Learning about someone’s background, or primary Discourse, not only gives one an insight into who the person is but also why they are who they are (Gee 8). Primary Discourses can give a view on how a student can acquire literacy in many ways later in life. Depending on your background or upbringing, it can make it harder for one to acquire literacy due to their race or gender. Even if two different people lived in the same area, one person may have a harder time with receiving an education, while the other gets through it with ease, all due to the two people’s different primary Discourses (Brandt 561). I believe it is true from person to person, the way one can acquire literacy, is through one’s primary Discourse, the way we first “make sense of the world and interact with others,” it “constitutes our original and home-based sense of identity” (Gee 7,8). So as to find if this is true, I examined an archive of literacy narratives, pulling evidence from what Kara Poe Alexander has branded as victim narratives and outsider narratives displayed in an archive called Rising Cairn. Literacy narratives about race, gender, and overall background help to discover more about how primary Discourses play a role in literacy acquisition. I have found that, in most cases, background and upbringing is the way that people are shaped, making it harder, or easier, for one to acquire such a Discourse. Taking these things into consideration, one could make an effort to change the ways children are brought up to help them acquire things easier. Though certain variables about someone cannot be changed, other efforts could be taken up to compensate for such things.
On pages 559 through 561 of professor Deborah Brandt’s Sponsors of Literacy, Brandt tells of two real-life people: Dora Lopez and Raymond Branch. Especially in their day and age, Dora, a female Mexican American, had a much harder time with literacy acquisition than Raymond, a Caucasian male. In the literacy narrative Education, Daria explains how growing up, her family truly pushed her to get her education and become as well-rounded as she possibly could. Once she was old enough, her mother even made her write about what she had read. “My family put a lot of pressure on education because of my family history… many of my family members grew up in a time of segregation when education was not easily accessible.” All of this, much like Dora and her family, is because she comes from a family born and raised in segregation. She comes from a family of color, so as history can tell, her family has faced many struggles and hardships when it comes to receiving a good (if any) education. Raymond could acquire literacy with ease due to his upbringing and family background, but it was much harder for the families of Dora and Daria. Dora and Daria’s families both had hard times acquiring literacy; from Dora’s brother not even knowing how to read or write in Spanish, to Daria’s family having a brick wall of segregation in the way of having an education, literacy acquisition can become very difficult based off of one’s background.
Linguist James Paul Gee points to primary Discourses in his journal Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction. These Discourses are what we acquire in our early years of life while we grow up at home. They also include your race and gender and overall background (7,8). These key factors can be what constitutes how someone can acquire literacy in life. Deborah Brandt introduces Dora, born a Mexican American female. Her race and gender alone—or her primary Discourse—already make it harder for the “average” person to acquire literacy. “Dora Lopez undertook to teach herself how to read and write in Spanish… neither her brother nor her U.S.-born cousins knew how to do” (560). Dora’s primary Discourse has raised her into hardship, to know how to work with what she is given, and work for what she is not given. Primary Discourses set up a basis for all the other Discourses and interactions in our life. Dora did not have easy access to literacy from a young age. Though she had struggled, she could take her early experiences and turn them into motivation to better herself.
Your upbringing and background affect literacy acquisition. From one person to another, each person has had different experiences with achieving literacy and education. Gee embraces primary Discourses. These Discourses are what we acquire in our early years of life while we grow up at home. They also include your race and gender and overall background (Gee 7,8). These key factors can be what constitutes how someone may acquire literacy in life. In the literacy narrative Mother Knows Best, Sarah Robinson was always fascinated with reading her favorite series, The Boxcar Children, reading the books over and over again. But once she started to get older, her mother took away this book series and replaced them with more advanced readings no matter how much she kicked and screamed. “Turns out, I really did end up liking Nancy Drew and her mysteries. I was able to connect to her unlike the Boxcar Children, as we were almost the same age, gender and both loved solving mysteries.” Sarah gave these books a chance and she ended up loving these new books more than before. So Sarah’s primary Discourse allowed her to achieve literacy quite easily with her mother greatly encouraging reading in her life. Her mother taught and encouraged her to constantly challenge herself and her literacy, strengthening her skills. Sarah can take what she has acquired from her childhood and apply it to her later life when it comes to furthering her literacy. This growth mindset, thanks to her primary Discourse, will allow her to face adversary with confidence. But this is not always the case; ease of literacy acquisition is only possible within so many kinds of people.
While one’s primary Discourse may make literacy come easily with some, it may also make literacy acquisition much harder for those who are in the minority. Victim and outsider narratives could take this into account. These types of narratives are described by Kara Poe Alexander as those which show the author going through a negative experience pertaining to literacy. Victims are just that, victims to literacy, while outsiders are as such in relation to a third space, causing them to have negative feelings towards literacy (Alexander 615). Though narratives such as these occurred in 19% of Alexander’s findings, and around 10% of my own, they are very important when considering how someone can acquire literacy, and what someone can do to help them. Alexander discusses,
Outsider narratives portray a literate self who does not fit in and looks in on the literate activities in which others seem to participate as part of the norm…[the victim and outsider] narratives demonstrate that anguish, loss, and hopelessness are also parts of the journey toward literacy (627).
This is true with the story of Dora and Raymond from Deborah Brandt’s Sponsors of Literacy. Dora, playing the parts of both an outsider and a victim, was “looking in” on the ease of life that Raymond had. Brandt tells us,
For Raymond Branch, a university town in the 1970s and 1980s provided an information-rich, resource-rich learning environment in which to pursue his literacy development, but for Dora Lopez, a female member of a culturally unsubsidized ethnic minority, the same town concurrently was information and resource-poor (561).
Raymond and Dora lived the same town as each other yet had two totally different experiences with literacy acquisition. Though Dora has had a much harder time than Raymond when acquiring literacy, she has been able to benefit from her experiences. Dora could be considered a victim or outsider when compared to Raymond and people of his sort. She did not have the best experiences with literacy, she did not fit in. Though people categorized as a victim or an outsider (who also could be considered minority) may go through more struggle than normal, they can actually end up coming out on top. Dora was able to overcome her struggles and could get a job that actually required high literacy skills in two languages, not even just one.
Your background and environment have a huge effect on your acquisition of literacy. As Brandt argues in Sponsors of Literacy, “Literacy, like land, is a valued commodity in this economy, a key resource in gaining profit and edge. This value helps explain, of course, the lengths to which people will go to secure literacy for themselves or their children” (558). Literacy is such a valuable thing to hold in your belt these days. One could go nowhere in life because they are not able to acquire adequate literacy. This situation can be seen in the literacy narrative Education by Daria Letcher. In this narrative, her family is told to be born and raised into a time of segregation, making receiving education very difficult, if not impossible, due to their race. “My family put a lot of pressure on education because of my family history… many of my family members grew up in a time of segregation when education was not easily accessible.” Due to this, Daria’s mother made sure that Daria never had a chance to miss out on a good education. Daria’s mother is doing just as Brandt describes. She realizes the value and importance literacy withholds, and she will do anything to “secure literacy” for Daria.
Your background has obvious effect on the way that you are able to acquire literacy, but are there any other factors of literacy acquisition? Deborah Brandt brings up the idea of sponsors in her literature Sponsors of Literacy. She argues how sponsors are one of the main reasons why people acquire literacy. Brandt describes a sponsor as “any agents, local or distant, concrete or abstract, who enable, support, teach, model, as well as recruit, regulate, suppress, or withhold literacy—and gain advantage by it in some way” (556). Though Brandt says that it is “any” agent which is “local”, just how local can it be? Can a sponsor be yourself if no one else? Many of my in the literacy narratives from Rising Cairn have shown there is no specific sponsor, but there are undertones that there is. Where could it be? In Expect the Unexpected by Hannah D, she writes about how her brother died and later used this story to write her college application essay. She passed in this essay for her English class and had only received a B-, but could come out on top and realize you must do what makes you happy, something that you could be proud of. In the end, I have may not got[ten] the best grade on my paper, but that did not matter. “I was so proud of my paper, no acceptance letter or B minus was going to change that. I did everything I could to go above and beyond.” She may have struggled emotionally with writing her essay, but nowhere does it say that there was an outside source supporting her other than herself. She could do things for herself like Brandt describes in her definition of a sponsor. She could teach herself this lesson on literacy. She gained an advantage by discovering a part of herself and being able to look at literacy in a more positive light. Is it just that narratives of this nature are simply missing some information that could point to a sponsor that was not included for the fact that they wanted it to seem like they accomplished things on their own? Or are people like Hannah their own sponsor?
Victim and outsider narratives are not the only ones that have huge effects on the view of how students acquire literacy. According to Alexander, the success story cultural narrative is the most common narrative, proving to be even more true within the narratives that I analyzed. Along with this, success narratives could be so popular because the success story is “what teachers want to see” (624). If this is true, then are there certain key points that are missing from these narratives that point out an obvious sponsor? Since so many students write about what they think their teacher wants to see, then maybe a significant number of them also want their teacher to think of them as strong, that they could do it on their own. So they simply exaggerated the truth, conveying themselves as the “sponsor” of their own literacy narrative. In the literacy narrative Blank Screen, Meghan must write her college essay and pass it in to her English teacher. After handing it in, she had only received a C as a grade. She had struggled greatly with writing it in the beginning but could overcome it and finally get the essay done. She worked hard on it herself. “The only time that I got the sense of reward from my writing was on my college essay… It was that I realized that no matter how much advice you can get from even the most brilliant person in the world there is nothing more important than listening to yourself.” Meghan claims to have done the work by herself and says that you are what matters. But is there more to the story like Alexander suggests? When writing the literacy narrative, Meghan could have deliberately left out some details in order for her to seem like she was more progressive in her thinking and writing.
Can you really be your own sponsor? Gee says that in order to enter a Discourse, one must “apprentice” someone who is already in that Discourse. This means, that to become an apprentice, one needs a master. “By enculturation (“apprenticeship”) into social practices through scaffolded and supported interaction with people who have already mastered the Discourse” (7). Gee believes to be welcomed into a Discourse of some sort, you must almost be trained like you would at a new job. You must learn how to be just like the people in the Discourse. Gee’s ideas on apprenticing with a master could directly correlate to Brandt’s ideas of sponsors. Brandt says that sponsors “enable, support, teach, model, as well as recruit, regulate, suppress, or withhold literacy… sponsors nevertheless set the terms for access to literacy and wield powerful incentives for compliance and loyalty” (556). From what Brandt explains what a sponsor is, sponsors sound much like the masters of a Discourse. The masters (and sponsors) are the ones who decide if you are welcomed into the Discourse (with sponsors, the Discourse of literacy). They are almost like gatekeepers, they are the ones who decide who and what can acquire what they have. Though these two types of people are the ones who hold the key, is there a way to sneak in?
Do you really need anyone else to help you acquire literacy? Brandt says that sponsors of literacy are “the causes into which people’s literacy usually gets recruited” (556). Brandt believes the true way to true literacy acquisition involves having a sponsor. But what if you did not have to have a sponsor or a master? Well, in Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction, James Paul Gee talks about something called “mushfake”. Mushfake is used in prison culture, being used to describe someone who makes do with what they have. Gee describes “mushfake Discourse” as the “partial acquisition coupled with meta-knowledge and strategies to ‘make do’” (13). Many students within the Rising Cairn page write about how they were supposedly able to acquire literacy on their own, not needing the help of others (or sponsor). Though Brandt argues that one requires use of a sponsor on their literacy journey, it could also be argued that many these students from the Rising Cairn narratives just “mushfaked” their way through their literacy experience; they were able to make it on their own. So is it true that you cannot make it on your own? That you really need to have a sponsor or master?
Sponsors are not always needed in order to acquire literacy (or at least to appear as though you have). According to Alexander, the success story cultural narrative could be so popular because the success story is “what teachers want to see” (624). If this is true, then are there certain key points that are missing from these narratives that point out an obvious sponsor? Since so many students write about what they think their teacher wants to see, then maybe many them also want their teacher to think of them as strong, that they could do it on their own. So they simply exaggerated the truth, conveying themselves as the “sponsor” of their own literacy narrative. This is similar to “mushfake” in Gee’s journals. Gee explains how “mushfake” is when one uses “partial acquisition coupled with meta-knowledge and strategies to ‘make do’” (13). He talks about how sometimes people just simply do not have what it takes to be welcomed into a Discourse. These people then must fake their way in as they can. When students write these narratives where they appear to succeed on their own, these students may just be “mushfaking” their way. They are not truly being one with the Discourse, they are making do with what they have so as to make it appear as though they truly belong.
Could one not having a sponsor actually give one an advantage? This is in the sense that one instead uses their backbone to get through what is ahead. Gee talks about such a thing in Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction. He writes “when we come across a situation where we are unable to accommodate or adapt… we become consciously aware of what we are trying to do or are being called upon to do… can make “maladapted” students smarter than “adapted” ones” (12,13). Though the students who are not well suited in the subject tend to be expected to not do well, they can actually be smarter than those are more suited to the subject. In the literacy narrative My Academic Nightmare: The Myth of Academic Dishonesty by Jordan Jawdatt, Jordan does not necessarily do well in his English class. He results to looking up the answers to questions on quizzes. This puts him ahead of everyone else. Though this was true for a little while, eventually being “maladapted” caught up to him. “I’m kinda glad I got to realize that the road I was going down was the wrong one, and that there was other ways to get around and having to fake my intelligence would get me nowhere.” So really, in Jordan’s case, he was unable to stay ahead of those who were “smarter” than him.
Many teachers will only teach their students in one way, their own way. But there are so many students in their classroom that do not learn in the way that they teach. Each student has their own learning style, as does Andrew Marcelino in Don’t Knock it. In this literacy narrative, Andrew has a hard time learning and reading the assigned reading books for his English class. This made it so that throughout his life, he never truly enjoyed the subject, or even reading for that matter. It was not until his eighth grade English teacher, Mrs. O’Connell, used her knowledge of Andrew to help him pick out a book that would appeal to him for his book report. Mrs. O’Connell could curve around from what he was used to and tried something new. After she could reach Andrew in such a way, he truly enjoyed reading and even reading during his free time. Many teachers stick with teaching students one way, but it could be so beneficial to both the teacher and the students for the teacher to help the students in different forms. For an example, a student could be a hands-on learner, but the teacher only presents PowerPoint to the class. The student will have a harder time learning the material than if the student could get another point of view on the subject. Mrs. O’Connell in Andrew’s literacy narrative could get a grasp on who Andrew was, and supported him by finding books that achieved the same message but went about it in a different way.
Andrew Marcelino grew up a boy of Spanish heritage in a town that did not necessarily have the best education system. Though he did not have the best that he could have while growing up, he did have one person who could help his upbringing be a little bit better (and easier). His eighth grade English teacher, Mrs. O’Connell, was the woman who truly encouraged him to read and actually be able to enjoy it. Though Andrew’s upbringing may not have been the best, he was able to find someone who is there to last, making sure that he does well. It does not always have to be family to be the ones who make sure that you succeed. “Till’ this day she still checks up on me, makes sure I’m doing all my work, doing good in basketball, and most importantly, makes sure I keep my head clear and keep my eyes on life’s greater goals.”
As I have shown throughout my analysis of each literacy narrative, literacy acquisition varies a lot depending on your primary Discourse. From one experience to another, depending on one’s race, gender, and overall background, one person could struggle a lot worse than the person standing next to them. Though this is true, Alexander claims that most of the time, as we see examples as such with victim and outsider narratives, the hardships and difficulties throughout the literacy journey are actually just apart from such; they tend to build the person to be much stronger (and sometimes smarter) than those who did not face any struggles during their literacy acquisition. It is important to recognize that each student has their own learning style due to their primary Discourse. Just because one student does not present well, does not mean that they have not yet acquired literacy. Some teachers or professors could take a new approach to teaching their students, instead of just the way that the said teacher likes to learn or teach. Being able to reach out to your students is very important, understanding their needs could help each student immensely. What if all someone needed was just an alternative way of learning to fully learn the material– and eventually pass the course– because the way that they were brought up, did not allow them to have the skills or mentality needed to acquire what is trying to be taught to them?
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