The Pleasures and Pains of Literacy (Autobiography)

Potenially, this genre could be an occasion for experimenting with different catalysts and formats for reflection and, thus, serve as the beginning of a dialogue with teachers about how students' previous experiences with learning and literacy impact their performance and participation in school. For instance, two of the best conversations my and English 111 students and I had this semester about reading and writing were sparked by essays students wrote about a "significant literacy event" (pace John Trimbur's assignment in The Call to Write). "Reading Porn" explains the empowerment a young woman felt when she chose to read an autobiography of a porn star, Jenna Jameson. The author writes:

The beautifully untamed Jenna Jameson had not come to me by recommendation or as an assignment but rather by choice. I choose, in that moment which now seems so distant, to pick her up off the floor and venture into a chaotic literary exploration she called her life. It was in that choice I had found my empowerment. I could read the autobiography of a porn star of my own accord with only my empowerment to justify my actions. It was all I needed and Jenna, after all, had spent her adult life making men’s fantasies come alive on video but she could also alter the life of a young woman, me, with a book about life as a teenage girl with no direction.

Students were delighted to discuss "non-required" reading and the ways in which readers can turn a book to their own purpose, almost in spite of the way others read it or the way in which the author intends it to be read. Another essay, "The Death and Resurrection of Writing," recounted the way one writer took back his enjoyment of writing after some bad experiences in school. Students again were visibly excited to talk about nefarious English teachers, though most said that, unlike the author whose essay we read, they did not consider other avenues to literacy (self)sponsorship.We were able to use this fact to discuss how people come (or do not come) to see themselves as authors.

The potential that a literacy autobiography has for starting a critical dialgoue is greatly diminished when the assignment is couched as being primarily about "good writing," the first step in a student's introduction to the rhetorical modes. The St. Martin's Guide to Writing (7th edition) presents autobiographical writing as this kind of kind of finger exercise in learning to produce descriptive detail, vivid metaphors, narrative suspense and closure:

Whatever else the writer may attempt to do, he or she must shape the experience into a story that is entertaining or memorable. Thi si done primarily by building suspense...

Instead of giving a generalized impression, skillful writers atempt to re-create the place where the event occurred...

There are two ways a writer can communicate an event's autobiogrpahical significance: by showing..and telling (SMG 50-51).

However valuable these tactics for engaging a reader in a story, Michael Kuhne argues that such assignments "conflate literacy with the literary, and in so doing value literacy narratives not because they speak to [the complexity of literacy development]... but because of their literary presentation." Kuhne, following recent work on the issue of how gender is written, suggests that representing literacy requires a more polyphoic genre than the thesis-driven personal essay, what he calls (after Deborah Brandt) a "literacy account." Brandt's literacy assignment includes 13 prompts, for instance:

  • the education of your family
  • role(s) of langauge generally (including talk) in your family and immediate social group
  • role of written langauge in family
  • role of written language in play and friendships
  • school-based reading and writing
  • self-sponsored reading and writing
  • role of libraries...(qtd in Kuhne, see Appendix).

Brandt's final prompt calls for "conclusions or insights that can be drawn from this account about reading and writing development--the meaning/nature of literacy." This seems a tall order; first-year writers would be hard pressed to fashion a few insights from Kuhne calls a "catalog[ing] of literacy meanings." Indeed, most first-year composition textbooks that include a literacy autobiography, like Trimbur's The Call to Write, ask students to focus on representing one literacy "event" and to articulate its (non-contradictory) significance after examining exemplary essays. But even Trimbur's nearly choreographed analytic essay seems to open the form up to the chaos of multiple "literacy meanings" by bidding students to "look for misunderstandings, conflicts, resolutions, or alliances in which writing plays a key role" (35).

The pressing pedagogical question here is: how might an assignment that places more emphasis on invention than arrangement and delivery also achieve some kind of closure? I think the solution lies in collaborative and multi-modal approaches to literacy autobiography, both of which present students with choices about which "catalysts and formats" to use for their reflection.


After inventoring different dimensions of their literacy development, Kuhn has students form groups and take turns providing "quasi-ethnographic" glosses on one another's accounts:

they look for patterns and for fissures; the write about their impression and share those impressions with their small groups and with the rest of the class; they sift and sort different aesthetic and critical scims, usually of their own devise..and then they write an analysis of the accounts, some collaboratively written, some individually written, but in eithe case, the writing often yields more...aware and analytical writing, and the students' evaluations indicate their own own enthusiasm for the process.

Kuhne does not describe how he introduces the class to ethnographic discourse but it's easy to imagine; several textbooks set up this frame by presenting excerpts of works on the social dimensions of literacy development (i.e., Villanueva's Boostraps, Analdua's Borderlands/La Frontera, Sirc's "Gender and 'Writing Formations' in First-year Narratvies", etc.). Students can achieve closure on the assignment by explaining why some these articles serve as better catalysts than others or, in the case of the multiple-authored reflection, to include multiple takes on some dimension of literacy to convey the complexity of the phenomeon.


Selfe et al's Picturing Texts (152-168) frames self-representation as a (inter)textual practice that is as much "about" consciously choosing a particular self to display as it is about gravitating towards media that reveal "a great deal about the times and places in which we live, the belief systems that order our lives, the cultures that shape our values, the ways we relate to friends and family" (158). Writers are directed to choose between modalites of self-representation based upon their affordances: scrapbooks, for instance, "demonstrate a kind of respect for small things, ephemeral items that together convey personal meaning." The inclusion of visual elements can create texture (i.e., a collage of associative meanings) or a metaphoric container for the whole communication. While students are given succint desciptions of how detail or narrative or collage work in different modalities and genre, they are also prompted to think about how their choices about what to make visible is

not always done consciosuly. When we compose narratives about ourselves, we may consciously or unconsciously model them on archetypal stories we have seen or read or heard before (167).

It doesn't seem that in Picturing Texts students must achieve in their own writing the self-reflexivity or critical awarenes that academics value. An analytic perspective is not thrusted on students, but it is presented as a contrast to "ideal" (hegemonic) narratives "deeply sedimented in our minds, inscribed in cultural patterns we come to see as normal, as 'common sense'" (167). There is at least the attempt in this rhetorical guide to leave decisions about the appropriateness of a particular genre, modality or rhetorical move to the writer or writing group's understanding of the exigency.


The goal of a Literacy Autobiography is to help students reflect on their experiences as a literate person. How did they learn to write? How did they learn to read? How do they feel about school and learning? How did this evolve? What teachers and/or events helped shape them into the “literate” person they are today? While the students may not be wildly enthusiastic about this assignment, it is good for helping students learn to write reflectively (Lenoir).

Writing teachers can intitate (in our well-meaning way) students to academic ways of knowing with carefully chosen texts and assignments. We can prod students to reflect on

  • how gender and other aspects of identity constrain options and provoke particular responses from audiences?
  • how the formal constraints of the telling (modality, genre) shape the content?

But I don't think these analytic prompts stand a chance of eliciting a "wildly enthusiastic" response unless we have also made room for students to explore the more immediate questions:

  • what is painful about writing in particular and learning in general?
  • what is pleasurable about writing particular and learning in general?

The kind of collaborative and multi-modal literacy autobigoraphies described above stand the best chance of engaging students in a dialogue about literacy that empowers them to locate themselves in a variety of contexts of meaningful learning.










One: Situating Embodied Learning

Two: Case Study: Oliver

Three: Implications for the Literacy Autobiography Assignment