Thursday, July 16, 2009

Thoughts on Grimm and New Literacy Studies

Having conducted a year-long literacy study for my dissertation research and following the ideological and conceptual framework proposed by many of the researchers in the New Literacy Studies group, I find Grimm's application of NLS to Writing Center research relevant and inspiring. Of particular interest to me, in light of our class discussions about mission statements (not to mention the fact that I'm now in a position to revisit/revise our mission statement), is Grimm's belief that "an ideological model of literacy requires a fundamental renegotiation of writing center purpose" (46):

"It asks us to serve students better by achieving a better understanding of how literacy works as a social practice. It suggests a discovery approach to research rather than a prove-it approach. It insists on paying attention to linguistic and cultural diversity. An ideological understanding of literacy also changes our understandings of what counts as data and how one interprets data. It encourages us to look at relationships, identities, cultural understandings, and more. It includes as data stories, interviews, case studies, and ethnographic observations."

An ideological approach to literacy research understands the intersubjectivity of the tutor/student relationship, and rather than seek out ways to negate the influence of the researcher (tutor) on the research context (an objectivist objective), it embraces that relationship, sees it as vital and enriching and intrisically connected to the purpose for inquiry: understanding literacy as a social act. The types of research and methodologies associated with NLS have the potential to reinvigorate the types of reporting we do about what we do. As Lerner's article makes clear, the institutional organs that pump life-blood funds into Writing Centers expect hard and fast numbers--quantitative proof of effectiveness (or at least evidence that money's not being stuffed in a hole), and it would be foolish to supplant completely the basic number crunching, i.e. number of tutorials, hours of tutorials, etc., with the kinds of qualitative data that NLS and Grimm advocate. But, as Thomas Kuhn might agree, if you want to shift a paradigm, you must begin to write the new way along side the old; that is, supplement the hard and fast number with the compelling stories, cases, anecdotes observations. Perhaps this is naive of me. Perhaps the yearly report to the provost is not, at least initially, the ideal place for more ethnographic types of data. But generating and reflecting and regenerating that data is an important way to form a clearer, more complete picture of the students we serve--a picture that might help us begin to re-educate, over time, faculty AND administration about what it is we do and how a writing center can play an important role in re-envisioning, or to use the catch word of the day, re-positioning ourselves for the future.

End ramble.


  1. I give a big welcome to NLS which leads us to multiple concepts of literacy, of course, including ESL. NLS seems to help ESL writers find their distinctive voice and stable place and in English-speaking societies. Suddenly, English SECOND language writers are likely to claim their status equalized to English FIRST language writers, not even necessarily to claim it. Too good to be true, but worth pursuing it.

  2. I think Grimm is also getting at the issue of acknowleding and discovering the personal identity of the students who go to the writing center. Numbers are important; numbers, when appropriately presented, are concrete proof of success (or failure). However, when operating a social service like a writing center, at heart is the community - the people - we serve. Grimm's call for more ethnographic research and awareness of the myriad of literacies that comprise a writing center community supplies personal and sometimes emotional evidence that can also support a writing center. What I'm getting at is this - in persuasion, an emtional plea is very effective. A provost's emotions are not going to be swayed by a chart of numbers. After reviewing the data, she will probably nod her head and twist her mouth into a somewhat-pleased (or not-so-pleased) tight-lipped smile. But if that chart was accompanied by the success story of a group of students, whether they be "regular," or ESL, or special needs, then that story is going to pull at the emotional relatiy that the writing center does help writers. The provost might then release her tight-lipped smile and breathe, "Wow." Or, "Huh, I never realized." Or, "Tell me more." Then the voices that comprise the writing center, and the university, will be heard in a new arrangement, one where every person has a solo.

    Idealistic? Yes, defintely. But I don't remember the number of juniors that passed the TCAP Writing Assessment. I remember the names and faces of the students who fought to get there. And it's those faces that encourage me to continue.

  3. Even though Grimm’s article was primarily about writing center research, I felt like much of she said could be applied to students in the writing center and classrooms as well (Hopefully this isn’t too redundant…). What I particularly liked about Grimm's article was that the approach that she suggests would likely lead to more students feeling included in the academic community. If students are made to feel like their experiences (particularly those related to language and literacy) are wrong, they may be less likely to participate. That is, if individuals’ experiences aren’t acknowledged as having inherent value, the academic community may seem like an exclusive club reserved for people who know some kind of secret code. Grimm touches on this at the very end of her essay when she lists her “starting points”:

    “Find ways to allow personal passions and interests and histories to infiltrate academic interests. Whether that interest is labor history, visual design, self-help literature, contemporary spirituality, local politics, genealogy, or environmental advocacy, there are often ideas, perspectives, metaphors, and frameworks in those avocations that can enrich and motivate the exploration of writing center issues.” (56)

    If students are encouraged to do this—to bring their own interests and experiences to what they write—those students who might normally feel excluded (much like I did when I was a freshman) may be able to see themselves as part of the community. Even having a discussion about literacy like we had in class today could bring attention to the fact that we already engage in code-switching between communities everyday (even if we don't realize it). A discussion like this would show how naturally able we are to adapt our language/writing to various audiences. Grimm writes, "As a social practice, literacy is always attached to social values, belief systems, and worldviews" (46). Research in this area could be valuable (as Grimm says) not only for helping teachers and tutors understand how students "negotiate academic literacy," to use her phrase, but it could potentially help students be able to think more critically about the choices they make in their writing.

  4. Random comment: The comments page on my blog should be working again. I apologize for the inconvenience if anyone has been trying to post something on my blog and it hasn't worked. Please let me know if it stops working again! Thanks! ^_^