Narratives of Transcendence

The second pattern we noticed involves our students’ choices for narrative form.  Like many other scholars studying autobiographical accounts of literacy or lived lives, we note the ways in which our requests that students produce “literacy narratives” for us, or for the DALN, result in stories with a recurring narrative structure. Whether identified as a “progressive narrative” (Gergen and Gergen), a “literacy myth” (Graff), a culturally scripted “progress plot” (Branch 208), a “tropic of literacy” (Brodkey), a “theme” (Pavlenko), a “hero” narrative (Williams “Heroes”), or an aspect of the generic conventions of literacy narratives (Eldred and Mortensen 530), the literacy narrative assignment or interview request overwhelmingly creates a predisposition towards narratives of transcendence.

This repeated positioning of the narrator as a hero, working to achieve some form of social/cultural capital or power through literacy and winning the battle, is not evident only to scholars; it forms part of the landscape, the “familiar reality . . . most often-perceived by passers-by as one structured space” (Ben-Rafael 8), of the DALN. As one or our students noted after completing a “listening/watching” analysis assignment with a series of DALN contributions:

Literacy is a struggle. The struggle is multifarious in terms of the multiplicity of conflicts and adventures for the various heroes who happen to experience them. A hero is someone who overcomes struggle with courage and determination. These heroes are encountering many different adventures where they struggle and use literacy to overcome their struggles in stories that I have found the chance to read, listen and watch in the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives (DALN). The examples that I found on the DALN are not stories or descriptions of literacy, they are adventures, which consist of heroes and anti-heroes, where a lesson teaches and changes the author. (Gokan Ilbay, Writing and Rhetoric I, Fall 2009)

In the narratives in this exhibit, the students confidently share stories of individual effort and the resulting confidence in their own abilities to successfully and effectively acquire competence in English as a bilingual or multilingual speaker. The three undergraduate students in this exhibit suggest that the success occurs directly as the result of their efforts outside of, or even in spite of, a formal schooling environment, and in fact this pattern extends well beyond these three narratives: it is apparent in almost all of the “student” language-learning focused narratives in the DALN. Here, Sky, Keunho, and Sofia clearly invest themselves in the role of “hero/rebel” as they take advantages of life learning experiences in their literacy narratives, a role that Paterson describes as:

students who rebel against the established hierarchy or values of literacy. They portray themselves as bucking conventions …Yet they refuse to portray themselves as helpless victims. Instead, they choose to dismiss the values and assignments of mainstream education, while often displaying what they consider their true literacy talents. (qtd. in Williams 344)

All three students attribute their successes to the various ways in which they became personally interested in and invested in learning English, actively going outside of school, seeking their own ways to learn, using family and social connections, and rejecting the authority of school language instruction. Their literacy narratives subvert the dominant “language and literacy equals schooling” perspective. Instead, the students focus on the social scene, their experiences with family and friends, and the influence of popular media (e.g. “Lion King”), all things they find far more engaging than the educational scene.

Disney movies are wholeheartedly embraced by these three students, and, in fact, they serve as cornerstones for each of their experiences of coming to English. Sofia opens her print literacy narrative with these words:

I wish that I could memorize my class curriculum as easily as I memorized Timon and Pumba’s arguments, or Iago’s witty complaints, or Pocahontas’ explanation of her strange dream. I know these things (by heart) now because as a little girl, I used to watch Disney movies over and over. At the time it seemed like a great pastime, but looking back, I’m grateful to see that these movies did way more than just entertain me: they helped me learn English. (1)

Sky chooses to revise his personal history on screen so that The Lion King can become his first and most important exposure to English:

Keunho does not name the movies he watches in his literacy film or print narrative, but in conversations in class he explicitly noted Disney movies as language learning experiences. Perhaps access to Disney movies early in life, along with the exportation of American bootstrapping and rugged individualism mythologies, has something to do with the self-characterization in these students’ crafted, composed literacy narratives.

Alix and Medarka, on the other hand, as English language teachers in the Philippines, explicitly toe the line of schooling-and-value-of-education in their literacy narrative interviews. They both continue the pattern of the heroic/literacy myth narratives, but their heroism lies in their success navigating multiple languages while mastering English within the school setting.

Medarka does mention, after her lengthy explanation of learning to write and read in school, that her love of movies is an important factor in her English language and literacy acquisition.

Nevertheless, she clearly sees this as an addition to schooling, not as a replacement for the educational context and formal language instruction. More importantly, Alix and Medarka both envision a very tight connection between language and literacy acquisition and school in general and they both perceive orthographic instruction, the physical writing of the alphabet of English, as a crucial step in the beginning of literacy: for them orthography is literacy.

While we, as teachers and DALN researchers, found ourselves nodding and appreciating the students’ “hero/rebel” narratives of learning outside of school because they do not challenge the typical narrative arc we are accustomed to, we furrowed our brows and said, “what?” when it came to considering literacy as “simply” orthography. The different subject positions of the students and students/teachers in these five narratives offer an easy answer to our response to the narratives themselves. After all, aren’t teenagers notoriously rebellious? Don’t language teachers have to accept teaching as a valuable method for learning language? Doesn’t it make sense that the teachers say this? Well . . . no, because we, too, are teachers and it surprised us. A more nuanced interrogation, however, showcases how much of our bewilderment at the idea of physical transcription of the alphabet as writing, as literacy, is particularly revealing of the mythologies and organizing metaphors for what language and literacy acquisition is and should be for us. Notably, it clearly places us, literacy narrative readers/watchers/interlocutors/teachers, as native speakers of English for whom the orthographic system of our own language is, in essence, a no-brainer. Recognizing these deeply ingrained monolingual assumptions about language and literacy embedded in our response, then, helps us to get to the point that Canagarjah suggests is so necessary: “acknowledging the heterogeneity of language and communication would force us to develop more democratic and egalitarian models of community and communication (“Lingua Franca” 934).

Despite the different rationales for success, whether following the hero/rebel path or actively advocating formal instruction, all five of the narratives and interviews position language and literacy acquisition as an active process of personal effort and achievement. In the landscape of the whole of the DALN then, the “gestalt made of physical objects” (Ben-Rafael et al. 8) formed by autobiographical literacy narratives is one of transcendence, a transcendence that is both culturally conforming and individuating at the same time. As Bruner points out, this tension is something inherent in our human autobiographical storytelling, fitting in and standing out as we co-create ourselves and our cultures (“Self-Making” 71). Certainly, these tensions hold true as a pattern across the multilingual literacy narratives in this exhibit, but the patterns within that pattern offer a vision of some of the most interesting aspects of the multilingual literacy landscape as a whole.

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