This contemporary focus on personal narrative as a methodological approach has directly influenced folklore, psychology, sociolinguistics, women’s studies, medicine, composition, literary studies, history, art, and cultural studies, among many other disciplines (cf., Brodkey, 1986, 1987; Hesse-Biber and Leavy, 2008; Phelan and Rabinowitz, 2005).

Much of this work shares the recognition that narratives are not small bits of objective truth that transparently reveal some pre-existing reality. Indeed, as Michael Bamberg (2005) observes, it is the “inconsistencies, contradictions, and ambiguities” arising from human interaction around literacy, the knots in narratives, that most interest us. Literacy is a fundamentally human activity, we recognize, and as such it is always complexly situated in cultural contexts.  These knots, for us, represent the rich weave of literacy practices and values as they constitute human identities. Thus, we do not consider narratives as “too obvious, challengeable, or immature” (p. 222).

In theorizing the contributions of literacy narratives and defining the work they can accomplish, we have identified five areas of interest for teachers of composition:

  • literacy narratives and the information they convey about identity and identity formation;
  • literacy narratives and the information they convey about historical and cultural context;
  • literacy narratives and the role they play in representation and agency;
  • literacy narratives as social/political action;
  • literacy narratives and what they can tell us about teaching and learning.

It is important to note—given the nature of what David Bloome has rightly identified as the "unruliness" of this collection and the different perspective from which it can be approached—that these five areas of interest represent only some of the ways in which narrative studies can inform the work of composition teachers. The insights that literacy narratives suggest about identity, culture and history, representation and agency, political action, and teaching and learning, however, will provide rich starting places for many teachers of composition who have not had the chance to pay systematic attention to narratives and what they can teach us about the students who tell them. I have no doubt at all that other scholars, other teachers, other readers who pay attention to the literacy narratives in the DALN will find many things that I have not seen, or heard, or read, or noticed.

Before beginning this collective project, I had never had the chance (or, perhaps, more accurately had never taken the time) to "read" an archive in H. Lewis Ulman’s words (see “Reading the DALN Database,” in this collection), let alone to read the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives (DALN) “with and against similar archives” in David Bloome’s words (see “Five Ways to Read,” in this collection). Over the past five years of this project, however, my readings of the narratives in the DALN have encouraged me to pay increasingly close attention to first-hand stories and what they can tell us. More recently, in addition, as I have encountered the variety of inventive ways in which the other authors in this collection examine and interpret these first-hand accounts, I have been inspired to watch/listen to/read more literacy narratives, to read further and deeper into these accounts and the database that contains them, to understand more about what these stories say in order to discern what they might tell us as composition teachers and scholars. For me, these tiny fragments of meaning-making are seductive in their unruliness; they bid in active and effective ways for my attention; they encourage me to linger over the insights of individuals who are telling themselves into being. As David Bloome notes, these stories matter because the people who tell them matter, in all the particularities of their literate lives and their reflections on those lives. It is for all these reasons, and within the marvelous and multiplied unruliness of the DALN itself, that these stories speak so eloquently to me as a teacher.

I should add here, as well, a note about designing this exhibit. I am convinced by David Bloome’s argument that the narratives in the DALN matter in their particularity, in the specific details they include about peoples’ lives and the role literacy plays in those lives (see “Five Ways to Read,” in this collection). At the same, time, however, I also can’t help but notice themes, similarities, or even related kinds of differences in the stories these three individuals tell: a set of “critical incidents,” as Clifton Long, and Roen note (see “Accessing Private Knowledge,” this collection), that these individuals share in their lives, or different kinds of relational positionings (Bamberg) that might characterize the narratives of these people who grew up in different circumstances or had different experiences with literacy. As a result, I tried to design this exhibit in a way that both honors the connective tissue of shared narrative themes and the theoretical lenses I used to make sense of these themes (the first five sections of the exhibit: 1. literacy narratives and the identity work they can accomplish, 2. literacy narratives and cultural/historical information they contain, 3. literacy narratives and their relationship to representation and agency, 4. literacy narratives as social/political action, and 5. literacy narratives as teaching/learning resources) and that respects the particularity of the literate lives of the three generous individual contributors on whom I focus (Keith Dorwick, Kevin DePew, and Yusef), whose stories are explored in the three subsequent sections.