Defining Myself through Literacy

Many people think of the word “literacy” to involve exclusively the ability to read and write, however, it is much more than that.  It involves one’s communication with the world around them through the way they develop as a person throughout their lives and educational careers.  The way a person grows up affects the way they think and how they develop their own literacy practices.  One can simply be trapped in a room his whole life and only learn to read and write with no interaction with the outside world but be illiterate in a sense.  Throughout a person’s life, one develops their own literacy practices, Discourses, and understanding of rhetoric without necessarily being consciously aware of it.

The most valuable idea I derived from reading James Paul Gee’s “Literacy, Discourse and Linguistics: Introduction and What is Literacy,” is that it is not only about what you say, but how you say it.  In his essay, he defines both Discourses and discourse, separating the two different terms with a capital “D.”  Gee defines Discourses as ways of being in the world, or forms of life that integrate words, acts, values, beliefs, attitudes, and social identities as well as gestures, body positions and clothes.  In other words it is one’s “identity kit.”  In comparison, Gee describes that discourse, with a lower case “d,” to him means connected stretches of language that make sense—therefore “discourse” is part of “Discourse” (Gee 526).  In more depth, Gee defines Discourse as “a socially accepted association among ways of using language, of thinking, and of acting that can be used to identify oneself as a member of a socially meaningful group or ‘social network’” (Gee 537). Throughout a person’s life, he or she acquires Discourses that constitute that person’s sense of identity.

Gee explains that every person develops one initial or primary Discourse, or the one we first use to make sense of the world and interact with others.  This primary Discourse makes up one’s original sense of identity (Gee 527).  Most people develop this primary Discourse through their family or “at home” life, and in my case, that is where I believe to have developed my primary Discourse.  I acquired this through observing and slowly beginning to interact with my family members and close family friends.  I grew up in a middle-class home with a large, wooded backyard, and tight-knit neighborhood community, and I had a large family that was constantly in touch.  I would define this is as my initial socialization with the world around me.  I then began my education at a small, Catholic grade school where I went to Church with my family every Sunday.  During this part of my life, I developed my original values and idea of right and wrong.  Through my interaction with and exposure to many people, I became a social being who was adventurous and curious.  In other words, this development during my life Gee defines as a secondary Discourse: “Each of these social institutions commands and demands one or more Discourses and we acquire these fluently to the extent that we are given access to these institutions and are allowed apprenticeships within them” (Gee 527).  Gee digs deeper into the concept of primary and secondary Discourses by making a distinction between dominant and non-dominant secondary discourses.  Dominant secondary Discourses bring with them the attainment of social “goods” such as money and status, while nondominant Discourses bring solidarity with a certain social network, however do not bring a wider status or social goods in the society at large (Gee 527-528).  Therefore the main difference is that nondominant Discourses do not result in increased social status or goods like dominant Discourses.  In saying this, I believe myself to have many more nondominant discourses than I do dominant.  For example, one of my easily distinguishable dominant discourses would be my place of work, Outback Steakhouse, as being a server there brings income and also what some consider a low social rank.  However, I do not consider it to affect my social status as the job is considerably suiting for an average college student.  That dominant discourse will change overtime as I attain a new, more professional, or rather higher paying job.  Some of my secondary Discourses I consider to be nondominant would be some of the groups I currently belong in, including a social sorority and professional business fraternity.  By some, however, these may be debated as being dominant discourses, as they may see the groups to affect my social status.  I, myself, do not think of them to be some of my dominant secondary Discourses.  These, too, change over time as I belonged in different groups and communities during grade school and high school.  However, some have stayed consistent overtime such as belonging to my Catholic parish.

Gee defines literacy through his concepts of primary and secondary discourses: “Thus, I define “literacy” as the mastery of or fluent control over a secondary Discourse” (Gee 529).  Most definitions of literacy only involve the ability to read and write, however, Gee uses Dicourses to define the word.  I agree with the fact that literacy involves not just reading and writing, but ones way of communicating with the world in general.  However, I do not agree with the word “mastery” in his definition, as one’s ability to master a secondary Discourse is nearly impossible, and I do not believe it is required for one to be literate.

In “Learning to Read Biology: One Student’s Rhetorical Development in College” Christina Haas follows one student’s studies in college and uses that investigation to demonstrate how different college courses affect students’ discourse training, that is, discourse with a lowercase “d.”  This student in particular, Eliza, chose to focus on biology and chemistry when she entered college and was able to show how the classes she took affected her scientific literacy.  “Scholars from a wide variety of subject areas have acknowledged that within their disciplines, texts are best seen not as static, autonomous entities but as forms of rhetorical action” (Haas 358).  I believe that in this statement, Haas is explaining that authors from wide varieties of studies describe their writing as one in the same as they are not autonomous, or independent and separate from each other, but different forms of rhetorical action.

In her first year of college, Eliza’s main goal through reading was to understand what she was reading in order to prepare for her tests and write essays.  This is the stage I believe to be in during my own rhetorical development, as I am mostly focused on getting good grades and trying to understand what I am being taught in order to further my knowledge in different subject areas.  As a sophomore, Eliza’s reading and literacy practices were basically the same, however, her reading practices showed more attention specifically to the process of “knowing” and understanding what she was reading (Haas 364).  This is most likely the stage I will find myself in as well as I begin my third full semester as a college student in the fall.  During her third year of college and process of rhetorical development, Eliza developed reading strategies and became more aware of the context that surrounded the texts she read—viewing the authors not only as writers but as scientists (Haas 366-367).  In David Bartholomae’s essay “Inventing the University,” he described the stage of development I see Eliza to be in towards the end of her college career.  “…it is in the nature of liberal arts education that a student, after the first year or two, must learn to try on a variety of voices and interpretive schemes…” (Bartholomae 511).  Finally, as a senior, much of the knowledge of rhetoric that Eliza already had became more sophisticated. “She was also beginning to understand how discourse fits into the larger culture of scientific research, recognizing how her own writing will help her make a place for herself within that culture” (Haas 369).  Haas describes the importance of literate activity within science in her essay: “One of the things students of science must become privy to, as part of their disciplinary education, is this rhetorical, contingent nature of written scientific discourse” (Haas 359).  In other words scientific discourse in its “contingent” nature means that it is not always certain, or it is likely to change.  Therefore, scientists must use rhetoric in their texts in order to base their claims.  Eliza’s last year of college is where I saw her understanding of this concept to be most developed, as she was recognizing how she could take her own knowledge of the different journals and texts she read and develop her own ideas.  Just as Eliza develops in her literacy and rhetoric practices, I too will grow in my understanding and knowledge of these concepts.

The way I have grown up through my primary and secondary Discourses have shaped my literacy practices and understanding of rhetoric without even truly knowing what was occurring.  Furthermore, throughout my college career I believe I will see a constantly increasing understanding of my studies and literacy practices through the discourse training I will receive in many college courses.  I believe that I am constantly becoming more aware of the world around me; therefore, beginning to look at more of the “context” surrounding me and becoming more fluent in my secondary Discourses that continue to shape my literacy practices with each day that passes.

Works Cited

Bartholomae, David. “Inventing the University.” Literacy: A Critical Sourcebook. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001. 511-524. Print.

Gee, James P. “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction and What Is Literacy?”Literacy: A Critical Sourcebook. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001. 525-44. Print.

Haas, Christina. “Learning to Read Biology: One Student’s Rhetorical Development in College.” Literacy: A Critical Sourcebook. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001. 358-75. Print.

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