Five Ways to Read a Curated Archive of Digital Literacy Narratives

by David Bloome, The Ohio State University

The Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives (DALN) consists of over 2750 digitized recordings (audio and video) of people telling their literacy stories (as of December 2011, see  It is a massive archive and a massive undertaking.  The first digital files were made available in 2008 although the background work needed to construct such an archive was begun many years prior. The DALN is an ever growing collection with few rules.  The curators refuse to define “literacy” or “narrative” for those they interview and record, they allow as much or as little time as each person wants, and they struggle to index the files minimally and in ways that impose as lightly as possible categories and characterizations. 

After having generated this rather large collection, Dewitt, Selfe and Ulman asked a series of scholars to explore the archive and make something of it. Their efforts constitute the collection of curated exhibitions known as Stories That Speak To Us: Exhibits from the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives.

The people they asked to make something of this “unruly” collection are all scholars but varied in disciplinary perspectives, political perspectives, cultural, linguistic, and historical backgrounds, definitions of “literacy” and of “narrative”, and more.  The result is that we (those of us who were not officially asked to scavenge the DALN and make something of it) end up reading the readings of scholars who sought to make sense of one bit or another of the DALN.  Their readings are thoughtful, creative, and respectful of the people who agreed to be recorded.  Read as a whole, they provide an overview of many of the major current themes and perspectives in the fields of Rhetoric and Composition, Literary Theory, and Narrative Theory played out on the recordings in the DALN.  The authors (called “curators”) often seek to elevate the literacy narrative so that its historical and macro-sociological positioning is made visible. In some cases, the curators reposition the tellers of the literacy narratives from the social and educational margins to the center.

One learns a great deal about narrative theory (and in particular what is called the “third wave” of narrative theory), about cultural historical approaches to literacy, about feminist theories of narrative, about the complexities of narrative in the context of communities of people who are deaf and hard-of-hearing, about the intersection of race, literacy, and lived experiences, and about the relationship of local and broader (even global) contexts of literacy events and practices, among much more.

Reading #1: Traditional Scholarly Reading

Reading the “curated exhibits” (what would be called “chapters” in a traditional book format) in such a manner is a productive and rewarding reading. We might label this way of reading the curated exhibits a “traditional scholarly” reading. The reader seeks to understand the argument made by the author – the claim, the evidence for it, the warrants, responses to potential counter arguments, etc.  – and then evaluates the validity of the argument.  Each curated exhibit can be read as an argument: in some cases an argument for a particular theoretical position; in other cases an argument for defining literacy or narrative; and in other cases an argument for how aspects of identity are produced through narrative. While the dominant way of reading scholarly works is in terms of an “argument” structure, we need to be careful about such readings because perhaps we may give too much power to and have too much faith in “rationality,” and we may overlook other ways of reading. Even if the authors of the curated exhibits do not themselves view their work as an argument, for some people, everything is an argument (see Lunsford & Ruszkiewicz, 2009).  In some academic communities, this is the expected (and valued) way of reading; and as one way of reading, why not?  As long as we keep open the question of whether the argument came first or last or in the middle; that is, whether the argument shaped the narrative, was shaped by the narrative, or is a post-hoc rationale.  And while the dominant way of reading scholarly works is in terms of an “argument” structure, we need to be careful about such readings because perhaps we may give too much power to and have too much faith in “rationality,” and we may overlook other ways of reading. 

In “Narrative Theory and Stories That Speak To Us”, Cynthia Selfe and the DALN Consortium describe the DALN as “unruly.”  Once someone places the word “unruly” out front … well, it is just hard then not to be unruly, too. As readers, it seems as if we’ve been given permission to be unruly (and that doesn’t happen often enough).

As I read through the curated exhibits, I became more and more unruly – I refused to read the bits in the order presented.  But that wasn’t really being unruly enough.  I then read the curated exhibits themselves out of order – sometimes playing all of the video clips first and then reading the text, sometimes reading from the middle out to the front and back, and once I first read the works cited and then looked back to the text to see how they were being used and interpreted.  Emboldened by my unruly reading behavior, I realized that I still really wasn’t being all that unruly and so on my second reading of the set of curated exhibits I experimented with increasingly unruly ways of reading. 

What follows are four unruly ways of reading the set of curated exhibits (surely there are more than four unruly ways of reading).  That is, this Foreword offers five ways of reading the curated exhibits (one in sympathy with the ways of reading assumed by the authors – what I labeled the “traditional” way of reading above – and four unruly ways of reading discussed below).  Each of the five ways of reading was productive in itself, but I realized that engaging in diverse readings and being able to hold on to all of them without needing to defenestrate any or privilege one over another provided for me the deepest insight into narrative, literacy, and the particularities of people’s daily lives. 

Reading #2: With and Against Similar Archives

In 2000, Dorothy Sheridan, Brian Street and I authored a book describing the literacy practices of the people who wrote for the Mass-Observation Project in the United Kingdom (Writing Ourselves: Mass-Observation and Literacy Practices).  The original Mass Observation was started in the late 1930s by Charles Madge, Tom Harrison, and Humphrey Jennings.  (See for information about he Mass-Observation Project and its history). They sought to create an “anthropology of ourselves” by establishing a national panel of volunteers who would write responses to a questionnaire that sought to make visible everyday life.  Early in the history of Mass Observation, Harrison and others started what was known as the Worktown Project, an attempt to document everyday life in the public places, homes, workplaces, streets, etc., of ordinary people in Bolton.  They archived the writings from both the national panel and from the Worktown Project. The original Mass Observation continued through the early 1950s.  It was revived in 1981 by anthropologist David Pocock and archivist and historian Dorothy Sheridan.  Since 1981, the Mass-Observation Project has regularly sent to a panel of volunteers writers “directives” (requests for the panelists to observe and write about particular topics). Over 4500 people have written for the Mass-Observation Project since 1981, many for multiple years (they are called “correspondents”).

In Spring 1991, Brian Street and Dorothy Sheridan composed a directive on literacy practices.  They wanted to know how the correspondents wrote for the Mass-Observation Project, and they wanted to know about the other literacy practices in which the Mass-Observation correspondents engaged.  This was not the first directive on literacy, but this was the first directive motivated by curiosity about how literacy practices shaped the representations of every life and ordinary people within the Mass-Observation Project.

The Spring 1991 directive on literacy practices can be viewed through the lens of the linguistic turn in the social sciences; the understanding that the language used by social scientists (and everyone else for that matter) mediates the representations of others and ourselves as well as what counts as knowledge and what it means to be human.  The language (both spoken and written) we use (what some would now call “discourses”) constitutes processes of power that structure relations (and privileges) among people, institutions, and nation-states – and such power processes are made all the more trenchant by their often invisible yet ubiquitous nature.  Although there is debate about origins, one can trace the linguistic turn in the social sciences to the work of Edward Said (1978), Ludwig Wittgenstein (1953/2009), Jurgen Habermas (1985, 1987), Clifford and Marcus (1986), among other social and linguistic theorists.  In brief, the liguistic turn in social science and humanities scholarship can no longer be ignored or sidestepped.

After the correspondents responded to the Spring 1991 directive, Brian Street, Dorothy Sheridan and I traveled across the UK to talk with the Mass-Observation correspondents about what they had written in response to the literacy directive.  Here, I want to highlight just a few of those findings pertinent to reading the DALN and the collection of exhibits here titled, “Stories That Speak To Us.”

First, many of the people we interviewed were unruly.  They did not feel constrained by the questions and topics in the directive.  A few would bluntly state that the directive asked the wrong questions; however, many more would simply reinterpret the directive as they believed it should have been presented. 

Throughout our interviews, we found that there was a shared sense of purpose, that they were writing an alternative history of Britain. Perhaps some had acquired this view from public statements made by the various notables associated with the Mass-Observation Project, but more so, many of the people we interviewed viewed people such as themselves – what they often referred to as “ordinary people” – as being invisible, as not having a voice – and the Mass-Observation Project provided one vehicle for them both as individuals and as a collective to have a voice and a history (beyond the history of kings, queens, and such elites).  For many of the people we interviewed, despite any difficulties with learning to write or read in school (their schooling situations were not always benevolent), writing and reading practices saturated their lives and gave them one way to exert some level of control and agency in their lives that might otherwise have been absent. 

This reminded me that in reading the collection of curated exhibits contained in Stories That Speak To Us against the Mass-Observation Project (both the original and the post-1981 project), that the provision of contexts for storytelling that allows people to become unruly is key to allowing the generation of representations of everyday life (including literacy in everyday life) that have some potential for allowing people to reclaim ownership over at least some aspects of their lives.  Becoming unruly is hard.  There are so many social conventions about politeness, respect for one’s audience, and presenting oneself as normal, coherent, and rational.  And yet, many of the people in the DALN do become unruly in their storytelling.  Whether intentional or not, it seems to me that this unruliness is about taking ownership over aspects of one’s life, and in the case of the DALN, it is about taking ownership over the representation and memories of one’s literacy experiences.

As noted above, many of the Mass-Observation correspondents make a distinction between “ordinary” people and privileged others.  There are those who have criticized such a distinction suggesting that in the absence of clear-cut boundaries between ordinary people and others there can be no such distinction – or, the critics claim that “ordinariness” is a matter of situation or an adopted affect.  I disagree.  By focusing on literacy practices, the DALN foregrounds the ways in which language and literacy has structured these relations and, if given the opportunity to be unruly, these structurations can be called into question by ordinary people talking about their everyday lives. You know you are “ordinary” when you can’t get appropriate health care for your children; when you and your people are not represented (or respectfully represented) in the books your children are reading in school; when you have no venue for a public voice; when you have no ownership over the contexts of your labor; when the language you speak is not your own; when your “freedom” is defined as the privilege of choosing which soap to purchase and there is no way to leverage a different definition of “freedom”; when communication (digital or otherwise) is overwhelmed to the trivial and commercial; when you have little say in the labels used to describe you, your family, your community, and people like you; and perhaps most telling, when you do get the rare opportunity to claim ownership and make a change, there’s no way to institutionalize that change, and sooner rather than later such ownership and change fades away.  As I see it, the potential of the DALN (as in the Mass-Observation Project) is in making visible the everyday life of ordinary people in a manner that shifts the ground of relations among people, institutions, and nation-states. By focusing on literacy practices, the DALN foregrounds the ways in which language and literacy has structured these relations and, if given the opportunity to be unruly, these structurations can be called into question by ordinary people talking about their everyday lives. 

One way to read “Stories That Speak to Us” is as part of a much longer and broader intellectual and social history that includes not only the Mass-Observation Project but also the many oral history projects, the community writing projects, the community history projects, and community ethnographic projects (e.g.,,,,,, When we read “Stories That Speak To Us” in such an historical manner, we elevate the project and the people who speak through the project. They are no longer unruly individuals; it’s an unruly history of ordinary people. 

Reading #3: The History of Literacy Debates Is Not Benign

Another way to read Stories That Speak To Us is as an iteration of the great debate about how to define literacy.  One definition of literacy, a definition that is dominant in education and in the general public, holds literacy to be a collection of cognitive and linguistic processes associated with reading and writing that are relatively context free.  Literacy is an interaction between a reader and a text.  Street (1985, 1995) labels such a definition of literacy an autonomous model as it conceptualizes literacy as autonomous of the people, situations, or social contexts in which reading and writing occur and as a monolithic set of intellectual processes.  By contrast, Street posits an ideological model of literacy that recognizes that there are many ways of using written language and that these uses reflect various cultural ideologies about what written language should be used for, how it means, how people differentially engage in uses of written language in different contexts, and how people socially congregate during social events involving written language.  Viewed as culturally ideological, literacy is not a thing in-and-of-itself but rather there are only literacy events (social events involving written language) and literacy practices (social practices involving written language) (cf. Heath, 1982; Street, 1995).  It is a nonsequitor to view people as “literate” or “illiterate.”

For Street, the difference between an autonomous model of literacy and an ideological model is not a choice, as if scholars and others could simply choose whichever model appealed to them; rather, Street is pointing out that the autonomous model is itself an ideological model that refuses to acknowledge that it is so.  And as such it promulgates a particular cultural and ideological agenda, all the more powerful because those who advocate for this model of literacy view it as natural and commonsense (and thereby discount other models of literacy and ways of using written language).

What’s at stake in defining literacy involves more than a debate among academics; there are material consequences to the definition and model of literacy held by an institution.  A definition of literacy as a set of autonomous cognitive and linguistic skills posits literacy as something to be acquired by individuals.  There are those who have acquired “literacy” (and can be called “literate”) and those who have not acquired it (and can be called “illiterate.”).  Students can be comparatively rated on how many of the cognitive and linguistic processes they have acquired and how quickly they acquire them, and those who do not acquire these processes quickly enough can be labeled with terms such as “struggling readers,” “learning disabled,” etc.  Similarly so, communities and social groups can be labeled “literate,” “illiterate,” or “nonliterate” and implicitly located lower in a societal hierarchy. 

When an autonomous model of literacy is recognized as an ideological model, then the consequences for people and the events in which they engaged are viewed as ideological productions and can be interrogated, deconstructed and reconstructed. Any hierarchy of literacy events and practices are a reflection of social, economic, cultural, and political hierarchies (and the cultural ideologies that support such hierarchies). 

In the DALN, we see people struggling with the dominance of an autonomous model of literacy.  Either as a child or an adult they find themselves located in some kind of hierarchy that is viewed as “natural” and “commonsense,” defining their sense of self.  Yet, when we listen carefully to their literacy narratives, we hear them contest the dominant models of literacy and describe their engagement in alternative models of literacy that, in some cases, allow them to recreate themselves and foreground their communities (ones that may not be part of dominant institutional structures).

The questions to ask about these curated exhibits if read in the context of the debate over definitions of literacy include:

  • What definitions of literacy are present?
  • What are the personal and community consequences of these definitions?
  • How have people taken advantage of and been constrained by these definitions?
  • How have their narratives explicitly or implicitly redefined literacy? 
  • What do these definitions of literacy reveal about how literacy practices reflect and refract extant cultural ideologies?

Reading #4: Exploding the Framing

Research manuscripts typically begin with a theoretical framework and a review of related research that defines the research questions, the logic of inquiry and methodology employed, and the ways of interpreting the findings.  Such structures have been codified by the style manual of the American Psychological Association (2009), by the American Educational Research Association (2006), reading and literacy research journals (e.g., Reading Research Quarterly, see Wilkinson & Bloome, 2008), among other research institutions.  Many of the curated exhibits in Stories That Speak To Us follow this structure.  In some cases, authors of the curated exhibits have used such a structure to articulate and promulgate a theoretical framework; the curated exhibits become examples of the theoretical framing.  Examples include Selfe et al.’s use of Labov’s theories of narrative; Crisp et al.’s use of sociocultural psychological theory; and Critel’s use of Street’s ideological model of literacy.  In other cases, authors have used such a structure to expand the theoretical framework by creating a dialectic between the theoretical framing and the archived narratives.  Examples include Denecker et al.’s use of feminist theory and Bamberg’s narrative theory and Sharma’s use of educational theory, theories of multimodality, and theories about the relationship of the local and global.

Yet, there are ways to read these curated exhibits that “explode” the theoretical framing and thus create new meanings and ways to interpret people’s narratives. There are at least two examples of such “exploding” within Stories That Speak to Us.  One is the curated exhibit created by Kinloch, Moss and Richardson titled “Claiming our place on the flo(or): Black women and collaborative literacy narratives.”  Although one can detect aspects of Critical Race Theory in their curated exhibit – the emphasis on narrative, foregrounding of race, gender, and place, and people’s lived experiences – they undermine the traditional hierarchical structure of theoretical framing and narrative by eliminating the distance between researcher / scholar and subject (they are one in the same) and embedding theorizing as part of their lived experiences (exploding the separation of theory and data).

Another example of exploding the framing is Brueggemann and Voss’s “Articulating Betweenity.”  Brueggemann and Voss play on the concept of “between,” layering meanings reflecting and refracting narratives from the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Collection within the DALN.  In their introduction, they write:

In the first video clip, I articulate the “between” of being back-and-forth, of waffling perhaps between two things, of toggling.  The second clips illustrates the kind of  “between” one is in when more or less wedged between two things, more static perhaps than the first “toggling” concept, and placed somewhat like a file folder in the drawer (which could be later changed or re-arranged but for now, it is “stuck” there in that one place).  The third clip shows the “stuck” nature of betweenity—how sometimes a between place can feel like a lock-down, as if completely wedged between a rock and a hard place, no movement possible.  And the fourth clip and panel demonstrates the less emotionally and physically articulated way of expressing between in ASL, simply by fingerspelling it, b-e-t-w-e-e-n.  To be between is then, to be potentially all or any of these possibilities.

And while Brueggemann and Voss focus on the narratives of people who are deaf / hard-of-hearing, the theoretics they generate can applied more broadly, as I suggest below.

For example, one could read Frost and Malley’s “Multilingual Literacy Landscapes” curated exhibit through the lens of Brueggeman and Voss’s “betweenity.”  One could read Blair and Tulley’s “The Role Of Narrative In Articulating The Relationship Between Feminism And Digital Literacy” through Bakhtin’s theories of dialogue, intertextuality, ventriloquism, and chronotope.  As such, one not only reanalyzes the selected archives from the DALN, one also analyzes the “storytelling” that the curators do.  Such laminating of meaning creates questions about the nature of knowledge and knowing as well as questions about how scholarship itself constructs pathways through time and space. 

Yet another way of “exploding” the theoretical framing is taken up in the next section which emphasizes reading the curated exhibit by foregrounding what the people themselves say and viewing the particularity of their lives as key to definitions of what it means to engage in literacy events, practices, and histories, and as key to what it means to be human.

Reading #5: People Matter, What They Say Matters, and Particularity Matters

Some years ago when I was interviewing people as part of a study of how people wrote for the Mass-Observation Project, a woman told me that while each person’s experiences are unique, in another sense they are not: “as unique as your first kiss - everybody else experiences it as well so it's not. I don't mean that it's unique to you personally, but it draws on your history, your family, feelings, your emotions.”   If you can remember your first kiss, perhaps it involved excitement, anxiety, romance, sexual feelings, wonder, caring and tenderness, curiosity, among thousands of other emotions.  Perhaps it happened in a pleasant and romantic setting, but perhaps it happened in a not so nice place; perhaps you remember the other person, perhaps not.  Regardless, although you recognize that first kisses happen to everyone and that within a society there may be social patterns that describe how, when, and with whom they happen, still you do not want the particularities of that first kiss – with all of its emotions and remembrances of the place, the person, and yourself – homogenized and reified into a sociological thesis. 

In 2002, Brandt and Clinton argued for a shift in what is often called the New Literacy Studies (scholarship that views literacy as social events and practices).  They argued that there was a need to shift the emphasis from the local to how literacy events and practices connected at broader social levels.  This was necessary in part, they argued, in order to understand how broader social, cultural, economic, and ideological contexts influenced what happened at the local level.  In my view, there were several confusions in Brandt and Clinton’s argument.  The first was their characterization of the New Literacy Studies as focusing only on the local.  Most of the major and foundational works within the New Literacy Studies—including Heath’s Ways With Words (1983), Street’s Literacy in Theory and Practice (1985), Barton and Hamilton’s Local Literacies (1998), and Graff’s (1979) The Literacy Mythconnected the local with broader social contexts.  But each insisted that connections between the local and broader social contexts be grounded in evidence within the local situation itself and that people within their local contexts be viewed as thoughtful agents who themselves theorized the relationship between the local and broad social contexts (for further discussion see Bloome et al., 2005). What is at issue is eschewing the privileging of the broader social context over the local and the particularities of people’s lives. One way in such privileging occurs is by imposing an a priori theoretical frame rather than seeking and respecting an emic understanding of how people view and give meaning to their lives and the lives of the people with whom they interact.

One way to read the curated exhibitions is to seek such an emic understanding and to privilege the particularities of people’s lives; and in this case, the particularities of their lived literacy histories. A number of social scientists and linguists have argued for focusing on the particularities of people’s lives (see Becker, 1988; Bloome, 2005; Geertz, 1983). As readers, we use the particularities of people’s lives and their expressions (the particularities of their narratives and how they tell them) to better understand what it means to be human (including the diversity of what it means to be human) and to better understand ourselves within the particularities of our own lives. But what is at issue here is not theorizing particularity, but rather recognizing that by foregrounding particularity we create another way of reading.  When Liz R. tells about getting a diary from her grandmother when she was in 7th grade and at the same time having her first boyfriend, both she and what she experienced are important in and of themselves, not merely as an example of feminist theory or a sociological trend; Chris D.’s narrative about teaching his son to read and write is important because of the affection and caring he describes for his son and not just as an example of an educational theory; and similarly so for nearly all of the recorded narratives in the curated collections and in the DALN more broadly. As readers, we use the particularities of people’s lives and their expressions (the particularities of their narratives and how they tell them) to better understand what it means to be human (including the diversity of what it means to be human) and to better understand ourselves within the particularities of our own lives.  It is only through the expression of particularities that empathy can be created, and it is that empathy that makes it possible to imagine what Buber (1970) has called an I-Thou relationship with others and with ourselves. 

In order to engage in such a reading I found it necessary to slow down my reading, listening, and viewing of the recorded narratives.  I had to stop the video frequently to consider and appreciate what I had just been told.  I needed to take time and think about how what they had told me—with all of the particularities that they so often described in such depth that I could “see” what was happening—had meaning for me within the particularities of my life and my particular literacy histories. 

Final Comments

Above I described five ways of reading this set of curated exhibits. At the beginning of this Forward, I suggested that there is value in reading the curated exhibits in multiple ways and in simultaneously holding these multiple ways of reading, even when they may lead to contradictory interpretations.  This is hard to imagine, never mind implement, in large part because we have learned in academia that our narratives and interpretations should be coherent and rational, especially within the context of a particular (imagined) community (such as a disciplinary community).  But what if that’s not your life experience? Or that of many others you know or encounter?  What if such narrative coherency is a privilege of wealth and power?  Would that mean that the rest of us were left without a narrative or only with a narrative imposed from outside?

This collection of curated exhibits and the framing of them by Dewitt, Selfe and Ulman invite multiple ways of reading, some of which might be unruly.  There are coherent narratives and ones that eschew coherency.  Unruly narratives, unruly readings: why not?

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