What are literacy narratives?

To understand the work that literacy narratives do, it might be best to start with what we mean by the terms we use in this curated exhibit.  With the term literacy, we refer to a broad range of reading and composing activities, including writing, that take place both on and offline but are always situated in dynamic and fluid social systems, laden with rhetorical choices, and shaped by “historical circumstances, individuals’ lived experiences, and particular situations for writing” (DeRosa, p. 3).

Literacy practices and values, as we understand them, are related in complex ways to existing cultural milieux; educational practices and values; social formations such as race, class, and gender; political and economic trends and events; family practices and experiences; technological media and material conditions—among many other factors. As the work of Brian Street (1995), James Gee (1996), Harvey Graff (1987), and Deborah Brandt (1995, 1998, 1999, 2001) reminds us, we can understand literacy as a set of practices and values only when we properly situate these activities within the context of a particular historical period, a particular cultural milieu, and a specific cluster of material conditions.

By using the term literacy narrative, at the most general level, we refer to personal stories and accounts. James Phelan, for instance, defines narratives as “somebody telling somebody some occasion and for some purpose that something has happened” (Phelan and Rabinowitz, 2005, p. 323). Literacy narratives, more specifically, focus on reading and or composing, on language acquisition, literacy practices, and literacy values. These narratives are structured by “learned” and “internalized” understandings about literacy, which are culturally constituted. Literacy narratives often include “explicit images of schooling and teaching” (Eldred and Mortensen, 1992, p. 513) within formal and official sites of literacy instruction, but they just as frequently focus on literacy as it is taught, learned and practiced in informal settings such as home, church, online environments, and other non-academic settings (Selfe and Hawisher, 2004;  Brandt, 1995, 1998, 1999, 2001; Street, 1995).

…[T]he rhetorical definition of narrative… somebody telling somebody else on some occasion and for some purpose that something has happened.

(Phelan & Rabinowitz, 2005, p. 323)

There seems indeed to be some sense in which narrative, rather than referring to “reality,” may in fact create or constitute it…

(Bruner, 1991, p. 13)