, and ends in the vast archeological site of Kane’s belongings, where the “answer”⎯a childhood sled⎯is profoundly unsatisfactory.

Vanessa takes up the reporter’s journey where he left off, choosing the puzzle that Kane’s second wife Susan is working on as the place to begin her own excavation. She traces each instance of the puzzle’s appearance in the film, treating the puzzle as an artifact that can uncover both the film’s theme and its formal structure. She concludes that the puzzle is a metaphor for both the object of the search and the search itself: “The puzzle is the motif that (ironically) pieces the movie together,” she writes. By choosing Citizen Kane as her film and taking up reporter Thompson’s quest, she seems to acknowledge that reading requires rereading and that she as a reader has the authority to rewrite both story and protagonist, narrative and identity: in fact, she refocuses the Rosebud quest away from the reporter and instead puts Susan, and her puzzle, at the center of Citizen Kane.

Archival Pedagogy and the DALN: Retracing Our Steps for Our Future Paths

Artifacts collapse space (artifacts from different times and places are extracted from their original contexts and resituated side by side in one “container”) and expand time (by crossing it, preserving artifacts in and for the “now” of the user, and allowing future users to add to their contents). The “archive” that appears at the very end of Citizen Kane becomes the starting point for Vanessa to construct her own narrative, the place where she joins the quest for the meaning of Kane’s life. I suggest that archives are where we and our students need to begin the sort of (performative, archeological) inquiry that acknowledges the inquirer’s role in organizing the artifacts of life into coherent narratives of self and community. 

The Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives (DALN) can serve as both a repository for narratives of literate selves in community and a tool for creating them. By curating selections from the DALN, archiving their own stories in the course and then writing them again in a write⎯>archive⎯>rewrite process, students in my online writing course laid the foundation for ongoing self-revisions as well as made those selves publicly accessible for the construction of new narratives of literacy. What future users and researchers of any archive, whether a literacy narrative, the DALN, or an online course, might begin to focus on more deliberately is how that archive functions as an agent of change. In particular, an archive’s potential to store and sustain both selves and the cultural systems of which they are a part, while bearing witness to change over time, enables both to move forward as long as there are people willing to read⎯and reread⎯them.


Placing students’ excavations and constructions of self within the larger archeological project that is the DALN has been a helpful addition to my pedagogy because the act of engaging primary sources and charting a path through them grants students agency to see themselves as part of larger narratives which their performances can help shape. My use of the DALN in this class was confined mostly to the invention and pre-writing process. However, in future classes, I can imagine asking students to excavate/re-enter the DALN again, as part of a revision process. After students write their first autobiography or a draft of one, they might choose new keywords based on their work, finding new primary sources and charting different pathways through the archive to come up with new frameworks for the self.

As more retellings like those of my students are added to the DALN, literacy researchers will be better able to study how performativity works in learning, both in the genre of the literacy narrative and in constructions of identity. For example, I have introduced the concept of emplotment to graduate students in a class on literacy, and then asked them to locate my undergraduates’ stories in the DALN in order to consider how each story’s re-emplotment in the second version changed things like stance, agency, and authority. How⎯once students are aware that their essays are performances of identity that they have some control over⎯do these performances change? What are the some of the consequences of adopting a self-aware approach to identity construction? These are some questions that educators and literacy researchers might study if contributors to the DALN return over time to archive new stories and selves in it.


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