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Listening in Public

Although all five of David Bloome’s ways of reading the DALN are interesting and provocative, his third way, “The History of Literacy Debates Is Not Benign,” is especially poignant. As curators for one of the exhibits in Stories that Speak to Us: Exhibits from the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives, we are struck by David Bloome’s observation: “In the DALN, we see people struggling with the dominance of an autonomous model of literacy.” This point resonates with us because when we worked with the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing DALN interviews, we experienced the dissonance that they describe. Bloome astutely notes that “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, . . ., allow them to recreate themselves and foreground their communities . . . .” The Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing interviews have compelled us to ponder the kinds of questions that Bloome raises at the end of his section on the third way of reading:

  • 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?

When we first perused the DALN and carefully listened to the interviews with Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing contributors, we quickly came to see the archive as challenging the “rules” for defining literacy. The collection is, as Bloome notes, “unruly,” and we hope that our curated exhibit helps readers to see this “unruliness.”

It may seem odd—downright insensitive, even—to celebrate listening in an article about the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing. But we do so especially in light of the attention listening has received of late as an under-theorized and under-taught means for exposing unearned privilege and for fostering cross-cultural engagement—that is, for cultivating authentic learning across differences that tend to divide us. For those of us who can hear, how does this scholarly conversation urge us to maximize this potential? For those of us who are Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing, how might this scholarly conversation direct constructive meaning-making across difference?

Listening has recently garnered the attention of two clusters of rhetoric scholars. First, a set of feminist rhetoricians—Cheryl Glenn and Krista Ratcliffe most prominently—identifies rhetorical listening as a trope for interrogating the interplay of race and gender within given relationships, texts, or cultures. In Rhetorical Listening, Ratcliffe describes four moves affiliated with rhetorical listening: "promoting understanding of self and other[;. . .] proceeding from within an accountability logic[;. . .]; locating identifications across commonalities and differences[;. . .] and analyzing claims as well as the cultural logics within which claims function" (26-33). As such, rhetorical listening is a new theoretical approach for analyzing and navigating postmodern identity politics.

In addition to this growing crew of feminist rhetoricians, community-literacy studies also promote listening as a condition of public life. Listening is, for instance, a chief mark of an effective community leader (Goldblatt 285). Featured in his study of a cross-institutional literacy initiative called Open Doors, a community educator named Miguel earns Eli Goldblatt's highest regard as someone "[. . .] intense but a good listener" (285). Conversely, when community meetings fail, community residents often characterize the failures as failures in listening (Higgins, Long, and Flower 15); by extension, when residents express a leeriness to invest in public inquiry and deliberation, that skepticism often turns on whether others—whether adults or Suits—"in fact, will listen" (Higgins, Long, and Flower 25).

Such scholarship makes clear: acts of public listening are as tenuous as they are valuable. Activist researchers Jeff Grabill and Michele Simmons note that in their work with a community organization studying proposals to dredge a neighboring harbor of hazardous waste: "[T]he most difficult and fragile task was to figure out where and how to listen" (445). Eli Goldblatt describes his work in north Philadelphia primarily as a study in listening: "I listen for the self-interest of the neighborhood within multiple issues, I express my own self-interest in the project, and I try to see this neighborhood specifically" (286). In a study of urban school reform, David Coogan names his method—ideographic analysis—as a kind of listening (689). Similarly, in "Writing the Wrongs of Welfare," Lorraine Higgins and Lisa Brush ask what it takes for former and current welfare moms to cast their written life-stories in terms others will recognize and respect. One vitally important factor is the capacity of supportive readers to listen attentively and purposefully to these writers' emerging drafts (707). In Higgins, Long, and Flower's rhetorical model of public and personal intercultural inquiry and deliberation—a model where "ideas and identities are argued and performed in the languages of its multiple participants"—listening becomes a key test of whether the model's interventions are up to its task: the model demands that its participants "listen so well we can articulate the arguments of others in terms they will accept, to avoid giving or taking offense, and to speak to others who disagree with what they will see as valid reasons, in terms they will understand (cf. Roberts-Miller 207; Young, Becker, and Pike)" (18).

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